Melungeons of Appalachia


Friday Fare to Appalachia

Since at least the 1800’s, there has been a mixed blood strain of people living in pockets of Appalachia called Melungeons. The groups of Melungeons are/were located near Carmel, OH and Magoffin County, KY. Down through the years, there have been other groups in Tennessee and other states in Appalachia. They were thought to be white (some mix of European immigrant stock), African, and Native American. The actual racial descent of these people is actually a mystery and now, in the modern day, there is a Melungeon DNA project to try to determine just where this group of people came from.

The Melungeons seemed to be located primarily in Hancock County, Tennessee with another pocket in Magoffin and Floyd Counties, Ky. The group would occasionally migrate to Carmel, Ohio, possibly to find work in the swampy onion fields in the area. In Magoffin County, Ky, there was very little work for them. They lived in an area where farming was difficult due to the mountains and very narrow valleys.

The Melungeons faced extreme discrimination wherever they went. There were and are very few people of mixed race descent in most of the Appalachian region. It is a region primarily composed of white people of northern European descent. People with  a darker skin are very much noticed. The Melungeons also had particularly surnames that identified them. Some of those names were Gibson or Gipson, Nichols, and Colllins, among others. One side of my family came from Magoffin County, Ky. I can remember my grandmother cautioning us “not to be like the Gipsons.” We did not know who or what “the Gipsons” were. We only knew that they were a family whose behavior was considered somehow “dirty” and we were not supposed to emulate it. This is the type of discrimination these people faced.

In order to fit in with the general population, the Melungeons self-identified as white mixed with Native American. Some self-identified as white mixed with Portuguese or Turkish. In reality, their background is still a mystery which the Melungeon DNA Project is trying to work out. Current results from the Melungeon DNA Project show results that their background is white descent mixed with African descent with very little, if any, Native American descent. Specifically, the females were primarily of white, Northern EUropean descent and males were mixed African and white descent.

The current state of many of the Melungeons is that they have intermarried and moved out of their home areas and intermingled with the majority groups in society. Many people in and out of Appalachia are curious about the Melungeons and whether or not they could have Melungeon blood and are using services like to try to locate any possible Melungeon ancestors. #Melungeon #amwriting #amblogging #Appalachia #writing





Independence Day


I started to write this blog post about what Independence Day, the Fourth of July, meant to me. But, I changed my mind. Independence Day only means one thing and it should mean the same thing to all of us. This day, the Fourth of July, Independence Day, marks the birth of the United State of America. Our independence from Great Britain in 1776.

When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, in Philadelphia, they knew that Great Britain would certainly take issue with the American colonies breaking away from their mother country. They knew they were effectively declaring war. They knew that the American colonies did not have the numbers of people or weapons to fight off the British. They had faith that they would, somehow, prevail.

Four days later, the real celebration began. The Continental Congress was still meeting. The Declaration of Independence was read. The Liberty Bell rang. The coat of arms of the King of England was taken down and the celebration began. The United States of America came to life.

What followed was the American Revolutionary War between the 13 colonies and the British Crown. It lasted through approximately 1783 and was a bitter and bloody battle. The French entered the war in 1778 and assisted the Americans. By 1781, the Americans had basically won their freedom. On September 3, 1783, in France, the British recognized that the Americans had won their freedom in the Treaty of Paris.

Appalachian Folklore: The Jack Tales


Storytelling is a tradition in Appalachia. Down through the decades, many Appalachian children and adults have spent nights on the front porch, gathered around an elder, listening to stories that have seldom found a place in written forklore. Most of the stories have been in oral format only. This is true for the Jack tales though historians and some storytellers are making an effort to capture them in writing. Jack tales are seldom told in the same way twice which makes writing them down difficult. Different storytellers tell them in different ways. Even the same storyteller may change the telling of a Jack tale from telling to telling.

We’ve all heard of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and the Giant Killer, Jack and Jill, Jack Sprat, Jack Horner. There are many other Jack tales. All are examples of the Jack tales that originally came to America from the British Isles. The first Jack tales can be traced back as far as the fifteenth century in Great Britain. By the next two centuries, the first tellings of the Jack and the Giant Killer story can be found. That’s when the rhyme, “Fi-Fy-Fo-Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman,” can be found in English literature for the first time, including in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Jack, who was supposedly located in Cornwall, England, trapped the Giant in a pit in order to kill him. Other giants were also present in the tale. By the eighteenth century, the Jack tales were found in the nursery as they had been turned into nursery rhymes.

As the British immigrated to America, along with the Scots and the Irish, each culture brought their own rendition of the Jack tales. The versions of the Jack tales were likely combined to become the Jacks that we know and love today. A book by Richard Chase, published in 1943, is a collection of at least some of the Jack tales. Chase alleged that many of the Jack tales were collected by a group of families in North Carolina and came into Southern Appalachia from that area. Chase did acknowledge that new Jack tales were surfacing in other parts of Appalachia, specifically in Virginia and Kentucky. In Harlan County, KY, Mrs. Sally Middleton of Martin’s Fork, knew versions of two of the Jack tales of North Carolina that she carried on. In all of the Jack tales, Jack is thrown into difficult situations. In the Appalachian versions, the themes reflect the problems of the area such as poverty and farming and the harsh conditions of life.

Jack is probably the first legendary hero in American literature. Counce Harmon was one member of the families in North Carolina that passed the Jack tales down for most of 200 years before they were ever written down. Here is a telling of a Jack tale for your enjoyment by a descendent of Counce Harmon, one of the original tellers of the Jack tales in America:



Chase, Richard. (2015) The Jack Tales. HMH Books for Young Readers.


Personality Traits of the Appalachian People


Friday Fare to Appalachia

Do the people of a geographic region like Appalachia have unique personality traits? Some think so. A number of studies have linked personality traits to U.S. geographic regions or even U.S. states. As an example, a 2013 study done by Time Magazine found that the people of Kentucky are one of the most neurotic and introverted people in the nation. They are not very agreeable or open. West Virginia joins Kentucky in the trait of introversion. But, the people in both states exhibit tough-mindedness as well. Most “happiness” studies that have been done find the people of Kentucky and West Virginia ranking near the bottom.

But, wait! This sounds terrible regarding the personalities of the people of these parts of Appalachia. Since I am one of these people,I don’t think we are all unhappy or that we all have troublesome personalities. Could part of the problem be stereotypes of the people of Appalachia? Read on…..

Appalachia is a large region in the eastern part of the United States, named after the Appalachian Mountains. It encompasses 205,000 miles and the people are 42% rural as compared to 20% of the national population. All of West Virginia is considered to be in Appalachia. Parts of twelve other states are in the region, including Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Virginia.

John Alexander Williams, an author who wrote Appalachia: A History, specified that there is a “core” Appalachia. That core includes 164 counties. Those counties are the entire state of West Virginia and parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina. I tend to agree with Mr. Williams. In case you haven’t read my story on this blog entitled, Appalachian Roots, I was born and raised on the fringes of Appalachia and my mother’s family is from deep in the heart of Appalachia. There is a distinct difference between those living deep in Appalachia and those on the fringes.

I spent a good deal of time with my grandparents in the heart of Appalachia growing up and until I was in my 20s. I became familiar with the personality type of the people. While introversion and tough-mindedness are characteristics of the people, I don’t agree with some of the others mentioned in the Time personality study cited earlier. You do have to recall that people migrated to Appalachia during the pioneer days under great hardship. Many migrated because they wanted privacy and land around them. They did not want close neighbors and the thought of being in the mountains appealed to them. The fact that their descendants are introverted and tough-minded can’t be a surprise.

The author Loyal Jones, in his 1991 book entitled, Appalachian Values described some of the personality characteristics of the people very well and his description tallied with my experience. He said the people had the traits of, “Religious, Individualism, Self-Reliance and Pride, Neighborliness and Hospitality, Family Solidarity, Personalism, Love of Place, Modesty and Being One’s Self, Sense of Beauty, Sense of Humor, Patriotism” (Jones 1991:170). I can picture my grandfather when I read that description along with a lot of the men he associated with at his home in Magoffin County, KY. Jones stated that some other authors considered these personality characteristics to be deficiencies, which I can’t imagine.

I believe these personality characteristics may describe the Appalachian people of the past very well. The citizenry of the region have changed as economic times have changed. Money has gotten more scarce as coal mining and farming wanes, a lower paying service economy picks up, and the drug culture and welfare society explode. These cultural and economic events have taken a toll on the personalities of the Appalachian people. Gone is the sense of self and self-reliance of these once-proud people. Family solidarity has fractured. Individualism is no more. Instead, we see once-proud, hard-working people relying on welfare and selling their food stamps for drugs. We see single girls having babies so they can draw those welfare checks and young men seeking out pain pills and disability checks for non-existent ailments. We see any money that does exist invested in drugs instead of in food for the children and a roof over those childrens’ heads. Only in pockets of Appalachia do we find the once proud people of that region. Where there is no work, there can be no pride.

Why do the people stay in Appalachia? Some of their personality traits explain that. The love of place, their culture, their family — all of those are reasons. But, there have been waves of out-migration from the area since the 1960’s. The smart ones seem to leave. The others seem to find reasons not to. The very personality characteristics which are endearing may spell the end of the people of Appalachian unless economic times change in the area. That is the subject for several more blog posts.

Watch this space! #appalachia #amwriting #writing #blogging


The Song of Hiawatha


The Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was written in 1855 and set on the southern shore of Lake Superior, the largest of the five Great Lakes and the largest fresh water lake in North America. The poem is connected to the Pictured Rocks area of the lakeshore. Hiawatha, a Chippewa warrior, and Minehaha, his true love, played out a tragic love story in the beautiful poem on the Pictured Rocks Seashore.

The poem is also connected to Lake Superior because of one of the most famous lines in the poem……”by the shores of Gitche-Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water…”. Gitche-Gumee was the Chippewa name for Lake Superior or the Big Sea Water.

Pictured Rocks Seashore is a beautiful place on an exquisite lake….a place I’ve visited many times since the ancestral home of my father is quite near the area and is itself near the shores of Gitche-Gumee.

Here is The Song of Hiawatha, compliments of YouTube:


*Image by Laurel Gillespie 2014

The Early Homes of the Appalachian Mountain People


Friday Fare to Appalachia

Caves. Rock ledge overhangs. Primitive cabins. In that order. That is where the mountain people of Kentucky settled after they made the difficult trip to what would become the Commonwealth. As the people came into Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap — from North Carolina and across the mountains from Virginia, they experienced a really arduous journey. The trip across the mountains from North Carolina and from western Virginia was treacherous and extremely physically taxing. As of 1782, about 4,000 pioneers had settled in Kentucky and they were the ones who had made this exhausting trek. By 1790, there were 40,000 settlers in Kentucky and the increase in settlers had largely found their way to Kentucky via the Ohio River. Kentucky was settled by the people from Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, in that order.

As the pioneers made their way over the mountains to the south and east, they most likely lived in cave-like structures along the way, when they could find caves not inhabited by the black bear. When they arrived in Kentucky, caves were their first living quarters and they made them quite sophisticated on the inside (photo, top left). After caves, the settlers moved to rockhouses. Rockhouses were under cliff overhangs and were held up with poles, a technique probably borrowed from the Cherokees. You can find locations where rockhouses existed even today, one in Magoffin County, KY near this writer’s family home. But, it wasn’t long until the log cabin came along.

A lingering question is where did log cabin architecture come from? It didn’t come from the Native Americans since they did not have the axe as a tool until they got it from the white settlers. It probably did not come from the predominant nationalities of settlers, the Scots, Irish, or English, because those countries are mostly treeless. Many agree that settlers from Sweden, Switzerland, and southern Germany brought the idea of log cabin architecture to America and it made its way from where they originally settled in Pennsylvania to the Kentucky mountains. There was a small German population in Kentucky.

There is some confusion about where log construction came from, however. The word “cabin” is Irish. The log cabin’s construction seemed to be Irish based on the fact there were openings under the eaves instead of gables. Log cabins came before log houses on the frontier. The log houses were probably based on Germanic construction techniques and even included houses with the dog trot plans seem so frequently in Eastern Kentucky. Both were lumped together and called cabins, however.

Cabins were more crudely constructed than houses. Cabins were built quickly from logs notched at the ends, chinked and daubed, or sealed with stones and mud, with chimneys made of sticks, rocks, and mud, and they usually had no windows and a dirt floor. The roof was made of bark. Houses were more carefully built. They had windows and floors and chimneys made of stone. Their roofs were wooden shingles.

This essay describes the progression of housing only in Eastern Kentucky during the late 18th century and very early 19th century. Some parts of Appalachia were more progressive and, by the early 19th century, had moved to frame houses. Those were available only to the wealthiest settlers.

*Note: The photo of the log cabin above was taken by this writer. It is located in a display park around the Magoffin County Historical Society in Salyersville, KY. It is an actual cabin, taken from the county, and rebuilt for display in the historical society’s park. This writer’s great-grandparents built and lived in a cabin very much like this one and raised their five children. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. #amwriting #writing #blogging #history #appalachia

Appalachia and Food: Green Beans and Corn Bread


Green beans and corn bread. The staples of life in Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky for the mountain people as they settled the area.  Fresh green beans out of the garden. Even in the winter, green beans and corn bread were one of the most common meals because many women in Appalachia have always used the canning and freezing techniques to preserve food. Green beans have been one of the crops most commonly preserved.

The family garden is not as common in Appalachia today as it was in the past, but they still can be found. They are located in the creek bottoms between the mountains. During the past three centuries, family farms growing this and other crops in those creek bottoms were common.

Today, we buy our green beans in grocery stores and never think about what variety they are. Not so in Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia both in the pioneer days and even today. Green beans were bought from family farmers and the variety was very important. Maybe the most popular variety was “white half-runners.” This is a whitish climber bean with an excellent taste. Another variety is the pole bean which is also a climber, but a much bigger bean than the half runner. Others are tenderette beans, greasy beans, Kentucky wonder beans, and different varieties of heirloom beans. One variety of heirloom bean is this writer’s favorite bean – the old-fashioned cornfield bean. These were all grown in the past in Eastern Kentucky and some are grown today. Many have become “heirloom beans.”

Heirloom seeds of any kind are seeds that are not found in the general marketplace in modern times. They are kept by farmers and seed-saving organizations and passed down from generation to generation. They are closely guarded, but this is a topic for another post.

The cooking technique for green beans was quite different than it is today for people who do not reside in the area. Green beans were cooked until they are very tender and with some sort of seasoning, usually in the form of fatty meat such as ham hock, salt pork, or something similar. Unless you were very careful, they could be quite greasy, but the Appalachian people liked fatty food. My grandmother lived on fatty pork feet and lived to be 97. She also worked hard, hard physical work, all of her life!

You could not have green beans on your table for a meal without corn bread. Corn bread was a little different than it was, for example, in the desert southwest. It was usually made with white cornmeal, though some used yellow corn meal. Buttermilk instead of regular milk was used. It was cooked in an iron skillet seasoned with lard. Many of the early Appalachian people existed on beans and cornbread. My own mother liked to have cornbread and milk for dinner.

Would you like the old recipes for green beans and cornbread from Eastern Kentucky? These were my grandmother’s, handed down to her by generations of women who came before her:

Green Beans

A pot full of green beans, broken into small pieces and washed three times

A piece of fatty meat, such as ham hock

Salt, to taste

Cover with water and boil the water down, then turn down the heat

Put a lid on the beans and cook slowly for 1-2 hours until the beans are very tender and the water is mostly gone.



Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

One cup of white or yellow corn meal, your choice – do not use self-rising

One cup of white flour… not use self-rising

Pinch of salt

4 tsps baking powder

Buttermilk…..enough to make the mixture smooth and stirable but not runny

While you are putting together the cornbread, have your iron skillet getting warm on the stove top with a couple of heaping tbsp of lard in it. Be sure the lard is melted.

Pour the cornbread mixture into the hot skillet. Careful! This will be hot.

Carefully place the skillet full of the cornbread mixture into the oven.

Bake 15 minutes or until the cornbread is brown on top. Remove from oven.

In the next step, CAUTION. Be careful and don’t burn yourself!

Have a plate ready. Turn the skillet upside down and dump the cornbread onto the plate. With another plate on the back of the cornbread, flip it over. Put a knife under the cornbread so it won’t sweat.

Sit it on your counter to cool. Done!

Delicious, but not so healthy in modern times. In another blog post, I will give you my own personal version of these recipes that I have made a little healthier!

These recipes helped keep the pioneers’ stomachs full as they lived their very hard lives in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. They needed more fat in their diet than we do in 2016 as they did hard physical labor all day and their bodies required the extra calories and extra fat. #writers #amwriting #blogger #bloggerswanted #culture #history #Appalachia #EasternKentucky

#weekendcoffeeshare: 5/21/16


Hello! I’m so glad you’re back for our #weekendcoffeeshare! It’s raining outside so bring your coffee and let’s sit on the couch in my office and chat. It’s so good to see you. Do you think the rain is ever going to end?

How has your week been? You’re suffering from writer’s block? That is so frustrating, isn’t it. What do you usually do when that happens? I need to know because it happens  to me too. So you leave your writing and do other things for awhile? I guess that’s one approach, but I’ll have to disagree. If I step away, I step away for a long time — too long. What works for me is to push through it. Instead of writing about topics in what is supposed to be my niche, I go outside my niche and write about something else I know about. After all, we all know about more than one topic, don’t we? Couple our knowledge with good research and there you have it. Suddenly, we’re writing again, though maybe about something new. Maybe we can sell this piece to a different editor or publisher and we will have a wider market for our writing.

I’ll tell you what I did once. I was having trouble finding topics in the niche I considered my own so I went far afield with my writing. I had always been interested in writing about Appalachia but I had never tackled any topic in that area. On the campus of the University here, where I taught for a long time, is a little piece of Appalachian history, the Cora Wilson Stewart Moonlight School. It was originally located next to the campus training school where I attended grades one through twelve. I did some research and wrote a piece on the Moonlight School for Preservation Magazine, having never written about historic preservation before. My writer’s block was gone! I also realized I could write about more than one topic.

Tell me how it works for you to step away from your writing? So you take a walk or go somewhere different or do some reading. You gradually relax enough to relieve the writer’s block. Sounds possible. What I would hope is that I could get ideas from a walk or traveling or reading or whatever else I would do that is different. That really might work if I could then have enough discipline to get back to writing. I will be going some different places this summer, taking a lot of photos, and getting some new ideas that I can turn into articles or into some sort of work. Really the same principle as your strategy.

It’s been so good to talk to you today for #weekendcoffeeshare. You’ve given me a great idea about getting rid of writer’s block and a lot to think about. Have a good weekend.

The Smokehouse – Preserving Meat in Eastern Kentucky


The smokehouse is a tradition in Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky. Long before the days of refrigeration, meat, mostly pork in Appalachia, was cured and preserved on family farms in buildings called smokehouses. Hams and bacon were the primary cuts of pork you would find hanging in these smokehouses. The buildings were sometimes log, concrete block, or other material. My grandfather’s smokehouse was a building made of lumber, coupled with a root cellar, and it had a sleeping loft as a second floor.

Smokehouses are windowless buildings with one door, a vent, and a smokestack. Of course, there is a stove for the smoking. Most have racks to hang the meat after curing and smoking. You will usually find a padlock on the door because the meat is a valuable commodity. It literally insured the family’s survival for the winter.

Pork was a staple in the diet of the Eastern Kentucky people. Although they raised some dairy cattle, they raised few beef cattle because there was not enough flat land for grazing. Pork and chicken were the primary meats on my grandparent’s table. One of my guilty food pleasures, to this day, is an old-fashioned country ham, just like my grandfather used to smoke. Smokehouses still exist on farms all across Kentucky and Kentucky-smoked hams are expensive treasures that are often part of the feasts at the holidays. For the early settlers of Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky right up into the early 20th century, smokehouses were necessary parts of the family farm. Without them, the population would have not had meat to live.

The process of curing and preserving meat is not complicated but it has to be done properly in order for the meat to be safely preserved. Usually, the meat is rubbed with a coarse salt and then you rest it. You repeat this rub and rest process several times. This is what is called salt-curing and it is done to pull the moisture out of the meat.

After the curing process is complete, you can begin the smoking process. You have to find the right kind of wood to burn to smoke the meat. The first rule is never to use soft wood such as pine. Such wood has resin in it. Always use hardwood and many like to use wood from fruit trees. Hickory is another wood of choice. The fire is lit and the fire burns very slowly. The goal is to kill any bugs or bacteria in the meat by bringing the meat up to a certain temperature for a long period of time, usually a period of months. Then, the meat is wrapped in cheesecloth and hung on racks to dry and cure. Some cure their meat for as long as a year or more, particularly pork. Other meats may not take as long to cure.

My grandfather, in Magoffin County, KY, raised a lot of pigs. I used to love to help him “slop the hogs.” They never let me around when it was time to slaughter them. But, I remember the smokehouse and the smoking meat vividly…..which made for delicious family dinners. Many years later, one of my aunts used to send, for Christmas, a country ham to my Uncle Tincy, who was stationed at one Air Force base or another, some overseas. We all grew up loving those smoked hams.

The largest concentration of smokehouses can be found in Virginia, with many associated with Colonial Williamsburg. Smokehouses are a valuable part of the history and culture of Eastern KY and Appalachia in general. #EasternKentucky #Appalachia #culture #history #amwriting #writers #blogger #bloggerswanted

Appalachia: Settlers of Eastern Kentucky in the 1700s


The eastern seaboard of America was settled, as we all learned in elementary history classes, in the 1600s, by the English. For the most part, most scholars agree that these settlers were of the English middle class and even some of their landed gentry, seeking their fortune in the New World. The English liked the New England portion of America, the northern seaboard. Even the climate was suitable for them. They became fishermen and farmers. Even craftsmen had come from England and set up shop in villages and town that sprung up.

The climate of the southern coast of America did not suit the English. Planters discovered the agricultural value of the southern coastal areas. Slaves were imported from Africa to do the hard work in the hot sunshine. The plantation society was driven by the ever-increasing demand for the largest cash crop at that time — tobacco. When  cotton entered the picture as another important crop, the slave trade from Africa could not keep up and plantation owners turned to England to try to find work hands. They succeeded.

The cities of England were not pleasant places. Hygiene was poor and crime was rampant. England was ever so happy to get rid of some of its citizens who lived on the cusp of polite society. There were honest men seeking a better life ready to come to the sunny part of the New World, but there were also thieves, men avoiding  the military, and even orphan children. These were the people who joined the slave labor force on the plantations of the New South along the coast. Many became indentured servants.

Many of the laborers died on the plantations. Those who did not die served out their bonds, or escaped, and headed northwest, toward the cooler mountainous regions of what would be known as Appalachia.

Southern laborers of English descent were not the only source of population growth in Eastern Kentucky. Boatloads of Scots-Irish people landed in Philadelphia around the time of the Revolution. They were self-reliant, courageous people and struck out on their own westward, toward the mountains. A large number settled in Eastern Kentucky and thrived. Another route to the mountains, far easier than crossing them, was the Ohio River. Evidence is that large number of both Northern Englanders and the Scots came into Kentucky by that route with the Northern English prevailing. Irish can also be found by examining the names found in the region.

Mountain people. Mountaineers. Kentucky Highlanders. The Appalachian people, in general, and the people of  Eastern Kentucky specifically, are called mountain people by most of the authors of stories and histories about the region.  They became the distant ancestors of much of parts of present-day Appalachian and the Eastern Kentucky people. They came to the mountains in order to escape interference from government and to gain privacy from their neighbors. They began to farm the creek bottoms and live above them in caves, under rock overhangs, and cabins. They were some of the people who helped established this country, though in a limited geographic area, as these mountain people showed no inclination to move further west.

Watch this space for more on Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky.Mou