Friday, April 17, 2015

Avoiding Pitfalls In Melungeon Research by Pat Spurlock Part 1

Sometimes its good to get back to basics. This great article is the 'primer' for researching the mixed blood families that were called Melungeon, written by writer / researcher Ms. Pat Spurlock.

Even though it was written  17 years ago, it's still one of the better resources for Melungeon research. Ms. Spurlock is author of  Melungeons: Examining An Appalachian Legend

I strongly recommend this article to any newcomer to Melungin research, or as a 'refresher course' for the seasoned family researcher.

This is a long article, so I'm gonna post it in 3 posts, the next segment will be posted Saturday April 18, 2015, the third and final segment will be posted on Monday April, 20, 2015.

 Reprinted here with the author's permission. Thank you Pat.

Avoiding Pitfalls in Melungeon Research, a talk presented by Pat Spurlock at the Second Union held at Wise, Virginia, in 1998.........

Good morning everybody.

I'll be talking to you this morning about how to avoid some of the pitfalls you may find while researching Melungeons. First, I want to warn you this is my very first public talk unless you count teaching high-school Sunday school class. I'm a researcher and a writer, so if you want to've been warned. I do promise not to preach, but I HAVE wanted to convert Bill Fields for several years.

How many of you think you MAY have Melungeon ancestry? How many of you positively are Melungeon descendants?

 How many are here only because they have to be? Seriously, I understand some genealogy classes were taught on Thursday and Friday, so I hope I don't bore you folks who attended those. My talk will likely touch on some of the same things. Those of you who did attend the classes-I know you're already tired of hearing the word "documentation" but I'm going to use it several times today.

OK ... let's get down to business.

Research is fun and Melungeon research is especially fun. I've been addicted for thirty years. It will generally take one of three approaches:

1. Genealogical 2. Historical 3. Or some combination of the two.

In some cases some of you may want to do socio-economic studies or biological or medical research. Generally, though, one of the first three approaches is what the family researcher chooses. Today I'll focus on the Melungeon genealogical project, but most of the same information can be applied or modified for other types of research.

Regardless of your approach, some of the same general errors will occur if you aren't prepared. I like to call these errors "pitfalls" and I hope that today you'll learn a couple of ways to avoid them.

The first pitfall you'll likely come across is a lack of focus and preparation.

This isn't exclusive to Melungeon research, but it's easy to get excited about your project and let your imagination run away. This is especially true when you've found your first piece of neat information, such as your third-great-grandfather being listed as "FPC" on an early census. However, without focus and preparation you're going to end up using a jackrabbit approach that'll waste your time, your money, and give poor-quality results.

So, define your project. Ask yourself, am I looking for my family's genealogy? Am I trying to find out the "who, what, where, when and how" of Melungeon origination? On the other hand, is my goal to find information for both subjects?

After deciding, take time and prepare. Analyze your goal and then focus on one step at time. You'll just have to trust me that this gets you to the good stuff quicker. Practice will convince you.

If you're new to research, you're going to have to do some boring legwork first. Go to your bookstore or your local library and brush up on how to properly do research. You'll certainly want to avoid the hit-and-miss approach. I’d recommend some particularly good books. An old standby, "Cite Your Sources" by Richard Lackey teaches you how to document your findings. A terrific new book called "Evidence!" by Elizabeth Shown Mills teaches how to document and analyze. In addition, a third book by Val Greenwood, "The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy," will be one you'll want to take on every research trip.

These books are good starting points and can answer just about any question you may have about general genealogical research and documentation.

The second pitfall you'll want to avoid, and unfortunately, this happens a lot, is a lack of documentation. Regardless of which project method you choose your research MUST BE DOCUMENTED. It must be reliable and in a logical sequence. Here the main point to remember is start with what you know and work backwards ... always ... without exception, documenting each of these backward steps.

Yes, it's boring to start with yourself, but that's where successful research starts. From there go to your parents, then to your grandparents AND after each step, what do we do? (Correct response: Document our findings.)

Your next step is finding four sets of great-grandparents. It is here where real trouble can start. This trouble is mainly caused by the researcher's lack of interest in the family as a whole. Tracing only your direct line is a pitfall to avoid like the plague.

Your direct line is called your lineal descent, while your aunts, uncles, cousins, great-aunts and uncles, are collateral descendants. In Melungeon research, studying these collateral folks is not only especially important, it's essential.

By the time you have found your four sets of great-grandparents, you are going to see how easy it is to start imagining things. A little imaginative thinking is good. A lot of it gets you in trouble. At best, your work's going to hopscotch around. You'll also spend a lot of time on false leads. At worst, you'll come to wrong conclusions and that wastes your time and money. Besides that, you'll miss your family's real history.

This is a good time to mention something I'm often asked. I get inquiries from folks who say they descend from the X-Y-Z family. They say their family tradition is we descend from an Indian, a Cherokee, or some such. I also find out that many times great-aunt Sally has told them that she doesn't know anything about their family history and doesn't want to talk about it. So, my inquirer then tells me he or she recently heard about a Melungeon surname list and their X-Y-Z surname was on that list. Their question is nearly always: do you think my family is Melungeon? This brings us to another pitfall: If you see one of your family names on a list, it may not necessarily mean your surname or your family is Melungeon. Not everyone who came through southern Appalachia and had Indian ancestry, or Mediterranean ancestry, or Dutch ancestry, was a Melungeon.

We also have to be willing to avoid the "common name syndrome" because most core-group Melungeon surnames were common to many nationalities. Even worse is assuming that an English, Irish, Spanish or whatever surname means that's the family's ethnic origin. It’s not always necessarily so.

Take the name Valentine for instance. It's used in some early Melungeon families as a given name. Valentine is often considered French ... except when it's the German version Fielding or the Dutch version Von Felton. You long-time Melungeon researchers probably recognize both Valentine and Fielding as early Melungeon or Melungeon-related given names.

Most of the time Vs and Fs were interchangeable in old-timey spelling, especially in some ethnic groups. OK ... all of you say, "Fielding" aloud. Now, say it quickly, but substitute a V for the F. I think you can pretty well see how these names sometimes became interchangeable. Add to this some creative spelling and you can have a real mess.

So, be aware that historical pronunciation and the spelling of what English ears thought they heard and what was really meant can be very different. This is similar to the story of the woman who had twelve children. When she had her thirteenth child, she told her doctor she would be honored if he named the new baby girl. The mother was delighted when she spoke the name the doctor recorded on the birth certificate-she said she wouldn't have thought of such a beautiful name as Femolly. Yes, that is a true story and the name was spelled f-e-m-a-l-e.

And... If you've documented what you've done so far, you can prove what you're saying. However, be prepared to get some ugly looks and remarks because most people don't like being corrected. Especially if they're wrong.

This brings us to another major pitfall: not using a logical definition of the word Melungeon.

The word has evolved from meaning the first core-group families, where fewer than a dozen names were considered Melungeon, into an almost meaningless term in the 1990s. Of the original dozen or so folks, some were what you might call "half-Melungeon" families.

By the time of the Civil War, the word had developed into a political term. By the turn of this century, it was developing into a socio-economic term as well as one that may or may not have meant ancestry from the earliest group.

So, if you're looking for Melungeon origination but insist on using a long list of surnames and calling all of them Melungeons, you're going to have to stomp out several fires before you get to the good stuff.

Part 2 will be posted on Saturday April 18, 2015

Copyright © 1999 Pat Spurlock . All Rights Reserved. No portion of this text may be stored or used in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author. Exception is granted for making one personal copy to those using it for their immediate-family research.

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