Saturday, April 18, 2015

Avoiding Pitfalls in Melungeon Research by Pat Spurlock Part 2

Avoiding Pitfalls in Melungeon Research by Pat Spurlock Part 2 (continued from Part 1)

Reprinted here with the author's permission
This surname problem seems to center around a belief that most all mixed-blood southeastern Indians were Melungeons. This error is most often made by researchers who haven't studied southeastern tribal histories. Native American ancestry is traceable if we follow the rules of research. Not every free-person-of-color who lived within twenty miles of a core-group family was a Melungeon either. Believing they were is, sadly, like holding on to the old one-drop rule, or the old racial bigotry attitude "they all look alike."
As you research, you may have to settle for the fact that perhaps your family really isn't Melungeon. I like to tell folks that if anyone ever wanted to be a Melungeon I do, but I have never found a direct ancestor who qualifies. My maiden name is Spurlock. My father's paternal ancestry is traditionally French and Indian, and specifically Algonquin and Cherokee. I can trace the Spurlock family back to New Kent County, Virginia--which was the wrong side of the tracks in the 1600s. In addition, their land there adjoined the Saponi Indians. Descendants of this Spurlock family were still living only a few miles from the Melungeon Collins, Goings, and Gibson families in 1830 Hawkins County, Tennessee, and in 1930 Hancock County. My greatest pleasure is in knowing my maiden name made W.A.Plecker's "Mongrel" list. Unfortunately, all this doesn't make me a Melungeon although I wish it did. I just can't prove my connection and to my knowledge, my family was never considered Melungeon. The key is that something made certain families uniquely Melungeon while others were not. It's our job to discover those differences.
This brings us to a fourth major pitfall: not defining the meaning of Melungeon for the type of researches you'll be doing.
Ask yourself, am I going to research only the historical core group families? How many generations of out-marriage families should I include? Am I only interested in just my family's genealogy? How accurate is my definition? Am I being objective?
If you start including new surnames that intermarry past the third generation, you are going to have a HUGE job and will likely lose focus on the original Melungeon families. Although this is a perfectly acceptable undertaking, your project would likely be better called a community history rather than a Melungeon history.
This fourth pitfall is more evident for folks doing historical rather than genealogical research. Its shotgun approach is confusing and generally results in what we used to say as "having to lick your calf over." So, take time to do a preliminary survey and develop a working definition of your subject.
On the opposite side of the coin is a useful tool called the "neighborhood-canvass." This DOES involve studying all families in the neighborhood and tracing them as well as Melungeon families. However, be careful. Don't assume every family in a neighborhood was Melungeon.
Whatever your choice of definition, just remember: start at a logical point and work backwards -- work from what you know back to what you don't know. Document every step.
As I mentioned, it is very important to remember that not all mixed-blood families were Melungeon. It's equally important to remember that not all families living in a community and having the same surname are necessarily related. This belief can be a giant pitfall in Melungeon research. Two good examples are the Gibson and Goins families.
There were Gibsons galore around here in the old days and they are here yet. There are at least three distinct lines and only one is Melungeon.
Not all Goins descend from the well-known Michael Goins who was called "a free mulatto" in colonial Virginia. There are unrelated Frenchmen and Germans who have the Goins last name or one of its variant spellings.
Mullins is probably even worse. There are English, French, German, Swiss, and adopted Mullinses. So make sure you have your families straight.
Another pitfall to avoid is the excuse "But Melungeons didn't leave any written records. What am I supposed to do?" When I hear this, I always know it either comes from a new, inexperienced researcher, or it comes from, and I hate to say this, but it comes from somebody who is a bit lazy. They think they just really can't be bothered to take time to do their own research. Research is hard work. Inexperience can be corrected, but I haven't quite figured out what to do about laziness.
Another thing I've seen a lot of over the years is people swapping their family trees. They take a little from each swap and truly believe they have done research. Their reasoning is "It must be true because I read it in three books." Not everything in print is accurate ... or even close. Warning: The old "publishing anything is better than publishing nothing" attitude is not only a pitfall to avoid it is a real hindrance in Melungeon research. There are just too many untapped primary sources out there to have to resort to plagiarism or recycling unverified information.
Books are great secondary resources ... sometimes ... but it's wise to check out your author and his or her sources before using their information. If the work is documented and the information checks out and you use it, make sure you give proper credit to the person who did the work. If their work doesn't check out, then you certainly don't want to be caught quoting them even with proper credit given!
If you are satisfied the work is documented and correct, then use the book as a guideline, but not as proof. As I mentioned earlier, so much of the work done on Melungeons is just recycled information that's been repeated for over a century and now it's accepted as gospel. So be careful with secondary sources.
Under this same category is a tendency for newcomers to believe that if they found family information at the so-called "Mormon" library or on the Internet, it must be so. The LDS Church and their family history centers and libraries are excellent resources. Just remember that people just like you and I compiled any genealogies you find there, or on the Internet. Those genealogies are only as good as their documentation and in most cases, documentation isn't even shown. The great advantage of using LDS sources is their extensive microfilm and microfiche collection of original records. You do have to have access to a branch library to use the collection though unless you can go to Utah. So be aware of the pitfalls in using the famous "Mormon" library records or the Internet.
By the time you reach this point in your research, you're ready to visit your bookstore or library again. Read every reliable history you can get your hands on concerning the area where your Melungeon ancestors lived. Ramsey's Annals of Tennessee or Haywood's History of Tennessee or any of Lewis Preston Summers' works are excellent for studying the Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina border counties.
As you progress, you'll find yourself eventually working backwards through Virginia. Any book written by F.B. or Mary Kegley is a real gold mine for our area of interest.
Study up on North Carolina and Virginia's colonial Indians. Be aware that Virginia was mainly occupied by Siouan and Algonquian-speaking tribes and there were dozens of sub-tribes in each group. Such a book as James L. Wright Jr.'s "The Only Land They Knew" is excellent for studying North Carolina's colonial Indians. Look for James Adair's History of the American Indians. Also, look for any book or article written by Helen Rountree or Virginia Easley DeMarce. Early Bureau of Ethnology bulletins by James Mooney are excellent sources as are his books. These books and articles will also give you good working bibliographies for more Native American sources.
Check your library or ask a lawyer friend or your banker where to find information on historical statutes. Hening's Statutes are excellent for preliminary work on colonial Virginia law. Most large libraries will have a copy.
You may be surprised to find that some of the laws you've been told existed really didn't. In Tennessee call, write, or E-mail the state archives in Nashville. The wealth of information they have will astound you. Tennessee Supreme records, criminal cases, and the like are available for purchase or loan on microfilm. All filmed county records are also available. One caution ... not all records for all counties are microfilmed whether in Tennessee or any other state. This is especially so for what is called "loose papers." These papers often relate to estate settlements and can be gold mines.
Visit county courthouses. If you can't visit and have the extra money, hire a local genealogist to be your legs there. If you can't visit the local courthouses, and most of us can't, ask your librarian to order microfilm for you. Most Tennessee and Virginia microfilmed county records are available on interlibrary loan. Most microfilmed North Carolina county records may be bought through some libraries at a reasonable fee. Your reference librarian should become your best friend.
If you're lucky enough to be able to travel to courthouses, be sure and plan your trip around historical boundaries rather than modern ones. County and state lines have changed an awful lot. People didn't always recognize boundaries either. The area where Lee County, Virginia, and Hancock County, Tennessee, touch allowed folks to transact their business in either county depending on need. Post-Revolutionary War Melungeon families tended to live near state boundaries and left records on both sides of the line. So be sure to study the political histories of their resident counties. North Carolina is especially a problem because of a fifteen-mile wide or so discrepancy at the northern border. Surveyors goofed up the line, so neither state claimed it. Anyone living there was never criminally prosecuted or required to do a lot of legal stuff for several years. Perhaps next year we can get Bill Fields to talk about "Squabble State."
Explore the manuscript sections and archives of the nearest colleges. You'll be amazed at what you'll find. They don't necessarily have to be colleges in this area. Folks from this area settled the West. They often left valuable papers to libraries and colleges in our western states.
The most neglected resource in Melungeon research is military records. Learn where they are and how to use them.
If you do all this boring investigating first, you'll avoid another pitfall: believing that Hancock County, Newman's Ridge, and Blackwater were inaccessible in the early days. Just about all early articles tell you how Melungeons picked out a spot no one could get to as they were driven up on Newman's Ridge where nobody wanted to be. This stuff keeps being repeated and many folks believe it. It's like "Well, it must be true because I read it in three books" pitfall. Investigation will show you the true situation. Here are some points to consider:
Greasy Rock was THE Tennessee weigh-station and campsite back in the 1760s when the first hunters and explorers came. Does anyone know where Greasy Rock is? [Answer: Sneedville in Hancock County.]
Does anyone have any idea of how many trappers, explorers, and settlers came through Greasy Rock before 1780? [Answer: Several dozen and probably more.]
Does anyone know the route people took to get to Cumberland Gap? [Answer: Either Boone's "Wilderness Trail" through Lee County or from Greasy Rock over to Snake Hollow and on through Claiborne County.]

Does anyone know where and how much land Vardy Collins owned? [Answer: Several hundred acres in Vardy Valley going all the way to the Lee County line.] That's an awful lot of land to own and keep in the family if Melungeons supposedly had to give up their good bottomland isn't it? It's not on Newman's Ridge either.

Part 3 of this series will be posted Monday April 20, 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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