Malagasy Mountain Folks?

Contemporary Photo of Young Malagasy Woman

Contemporary Photo of Young Malagasy Woman

 

It is simple human nature to see what we are expecting to see.  Atheists or Buddhists do not tend to see the face of Jesus in the patterns on burnt toast – we are all conditioned by the culture around us.

This tendency carries-over into our understanding of American history.  We see what our education prepares us to see.  We have been told so often that early Americans were “white”, “black”, or “Indian”, that like Cinderella’s stepsisters, we try to squeeze everything into a proverbial glass slipper.  When the “tri-racial” slipper doesn’t fit, we try to force the issue.

A case in point…

With the advent of inexpensive autosomal DNA testing, many, many Old Mix Americans with deep roots in pre-Revolution British America have discovered small percentages of Southeast Asian and Oceanian in their DNA results.

Some Southern Appalachians who self-identify as being the descendants of Melungeons (a group recently discussed in this blog) often have a higher amount of these SE Asian and Oceanian admixtures than Native American in their DNA test results. And yet many still disregard these clues, or try to squeeze them into the “glass moccasin” of Native American ancestry.

Is it possible there were other “olive-skinned” peoples in colonial America?  People with Southeast Asian and Oceanian DNA?

Yes. The Malagasy of Madagascar.

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Without going into exhausting detail, Madagascar is one of the largest islands in the world, lying about 250 miles off the southeast coast of Africa.  Madagascar was only settled by humans during the past 1,500 to 2,500 years, by people from the Sunda Islands of Malaysia – almost 4,400 miles to the northeast, in a feat of long distance exploration only rivalled by later Polynesians.

These Oceanian peoples were later added-to by subsequent waves of immigration which included Arab traders in the 10th century, Bantu peoples from the African continent a century after the first Arabs, with people from Southern India near Sri Lanka finally arriving perhaps another hundred years after the Bantu.

This cultural melting-pot was left to simmer and bubble away for three or four centuries, until the age of European exploration, with the Kingdom of Portugal establishing a presence in the early 1500s.

As ever with European colonisation, the Portuguese presence was not benign.  Almost immediately, Malagasy people were made into a tradeable commodity, transported as slaves to every corner of the Portuguese Empire, from the Bay of Bengal to Brazil and the Caribbean.

But the Portuguese did not confine their international trade to places under Portuguese control.

Not when the American English had money to spend…

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“From 1719 to 1725 more than 1,000 Malagasy slaves arrived to the Commonwealth of Virginia through the ports of Rappahannock and York rivers.

The Prince Eugene of Bristol came into York River district of Virginia on May 18, 1719 carrying 340 Malagasy; the Mercury of London arrived at the district of Rappahannock River on May 17, 1720 with 466 Malagasy; and were followed by the Rebecca Snow, the Gascoigne Galley, the Henrietta, and the Coker Snow.

The Prince Eugene, Rebecca Snow, and Gascoigne Galley apparently made directly from Madagascar for Virginia, where the Prince Eugene had sold her licensed cargo in 1719.

The Henrietta stopped in Pernambuco, Brazil before continuing to Barbados and Virginia.

Three of the Madagascar vessels arrived in Virginia over a period of only six weeks, entering at York River as follows:

The Gascoigne Galley with 133 slaves, on May 15, 1721;
the Prince Eugene (on a second trip) with 103 slaves in June, and
the Henrietta with 130 slaves later that month.

Platt states that the total number of Malagasy brought into Virginia between 1719 and 1721, comes to 1, 231 when the 340 slaves brought on the Prince Eugene‘s previous voyage and the 466 brought by the Mercury in 1720 are counted in.” [Platt, 1969]

 

*****

 

Is it possible that the straight black-haired Malagasy of colonial-era America sometimes chose to refer to themselves as “Portuguese”, in reference to the empire which held dominion over their homeland?

If so, the Malagasy would not be the first group to do so. This researcher has viewed innumerable primary sources in which Sephardic Jews, Angolans, Angolan Lançados (slave traders of mixed Portuguese-African heritage), Brazilians, South Asians from Goa, and Iberian Ciganos (Portuguese Gypsies) have all chosen to self-identify as “Portuguese” at various times in the past.

Amazingly, some African-American folklore still preserves memories of their familial descent from “Molly Gaskie” people.

It has also been written that northern Georgia and Alabama were home to people known as “Madagaska Creeks“.

Of course, there is also the old self-descriptor used by the so-called Melungeons of Southern Appalachia.  “Porty-ghee“.

Overly self-confident American anthropologists with too little foundation in history have tended to dismiss the historical claims of Portuguese ancestry or heritage made by rural multi-ethnic communities, asserting that these self-identities were simply an attempt to deflect from African ancestry in a world hostile to “blackness”. To a certain extent this was no doubt true.  But this says far more about the traditional American Protestant problem with the nuances of complex identities.  People can hold simultaneous identities based on their religion, ethnic group, citizenship, etc.

If a Malagasy, Romani, or Jew in the 1600s was asked “What are you?”, they certainly didn’t reach first for a “racial” or “color” identity.  Race and color were an Anglo-American construct, a way of categorising and assigning people into three simple groups: free, unfree, or “savages”.  A part Portuguese, part African, part Arab person with parents from Madagascar was hardly going to identify in their frontier community as “black”.  Calling themselves “Portuguese” was less a deflection, than a choice to put forward that part of their self-identity least likely to bring them and their family to harm.

As regards the multi-ethnic communities of the Appalachian mountains, only more research will tell to which group(s) of Portuguese many were referring.

One of the “core” or archetypal surnames associated with the Melungeons is the surname “Goins“, first appearing in early 1600s Virginia. Most researchers have tried to squeeze this name into being a variation of the Irish surname “Gowan”, even though almost every variation of the name – Gowen, Goen, Going, etc. – appears to be an attempt to render a long “O” sound.  The Irish name “Gowan” is pronounced with an “ow” sound, as in “Ouch!”, coming from the Gaelic surname for “smith” or “blacksmith” – “gabha”.  This is where we get the surname “McGowan”, meaning “son of the smith”.

Various branches of this family can be found scattered from Appalachia to Louisiana and Texas, and family members have returned DNA results showing a range of origins including both West African and Romani.

Neither ethnic background is incompatible with a simultaneous claim of Portuguese heritage.

And perhaps most odd of all, is the fact that – as far as this writer is aware – no one has ever put forward a possible connection to any similar Portuguese surname.

Like “Goiense“?

 

© Brian Halpin, 2015 (revised and updated July 2021)

 

#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #appalachia #madagascar #malagasy

The Melungeons

Elizabeth "Betts" Goodman, often called "Melungeon"

Elizabeth “Betts” Goodman, often called “Melungeon”

 

Much of my interest in the hidden multi-ethnic past of America stems from a strange discovery made many years ago.

While doing research on my first “official” genealogy, I began to notice an unfamiliar word being applied to ancestors on both sides of my family tree.

“Melungeon”.

This came as a major surprise. While I was certain that our family was not wholly European – based mainly upon the very dark complexion of my maternal grandfather – we had always been told that his appearance was due to his Cherokee ancestry.

A great deal of my earliest genealogical investigations were centered on a fruitless search for these Cherokee ancestors.

So when numerous online sources used the word “Melungeon” to describe some of my dark-hued family, I was all ears.

By the early to mid 1800s, the word Melungeon was already being used in parts of southern Appalachia as a socio-racial slur aimed at non-enslaved mountain people who were “not quite white”, “not quite black”, and lived somewhat on the periphery of “respectable society”.

These people called Melungeons tended to be found in the more remote “hills and hollers” of Virginia, West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and East Tennessee.

By the late 1800s, these people were considered enough of an ethnic curiosity that outsiders began to speculate on their origins, even conducting informal field visits and penning pseudo-anthropological articles purporting to explain Melungeon history.

There is always a dollar to be had where there is a “mystery”, and a veritable industry grew from people’s efforts to supply the final word on the question “who are the Melungeons?”.

For the past 150 years, these mountain people have been variously described as Portuguese, Black Dutch, Blackfeet Indians, Gypsies, Turks, free African-Americans, and even Phoenicians.

During the latter half of the 20th century, anthropologists tended to congregate around the view that Melungeons must be “tri-racial isolates”, meaning that they are supposed to be the descendants of an early intermingling of African-Americans, indigenous Americans, and “white” Europeans.

Highly-selective DNA projects were commissioned (by genetic genealogists, NOT scientists or trained historians), and these “studies” received national and international attention as they announced their claimed “proof” of Melungeon origins.

But the anthropologists and genetic genealogists alike have been hobbled by what I call “The American Problem”. That problem is a fundamental belief in “race”.

Trying to solve the “mystery of the Melungeons” in terms of America’s mostly binary race system is like describing Tex-Mex cuisine or country-western music as “bi-racial” or “tri-racial”.

Is “Mexican rice” a combination of only Spanish European, indigenous Mexican, and African cooking traditions? The answer is “sort of”, but only if we ignore that the Spanish borrowed many of their cooking traditions from Moorish Spain, and the Moors themselves had learned rice cultivation and cookery from other Africans – and from the Arabs who had brought it from Persia to North Africa. Oh. And let’s not forget the even earlier introduction of rice to America by the Portuguese, who had learned how to cultivate and cook it from both Africans and people from their trading colonies on the Bay of Bengal (modern Bangladesh).

Country-western music is commonly seen as an African and European musical intermingling. And once more, this is only partly true. Country-western music would seem unthinkable today without the sound of steel and western guitar. Yet steel guitar is a recent import from the Hawaiian Islands. Western guitar borrows heavily from Spanish guitar, which in turn finds its traditions in the Gypsy, Jewish, and Moorish communities of Spain.

These analogies are imperfect, but they serve to illustrate that matters of ethnicity are fluid and complex. Just as food and music are never just “black” or “white” traditions, people themselves are never just “black” or “white”, and complex ethnic communities are never simply “bi-racial” or “tri-racial isolates”.

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It is said that the first known use of the term “Melungeon” was in 1813. The word “Melungins” is claimed to have appeared in the minutes of a Primitive Baptist church then located in Scott County, Virginia. Two female church members were in apparent dispute, with one accusing the other of “harboring them Melungins“.

Because the original pages of these church minutes are missing, and we are forced to rely on a series of transcriptions, this earliest “record” is contested by some.

What is beyond dispute is that the term Melungeon began to be used openly in print between the 1840s and 1880s – almost always to disparagingly refer to mostly impoverished rural dwellers of mixed ethnicity from Virginia and Tennessee who had had the audacity to become involved in local and state politics. This period also coincided with new voter suppression legislation being directed at poor “whites” and free people of color.

For reasons too numerous to outline here, this writer is inclined to accept the record transcribed from the Stoney Creek Baptist Church minutes.

1813 is “modern” in terms of English. “Harboring” meant pretty much exactly what it means today – to offer a place of protection or shelter. There are other meanings, but the context of “harboring Melungeons” is pretty self-evident.

A woman is accused of giving shelter/protection to a group of people presumably considered persona non grata among a church congregation and community.

Who needs harboring, normally? Runaway slaves and indentured servants, criminals, or deserters from war.

We can probably eliminate the first category (runaway slaves), because we know what people called runaway slaves.

We can also discount the second possibility, because there is no reason to call thieves, rustlers, or murderers “Melungeons”, unless of course they were a very specific kind of thief, rustler, or murderer. There is in fact a Romani word for wine-seller which sounds similar to “Melungeon”, but this seems a stretch to this writer.

Which brings us to number three – deserters from war. In 1813, the young USA was once more embroiled in war with the UK, only 30 years after the end of the American Revolution.

Every war in history had its share of deserters, and with wars in colonial America being waged on the edge of a mountainous wilderness, desertion was especially common.

As regards the American Revolution in particular, most American schoolchildren are encouraged to imagine their “patriot” ancestors as militias comprised of “white” yeoman farmers. The truth, as always, is much more complicated.

Yeoman farmers were among the soldiers least likely to “stay the distance” over an eight year conflict – they had a lot to lose in leaving their farms and families unprotected and unprovided-for. So the Continental Army’s enlisted ranks were filled with immigrants “straight off the boat”, and with men and boys from the poor backcountry underclasses hoping for cash or land bounty rewards in exchange for their service. Many will be surprised to learn that these backcountry militias were often augmented by mercenaries and soldiers from other countries – especially France, without whom the Americans would have almost certainly lost their Revolutionary War.

So when we think about deserters from this particular conflict, we should bear all of the forgoing in mind…

*****

Which brings us neatly to the hundreds of free Creole Haitians and others from Martinique and Guadaloupe who served at the Siege of Savannah – aka the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue.

After the Siege of Savannah, many of these Haitian free persons of color were brought north for the Siege of Charleston, where they fought in a brigade alongside militias raised from rural Virginia, and alongside Spanish soldiers.

The Americans of course lost the Siege of Charleston. Presumably the surviving Virginians who were not captured made their way home. History is almost silent on the fate of many of these Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, but we do know that the French elites pretty much reneged on the promises made to these men, with at least some shipped to Grenada after the fall of Charleston.

History is also largely silent on the fate of many “Black Loyalists”- escaped slaves who had gone over to the British side to fight, in hopes of gaining their freedom.

It is almost impossible to believe that, faced with military defeat and broken promises, that at least a good few of these men (most likely carrying arms) did not desert. It would have made sense for them to join, or at least follow, their fellow brigade members north to Virginia.

This is where it gets tricky. As the war began to swing in favor of the Americans, one cannot imagine a more difficult situation for all free people of color.

It seems doubtful that many “white” Americans would have been able or willing to discriminate between actual free African Americans, “Black Loyalists” on the run, and erstwhile Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue.

And even if the Chasseurs could have made clear that they had fought FOR the Americans, they would have still been seen – at least by some – as deserters.

In an odd twist to the plot, less than 10 years after the end of the Revolutionary War, a wealthy French mining magnate named Tubeuf arrived in the region around Scott County, Virginia, hoping to lay claim to thousands of acres of wilderness land already inhabited by multi-ethnic mountain people, a place where people were already handling snakes in their churches over 200 years ago.

If any Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue or their children were living along the Clinch River, we can imagine what they whispered to their neighbors regarding French elites.

While it is entirely plausible that Tubeuf himself coined the term “Melange” in reference to the “mixed” people inhabiting the mountains he was hoping to mine/exploit, it seems unlikely that local people who were at best suspicious, and probably outright hostile to his grand designs, would embrace his French language in the space of only a year or two.

Tubeuf would in fact be found murdered soon after…

So. We have a number of free people of color lying-low in the remote mountain regions of Virginia shortly after the American Revolution, and with the outbreak of the War of 1812, they are certainly a group of men likely in need of “harboring”.

It is clear that this argument relies on much speculation, even if the dates, locations, and events align perfectly.

But still. If the word “Melungeon” truly came into first use between say, 1780 and 1810, then it seems at least interesting that the Haitian Creole word for “mixed” is “Melanje”.

Of course, French proper also has the word “melange”, but the word for “mixed” when referring to people of mixed ethnicity is more usually “mixte” or “métis”.

*****

None of the forgoing is intended to suggest that Melungeons are all descended from Haitian Revolutionary War soldiers. This is simply one origin theory for a term which over time came to be applied to “non-white-looking” mountain folks in general, just like the words “cracker” and “redneck” once referred to specific groups of people, before becoming more generalised terms.

Years of research following my first encounter with the word “Melungeon” has revealed an unimaginably rich ethnic tapestry in early American history, and many of the families once called “Melungeon” as a slur are far more than “tri-racial isolates”, and they are most certainly not a mysterious “lost tribe”. There is no “Melungeon Gene”, whatever the online snake oil DNA test salespeople might try to claim.

These southern Appalachians carry heritage from five continents, with ancestors from Minorca, India, Wales, Sephardic Jews, Finland, West Africa, England, the Azores, France, Madagascar, Romani Gypsies, Poland, Armenia, Ireland, Portugal, Indonesia, Germany, the Caribbean, Scotland, Brazil, and of course from many indigenous tribes such as the Shawnee, Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Nansemond, Lenape, Catawba, Tuscarora, Mi’kmaq, and others.

In other words, southern Appalachia and Melungeons represent the real face of early American history, before white supremacy forced multi-ethnicity into the shadowlands.

Just one more tantalizing point. The Virginian militiamen at Charleston were drawn largely from around Amelia County, just down the road from Louisa County – the origin of old historical Melungeons like “Spanish Peggy Gibson”.

What a delightful coincidence, as the Virginians and Haitians had fought alongside a regiment of Spaniards at the Siege of Charleston…

 

© Brian Halpin, June 2021

 

#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #melungeons #appalachia

 

 

 

 

The Underground River: Case 1, Will Geer, actor

Will Geer as Grandpa Walton

Will Geer as Grandpa Walton

 

As a child growing-up in small-town Missouri, weekends spent “out in the country” visiting grandparents were special treats.

Saturdays were spent fishing, climbing cherry trees, chasing grasshoppers and lightning bugs, or just sitting on an old rail fence beside the smokehouse, talking to “Bessie”, the ancient, blind, retired milk cow.

Sundays always began with a giant breakfast of bacon and pancakes before church, after which us kids were free to run wild again until Sunday dinner was served on the long wooden tables under the shade tree on the front lawn beside the dirt road.

After dinner, kids were sent away from the eating tables, so the older folks could talk in peace.

Once or twice a year, grandma would stand up at length from the dinner table and announce something which never failed to scare the bejeezus out of the younger kids.

They were bringing “The Table” down from the attic into the living room. Anyone interested in doing a “table rising” should head indoors now…

 

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It might seem strange to say so, but the life of Queen Victoria cast a shadow reaching deep into the heartlands of 1970s rural America.

There has always been a weird tension at the heart of American identity, with the nation founded on a rejection of class and nobility, while nursing a well-hidden sense of class insecurity.

This is why the American working-class insists on calling itself “middle class”.

It is also probably the reason for America’s lingering, pervasive inability to put racism behind itself once and for all. A damn good argument could be made that when Americans threw-off the yoke of aristocracy and privilege, they merely stepped into the newly available position, making themselves the “new nobility”, while lording over an indentured or enslaved underclass.

But again, behind it all, a sort of “national impostor syndrome” lay constantly lurking behind the noisy bravado.

It is why 19th century English writers like Charles Dickens could tour the USA, and be celebrated like any modern superstar.

It is why British royalty is an ongoing obsession, and “royals” like Prince Harry, and Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson (from the preceding generation), can leverage the happenstance of their birth into a fine living on the USA media circuit.

But I digress from the first point. No British royal ever left a deeper impression on America than Queen Victoria.

Almost everything used to signify social class other than money – worldliness, education, or “quality” – in 20th century America was a clumsy aping of Victorian manners, fashions, and attitudes to everything from table manners to sex.

This social and class anxiety is also why children of my generation were scolded for having our elbows on the table at eating times. It is why we were told that “ain’t” isn’t a word. It is why working-class people bought cutlery sets with special fish knives, thinking them a sign of refined gentility.

Queen Victoria’s taste (or her German husband Albert’s) is why we have Christmas trees indoors to this day.

A Victorian Anglo-Irish clergyman invented the “Rapture” idea still embraced by millions of Americans today.

The Victorian obsession with spiritualism – communication with the dead – would have normally been seen as The Devil’s Work by American evangelical Christians. But once it was embraced by Queen Victoria herself, the American desire to be in tune with upper-class trends outweighed any religious reservations.

And this is why the oldest folks in southern Missouri were still holding séances and “table knockings” in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

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Once “The Table” had revealed its secrets from The Other Side, it was put away for another few months, and the old folks would drag every chair available to a place near the sofa and TV. Children would sprawl on their bellies, chin-in-hands-elbows-on-the-floor at the feet of the grown-ups.

Time for the Sunday episode of The Waltons.

For those born later than the 1960s or 1970s, it is almost impossible to overstate the cultural significance of this TV show, which was set during The Great Depression and WWII- era rural Virginia.

The Waltons spoke to a rapidly suburbanising working-class and lower middle-class America whose parents had come from mostly rural backgrounds. The stress of The Cold War, and the strife of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the rise of feminism and the “hippy movement” had left this first truly suburban generation dreaming of a return to some simpler, mythical past.

Parents watched The Waltons to vicariously re-live what they believed had been lost, and they made their children watch it, in order that the new generation might absorb some “old timey” values and morals.

But like fish knives and table-risings, much of what we believe about our past and ourselves is shown through a lens of our own longings.

We believe what we want to believe.

It was with all of this in mind, at a remove of 50 years, that I was unsure whether to burst out laughing, crying, or cheering this week while researching the ethnic origins of the real-life family upon which The Waltons was based (the Hamner family), as well as some of the actors who portrayed the fictional Walton family.

The much-beloved Grandpa of the series was played by the late Will Geer, a gentleman of mostly German ancestry, with the usual “people of color” joining his melting-pot along the way via the Rippey family (a prize for anyone who can locate the source of that surname…?)

At this stage, I am more surprised when Americans DON’T have a family of color in their ancestry – so no particularly big deal there.

What surprised me more was that our 1970s Sunday morality hour at grandma and grandpa’s house was being performed – at least in part – courtesy of a man who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his communist leanings.

And there was even more to “Grandpa Walton” than his decades-long commitment to the American Labor Movement and other left-wing causes.

For many long years prior to marrying his eventual wife, Mr. Geer had a much-loved boyfriend.

If my folks had known, I suspect “The Table” would have ended-up in the TV screen.

 

#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #The Waltons #TableRising #WillGeer #GrandpaWalton

Bonnie & Clyde and the Hollywood Scrub

Iva Bernice "Blanche" Caldwell Barrow [top], actress Estelle Parsons as Blanche Barrow [bottom]

Iva Bernice “Blanche” Caldwell Barrow [top], actress Estelle Parsons as Blanche Barrow [bottom]

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were ripped to death in a hail of automatic rifle and shotgun fire on a dusty road in Louisiana in May of 1934.

Their bloody end was befitting the wider American sense of mythic justice still common today – “live by the sword, die by the sword“, or “an eye for an eye“.

In this distinctly Calvinist Protestant reality, every human being makes a choice to do good or evil.  Wicked thoughts germinate in the minds of the ungodly, until springing one day, fully-formed, into wicked actions.

Believing that evil deeds are SOLELY the product of individual decisions allows an unjust or unequal society to wash its hands of any responsibility or stake in the deeper root causes of drug abuse, social dysfunction, violence, and crime.

American “road gangsters” like Bonnie and Clyde were not born bad.

Few human beings ever are.

But an ugly story of the grinding, crushing poverty of a lonely, fatherless girl during The Great Depression (first married at 15), or of a young boy brutalised and raped while in the US prison system, is hard to leverage into a story arc which will fill cinema seats.

The American entertainment industry never sleeps, and never lets a sleeping dog lie.  The glamorisation of lives lived in the fast lane is a Big Dollar.

So three decades after their deaths, Hollywood gave us Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as Bonnie and Clyde.

This sort of glossy retake on history was not new.  After all, one of the earliest cinema hits back in 1915, “Birth of a Nation“, was a three hour recruiting advertisement for the clan, managing to magically transform racist vigilante thugs into heroes.

So again, nothing really new.

But the story of people like Bonnie and Clyde provides an extra twist.  You see, once the American pop culture machine decides to rehabilitate or glamorise a story, something else often begins to happen.

People in the story begin to turn whiter.

This phenomenon has existed for decades in The Western film genre – with its morality tales of courage ALWAYS starring taciturn “white guys”.

Serious historians of course know that the majority of cowboys were Mexican, Native American, and African-American.  But for most of the 20th century, this minor detail didn’t matter.  The point of The Western was to function as little more than a stage on which to hang propaganda and justification for the largest land grab seen since the age of Alexander the Great.

Ethnic cleansing and land appropriation are events too large to be hidden, so the very meaning of these actions must be altered.

In a collective act of supreme gaslighting, greed, racism, theft and murder were somehow transformed into “heroism”.

The years between the end of the Indian Wars and the beginning of the Great Depression (1890-1929) saw much of white male society casting around for new causes on which to hang their sense of purpose, importance, superiority, and dominance.

These were the peak years of the eugenics movement, peak years for clan membership.

America has a particularly deep history of overlap between its military and police forces, and many pitiless veterans of the Indian Wars and clan members became lawmen, turning their skill-set against America’s domestic underclasses.

But if post-western, post-Indian Wars lawmen are to be seen as “heroes”, if they are going to send large numbers of men to spray fusillades of bullets into the “bad guys”, then those “bad guys” need to be worthy, cunning, dangerous, “equal” adversaries – not desperate, messed-up young kids.

I was thinking about all this while preparing a new podcast episode, and wondering why Clyde Barrow’s sister-in-law, Blanche Barrow, was played in Arthur Penn‘s 1967 film by a medium-built, 40-year-old, blonde, Anglo-Swedish actress from Massachusetts named Estelle Parsons (who is, in fairness, a fine actress and still going strong at 95).

You see, the real-life partner of Buck Barrow was neither blonde, medium built, nor of Anglo-Scandinavian ancestry.

Iva Bernice “Blanche” Caldwell was a black-haired, multi-ethnic girl from Oklahoma who never weighed over 100 lbs in her life.

Perhaps even more to the point, she was born to a 15-year-old mother married to a 39-year-old man, and was only a teenager herself when she hooked-up with Buck Barrow.  The day that Bonnie and Clyde were shot down, Blanche was still only 22-years-old.

It’s not easy to glamorise or garner empathy for skinny, part-indigenous kids from Oklahoma who get involved in crime.

Stories of the American social system failing impoverished, multi-ethnic “brown” kids just wouldn’t be “Hollywood”.

And besides, poor “brown kids” and poor “white kids” making common cause against “The Man” is A VERY BAD LOOK.

Modern Hollywood is beginning to improve in terms of reflecting the real multi-ethnic face of America.

But when things go historical, all hope for an accurate reflection of the past can be cast aside.

It seems there is nothing which cannot be appropriated, sugar-coated, scrubbed, “white-ified” and turned into money.

Not even peoples’ real identities, real stories, and real ethnicities are safe.

©Brian Halpin

 

#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #BonnieAndClyde #BlancheBarrow #whitewashing

Lauren Boebert, Anthropology, and American Gun Culture

US Congresswoman Lauren Boebert

US Congresswoman Lauren Boebert

 

Is anthropology a legitimate “science”?

Or is anthropology more like history?  A personalised interpretation of data, where the things we see are often merely the things others choose to reveal?  Or perhaps the things we were looking for in the first place?

What true inferences can be drawn from studying the cultural behaviours of various peoples?

Does the field observer bring too many of their own cultural biases (or personal baggage) to the table for any true understanding of another culture to be possible?

 

*****

 

In the 1970s, a British (later naturalised American) anthropologist named Colin Turnbull created a sensation with the publication of two books – The Forest People, and The Mountain People.

Both were based on his field work in Africa during the 1950s and 1960s among the Mbuti and Ik peoples of Zaire and Uganda, respectively.

His description of one group as essentially generous and “good”, and the other as selfish and “bad”, was based on a deeply inadequate understanding of the events (both recent and historical) which were shaping their lives at the time of his visit.  Mr. Turnbull seemed more interested in using “primitive peoples” as a backdrop to a morality lesson, than in understanding their cultural habits within any broad and deep context.

While the methodology of anthropology, and the ideas of individual anthropologists, have come in for regular criticism, the discipline itself remains alive and well.

And one thing remains almost universal.

There is almost always a vast cultural, experiential, and educational chasm between those doing the “studying”, and those being “studied”.

 

*****

 

In the developed world, we turn an acute anthropological eye on the communities near us, and around us, rather infrequently.

When we DO apply anthropological descriptions and critiques closer to home, this field of study is more usually called “social science”, and the academic lens is usually trained on communities experiencing social problems – problems such as lack of education, poor health care, crime, domestic violence, drug use and poverty.

Due to the exigencies of minority communities in the USA, it is almost always minority ethnic groups who find themselves the subject of dissertations and theses.
When so-called “white people” find themselves under the magnifying glass, it is usually due to some sort of externally-perceived sense of their “exotica value” or “otherness” – Appalachians and Cajuns spring immediately to mind.

And yet, the most important group/community in the USA today (in terms of how their group outlook bears upon the larger body politic) is rarely examined – or rarely discussed beyond superficial caricature and mockery by those standing outside.

I am talking about self-identified “White American Evangelicals”, a group comprising roughly 1 in 10 American citizens.

 

*****

 

When we look at the problems affecting many minority communities, it has become almost automatic for the social sciences to point out historical disadvantage in order to explain current issues.  Racism, slavery, Jim Crow, red-lining, lynching, misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, land appropriation, lack of access to education or business loans – the list of reasons for the current social status of African-Americans, Latinos, indigenous Americans, women, LGBTQ+, Romani, and others has been well-documented, if not universally accepted.

And yet, although many “White American Evangelicals” experience many of these same social problems – low educational attainment, drug and alcohol addiction (see the meths and opioid crises), poor career prospects, domestic violence, et al, we do not tend to search for socio-historical causes as with other groups.

Why?

The most glaringly obvious answer is that because this group does not see itself as being “disadvantaged”, they are not treated as such.  Even when this group does perceive itself as “disadvantaged”, they tend to blame those even lower on the social scale, or they blame a nebulous and unspecified group of “elites”.  Indeed, this writer suspects – based on his own upbringing – that this group would be outraged to think that their “culture” would be considered a subject worthy of study in terms of “social problems” or “social dysfunction”.

Another reason for a lack of interest from social scientists probably lies, quite frankly, in many of the unattractive traits associated with this demographic – whether fairly or unfairly.

A dislike or mistrust of science and the college-educated.  A religious literalism.  A love of “gun culture”.  A nativist and jingoistic sense of what is “American”.

But surely, if anthropology is a legitimate discipline, we should also apply it to those people nearest to us?

When a nation is fracturing into tribes no longer able to communicate with one another, when one tribe is violently assaulting the institutions of democracy, it becomes clear that we no longer have the luxury of “just living in separate worlds”, or, in modern parlance, “echo chambers”.

It is high time we asked the question, straight-up.  Who are “White American Evangelicals”?

Where did they come from?  What do they want?  Why do they love what they love?  Why do they believe the things they believe?  Why do they do the things they do?

Is there even an answer to these questions?

 

*****

 

During the first weeks of the new Biden administration in Washington, D.C., I have found myself mesmerised by the sound and fury being generated by every utterance made by the freshman congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.

I have also involuntarily found myself “code-switching” in my head.  For those not familiar with the term, “code-switching” is a thing long familiar to people who must straddle two different worlds, socially, emotionally, and intellectually.  African-Americans have been doing it for years – assuming one attitude and mode of expression in a mixed work environment, while assuming another while feeling “at home” among close friends and family.

Code-switching can arise with “white” people, too, and often in reverse.  This writer was raised by “White American Evangelicals”, but has lived most of his life away from the social milieu of his early years.  On a day to day basis, I no longer sound and act like “my people”.  In my own case, this was not really a conscious decision – it just happened following years of travel.

But I can always spot one of “my people”, and the antenna begins to bend, turn, and adjust, retuning itself to the old channel, the original social code.

Both Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are “my people”, even if, in so many ways, I wish it weren’t so.  But I understand where they are coming from, quite literally.

Far beyond her immediate upbringing, there are decades of reasons to explain why Ms. Boebert acts the way she acts and does what she does.

There are centuries of cultural reasons for her belief that a gun can make her “free”.

I know, because behind “my people” there is also a history, an ocean, of social problems and malignancy based in “race” issues, poverty, disempowerment, and familial dysfunction – all poorly-disguised by the Sunday born-again Hallelujahs! and Amens!

I doubt that Ms. Boebert would acknowledge any of this, because the very essence of “White American Evangelical” culture is based on a denial of victimhood, a denial of disempowerment.

This denial of victimhood is usually lauded as a sign of “bootstrap culture” and a deep pride in self-reliance.  This is only superficially true.  The full truth runs much, much deeper.

This visceral denial of victimhood has historically allowed “poor whites” and “not quite whites” to put some clear water between themselves and the other underclasses they once lived alongside and among – the “fully colored” underclasses.  The kind of people with the least power in America by almost every metric.

For centuries, a denial of disempowerment and a loud self-assertion of individual agency, was always the first and most important part of “becoming white”.

And for the “not quite white” underclasses looking to cross over into “full whiteness”, the years between The American Revolution and post-Civil War Reconstruction would be the most crucial.

After distancing themselves from people of color, nothing, absolutely nothing, would separate these newly “fully white” people from “colored” people as much as the right of the “fully white” to carry arms.

The rewards which accrued from this right were clear, tangible, and substantial.

A man (or woman) with a gun or rifle could squat indigenous land and hope to survive anti-settler raids.  A man with a gun or rifle would be able to feed his family by hunting when crops failed.  A man with a gun or rifle could take part in any number of community actions requiring a firearm – defense of settlement forts, slave raids, skirmishing with bandits, slave patrols, posse and militia service, and more.

Even more significantly, war veterans received land grants and land bounties for their “service” in fighting the almost ceaseless wars against various “enemies” – Powhatan, French, Cherokee, British, Creek, Iroquois, et al.

In short, a man with a gun or rifle had access to resources, land, and economic improvement in a way denied to African-Americans, indigenous Americans, and various other “people of color”.

But if a man of mixed ethnicity or indeterminate “color” had stood beside a “white man” and covered his back during an Iroquois raid on the fort protecting their collective wives and children, this man of color was often extended the “benefit of the doubt” regarding his “whiteness” in 1775.

So in a brutally real and tangible way (especially during the era of Manifest Destiny), the right to carry arms offered a shot at “freedom” and prosperity to a range of people usually denied the privileges of “whiteness” – frontier bandits, fur traders, longhunters, outright murderous ruffians, and people of mixed ethnicity – almost all of whom were people of little or no formal education.

The step up from simple “freedom” to actual “respectability” would eventually require additional participation in other communal activities like fort building, bridge and road construction, tax-paying and voting.

But more than any of these things, “respectability” and “whiteness” was acted out publicly through a “profession of faith” and through regular church attendance…

 

*****

 

A nation of people raised from the cradle to celebrate individualism and self-determination might be shocked or even disgusted by anyone presuming to “explain” their behaviour, beliefs, culture, or social status in terms of their deep socio-ethnic history or in anthropological terms.

And yes, it is true that at some level “we are all individuals”, as the crowd in the Monty Python film memorably chanted – in unison.

And yes, we CAN indeed often escape our culturally determined identities and mark out our own destinies.

But history almost always tells another story.  Most people tend to be swept along by forces they do not even recognise or understand.

If we can claim to “explain” current social phenomena in minority communities in terms of socio-economic history, then we can, and should, do the same for “white communities”.

To understand people like Lauren Boebert, we must also understand the foment of pre-Revolutionary South Carolina, and Florida’s changing of hands from indigenous culture to Spanish culture.  From Spanish to British, back to Spanish, and eventually to “American” control.

We must look to the multi-ethnic underclasses from South Carolina – both “Tory” and “Patriot” – who fled or emigrated to colonial Florida.  We must examine the social legacy of those who later took part in the decades-long, brutal Seminole Wars there.

We must check the signatures, and more often “marks”, on petitions seeking government sanction, approval, and assistance for the extermination or “removal” of the earlier inhabitants of Florida.

We must view the earliest land, court, and census records, and see for ourselves just how many of these Florida immigrants – settlers later called “Florida Crackers” – were once enumerated and named in records as people other than “white”.

Only once we have done this, can we begin to understand people like Congresswoman Boebert, and the time before many of her people, my people, were socially constructed as “white”.

© Brian Halpin. 2021

 

#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #LaurenBoebert #GunRights #FloridaHistory #WhiteChristianEvangelicals

Sparks off the Wheel of Fortune

“Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you.”

Mark Twain

The family tree of virtually every American family descended from “non-elites” is riven with mysteries, questions, dead ends, and dubious claims of lineage.

By “non-elite”, we mean people with little access to the levers of power – levers which include noble ancestry, inherited wealth, presumed “whiteness”, good societal connections, access to higher education, etc.

The new President of the USA, Joe Biden, was born Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.

Even a casual observer would notice the unusual middle name, and anyone with a basic knowledge of European languages would guess the name to be of French origin.

And they would be right.

President Biden is well-known for his pride in his family’s Irish Catholic roots – roots which are, as with so many Americans, plentiful indeed.

His “Robinette” roots, on the other hand, derive from an apparently French Huguenot (Protestant) family who fled France for London during the early to mid-1600s, where they soon came into contact with members of the English Protestant Quaker faith.

In about 1682, these Huguenot-Quaker Robinettes followed many others of their faith to William Penn’s new colony in America – Pennsylvania.

If we are subscribers to the mythological version of American history (recently in the news due to the Trump administration’s release of the faux historical “1776 Report”), then the Biden family origin story finishes right there, in classic American style. The “melting-pot” merges decent Protestants “escaping religious persecution” with later Irish Catholics escaping famine and British colonial rule in Ireland.

So far, so virtuous, so white.

This is where a curiously American phenomenon comes into play, a thing this writer has learned through many years of research.

Some branches of immigrant families remain true to certain moral convictions, while some branches become seduced by the promise of wealth – easily increased wealth. The American institution of color-based chattel slavery made it possible for just one skilled man to multiply his wealth exponentially through the purchase of a slave or two.

Imagine being a skilled blacksmith, with a working farm, in 1750s Pennsylvania, Maryland or Virginia. Do you choose to pay the wages of two farmhands and two forge assistants for 30 years? Or do you choose to “buy” two “negro wenches”, who will cook dinner, hoe your garden, and clean your house, while “producing” multiple unpaid farm and forgehands for many years to come?

I have seen and read the ads placed in London newspapers from the time. Ads promising cheap land, and a life of comparative ease for those with cash for “starter slaves”.

Some (and I repeat some), Robinettes lost their footing on their faith, and chose wealth and greed instead.

They joined the ranks of the East Coast American “elites”.

*****

I only know all of this because my own family is descended from altogether different stock. “Non-elite” stock.

“Sparks”, or “Old Mix Americans“.

I call my people “sparks”, as in the sparks thrown from an iron-shod wagon wheel, or sparks blown from a chimney, only catching fire somewhere far distant.

In this case, the sparks landed in Southern Appalachia, where many “Robinettes” can be be found among my own people.

The nature of 18th and early 19th century records makes it virtually impossible to track a clear line from 1800s Tennessee and Kentucky back to 1600s New England, unless one is lucky enough to find land titles, wills and other such documentation.

But here’s the bottom line. Many Appalachian Robinettes are deeply intermarried with other mountain families who are without doubt “multi-ethnic” – people referred to in some circles as “Melungeons“.

It is hard to know whether these people descend from Indians, “free people of color” and others who “borrowed” their surname from Quakers (who were on the whole very decent toward “non-whites”), or whether they are simply descendants of slaves and slaveholders. The answer is probably a mix of all of these possibilities.

But one thing is certain. Their trajectory in American history followed a very different path to that of the Bidens and Robinettes of New England.

Following this long history of disadvantage among multi-ethnic families, many of these “sparks off the elite wheel” are left clinging to little more than faith and a hard-won membership card in the safer community of “whiteness”.

Of course none of us can pick our family, whether we are born in a trailer park or with a silver spoon in our mouths. And while the sins of our forefathers most certainly have repercussions which echo down to the present day, we can excuse ourselves from fault – but only if we choose to recognise the repercussions of historical wickedness, and if we make a personal choice to evolve intellectually, morally, and socially.

I have no idea whether Mr. Biden is aware of all this. His words, his cabinet picks, his service under Barack Obama, point to a man who has at least some sense of social justice.

What really matters, is that people learn to appreciate and understand that our stories are intertwined and bound-up in ways we can scarcely imagine.

Image: A young Joe Biden

A Guy Named “Link”

1929.  Imagine being born into a dirt-poor Shawnee family in North Carolina in the first year of the Great Depression.

Imagine getting sent away to fight in Korea at the age of 21, where you manage to contract tuberculosis.

Imagine having a lung removed in your 20s, and being told that you will never sing again, after believing that singing in a band was your one ticket out of grinding poverty.

Imagine saying “Fine, I’ll just have to play guitar so good, it won’t matter if I’m singing or not”.

1958.  Imagine single-handedly inventing the intentional use of feedback and distortion by punching holes in a guitar amp, and recording an electric guitar instrumental so dirty that it becomes the only instrumental piece in history to be banned from radio play, for fear that it might “incite violence”.

Imagine being the guy who made Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page pick up a guitar, or being the guy with the look copied by Elvis.

Imagine being the only guy in history who makes chewing bubblegum while playing guitar look genuinely menacing.

Imagine being Fred Lincoln “Link” Wray.

 

 

Video: Link Wray performing “Rumble” in 1974

 

The View Through Different Eyes

There is a meme seen on social media, showing a large deer in the middle of a road enclosed by woods.

Under the photo are the words “The deer is not crossing the road. A road is crossing his forest.”

I often come back to this idea when considering American history.

What we are reading, seeing, believing, remembering, and forgetting depends entirely on whose eyes through which we are viewing things.

When history is only a list of powerful men, then the first word we think of is “president” when we hear the names Washington or Lincoln.

It is human nature to be lazy when assigning names, labels, and meanings to things…and people.

 

*****

 

By becoming the first president of the USA, Washington became an icon, a symbol upon which people hung all of their ideas about the meaning of the word “president”.

And that’s it.  “George Washington” = “First President”.

Yet anyone who knew him during the 57 years before he became a head of state in 1789 would have known a completely different man to the “symbol” created by 230 years of projection and myth-making.

Standing in the shoes of someone who knew the pre-presidency Washington, we see first and foremost a cartographer, surveyor, and land speculator.

Put in the bluntest possible terms, from the time of his service to the crown in the 1750s French and Indian War, Washington saw soldiery, surveying, and map-making as a way to acquire “title” to vast tracts of land.

Whether fighting for or against the British, his eye remained firmly fixed on the main prize – access to land.

And more land.

When the British and French reached peace terms after the 1750s, the British issued a proclamation that Cherokee and other tribal lands to the west were to remain unsettled and unmolested by American colonists. This was not so much a reflection of British benevolence, but an attempt to leave native territories as a form of buffer between lands claimed by Britain, France, and Spain.

This was a cause for some alarm in the mind of our overly-acquisitive Mr. Washington, who had already hatched clear plans for the Indian country.

In a letter to a fellow surveyor in 1767, Washington was explicit when he wrote:

“…I can never look upon the Proclamation in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians. It must fall, of course, in a few years, especially when those Indians consent to our occupying those lands. Any person who neglects hunting out good lands, and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own, in order to keep others from settling them will never regain it. If you will be at the trouble of seeking out the lands, I will take upon me the part of securing them, as soon as there is a possibility of doing it and will, moreover, be at all the cost and charges surveying and patenting the same . . . . By this time it be easy for you to discover that my plan is to secure a good deal of land. You will consequently come in for a handsome quantity.”

Seen in this light, the motivations for elites such as George Washington taking-up arms against the British Crown become rather more complex.

 

*****

 

When Washington assumed office in 1789, the non-indigenous population of Kentucky stood at around 72,000 squatters, settlers, and colonisers.

By the time he died 10 years later, Kentucky’s population had swelled to over 221,000.

To encourage settlement, land speculators promised a pre-surveyed “empty land” of natural riches. Kentucky was characterised as a rarely-visited “neutral hunting ground”, uninhabited by indigenous peoples.

This was all a lie, of course.

Cherokee. Chickasaw. Delaware. Mosopelea. Shawnee. Wyandot. Yuchi. French. French Métis.

All of these people were already present in Kentucky, and the land speculators knew it full well. They would leave it to the settlers to defend the land sold “with title”.

 

*****

 

The myth persists to this day in the minds of many Americans that the Indians of Kentucky were only itinerant hunters, and that they either “sold their rights”, or eventually “moved-on” from “white” encroachment.

In fact, many, many indigenous people remained, reduced to an impoverished underclass in their own home as their communities fragmented under pressure.

Native American women were particularly vulnerable, with many becoming “consorts” to incoming settlers, due to “white” women being extremely scarce during the earliest days.

This would all have been largely forgotten, except for a few things: the digital revolution, affordable DNA testing, folklore, and a few ragged surviving photographs.

So now, when we read a notice from a newspaper published in 1909, mentioning the passing of old “Mrs. Barrett” – born “Barbara Hensley” in 1830 – it is possible and necessary to consider that some women were not quite who we presume them to have been.

The Origin of “Okies”

Dorothea Lange‘s photographic series Migrant Woman is easily THE most recognised series of iconic images documenting and representing the misery of the Great Depression in Dustbowl Oklahoma.
These were the people forced onto the road, with thousands living in tent cities along dusty highways.
For many, those highways led west.  California became the land of hope in the imagination of the impoverished, a golden dream soon crushed by the reality of life as field laborers, forced to endure hunger while living in squalid camps, forced to accept wage exploitation by large commercial agricultural interests.
These people swept up in events beyond their control were written about with great compassion by John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939.
What few realise, is that the woman in this series of photographs – Florence Leona Thompson (born Florence Christie) – was a woman with deep roots in multi-ethnic Southern Appalachia.
Long before Latino peoples became the archetypal source of migrant farm labour, America drew on its own inland underclass for a cheap migrant workforce.
Multi-ethnic American families have often been disparagingly, disgracefully, and inaccurately described as “white trash”.  Some of these same people later appear on history’s stage as “Okies”.
With extended kin communities in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North Georgia, Arkansas, Southern Missouri, and Oklahoma, these people regularly dispersed into Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and elsewhere to supply bodies and numbers for the back-breaking labour of crop-picking.
The actual ethnic roots of women like Florence Christie are mostly forgotten, because most Americans today believe that one of two things befell indigenous Americans:
1) They simply disappeared or “went extinct” through disease and warfare
2) They all ended-up on federal “Indian Reservations”
The actual ethnic roots of women like Florence Christie are also mostly forgotten, because most Americans today believe that people who are NOT extinct, or NOT on a reservation, and are not “black” or not “Latino”, MUST be “white”.
These are the falsehoods, and this is the lack of understanding, at the heart of the American caste system.
Florence Christie was not “white”.  Nor was she “black”, “red” or “mulatto”.  She was Cherokee, Welsh, Irish, and more.
After years of investigations, I have come to call these people “Old Mix Americans“.
Most of all, she was a human being – a woman who felt shamed by becoming the face of Depression Era degradation and poverty.
John Steinbeck, the man who wrote the truth as he saw it, had to start carrying a pistol “just in case”.
Large landholders in California didn’t take kindly to what they viewed as “communist” interference in their capitalist “rights”.
The Grapes of Wrath was one of the earliest books to be burned and banned in some parts of America.
A sure sign that it is a book well worth reading.

J. D. Vance and Misbegotten Memoirs

In the USA, “self identity” is a privilege often enjoyed only by those people with access to the levers of power.

Property. Money. Education. Social connections. Weapons. The right skin colour.

A man called J. D. Vance (his own name the product of a selected identity) wrote a book four years ago at the ripe old age of 32 called Hillbilly Elegy, in which he purported to explain the source of many Appalachian social problems. A successful venture capitalist, he offered his advice for “bootstrap” solutions to these problems.

J. D. Vance goes big on “poor white people”, because that is how he chooses to perceive his so-called “hillbilly” identity.

In his book, he speaks of his “Scots-Irish” roots and “Scots-Irish” cultural traditions, and the trans-generational effect he believes these people had on the creation of an “Appalachian mentality”.

His book has received endless blurbs and praise from the urban “intelligentsia” press, eager to find an easily digestible answer or simple reason for rural Appalachian poverty and voting habits.

For “voting habits”, read “Republican or Trump voters”.

At this writing, director Ron Howard is making a film based on this carefully curated memoir.

Mr. Vance is wrong, utterly wrong, about the historical causes of Appalachian poverty. Even more than this, Mr. Vance misrepresents his own cultural roots, whether by design or ignorance.

The ultimate foundational myth of Appalachia revolves around a predominantly “Scots-Irish” identity.

An identity designed to meet all of the right criteria. Non-British, Protestant, rebellious, and “white”.

A fake identity, if you will.