In 1996, I was honored to be invited to contribute an endorsement for the back cover of a book I have reread several times now: Paschal Beverly Randolph by John Patrick Deveney. Here is what I wrote: “It is fascinating, because the subject’s life was filled with dramatic adventure and hardship, and touched upon so many issues of the day. Deveney’s work is imporant in itself as a ground-breaking study of an intriguing character. I can think of no figure in nineteenth-century Western occultism who has been more unjustly ignored than Randolph. Deveney rescues him from obscurity in this biography, which will be regarded as authoritative for many years to come.”
As monumental and accomplished as this biography was and is, it suffers from one limitation my own SUNY Press books did: written before the age of Internet genealogy. Tracing some unexplained mysteries and loose ends in Randolph’s life, I will start at the beginning with the man he named as his father: William Beverly Randolph, as he spelled it. Paschal claims descent from white Virginia aristocrats, Native Americans, Spaniards, Arabs, and Africans (sometimes said to be from Madagascar) and one story was that he was a Pocahontas descendant. William Beverley Randolph definitely was, but whether he was really the father of Paschal is unsettled by the stories told. He admitted that his parents were not married when he was born in New York in 1825, but claimed that they later were married. The real William Beverley Randolph was married with several children by then, and spent his career in Washington, DC. This does not rule out an illegitimate mixed race son in New York, but how he gets into the story at all is a mystery. I have accumulated quite a store of new clues on ancestry sites.
From a 2020 interview with Melungeon Heritage Association President Heather Andolina for their annual Union held via podcast:
One of the most intriguing connections to me is that he takes this name Randolph, even though apparently only the best evidence is a father named Randon, R-A-N-D-O-N. Better evidence that his mother was free black, but allegedly born in Vermont, which on the one hand makes you think that, “How many black people of any kind were there in Vermont?” But on the other hand, any ones that were there were free because they were the first state to abolish slavery. But then he said he had Virginia Randolph ancestry. And to me, a lot of this reminds me of the Jefferson Hemings saga because Thomas Jefferson’s oldest bi-racial son, by Sally Hemings, was named Beverly Hemings. Thomas Jefferson’s mother was a Randolph. Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha AKA, Patsy, married a Randolph. Therefore his grandchildren were… So apart from what if this guy was just making this up? Probably because he liked the sound of the name, but at the same time, probably there’s some kind of family connection that he would even want to make this claim.
So, both the Beverly and the Randolph sound interesting in terms of the mixed ancestry, but more interesting or more Melungeon like is that he definitely acknowledges aristocratic European as well as African American ancestry. Very emphatically claims Native American ancestry. Talks about it to some extent, but also claims Iberian and Middle Eastern. If you looked at Randolph’s ever-changing ethnic self-identifications, it’s like a catalog of everything that was ever said about Melungeons during the same time period. And yet his life is entirely lived in the North. So remains mysterious how much connection he has to Melungeons genealogically.
And yet one thing that I encountered frequently enough when working with MHA is the mixed ancestry folks in the Northeast have a lot in common with the ones in the Southeast. And even as far away as Nova Scotia, you meet people of mixed appearance with tri-racial heritage that once you start comparing notes, the stories sound similar. So I think Randolph is probably an example of a tri-racial New Yorker who doesn’t know a whole lot of truth about his heritage, but has heard all kinds of stories. And he’s just repeating all the stories he’s heard growing up and throwing in a few of his own. That’s the impression I get. And to me, that resonates tremendously with what Melungeons were saying about themselves at exactly the same time period.