Rock 'n' Roll
Was a Metis
Photograph of Elvis’
of us stands on the shoulders of our ancestors. So too Elvis Presley;
who was perhaps one of, if not the most famous Rock n’ Roller of the
20th Century. He
was in his lifetime celebrated around the world, and remains the
undisputed King of Rock n Roll even today.
His genealogy provides us with a fascinating view of the
influences that helped form his unique character. We begin our story
with Elvis' maternal heritage through his mother, Gladys. We wish to
credit Elaine Dundy and her fine book, Elvis and Gladys,
for the following narrative
great-great-great-grandmother, Morning White Dove (1800-1835), was a
full-blooded Cherokee Indian. She married William Mansell, a settler in
western Tennessee, in 1818. William's father, Richard Mansell, had been
a soldier in the Revolutionary War. Mansell is a French name--its
literal translation is the man from Le Mans. The Mansells migrated from
Norman France to Scotland, and then later to Ireland. In the 18th
century the family came to the American Colonies.
appellation "white" in Morning Dove's name refers to her
status as a friendly Indian. Early American settlers called peaceable
Indians "white," while "red" was the designation for
warring Indians or those who sided with the British in the Revolutionary
War. It was common for male settlers in the West to marry
"white" Indians as there was a scarcity of females on the
many young men in the American Southwest, William Mansell fought with
Andrew Jackson in the Indian Wars of the early nineteenth century. He
fought with Old Hickory in Alabama, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and
later in Florida too. Returning to Tennessee from the Indian Wars,
William Mansell married Morning White Dove. Elaine Dundy says of the
marriage, he (William Mansell) gained "age-old Indian knowledge of
the American terrain; of forests and parries; of crops and game; of
protection against the climate; of medicine lore, healing plants as well
as something in which the Indians were expert--the setting of broken
bones." Moreover, added to Elvis's lineage were Morning White
Dove's ruddy Indian complexion and fine line of cheek.
many other settlers, the newlyweds migrated to Alabama from Tennessee to
claim lands garnered in the Indian Wars. The Mansells settled in Marion
County in northeast Alabama near the Mississippi border. The
Scots-Irish, like William Mansell, were the predominant settlers of
Alabama. One-tenth of the population in colonial America was Scots-Irish
(Celts) at the time of the American Revolution. And a very interesting
group they were. The Anglican Reverend Woodmason had this to say about
the Scots-Irish women of William Mansell's day.
wore nothing but thin shifts and a thin petticoat underneath. They are
sensual and promiscuous. They draw their shift as tight as possible to
the body, and pin it close, to show the roundness of their breasts, and
slender waists (for they are generally fined shaped) and draw their
petticoat close to their hips to show the fineness of their limbs--so
that they might as well be in puri naturalibus."
Scots-Irish in America were a passionate community living close to the
earth. They disdained the niceties of their British neighbors. Of this
Reverend Woodmason had to say," they delight in their present low,
lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life, and seem not desirous of
changing it. These people despise knowledge, and instead of honoring a
learned person...they despise and ill-treat them..."
were other views on the passionate lifestyle of the Scots-Irish,
however. James Hall of Philadelphia described a young, Scots-Irish
frontiersman in this way. "He strode among us with the step of
Achilles...I thought I could see in that man, one of the progenitors of
an unconquerable race; his face presented the traces of a spirit quick
to resent--he had the will to dare, and the power to execute, there was
something in his look which bespoke a disdain of control, and an absence
of constraint in all his movements indicating an habitual independence
of thought and action."
of Elvis in these words: the will to dare and the power to execute, a
disdain of control in all his movements indicating a habitual
independence of thought and action. This is the Scots-Irish heritage
from which Elvis Presley issued. In his genes he carried an independence
of blood, the will to dare and the power to execute. Many influences
formed Elvis Presley besides the genealogical, yet this description has
a haunting accuracy.
White Dove and William Mansell prospered in Alabama. Their land was
fertile and they built a substantial house near the town of Hamilton.
They had three offspring, the eldest of who was John Mansell, born in
1828, and Elvis's great-great grandfather. Elaine Dundy has this to say of
John Mansell. He was "half Scots-Irish, half Indian, (but) seems to
have grown up wholly "wild Injun." Although by the time he was
twenty-two he had married Elizabeth "Betsy" Gilmore and they
would have some nine or ten children together, "settling down"
can hardly be the phrase for what he was devoting his life to. John was
one of those sexually overactive men who seem intent on populating the
universe with children. Both his legitimate and illegitimate descendants
still abound in northwest Alabama and in northeast Mississippi."
Mansell squandered the legacy of the family farm. In 1880 he abdicated
to Oxford, Mississippi, changing his name to Colonel Lee Mansell. His
sons left Hamilton to seek their fortunes in the town of Saltillo,
Mississippi, near Tupelo, the birth place of Elvis Presley. The third of
John Mansell's sons, White Mansell, became the patriarch of the family
with John Mansell's removal to Oxford. White Mansell was Elvis's
Mansell married Martha Tackett, a neighbor in Saltillo. Of note is the
religion, Jewish, of Martha's mother, Nancy Tackett. It was unusual to
find a Jewish settler in Mississippi during this time. All accounts
point to White Mansell as a hard-working, upright, provider for a clan
increasingly besieged by economic factors beyond their control. The
Civil War fractured the Southern economy and soul. Cotton, the backbone
of the South, was subject to financial depressions such as the Panic of
the deep South suffered numerous outbreaks of yellow fever during the
mid-nineteenth century. Add to this the extraordinary number of
fatalities suffered in not only the Civil War but also the Mexican War,
and the devastation of Southern culture in the nineteenth century was
complete. Like many other Southern families, the Mansells were stretched
to the breaking point. They sold their lands and became sharecroppers.
The prosperity of the South, along with the fortunes of the family, had
the life of a sharecropper was not unremittingly grim. They had music
and dancing and the comfort of religion. Tenant farmers, sharecroppers,
were often invited to the owner's house on Saturday nights for square
dancing and parties. Sundays there were picnics on the ground after
church. Although there was little hope of escaping poverty, it was a
life of community with some gayety.
now Doll Mansell, Gladys Presley's mother and Elvis's grandmother, of
whom Elaine Dundy had this to say. "And the gayest of all the girls
at these gatherings, the acknowledged beauty, was the slim, exquisite,
tubercular, porcelain-featured, spoiled third daughter of White Mansell...Doll."
She was a delicate beauty and the apple of her father's eye. She did not
marry until twenty-seven, and then to her first cousin, Robert Smith.
Smith was the son of White Mansell's sister, Ann. Ann Mansell was a
striking woman of dignity and stature, a commanding presence until her
death at eighty-six. Bob Smith and Doll Mansell, Elvis Presley's
maternal grandparents, were first cousins. This was a genetic
intensification, a doubling, of the family lineage. The marrying of
first cousins, with its intensities and possibility for dysfunction, was
common in insulated communities of the agrarian South. Like Doll, Bob
Smith was very handsome, his Indian blood evidenced in a noble brow,
good bone structure, even features and dark, deep-set eyes. His black
hair was dark as coal.
would be bedridden from tuberculosis throughout the marriage. Like his
uncle and father-in-law, White Mansell, Bob Smith labored long
and hard as a sharecropper, and occasional moonshiner, to support his
invalid wife and eight children. The noose of poverty tightened on the
family, and on Elvis's mother, Gladys.
Dundy: "Genetically speaking, what produced Elvis is quite a
mixture. At the beginning, to French Norman blood was added Scots-Irish
blood. And when you then add to these the Indian strain supplying the
mystery and the Jewish strain supplying spectacular showmanship, and you
overlay all this with his circumstances, social conditioning, and
religious upbringing--specifically his Southern poor white, First
Assembly of God upbringing--you have the enigma that was Elvis."
is known of Elvis's paternal heritage through his father, Vernon. The
first Pressley in America was an Anglo-Irishman, a Celt, David Pressley,
who settled with his son, Andrew Pressley, Senior, at New Bern, North
Carolina in 1740. Not until the third generation is there significant
historical record of the Pressleys, beginning with Andrew Pressley,
Junior. Andrew fought in the last major battle of the Revolutionary War
in the South, the Battle of Eutah Springs, South Carolina, 1781.
history of the Presleys picks up again with Dunnan Pressley, Junior, in
the middle of the 19th century. Dunnan married Martha Jane Wesson at
Fulton, Mississippi, the seat of Itawamba County, in 1861. Like many
others, Dunnan was probably drawn to the region by cheap land offered to
veterans of the Mexican War. In those days richly timbered acreage went
for twenty-five cents an acre. Dunnan and Jane had two daughters,
Rosalinda and Rosella, Elvis's great-grandmother.
Civil War broke out and Dunnan joined the Confederate Army--twice! On
each enlistment he collected a three hundred dollar bounty for his
horse, and each time he quickly deserted his regimen. Having twice
deserted honor and duty with the Confederacy, Dunnan next abandoned his
wife and two daughters. Mrs. Robie Stacy, his granddaughter, had this to
about it. "My mother told me that when she and her sister were just
little babies, their grandparents had taken them to church one Sunday
and when they came back, their father, Dunnan, was gone. He went back to
his other wife and child." Apparently bigamy can be added to
Dunnan's character defects.
Presley's daughter, Rosella, internalized the abandonment and re-enacted
it throughout her life. Beginning at age nineteen and continuing over 28
years, Rosella bore nine illegitimate children, never once identifying
her lovers or making any claim on them. The children never knew of their
fathers as Rosella stubbornly, and resourcefully, supported them through
sharecropping. Mrs. Doshia Steele, one of Rosella's daughters, said this
of her plight. "I can't remember anyone ever talking about who our
father was...It was a big mystery when we were children. My mother just
didn't talk about it."
paternal line continued through Rosella's son, Jessie Presley
(1896-1973), Elvis's grandfather. As would be expected, J.D. Presley
re-enacted his father abandonment by making weak bonds
with his own children. His brother, Calhoun Presley, had this to say
about J.D. "For most of his life Jessie drifted from one job to
another all over Mississippi, Kentucky, and Missouri. He was a
sharecropper in the summer and a lumberjack in the winter. Jessie worked
hard and played hard. He was an honest man, but he enjoyed drinking
whiskey and was often involved in drunken bar brawls. As a result,
Jessie spent many a night sobering up in jail.
was a slim, handsome man about six feet tall with raven black hair. I
reckon Elvis inherited his looks from Jessie. He was also a dapper
dresser. Clothes were one the most important things in his life. We used
to call him "the lawyer" because he dressed so smart. He loved
fine clothes. His favorite suit was a tailor-made brown one with pearl
buttons. He saved up for months until he had enough money to buy
it--twenty-four dollars. He paraded around town like a peacock, with his
head in the air and a cane in his hand. Owning expensive clothes was his
only ambition in life. He hated poverty and he didn't want people to
know he was poor. He felt that if he wore a tailor-made suit, people
would look up to him."
1913 J.D. married Minnie Mae Hood, "Grandma Dodger," who was
to live with Elvis throughout his adult life. In 1916 their first child
was born, Vernon Presley, Elvis Presley's father. It was toward Vernon
that much of Jessie's abandoning was directed. Vernon was scared of
J.D., any transgression of his father's rules could provoke a beating.
This, combined with Jessie's drunken and philandering ways, caused
permanent harm to their relationship. In many respects it was as if
Vernon had no father as Jessie repeated his own father abandonment on
his children. This theme of father abandonment reverberates throughout
Elvis's paternal lineage. It is a strong clue to the abandonment that
Elvis felt, and perpetrated, in his own life.
Character is like a symphony, many themes and strains go into its making. In Elvis we see the landscape of America, the erotic spontaneity of Scots-Irish settlers and the facial lines of Indian warriors; there is the dignity and dissolution of the ante-bellum South, as well as the theme of love of family and its abandonment. Combined with his religious upbringing, a subject deserving its own consideration, Elvis's genealogy holds
a mirror with which to see “Elvis” the man.
1935 – 1977
Long Live the King!