Cultural Footprints

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:

  • Religion
  • The Table (food)
  • Music
  • Language

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.

John David Miller Photo

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.

fried chicken

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:)

BBQ pit

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.

Brunswick stew

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…….



I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

17 thoughts on “Cultural Footprints

  1. Hmmm, I am English, with Yorkshire, and Lancashire parents and grandparents, plus some distant ancestors from Kent and Sussex. I am in my 70’s and I have always loved spicy and peppery food, not the usual bland food that Britain was known for. I wonder where that comes from?

  2. ‘Chicken fried’ brings back memories of my first experience of a US restaurant, in Dallas. I chose “chicken fried steak with gravy” expecting a nice piece of fried chicken breast with UK style brown gravy. I was shocked to be served a thin slice of pummelled fried beef with not nice white gravy. A lesson learned. The second course was delicious though – pineapple sponge with custard.

  3. Hi Roberta, love reading your articles. I had the TRIBE test don on my mother she has Acadian, Mi’kmaq, Wandat, Quebec and others. In her extended TRIBE report she had the following results 800 Lumbee (tri-racial community) (North Carolina, U.S.A.) (0) 0.02 I dont know what it means except possibly a trace that one of her ancestor who was a Lumbee. If you have any idea what it may mean please let me know.

  4. I believe yet another cultural footprint in my family are the beautiful overshot wool spreads, known as coverlets, that have been passed down through six generations.

    Carol Brewer

    Great great granddaughter of Mary Jane Estes Rutland

  5. Roberta – I’m starving all of a sudden.

    You have really helped me understand the differences in the meals at my two grandparents homes. They weren’t but about 20 miles apart and were both farming families but the meals had some very basic differences that I will need to think about. Mom’s Hollabaugh family (immigrated to the northeastern US in the early 1700s as Hollenbach) ate everything but the squeal and I am sure that generations spent in NC and TN on the way to TX modified their menus and cooking styles to a small extent. We had eggs, bacon, ham, biscuits, green beans, greens, corn, hominy, kraut, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon, bread pudding, fruit pies and hand cranked ice cream. If you didn’t get enough to eat there was always extra biscuits to be had with Burr Rabbit Syrup. The McKees had suddenly appeared in GA about 1800 (my brick wall) and moved through AL and MS winding up in Texas just after the Civil War. They had similar staples but they tasted very different which was probably from the spices used. There was more fried chicken, fried potatoes, corn bread, black eyed peas, and chocolate pies. The less frequent bread pudding was a softer pudding-like dish with raisins in it. The evening snack for those still hungry was typically corn bread and sweet milk. Dad always preferred butter milk but I never developed a taste for it.


  6. really enjoyed this one…my “daddy” (not by birth father) was a “hardshell” Baptist…I may or may not be Melungeon. We need more people to DNA test!

  7. Well, you blessed my soul with this post! I was raised in Appalachia but moved to northern Indiana, married and lived there for 20 years. When we moved back South, even further into the hills and hollers, my poor northern husband and daughter had some interesting times trying to understand what people were saying. Our first week here, we were in the local post office, and I had a conversation with the postal clerk. When we walked out, my daughter actually asked me what language that man was speaking and wanted to know how I could understand him. LOL I may or may not be Melungeon; I’ve read a zillion books and done a lot of research about Melungeons. The DNAPrint test I had 10 years ago showed me as tri-racial: Caucasian, sub-Saharan African and Native American, but I don’t know how accurate that was, being done that long ago.

  8. This post reminds of a wonderful book I read and still own some years ago. The author talks about some of the same things.
    David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed (Oxford University Press, 1989),

  9. My husband is descended from the Acadians that got booted out of Nova Scotia. He grew up in Eastern Texas and can definitely speak with the Cajun accent. He has a poster of some of the direct descendents portraying them landing on the shore at Louisiana. I have Miller in my ancestry. I wonder if we are connected.

  10. The youtube song by the old baptist brings back some memories. The first time I heard singing like
    that was when my dad and I went with family in West Virginia to their small church tucked away in the mountains. Coming from an Eastern Orthodox church I was not prepared lol.

  11. Pingback: DNAeXplain Archives – General Information Articles | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  12. I am a regular reader of your blog, but have just discovered this post while searching for something else. I just *love* this post, thank you! I have just spent hours listening to the various music and audio files, and this music is all music that speaks to me. My ancestral connection is unclear, but clearly present in some manner, as my father’s lines are from the U.S. South & mountainous regions – Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia. (I am a native Californian, myself.) Thank you!

Leave a Reply