maybe she wasn’t joking?

Dr. Joseph Dobson Sr. (1720-1791), a University educated physician, was born in England and settled in western North Carolina Colony before 1768.

It is believed Dobson lived on the south side of the Catawba River near present day Glen Alpine where he operated a private school. He served as a physician during the American Revolution and afterwards became the first Clerk of Superior Court for the Morgan District.

In 1785, Dobson became the entry taker for Burke County, which at that time extended to what is now Tennessee. This position enabled him to easily accumulate more than 100,000 acres in western North Carolina and establish a dynasty that lived well beyond his passing.

It was into this prosperous and legendary family that a daughter was born in 1872. Tima Jane Dobson did not grow into a beautiful woman–she was almost six feet tall and lacked in qualities of social demure. She may have waited longer than customary or desired, but on Christmas day, 1898, she married James Elias Powell. Jim Powell had flop ears, was of slight stature, and the son of a sharecropper. Reading between the lines, Miss Dobson had married well below her station in life but things were to turn out well. The Powells moved on to a piece of bottom land (presumably a wedding gift) and started a family.

In 1916 the Duke Power Co. began damn construction and the flooding of what was to become Lake James. The Powell homestead would soon be underwater. By now there were eight children along with Mama and Papa Powell and they all packed up and moved to their new home in Horse Shoe, NC. It was here, on a farm along the French Broad River, that my father was raised.

pic2Mama and Papa Powell with all the children and Uncle Clarence’s new bride. cir. 1925

It was also here that, years later, I along with my parents, my brother and sisters and whatever pet or pets we had, made the automobile trip to every summer. We were only going to visit aunts and uncles because all the old folks had died (that seemed so simple to contemplate when we were young).

How old I was, I don’t remember but somewhere along the line I was told that Mama Powell had been the keeper of knowledge when it came to where we all came from. Genealogy was a word still buried in the dictionary but my grandmother had left multiple copies of, what everyone called, our “family history”. There was no elaborate family placard or bound journal–just a few pages of names, dates and places, all in Mama Powell’s own handwriting on lined note-pad paper. Being too young to care about any of this … the years passed, I grew old, and these written pages were tucked away in one of the usual “never-to-be-found-again” places.

In the overall history of mankind much, if not most, of our knowledge is handed down from one generation to the next. For the first fifty years of my life I never laid eyes on my grandmother’s written names, dates, and places but every member of my extended family–cousins, nephews, nieces, and in-laws included, had heard tell of Mama Powell’s oft repeated description of the Powell Family pedigree: “You all come from a long line of Germans, Scots-Irish, and Portuguese N*****s”. As distasteful as it might seem–this lineage tracking statement, word-for-word including the “N word”, became a standard laugh line at family get-togethers. No thought was given to its hurtful nature … it was just the Powell way of blending in with the salt of the earth.

Until the last few weeks, these words were either forgotten or ignored as being a long ago attempt at humor by a matronly grandmother raised in the 19th century deep south. We all assumed it was just her way of down-playing the fame, wealth, and notoriety of the Dobson name or, more probably, lovingly besmirching the Powell clan she had married into. When, on the rare occasion, a younger member of the family or an outsider ask if the story was “really true”–a laugh, a shake of the head, and a denial was always forthcoming. “No, Mama Powell liked to cut the fool. She was just joking, and besides … Portuguese aren’t black.”

Where I had found the article is not important but what I learned and remembered from it … well you be the judge.

Appalachian people who boasted of Portuguese ancestry to avoid slavery were actually African descendants.

Taken from an ASSOCIATED PRESS article
PUBLISHED:  24 May 2012

Varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies. Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking.

The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.
And that report, which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn’t sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry. “There were a whole lot of people upset by this study”, lead researcher Roberta Estes said, noting that many preferred their assumed origins. “They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American”.

Beginning in the early 1800s, or possibly before, the term Melungeon (meh-LUN’-jun) was applied as a slur to a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border. But it has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mysterious mixed-race ancestry. In recent decades, interest in the origin of the Melungeons has risen dramatically with advances both in DNA research and with the advent of Internet resources that allow individuals to trace their ancestry without digging through dusty archives.

Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who’s spent more than thirty years examining multiracial people in the U.S. said that race-mixing in the U.S. isn’t a new phenomenon. “All of us are multiracial,” he said. “We are only recapturing a more authentic U.S. history.”

Other researchers theorize that the various Melungeon lines may have sprung from the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery was well established and widespread. They conclude that as laws were put in place to penalize the mixing of races, the various family groups could only intermarry with each other, even migrating together from Virginia through the Carolinas before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee. Claims of Portuguese ancestry likely were a ruse they used in order to remain free and retain other privileges that came only with being considered white.

Estimates conclude that there must be several thousand descendants of the historical Melungeons alive today. The origin of the word Melungeon is unknown, but there is no doubt it was considered a slur by white residents in Appalachia who suspected the families of being mixed race. ‘It’s sometimes embarrassing to see the lengths our ancestors went through to hide their African heritage, but look at the consequences’ said Wayne Winkler, past president of the Melungeon Heritage Association. Then ask yourself … “what would I have done differently”?

Pic C          Pic B (2)

Melungeon–Ugly connotations: With the name originating in the 1800s, many tried to prove they were not of African descent to escape slavery or, after the Civil War, not fall victim to penalizing laws

After reading this article, I remember smiling to myself and wondering if maybe, just maybe, Mama Powell knew more than she let on… maybe she wasn’t joking? Her handwritten list of the family men and women that had preceded me into this world was somewhere–but where? My sister, Lynn, said she remembered seeing it with some old letters after our mother passed away but nothing could be found and the search was soon forgotten.

That was three or four years ago. Last week, after tracking down the article and reading it again, I started thumbing through a collection of old photos and newspaper clippings for no good reason, except to temporarily escape from COVID-19 purgatory, when there they were. The treasured pages were tucked into a tattered envelope with some old deeds and land surveys. At first glance, it is obvious that Mama Powell made no effort to tie the generations together. She had probably reproduced her manuscript by copying directly from at least two, and likely more, family Bibles. One of the first names I picked up on was Jarrett. Mama Powell’s mother was a Jarrett and I remember getting a phone call back in the 1990’s from some “good-ole-boy” in Goldsboro, NC asking me if it was true “that Dale Jarrett, the NASCAR driver is my (his) second cousin?” (it was)

Carefully laying out the pages in front of me, the names and dates formed a homespun mosaic of times gone by.

Mama Powell wrote

There, mingled together in no discernable generational order, were the Dobsons and the Powells along with the Jarretts and the O’Neils. There were long ago dates of babies being born and of the old ones leaving them behind. There were the names of foreign lands and … and … at the bottom of page 3 and flowing over to the next page:

Isaac Letherwood born in Portugal S/ain 1749. Rebecca Birtchfield born in Germany 1754 were married 1774 To This union 3 children Betsey Daniel & Harriet. … and … there was also a two word notation Mama Powell had added below it.

It’s going to take some soul searching and I’m not sure exactly how other members of my family will accept this new revelation but maybe Mama Powell wasn’t joking? Maybe I am part Portuguese?

Jim Powell

2 thoughts on “maybe she wasn’t joking?

  1. This is fascinating!!! I’m so glad you have uncovered so much family history and are able to share it so eloquently. Thank you!


  2. I love reading your writings. I especially loved this one. I know that every time I would ask my father, Raymond Powell what we were he would always tell me Englishmen, Germans, Scots-Irish, and Portuguese N*****s”. I found it interesting and somewhat amusing that even I was told that while growing up. In fact I know that if I called my father today and asked him what we were, his reply would still be same.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s