Mystery of the Missing Native American DNA Part I
Updated: Jan 8
The deeper I dig into DNA genealogical study the more convinced I become that race is an artificial construct of the human imagination, created by imperial powers to justify social and economic oppression. There is no scientific basis for racism and to continue to believe in it is a symptom of ignorance. Strip away external physical appearances, and one can be very surprised by what may be found in one's DNA. Exploring the tradition of Cherokee blood in my husband's family is a case in point.
When I met my husband in 1997 I learned of the firm belief in his mother's family that his great-grandmother, Alice Cole (pictured to the right), had been 100% Cherokee. This tradition follows two patterns very common in American genealogy: A Native American ancestor who is both female and Cherokee. In fact, Richard Hite and Gregory D. Smithers assert that more than half of Americans claiming Native American ancestry self-identify with the Cherokee, generally without any proof. On the whole, intermarriage between English Americans and Native Americans in the United States was uncommon. It occurred most frequently in Georgia and the Carolinas, but it was much more common for French Canadians in Canada and along the American frontier to marry and assimilate into Native American tribes. This was possibly because the French tended to immigrate as single men to become fur trappers, while the English tended to immigrate in family groups and found settlements.
In the late 1990s I put considerable effort into learning what I could about Alice Cole. At that time I was unable to identify her birth family and in any records I did find she was classified as white. A couple of years ago I picked up the family line again in Ancestry.com, curious to see if anything new came to light. This time I met with a bit more success. I found references to a Bill Cole, chief of a group of "halfbreed Cherokee" in Floyd County, Kentucky, although any attempt to connect Alice and Bill failed. But someone had posted a photograph of Alice Cole with the label "Alice Cole Spradlin dau of Old Charlie Cole." This was the first indication of who Alice's father might be. But still further information eluded me. Alice's dark appearance in the photograph made it obvious why the family would believe the story of her alleged Cherokee heritage. I've since found a picture of Charles Cole which also shows a dark-skinned, dark-haired man. Both my husband and mother-in-law tell me my husband's Grandfather Vernal's (Alice's son) skin tones became very bronze when he was exposed to sunlight.
So we were very interested in the results of my husband's and mother-in-law's DNA tests. Short story: while both show very small amounts of African DNA, neither one shows any Native American ancestry. By itself this is not conclusive as it may simply mean they did not inherit any Native American DNA in the family. But Helen's connections in Ancestry's DNA database lead to further insight into the probable origin of the family's Cherokee tradition.
First of all, by reviewing the family trees of Helen's DNA cousins, I discovered why it was so difficult to determine Alice's birth parents. As an adult Alice identified herself as white. She was born around 1884 after the 1880 census, but by the 1900 census, the first in which she appears, she was already married to Samuel Spradlin (they married in 1899). As the 1890 census for Kentucky no longer exists, we cannot know what it reported, but this is the only census which could have documented her living with her parents. But the waters are further muddied by census records which name Charles' wife as Eliza, although a death record I discovered in the last month lists Alice's mother as Mary Collins. I have been unable to find any record of a Mary Collins. Is this an error on Alice's death certificate? By other accounts Charles Cole married Eliza Nickles (or Nichols?) on April 17, 1879. As Eliza is documented as the mother of Charles' four children born between 1885 and 1892, presumably Alice was Eliza and Charles' first born around 1883 or 1884.
Charles Cole's parents were George Cole and Nancy Musgrove of Kentucky, although Nancy was born in Tennessee. George's parents were William Anderson Cole (the chief Billy Cole mentioned above) and Obedience Collins. Obedience Collins was born in Kentucky, but her parents Valentine Collins and Ludicia (Dicey) Gibson likely moved to Kentucky from North Carolina possibly via Tennessee. Valentine is believed by some to be the brother of Vardamon Collins, one of the founders of the Newman's Ridge community in Hancock County, Tennessee. However, Donald Alfred Collins, through a detailed study of the DNA of direct Collins descendants, has concluded that Valentine and Vardemon cannot be brothers. William Anderson Cole was born in North Carolina.
It is fun to fill in a family tree with names, but the most important discovery is where all of these names (Cole, Collins, Nickles, Price, and Musgrove) landed me: in the middle of the Melungeon story. While my husband's and mother-in-law's DNA strongly suggest they have no Native American ancestry, the Melungeon story explains the origin of this family tradition and establishes its long history.
The Melungeon story is an historical conundrum. Wayne Winkler and Melissa Schrift have made the historical and sociological analysis of the story accessible in their books referenced below, so I will attempt to merely point out the highlights of what is believed to be true.
1. There are several competing theories as to the origin of the Melungeons, but no proof for any of them. In fact there is no clear definition of who is a Melungeon. Due to out-migration from their traditional home in southern Appalachia and intermarriage with other groups, historical Melungeons no longer exist so the proper term today is probably Melungeon descendent. Evidence indicates that the Melungeons migrated from the North Carolina and Virginia tidewater to Hancock County, Tennessee. From there Melungeons migrated to Wise, Lee, and Scott Counties in Virginia; Floyd and Magoffin Counties in Kentucky; and later Carmel, Ohio. But where the Melungeons lived before North Carolina and Virginia is a mystery.
2. The origin of the word Melungeon is unknown. Like the origin of the people to which the word refers, there are competing theories including English, French and Turkish/Arabic origins. More importantly, the people labeled Melungeon did not refer to themselves as such. In fact, until the late 1960s it was a derogatory term, but self-identification as a Melungeon did not become popular until the 1990s. As early as 1840 journalists undertook to describe this group in mysterious and uncomplimentary terms: thieving, promiscuous, and slovenly, among other negative descriptions. In fact, the real lifestyle of people labeled Melungeons by their neighbors differed very little from Scotch-Irish Appalachians of low socio-economic status.
3. While Melungeons originally considered themselves white, due to their swarthy appearance, neighbors suspected them of being mulattos, people of mixed European and African ancestry. The earliest tradition among Melungeons is that they are of Portuguese ancestry. However, although this Portuguese origin theory has supporters, the tradition may actually mean something else. "Carolina Portuguese" is an old Southern euphemism for mulatto.
Schrift describes Melungeons as almost Indian, barely black, and not quite white. Winkler calls them a "raceless people." While it is true some Melungeons did intermarry with Native Americans, the practice may not have been so widespread as they would have their white neighbors believe. As African slavery became more harsh and racial laws became more stringent, Melungeons who could pass for white, did. Those who couldn't, attempted to pass as Indian. Any reference to being black was generally objectionable to Melungeons for most of two centuries. And in a society in which everyone must be categorized as white, black, or Indian, it was important to be able to classify neighbors. But the Melungeons defied this simplified classification system and in many ways used the confusion of their origins to assert their rights and protect themselves.
After reading Schrift's report of her conversations with Melungeon descendents, I was curious to see how my mother-in-law Helen's experience compared. As already discussed above, Melungeon was a derogatory term until the late 20th century, one which Melungeons would not use to describe themselves. Helen moved to Michigan with her parents and siblings as a child, long before the term gained any acceptability, so I was curious to know if she had ever heard the term before, or related ones such as the Brown People of Kentucky or the Carmel Indians. Her answer was no. In Schrift's interviews, she asked Melungeon descendents if they had experienced or had any awareness of discrimination. The answers she received emphasized an awareness of poverty and low socio-economic status, but not racial discrimination. When I asked Helen about why her family moved to Michigan, she replied that they were looking for better economic opportunities. In fact this was the reason many Melungeons left the southeast in the 20th century moving to more industrialized parts of the Midwest.
Helen then went on to share two items which also correlate with the experience of other Melungeon descendants. First, a sense that something about her father's family was different although not quite identifiable, generally expressed through the description of physical characteristics such as Vernal's skin color. As with Helen, two authors with Melungeon ancestry, Brent Kennedy (whose work started the current Melungeon movement) and Wayne Winkler, both became interested in researching Melungeons because of this difference in their families. Second, Helen told me about a Cole cousin from Salyersville, Kentucky who moved to Jackson County, Michigan where Helen's family was living. Helen recalled this woman having "jet black long hair" and "dark skin" and that she would take great offense to being called black. Helen had doubts about whether the woman really was a cousin, but likely she was.
Floyd County, Kentucky was created June 1, 1800 from parts of Montgomery, Fleming, and Mason counties. Magoffin County was created in 1860 from parts of Floyd, Johnson, and Morgan counties. Big Lick, Magoffin, Kentucky was known as "Cole Nation." Price asserts these people were mixed race prior to settling in Kentucky. So the probability of any Coles from Floyd, Magoffin, or even Johnson County in Kentucky being cousins and being Melungeon descendants is high.
According to Helen, Alice Cole herself perpetuated the belief that she was 100% Cherokee. This tradition may well predate Alice, possibly going back to her great-great-great grandfather, William Cole, although maybe not. Other members of the family, including Alice's brother Turner and cousin Anderson attempted without success to join the Cherokee nation. While the origins of the Melungeons remains a mystery, it is possible that their early social networks in Appalachia included Native Americans which allowed them to identify with the Cherokee whether or not there was any intermarriage. Without doubt Melungeons experienced significant fluidity in their racial identification as demonstrated in census records. My next post will explore this fluidity in the Cole family.
Hite, Richard. Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact From Fiction in Family Legends. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2013.
Melungeon Heritage Association. Danville, VA.
Price, Edward T. "The Mixed-Blood Racial Strain of Carmel,Ohio, and Magoffin County, Kentucky." The Ohio Journal of Science. V.50 No.6 (November 1950) 281-290.
Schrift, Melissa. Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.
Smithers, Gregory D. "Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood? The History of a Myth." Slate (October 1, 2015).
Winkler, Wayne. Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004.