“An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the U.S.” by Calvin Beale, 1972 article

An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the Unites States

by Calvin L. Beale
American Anthropologist 74 (1972): 704-710 1

Mention is made of the decreasing proportion of endogamous marriages in recent times. The essentially rural nature of these racial isolates is pointed out, and the general societal trend of rural depopulation is stated to be affecting their size and continued existence. A suggested list of research needs is offered.

In about 1890, a young Tennessee woman asked a state legislator, “Please tell me what is a Melungeon?” “A Melungeon,” said he, “isn’t a nigger, and he isn’t an Indian, and he isn’t a White man. God only knows what he is. I should call him a Democrat, only he always votes the Republican ticket” (Dromgoole 18901: 473).

Calvin L. Beale

The young woman, Will Allen Dromgoole, soon sought out the Melungeons in remote Hancock County and lived with them for awhile to determine for herself what they were. 2 Afterward, in the space of a ten page article, she described them as “shiftless,” “idle,” “illiterate,” “thieving,” “defiant,” “distillers of brandy,” “lawless,” “close,” “rogues,” “suspicious,” “inhospitable,” “untruthful,” “cowardly,” “sneaky,” “exceedingly immoral,” and “unforgiving.” She also spoke of their “cupidity and cruelty,” and ended her work by concluding, “The most that can be said of one of them is, ‘He is a Malungeon,’ a synonym for all that is doubtful and mysterious – and unclean.” (Dromgoole1891:479). Miss Dromgoole was essentially a sympathetic observer.

The existence of mixed racial populations that constitute a distinctive segment of society is not unique to the United States — needless to say. But this nation must rank near the top in the number of such communities and in their general public obscurity. I refer in particular to groups of real or alleged White-Indian-Negro mixtures (such as the Melungeons) who are not tribally affiliated or traceable with historical continuity to a particular tribe. It is also logical to include a few groups of White-Negro origin that lack the Indian component. The South in particular is rich in such population strains, with all states except Arkansas and Oklahoma having such groups at present or within the twentieth century. (And I would not be surprised to be contradicted on my exception of those two states.)

They are found in the Tidewater areas, the interior Coastal Plain, the Piedmont, the Appalachians, and in the Allegheny-Cumberland Plateaus. They may be Protestant or catholic, of Anglo provenance or French-Spanish. Their mixture may have originated in the area of residence, or they may have come in as racially mixed people. Some are landless, some landed. But they are all marginal men – wary until recently of being Black, aspiring where possible to be White, and subject to rejection and scorn on either hand.

Many themes classically connected with racial marginality occur repeatedly in the history of the groups, such as (to repeat Dromgoole only in part): illegitimate origin; the use of stigmatic group names by the general society; proscription from social intercourse with others on terms of equality; and in particular barriers to upward out-marriage or attendance at White schools; a reputation for violence, drunkenness, and crimes of passion within the group, and for petty thievery against outsiders; the ascription of beauty and sexual attractiveness to the women of the group when young; a reputation for laziness, illiteracy, poverty, and inbreeding; a relegation of settlement to the least desirable land (hilly, sandy, swampy, backwoods); and a preference to withdraw from public attention. These are stereotypes, of course, and exceptions to their validity as public images occur, especially with respect to the mulatto or colored Creole groups of the Gulf Coast.

At least a few of the groups clearly originated in the period well before the Revolution – even in the seventeenth century in Maryland and Virginia. They do not seem to be viewed in public records as communities or elements in society until after the Revolution. Gradually during the nineteenth century, and continuing to the present day, they came to local public notice in one way or another as individual groups, but usually with no recognition of the fact that such communities have been a common phenomenon throughout the East and South. Questions relating to legal racial status, jury duty, voting, taxation, schools, inheritance, census enumeration, civil disorder, crime, and health have been prominent among issues that have brought public attention. Some examples from different times and places follow.

In 1791, the Turks of South Carolina petitioned the legislature to be recognized as White and not as free Negroes. Somewhat later their right to sit on juries was challenged and their patron, General Thomas Sumter, vouched for them (Kaye 1953: 153).

In 1823, another South Carolina group with such classic triracial surnames as Locklear, Oxendine, Chavis, and Sweat was reported as delinquent in taxes but difficult to find because “of the peculiar situation of their place of residence.” (Price 1953:153).

In Mobile, a Creole Fire Company was organized in 1819 and remained independent well into the present century. 3

In 1840-41, North Carolina legislative papers describe how, “The County of Robeson is cursed with a free colored population that migrated originally from the districts around the Roanoke and Neuse Rivers…Having no regard for character they are under no restraint but what the law imposes. They are great topers, and so long as they can procure the exhilarating draught seem to forget entirely the comfort of their families.” 4

In 1842, a member of a group in present day Vinton County, Ohio, that I have heard referred to only as “the half breeds,” sued the township trustees for refusing him the right to vote because he was partly of Negro ancestry. He lost his suit at the county court level but won a reversal in the state supreme court (Thacker vs. Hawk).

In 1856, voting by the free colored people (present day Red Bones) of Ten Mile Creek Precinct in what is now Allen Parish, Louisiana, became a source of public concern. Several were tried for illegal voting – for free Negroes did not have the franchise – but they were acquitted when their colored ancestry could not be proven and the judge would not permit the jury to evaluate them by their appearance (Shugg 1936).

In 1857, Frederic Law Olmstead noted and publicized in his book Journey Through Texas the skirmishes and murders that took place in the Sabine country of east Texas between the “Moderators” and “Regulators” based on friction with the local mixed bloods of Louisiana Red Bone origin (Olmstead 1959: 164-166).

In 1860, the census taker in Calhoun County, Florida, noted, “The Free Negroes in this county are mixed blooded, almost white, and have intermarried with a low class of whites. Have no trade, occupation or town of their own. Their personal property consists of cattle and hogs. They make no produce except corn, peas, and potatoes and very little of that. They are a lazy, indolent, and worthless race” (Free Inhabitants Census 1860). This was the Dead Lake or Scott’s Ferry group, of South Carolina tri-racial origin.

During the Civil War and Reconstruction era, Henry Berry Lowry, a folk-hero of the group now known as the Lumbee Indians, led a band of fugitives and outlaws in Robeson County, North Carolina. Disorder requiring Federal troops continued for some years until Lowry and others were killed (Rights 1947).

In the mid-1880s, this group was provided with separate schools and Indian status by the state – beginning a procedure that spread to several other groups (Ibid).

In 1930-31, the Virginia Registrar of Vital Statistics endeavored to prevent mixed bloods from being accepted as Indians in the U. S. Census. The Bureau declined to change the original returns, but footnoted the published results of the Virginia census in four counties to note that the count of Indians, “includes a number of persons whose classification as Indians has been questioned.” This included the Amherst County “Issues” and several of the groups that the anthropologist Frank Speck had concluded were the mixed survivors of the Powhatan Confederacy.

During the 1950s, the Wesorts of Southern Maryland came to the attention of physicians and dentists in the Washington area because of one of the most serious ands varied complexes of genetic diseases and anomalies ever recorded. 6

In September 1969, a number of Indian (Brass Ankle) parents in Dorchester County, South Carolina, were arrested for attempting to enroll their children in a public school other than the small segregated one that had traditionally been provided them. 7

The establishment of separate schools for the racial isolates was a major factor in maintaining group identity. Typically, the mixed bloods were denied enrollment in white schools and declined to attend Negro schools. In some states, separate public schools were provided for them. This was particularly true in North Carolina where the ultimate in triracial school systems was created – one that included a separate college. In other areas, only the operation of mission schools by churches provided any educational facilities at all. Disputes over the racial background of children attempting to enter either local white schools or the separate schools were common.

So long as segregated public schools were permitted, and so long as small rural elementary schools were common and high school education was not often sought, the separate school pattern was feasible. But in recent decades, the school situation of the mixed-blood communities has changed rapidly, sometimes through law suits, sometimes without. Most of the mission schools have been closed or made part of the public system. Most of the rural one and two room schools have been consolidated into larger integrated schools. Conditions have changed so steadily that without an up-to-the-minute survey it is impossible to speak definitively about the extent of separate schooling that still exists. Essentially it is no longer a characteristic of mixed racial communities.

Where separate schools have been closed, the church is usually the only formal social arrangement that continues to reflect the existence of a mixed racial community, and that reinforces the endogamous marriage patterns of the past. Church separatism has never been complete and is probably declining, but there are still many examples of congregations comprised entirely or largely of mixed racial populations.

Interest in the racial isolates by anthropologists began in the late nineteenth century, stimulated, I should say, by the emergence of the Robeson County, North Carolina, people as Croatan Indians and the suggestion of their descent from the Lost Colony. At the Smithsonian, James Mooney conducted a mail inquiry through postmasters in 1889 in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina seeking information on people of reputed Indian descent. He received responses that related not only to the Powhatan tribes that seem to have been his principal interest, but that also identified the Wesorts, the Guineas of western Maryland, the Amherst County Issues, and the group that later emerged as the North Carolina Haliwa. It is unfortunate that someone could not have followed up all of Mooney’s leads at the time, for it was more than a half-century later before Gilbert produced the first scientific inquiries into the Wesorts and Guineas, and another ten years before I and others visited the Haliwa. Mooney’s replies, incidentally, are still on file at the Smithsonian.

Frank Speck followed in the 1920s and later with extensive inquiry into the eastern Virginia groups – usually regarded as Negroes locally – who appeared to show authentic evidence of Indian origin though cultural survivals. But perhaps because of the tribalized Indian focus of American anthropology, very little later anthropological work dealt with the mixed racial isolates. Sociologists, educators, journalists, geographers, and local historians gave some attention to the groups, and more lately genetic research and accounts by the members of the isolates themselves have appeared.

In terms of today’s research needs, it is already a generation too late to pursue some of the questions that would have been relevant earlier. Some of the smaller groups have for all practical purposes disappeared. The practice or knowledge of handicrafts or of distinctive food habits, hunting practices, or folkways is gone or rapidly disappearing. Increasing outmarriage makes meaningful genetic studies less feasible. And the abolition of legal segregation reduces the likelihood of the groups continuing as separate and readily identifiable elements of local society.

But there is still worthwhile research to be undertaken, whether one is satisfied with knowledge for its own sake or insists on socially significant inquiries. I would suggest the following topics relating to Southern groups as relatively untouched by research or in need of a modern appraisal:

(1) The Goins family. Beyond a doubt, the surname Goins (with its many variations in spelling) is the most widespread and one of the oldest and most reliably indicative surnames of tri-racial origin in the United States. I have documented its existence among mixed bloods in more than thirty-five counties of seven states. The Goinses were mixed in Colonial days in Virginia, and both of the Carolinas. The name is found today among the Lumbee, the Melungeons, the Smilings, the Red Bones, the Ohio Guineas, and in various other parts of Ohio, Tennessee and North Carolina where none of these terms are used. Some are White, some Indian, and some Negro, in current status. An investigation of the Goinses, their origins and traditions, their dispersal through the South and the old Northwest territory and their status today would touch almost the whole fabric of the tri-racial phenomenon.

(2) Socio-psychological studies of the mixed blood people. The precarious social acceptance of the mixed bloods by the White, Negro, or Indian elements of society has created problems of psychological insecurity for many of them that the average person never experiences. Berry touches on this issue in his work, but a study focusing on it is needed (Berry 1963: 212).

(3) Gulf Coast Creoles. Other than Horace Mann Bond’s valuable article of nearly forty years ago (Bond 1931), I have not seen work on the Creole populations of the Gulf Coast (Mississippi, Mobile Bay, Pensacola). These people of French-Spanish and Negro origin have an interesting history, a comparatively high degree of social stability, and respectability in the eyes of the Whites; and considerable documentation is available on their origins and social history. A general research treatment on any one of these groups would be both interesting and useful.

(4) The Tennessee groups outside Hancock County. Most all work relating to Tennessee has focused on the Hancock County Melungeons. But there are a number of other areas in Tennessee where unstudied tri-racial groups are found – sometimes related in the past to the Hancock County people and usually derived from mixed blood origins in the Carolinas or Virginia. In addition, an unrelated Tennessee group of White and Indian descent known as the Upper Cumberland River Cherokee has surfaced in the last several years in Scott County and adjoining McCreary County, Kentucky, asserting its Indianess in a rather vigorous way to officials in Washington.

(5) The Red Bones of Louisiana and Texas deserve research attention. Given the number of people and counties involved, it is surprising that they have not received more. Or perhaps it is not surprising, in view of the sensitivity of the population to the subject of origins.

(6) The Smilings of Robeson County, North Carolina are of particular interest for their interplay is not only with the White and Negro populations but also with the surrounding Lumbee people from whom they appear not to have received full acceptance. The groups has an antebellum origin in Sumter County, South Carolina, but migrated to Robeson. What were the circumstances that impelled this long established population to leave, but that did not affect the Sumter County Turks similarly?

I have not mentioned specific studies of a more conventional anthropological nature, such as Indian cultural survivals or linguistic studies, but here, too, there are still positive results to be obtained, if I may judge from the recent fieldwork in several groups by Claude Medford (personal communication), or Everett’s study of language among the Clifton red Bone community in Louisiana (Everett 1958).

In 1950, I estimated the tri-racial isolates in their rural and small town settings to number 75,000 people I do not think the number is less today, primarily because of the growth of the Lumbee. But many of the isolates – particularly those of non-Indian status – can be said to be in a process of decline or even dissolution. They have with a few exceptions been rural communities, and in the last half century have experienced the same heavy outmigration to a variety of urban destinations as have rural people in general. Thus despite typically high fertility, many of the isolates have dwindled in size. The special racial status is not generally transferred in a group context to urban environments. Secondly, the frequency of outmarriage and assimilation into either the White or Negro populations has greatly increased. I have found this in every group whose marriage records I have examined. 3 Harte has rather thoroughly documented it for the Maryland Wesorts (Harte 1959: 218).

Given this trend, I think the odds are against the survival of groups that do not have a concentrated core of at least several hundred members and that are no longer distinctly different in appearance or status from the local White or Negro populations. Both severe lack of local economic opportunity or rapid local population growth seem to militate against group survival. In the first instance, the population disperses to seek opportunity elsewhere, and in the latter case the intrusion of other people or changes in employment and residential patterns facilitate a breakdown in cohesion.

It will be interesting to observe the fate of the Lumbee in the future, for in this case the local numbers of people involved are large (26,000 in Robeson County in 1970, and 7,000 in nine nearby counties). The local tobacco economy is under some strain, but with an acceptable official social status as Indian, a large pool of potential marriage partners, a fair amount of non-agricultural job opportunities, and a fund of history and legend in which to have some pride, this group – along with several others – may well continue indefinitely in its local setting, although surely not without change.

MHA President Wayne Winkler with Calvin L. Beale, recipient of the MHA Lifetime Achievement Award, June 2004

In terms of today’s research needs, it is already a generation too late to pursue some of the questions that would have been relevant earlier. Some of the smaller groups have for all practical purposes disappeared. The practice or knowledge of handicrafts or of distinctive food habits, hunting practices, or folkways is gone or rapidly disappearing. Increasing outmarriage makes meaningful genetic studies less feasible. And the abolition of legal segregation reduces the likelihood of the groups continuing as separate and readily identifiable elements of local society.

But there is still worthwhile research to be undertaken, whether one is satisfied with knowledge for its own sake or insists on socially significant inquiries. I would suggest the following topics relating to Southern groups as relatively untouched by research or in need of a modern appraisal:

(1) The Goins family. Beyond a doubt, the surname Goins (with its many variations in spelling) is the most widespread and one of the oldest and most reliably indicative surnames of tri-racial origin in the United States. I have documented its existence among mixed bloods in more than thirty-five counties of seven states. The Goinses were mixed in Colonial days in Virginia, and both of the Carolinas. The name is found today among the Lumbee, the Melungeons, the Smilings, the Red Bones, the Ohio Guineas, and in various other parts of Ohio, Tennessee and North Carolina where none of these terms are used. Some are White, some Indian, and some Negro, in current status. An investigation of the Goinses, their origins and traditions, their dispersal through the South and the old Northwest territory and their status today would touch almost the whole fabric of the tri-racial phenomenon.

(2) Socio-psychological studies of the mixed blood people. The precarious social acceptance of the mixed bloods by the White, Negro, or Indian elements of society has created problems of psychological insecurity for many of them that the average person never experiences. Berry touches on this issue in his work, but a study focusing on it is needed (Berry 1963: 212).

(3) Gulf Coast Creoles. Other than Horace Mann Bond’s valuable article of nearly forty years ago (Bond 1931), I have not seen work on the Creole populations of the Gulf Coast (Mississippi, Mobile Bay, Pensacola). These people of French-Spanish and Negro origin have an interesting history, a comparatively high degree of social stability, and respectability in the eyes of the Whites; and considerable documentation is available on their origins and social history. A general research treatment on any one of these groups would be both interesting and useful.

(4) The Tennessee groups outside Hancock County. Most all work relating to Tennessee has focused on the Hancock County Melungeons. But there are a number of other areas in Tennessee where unstudied tri-racial groups are found – sometimes related in the past to the Hancock County people and usually derived from mixed blood origins in the Carolinas or Virginia. In addition, an unrelated Tennessee group of White and Indian descent known as the Upper Cumberland River Cherokee has surfaced in the last several years in Scott County and adjoining McCreary County, Kentucky, asserting its Indianess in a rather vigorous way to officials in Washington.

(5) The Red Bones of Louisiana and Texas deserve research attention. Given the number of people and counties involved, it is surprising that they have not received more. Or perhaps it is not surprising, in view of the sensitivity of the population to the subject of origins.

(6) The Smilings of Robeson County, North Carolina are of particular interest for their interplay is not only with the White and Negro populations but also with the surrounding Lumbee people from whom they appear not to have received full acceptance. The groups has an antebellum origin in Sumter County, South Carolina, but migrated to Robeson. What were the circumstances that impelled this long established population to leave, but that did not affect the Sumter County Turks similarly?

I have not mentioned specific studies of a more conventional anthropological nature, such as Indian cultural survivals or linguistic studies, but here, too, there are still positive results to be obtained, if I may judge from the recent fieldwork in several groups by Claude Medford (personal communication), or Everett’s study of language among the Clifton Red Bone community in Louisiana (Everett 1958).

In 1950, I estimated the tri-racial isolates in their rural and small town settings to number 75,000 people I do not think the number is less today, primarily because of the growth of the Lumbee. But many of the isolates – particularly those of non-Indian status – can be said to be in a process of decline or even dissolution. They have with a few exceptions been rural communities, and in the last half century have experienced the same heavy outmigration to a variety of urban destinations as have rural people in general. Thus despite typically high fertility, many of the isolates have dwindled in size. The special racial status is not generally transferred in a group context to urban environments. Secondly, the frequency of outmarriage and assimilation into either the White or Negro populations has greatly increased. I have found this in every group whose marriage records I have examined. 3 Harte has rather thoroughly documented it for the Maryland Wesorts (Harte 1959: 218).

Given this trend, I think the odds are against the survival of groups that do not have a concentrated core of at least several hundred members and that are no longer distinctly different in appearance or status from the local White or Negro populations. Both severe lack of local economic opportunity or rapid local population growth seem to militate against group survival. In the first instance, the population disperses to seek opportunity elsewhere, and in the latter case the intrusion of other people or changes in employment and residential patterns facilitate a breakdown in cohesion.

It will be interesting to observe the fate of the Lumbee in the future, for in this case the local numbers of people involved are large (26,000 in Robeson County in 1970, and 7,000 in nine nearby counties). The local tobacco economy is under some strain, but with an acceptable official social status as Indian, a large pool of potential marriage partners, a fair amount of non-agricultural job opportunities, and a fund of history and legend in which to have some pride, this group – along with several others – may well continue indefinitely in its local setting, although surely not without change.


NOTES

1 Prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the Southern Anthropological Society, Athens, Georgia, April 9, 1970.

2 I have used the modern spelling, Melungeon, except where quoting Dromgoole.

3 Information from present day Creoles.

4 Manuscript, North Carolina Legislative Reports (Robeson County).

5 Correspondence files of the Bureau of the Census; see also The Indian Populations of the United States 1937:20

6Various published studies of the research work led by Cark J. Witkop, Jr., of the National Institute of Health.

7 See Charleston Evening Post, various issues beginning September 19, 1969.

8 I refer to groups such as the Pools of Pennsylvania, the Amherst and Rockbridge County Issues, the Shifletts, the Poquoson and Skeetertown groups of Virginia, the Dead Lake Group in Florida, the Cane River Mulattoes and Natchitoches Red Bones of Louisiana, and the Mobile area Creoles.


REFERENCES CITED

Berry, Brewton, 1963, Almost White. New York: Macmillan,

Bond, Horace Mann, 1931, “Two Racial Islands of Alabama.” American Journal of Sociology 36:552-567.

Dromgoole, Will Allen, 1891, “The Malungeons.” The Arena 3:470-479

Everett, Russell, 1958, “The Speech of the Tri-Racial Group Comprising the Community of Clifton, Louisiana.” Master’s thesis, Louisiana State University.

Free inhabitants, 1860 Census, Florida 1860. National Archives 1:129.

Harte, Thomas J., 1959, “Trends in Mate Selection in a Tri-Racial Isolate.’ Social Forces 37 (3):215-221.

Indian Population of the United States and Alaska 1930, 1937 Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Kaye, Ira, 1963, “The Turks.” New South; June.

Olmstead, Frederic Law, 1959, The Slave States New York: Putnam’s Sons.

Price, Edward T., 1953, “A Geographical Analysis of White-Negro-Indian Racial Mixtures in the Eastern Unites States.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 43(2): 138-155.

Rights, Douglas L., 1947, The American Indian in North Carolina. Durham: Duke University Press.

Thacker vs. Hawk, 1887, Ohio Reports 11:337

Shugg, Roger W., 1936, “Negro Voting in the Antebellum South.” Journal of Negro History 21 (4): 357-384.