Monday, January 12, 2009

Tri-Racial Isolate: A Hidden Ancestry

In the foothills of Eastern Tennessee, there lived a group of individuals called Melungeons. I mention them because they are perhaps the best-known example of a tri-racial isolate. “Tri-racial isolate” is an academic term used to denote communities of mixed racial ancestry. Most often, the mixture is said to be that of European, Native American and African American, although some would argue this point.

Other theories vigorously promoted include descendancy from shipwrecked Portuguese sailors (who intermarried with local natives) to shipwrecked Spaniards, Sephardic Jews, Gypsies and the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. Each theory has articulate proponents and disciples. Each theory endeavors to explain away deep olive skin, dark hair and the blue, gray or green eyes that marked many of these individuals as “different” from their white neighbors.

These differences, noted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often made them unsuitable spouses for their white neighbors. Their own unwillingness to embrace the economic, legal and social disadvantages of the African American community made them shun this group as potential mates. Because of this, they intermarried within their own populace, thus isolating themselves socially and sometimes physically from society at large.

Since they were not considered white or black, this posed problems in a racially divided 18th Century America. These problems would haunt the Melungeons and the other tri-racial communities well into the 20th Century. Prior to the 1850 census, you will find many of these mixed ancestry individuals tabulated under the “Free Colored” columns of the census, along with their free African Americans counterparts.

In the 1850 and 1860 censuses, the census taker instructions were, “Under heading 6, “Color,” in all cases where the person is white, leave the space blank; In all cases where the person is black, insert the letter B; If mulatto, insert M. It is very desirable that these particulars be carefully regarded.” This of course, left the census taker with a dilemma when enumerating members of a mixed race group. You will often find them listed on the census with a letter “m” under the column “Color.”

Other famous tri-racial isolate communities include, North Carolina’s Lumbee Indians (from which the actress, Heather Locklear, descends), the Carmel Indians of Highland County, Ohio and the Redbones of South Carolina and Louisiana. The article, “ ‘Verry Slitly Mixt’: Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South – A Genealogical Study” by Virginia Easley DeMarce, states that “Ethnologists have identified approximately thirty-five tri-racial isolate communities in the eastern half of the United States (or up to two hundred, if one counts small groups.)”

One of these smaller identified groups originated in an area of Gibson’s Mill in Louisa County, Virginia. Sometime in the early to mid 1830’s several families from “Gibby’s Mill” migrated across the Ohio River into what was then Gallia County, Ohio. A boundary change in 1850 placed most of the group within the boundaries of the newly created, Vinton County with the remainder living on the Jackson/Vinton County border. These individuals had surnames of Napper, Dorton and Thacker, joined later by Doles and Freeman.

Like other mixed race communities, they congregated closely together. Like other mixed race communities, they intermarried heavily within their own group. Like other mixed raced communities, the census taker marked them with an “m” under the heading of “color.” But unlike the other tri-racial isolates, this community is of special interest to me. A branch of my family tree has roots within this community, roots that I had been unaware of until this past year.

If you have noticed a lack of posting and participation in geneablogger pursuits, it has been because of my own fascination with this “Vinton County Group.” In order to study the group I have had to study the disciplines of history, anthropology, cultural and ethnic studies, geography, sociology and law –certainly a stretch for a former business major.

I’m not complaining. I cheerfully gobble up each new detail, but it does take time, and time is a finite quantity. So if I am less attentive, or seem preoccupied, this is the reason. I’m not sure what will become of the information that I am amassing. Maybe one day I will devour that one last piece that will satiate this curiosity, this hunger and I will sit back on my heels (okay, you realize the sitting back on the heels thing is a metaphor, my knees would scream in heated protest, should I actually try that move) and say, well okay, now I have had enough and I can move on.

Until I have had enough, I will still be posting (I do have to come up for air from time to time) just not as much or as often.

If you are interested in learning more about tri-racial isolates, here are some websites to get you started.

Melungeon Heritage Association Website A great website with articles of differing points of view.

Discover: “Where Do We Come From?”

The Lumbee Indians A variety of information and articles.

Open Salon: “ Who was America’s first black President?” An interesting article about the racial background of previous presidents.

World Culture Encyclopedia:: North America – “American Isolates”

Frontline: “The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families” Be sure to check out some of the other links in the sidebar.

Additional Resources Used:

DeMarce, “’Verry Slitly Mixt’: Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South—A Genealogical Study,” NGSQ, Vol. 80, No. 1 (March 1992): 5–35.

United States Census Bureau, “Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000,” 2002. Pamphlet, U.S. Census Bureau, 2009.


Craig Manson said...


Because my Brayboy-surnamed ancestors appear to have been Lumbee Indians, I've spent some time on the "triracial isolate" issues. As you are finding, the history, sociology, and anthropology of these groups are fascinating. An interesting book to read is called Kinfolks--Falling Off the Family Tree: My Search for My Melungeon Ancestors, by Lisa Alther (Arcade Publishing, 2007),$16.95 at I enjoyed it, learned from it, and recommend it.


Thanks Craig, for the recommendation. With so many books published, I have had a hard time deciding which books to read.
This branch of the family has provided me with many challenges, but it has been a challenge I am enjoying. Thanks again for the recommendation.

Parkwells said...

People interested in the free people of color should also read Paul Heinegg's "Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware". It's online at that title (through Google search. He updates the material regularly - extensive data on families (by name) who were free in colonial VA and whose members migrated to the frontiers of other states. He demonstrates that most of the tri-racial isolates were free African Americans in colonial VA, many descended from marriages and unions between white women and African men: free, servant and slave. Impressive work.

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