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

God, Mammon, and Race Politics

Bible with cash inside

God and Mammon


A kingpin of commercial American evangelicalism named Pat Robertson died this month.

People born after the Boomer generation can probably not imagine a time before tele-evangelism, and its unholy trinity of The Bible, money, and politics.

The reason for churches being exempt from various taxes goes back to ancient times, and stems from the church’s historical role in caring for the sick, elderly, and poor.

The last hundred years has seen the governments of developed western nation states largely taking-over this social role of churches – especially in multi-cultural and more secular countries.

The nature of American history, with colonisation and warfare taking place almost continuously for centuries (far from large urban centres), made religion very much a “do-it-yourself” affair.

Religion in frontier-era America was about more than personal faith.  It would be impossible to overstate the role religion played in people’s social lives as a marker of “civilisation”, or as a way to signify that a person was worth “taking account of”.

In a world of war, disease, crop failures, slavery, droughts, floods, tornados and casual violence, to “profess faith” was about more than seeking salvation.  It was the surest route to acceptance into any “decent” community, and the easiest way to elevate oneself socially in the eyes of others, regardless of one’s relative wealth or poverty.

The atmosphere along the frontier fostered generations of rough men and women, many of whom didn’t care for the pieties – let alone the rules and strictures – laid down by Hard Shell Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Methodist circuit riders, and other such representatives of late-stage Calvinism.

The rowdiness, violence, heavy drinking, gambling, and debauchery of such folks happened to coincide with the Age of Enlightenment, with its focus on secular rationalism.

Instead of blaming violence, immorality and licentious behaviour on social, political, economic, and environmental factors, various religious leaders blamed secularism and rationalism, and began to rail and fulminate against widespread “ungodliness”, and the decline of traditional Christian faith.

The most vocal of these religious leaders began to launch regular “revivals” and camp meetings meant to bring stray sheep back into the fold.  The biggest such periods of revivalism are known in American history as the “Great Awakenings”, and these periods of theatrical public preaching and intense religious fervour incubated mass movements such as Mormonism.

In the aftermath of these revivals, a certain type of person quickly realised they could have their cake and eat it.  Even the roughest illiterate man from the backwoods could memorise some Scripture, have a voice that carried, claim to be “sanctified” and call himself a preacher of the Gospel.

From Eastern Kentucky, to the Ozark Mountains, to Bleeding Kansas and on to the mining camps of the Old West, both settled and itinerant lay preachers – whether literate or non-literate – performed marriages and baptisms, spoke words over the dead, and were welcomed into people’s homes for dinner.

It was precisely these sorts of preachers and their followers who would eventually morph into the early 20th century American Pentecostalist or “Charismatic” evangelical movements.

Pat Robertson, while officially a Southern Baptist preacher, was very much informed by Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on a world in which miracles, signs and wonders, and other supernatural phenomena are believed to be real and present in the lives of the faithful.

Such supernatural phenomena might include the overt display of “spiritual gifts”, such as “speaking in tongues”, serpent handling, prophesizing and faith healing, and among many, a firm belief in imminent “Rapture” and Armageddon.

With the power being wielded by the “white” evangelical voting bloc in America today, it would be natural to think these people were followers of a very old strain of American Protestantism.

Not so.  Today’s “white Christian evangelicals” have very little to do with old style Calvinism, and everything to do with very recent forms of “do-it-yourself Christianity”.

The concept of “Rapture” never figured in Christianity until an Anglo-Irish Church of Ireland minister named Charles Nelson Darby went rogue, left his church, and started preaching it during the mid to late 1800s.

And almost all of the current faith trappings of American evangelicalism were late 19th and early 20th century inventions/innovations, with much current “orthodoxy” actually born in one small church in Los Angeles in 1906.

The age of radio, cinema, and TV arrived just in time to turbo-charge these local revivalist crazes, and a generation later – just like the travelling preachers of yesteryear – men like Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell appeared at the door, ready to get their legs under everybody’s table for a free Sunday dinner.

By now, most people paying even the slightest bit of attention will know about the hypocrisy, the bigotry, the jet airplanes, swimming pools, infidelities, and swanky cars.

But this is Before We Were White, and we like to leave our readers with something they might not already know…


The voting bloc known today as the “white evangelical base” was pretty much solidified during the late 1970s and 1980s by a TV preacher man called Jerry Falwell, Sr, whose movement “The Moral Majority” joined American evangelicalism at the hip with Ronald Reagan‘s GOP.  It is hard to resist drawing parallels between Reagan’s background in Hollywood, and the acting skills of tele-evangelists…

To understand the social milieu from which Falwell arose, here are a couple of quotes from the years leading-up to the Civil Rights Movement, in which Falwell addressed the issue of desegregation:

“If Chief Justice (Earl) Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line…”

“…the true Negro does not want integration…he realizes his potential is far better among his own race.”

In old age, Falwell eventually rowed back from his abhorrent position on segregation, but continued to pander to bigots with a variety of other poisonous interpretations of Scripture, up to and including his infamous blaming of the 9/11 attacks on:

“The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way…I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'”

Earlier in this post, I noted how “professing faith” was an important step toward “respectability” in America’s earliest days.

This was just as true for indigenous Americans and African-Americans.

In the eyes of much of “white” America, to be indigenous American or African-American was already seen as carrying “the mark of Cain”.  If such people were also non-Christian?  Why, that would lower these people to the level of savages, or even simple beasts.

Of course, while those who suffered under the American racial caste system might become Christian, the one thing they couldn’t become was “white”.

Or could they?

Well bless my cotton socks.

Mr. Falwell’s racism and bigotry seem strange (or not?) when we realise that one of his great-grandparents on his mother’s side was a woman named Judith Goins.

A woman descended from the Goins folks who were free PEOPLE OF COLOR from Buckingham County, Virginia.


©2023 Brian Halpin, Before We Were White


#WhiteEvangelicals  #televangelists  #PatRobertson  #JerryFalwell

Unreliable Narrators

Conley Blankenship, 1828-1910, born Buchanan County, Virginia

Conley Blankenship, 1828-1910, born Buchanan County, Virginia


Those of you who’ve been following the Before We Were White podcast for a while will have noticed by now a thread running through almost every episode.

That “thread” is a contention that in America, perhaps more than in any other place, our surnames are NOT reliable indicators of our actual family history.

And in America, our surnames are even less of an indicator of our true ethnic background.

It has been pointed-out time and again by this blog and podcast that there are multiple ethnic groups in American history with good reasons to carry surnames unrelated to their ancestry.

German immigrants seemed particularly ready to cast-off, translate, or at least modify their surnames.

Many, many of the Smiths and Browns in the USA are in fact “Schmidts” and “Brauns”.

“Metzger” becomes “Butcher”.

“Gerlach” becomes “Carlock”.

“Demuth” is now rendered as “Damewood”.

Other non-English speakers also changed their names – either at their time of immigration, or over the course of time.

Gaelic speakers.  Welsh speakers.  Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, French, and Italian speakers.

Appalachia in particular is home to many such people: Goncalves people are now “Kingsolver”, Medaris became “Meadors”, Rémy has become “Ramey”, and Italian coal mining families with names like Bianchi turned into families now going by the name of “White”.

But it doesn’t stop with simply translating non-Anglo surnames into English or modifying a spelling.

Vast numbers of people in America were assigned a name, while others simply borrowed or assumed a new surname outright.

African-Americans are one such group, obviously.

But the vast majority of indigenous Americans, just like African-Americans, have “borrowed” surnames from the culture of colonisers and conquerors at various points in the past.

Last, but most certainly not least, are the “underground diaspora” peoples such as the Jewish and Romani.




It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of family trees now available online – the ones showing an unbroken genealogy going back to an original immigrant patriarch or matriarch during earliest colonial times – are speculative at best.

Why?  Because without an unbroken line of land documents, census records, wills, marriage licences, and death certificates, all cross-checked with DNA results, it is extremely difficult to be certain that we are not one of the millions who carry a “borrowed” surname.

Never mind the fact that perhaps 1 in 10 children born were/are the result of “non-paternal events”, otherwise known as hanky-panky outside of wedlock…

This is particularly true for people with deep roots in Southern Appalachia, a place which was a magnet for the poor, multi-ethnic and disempowered since long before the American Revolution.

Entire family lines were created there from endless liaisons between the undocumented – slaveholders and their slave “mistresses”, longhunters and their “unofficial” indigenous consorts, impoverished single or widowed women forced to trade “favors” for food and money…

Disentangling this often hard, brutal, foundational history from the ridiculously simplistic myth of “white Protestant” settlers has become pretty much my life’s work.

Southern Appalachia is not predominantly “Scots-Irish”.  Southern Appalachia is not “white”.

“Southern Appalachian” is a distinct mix, made-up of peoples from at least four continents.

“Southern Appalachian” – or perhaps “Old Mix American” – should in fact be considered an ethnicity in its own right.

After all, what is an ethnic group, if not a group of people sharing the same geographic space for centuries?

An ethnic group of interconnected kin, with shared mountain history, shared mountain food, language, religion, music, and culture?




If you look at the list of DNA results in the picture below, you will see the surname “Blankenship” – a name quite common in Southern Appalachia.  I’ve blurred-out all but two lines.


Contested male Blankenship ancestor

Contested male Blankenship ancestor


The two legible lines represent two men somewhere in America who did a DNA test, and both believe that their earliest immigrant ancestor was “Ralph Blankenship”.

One carries a typical Western European “Y” DNA haplo very much in keeping with the supposed origins of the “Blenkinsop” families of Northumbria in England.

The other man is genetically the member of a haplogroup very often associated with Jewish people, or at the very least, Middle Eastern people.

England, of course, had a small Jewish population in the 1600s, and perhaps 1% of English men today carry a “J” haplo, so it is not impossible that a Northumbrian Blankenship/Blenkinsop family’s males might have belonged to this typically Middle Eastern haplogroup – even way back then, before joining the American melting pot.

What is NOT possible, however, is that Ralph Blankenship, born 1662, was the carrier of BOTH haplos.

Someone’s family history is clearly wrong.

This is merely one surname from many thousands of Appalachian families who find themselves in the same situation.

There are a myriad of different reasons for these genealogical-genetic conflicts – individual, social, and historical – which we won’t go into here.

Getting back to the initial point of this post, surnames in America are unreliable narrators of genealogical and ethnic history, especially among the early American underclasses.


Jemima Hall née Blankenship, murdered by KKK in Letcher County, KY

Jemima Hall née Blankenship, murdered by KKK in Letcher County, KY


Does this even matter?

That depends.

Some of us couldn’t care less who our forebears were, or what ethnic groups they came from.

Some of us do care, because we love history, especially unexpected or revisionist history.

But there is another group of people who hate true history, because accurate and truthful history doesn’t chime with a mythology which they prefer, a mythology which serves their false self-perceptions and own narrow interests.

These are the people removing books from school libraries, the people going apoplectic over critical race theory.

But as every child knows by the age of 10, when we tell one lie, we have to invent another twenty lies to cover up the first one.

And eventually, our entire life, our communities, our very nation becomes a giant house of cards constructed of lies.

A nation needs to be built of much more solid stuff, if that nation expects to survive and endure.


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #genealogy  #GeneticGenealogy  #AppalachianNames





North to Alaska (remaster)

Two Laplanders wearing traditional dress milking reindeer, Port Clarence, Alaska,1900

Two Laplanders wearing traditional dress milking reindeer, Port Clarence, Alaska,1900


By the end of the short-lived Klondike and Alaskan Gold Rushes of the late 1890s, the far northwest of the North American continent had been changed irrevocably.

Over 100,000 prospectors had swarmed like a plague of locusts over the Yukon Territory and Alaska, bringing everything from pack animals to industrial river dredging machinery with them.

Entire virgin forests were clear-felled along rivers to make boats for transporting equipment.  More timber went to building shanty towns, boardwalks, and sluices.

The rest was firewood.

Fish, birds, and other wildlife was exterminated along entire river systems – rivers, streams, and creeks which had been muddied and polluted by industrialised mining, while thousands upon thousands of other wild animals were shot-out or trapped-out to feed miners and other gold rush opportunists.  Tailors, blacksmiths, guides, carpenters, cooks, saloon-keepers, criminals, pimps, and of course, prostitutes…

By the time most of the prospectors had upped-sticks and left for warmer climes after the gold rush, local tribes such as the Han, Tagish, Tutchone, and Tlingit had been left reeling – from disease, the introduction of alcohol into their communities, and worst of all, the breakdown of old trade networks and the near extermination of much wildlife in many areas – wildlife which had traditionally sustained them for centuries, for millennia.

Added to this catastrophe was the 19th century Pacific whaling industry, which did for indigenous coastal dwellers what gold miners had done to the northwestern interior.

Enter a Coast Guard captain from Georgia named Michael Healy – runaway son of a slaveholding Irishman from County Roscommon and his “consort” Mary Eliza Clark – an enslaved woman who was eventually freed.

Healy, a man beset by his own demons and no stranger to the bottle, nonetheless saw the hungry and impoverished plight of the Alaskan Inuit, and being a fundamentally decent man, determined to help them in some way.

Long story short, having seen the reindeer herders of Siberia on his many travels aboard ship, Michael Healy suggested to Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the Commissioner of Education in Alaska and a Presbyterian minister, that the Coast Guard might replenish devastated wildlife stocks by transporting entire herds of Siberian reindeer to Alaska by sea.

The Inuit might be taught to become self-sufficient herdsmen rather than hunters, the reasoning went.

Jackson bought into the idea, and funds for the project were raised through private and government sources.

The first reindeer arrived, with Siberian herdsmen brought to Alaska as instructors.  These Siberians soon departed due to cultural differences with the Inuit.

And so began one of the strangest episodes of immigration in American history.

Families and groups of Sámi people from Scandinavia (the people formerly known as “Laplanders”), reindeer experts par excellence, were brought to Alaska instead.

This time all parties got on well, the project took proper root, and the Alaska Reindeer Service was born.

Perhaps the natural amity between Sámi  and Inuit should surprise no one, as the Sámi, just like indigenous Americans, had experienced ethnic discrimination and cultural genocide in their rightful and ancient homelands.

The attitude of Siberian reindeer to all of this remains unclear…


#MichaelHealy  #AlaskaHistory  #MixedEthnic  #Inuit  #Saami  #reindeer

Francis Scott Key and Taking the Knee

Colin Kaepernick kneeling with San Francisco 49ers team-mates during the national anthem

Colin Kaepernick kneeling with San Francisco 49ers team-mates during the national anthem


What is represented by kneeling?

Subservience?  Obedience?  Humility?  Religiosity?  Divisiveness?

It all depends on the witness, of course, and their angle of observation.

What is the meaning of a clenched fist salute?

Pride?  Solidarity?  Defiance?  Triumphalism?  Black anger?

In America, as ever, meaning is only inferred and attached to gestures and symbols after checking the ethnicity and skin colour of the person using them.

“Respect the flag” and “Respect the national anthem” are phrases used ad nauseum by a certain American sub-culture, a sub-culture which has loaded their own meaning onto a piece of cloth and a tortured melody.

“Respect the flag” and “Respect the national anthem” actually mean “See what I see, feel what I feel, believe what I believe”.

People who wrap themselves in the red, white, and blue do not want to allow others to ascribe their own meanings to the symbols around them, because such free-thinking might leave the back door ajar to the storm raging outside the cosy confines of the home kitchen.

This national anthem now so deeply-imbued with patriotic meaning only became the “national anthem” in the formal sense in 1931.

Most American schoolchildren know that the words to the song now called The Star-Spangled Banner were written by a certain Francis Scott Key, after he witnessed the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry near Baltimore, Maryland in 1814, following the British overnight bombardment of the fort during the War of 1812.

Francis Scott Key.  Patriot.  End of lesson.

But wait.  “Angles of observation”, and all that.

What do many “white” Christian nationalist flag-wavers claim to loathe the most?  Liberal East Coast elites?  High-falutin’ lawyer types?

When it comes to Francis Scott Key, they can start ticking those boxes.

The music to this “sacred” anthem was actually lifted from a drinking song once popular in fancy English gentlemen’s clubs.

And Francis Scott Key would have been plenty familiar with “fancy” things, as he was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth into a well-to-do East Coast planter family.  Mr. Key enjoyed his excellent view of Fort McHenry not from inside the fort alongside the soldiers, but from the deck of a British warship where he had been enjoying the finest of wines while negotiating the exchange of some prisoners, including a physician friend.  In fairness, Key had already done a brief stint with a local militia, but common soldiering wasn’t really his thing.

Francis Scott Key was a lawyer.  And a slaveholder.  And much like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, two elitist hypocrites from the generation preceding him, Mr. Key often expressed his dislike of the cruelties perpetrated within the institution of slavery.

But Key didn’t actually disapprove of slavery, he merely disapproved of slaveholders who were less benevolent than himself.  Mr. Key often represented (at no cost) abused slaves petitioning for their freedom.  But his benevolent “great white father” hand-wringing did not stop his law practice from helping so-called “good” slaveholders to reclaim their “property”.  Mr. Key used the niceties of American law to help bring runaway slaves to “justice” – that is to say, back into their legally sanctioned condition of lifelong servitude.

A law firm’s books must be balanced, of course.  Fine wine isn’t cheap.

While he was outwardly a devoutly religious man, Francis Scott Key fought strenuously against the abolitionist sentiment taking root within his religious circles.

Mr. Key would have been able to accept the end of slavery, BUT ONLY IF ALL FREED SLAVES WERE ABLE TO BE EXPEDITED OUT OF AMERICA AND “BACK” TO AFRICA.

By the end of his life, Francis Scott Key‘s vociferous opposition to abolition was so pronounced that he was actually perceived as a dangerous sympathiser with the southern cause.  And while we cannot pick our relatives, it is interesting to note that Mr. Key’s sister Anne married a certain Roger Brooke Taney in 1806 – the man who would go on to be the Chief Justice who penned the infamous “Dred Scott” decision of 1857 which helped to hasten the start of the Civil War.

Here are his words:

“It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”

In other words, supporters of slavery, while claiming to be Constitutional “originalists”, felt that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of contemporary attitudes and views.

This also shows that social conservatives can, in fact, be weirdly “progressive” in their interpretation of the Constitution – when it suits them.

Put even more clearly, the US Supreme Court ruled that since the majority of voting Americans had decided over time that African-Americans were “not quite human”, it was therefore constitutionally legal to withhold any “human rights”.

I have no idea whether the foregoing has informed the men and women “taking the knee” during the national anthem in recent years.  Probably not.




But one thing is certain.  Symbols are powerful, and symbols are loaded with dreams, presumptions, and yes, hatreds.

Why should Colin Kaepernick and others like him be expected to “respect the flag”, or to “respect the anthem”?  Why?  When did this flag and this anthem really begin to represent ALL Americans?

1865?  1964?  Yesterday?  Ever?

The American flag and national anthem are symbols often most beloved by those who do not respect Mr. Kaepernick, his community, or his community’s right to social justice, free speech and legitimate protest.

The biggest flag-wavers of all believe THEY are entitled to storm and vandalise the nation’s capitol on the basis of fake grievances, knowing their “champion” is prepared to pardon their violence.

Meanwhile, a silent minute or two on bended knee to highlight real social injustice causes spittle-flecked rage.

But hey.

Betsy Ross sewed a flag.

And Francis Scott Key was a patriot.

End of lesson.


#TakingTheKnee  #FrancisScottKey  #BlackLivesMatter