A Trip to the Badlands

Tekakwitha Indian Mission, South Dakota, 1958

Tekakwitha Indian Mission, South Dakota, 1958 – letter to prospective adoptive parents


It took this podcast two years to find its first listener in South Dakota.

South Dakota is a big state with a small population – less than a million souls, in fact – making it the fifth least densely populated state in the union.

Still, we’ve managed to find more listeners in states with even fewer inhabitants, including Alaska, Wyoming and Vermont.

It’s not all about us, though.

But still.  What’s going on up there?

South Dakotans vote conservative.  Only five out of South Dakota’s 33 governors have been members of the Democratic Party.  A rush of blood to the head once saw South Dakotans vote a Norwegian-born left-wing agrarian populist into office back in 1897, but that dissociative fugue passed quickly, and Republicans have held the top office now for nearly half a century.

Today, South Dakota is governed by a woman born with the name Kristi Lynn Arnold, more widely known by her married name, Kristi Noem.

Born in South Dakota in 1971, Ms. Noem was first elected to state office in 2007 at the age of 36, as a member of the state’s house of representatives.

Noem is a conservative with a big “C” for “Calculating”, portraying herself in whichever light will make her voters think she is “owning the libs”:

> Endorses Donald Trump?  Check.

> Endorsed by Donald Trump?  Check.

> Flags, trucks, and cowboy hats regularly used as campaign props?  Check.

> Camouflage jackets and guns on her social media?  Check.

> Well-paid positions for family members?  Check.

> Support for new oil pipelines? Over Lakota lands?  Check.

> Calls progressive senate candidates “communists”?  Check.

> Sends South Dakotan national guards to the Texas/Mexico border as a publicity stunt?  Check.

Note: The labor of undocumented immigrants (including children), underpins many South Dakotan businesses.

> Covid pandemic public health measures ignored?  Check.

Note: Covid cases quadrupled after Noem encouraged people from all over the USA to ignore the pandemic – inviting them to attend an annual motorcycle rally in the state.


Nearly 400,000 answered the call-out she made on Fox “news”, and this superspreader event made South Dakota a Covid hotspot.  Most of the dead were undocumented immigrants and indigenous Americans working in poor conditions in meat-packing plants.


This latter point brings us to the very heart and hidden meaning of much rural conservatism, especially in the western states of the USA.

At its core, Noem-style conservatism is about a weird form of self-aggrandisement.  It’s all about proclaiming the virtue of hard-working people, people supposedly raised from the Dakota soil – a soil consecrated during its appropriation by European-American settlers/colonisers, and enjoyed by their descendants.

Truckers.  Ranchers.  Farmers.  Oil workers.  Everyone a “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps” kind of voter.

And then we do a bit of research.  We read some history.

Kristi Noem, like many Dakotans, is descended from mostly German and Scandinavian immigrants.

Her second great-grandfather (whose name she carried at birth – Arnold) was the son of Alsatian immigrants, and like so many others, arrived in Dakota Territory during the 1880s in a railway boxcar.

While the US Army was still rounding-up and killing Indians there.

There is no doubting that many of these immigrants were leaving bad conditions back in their homelands.  Unemployment and famine were especially common in Sweden and Norway during the 19th century.

Many immigrants lived in sod cabins due to a lack of timber, and Dakota soil was not easy to farm.

So hard work was certainly a given.

But one thing is never mentioned by the conservative descendants of these immigrants when they tell their story of bootstrapping.

It takes land to get started in your new life in America as a hard-working farmer.

And it’s much easier to get your hands on land when it is being given away cheap or free by the US government.

And where did the US government get this land?  Why, from the dispossessed Lakota, of course.


This post hasn’t the room to recount the history of the Indian Wars in the west.  Everyone has heard of Little Big Horn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee (let’s hope they have, anyway).

But some things which are lesser-known and not widely understood need and deserve mention.

Even after the bloodshed in South Dakota was over, and indigenous peoples had been forced onto reservations, the US government and “white” settlers couldn’t leave them be.

The US government very cleverly changed the laws in relation to indigenous landholding.

Whereas most indigenous peoples viewed land as a resource to be held communally, the Dawes Act of 1887 forced indigenous Americans to subdivide and allocate set parcels of their reservation lands to INDIVIDUAL tribal members.

Once reservation lands had been parcelled-out this way, any land not allocated to a specific tribal member was deemed “surplus” by the state and federal government, and opened to non-Indian settlers.

The poorest of the poor among European immigrants tended to take-up this “surplus” reservation land, and the US government hoped in this way to dilute and break the cohesiveness of indigenous communities.

With their communities shattered in this way, the US government and religious groups then began to step in, opening Indian Boarding Schools where the now impoverished Lakota might send their children to “become white”.

Children were often not even “sent” – they were kidnapped outright, with many being placed into foster homes where they were treated for years as little more than free domestic laborers.

In some of the worst cases, children were quite literally “loaned-out” to be sexually abused.

So here we are, in 2023, with people like Kristi Noem and Donald Trump stoking their fruitcake base, a base galvanised by QAnon and tales of paedophile rings, when the real paedophiles were always right there in the open.

In the swanky apartments of rich financiers in New York, and in the Indian Boarding Schools of South Dakota.

Not under pizzerias in DC.

Meanwhile, the charming legislators of South Dakota signed “HB 1104” into law in 2010, ensuring that the victims of cultural genocide and sexual abuse are unable to hold the perpetrators to account.

This is how American conservatism buries real history, so all that remains is their self-penned stories of heroism and bootstraps.

I have no idea if I’ll still have my 5 listeners in South Dakota after this…

©Brian Halpin 2023

#history #southdakota #kristinoem #lakota

Hate and the Ownership of Identity Politics

Eli Sumner with wife Minerva Riddle and mother-in-law Susanna Wilson Riddle.  Black to white in three generations.

Eli Sumner with wife Minerva Riddle and mother-in-law Susanna Wilson Riddle.  Black to white in three generations.


Many conservatives these days claim to be exhausted by identity politics.

Hell, I’m an Old Leftie, and some days even I find myself wishing the news cycle would focus more on the immediate existential problems of corporate greed, war, and climate change.

But here is the problem.

Identity goes to the very heart of human existence.

What we think we are, what others think we are, and the contested ground in between – this is where our self-confidence, our concept of history, ideology, culture and national identity are formed.

Are we really who we think we are in our heads?  Are we what others see us as?  Are we a mix of the two?  Are we something else altogether, which neither side is able to see clearly through the fog of bias?

I’ve said it before, and see no reason to change my mind:

The Political Right, the wealthy, and the powerful HATE identity politics because they invented identity politics.  They believe that only they should be allowed to dictate the terms of “identity”.

It’s a simple power thing.

Patriarchy is a way of wielding power in order to define and limit female identity.

The “lazy poor” and the “self-made man” are other identities constructed by those in power as a way to justify their position of power.

But the invention of “race”, and the enforcement of a “racial” caste system, were (and still are) the ultimate expressions of identity politics.


It has always been easy for those who control identity to gather willing minions to do the dirty work of patrolling caste boundaries.

This is why it has become a truism in America today to say that the white underclasses consistently vote against their own self interests.

People on The Left ponder why this should be so.

It is really quite simple.

Most humans crave status.  Siblings vie for the attention of parents.  As adults we seek the approval and admiration of our friends and colleagues.  We want to be “identified” as “special”.

This is why children love superheroes.  Deep down, children do not want to be FANS of superheroes.  They are projecting, because they want to BE a superhero.

The status.  The adulation of the masses.  Being able to kick the school bully’s ass.  Just being born “special”.

But most of us grow up eventually.  We learn that being generous, that doing good, is its own reward.  We don’t rescue a drowning child to hear the cheers of onlookers.

It is damning indictment of contemporary American culture that superhero movies have become the mainstay of ADULT entertainment.

Boys used to outgrow the dumb Chuck Norris/Steven Seagal stuff.   Girls without a note in their head eventually learned to accept that singing into their hairbrush in front of a mirror wasn’t going to turn their Broadway dreams into reality.

But most humans will still never outgrow a deep-seated wish to feel “special”.

Those with real access to opportunity (and yes, those with luck and determination) can eventually “feel special” through their achievements.  Rewarding career, nice house, good education, relationships, nurturing of talents and interests, etc.  It’s called “self-actualisation” in the language of psychologists.

Many of the white underclasses are born into challenging circumstances, where the odds of having attentive parents, attaining a good education, a level of economic security, and reaching personal fulfilment are slim in the extreme.

Circumstances which are usually even more challenging for people of color.

Which leaves very few routes to a feeling of being special, let alone having a realistic shot at “self-actualisation”.


Psychologists have long recognised that humans’ sense of happiness and well-being is tied to their status in relation to those around them.  The countries in the world which consistently place highest in the happiness ranks are those with the least disparity between rich and poor.  Where each citizen feels empowered.

Humans can be very happy with very little, as long as everyone is in the same boat.

In the USA, where wealth disparity is absolutely shocking, there are a lot of unhappy people – to put it mildly.

“The System” seems rigged, and in many ways, it is.

Higher education is out of reach for many.

Health problems can lead to bankruptcy.

People are widely addicted to opioids and other substances.

Working-class wages barely cover the rent. A house mortgage is now a pipe dream for most.

Crime and violence caused by economic and social inequity creates a nagging sense of constant fear.

Living paycheck to paycheck doesn’t leave a lot of room for “empowerment” or “feeling special”.

And yes, I know.

Not everyone is a victim, and some people are just too lacking in motivation to put in the hard work required to earn their feeling of “specialness”.


So here we have hundreds of thousands of members of the “white” underclasses (yes, the word “underclasses” hurts, because it’s an accurate description of the disempowered).

A group of people who will often turn toward quick-fix methods of feeling empowered or “feeling special”.

Never quite became a martial arts master?  Buy a few guns.  Pretend it’s not about fear and feeling disempowered.

It’s about simple self-defence, right?

No, even better, it’s about protecting your family and community.  Noble, and manly.

Wait, wait.  It’s about “protecting freedom and liberty”.   Now you can feel very special indeed.

Go the whole hog and join a militia.  Now you’re the real Alpha dog.  Go online and troll all the “Libtards” and “Beta cucks”.

Show up at the US capitol for the next election!

But then again, maybe all of that sounds a bit too much like work.

There is one super-easy last resort.  No effort whatsoever required.

Just choose to believe that you were actually “born special” in some way.

Born American.  Born “white”.


Everybody knows how hard it is to build a big cardhouse (do kids still build cardhouses?).

And everybody who ever built one, and has siblings, knows how easy it is to blow down a house of cards.

The American racial caste system was designed by people who blow down other people’s cardhouses.

Because it’s easier to elevate oneself socially by denigrating others than to actually earn your social status through hard work, generosity, or other achievements.

It is not “I feel proud and special because I can take my parents out for dinner”.

Instead, it’s “I feel proud and special because someone is stuck cleaning dishes while I dine out”.

This is not a social behaviour unique to the USA – it’s only been developed and perfected there in a very specific way.

And when there is no obvious difference in wealth or physical appearance, unpleasant people will make themselves superior to others in other ways.

It’s just so much easier than trying to earn respect through actions, ability, or simple decency.

Don’t believe it?  For centuries in France, there was a social class called the Cagot.

They were treated to all intents and purposes the exact same way people of colour were treated in the USA under Jim Crow.

But they looked no different to anyone else.  No one knows why they were so hated and despised.

It just seems that having someone to look down on, to feel superior to, is a habit practiced by lazy, hateful, and unthinking people everywhere.


Back to identity politics in the USA.

Anyone who claims that racism is now only part of America’s past is either wilfully blind, or a master gaslighter.  Probably both.

I am no fan of the American two-party system.  Both parties are in the pocket of Big Business.

But one party is now teetering on the edge of becoming a White Christian Nationalist neo-fascist front.

55% of voters for this party support a man who is a grifter and inveterate liar.  A racist.  A misogynist.  A mocker of disabled people.  A criminal.  A sexual predator and assaulter of women.

Their superhero.

Why?  Because while pretending to be an enemy of “wokeness” and “identity politics” he actually speaks to the oldest form of identity politics in America.

That some people are better than others by birth.  Go back and listen to his “good genes” speech at a campaign rally in Minnesota.

“You have good genes, you know that, right?” Trump said.

“You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.”

And who has “bad genes”?

Well, Barack Obama, I’d imagine – at least according to The Book of Donald.

Does anyone, anyone, believe that Obama would have even been elected, never mind served-out his term if he had been caught on tape bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy”?

Yes, conservatives hate identity politics.


It is the business of this blog and podcast to put the concept of “white race identity” in the trash can of history.

It is one thing for scholars and academics to say that “race is a social construct”.

It is quite another to demonstrate it with historical records, DNA, and photographs.

Americans are all brothers and sisters, whether they like it or not, and we’re gonna prove it.


#beforewewerewhite #identitypolitics

Floridian Minorcans and the Impossibly Tangled Web of Southern Appalachian Ancestry…

Menorcan village

Menorcan village


DNA without history tells us less than half of any story.

Many Southern Appalachians report elevated levels of “Iberian” in autosomal DNA tests.

There are a myriad of reasons this might occur, including Sephardic Jewish or Romani ancestry.

Less obvious is the possibility that some mountain folks might be part Minorcan…

I have written elsewhere about French Acadians (of what was later called Nova Scotia) adding to the ethnic mix of the Carolinas in the aftermath of their “Great Expulsion” from Canada following the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. Many of these refugees to the Carolinas were already “Creoles”, or mixed-ethnic, following a century and a half of intermarriage with the Mi’kmaq, and other tribes of eastern Canada.

For anyone with deep roots in southern Appalachia, it would no doubt come as a surprise to find some of their deepest family roots might have first grown in soil many hundreds of miles to the north.  Yet it is indisputably true.  There are people in Tennessee today sharing DNA with historical Mi’Kmaq leaders.

But what of the lands to the south of the Carolinas?  Could people from there have added to the great southern Appalachian melting-pot of colonial America?

In 1763, British military success in French Canada led indirectly to the Spanish ceding of Florida to Great Britain.  Desperate to make an economic success of her new possessions, the British Crown offered generous land grants to anyone willing to relocate to their new jurisdictions of British East Florida (capital at St. Augustine), or British West Florida (capital at Pensacola).

All right.  What does this have to do with Minorcan-Iberian ancestry?

Every schoolchild has heard of the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies, but most would be surprised to learn that the largest colony ever started in the present-day USA was in fact “New Smyrna“, which was near present-day Daytona Beach, Florida.  A ruthless and ambitious Scotsman named Andrew Turnbull, with a wife from Smyrna (Smyrna was ethnically Greek in 1763, but now lies in present-day Turkey), gathered over 1,400 people from Mediterranean ports under contracts of indenture, and sailed for British East Florida.

The majority of these indentured labourers would hail from the Balearic island of Minorca, near Spain.


Harbour in Menorca, circa 1890

Harbour in Menorca, circa 1890


To make a long story short, the colony was a disaster – constantly beset with disease, supply scarcity, and unrest, due to brutality and broken promises.  When Florida was restored to Spanish rule in 1783 following Britain’s defeat at Yorktown in 1781, most Floridian Loyalists relocated to British holdings in the Caribbean.

But not all of them…

Many former Loyalists or “Tories” elected to take their chances under the returned Spanish administration.  Some built thriving businesses based on trade with the Choctaw and Creek nations.  Some intermarried with Minorcan survivors of the failed Turnbull plantation.  Traces of this curious amalgam of Spanish, English and Minorcan culture survive in St. Augustine to this day.

But what is most relevant to us, when we regard this small, but compelling episode from early American history?

It is this.  The British Proclamation of 1763 (which had prohibited settlement within Indian lands west of the Appalachians) was null and void by 1783.  An independent America had absolutely no intention of honoring British treaties – especially as many “patriots” had been “paid” for their service with promises of land in Indian Country.

With new opportunities opening up in places like Kentucky and Tennessee, many former loyal subjects of the British crown in Florida packed their bags and headed north into southern Appalachia just like many “patriots” carrying land bounties.  Many of these early Anglo and Scottish Floridians quite likely carried something of Minorcan, Italian and Greek history with them, in the form of DNA.

All of this I learned, trying to figure out why my Swaffords of Sequatchie Valley, Tennessee have ancestors who appear on a 1786 Census Roll for Mobile, in Spanish Alabama.

Good genealogy is often good history.

#BeforeWeWereWhite #FloridaHistory #AppalachianHistory #minorca

On the Origin of the Term “Hillbilly”

Usage and meaning of archaic term "Billie"

Usage and meaning of archaic term “Billie”


The word “hillbilly” is commonly said to have an origin among those Appalachians claiming a Protestant “Scots-Irish” identity, folks whose forefathers were supposedly supporters of William of Orange (“King Billy” to his Protestant English and Scottish supporters, b1650, d1702).

This is almost certainly a false folk etymology.

The so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1689, in which “King Billy” (Willem Hendrik of the Dutch Republic) overthrew James II/VII of England, Scotland and Ireland, predates by over two centuries the first attested use of the word “hillbilly” in America.




Those who listened to our Black Paddywhackery podcast episodes will have heard that many, many people arriving in America from the province of Ulster in Ireland during the 1700s were not a cohesive or homogenous group in any ethnic sense.

Northern Ireland in the 1700s was after all a multi-ethnic frontier colonial enterprise, just as Kansas in the mid-1800s was a hodge-podge of “Old Mix Americans“, recent European immigrants, and indigenous peoples.

The descendants of people arriving in America during the 1700s from this multi-ethnic colonial Ulster would spend the next 100-200 years in America calling themselves English, Welsh, Scots, Irish, or indeed, “American”.

The one thing they certainly never called themselves was “Scots-Irish”.

That “ethnicity” or identity would only be invented after the American Revolution – becoming particularly popular in the 1840s and 1850s, as a way to differentiate themselves from what they perceived as the low-life Catholic Gaelic-speaking peasant scum arriving in America to escape the Great Irish Famine.




Back in the 1690s, in the years after William of Orange arrived on the scene in the British Isles, it was also a time of hunger and famine – but back then it was in Scotland.

So the 1690s saw a massive wave of Scottish economic migrants and famine refugees making the short boat journey to Ulster, a place relatively unscathed by famine at the time.

These desperate Scots came from many different backgrounds – they were not all Scottish Presbyterians, nor were they all cheerleaders for “King Billy”.

Many of these Scottish economic migrants to Ulster would have moved on for America within only 1, 2, or 3 generations, and it seems unlikely that they saw themselves as anything other than “Scots”.




Most of the earliest settlers to move into the mountains of Southern Appalachia after the American Revolution came from the adjacent states of Virginia and North Carolina.

The Virginia and Carolina backcountry around the year 1790 had about 2 people of actual Scottish ancestry to every 1 person of Ulster background, and as we have just heard, many of these people of Ulster also saw themselves as Scottish.

87,895 actual Scots in Virginia and North Carolina, 1790

43,894 people of Ulster background in Virginia and North Carolina, 1790




On balance, it seems more likely that the general Scots-English slang word “Billy” was in widespread use in frontier times – and not specific to people from Ulster, let alone the Americans who would later call themselves “Scots-Irish”.

In 1790 (among people of Scottish background) “Billy” would have been used much in the same way Americans now use the term “buddy” or “guys”, as in “Hey you guys, lets go for a cold beer”, or “How’s it going, buddy?”

In the British Isles, “Billy” has largely been replaced by terms like “lad” or “bloke” or “mate”.

Like many other old words from the 1700s, the term “Billy” lingered-on in remote mountain places in America.

As Appalachians began to seek work in places far from their mountain homes in the late 1800s and early 1900s, non-Appalachians would have heard them using the word “Billy” among one another.

And it would be these outsiders who would add “hill” to the word “Billy” to describe the mountain people they looked down upon.


#BeforeWeWereWhite #hillbilly #FolkEtymology


The “Black Dutch” of Appalachia

Scene along Rhine River during the 1600s, Herman Saftleven

Scene along Rhine River during the 1600s, Herman Saftleven


The German word for “German” is “Deutsch”, and in America, “Deutsch” got misconstrued as “Dutch”.  The so-called “Pennsylvania Dutch” or Amish and Mennonite communities are not Dutch – they are German.

In the late 1600s and early 1700s – during the Nine Years War [1688-1697] and the Wars of the Spanish Succession [1701-1715] – tens of thousands of German peasants became refugees, displaced by war and famine.

Many travelled up the Rhine as far as the major port city of Rotterdam in order to flee via boat to the UK or America.

German Sinti (German Romani, or “Gypsies”) were being viciously persecuted in the contested lands of Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland-Palatinate between Eastern France and Western Germany at this time.

A medal struck just after the wars in the Rhineland, showing Heidelberg Castle

A medal struck just after the wars in the Rhineland, showing Heidelberg Castle


Many of these Gypsies fled along with Palatine Germans to Rotterdam, where they spread outwards to other coastal towns and ports of the Baltic and North Seas, seeking and negotiating terms for a passage abroad.

Some signed formal indentureship agreements before sailing, but more were simply transported abroad to be auctioned as servants upon arrival, after which they were expected to complete a five to seven year term of work – in often harsh conditions – all to “pay” for their passage.

Palatine or Sinti, these were the people known as “Redemptioners” in colonial American history.

The most desperate and impoverished were often simply plied with alcohol before being kidnapped by ruthless merchants working in tandem with unscrupulous ship’s captains.

Columns of newspapers were filled with ads placed by masters looking for runaway servants.

By 1763 there were enough Sinti living just outside Philadelphia that they were able to form themselves into a small community, living outdoors among the white oaks lining Conestoga and Mill Creek.

Sinti in 1930s Germany before Nazi murder of the Romani people began

Sinti in 1930s Germany before Nazi murder of the Romani people began


There can be no doubt that many of these people followed the same path south into the Shenandoah Valley as other Germans, along with displaced indigenous peoples, English, Welsh, and Ulster people.

There can also be little doubt that many of the aforementioned runaways – the poorest members of the underclasses – took indigenous or mixed-ethnic partners as they moved along and beyond the frontier of European settlement.

While the German-speaking populations of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany have always had a small percentage of relatively dark-complected people (just like most European populations), the sheer number of such people among 18th century German speakers in America strongly suggests the likelihood of other influences on their appearance – Jewish, Sinti, indigenous American, or African-American, among many others.

These are part of the people often called “Black Dutch” among Southern Appalachians, and their surnames – Kiser, Rhinehart (Reinhardt), Justice, Renner, et al – often survive alongside the people called Melungeons.


#history #melungeons #BlackDutch

“It’s about the land, stupid!”

William McCoy land warrant for military service

William McCoy land warrant for military service, dated 1784


1776.  You’re flat broke most of the time, and hungry half the time.

A recruiting sergeant rides into your small town in backcountry Virginia.

Come and fight for a year or two”, says the sergeant.

“Fight for what?” asks you.

“For a new government.  Freedom.”

“How much you paying?” asks you.

“Food, a set of clothes, and 8 dollars a month” says the recruiting sergeant.

“When do I get paid?” asks you.

“Six dollars right now up front if you’ve got a rifle, four if you don’t, and the rest at the end of the war.”

“No thanks.”

“Alrighty.  You drive a hard bargain. Sign up for the duration of the war, and here’s a land bounty card for 200 acres, signed by the governor himself.”

“Where’s that land?”

“Northwest Territory.  Ohio and Illinois Country.”

“That’s Indian country.”

“Not for long, if you can shoot straight.”

“You just bought yourself a militiaman.”


#history #AmericanRevolution #ContinentalArmy

Jason Aldean, Small Towns, and the Monetisation of False Memory

Virgil Hutton, killer of Sheriff Owen Sizemore during the Harlan County coal wars

Virgil Hutton, killer of Sheriff Owen Sizemore during the Harlan County coal wars


Been thinking about the furor surrounding a certain song about “small town” ethics and vigilante justice.

I hate to dignify the singer by naming him – it surely only adds to the magic algorithms which magnify his presence on social media, while swelling his head and bank balance.  But, like a fish rising to the bait, here we go…

I’ll turn 60 in the next year.  I grew up in a small town.  An actual small town that had 2000 people in it back when I was a kid – a town that still hasn’t broken the 5000 population mark yet.

Mill ponds on rivers that flooded us out.  Gas wars.  Demolition derbies.  Five-year-olds allowed to set-off bottle rockets and Roman candles and Black Cat firecrackers.  A chicken house, and a pile of old railroad ties with copperheads living under it.  Being made to go to Sunday School on Sundays AND Wednesdays.  Having an acre of beans you and your brother planted and hoed yourselves eaten by deer in a single night.  Winters so cold the coyotes tried to get into the house.

I don’t know when things changed to the extent that people growing-up in cities with over 150,000 people in them got to start claiming “small town” culture.

But then again, I never understood why country singers from Southern Appalachia and The Ozarks who made it in Nashville suddenly stuck cowboy hats on their heads.  Where I grew up, anyone who was “country” probably wore a cap with “International Harvester“, “John Deere“, or “Skoal” on it which they got for free at the local feed store.

Now that I’m approaching Old Codgerville, watching the wheels of the generations turning, I’m beginning to understand this bullshit posturing that some people get up to.

Each generation is moving farther and farther away from actually knowing and speaking with people who were around back in the old days, and the “like my daddy and his daddy before” stuff has never been passed-down the generations with any real accuracy.  Folks forget things.  Folks hide things.

In the place I lived as a kid, one of the most popular things on TV was a variety show called “Hee Haw“, which played-up to every “country” caricature in the book, in between showcasing some damn fine musical talent.

It was hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark, both excellent musicians in their own right, and both children of real, not imaginary country people.

Clark was born into a tobacco farming family in Virginia during the Great Depression. His parents had to abandon the farm and move to New York to find laboring jobs to keep their children fed.

Owens, for his part, was also reared on a farm in Texas, until The Dust Bowl and Great Depression forced his family out, too.

Hee Haw“, for all its silliness, was a show tinged with longing and nostalgia, watched by people stuck in working-class suburbia – people just one generation removed from a way of life which had lasted for uncounted generations.

The wheel keeps turning, and memories get passed down and gilded and curated through selective amnesia.

Many country singers today, and many of the folks who spout the “Make America Great Again” nonsense, are recalling a world they never experienced, and constructing a world in their own heads based on what they IMAGINE things were like.

The “small town life” of current hit country songs doesn’t mention alcoholism caused by violence and trans-generational trauma.  Kids being whipped with belt buckles.  Local sheriffs “escorting” people of color over county lines to keep their “small town” fit for “white folks”.  Young boys who were gay hiding it behind performative violence, and if they couldn’t hide it, being called “pansies” and getting beaten-up at random.  Women with black eyes trying to get the shopping done early in the morning before too many people were around town.

There were of course many good people in small towns, but boy oh boy…

It was hard to be “good” when you were 12 years old at a local baseball game and all the grown men beside the snow cone stand waited for you to laugh loud and hard at their repertoire of n***er jokes.

But still, a few folks knew the real score.  Many had family whose land was taken off them during hard times.  Some had family who had died in the mines.  Others had grandparents who had fought in the coal mine wars.  Most knew of or had children who had died unnecessarily because there was no money for a doctor.

Country singers like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline and Bobby Bare and Dotty West and Buck Owens and Roy Clark and Tom T. Hall and Tennessee Ernie Ford and Dolly Parton were from that time when good people, when real people, knew the truth about life in America for the underclasses.

That’s why old country music was full of drinking and heartbreak and disappointment and money problems and prison and trains and loneliness and longing for family when forced to look for work hundreds of miles from home.

Some bro-country dude from a city in Georgia sporting a cowboy hat, far in time and distance from “small town” reality, isn’t a spokesman for “country” or “small town” values.

If he wants to be a spokesman for something, he should forget the “small town” stuff, and stick to his more general area of expertise – “How to monetise horseshit”.




#SmallTown #JasonAldean #CountryMusic #history


“Gypsy Queens” and Irish Travellers

Funeral of "Queen" Tryphena McNeill, Waterbury, Connecticut, 1915

Funeral of “Queen” Tryphena McNeill, Waterbury, Connecticut, 1915


Tryphena McNeill, née Green, from an English Romanichal family of Greens and Bucklands, was married to Samuel “King Sam” McNeill, who seems to have been of Irish Traveller (Pavee) stock.

The extent of intermarriage between these two itinerant groups is much debated, with outsiders often preferring to focus on ethnic difference rather than cultural overlap.

Perhaps even more interesting is the girl second from left, who was reported as being a Cherokee visitor paying her respects, due to her own family’s affiliation with these travelling people.

A genealogist (or even a trained historian) who views such people only through the lens of birth, baptism, marriage, census, and death certs would likely never know the complexity of identities present here.

Not a word or a clue adverting to Romani or Pavee ethnicity is apparent from state or federal records, and the same was often true of non-enrolled, off-reservation indigenous Americans in centuries past.

Early 20th century romanticising of “Gypsies” in literature and music ensured that a local newspaper took an interest in the death of a “Gypsy Queen”.

Such explicit newspaper reports become more and more rare the deeper we travel into the past, so uncovering the true story of our own ancestors requires an incredible amount of detective work, and a profound awareness of America’s historical social complexity.




#romani #gypsies #IrishTravellers #pavee


Johnny Cash and wife Vivian Liberto

Johnny Cash with his first wife Vivian Liberto


Sally Shields was born in South Carolina in 1821, one of many children born to an enslaved woman and her so-called “owner”, a man named William Bryant Shields.

Details are sketchy, but some form of human bond must have slowly developed between William Shields and his “consort”.

Within a few years, Shields felt compelled to release all of the children resulting from this “union” from their legal birth condition of slavery.

It may be unpalatable and difficult for us to comprehend, but William Shields went further, and made gifts of property – including slaves – to many of his now liberated “mulatto” offspring.

His daughter Sally Shields would go on to marry twice – first to another slaveholder named Anderson Robinson, and second to a man named Irving McGraw, who was also enumerated as a “mulatto” in records.

It is almost impossible to write of these things in a sensitive and wise fashion with the USA still so divided over the legacy of slavery and ongoing systemic racism.

The most left-leaning liberals or progressives will query the motive for even bringing-up the subject of slaveholding among people of color.

Dispicable extremists on the other side will point excitedly, and say “See? Black people had slaves, too.”

As if this fact might somehow excuse centuries of color/ethnicity-based hatred and bigotry.  As if it might excuse “whites” erecting barriers to “black” education and equality before the law.  As if it could lessen the brutality of lynchings, the dehumanisation of Jim Crow laws, and red-lining, and, and…

But let’s set all that aside for now, and try to understand a past historical moment.


Slavery has existed in human societies since time immemorial.

But “color” or “race”-based slavery?  That was a relatively recent development.

Before the invention of “race”, slavery was more likely to be a condition brought upon a person due to a difference of religion, political allegiance, country of origin, social status, poverty, criminality, indebtedness, or simply through being a war captive or the human “booty” taken by pirates.

Medieval England, like most other European kingdoms, had broadly continued with the type of slavery practices left behind after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  In England, the people most likely to be enslaved included those in debt, criminals, or people captured on the field of battle or on the high seas.

Beyond England, in the Eastern European, Ottoman and Arab worlds of the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s, people of color were often slaveholders.  Eastern European warlords in places like Wallachia (modern Romania) enslaved entire ethnic groups, most notably the Romani.

The Ottoman, Persian, and Arab worlds purchased slaves from as far north as Finland.

Central Asian cities like Samarkand and Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) acted as international slave markets, moving human cargo between east and west, and from the Arctic Circle to the eastern Mediterranean.

The Moorish, Jewish and Romani merchant classes expelled from Spain in the aftermath of the Christian Reconquista of 1492 went on to set-up shop throughout the Mediterranean world.  These slave traders operated from North and West Africa, all the way to the Ottoman world far to the east. Markets in places like Persia, Tangiers, and Madagascar also supplied slaves to the all-devouring maw of various European colonial empires run by the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, or French.

This alters the common perception that slaves were captured and shipped only from West Africa during the 1500s and 1600s.

As Europe came to be synonymous with “Christendom”, the Catholic Church began to discourage the enslavement of fellow Christians, and the list of people “deserving” to be enslaved was relocated to the non-Christian world.

This change during the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period also happened to coincide with the busiest period of European exploration and colonialist expansion.

Because most people being subjugated and/or colonised were seen as pagans, heretics, or worse, European Christendom felt able to justify their enslavement and exploitation.

Portuguese colonies were mostly in Africa and India, so most of the enslaved were of course sub-Saharan Africans and South Asians.

Spanish, French and English colonies were mostly in the Americas, so most of the enslaved there came from local indigenous populations – at first.

African slavery didn’t become the basis for entire economies immediately, but certain circumstances hastened its advent.

Events like plague, the introduction of tobacco, sugar cane, and rice cultivation – and even The Great Fire of London in 1666 – created labor shortages making indentured labor much more expensive.

Add to this the catastrophic collapse of indigenous American populations, as tribes and nations became decimated by enslavement, disease, and warfare, or simply migrated inland to escape the reach of coastal slave traders.

The rest is history.  Colonial powers in the Americas eventually turned their baleful, greedy gaze to Africa’s non-Christian peoples.


I have written it elsewhere, and it is worth repeating again and again:

Racism did not lead to slavery.

Slavery and greed led to racism.

In the earliest days, Africans and other people of color were not enslaved due to their skin color.  They were indentured or enslaved simply by virtue of being non-English or non-Christian, or both.

But a problem soon arose.

Many Africans and other people of color began to abandon their old faith systems (including Islam), becoming Christians.

This removed much of the justification for their condition of servitude, and during the first few decades of the 1600s, many, many such people of color managed to remain free (or successfully petition courts for their freedom) in places like colonial Virginia.

Many became slaveholders themselves; remember that slavery wasn’t yet based on skin color.

But human greed is seemingly limitless, and the English who had begun to amass fortunes from the labor of slaves decided to change the rules.  Professing the Christian faith would no longer offer protection from servitude.

Christian or not, if a person looked non-European, they could be enslaved.

Racism was the eventual (and much later) thought system invented by innumerable self-interested, greedy people in an effort TO JUSTIFY their ridiculously arbitrary legislative changes and shockingly immoral level of avarice.


The actual ideology of racism did not take root overnight.  A slow but steady creeping change to attitudes and legislation meant that for many decades, North America was a complicated place, with slaveholding families and their slaves coming from many different ethnic backgrounds.

In Anglo-America – especially in places such as New York and Maryland in the north, or Virginia and the Carolinas in the south – there were substantial populations of free people of color, and many were slaveholders.

Members of many indigenous tribes such as the Creek and Cherokee held slaves.

Africans held slaves.

Jewish and Romani people held and sold slaves.

And again, although the majority of these slaves eventually arrived from West Africa, many came from elsewhere.  They came from anywhere within reach of a trading path or sailing vessel.

But as Anglo-America slowly began to crystallise its novel concept of exclusively African or color-based chattel slavery during the late 1600s and early 1700s, these slaveholding and slave-trading people of color in Virginia and the Carolinas felt the full weight of karmic irony dropping like a planet-sized lead ball upon their heads.

Many of these slaveholding free persons of color decided to get the hell out while the getting was good.

Some headed for the remotest hills of Western Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Tennessee, where many were part of early statelet experiments like The Watauga Association or The State of Franklin.

Others took the southern route into Georgia, Alabama, and Spanish Mississippi, Louisiana and Tejas.

People like Sally Shields and her family.

But Sally would have been the exception, in that she was actually the slaveholding daughter of an enslaved woman.

The families and community all around her, however, were slaveholding people of color who had never known servitude.

The ones who went into Southern Appalachia ended-up being a foundational part of the people later called Melungeons.

The ones who went into Spanish and French territory became a foundational part of a predominantly ranching people later called “Redbones“.

But we know both groups are related when we see the ancient surnames shared between both groups.  Names like Perkins, Ashworth, Bunch, and Goins.

As already noted, Sally Shields was married twice, and her descendants intermarried freely among many different ethnic groups including the Redbones, the Melungeons, the Choctaw, Mexicans, Louisiana French – and even among Italo-Mexicans.


I was contemplating all of this deep history while listening to an old Rosanne Cash album a few nights ago.

Everyone knows about the long-term love affair between Johnny Cash and June Carter, but fewer might be aware that Johnny’s daughter Rosanne came from his first marriage to Vivian Dorraine Liberto.

You see, Vivian was a direct descendant of Sally Shields, and became a target of white supremacist hate during her not-so-brief marriage to The Man in Black.

Live footage of Rosanne Cash from the 1980s shows a beautiful young woman with a voice to match. She also shares a clear resemblance to her equally beautiful mother. It may be my own imagination, but it seems as if the make-up and lighting on Rosanne’s earliest album covers was designed to minimise her mixed-ethnic background. If this was indeed the case, one suspects this was a record company decision. It would not be the first time.

Rosanne Cash screenshot from Seven Year Ache video

Rosanne Cash performing her hit “Seven Year Ache”


Rosanne Cash album cover

Cover of Rosanne Cash’s third studio album “Seven Year Ache”, released 1981


This is how the fall-out from racism diminishes everyone in a society – not just the direct victims of said racism.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all lies in the fact that many of the white supremacists who pointed a finger at Vivian Liberto HAD DEEP ROOTS IN THE EXACT SAME COLONIAL ERA MULTI-ETHNIC SLAVEHOLDING FAMILIES AS HER.

Ignorance might be bliss.  But ignorance can be a thing far worse, too.


©Brian Halpin-Before We Were White


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #FreePeopleOfColor  #melungeons  #redbones  #JohnnyCash  #RosanneCash  #VivianLiberto

Frontier Philology

Dog-trot house with shake shingle roof

Dog-trot house with shake shingle roof


The Cornett surname is attached to Appalachia and frontier-era America as certainly as bubble-gum to the underside of a roadside diner table.

The fact is, no one really knows the deep origins of these Cornett folks.  The name itself can be found in France, Belgium, and many other places, including Scotland, where it arrived during the Middle Ages along with Norman (French Viking) warlords.

The first American Cornetts appear in the historical record in 1700s colonial Virginia, almost never with any documentary trail back to the Old World.

Later bearers of this surname carry Y DNA (male ancestor) markers from many different lands and wellsprings – a state of affairs only too common in a country where so many families carry surnames “borrowed” from the Anglo cultural ascendancy.

Many years of research into the social/ethnic history of Appalachia have led this writer down paths which have induced a full range of reactions – from outright horror to utter admiration.

So when I first read of a “bad” man named Samuel Cornett who was “married” to a certain Polly Davidson (around the turn of the 1700s and 1800s in Letcher County, Kentucky) my mind was open.  If there are two sides to every story, then every Appalachian story has at least three sides.

Many of these early non-indigenous settlers and colonisers of Southern Appalachia are named in various records as slaveholders.  This is a story rarely told – the sheer number of people piling into mountainous Indian lands with a few slaves in tow.

The received wisdom of most Americans is that slavery was a “Deep South thing”.

That slavery was only for big cotton plantations.

Large southern plantation owners were certainly the individuals most likely to hold the largest numbers of slaves, and this fact has led many apologists for “The Rebel Cause” to assert that slavery never really took root in mountain country, that slaveholding was confined to wealthy elites.

This assertion is wrong.

While the mountains of southern Appalachia had far fewer large slaveholders than the Deep South, slavery was still widespread.

The issue of exactly who was enslaved is somewhat complicated by the fact that Virginia and the Carolinas were among the earliest states to move legislation against their “free colored” populations.

By the time of the American Revolution, Virginia and the Carolinas had seen nearly 200 years of inter-ethnic mixing between non-enslaved African-Americans, South Asians, Atlantic Creole “Portuguese”, mixed-ethnic Caribbean peoples, Catawba, Saponi, Pamunkey, and other indigenous peoples, Brazilians, Jewish adventurers and merchants, and Romani peoples from Germany (Sinti), France (Manouche), and the British Isles (Romanichal).  Not to mention peoples from the Dutch East Indies, Madagascar, or the Barbary Coast of North Africa…

So.  When we look at a man like Samuel Cornett in 1820s Eastern Kentucky, listed as a slaveholder, we need to take the existence of these Old Mix Americans into account.

Oftentimes the “slaves” enumerated as the “property” of a household were actually part of mixed-ethnic frontier families, and only enumerated as “slaves” because inter-ethnic marriage had been made illegal under various pieces of repressive legislation.

Samuel Cornett might have been “brown” or “white” himself.  Of single ethnicity or multi-ethnic.

Samuel Cornett would not have been the first to blur the lines between outright slavery, forced concubinage, and common-law marriage.

These are all things which this writer tends to bear in mind when reading accounts of lives on the American frontier.  Weighing all of the evidence to hand, Cornett does indeed seem to have been the holder of at least four or five slaves.

What really caught my eye was the family lore telling how Samuel Cornett‘s wife/consort Polly Davidson contracted “consumption” – tuberculosis – and spent her last couple of years kept in a “pen”.

Needless to say, this seemed like one of the most horrifying pieces of historical detail one might stumble across.

For years I kept a special file on Samuel Cornett, his name under an ugly dark cloud in my imagination.

The slaveholder who locked his sick wife in a shed.

But this man is why every single tidbit of random knowledge from life’s rich tapestry is worth learning.

You see, Southern Appalachia is home to its own culture, with its own words and ways and food and building traditions.

Southern Appalachian innovation created the “dog-trot cabin” – two small cabins separated by a narrow gap, but covered by a single roof.

An ingenious way to manage temperature in an age before central heating and air conditioning.

Two compartmentalised cabins are easier to heat quickly in winter.  Two compartmentalised cabins with a narrow gap encourage the “Venturi Effect” in summer heat, in which any wind passing through the gap is cooled, helping to cool both cabins, while affording the perfect covered, shady, and cool place to sit out-of-doors.

A pleasant place for man and dog alike…


Dog-trot cabin, Thornhill Plantation, Alabama

Dog-trot cabin, Thornhill Plantation, Alabama


But most important to this story, the two separate rooms of a “dog-trot cabin” were known as…”pens”.

So simple historical documents can be read in at least two utterly different ways, depending on the level of knowledge we possess, and the lens through which we choose to view the past.

In one, we have a brutal slaveholder who kept his suffering wife/concubine locked away in a shed.

In the other, we have a multi-ethnic family trying to survive, and a woman with tuberculosis living in the cabin beside her family, in an effort to halt further spread of sickness.

Maybe before deciding how to look at things, we should consider a couple of final details.




It is said that shortly after Polly Davidson‘s death, Samuel Cornett went fully insane…

Family folklore tends to have little good to say about Samuel.

He is said to have abandoned one wife (and children) back in Virginia.

Without diaries or letters, we are unlikely to ever know why.  He may have been an abject, worthless family man.  His first wife may have been screwing around.

Men and women in early Appalachia often parted ways on grounds of adultery – which was committed by men AND women.  The records are myriad.

We do know that many of the people casting aspersions on his character and mental capacity were people with an interest in his property.

We know that some of these people – including members of the family he left 30 years previously – sought to disenfranchise Polly Davidson‘s children, calling them “illegitimate”.

We know that Samuel Cornett pushed back against this, describing these “illegitimate” children in affectionate terms.

So was Samuel Cornett a cruel, vicious disgrace of a man?

Or was he being vilified by a former family and community scandalised by his “taking-up” with an Indian or African-American woman?

All of the above?

We just don’t know.

But one thing we do know.  Keeping a wife in a “pen” in the early 1800s did not mean what it means today.


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #appalachia  #slavery  #ethnicity  #AmericanEnglish