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  • Writer's pictureSabrina Riley

Mystery of the Missing Native American DNA Part II

It was Wayne Winkler's observation about the fluidity of Melungeon race identity in the United States Federal censuses that prompted me to look at another pattern in my husband's maternal grandfather's genealogy. Some of Winkler's comments suggest there was a progression in Melungeon identity from the 1790 census to the the twentieth century, moving from white to mulatto to Native American and then back to white. In just ten years from one census to the next, the same individual could be classified with a different label. How could this happen?

As essential as census records are to genealogists, they are not strictly objective and factual documents. While U.S. Federal censuses since 1960 have been conducted by survey in which citizens self-report, older censuses were recorded manually by hired enumerators who had the opportunity, and may have often used it, to add their own interpretations to the records either intentionally or unintentionally. This accounts for the variety of spellings of names one sees for the same people from decade to decade. It also plays a major factor in the changing ethnic identification of the Melungeons.

The first Federal census was taken in 1790. It was the duty of marshals in each county to gather the data requested by the government. Only the head of household's name was recorded along with the count of household members by age, color, and slave or free. Native Americans were not enumerated. To date I've been unable to find the Coles in this census. But Valentine Collins with his family does appear in this census with the label "white."

The censuses in 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, and 1840 were also taken by marshals who recorded the head of household along with counts broken down by age (although age categories varied), color, and free or slave. Native Americans were still not enumerated unless assimilated and counted as white. Valentine Collins was listed as "other free person" in 1800 implying he was not counted white. I've not found him yet in the 1810 census, but by 1820 he is labeled "free colored person." However in 1830, the first census in which I find a Cole, William who married Valentine's daughter Obedience, both the Coles and the Collins are listed as white. I have not yet located the Coles in the 1840 census, but Valentine Collins is there, again listed as white.

In 1850 the census changed dramatically with each member of the household being identified by name and more information being recorded about each individual. This census also differentiated between white, black, and mulatto (Native Americans were still not counted...but wait, it's coming). This time for the Coles, the enumerator left color blank despite specific instructions to the contrary. Interestingly, the enumerator did indicate that neither William nor his daughter Rebecca could read or write. Valentine apparently died before the 1850 census. But like the Coles, no color is recorded for Valentine's sons, Obedience's brothers, David, Joshua, and Otary. However, Elijah living in another county is listed as black. Again, an example of the differing interpretations of two different enumerators. The absence of a color designation may have actually been an indication of the enumerator's sympathy—a compromise so to speak—if he believed mulatto or black to be the correct color, and, if like other Melungeons, the Collins and Coles objected to being counted as such.

By 1860 tensions were high as the United States teetered on the brink of war. Enumerators were given strict instructions to record color for every individual whether white, black, or mulatto. The term mulatto was defined as anyone who could be construed to possibly have any amount of African blood, small or large. This time William Cole and members of his family were labeled mulatto. In spite of strict instructions, any of his Collins in-laws I've found so far, have no color identification.

The 1870 census added questions about citizenship and parents' place of birth, but its instructions for recording color are identical to that of 1850 and 1860. Coles living in Magoffin County, Kentucky in 1870 were somewhat more likely to be labeled mulatto than those living in Floyd County. In either county, those not labeled mulatto were designated white. I'm not certain I've found the correct William Cole in the 1870 census, but if I have, he was mulatto as was his son George, daughter-in-law Nancy Musgrove, and their son Charles, pictured below.

The 1880 census is the last one for which William Cole was still living (he was listed as mulatto) and the first in which Native Americans were counted. But once again George and Nancy Cole and their children were listed as mulatto. Charles was farming in Floyd County with his new wife Eliza and a number of Cole and Nickles cousins and siblings, all identified as mulatto. Nearby neighbors Nancy Spradlin and her son Grant were listed as white.

As I discussed in an earlier post, much of the 1890 census has not survived to the 21st century. So now my discussion reaches the 20th century and some interesting changes. In 1900 Charles and Eliza were identified as white. And their daughter Alice, already married to Samuel Spradlin, was also listed as white. But by the early twentieth-century not only was post-Civil War reconstruction in the south over, racial discrimination was on the rise. With ever harsher Jim Crow laws and the more stringent control of race-identity advocated famously by Walter Plecker in Virginia, the use of the term mulatto to identify mixed-race people was discarded in favor of forcing a black or white designation on everyone unless they were legally enrolled in a Native American tribe or otherwise found ways to successfully identify as Native American. Many Melungeons, along with perhaps a dozen other mixed-race people groups throughout the United States, were at a serious disadvantage. While Kentucky never adopted the "one-drop rule" of Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma, it did along with about seven other states adjust its "blood fraction" laws to the equivalent of one-drop. And suddenly sometimes mulatto and sometimes white Charles and Eliza Cole and their children still at home were listed as Indian in 1910 and 1920. Whether they chose this designation or were given it by a sympathetic enumerator (a practice suggested by Winkler) is impossible to know.

Alice who had married into the unquestionably white Spradlins was always listed as white. But her brother Turner and cousin Anderson took the new Indian designation a step further and attempted to enroll in the Cherokee nation. They were both rejected. With no definite heritage of a Native American language and culture, they could not be accepted by any tribe. Whether consequence or an older tradition, among some Cole descendants William Cole is believed to be the chief of a halfbreed tribe of Cherokee and his Native American name was Che-noska. The earliest printed record of this tradition I've seen was published in 1889 in a newspaper account of questionable veracity about the Melungeons. On Melungeon genealogy discussion boards and blogs much is said about this Cherokee tradition, but not only do I not find historical evidence to support it, science appears to strike another blow.

As mentioned in my previous post, Melungeons themselves as well as some defenders placed their origins with the Portuguese, but when or how this happened remains unknown. As a group even today they lack a precise definition as to whom is a Melungeon. They have no language or customs to differentiate themselves from others of European ancestry. It would be helpful if Melungeon DNA studies pointed to more African and/or Native American ancestry, but they do not. The DNA of Melungeon descendants is strongly Eurasian (which can be described as any DNA which is not African, American, or eastern Asian), and after centuries of migration and intermarriage, Eurasion DNA tells us very little about the original geographic location of our ancestors. So no DNA profile can be used to identify Melungeons (Winkler). And as DNA testing of my husband and his mother, descendants of William Cole, show they are certainly descendants of sub-Saharan Africans and almost certainly not descendants of any Native Americans. This makes it highly unlikely that William Cole was Cherokee.

To look at my husband, his mother, and our sons, all blue-eyed, light-haired, and white-skinned, one would never think twice about their Scotch-Irish-English heritage. It's obvious. But to know that hidden deep in their DNA (less than 1%) is an African heritage makes me realize more profoundly than ever the hypocrisy of racism. Born in another century, another decade, all of them would have been classified as black under "one-drop" laws if their genealogy had been known. I wonder how many proponents of white superiority through the years have also had trace amounts of African DNA without knowing it. In genealogy one must search for truth with tolerance and openness, otherwise the discoveries may be too painful for honesty.

Selected Sources:

U.S Census Bureau. Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000. U.S. Department of Commerce; Economics and Statistics Administration, September 2002.

Wikipedia contributors. "One-Drop Rule." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed July 9, 2016.

Winkler, Wayne. Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004.

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