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Tri-Racials: Black Indians of the Upper South

Black Indians of the Upper South Perhaps one of the most valuable pieces of genealogical research to emerge about Africans and Indians outside the Indian Territory of the West has resulted from the work of Virginia Easley DeMarce. The National Genealogical Society Quarterly in March 1992 issue featured an artilce by Dr. DeMarce, who while studying migration patterns took careful notice of an occurrence in the upper South of those who were of mixed ancestry. Her article is essential for any researcher whose ancestors may not be from the Five Civilized Tribes, but whose family is still known to have Native American ancestry. Her piece is entitled "Very Slightly Mixt: Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South-A Genealogical Study".

Her work is mentioned here because there are thousands of African Americans from Virginia, and the Carolinas who claim Native American Ancestry, yet have no direction as to where to go to document this relationship. The effort to trace Indian ancestry from the Upper South is probably one of the more challenging areas of Black-Indian Genealogy. Unlike the extensive records to be found in the Five Civilized Tribes, there was a deliberate effort of the United States to eliminate other tribes by officially eliminating them from the Federal Census. In the early 1800's it was not uncommon to learn that many tribes were simply "terminated". As a result, among those families where Indian ancestors lived, they were frequently listed as mulatto, or as white, depending upon the complexion of the individuals enumerated. This official "termination" gave the impression that the population in the United States was either black or white. This challenge in locating Indian ancestors from this region must be clearly understood by the family historian from the beginning.

The kind of documentation such as that of the Five Civilized Tribes does not exist. As mentioned earlier the primary exposure that Africans and Indians had to each other came throught the institution of slavery, and this is basically because it was the institution of slavery that brought the Africans to America. Before and after the Civil War, there were other kinds of contact between Africans, Indians and whites. Black genealogists know that it is not uncommon to find ancestors from the white population, and likewise, it is not unusual to find ancestors from the Indian nations. However, if legally recognized marriages occurred between blacks and individuals of any other race these marriages may have likely have occurred primarily for free blacks. After the Civil War, there was intermarrying that occurred, although in many places this was still illegal. It was also not unusual to find that mixed families tended to select spouses from other mixed families.

The piece by DeMarce is essential for the black genealogist because she closely examines probably for the first time the tri-racial isolate groups. It is from this understanding of the tri-racial population that individuals may be able to penetrate the realm of possible Indian ancestry. DeMarce also notes that one should not be mislead by the term isolates. An assumption might be made that the groups lived in isolation from others, whereas she indicates that these groups were actually more fluid and flexible because of the movement and intermarriages that occurred. This flexibility occurred as groups intermingled with each other, more frequently than in later years. She emphasizes that the intermarring of members from one mixed family to another mixed group was deliberate and that mulattoes not only intermarried among themselves, but also with families of known Indian-white descent. Families such as the Basses of Norfolk County, Virginia as well as the Tennessee Melungeons where the Goins, a well-known tri-racial clan, were known to have moved with and intermarried with other mixed groups, such as the Red Bones in Louisiana including the tri-racial Willises, Sweats, Ashworths, and Perkins. Over the years, the Indian-white and Indian-black communities continued, but the fact that the original Indian population was greatly decreased due to disease, made the concept of Indian "extinction" easier to accept. However, despite the decrease in the polulation, those remaining Indiansa were visible, and were steadily making complaints in the court system, protesting against broken treaties of the Europeans.

Today, the tri-racial groups still exist, but very few have a true tribal identification. The merger of those cultures contributed to the loss of Indian languages and traditionsl Most tri-racial families are either black or white identified families, although genetically and historically they are tri-racial.

It is critical to note that a possible pitfall exists here for the genealogist. This search for Indian ancestors from the tri-racial isolates might steer the researcher into a frantic search to proove or disproove a specific racial composition. It is essential to keep the focus on the search for the names of those ancestors, regardless of racial composition. Dr. DeMarce spoke very tactfully of the fact that her research would not have been published several years earlier. This may have been particularly because of the unpopularity that her researcher would have had for those who would not have wanted their mixed ancestry to be known. It is also possible that the researcher might not go beyond finding the origin of the family stemming from the tri-racial isolates, and not truly isolate the Indian ancestor. Fortunately, there are some leads that may assist the researcher in this effort.

Of course, if one has the benefit of oral tradition in their family, some critical facts can be obtained in advance about ancestors. But also the family should make the effort to learn the history of that specific Indian nation, becoming familiar with the common surnames found in that group and relating one's family history to the history of that Indian group. DeMarce, who has studied the migration patterns of the tri-racial groups noted that individuals frequently migrated from one settlement of mixed groups to another. For example, the name Baltrip, or Boltrip is found in central No. Carolina, but later appears as a free colored family in Wilkens County, farther to the west.

The Indian Elment The most critical phenomenon regarding the Native Americans of the Upper South was the fact that there was an effort made at Indian extinction. Although disease brought by the European settlers had a dramatic effect on the native population, and thousands of Indians died, thousands also survived. The references made to the extenction of Indians are sometimes even more difficult to dispute due to an elimination on paper of the Native tribes. When census counts were taken in the early 1900's those with Indian ancestry were frequently listed simply as mulatto, meaning black and white ancestry. However despite this several nations still survival, and many mixed with Africans. DeMarce points out that the following nations of Indians contributed to the tri-racial isolate groups:

  • Chickahominy who were reported "extinct" by 1760, but are still there.
  • Gingaskin in Accomack and Northampton, who lost state recognition in 1812.
  • Mattapony who managed to keep their land.
  • Nansemond who were reported "extinct" by 1786, but are still there.
  • Nanticoke who are said to have moved to Canada, and absorbed the Delaware Indians but are still there.
  • Nottaway who were "terminated" in 1824, but are still there.
  • Pamunkey who managed to keep their land.
  • Rappahannocks who were reported extinct in 1722, although modern descendants still live in the vicinity of the original tribal territory.
  • Saponi of Orange County Virginia...later found among the Tennessee Melungeons.
  • Weanock who were terminated with the Nottoway.
  • Werowocomo who were still on Virginia's York River in 1919.
The fact that white and Indian races intermingled is a known fact, as was the fact that white and black races intermingled during and after slavery. The lesser known fact is the intermingling of blacks and Indians, outside of the Five Civilized Tribes. However, it is not unusual to hear many blacks of the coastal states referring frequently to Pamunkey ancestors, and to hear references to other groups such as the Lumbees. Oddly, it is also not unusual to hear references to the Blackfoot Indians. There has not been any indication that the Blackfoot Indians have ever lived outside of the region now known as South Dakota, therefore the reference that many African Americans from the coastal United States have to this nation is perplexing and is usually said more figuratively than with proof.

The African/Indian Mixtures As far back as the 1600's black and Indian marriages occured. In the Eastern Shore of Virginia Demarce points out that the 'Gingaskins were intermarrying into both the black and white communities. Both whites and blacks are known to have married itno the Nottoway according to the census of 1808. This census was made by tribal turstees who had first hand knowledge. In later censes, other groups such as the surnames from the Lumbees, and other tri-racial groups were listed simply as free people of color. Mixed mulattos and Indian/blacks were included among these groups. As far back as the 1750's a reference was made to a small group of Lumbees, about 50 families at that time, who were known to have had members who were mixed bloods.

Among some of the larger groups that have arisen among the Tri-racial isolates are:

  • Brass Ankles of So. Carolina.
  • Guineas of West Virginia.
  • Haliwas of Halifax and Warren counties in No. Carolina.
  • Lumbees of Robeson County, No. Carolina, and Upper So. Carolina.
  • Melungeons of Tennessee, and Kentucky.
  • Red Bones of So. Carolina and Louisiana.
  • Turks of So. Carolina.
Members of some of the larger established Indian tribes married into the African and white races, but these groups such as the Catawbas are not considered to be tri-racial as a tribe. There are some specific surname patterns that appear in the tri-racial commlunities. DeMarce cautions the researcher to not conclude too hastily that just because the name is the same that a relationship exists. Yet on the other hand, she acknowledges that a specific pattern of name dispersal in a limited population may truly indicate which groups are affiliated with oithers and they may truly be isolates.

Although the documentation that one would look for in search of that Indian ancestry, will frequently come throught the traditional sources such as early census records, court records, knowledge of these tri-racial isolate migration patterns will be helpful in identifying those Indian ancestors.

(Note this segment was extracted from Chapter Six of the book Black Indian Genealogy Research. African American Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes and appears with permission of the author.)


Patrick Larsson(b:1860's)from Goteburg, Sweden to meet dau Anna Larsson(b:1885, Sweden)in Portland, Maine in 1898.Patrick coming from farm in OH/MN. Patrick never heard from again. Anna alone in US at age 12, speaking only Swedish.

Researching Charles Augustus HAEHNLE (1800s) Moravian minister in Pa. and Minnesota. Also researching IFERT (left Germany in 1920s), Solomon BOYLE(1694-1771)

Researching Abraham GRIMES 1823 & Mary JOHNSON 1830 Patterson, La., m. Nov. 22, 1869. Ch: Sarah, Frank, Martha, Washington, Elizabeth, Easter, Isabella, Marshall & Hannah all b:Patterson, La.

Seeking info:Frederick & Riney (PICKETT) MINGO & ch: Cary,Isham, Shedrick, Lazuraus, Earnest, Martha, Mary & Savinia. All of Patterson St. Mary Parish, La., bet. 1880/1900.

Searching marr info:John Henry BRYANT to Sarah SIMMONS-BYRANT. NC, Wilmington Co., date unk. Probably turn of century, 1900. They are parents of Rosa Lee BRYANT, b. 2-27-1909. (

BALL, Mary Susan, my g-g grandmother,was b. in Indiana 24 Feb 1842 her parents per her death cert.were B. F. (Benjamin Franklin?) BALL b. in VA. & Nancy McCunner also b. in IN. If you have inf. of family please contact

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