Melungeons, Redbones, and other U.S. Maroons (E3)

The Lumbees and the Klan

On the evening of January 18, 1958, a hundred members of the Ku Klux Klan gathered in Maxton, North Carolina for a rally. They had advertised that their planned marching, speechifying, and cross burning would terrorize and teach respect to the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County. Apparently, the locals were “forgetting their place.”

One Lumbee woman had been dating a White man, and a Lumbee family had moved into a White neighborhood. The Klan had already burned crosses at each of those two homes, and so the large rally was meant to drive the lesson home countywide.

The Klansmen began assembling at 8:00 P.M., shotguns in hand. The Grand Vizier strutted about in full regalia. A huge “KKK” banner was unfurled. A public address system with a microphone was set up. Newspaper reporters and photographers scurried for photo-ops. The Klansmen ignored the 500 Lumbee men who had gathered across the road, also carrying rifles and shotguns.

At a signal, the Lumbees fanned out across the highway, shouting war cries and shooting into the air. The Klansmen dropped their weapons, flags, robes and hoods, jumped into their cars, and raced away, leaving their paraphernalia strewn all about. They had not yet set fire to their cross.

The state police arrived within minutes, escorted the fleeing Klansmen to safety and disarmed the Lumbees. Despite thousands of shots fired, no one had been hurt (except one news photographer who was nicked by a bullet). Only one person was arrested–a Klansman who was too drunk to stand.

The Lumbees then put on a show for the press. They marched around the field of battle, wrapped themselves in the KKK flag, hollered into the microphone, burned the cross, hanged the Grand Wizard in effigy, and a rousing good time was had by all.

The next day newspapers across the nation ran wild with the story. “The Klan had taken on too many Indians!” said Life magazine. “Look Who’s Biting the Dust! Palefaces!” wrote columnist Inez Robb.

That the Indians had finally defeated the palefaces in Robeson County, North Carolina in January of 1958 was the most hilarious story of the week, nationwide.

But wait. Are the Lumbees really American Indians? No one has published an admixture study of the Lumbees since the decoding of the human genome made admixture mapping reliable and consistent. But an older study used blood proteins and craniofacial anthropometry methods (the latter is the method used today by forensic anthropologists when asked by the police to tell the “race” of a skeleton). That study found that the Lumbees were “about forty percent Euro, forty-seven percent Afro, and thirteen percent Native American.”

The Lumbees have the right to call themselves Indians or whatever they wish, of course. They have worked hard to be seen as Native Americans, and some of them deny having African ancestry. The North Carolina legislature formally designated them “Lumbee Indians” in 1953 (the name is from a Robeson County river). The U.S. Congress officially designated them “Lumbee Indians of North Carolina” on June 7, 1956.

And yet, according to the census, there were zero Indians in Robeson County in 1950, although there were 30,000 “mulattos.” In the 1960 census, after legislation, Robeson county’s 30,000 “mulattos” vanished and 30,000 “Lumbee Indians” suddenly appeared. The mulatto “Croatans” had become the “Lumbee Indians.”

Lumbee Junior Miss

Numerous communities, like the Lumbees, are scattered throughout the eastern and southern United States. They are called triracial isolate groups (the anthropological term), maroon communities (the historical term), or mestizos (the sociological term). The Lumbees’ self-reinvention has not been a complete success. The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs refuses to recognize them as legitimate, in part, because of their strong African admixture. Genetically, they are a typical U.S. maroon community.

All such groups descend from Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans who escaped involuntary labor in colonial plantations and formed their own communities on the fringes of civilization.

In 1946, William Gilbert published the first complete survey of these groups in the Southeastern United States. According to him, they comprised, “at least 50,000 persons who were complex mixtures in varying degrees of white, Amerind, and Negro blood.”

Survey of Triracial Communities

The major maroon communities that Gilbert studied were:

  • The Brass Ankles, Red Bones, Red Legs, Turks, and Marlboro Blues of South Carolina
  • The Cajans (not the Acadians of Louisiana) and Creoles of Alabama and Mississippi
  • The Croatans (called the “Lumbees” since 1953) of Robeson County North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia
  • The Guineas, West Hill Indians, Cecil Indians, and Guinea Niggers of West Virginia and Maryland
  • The Issues of Amherst and Rockingham Counties, Virginia
  • The Jackson Whites of New York and New Jersey
  • The Melungeons of the Southern Appalachians, centered on Hancock County Tennessee
  • The Red Bones of Louisiana and Arkansas
  • The Wesorts of southern Maryland

Most of the above names were derogatory epithets given by mainstream society, not self-labels adopted by the maroon communities themselves. Today, the two largest U.S. maroon groups are the Seminoles and the Melungeons.

  Seminoles

The Seminoles of Florida (a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrones or “runaways”) descend from Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans who fled involuntary forced labor in plantation economy of the colonial period. Culturally, the Seminoles are a Native American tribe and speak either Mikasuki or Muskogee.

Melungeons

The Melungeons of the Cumberland Plateau are the largest maroon community to have self-identified as White over the centuries, rather than as Native Americans. During the Jim Crow era, many members denied having even the slightest drop of “Black blood.”

In fact, when Brewton Berry studied these communities in 1960, a friend warned that if he called someone a “Melungeon” to their face, his friends would have to cut his body down from a tree. He was likely to be murdered on the spot. During the Jim Crow period the Melungeons openly threatened and then committed violence upon anyone who suggested that that they were “Negroes” or “Mulattoes.”

Some were able to receive “White” civil documents and avoid their children’s assignment to Negro schools by their willingness to commit mayhem against any official who mistook them for Blacks.

Redbones

Another maroon community that self-identifies as White despite significant African and Native American genetic admixture are the Redbones. They are a triracial ethnic group centered between the Sabine and Calcasiue rivers in western Louisiana.

Like the terms “Melungeon,” “Brass Ankle,” and “Jackson White,” the name “Redbone” originated as an ethnic slur spoken by mainstream society, and the label is still considered an insult by many residents of the region.

The Redbones originated in the western Louisiana “neutral zone.” The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 left a 45-mile-wide strip between the Calcasiue and Sabine rivers, that was contested between Texas (under Spain) and Louisiana (under the United States).

After minor skirmishing, an 1806 agreement between the two nations’ army commanders resulted in the region remaining without military patrols nor police protection until 1821, when the zone was ceded to Louisiana.

During that 15-year “neutral” period, the zone became infested with outlaws who preyed upon travelers and cattle drovers. It also became a haven for families who were persecuted because they did not fit into America’s “check only one box” racial paradigm.

Moors and Nanticokes

The Moors and Nanticokes of Delaware are more typical of maroon communities today in that they do not self-identify as White. Instead, they have split into two branches.

One group considers themselves a Native American tribe (like the Lumbees and Seminoles). The other Moors and Nanticokes simply see themselves as Black, a branch of the African-American ethnic community.

Possibly All One Genetic Population

Recent research suggests that the U.S. maroons are not genetically distinct historical communities, despite their many different names. Y chromosome markers, surnames, and family histories all point to the same conclusion. The many different labels (Redbone, Dominicker, Brass Ankle, etc.) are merely different derogatory local terms for the same widespread people. There is only one large interrelated triracial population strung out along state borders in the southern United States.

The different local names align along the borders of states. Everywhere that they migrated, triracial families clustered along political boundaries so that they could slip back and forth across the border to avoid persecution.

The families of this community migrated freely among regions, seeking only to be left in peace. From the founding of the Republic, they cut roads (migration paths, actually) westward over the Appalachians into the continent’s interior.

Their earliest migration path was the track through Cumberland Gap that enabled the colonization of Kentucky and Tennessee. Their most famous paths include: the Natchez Trace, the Old Federal Road, the National Road, and the Three-Chopped Way through Indian country from Georgia to the Mississippi.

Research of the histories of individual families shows that, far from being adventurous European explorers, many of the first pioneers westwards were ordinary families of mixed ancestry fleeing the persecution of America’s hardening color line.

Importance to the Study of U.S. “Racial” Classification

The maroon communities are potentially important to studying the permeability of the Black/White color line because they may have provided a way for Americans to escape the one-drop rule of the Jim Crow era and pass into the White world. Three points suggest this. The groups have high fractions of African genetic admixture for White Americans. Inflow into the groups from those designated “free people of color” has been steady. And outflow to the White mainstream has also been steady.

That America’s maroon communities have unusually high fractions of African genetic admixture are evident in studies by Pollitzer, Jones, Watts and others. The Lumbees have about 47 percent, and the Melungeons and Redbones have about 5 percent African admixture.

Inflow into these groups by free persons of color has been going on steadily since the mid-1700s. Outflow has also been steady. From 50,000 in 1946 as counted by Gilbert they had grown to at least 77,000 according Beale in 1957.

Between 1943 and 1953 hundreds of thousands of these hill people from the Southern Appalachians fled poverty and isolation and migrated to northern industrial cities. The major economic change they have undergone is that they have been integrated into the mainstream economy. The major social change is that they have become thoroughly White (accepted as suitable marriage partners by Whites, but no longer by Blacks).

And so it seems that during the Jim Crow era, when the rate of Black-to-White endogamous group switching was at an all-time low, significant numbers of Americans crossed the color-line barrier through the Melungeon and other maroon communities. Where it would have been dangerous or difficult to “pass” into the White endogamous group directly from the Black side of the color line, it could still be done by using a maroon community as a way-station or stopping point. An African-American family of European appearance could join the Melungeons, Lumbees, Redbones, or one of the other maroon groups. Then, in a subsequent generation, their descendants could leave Appalachia and join White society in the anonymous industrial cities of the North.

For the detailed text of this topic, complete with footnoted references, citations, and all the peer-reviewed material, visit The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing”  For a recent conference report, visit Redbone Heritage Foundation Conference – 2007.

Click here for an animated YouTube version of this topic.

 

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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.


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