A Report of Research on Lumbee Origins by Robert K. Thomas – Part 6 – Free Black Descendants Theory

A continuation of Robert K. Thomas’s Report of Research on Lumbee Origins.  This was transcribed from a photocopy of an original report at the Wilson Library, UNC, Chapel Hill, NC in June of 2012.   Any comments I have will be made at the end of these transcriptions and it will be evident that they are mine.  To see more about Robert K. Thomas, go to:  http://works.bepress.com/robert_thomas/

Now there are two hypothesis of Lumbee origin which are not related to descent from an Indian group or groups.  These two hypotheses have been devised primarily by non-anthropological and non-historical scholars – sociologists, geographers, population demographers and so forth.

The first of these hypotheses is that the Lumbee are basically the descendants of an old strata of free blacks which came into being before the Revolution, who have absorbed a lot of white blood over time and a small but incidental amount of Indian blood.  This hypothesis was most “spelled out” by a geographer by the name of Price from the University of California who did his doctor’s thesis on “mixed-blood” communities in the South.  As a geographer he could not find any particular geographic explanation for the presence of these communities except that they were usually in out-of-the-way places.  One of the things he did notice was a commonality of family names in a great man of such communities – in Appalachia, in Robeson County, In SC and in western (p 15) Louisiana.  He had an idea, which he did not develop very much, that most of these families has originally come out of northeastern NC.  In fact, his hypothesis was that these families were all that remained of an old free black society which had been widespread over that region of the US.  He doesn’t say so bit it is obvious in his presentation that he thought that most of these communities’ claim to being Indian. and of course Lumbee are one of these communities, was really fraudulent.  Price doesn’t exactly say so but one gets the impression that he feels that the descendant of these old free blacks were trying to escape the stigma of being black and to raise their status by claiming to be Indians.  As I say, this latter is implicit; it isn’t spelled out but it is strongly hinted at.  He does think that these families are descendants of a widespread old free black society in the South.  There are other scholars who hold to this hypothesis and do indeed think that the claim of these communities to being Indian is fraudulent.

There is a glaring weakness in this hypothesis and that is if this notion is correct then all of these communities have been perpetuating a fraud for quite a long time.  One can imagine a single individual moving away from his community into another area and presenting himself as a member of a higher status group.  This has happened in the US many times.  But it is very hard for me to imagine that a whole community would enter into a commonly held “plot” and that no individual member ever exposed the plot and told the truth.  Further, not only is it almost impossible for me to imagine a situation like this in a single community but the fact that there would be widely separate communities and scattered (p 16) family groups who would all maintain this fraudulent identification of Indian racial status is hardly credible.  More than that, if this is fraud it is a fraud which has gone on for a very long time in the southeastern US in these communities.  We have evidence that many of these communities maintained this identification before the Civil War. 

Most scholars in the US, I think, have a distorted picture of Indian status in the general society relative to blacks and whites.  It is true that in most parts of the South after 1900 being an Indian gave you a slight “leg up” over being black.  There are some places, however, in which this is not true even modernly; in Mississippi and some parts of Florida and Louisiana.  But perhaps in the middle South, at least after 1900, being an Indian was of little higher status than being black.  However, this was certainly not the case in the 1700s and not the case in most places in the South before 1850.

In fact, if I as an Indian in the state of NC before the Civil War, I would have kept quiet about it. It was far more advantageous to be black and free in the state of NC in that period than it was to be Indian.  Anyone non-white was classified as free colored.  This included both free blacks, Indians and people who were mixed white and black.  Of course, there were certain disabilities to being classed as free colored.  But more than that, if you were also classed as Indian, there were additional legal disabilities.  For instance, no Indian could own land in the state of NC before 1866.  If you were a free black you had the disabilities of being in the free colored category, but you could own land even though you could not vote (p 17 of report, his page 16) and bear arms.  So that in the state of NC in that time and certain other states in the South it was legally more advantageous to be a free black than to be an Indian.  I don’t think that there was too much difference in social status between free blacks and Indians.

By the Civil War Indians in most of the eastern part of the US had faded out of  public memory and the litteri began to recreate Indians into the stereotype of the noble redman.  Indian status had raised a little above blacks by 1900, but certainly this has been a recent phenomenon.  In order to “buy” Price’s notions you would have to, thus, demonstrate that the “Fraudulent” Indian identification is modern in these communities and we know, in fact, that is it not.  It has been my observation that most folk communities are simply not very concerned with the opinions of outsiders, non-kin.  Certainly they are the most times unaware of their general social status or, at least, understand it only vaguely.  If they are indeed, aware of a low social status they tend to accept it as a given or conversely see it as persecution.  To raise social status by a fraudulent identity might occur to urban, middle class people but such a notion would occur not only the most marginal social deviant in most folk communities.  It is true that the importance of social status or rank has been promoted in most American folk communities by the school system, but this is a rather recent phenomenon.

I have visited two modern communities which have switched their identification from Indian to “colored” or black, largely by virtue of intermarriage.  One such community is Skeetertown in southeastern Virginia which became a black community in the 1880s.  Another is (p 18) Browntown in eastern NC which became colored in the lifetime of older members of this group. They state such a change in identification very matter-of-factly and do not seem so to have suffered from a rank deprivation.  Exactly why an old free black group would so suffer from rank deprivation as to manufacture an Indian identification is not quite clear to me.

Price did contribute to our understanding, however, in suggesting that these family names in common with a great many such “mixed-bloods” lead back in time to northeastern NC as their point of origin.


About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Lumbee. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Report of Research on Lumbee Origins by Robert K. Thomas – Part 6 – Free Black Descendants Theory

  1. Mavis says:

    I assume that the land-ownership laws preventing Natives from owning land,and the stigma of beeing a free black or “person of color” is what led to many families claiming to be “Black Irish” or ” Black Dutch” I have seldom heard this term outside of eastern NC.On many census rolls that I have studied from Bertie,Dobbs,Jones and other counties in that area there are many instances where families living adjacent to one another may share the same name yet some folks are marked as Black or Mixed and the rest pass (at least in the eyes of the census taker) as white.Would it be safe to say that back then a persons race was simply determined by the opinon of the person taking the count?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.