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Roger Williams statue, Rhode Island

Roger Williams statue, Rhode Island


This is a statue of Roger Williams.

Roger Williams left England and went to America in the 1600s.

He was a Puritan, and deeply committed to his religious beliefs.

As someone who writes from a strongly secular standpoint, you might expect me to have some criticism lined-up for Roger Williams.

But no.

You see, old Roger did not force his religious worldview on others.  Mr. Williams believed that his God could only be found through what he called “soul liberty” – if a person didn’t find a way to this God all by themselves, no one had a right to force their own version of religious belief down anyone’s throat.

Mr. Roger Williams invented the political concept of the separation of church and state in America, in a time and place where speaking-out in such a way meant exile, prison, or even death.

Mr. Williams wrote letters denouncing the very King of England himself, for claiming sovereignty over Native American lands. Mr. Williams spent a good deal of time respectfully learning to speak the local Algonquian tongue, and insisted that settlers must fairly purchase any land on which they settled, as it was the rightful home of the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Pequot nations.

Roger Williams was perhaps the first European settler in America to denounce, and attempt to prohibit, the enslavement of fellow human beings.

Roger Williams did indeed find himself in trouble with what we now call “vested interests”, and facing imprisonment, he fled from Massachusetts to found the settlement of Providence, which would later become the capital city of the tiny state of Rhode Island.

For a few brief years, before becoming a den of capitalism and slave traders, Providence was a beacon to tolerance and human dignity.


To tolerate means to allow space for the existence of thoughts with which we might not agree. We are now in a place where expressing a clear preference or dislike for just about any aspect of human culture is liable to lead to accusations of various “…isms” or “…phobias”.

To criticise aspects of various religions, cultures, or ideologies is not automatically “hate speech” – especially if we are not advocating for the removal of basic human rights from the people we criticise. Criticising while “tolerating” should be a fundamental skill for any member of a civic society.

There are many in America today – on both the left and right – who cannot seem to comprehend the irony of demanding “free speech” if this freedom of speech is used to advocate for reducing the freedom of others to speak.

It is rather like demanding the right to bear arms, in order to be allowed to shoot anyone we don’t like.

I am a man of no faith. But this deeply religious man, Roger Williams, would get a seat at my dinner table any day, if it were possible to span the centuries.

He EARNED a place in memory.  He earned a statue.

I’ll leave with a few of the man’s own words spoken in defence of the humanity of indigenous Americans…

“Boast not proud English, of thy birth & blood;
Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good.
Of one blood God made Him, and Thee and All,
As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal.”


#rogerwilliams #tolerance

Coming to America, 1700s-Style

A scourging at the post

A scourging at the post


Americans like to keep their foundational stories simple.  The Appalachian frontier was settled by white folks – primarily the Scots-Irish, along with a decent number of Germans.

Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone are the heroic faces of this era, although neither was a hero, nor were either of them “Scots-Irish”.

But let’s leave that by the by…

Stories of these peoples’ escape from “religious oppression” and poverty further underpins a near-mythological and moral tale of survival against all odds, with white Protestant hands hewing an existence from the wilderness in the face of floods, storms, and attacks by “savages”.

But in this day and age, even the dogs in the street know that history is almost always written by the winners.  And when it comes to winning, there are few groups of people in America outside of the planter and merchant elites who won more spectacularly than the “Scots-Irish”.

Arriving mostly in Philadelphia due to regular shipping of flaxseed between there and Ulster, many of the less-well-off “Scots-Irish” found much of the land in Pennsylvania already taken by earlier immigrants, and were quick to see the potential of the fertile lowlands of the Shenandoah Valley to the southwest.

Listeners to our “Black Paddywhackery” podcasts will have learned that the term “Scots-Irish” is in and of itself a profoundly misleading term, because the many people arriving in America from Ulster were far from being a cohesive ethnic group.  People from Ulster had ethnic roots in Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, Flanders, and France.  They came from different religious backgrounds.  They spoke many languages.  Their number included Jews and Romani.

While there is much to admire in the self-sufficient and doughty spirit of many of these immigrants, Presbyterians benefitted particularly from some temporal good luck, in the form of the American Revolution.

Being naturally ill-disposed to a Crown system which had squeezed them for impossibly high land rents back in Ireland (not to mention the Crown and Anglican Church’s hostility to Presbyterianism), many Ulster folk were happy to throw in their lot with the American rebels against British rule in America.

After finding themselves on the winning side of this conflict, many Ulster folk (to their consternation), found the cash-strapped nascent federal American state unable to pay their soldiers’ back wages.  And here is where the great good fortune arises.

This new American government decided to pay many of its “white” war veterans by offering highly “subsidised” land in lieu of pay.

Where did the American government get much of this land?  Why, on the Appalachian frontier, of course.  A series of extremely one-sided and contentious “land deals” with some members of the Cherokee Nation suddenly created millions of acres of cheap land with which to buy the continuing loyalty of the people who would only come to call themselves “Scots-Irish” many decades later.

And to this day, American schoolchildren picture white men in Conestoga wagons, sitting beside white women in starched bonnets, being the first to head bravely along the trails leading over the Cumberland Gap.




And this is utter whitewash.

The forefathers and mothers of the Melungeons and other “Brown People of Appalachia” had been squatting and settling this region for decades prior to any influx of people from Ulster.  A complex network of post-European contact “Old Mix American” peoples including Indian traders’ and longhunters’ families, displaced Native Americans, free people of color, escaped African-American slaves, former indentured servants of Romani ethnicity, South Asian lascars, Jewish immigrants from South America and the Caribbean, and a vast rainbow of “mulatto” and Creole children arising from all of these – THESE were the earliest “modern Americans” in Appalachia.

Being a largely illiterate underclass, even poorer than the people of Ulster, has meant that their story has remained largely untold.

What is perhaps even more ridiculous, is the fact that the vast majority of Americans today honestly believe that their forebears were invariably good, honest, God-fearing, hard-working “white” people escaping “tyranny” and “religious oppression”.

You will hear people claim their forefathers fought as “patriots” in the Revolution.  You will hear how their ancestors were among the passengers on the Mayflower.

What you almost never hear, is how England used its American colonies as a dumping ground for convicts and criminals, until the American Revolution forced them to divert this insalubrious cargo to its new colonies in Australia.

Between 1718 and 1775, AT LEAST 52,000 convicts were transported to the American colonies.  That represents more than a quarter of all immigration to America during the 18th century.

A quarter.  One in a hundred Americans today claim descent from a few dozen “Pilgrims”.  Yet nary a peep is heard from the descendants of the tens of thousands of convicts, prostitutes, and criminals…

Here is a short snippet of life among the forgotten, a glimpse of the other people who were “Coming to America”. Compare some of the names below to the people you might find in your own family history.

Note: The surname “Faa” mentioned below was also commonly rendered as “Fall” or “Falls“, a name not uncommon in Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky.  The surname “Fenwick” survives today among people bearing the surnames “Penix” and “Phoenix” – it was common during the 1700s and 1800s to append a patrynomic “s” to the end of many surnames.

Thus “Cocke” might first be found varied as “Cockes“, i.e “Cox“.


Hendrick/Hendricks/Hendrix.  And so forth.

Fenwick” was thus sometimes rendered “Fenwicks“, which eventually morphed into Penix/Fenix/Phoenix, et al.




A Tale of Bridgend [along the Scottish borders]

“As stated, before Sir James Douglas bought Springwood Park it was named Bridgend and owned by Sir William Kerr of Greenhead. In 1714 he had arrested some gypsies who were going about armed and living off the land. He had them confined in the tollbooth at Jedburgh and refused to listen to the pleas of Janet Stewart, the mother of one of the miscreants.

“On the 25th March 1714 the household of Bridgend had retired for the night when there was an explosion which set the house on fire and the property was totally destroyed.

“On the 11th May at the Spring Circuit Court at Jedburgh, William Walker, Patrick Faa, Mabel Stirling, Mary Faa, Jean Ross, Elspeth Lindsay, Joseph Wallace, John Fenwick, Jean Yourston, Mary Robertson, Janet Wilson and Janet Stewart were accused of wilful fire-raising and of being ‘notorious Egyptians, thieves, vagabonds, sorners, masterful beggars and oppressors, or at least holden and in repute to be in such manner meant.’

“The sentences were varied but Janet Stewart was scourged by the hand of the common hangman with a scourge of cords on the bare back – receiving four stripes at the West Port, four at the cross and four at the Town Foot. She was then returned to the prison for three days and, thereafter, had her left ear nailed to a post, erected for the purpose, near the Town Cross and made to stand there for a quarter of an hour.

“Patrick Faa underwent the same punishment but also had both ears cut off. After this, they were transported to the American plantations. It is worth noting that Sir George Brisbane Douglas himself always maintained an affection for the true gypsy and Queen Esther Faa-Blythe [who] used to be a frequent visitor to his mother Mariquita.”

By Ian Abernethy, author of “The High Toun on the Hill“, a history of the village of Heiton, 1984, 1987, 64 pp.

#beforewewerewhite #history #romani #convicts

Mysterious Origins and Forgotten Wars

Attack on Newfoundland Coast

Attack on Newfoundland Coast, 1696


In late 1696, French forces under Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Governor Jacques-François de Monbeton de Brouillan, along with their Acadian (Cajun) and Abenaki allies, destroyed 23 English settlements along the coast of the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland – all in the space of three months.  With at least 100 English dead, and many scores more taken prisoner, most of the other survivors simply deserted their settlements and fled.

This military action was part of King William’s War, which was in turn part of the European Nine Years War.  Both were an early prelude to the later French and Indian War (or Seven Years War).

All of these conflicts were part of the ongoing empire wars between France and Britain, and were fought in Europe, on the seas, and in colonies controlled by these powers.

When we consider the identity of the “English” colonists and settlers fleeing Newfoundland, it is worth remembering that Newfoundland had been a designated “dumping ground” for the “undesirables” of Britain since 1603, on foot of royal decree.

Many of these “undesirables” were British Romani, or Gypsies.

There is no need to write a long essay on ethnic history here.

Put simply, throughout the 1500s and 1600s, Labrador and Newfoundland (the latter an island off the eastern coast of present-day Canada) were occupied by First Nations peoples, as well as by early Portuguese, Spanish, Basque and (slightly later) English fishermen and underclass colonists.  And no, these peoples did not self-segregate.  As in all such places at the time, traders intermarried among the peoples with whom they were trading, creating Métis communities.

Labrador, and the dogs which take their name from the province, are both named for João Fernandes Lavrador, the Portuguese explorer who was the first European to describe this region way back in 1498.

So where did these intermarried First Nations, Basque, British Romani, English, and Portuguese people flee?

That is an intriguing historical mystery.

Logic would dictate that they would have probably fled by boat to the nearest safe ground, i.e., English-held territory.  Which of course at the time meant New York, New England or the colonies in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Why do pre-1675 population lists for Newfoundland include the surnames Bowling, Cullen/Collin, Joyner/Joynes, Robbins, Sargent, Taylor, Tucker, Vaughan, Webber – all names which also appear in early longhunter and Indian trader contexts in Southern Appalachia?  Fluke?

Almost none of these families can trace their ancestry in a direct, clean line back to Europe.

And most of these families of the Piedmont and Appalachian frontier in America were also seen as mixed-ethnic, including the people called Melungeons.

Could this be because some of these mixed-ethnic families have actually been in North America since BEFORE the time of Plymouth and Jamestown?

At the very least, this deserves further investigation…


#beforewewerewhite #beothuk #acadia #newfoundland

The Magic Dress of Harriet Surguine

Magic Dress of Harriet Surguine


When “Before We Were White” was chosen as the name for this blog and podcast, it was fully intended to be provocative.

After a couple of years, though, various messages and emails have made me realise that many readers and listeners are still viewing American ethnic history through the lens of “race”, as if talking about the time before we were “white” should ALWAYS mean that so-called “white” people were once “brown” or “black” people – or at least partly so.

And because most Americans with deep roots in colonial times DO have at least some ancestry from places other than Europe, and because they can rarely pinpoint exactly where this non-European ancestry entered their family tree, it is perhaps easiest for these people to stick with the old way of categorising people according to “race”.

So even the kindest folks, people without a racist bone in their body, people ready to embrace their mixed ancestry, continue to describe themselves in “racial” terms.

They will say things like “I’m mostly white, but with some black and native ancestry”.  Sometimes they actually specify an ethnicity, but this specified ethnicity is always European, even when their “Irish” or “German” ancestry often comprises only a minority fraction of their heritage.  Igbo, Choctaw, Bakongo, Shawnee, Wolof, Lenape – all of these ethnic groups remain an amorphous blob of “Black” or “Native”.

It is true that in America, cultural genocide and racism has made it much harder to pinpoint the ethnicity of our non-European ancestors.  But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Getting rid of “racialist” thinking demands that we learn to view humans in terms of their ethnicity or culture – NOT THEIR SKIN COLOR.

Getting rid of “racialist” thinking can and should happen even when we are talking about people who got lumped together in the past under the “lucky side” of the racial caste system.

So when we talk about the time “before we were white”, we also mean the time before utterly different groups of “whitish looking people” became “whites” in a legal sense within the American caste system.

Germans, Scots, Finns, Spaniards, Jews, Swedes, Armenians, Italians, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Poles, Czechs, Greeks, Majorcans, Cypriots, Berbers, Welsh, Romani, and many others were subsumed into the American “race” system as “white folks”, as if “white” were an ethnicity in and of itself.

By accepting the idea of a “white race”, we end up missing an opportunity to understand the real nature of who we are, and where we really come from…



Mountains around Hawkins County, Tennessee, about 1810

“One time as he came in home from loading, his daughter ask him to come in and see her dress which she had first pulled off. He did so and the dress seemed to light the whole room. Her dress had been sparkling for several nights. Harriet told him about it and he made light of her but when he saw it he never said a word. He first made one trip with his stock after that and took sick and died.”

(from lore passed-down by the “Surguine” family, supposed to be of mainly French origin)


Here are the surnames of some other Appalachian families of French origin:

Agee (Agie)
Alley (Allée)
Auxier (from German “Achser”, but present in French and German-speaking Alsace)

Bellew (when Anglicised, from French “Ballou”; not to be confused with “Bilyeu”)
Berrong (Beron)
Blue (Ballou)
Bobo (Baubeau)
Brashear (Brassieur)
Bundren (Bondurant)

Chardavoyne (Char de Voine?)
Chasteen (Chastain)

Dabney (d’Aubigne)
Damron (also “Dameron”)
De Busk (Deboske, de Busque?)
Debreuil (Paw-Paw French)
DeHart (de Haart, de Hardt – perhaps Dutch, Flemish, or Alsatian)
Delashmutt/Shoemate (de la Chaumette)
DeShon (Deschamps)
Dismukes (Des Meaux?)
DuPont (rare)
DuPuy (Manakin)

Faucheraud (rare)
Foret (Forêt)
Foure (Manakin)
Fountain (Fontaine)
Fugate (Fugett)
Fuqua (Fouquet)

Gevedon (Gevaudan)
Guerin (often “Geren” in Appalachia)

Hardin (Hardouin)
Hash (Heche)
Hazard (Hassard)

Jordan (Jourdan)

LaFon (LaFond)
Le Grande
Lemaster (Le Maistre)
Lovely (sometimes from “Lavallée”)
Loving (Lavigne)

Money (from both French “Monet” and Anglo-Gaelic “Munney”)
Mullins (sometimes from “Moulin”)


Oxshear (see “Auxier” – from German “Achser”, but present in Alsace)

Parton (Partain)
Perault (Manakin)

Ramey (Rémy)
Reno (Renaud)
Reynold(s) (sometimes from French “Reynaud”)
Runyon (Rongnion)

Sevier (Xavier)
Shamblin (Champlain)
Sublett (Soblet)
Surguine (prob from “Séguin”)

Tackett (Tacquette)
Terror (Tirard)
Tezon (Paw-Paw French)
Trout (Trautt; perhaps Alsatian)
Tunnell (Tonnellier)

Via (also “Viar”)

Whisenhunt (Visinand; found among French and German Swiss)
Wingo (Vigneau)


#beforewewerewhite #appalachia #ethnicity

The Mix Zone

Simplified map of coloniser migration routes

Simplified map of coloniser migration routes


Many people have asked me why it is that a blog and podcast dealing with the general ethnic history of the USA should have so much focus on Appalachia.

This is a highly simplified map I made in order to answer that question.

The colonisation of what would become the USA was effected mostly by three major and two minor European states:


Spain, France, and England (the later United Kingdom of Great Britain), along with The Netherlands and Sweden.


Almost everywhere north and west of the blue and red migration arrows was once claimed by France or The Netherlands.

Almost everywhere south and west of the yellow and red migration arrows was once claimed by Spain.

For a brief 17 years, parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland were claimed by Sweden.

The heartland of British colonial America lay largely along the eastern seaboard, east of the Appalachian mountains.

In 1790, the largest cities in the new USA were New York, NY; Philadelphia, PA; Boston, MA; Charleston, SC; and Baltimore, MD; in that order.

Backcountry Virginia and the Carolinas were still mostly rural.

On the whole, American settlers only began to push into and beyond the Appalachian mountains in large numbers after the Revolutionary War.

The agricultural lands of the Ohio and Illinois Country were most desirable to New Englanders, while the planter classes of Virginia and South Carolina tended to eye-up lands in the Deep South.

Between 1607 and 1770, the Virginia and Carolina backcountry had tended to attract the poorer “white” underclasses, due to the accessibility of cheaper land, while acting as a sort of “Maroon community” for free people of color and people of various mixed ethnicity who were being squeezed by ever more stringent “race” laws back east.

For readers who are suburban and city folks, mountain land might be beautiful, but it is extremely hard land to farm. As an Irishman once said “You can’t eat scenery”.

Some lucky (and trigger happy) settlers got their hands on some bottom land in the mountain valleys.  Others pushed right on through in search of better land even farther west.

It was the poorest and most mixed-ethnic peoples who tended to squat, purchase, or settle land in the most mountainous parts of Appalachia, right around the mountain gaps where colonisers like Daniel Boone had first pushed their way through in the face of fierce indigenous resistance, building blockhouse forts in much the same way that Israeli settlers build outposts in occupied Palestinian lands today.

The blue circle on this map represents the “hill and holler” country where the earliest settlers with the least financial means fanned-out and attempted to eke out an existence through hunting, trapping, distilling, tobacco and subsistence farming, and the timber industry.  This blue circle also represents a sort of cultural funnel, where people with ancestry from four or even five continents intermarried and created an utterly new and distinctly “American” culture.

People elsewhere talk of the American melting pot, while still secretly believing there is a “white” melting pot and a “black” melting pot.  Southern Appalachia, despite the ignorant jibes of outsiders, is the real deal.

The people who put down roots and remained in the remoter parts of westernmost Virginia and North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, and Eastern Kentucky were mostly not part of the later 19th century waves of “white” immigration which took place on the east coast and in places west of the Appalachian Mountains.

For the better part of 150 years, from the 1770s to the 1920s, Southern Appalachia remained a sort of snapshot of a forgotten multi-ethnic America which had prevailed before the hardening of race laws forced all “brown people” to declare themselves as “white”.

This particular region is hugely significant in the formation of the wider American identity, for many reasons.

For an often marginalised people, Southern Appalachian culture has had an outsized influence on everything from the accent spoken in Texas, to labor relations and unions, to traditional American foods, to country and rock music.

#appalachia #americanhistory #beforewewerewhite

Cowboys, Indians, and the EPA

Picher, Ottawa County, Oklahoma

Picher, Ottawa County, Oklahoma


The biggest-selling country music album of the past three and some odd decades was Garth Brooks‘ “No Fences“.  I don’t count Shania Twain as “country”.


I’m going to give a guy with a degree in advertising the benefit of the doubt here, and choose to believe that Brooks’ chosen album title was a poetic expression of longing for a free-range world, where some things, like the very ground we walk upon, are not reduced to mere “private property” bound by fences and walls – “massive, beautiful walls”, as a recent former president described his pet project.

The great American poet Robert Frost, in his piece “Mending Wall“, recalled a rural truism spoken by a fellow country dweller.

“Good fences make good neighbours.”

Mr. Frost left any judgment on the truth or wisdom of this proverb hanging loose in the air.

In our current western world of fences, walls and borders, it might strike us as unimaginable that most land until recent times was unenclosed, much of it simply held in common by the people who lived upon it, or near it.  The greed of powerful British elites led to full land enclosure by fences and walls only as late as the 1700s, by a series of “Inclosure Acts”, famously lamented by the English poet John Clare.

By limiting the peasant farmer to a fixed piece of ground, the peasant was forced to eke the maximum from his allotted space, thus increasing the wealth generated to the property “owner”.

Woods which once spanned miles of valley, hill and mountain, woods which were once shared for fuel and kindling, for coppice wood for chairmaking and charcoal burning, for fattening pigs on acorns and beech mast every autumn – those woods were now divided into “parcels” of individual property, with a bare naked commercial value to the “owners”, to do what they wished with their commodities.

This relatively new English system of land ownership and boundary marking was transferred to colonial America with a vengeance.

Most American Indian tribes and nations still understood natural resources as things held in common by their people.  Not in an airy-fairy hippie-dippie “I got high and ate all the food in the shared fridge” kind of way, but in a real, tangible, well-managed, common-sense kind of way.

When Indians “sold” land rights to Europeans in the beginning, they believed they were accepting gifts in exchange for allowing European settlers the right to live upon and use traditional tribal hunting and farming land for sustenance, in much the same way as the native peoples had used it.  These indigenous peoples were deeply mistaken.

Most Europeans who “bought” land, or were “awarded” land for military service, settlers who cheated, squatted, or stole this land outright, had only the English land enclosure model in mind.  Any expanse of land was “property”, and property to such men had value only insofar as it could be marked-off, fenced, and made to yield up things to sell for hard cash – silver, tobacco, guano, deerskins, lumber, grain, lead, indigenous slaves…

Treating land, and the world in general this way, is rather like auctioning-off the individual parts of an airplane to thousands of different owners, in mid-flight.

Each “property owner” begins to cannibalise and sell whatever is of “value” from their privately-owned section of the airplane.  The easy stuff gets sold-off first: seats, kitchen fittings.  Then people begin to strip aluminium.  Then some greedy fool sells the kerosene from “his” fuel tanks.

Most colonial settlers of the USA began stripping the airplane long ago.  Fur trappers.  Buffalo exterminators.  Cattle barons.  Speculators and land barons.  Lumber companies.  Railway magnates.  Coal barons.  Oil barons.




The Quapaw people of SE Arkansas “lost” their homes near the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers following the French “sale” of their lands to a young and land-hungry USA – all as part of an outrageous act of theft disguised as a legitimate “transaction” – the Louisiana Purchase.

“Purchase”.  Millions upon millions of acres of land changing “legal title” on paper, as if thousands of years of towns, cultures, homes, rivers, lakes, and forests and bears and living human beings could simply change hands.

Imagine buying a new house today with a family of eight “just included” in the deal.  You get to keep one family member as your cook and housekeeper.  You take another as a concubine.  The rest are told to f**k-off somewhere else, or die.  Multiply that a million times.  There’s your “Louisiana Purchase” – just not the cheery one all about Lewis and Clark from schoolbooks.

Everyone has heard of the Trail of Tears, in which southeastern tribes such as the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and others were driven-out of their homelands to points west during the 1830s.

The despicable ruffian responsible, Andrew Jackson, also saw to the removal of the Quapaw people from their Arkansas homes to the badlands of Oklahoma in 1834.  Just one more inconvenient ethnic group with its home inside “The Louisiana Purchase”.

And after shunting the last indigenous Americans onto what they thought were worthless dusty reservations, such Americans still would not let anything of “value” go – they would eventually come back for the valuable minerals buried under that parched Indian ground.

Only two generations after being forced from their original homelands, the new Quapaw lands near present-day Ottawa County, Oklahoma were already being raped for lead and zinc.

“Rape” is not “lib” or “woke” hyperbole.  By 1950, mining companies had made over a billion dollars in just over four decades, but the aftermath was a blasted landscape, a world of silently stalking death in the form of lead dust and mining tailings – an environmental disaster which caused terrible rates of miscarriages among indigenous women, while their children suffered decades of neurological damage from chronic lead poisoning.

Racist hiring policies ensured that the mining operations which would destroy their new homes (and their health) did not even allow the Quapaw access to mining jobs…

In the face of such man-made catastrophes, even a rapacious speculator nation such as the USA eventually came to realise that unbridled “free enterprise” needed limits.

The US Environmental Protection Agency came into force under President Nixon in 1970.  That’s right, “Tricky Dick” of Watergate fame, a Republican, a man flawed in so many ways.  Even this crook saw the wisdom of not allowing the airplane to crash while hucksters sold off the landing gear.

The man angling for a second term in office in 2024 promises to “free business from over-regulation” in order to create “economic growth”.  The EPA will be gutted, the last Alaskan wilderness will become a vast oilfield, and all opposition will be portrayed as “radical leftist tree-huggers” standing in the way of prosperity.

It’s worth making an analogy here.  This economic strategy is essentially a licence for billionaires to chop down every last forest – all with a promise of cheap firewood to consumers.

For a little while, rich people will get richer, there will be a few token jobs in the timber industry, and every house will be toasty-warm as they burn their cheap firewood.

Just like in frontier times!

And then when the woods are all chopped down and burnt, and climate change finally becomes an unstoppable catastrophe, these odious scoundrels will skulk-off to their yachts and mansions to sip cognac and slap each other on the back, safe inside their gated enclaves where immigrant gardeners will still tend “specimen trees” and hedges high enough to screen them from the squabbling mob.

Any later incoming government might try to pick up the pieces, but of course a largely fickle, foolish, and mentally-groomed electorate will soon be grumbling about how “firewood was so much cheaper back in the day”.

There are some real nasty bastards waiting in the wings this year.

And no environmental laws, no number of protestors – not even climate catastrophe and the end of democracy – is going to stop them this time.

The rich and powerful have always understood how to divide and rule.  Historically, “race” was always the easiest point of division.  Lately, the rich and powerful have been pivoting to “culture wars”, laughing themselves silly as the disempowered tear strips off each other in the “gender wars” and “identity wars” stoked by the media they own.

Maybe if we want to understand who the real enemy is, we should just ask people like the Quapaw.

#history #quapaw #environment #election2024

Know Who You’re Dealing With

Compulsory prayer, Phoenix Indian School, circa 1900

Compulsory prayer, Phoenix Indian School, circa 1900


2024 will quite possibly be remembered as the final stand-off between two visions of US identity.

And no, I do not believe the two-party system serves these visions in any meaningful way.

As someone who turns 60 this year, I’m just about old enough to have witnessed the ebb and flow of USA politics long enough to have noticed a few things.

The Democratic Party now occupies the space once inhabited by American Conservatives.  It is controlled by Big Business.  It throws a few bones to progressive causes, but only until lobbyists and corporate donors say “Stop!”.

The Republican Party took a sharp turn towards right-wing populism under Ronald Reagan in the 80s, and is now in thrall to a man who believes in nothing but his own centrality to everything, a man willing to stoke the fires of White Christian Nationalism (aka fascism), if doing so will keep him from serving time in prison while allowing him to exact revenge on his enemies.

There is no longer any need to feel shy about comparing the current GOP to National Socialism in 1930s Germany.  The Republican Party nominee for President openly states his intentions.  The “scapegoats” for America’s problems will not be primarily Jews this time.  It will be immigrants, mostly Hispanic.  It will be “Libs”. It will be members of the LGBTQ+ community (never forget that the Nazis murdered members of the disabled and gay communities before moving on to Leftists, Jews and Romani people).

I cannot apologise for posting political content in this year of all years.  The ideas being spread today go to the very heart of what I write about – people in power through the ages who amass wealth by manipulating the less-empowered and less-educated into believing false history and outright lies.

My very working-class family did a one year “test run” move to the American Southwest in the late 60s, before making a final move there in 1976.  Places like Arizona were being sold as a Sun Belt Paradise to working-class people from the rural Mid-West and Appalachia, people who had no idea that Big Business was moving to the Southwest for their own nefarious interests – factories with no heating costs, and a nearby Hispanic labor force so desperate they would work for peanuts…

Arizona property speculators put up cheap houses in the desert even faster than the coal barons back east had slapped Appalachian “company towns” together one or two generations earlier.

Even though many businesses had moved to Arizona specifically in order to exploit cheap Hispanic labor, they were quick to demonise Mexicans when it suited them politically to pit “poor whites” against them.

Over the past four years, the MAGA “brownshirts” have made Maricopa County (the most populous region in Arizona), virtually ungovernable, with election-deniers storming various official proceedings and intimidating election workers and officials.  This is EXACTLY the playbook used by the Nazis in 1920s and 1930s Germany.

Sometimes we are all guilty of thinking that we live in different times, and we believe that the worst excesses of humanity are a thing from the distant past.

I write about the things I do, because the past is never really the past.  That is a nonsense propagated by liars and the ignorant.

How many of us have heard someone say “I never had slaves, we freed them over 150 years ago, and I’m not going to lose sleep over things which are long past.”?

I’m not even going to get into the ugliness of the “we freed the slaves, and they should thank us” mindset.

But every time you read about Maricopa County, Arizona this year – and you will hear about it – remember just recent its history is.  A vicious and nasty history.

I sat and talked with my great-grandmother in the late 1960s.  She and her first husband, my great-grandfather, were born in the early 1890s.

They were children when the Indian Wars ended and the first indigenous children of Arizona were rounded-up in the 1890s and sent to places like the Phoenix Indian School, in order to be indoctrinated and forced to assimilate into “white” culture.

When did Phoenix Indian School close its doors? 1990.  Over 20 years AFTER my family first moved to Maricopa County, Arizona.

The people who thought it was their right to force Christianity and “white culture” onto the Hopi, Navajo, and Apache were the parents and grandparents of the people who want to force White Christian Nationalism onto Americans in 2024.

I am not a member of the Democratic Party.  But if the candidate standing against the GOP this year was a cardboard cut-out, or even a plate of cold oatmeal, I would still vote for them to stop fascism.

A person can only look for a shiny new car if they manage to escape from the one rolling down a hillside on fire…

#history #arizona #electionyear #indianschools

How to Disappear People with a Pen

Tecumseh and Old Bethel Church, Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Tecumseh and Old Bethel Church, Cape Girardeau, Missouri


Old Mix Americans are often brought-up hearing family lore speaking of some indigenous American ancestry somewhere in the tangled branches of their family trees.

In this age of culture and identity wars, claiming any indigenous ancestry while presenting a “white” appearance and living within mainstream American culture can lead to attacks from both The Left and The Right.

One side will accuse mixed-ethnic Americans of cultural appropriation, while the other will scream “pretend Indian!”.  Some people might even deserve a certain level of mockery.  The number of amateur genealogists who claim a Cherokee “Indian Princess” as an ancestor, even when this supposed “Cherokee Princess” was born hundreds of miles from any Cherokee settlement, is all-too-common.

But our modern political world is also often lacking in any nuanced understanding of history and ethnicity.

Any thoughtful person will understand that claiming ancestry, and claiming a present ethnicity, are two entirely separate things.

The fact remains that vast numbers of Americans with deep roots in colonial times DO often have an indigenous ancestor or three.

Any curious-minded person will then start to ask questions:


“Exactly which of my ancestors were indigenous American?”

“When, and in what circumstances did they come to intermingle and intermarry with non-indigenous settlers?”


Indentured servants, upon completion of their terms of servitude, were among the very earliest people to take their chances on the frontier.  Others were runaway servants or slaves.  Some were outlaws.  Many were veterans claiming “Land Bounties” for fighting in America’s seemingly endless wars.

These people were traders, longhunters, craftsmen and simple subsistence farmers who simply took their chances in what was still Indian Country, before the tsunami of settlers which would lead to almost all-out war against indigenous tribes and nations.

Unmarried men (and men with wives back east!) often attempted to forge good relations among indigenous American trading partners.  This often meant taking a wife from the tribe with whom they were dealing.

For those with suspected ancestors among the Eastern Lenape, the Algonquian-speaking tribes of Virginia, the Siouan tribes of the Carolinas, or the Iroquoian-speaking Cherokee of southern Appalachia, tracing the contours of a story can be challenging, but often relatively straightforward.

But what about those with clear DNA connections to other less well-documented tribes – such as the Shawnee?

The Shawnee were raiding the Tennessee and Kentucky frontier settlements in the years after the Revolutionary War.  How on earth would Old Mix Americans such as the Melungeons end-up carrying the DNA of a people who were so openly hostile to encroaching settlers?

I have already touched briefly upon the life of the Shawnee war chief and political leader Tecumseh in various podcasts.

My own Bunch ancestors – Melungeons – fought in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames (in modern Ontario, Canada), where Tecumseh was slain while fighting the Americans alongside his Native American allies and British forces.

What many might not realise, is that the constant and vicious warfare along the Ohio Valley border had led many Shawnee, including Tecumseh’s mother, to re-locate to Missouri in 1779.  The Shawnee would receive a land grant at Cape Girardeau in 1793 from the Spanish who controlled that region at the time.

Tecumseh’s own father had been killed years earlier – in 1774 at the Battle of Point Pleasant, and Tecumseh seems to have been a driven man thereafter, participating in many raids, skirmishes and battles over the next three decades from his base on the White River in Eastern Indiana.

With his brother Lalawethica the leader of a pan-indigenous spiritual movement, Tecumseh leveraged his brother’s religious influence among disparate Native American groups to help drive his own political and military ambition – the formation of a confederacy capable of facing-down US government forces.

In 1811, while Tecumseh was in the south seeking to recruit the Creek Nation to his cause, US forces destroyed the Shawnee’s spiritual base at Prophetstown (in Ohio), defeating Tecumseh’s brother at the Battle of Tippecanoe.

Efforts to rebuild the confederacy were gravely hampered by the outbreak of the War of 1812, and Tecumseh chose to throw his weight behind supporting the British in Michigan, helping to capture Detroit.

Tecumseh would meet his doom the next year at the Battle of the Thames we mentioned earlier.

A treaty signed in 1817 gave a small parcel of land in NW Ohio to the surviving Shawnee.

And so it was that in 1824, there were about 2,200 Shawnee remaining, with 800 of these people in Ohio, and the rest in Missouri (which had by then passed from Spanish to French, and then finally into US hands).

Would the USA government leave things at that, and honour the Shawnee’s land treaty with the Spanish in Missouri?  Would the USA honour the peace treaty made with the Shawnee in Ohio?

Would they hell.

In 1825, the Cape Girardeau Shawnee were “encouraged” to trade their lands in Missouri for a 1.6 million acre reservation in Eastern Kansas.  With the signing of the 1830 Indian Removal Act by Congress, two of the three remaining Ohio Shawnee groups were likewise “encouraged” to swap their lands in Ohio, to join the Cape Girardeau Shawnee in Kansas.  The last Shawnee in Ohio signed a separate treaty in 1831, relinquishing their lands east of the Mississippi, and were removed directly to Oklahoma (Indian Territory).

Is this how things would finally remain?

No, of course not.

In 1854, the US government would take back 90% of the land in Kansas “given” to the Shawnee in 1825.

Things could scarcely have gotten any worse, but they did.  Civil War would come, and even though many Shawnee fought for the Union side, violence and abuses by white settlers during and after the Civil War would lead to an exodus from the much-reduced reservation in Kansas.  Most Kansas Shawnee escaped to Eastern Oklahoma where in 1869 they were forced by the US government to accept allotments and citizenship as members of the Cherokee Nation.

Only in the year 2000 would the Shawnee finally regain recognition as a separate tribe to the Cherokee.

Many Appalachian Melungeons had received land grants west of the Mississippi as payment for service in the War of 1812.

These people would go on to form the Ozark Melungeon communities of Southern Missouri and NW Arkansas.  And just like their recent forefathers had once done in Appalachia, along this newer frontier between the USA and Indian Territory, people mingled and intermarried, just as the poor underclasses have always done in such rough and ready environments.

My Great-Grandma Jo from the Ozarks and later Kansas was said to be “full-blood Cherokee”.  In her younger days she worked as a railway cook in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma – part of the railroad gangs once called “Hell on Wheels“.

They didn’t get the name for no reason.  Jo left the Ozarks for Kansas with my great-grandfather, where he got in a dispute with a pig farmer, shooting him dead.  He got hard time, and Jo got a divorce…

Like so many people today, I did a DNA test a few years back.

I’m pretty sure we can rule out the “full-blood Cherokee” story.

The dark complexions among the people of Melungeon descent in my family would seem to come more from Jewish and Romani ancestors.

And Shawnee people?


This is where connecting a paper trail to historical events brings everything much more into focus.

Where did Grandma Jo’s family live two generations before her, during the early 1800s?

Cape Girardeau, Missouri, among the Paw-Paw French and the Missouria, Otoe, and Ponca people.  And the many displaced Lenape and Shawnee from Ohio country…

In a supreme case of irony, did a family who fought Tecumseh end up marrying into his descendants?  Or is there a still secret history at play here?

Stories such as these are why good genealogy is “Citizen History”.


#history #shawnee #melungeons #tecumseh

La Llorona and the Ghosts of Pre-Anglo America

La Llorona

La Llorona


Pre-Christian folklore with no clear origin can inspire a range of feelings.

Wonder, fear, awe…

The Green Man” of Britain is one such character – is he the spirit of nature itself?

Is he benevolent, malevolent, or terrifyingly indifferent?

Is he in, or of, the woodlands and trees, or just their protector?

Is he even part of ancient British folklore and tradition, or did he arrive with artisans from the Middle East during the Roman Empire’s time in Britain?


La Llorona“, or “The Weeping Woman” of indigenous and Spanish America is another such mystery.

No one is certain why she weeps, or whether her restless presence resides in or outside our own world.  Is she a wraith, spirit, or revenant?

Some say she is the ghost of an indigenous woman weeping for her own children, who she drowned in a fit of jealous rage and despair after discovering her Spanish lover was already married to another, more “respectable” Spanish woman, and was coldly unwilling to claim or support his “illegitimate” offspring.

La Llorona‘s instant remorse for this horrifying act caused her to cast herself into the same river as her dead children.

Others say she is in fact an Hispanic manifestation of an older Aztec goddess.

Whatever the true origins of this folklore, La Llorona has haunted generations of children in Latin America, who are warned away from rivers (and bad behaviour) with threats of being carried away by The Wailing Woman in the soaking wet white dress…


It is always strange to remember that during the presidency of George Washington, much of the present area now comprising Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas was part of New Spain rather than Anglo-America.

My own direct patrilineal ancestry comes from men who settled the Sequatchie Valley in Eastern Tennessee directly after the American Revolution, yet they are also found in historical records lurking around Spanish holdings along the Gulf Coast during the 1780s.  Were they Tories escaping “Patriot” reprisals?  Were they just ruthless speculators seeking-out cheap slaves along a largely lawless smugglers’ coast – slaves they could bring into Southern Appalachia to clear woodlands?

How many of these slaves were actually indigenous women from the Gulf Coast region?  Coushatta and Alabama women?

How many of these women identified with “La Llorona” in their hearts as they were forced to become cooks, consorts and concubines, washerwomen and weavers, shuckers of corn and carriers of water in dark hills and hollers far from home?

I always think of La Llorona when I listen to the singer Rebekah del Rio performing her haunting Spanish version of the Roy Orbison song “Crying“.

The performance in the link below is from 1995, before her song was used in the David Lynch film “Mulholland Drive“, and before Ms. del Rio had been chewed-up and spat out by the American music industry.


Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

Military field hospital, US Civil War

Military field hospital, US Civil War


Almost everyone is guilty of it – some more than others.

The common belief that “things ain’t what they used to be”, and in most cases, a wistful belief that things were better “back in the day”.

There are a million arguments to be had concerning exactly what part of the past was better, and which parts were worse.

It all depends on the exact times and places being compared.

There is also the small matter of human memory, which is shown time and time again to be far from an accurate record of the past.

What we choose to remember and choose to forget is often an act of moral exoneration, or an attempt to bury painful things which might otherwise paralyse or kill us.

Here in the western world, we live in a time and place where people are often advised not to bury trauma – people are encouraged to grapple with hard memories and inner demons.

Whether this is the best approach to take in every case is impossible to say.

As a reader and writer, I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of shared community suffering and whether this can lead to a wider cultural trauma.

What is the long term legacy of war, violence, slavery, plague, and famine on groups of people, on nations?

This brings us to the difference between how we deal with personal trauma and memory, and how we deal with group trauma and memory.

The management of group memory might be called “history”.

American memory and history is difficult to “manage” in any collective way due to the completely different levels of highs and lows, triumphs and traumas experienced by different groups and communities over the past 400 years.

Where any of us find ourselves today is the product of a myriad of variables past and present – our sex/gender, our skin color, our education, loss of family members, birth location, prevailing economic opportunities and conditions, religion, wars, political decisions, natural catastrophes, injury, illness, disability, hunger, and disease…

This is why some people in America can dress up in Confederate uniforms and attend “battle reenactments” with a sense of group nostalgia – with war as Cosplay, stripped of any real meaning or jeopardy.  They can afford to feel nostalgia because their family and forefathers shielded them from the burden of a painful collective memory, replacing it with warm and fuzzy self-delusion.

This is a kind of public and group version of domestic “skeletons in the closet”, such as when a mother knows her husband molested their daughter years ago, but after he’s dead, she curates the family memory, choosing to remember her husband at family gatherings as “a good provider”.

The daughter must move through a world of silences and lies spoken and unspoken, her inner pain sublimated to the will of false group memory.

The same is true for many of the trans-generationally poor and brutalised American underclasses, who are forced to witness endless public celebrations of fake or highly selective “national memory”, and latterly, a nostalgia for “making America great again”.




Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, though.

Literally. Really.

The word “nostalgia” was invented by German-speaking Johannes Hofer in 1688 as an alternative, medicalised Greek language word for the German word “Heimweh” – the pain one feels when thinking of home, when home is far away.

Up until the 20th century, “nostalgia” was used primarily as a medical diagnosis, especially among doctors working with traumatised soldiers.

During the American Civil War, about 750,000 people perished.  If the USA were to have a similar war today, such a number would be equivalent to around 8 MILLION dead.

For every three soldiers killed on the battlefield, another five died of war-related causes such as typhus, smallpox, or dysentery.

But one of the biggest diagnosed killers of young men during the Civil War was “nostalgia”.

Boys so traumatised by war and violence, missing their homes and families so acutely, that they wasted away, went insane, or committed suicide.

Today we would probably diagnose this “nostalgia” as a form of PTSD, and instead of questioning the politicians who create war, we offer the victims anti-depressants or opioids, along with the mostly hollow platitude of “thank you for your service”.

Another ten years max, and we’ll see politicians speaking nostalgically about Iraq and Afghanistan, praising the brave and misunderstood Americans of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Or waxing lyrical about the heroes of The Second 6th of January Insurrection

And someone will be getting rich off the Cosplay accessories.

#nostalgia #history #civilwar