I was recently corresponding with a descendant of Valentine Collins, one of the Melungeon families of mixed race found in and nearby Hawkins County, Tennessee in the 1800s.
Here’s what he had to say.
When I first started looking into my Collins’ family history, I realized very early this was going to be a real adventure. What I did was set up a system to look at different aspects of their lives/history. I call it ‘cultural footprints’. I have those foot prints broken down as:
- The Table (food)
Most of the data I’ve mined are based on these four Cultural Footprints. But I would have to say Genetic Genealogy provided the biggest breakthroughs, the best tool by far.
Well, obviously I liked his commentary about genetic genealogy, which gives us the ability to connect and to prove, or disprove, connections. But as I looked at his list, I thought about my own ancestors. Those of you who follow my blog regularly know that I love to learn about the history during the time that my ancestors were living – what happened to and near them and how it affected them. But his commentary made me wonder what I’ve been missing.
As I think back, one of the biggest and most useful clues to one of my ancestral lines was an accidental comment made by my mother about her grandmother. She mentioned, in passing, “that little white hat that she always wore.” I almost didn’t say anything, but then I thought, “little white hat, that’s odd.” So I asked and my mother said something like, “you know, those religious hats.” I asked if she meant Amish or Mennonite, given the context of where they lived and she said, “yes, a hat like that.” Then, when questioned further, it turns out that the family didn’t drive, even though cars were certainly utilized by then. My mother never thought about it. Turns out that the family was actually Brethren, also one of the pietist faiths similar to Amish and Mennonite, but that hint sent me in the right direction.
How could my mother have been unaware of something that important, well, important to me anyway? Easy. It was, ahem, not discussed in the family. You see, it was somewhat of a scandal.
My mother’s father had married outside the Brethren religion, so was rather ostracized from the family for his choice to marry a Lutheran. Then the family became, horror of horrors, Methodist. So, I would add clothing to my friend’s list of cultural footprints as well. Sometimes, like in my case, dress will lead you to religion. In the photo below, my mother’s grandmother is the female in the middle back row. If you look carefully, you can see that both she and her mother are wearing a prayer cap.
I know the religion of many of my ancestors. Whatever their religious choice, it was extremely important to many. I have 1709ers, Acadians, Brethren, Mennonites, Huguenots, fire and brimstone Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians in my family line. I always try to find their church and the church records if possible. Some are quite interesting, like Joseph Bolton who was twice censured from the Baptist church in Hancock County, Tennessee. Many of my ancestors made their life choices based on their faith. In particular, the Huguenots, 1709ers, Brethren and Mennonites suffered greatly for their beliefs. Conversely, some of my ancestors appear to never have set foot in a church. I refer to them as the “free thinkers.”
Well, in one case, my ancestor was a bootlegger in the mountains of Kentucky. What the hey…every family has to have some color, and he was definitely colorful….and free thinking.
Most of us are a mixture of people, cultures and places. All of them are in us. Their lives, culture, choices and yes, their DNA, make us who we are. If you have any doubt, just look at your autosomal ethnicity predictions.
Language of course is important, but more personally, local dialects that our ancestors may have spoken. In the US, every part of the country has their own way of speaking.
Here’s a YouTube video of a Louisiana Cajun accent. Many Acadians settled in that region after being forcibly removed from Nova Scotia in 1755.
Acadian-Cajun language, music and early homes in Louisiana
Here’s a wonderful video of Appalachian English. In my family, this is known as “hillbilly” and that is not considered a bad thing to be:) In fact, we truthfully, all love Jeff Foxworthy, well, because he’s one of us. I’m just sure if we could get him to DNA test, that we’d be related!
There are regional and cultural differences too.
Here’s a video about Lumbee English. The Lumbee are a Native American tribe found in North Carolina near the border with South Carolina.
Going further east in North Carolina, the Outer Banks has a very distinctive dialect.
What did your ancestor’s speech sound like? What would it have sounded like in that time and place?
That, of course, leads to music. Sometimes music is the combination of speech and religion, with musical instruments added. Sometimes it has nothing to do with religion, but moves us spiritually just the same. Music is the voice of the soul.
Here’s Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. If you can get through this dry-eyed, well, then you’re not Scottish…just saying. This connects me to my Scottish ancestors. It was played at both my mother’s and my brother’s funerals. Needless to say, I can’t get through it dry eyed!
Amazing Grace isn’t limited to bagpipes or musical instruments. The old “hardshell” Baptists didn’t utilize musical instruments, and still don’t, in their churches. Listen to their beautiful voices, and the beautiful landscape of Kentucky. This is the land, voices and religion of some of my people.
A hauntingly and sadly beautiful Negro Spiritual. Kleenex box warning. This, too, is the music of my family.
Yeha – Noha – a Native American song by Sacred Spirit. One of my favorite music pieces.
Bluegrass gospel – Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Bet you can’t keep your foot from tapping!!!
Appalachian fiddle music. Speaks directly to my heart. And my hands. I just have to clap my hands.
Acadian music. This would be very familiar to my Acadian ancestors.
At this link, you can hear samples of Acadian folk songs by scrolling down and clicking on the track listing.
Moving a little closer in time. This is the official state song of Tennessee – one of my all-time favorites. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve danced to this. This just says “home” to me and I can feel my roots.
What kind of music did your ancestors enjoy? Did they play any musical instruments? Can you find the music of the time and place in which they lived? YouTube has a wide variety and the videos are an added benefit, bringing the reality of the life of our distant ancestors a little closer.
Now that you know what fed their souls, let’s look at what fed their bodies. Along with regional speech and musical differences, the diet of our ancestors was unique and often quite different from ours of today.
On the Cumberland Gap Yahoo group, we often exchange and discuss regional recipes, especially around the holidays. Same on the Acadian rootsweb group. Although this year we’ve been talking about deep fried turkeys. Maybe in another couple hundred years that will be considered representative of our time. Hopefully it’s not McDonalds!
The Smithsonian sponsors a website about Appalachian foods. Let me share with you what I remember about my childhood. We made do with what we had, whatever that was. Some things were staples. Like biscuits, with butter, or honey, or jam, or apple butter…whatever you had on hand that was in season.
Chicken fried in bacon grease was for Sunday, or company, which usually came on Sunday.
We wasted nothing, ever, because you never knew when you might not have enough to eat. So, we ate leftovers until they were gone and we canned. Did we ever can. Lord, we canned everything. Mason jars in huge boiling kettles in the hottest part of summer. Let’s just say that is not my favorite memory of growing up. But green beans at Christmas time were just wonderful, and you couldn’t have those without canning in the August heat.
Different areas have become known for certain types of cuisine. In North Carolina, they are known for their wood-fired BBQ. In western North Carolina, they use a red, slightly sweet, tomato based BBQ sauce, but in eastern NC, they use a vinegar based BBQ sauce. Want to start a fight? Just say that the other one is better on the wrong side of the state:)
Creole cuisine is found in the south, near the Mississippi Delta region and is from a combination of French, Spanish and African heritage.
Jambalaya is a Louisiana adaptation of Spanish paella.
Soul food is the term for the foods emanating from slavery. When I looked up soul food on wiki, I found the foods my family ate every day. When I think of food that we didn’t eat, but that my African American cousins did eat, I think of chitlins. Yes, I know I didn’t spell that correctly, but that’s how we spelled it. And the chitlins we had were flowered and fried too, not boiled. Maybe that is a regional difference or an adaptation.
Another “out of Africa” food is sorghum, used to make a sweet substance similar to molasses, used on biscuits in our family. Sorghum is an African plant, often called Guinea Corn, and arrived with slaves in colonial days.
Native American cuisine varies by where the tribe lived, and originally, they lived across all of North and South America. Originally, the Native people had the three sisters, corn, squash and beans. Hominy is Native, as is grits, a southern staple today. I’m drooling now…
Today, however, one of the signature Native American dishes is FryBread. Fried and seriously unhealthy, the lines at powwows are longer for frybread and a derivative, Indian Tacos, than anything else.
In many places, the settlers, slaves and Native people assimilated and the food their descendants ate reflected all three cultures, like Brunswick Stew. Even Brunswick Stew varies widely by location as do the origin stories. Many foods seems to have evolved in areas occupied by European settlers, Native people and slaves, to reflect ingredients from all three groups.
That’s the case in my family, on my father’s side. We didn’t know any differently, or where that particular type of food originated. However, sometimes by looking at the foods families ate, we can tell something of their origins.
In marginalized populations, and by that, in the US I mean mixed race or descendants of enslaved people, it’s often very difficult to use traditional genealogical records because they didn’t own land or leave other records. Many of them spent a lot of time trying to make themselves transparent and didn’t want to attract any attention.
Often, it’s the DNA that unlocks the doors to their heritage, and after making that discovery, we can then look the cultural footprints they left for us to follow.
I’m starving. I’m going to eat something unhealthy and listen to some wonderful music! How about grits with butter and Indian tacos for lunch along with powwow music? Oh yeahhhhhh…….