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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Kissing Cousins: The Exaggerated Myth of Intermarriage.

The stereotype of hill folk, or ‘hillbilly’, engaging in intermarriage is both unfairly associated with them as an exclusive trait and exaggerated as a common tendency.

Even the term ‘hillbilly’ is (often seen as a derogatory label) has grown into an equally unfair stereotype in spite of its origins having nothing to do with the people of rural, mountainous  areas of Appalachia and the Ozarks.

Hillbilly: The term originated in 17th century Ireland for Protestant supporters of King William III. The Irish Catholic supporters of James II referred to these northern Protestant supporters of "King Billy", as "Billy Boys". However, in America hillbilly was first used in 1898, which suggests a later, independent development."

Use of the term outside the Appalachians arose in the years after the American Civil War, when the Appalachian region became increasingly bypassed by technological and social changes taking place in the rest of the country. Until the Civil War, the Appalachians were not significantly different from other rural areas of the country. After the war, as the frontier pushed further west, the Appalachian country retained its frontier character, and the people themselves came to be seen as backward, quick to violence, and inbred in their isolation.

The "classic" hillbilly stereotype – the poor, ignorant, feuding family with a huge brood of children tending the family moonshine still – reached its current characterization during the years of the Great Depression, when many Appalachian mountaineers left their homes to find work in other areas of the country. The 1930s through the 1950s, saw many mountain residents moving north to the Midwestern industrial cities of Chicago, Cleveland, Akron, and particularly Detroit, where jobs in the automotive industry were plentiful. This movement north became known as the "Hillbilly Highway". The same period saw similar migrations from the Ozarks and other poor rural folk such as the Okees from dustbowl destroyed communities migrating west to California. As is true with any derogatory and hate filled stereotype the term Hillbilly and Okee grew to mean any person or group of person that was viewed negatively, regardless of origin or circumstance. The advent of the interstate highway system and television brought many previously isolated communities into mainstream United States culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The Internet continues this integration.

The stereotype of intermarriage, like many stereotypes is born out of ignorance, repetition of unfounded facts and generalities.

As any genealogist can attest to the presence of many families with the same surname does not prove a family connection. As often as not for every  person of a certain surname decent marrying a person of the same surname decent the connection goes so far back as to make the term intermarriage inappropriate even if it is technically correct. In many cases the connection is so many generations removed that finding a connection of two surnames in an isolated area requires going back generations to before the migration to that isolated area. Two Smiths in the same community may derive from two families that were previously in two different states. 

That isn’t two say that all or even a majority of surnames marrying surnames didn’t involve the re-crossing of bloodlines. It happened, but the emphasis on brother marrying sister or aunt was an offensive exageration. The labeling of this as a hillbilly trait would be to ignore the preexistence of the practice of marrying a relative. It is biblical and it is part of the heritage of any descendent of European immigrants. Intermarriage to maintain property and title rights goes back to the dark ages of European history as it was not unusual for nobles and monarchs to get the Pope’s, or church’s sanction of a marriage by making an exception to or acceptance of such and arrangement.

Another contributing factor to the practice of intermarriage being widespread in less populated or isolated areas is our misunderstanding of the original or archaic definition of words that have different connotations in different eras.

  1. The titles Jr. (junior) and Sr. (senior) are used very differently now than they were a hundred or more years ago. Today the titles have come to be parts of our names. John, Sr. and John, Jr., mean father and son, but a hundred (or less) years ago they were mere sub-titles, placeholders or descriptive words attached to names for purposes other than distinguishing between father and son.

    Typically if there was a father and son in a community they would be referred to as John Smith the father or John Smith the son. This is how in more ancient times, before the common use of surnames existed, such surnames as Smithson came about ( historical example: the Viking Eric, and his son Leif Ericson). If they were not father and son they might be distinguished by the term ‘the elder’ or ‘the younger’, but that practice also declined for the same reason that ‘the father’ and ‘the son’ did, people began adopting Elder and Younger as surnames.

    In pre-1900 America if there were two John Smith’s in a community or on a document, whether they were father and son or not, they would be distinguished from each other as senior or junior, based on age, not relationship. In family history research failing to understand the use of these word leads to misidentifying family lines. Accepting the misuse of the terms Sr., and Jr., not only led to false identification of father and son connections but also to the misidentification of marriages between descendents of a sibling and another misidentified non-sibling. Contributing to the intermarriage myth as being more common that it truly was. *note
  2. Similarly, the title ‘cousin’ has a long history of mis-use. In more ancient times it included everyone from a distant aunt or uncle, in-law,  family friend, to the modern use of the child of our uncle or aunt. This practice was common from the first foot placed on Plymouth Rock to the early 1900s. Common examples to these varied uses can be seen in modern cinema in movies like ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Gone With The Wind’. Just like the example of the misinterpretation of the Sr., Jr., titles, the identification of a family friend as a cousin could serve to mis-identify the relationship of a family friend marrying into the family.
  3. And finally we have a modern day culprit that in some cases may lead to the illusion of intermarriages generations later, and that is the modern and cavalier use of the title ‘uncle’ to refer to a close family friend. ie., childhood friends with strong bonds as adults and their two unrelated families encouraging the use of the terms aunt and uncles by their offspring.

In recent decades some members of stereotyped groups have fought back against the negative stereotypes by embracing the negative language of stereotype labels and seeking to redefine them in a positive manner. Quite often this is done through self-effacing humor. A common example is the humor of Jeff Foxworthy through his ‘”You might be a redneck, if…” humor.

While this approach often opens the door to rational discussion of the inappropriateness of stereotyping it can also take on a hostile self-defense mechanism when it fails to stimulate discussion of its basic inappropriateness, becoming a self-effacing version, self-inflicted version of the originally oppressive language.

kissesBecause we have several cases of inter-marriage in our family that, if misidentified, could serve to contribute to the myth of the ‘inbred hillbilly’ we will, under the title ‘Kissing Cousins’ seek to correctly identify and  embrace these marriages as an appropriate strengthening of these family bonds. 

*note: An example of this practice can be found in researching the family of a Rodham Luttrell, in Kentucky during the early 1800s. This Rodham (but not our Rodham) had a son who appeared on census documents as Rodham Jr. Years later, in the same household, Rodham Jr., appeared, but he was about ten years younger?  Later research discovered a document (letter, probate, pension papers or something like that, I can’t remember) in which it was stated by the mother that the first son named Rodham had died and that when the other son named Rodham was born they named him Rodham also. This was not confusing to the family, they completely understood what they were doing, but the census taker was unaware of this and noted both children as JR., instead of the ‘III’ (third). In the document we discover the revelation the mother never refers to either child as Jr., simply “… ‘my first son’ and ‘after his death we named our next son Rodham….”, no use of the title Jr. or Sr.

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