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“Of Portuguese Origin”: Litigating Identity and Citizenship among the “Little Races” in Nineteenth-Century America

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 August 2010

Abstract

The history of race in the nineteenth-century United States is often told as a story of black and white in the South, and white and Indian in the West, with little attention to the intersection between black and Indian. This article explores the history of nineteenth-century America's “little races”—racially ambiguous communities of African, Indian, and European origin up and down the eastern seaboard. These communities came under increasing pressure in the years leading up to the Civil War and in its aftermath to fall on one side or the other of a black-white color line. Drawing on trial records of cases litigating the racial identity of the Melungeons of Tennessee, the Croatans/Lumbee of North Carolina, and the Narragansett of Rhode Island, this article looks at the differing paths these three groups took in the face of Jim Crow: the Melungeons claiming whiteness; the Croatans/Lumbee asserting Indian identity and rejecting association with blacks; the Narragansett asserting Indian identity without rejecting their African origins. Members of these communities found that they could achieve full citizenship in the U.S. polity only to the extent that they abandoned their self-governance and distanced themselves from people of African descent.

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Copyright © the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois 2007

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References

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15. For example, most of the North Carolina racial determination cases discussed in “Litigating Whiteness” involve individuals with names that are probably Croatan/Lumbee.

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23. Letter enclosed in Letter to Wm Toogood, Mashpee, 24 July 1787, Gideon Hawley Letters, MHS, Boston.

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27. Herndon, Ruth Wallis and Sekatau, Ella Wilcox, “The Right to a Name: The Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials in the Revolutionary Era,” Ethnohistory 44 (Summer 1997): 444–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Newell, Margaret Ellen, “The Changing Nature of Indian Slavery in New England, 1670–1720,” in Reinterpreting New England Indians and the Colonial Experience, ed. Calloway, Colin G. and Salisbury, Neal (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2003), 128Google Scholar.

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31. Ibid., 200.

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33. Ibid., 252.

34. See Willis, William S., “Divide and Rule: Red, White, and Black in the Southeast,” Journal of Negro History 48 (July 1963): 157CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35. See Woods, Karen M., “A ‘Wicked and Mischievous Connection’: The Origins of Indian-White Miscegenation Law,” Legal Studies Forum 23 (1999): 67Google Scholar.

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37. Feest, , “Pride and Prejudice,” 5354Google Scholar. See also Rountree, , Pocahontas's People, 212Google Scholar.

38. DeMarce, Virginia Easley, “Looking at Legends—Lumbee and Melungeon: Applied Genealogy and the Origins of Tri-racial Isolate Settlements,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 81 (March 1993): 24–45Google Scholar.

39. Paul Heinegg, “Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware,” available at www.freeafricanamericans.com.

40. Blu, , The Lumbee Problem, 62Google Scholar.

41. Mira, Manuel, The Portuguese Making of America (Franklin, N.C.: P.A.H.R. Foundation, 2001)Google Scholar.

42. Territorial Act of 1794, chap. 1, sec. 32, Tennessee Public Acts of 1831, chap. 102, Constitution of 1834. See also Jones v. State, 19 Tenn. 120 (1838)Google Scholar, State v. Claiborne, 19 Tenn. 331 (1838)Google Scholar.

43. Jan. 25 1846, Sept. 29 1846, State vs. Solomon, Ezekial, Levi, Andrew, Wiatt, Vardy Collins, Zachariah, Lewis Minor, Hawkins County Circuit Court Minute Book, 18421848Google Scholar, Hawkins County Circuit Court, Hawkins County Courthouse, Boxes 31, 32. See also Goins, Jack H., Melungeons and Other Pioneer Families (2000)Google Scholar.

44. Jacob F. Perkins vs. John R. White, Carter County, July 1855, Abstract of Depositions, T. A. R. Nelson Papers, McClung Collection, East Tennessee University, Knoxville. While I was unable to find any record of this case in the few surviving Carter County records, this was one of the rare cases in which the lawyer's extensive notes on testimony and trial strategy survived.

45. Ibid., unmarked page, beginning “White said…”

46. Ibid., Testimony of Sarah Kennick, 1; Elizabeth Cook, 2; Nancy Young, 2; Mary Wilson, 3; Bedent [?]Beard, 5; Daniel Stout, 6.

47. Ibid., 10.

48. Ibid., 7.

49. Testimony of Jane Griffey, Dr. John E. Copen, Nancy Lipps, ibid., 8–9.

50. Testimony of Alfred B. Greenwill, ibid., unmarked page.

51. Testimony of John Moody, ibid.

52. Ibid., unmarked page.

53. Ibid.

54. Merritt, F., Early History of Carter County, 1760–1861 (Knoxville: East Tennessee Historical Society, 1950)Google Scholar. Available at Tennessee State Library and Archives. Census of 1850, 1860.

55. Perkins v. White, unmarked page.

56. Ibid.

57. Ibid.

58. Perkins v. White does not appear to be an isolated case. In another racial-slander suit brought by a Melungeon in 1858, Elijah Goin won $50 damages from Sterling Mayser. Goin's witness testified that Mayser “had a negro ‘ditty’ which he had sung to Elijah Goin… ‘Elijah Goin being a little blacker, he run up and down the creek like a damn mulatto’” and that Mayser had “said his children should call them [mulatto] & he would protect them in it.” As White had done in Perkins's case, Mayser defended himself with a number of witnesses who testified “that it was generally reported and believed that [Goin] was a man of mixed blood.” Peter Mareum and William Murphy both stated that they were well acquainted with Goin's grandfather, and “he was reputed to be distantly mixed blooded,” although they also testified “that he voted, served on jurys, and was examined as a witness between white men never heard him questioned or denied.” Goin, by contrast, invoked the codes for performing white manhood by bringing in evidence that he, his father, and his grandfather had voted, sat on juries, and acted as witnesses in courts of law. Goin v. Mayser, available at Tennessee State Archives.

Goin's lawyer, John Netherland, is an interesting figure whose personal history suggests many of the contradictions of the antebellum South. An attorney of some renown, Netherland had won much of his reputation as a defender of the rights of Melungeons and of “free people of color.” Some histories report that in 1859 Netherland secured the Melungeons' right to vote in state and Federal elections, although no records remain of such a voting case in that year. Will Hale, T. and Merritt, Dixon L., A History of Tennessee and Tennesseeans (Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co., 1913), 180Google Scholar. A “slaveholder of high social standing,” Netherland nonetheless supported the Union before the Civil War; later, he counseled leniency toward ex-Confederates. Ingersoll, Henry H., Biographical Sketch of Col. John Netherland (Nashville: Marshall & Bruce Co. 1890)Google Scholar, in vol. 9, and Tennessee Bar Association Proceedings, 233–52. McClung Collection, Biography Folder 4–30, T. A. R. Nelson Papers, Knox County Public Library, Knoxville, Tenn [KCPL]. When Tennessee cracked down on “free people of color” in the 1830s, limiting the rights of slaves to be freed and then requiring freed slaves to leave the state, Netherland apparently tried to ameliorate the new laws. A Democratic Party circular from the 1840s excoriated Netherland for his efforts to “repeal so much of the act of 1831, concerning free persons of color, as requires the emancipator of slaves to remove them without the limits of the State.” Facts from The Record! Col. Netherland as a Legislator, Democratic State Central Committee Pamphlet 51 of 78 pamphlets bound by T. A. R. Nelson as Speeches, Documents, etc., 1848–60 v. 4, McClung Collection, KCPL.

59. Jack v. Foust, Trial Transcript, Chancery Court of Hamilton County no. 1431 (Nov. 1877), East Tennessee Supreme Court Records, Box 1789, available at Tennessee State Archives, Nashville, Tennessee [TSA]. This trial record was found by an archivist in an uncatalogued box; the year of the trial was several years later than Lewis Shepherd had remembered it, and Betsy Bolton, the heir, was not named as a litigant, hence the difficulty finding the case in Hamilton County files. Personal Memoirs of Judge Lewis Shepherd (privately printed, Chattanooga: 1915).

60. Personal Memoirs of Judge Lewis Shepherd, 83.

61. Armstrong, Zella, The History of Hamilton County and Chattanooga, Tennessee (Johnston City, Tenn.: Overmountain Press, 1931), 1: 224–25Google Scholar.

62. Jack v. Foust, Deposition of Lucinda Davis, 51, 54–55. Subsequent references in the text to depositions and page numbers are to this trial transcript.

63. Jack v. Foust., 324–36; Personal Memoirs of Judge Lewis Shepherd.

64. Personal Memoirs of Judge Lewis Shepherd, 87–88.

65. Ibid., 88.

66. Bolton v. Foust, Hamilton County Court Records, Chattanooga, Tennessee (1872).

67. Smith, J. Douglas, “The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922–1930: ‘Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro,’” Journal of Southern History 68. 1 (February 2002): 65106, at 87CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

68. Letter of August 5, 1942, W. A. Plecker, M.D., to Secretary of State, Nashville, Tennessee, available at TSA.

69. Letter of August 12, 1942, Mrs. John Trotwood Moore to W. A. Plecker, available at TSA.

70. Letter of Aug. 20, 1942, W. A. Plecker to Mrs. John Trotwood Moore. Archivists at the Library of Congress also tried to classify the Melungeons, along with other “Mixed-Blood Racial Islands,” in 1946. Gilbert, William Harlen Jr, “Memorandum Concerning the Characteristics of the Larger Mixed-Blood Racial Islands of the Eastern United States,” Social Forces 24. 4 (May 1946): 438–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

71. N. Brent Kennedy with Kennedy, Robyn Vaughan, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People; An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America (Macon, Geo.: Mercer University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

72. Quoted in Sider, , Lumbee Indian Histories, 164–67Google Scholar, and Blu, , The Lumbee Problem, 5758Google Scholar.

73. McMillan, Hamilton, Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony: An Historical Sketch of the Attempts of Sir Walter Raleigh to Establish a Colony in Virginia, with the Traditions of an Indian Tribe in North Carolina. Indicating the Fate of the Colony of Englishmen Left on Roanoke Island in 1587 (Wilson, N.C.: Advance Presses, 1888), 41Google Scholar.

74. Butler, George E., The Croatan Indians of Sampson County: Their Origin and Racial Status; A Plea for Separate Schools (Clinton, N.C.: s.n., 1916), 31Google Scholar. According to Butler, “The Croatan Indians comprise a body of mixed-blood people residing chiefly in Sampson, Robeson, Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Scotland, Richmond and Hoke Counties, in North Carolina; and in Sumpter, Marlboro and Dillon counties, South Carolina. They are called Red Bones in South Carolina, but probably belong to the same class of people as those residing in North Carolina” (9).

75. Testimony of J. C. M. Eachin, Transcript of Trial, McMillan v. School Committee, No. 16,384, 26–27, N.C. Dept. of Archives & History, Raleigh, N.C., Supreme Court Records. Appeal reported in 12 S.E. 330 (N.C. 1890).

76. 12 S.E. 330, 332.

77. School for Indians of Robeson County, Hearings before the Committee on Indian Affairs, House of Representatives, Feb. 14, 1913, 17–19.

78. Ibid., 25.

79. Indians of North Carolina, Letter from the Sec'y of the Interior, Report on the Condition & Tribal Rights of the Indians of Robeson, 1915, 33. “The existence of a peculiar people, claiming Indian ancestry and nominally distinct from negroes and whites, has not prevented such admixture as to confuse every inquirer who has undertaken to solve their relations and the numbers of those rightfully claiming any defined racial distinctions, but it has made certain districts a refuge for men of all races who preferred the half wild life of the woods to regular labor, or who preferred the bullet to the slow forms of law to settle difficulties” Ibid. at 35.

80. Indians of North Carolina, Letter from the Sec'y of the Interior, Report on the Condition & Tribal Rights of the Indians of Robeson, 1915, 242.

81. Sider, , Lumbee Indian Histories, 79Google Scholar.

82. Goins v. Trustees Indian Training School, N.C. Supreme Court, Fall Term 1915, #296, Robeson County, trial record 8.

83. Ibid., 9.

84. Ibid.

85. Ibid., 11.

86. Ibid., 13.

87. Ibid., 15.

88. Ibid., 22–23.

89. Robesonian (August 10, 1914: 1), quoted in Lumbee Petition, 133.

90. Blu, , The Lumbee Problem, 77Google Scholar.

91. Paul Campbell Research Notes, Exhibit 143. Rhode Island State Archives, Narragansett Indians 43, December 1831 Resolution Messrs Dan King & B. B. Thurston, Committee relative to Indians, 448–50, 465.

92. 1-1-14, 1825–1832 Exhibit 144, January 1832, Rhode Island State Archives, Narragansett Indians 89, Letter To the Honorable General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations, to be holden at Providence in said State, on the second Monday of January in the year 1832: 478, 484.

93. 1-1-17, 1851–1862 Exhibit 342 Report of the Committee on Indian Tribe made to the General Assembly, October 1852, 1185.

94. Exhibit 346 Report of the Commissioner on the Narragansett Tribe of Indians made to the General Assembly, January 1858, 1195.

95. Exhibit 658 Bartlett's, Rhode Island Miscellany, Volume 6, page 2214 The Narragansett Indians, Dec. 1866 pp. 28–29. See also Memorial To the Honorable General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island, January Session, AD 1867 (“…Under the present organization of society, we do not wish to be citizens. For we know we cannot be so in the full acceptation of that term.” Samuel Rodman).

96. Ibid.

97. Jan. 1880 Act to abolish the tribal authority and tribal relations of the Narragansett Tribe of Indians.

98. Box 3 1864–1976, 1-1-1 1864–1870, Report of the Committee of Investigation; A Historical Sketch and Evidence Taken, made to the House of Representatives at its January Session, AD 1880 (Providence: Freeman & Co., 1880), p. 6.

99. Appendix B: Evidence taken by the Committee of Investigation, on the Narragansett Tribe of Indians, at three public meetings, held in the town of Charlestown, 1879, First Meeting, pp. 32–34.

100. Ibid., 38.

101. Ibid., 41.

102. Ibid., 43–44.

103. Ibid., 53.

104. 1st Ann. Report of the R.I. Commission on Narragansett Indians, 1881, Appendix B, Second Meeting, p. 57.

105. Ibid., 58–59.

106. F. 7 1934–35, Pow-wows, Narragansett Tribe incorporates—Providence Journal, Dec. 4, 1934.

107. Indian Office File No. 150, Re Location, History, Government, Language Etc. of the Narragansett Indians, 1935.

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