Monday, April 20, 2015

Avoiding Pitfalls in Melungeon Research by Pat Spurlock Part 3

This is the final segment of this article by Ms. Pat Spurlock. I'll have another / different article posted in the coming weeks by Ms. Spurlock.

Also, if you haven't already done so,  you might want to take a look at Ms. Spurlock's classic book,
'Melungeons: Examining An Appalachian Legend'

Avoiding Pitfalls in Melungeon Research by Pat Spurlock Part 3
Reprinted here with the author's permission

 My favorite point on this pitfall I suppose is really a personal one. Anybody who's been to Vardy or Newman's Ridge is going to have a lot of trouble believing it was a great punishment to live there. It is one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Besides that it's hard to find anywhere around here without ridges---living on one wasn't exactly unusual.
Next find out which early newspapers are still available in the area, and don't forget religion. Most early Melungeons were Baptist. Find out what churches were in their area, and then try to find any existing church records. I've never met Jack H. Goins, but his valuable find in the Stony Creek Church minutes is a real jewel. It's a true example of what focused research can do ... Oh yes ... Jack documented his find so all the rest of us could locate and use the information too.

Probably the hardest thing to accept in Melungeon research is the willingness to accept what you find not what you want to find. I like one of my husband's favorite expressions, better known as "OCCAM'S RAZOR." On the other hand, don't make a problem more complicated than it needs to be.

I think Bill Fields refers to this as "If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, then it must be a duck."

We don't want to forget though that there are mallards, teals, wood ducks, duck decoys, and several other types of quackers. Melungeon researchers are out to locate the origins of a specific kind of duck. So, form your plan and stay focused. If you decide you already know what you're looking for, you'll probably find it, right or wrong. Let your research guide you instead of guiding your research.

One last pitfall to avoid is not checking out family traditions. If possible, find out the source. Try to find out about what time the tradition first appeared in your family. This gives you a place and time so you can investigate any records that either help support your tradition or refute it.

Here's how this could work. Let's say you and I are first cousins on our father's side. You've lived in Hancock County all your life. Your daddy told you that his great-grandfather was 1/2 Cherokee and 1/2 English. Now my daddy moved off from here shortly after World War II and we didn't have any more contact with your family. Daddy told me that his great-grandfather was 1/2 Algonquian Indian and 1/2 English.

In this pretend example, your daddy and my daddy got their information from the same person-our grandfather, who got the information from our great-grandfather. As oral traditions go, we say the two versions are independent of each other or mutually exclusive. In other words, we have two stories concerning the same family coming from different people who had little contact with each other. The only problem is the Cherokee aren't Algonquian ... they're Iroquoian. Each family firmly believes their tradition was passed down accurately, remembered well, and must be correct. The likelihood is the family is partly Indian and partly English, at least in one of our great-grandfather's lines. That's about all that can be said with what information we have. It is our job as researchers to track down this tradition, sort out our information, and if possible, find out where the error lies. And of course, we will document our findings at each step.

There are several other pitfalls to avoid in Melungeon research, but we are running out of time. If you keep these things in mind you'll be armed with the necessary skills you'll need to collect, document and analyze your findings. You won't have to rely on copying what others have said or written -- which may or may not be correct. You'll have positive answers instead of just guesses and you can develop your next strategy with confidence knowing you're headed in the right direction.

Learn to develop and trust your skills. Don't just accept what someone else has done, using it as your own family history. And, remember what your first-grade teacher told you: If you copy off your neighbor, you'll get caught and they may not have the right answer anyway.

I wish all of you good luck and a safe trip home.  Thanks so much. I've really enjoyed this.

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.


  1. I stumbled across Melungeon history a week or so ago, on Pinterest of all places, completely ignorant to the term. The more I read, the more familiar the history became.
    1. My paternal grandmother's family (Cole) originated from Floyd/Magoffin Co KY.
    2. Gma Cole was full-blooded Cherokee.
    3. The origins of her Indian heritage are unknown.
    4. Gma Cole's complexion was quite dark.
    5. Gma Cole stopped school after 3rd grade.
    6. A cousin's DNA results showed no Indian blood but did report a percentage of African.
    Intrigued, I started Googling...and things got weird.
    7. One of the top Google Images was of a man- cited as Will Collins, descendant of Vardemon Collins- whose striking resemblance to my own father is eerie and undeniable.
    As I begin unraveling the truth of my Cole lineage, I am thankful I found this blog. Your logical approach and thoroughness in processing information is greatly appreciated.

    1. Thanks for your comment and kind words. I'd like to have contact with you, I might have some things to help you with your research, email me at: collinsda17 at