Fugitive Nation: Secret History

We are a nation founded by fugitives.

The secret history of America is one of wild flight in search of sanctuary.
Our ancestors were running away. The real explorers of the Great Frontier
didn’t march west, they slipped away into the forests and swamps, leaving
behind the King’s Law and busted chains. Runaway slaves, fugitive indentured
servants, retreating natives, they disappeared into the mists beyond the edge
of “civilized” culture to make their own way and avoid the whip. These
fugitive colonies existed from the beginning of European settlement. In the
17th century, the first settlers described the “tawny halfbreeds” they
encountered, who strangely preferred the freedom of the wilderness to the
safety and comfort of Jamestown.

Over 200 tri-racial isolate communities exist, or have existed, in the
USA. These communities are not recent manifestations. They were here from
the start. The people called Melungeons, (of eastern Tennessee, North
Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky,) were encountered by European
explorers of the Appalachians in 1654. They were described as dark-skinned,
but with European features. They lived in log cabins and practiced
Christianity and even spoke English, being able to communicate to the
explorers that they were “Portyghee”. The origins of the Melungeon people
has become controversial, at least among Melungeons. The anthropologically
accepted theory is that early Spanish settlers, explorers or castaway inter-married

with Native Americans. Yet the French explorers mentioned
above noted that the Melungeons they encountered spoke English (but called
themselves Portuguese). This could indicate the amazing diversity of the
fugitive communities, or maybe the necessity of trading with the English
settlements on the coast. In the post-civil war period anybody in the
Melungeon area who was dark-skinned yet not obviously African American was
called a Melungeon, including dark-skinned Mediterranean people and south
Asians. Genetic researchers using the Mean Measure of Divergence (MMD) have
concluded that Melungeons are most closely related to Libyans (0.017) and
most distantly related to the Seminoles of Florida (0.308).1 The closest
match with a European people (0.022) is Italian, followed by Portuguese
(0.024). It’s known that Francis Drake stopped at Roanoke for some months on
his way back from raiding Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. He had several
hundred Muslim seamen with him who had been freed from the Spanish and were
being returned to Morocco and the Ottoman Empire. These would include
Berbers and Arabs from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Greeks,
Armenians, Albanians, Bosnians and Turks from Anatolia and the Balkans. They
stayed several months in Virginia, and it’s more than possible that they
would have left progeny among the local Native American population. Some of
them may have stayed and actually joined the Indians.

The Delaware Moors are a mixed race people living in Kent and Sussex
Counties, Delaware and southern New Jersey. How they came to be there is
open to conjecture. Community legend tends toward three possibilities. In
the first, an 18th century Spanish pirate ship with a Moorish crew is
wrecked on the Delaware coast. The survivors are taken in by the local
Nanticoke Indians and eventually marry Indian women. In the second, when the
English abandon Tangier in the late 17th century, the English garrison is
given land in the Americas (Delaware). When they come they bring their
Moorish wives with them. (There is an island in Chesapeake Bay called
Tangier Island, and no one seems to know how it was named.) The third legend
is of the truly romantic variety. This involves a beautiful woman and a
dark-skinned slave. The woman was wealthy and either Spanish or Irish. She
purchased a male slave who turned out to be a Moorish prince. They fell in
love and had mixed-race children. Being ostracized by the white community,
they moved inland and joined the Indians. Another version of this has the
wealthy woman purchasing a number of Moorish slaves who ran away and joined
the Indians.

Piracy was well-known along the Delaware coast from the 17th to mid-18th
century, with several recorded instances of Spanish and French pirates
way-laying ships in Delaware Bay. The English did occupy Tangier briefly,
and then abandoned the city in 1684. The early colonial period had many
instances where women and men of mixed race were forced to make their own
way in the wild, and the fact of slaves running away and joining the Indians
is also well recorded. Whichever, if any, of the legends is true, the fact
remains that the Delaware Moors are most likely a mixture of the Native
American tribes that occupied the Delmarva region (Nanticokes and Lenni
Lenape), European whites and Africans. The Moors perhaps best illustrate the
singular status that tri-racial groups occupy in America. Being barred from
attending the white schools of Kent and Sussex counties, and refusing to
attend the African American schools of the area, the Moors created their own
schools. The Moors, like most other tri-racial groups, did not consider
themselves part of either the white or African American communities.
Although Indians, whites and blacks could marry into the group, once they
did so they became part of the tri-racial community.

pirates

An engraving from Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of Pirates. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

The Red Bones, Brass Ankles, Turks and Lumbees of South Carolina combine
the mixture of Native American, African American and European (or Asian)
peoples. Fugitive slaves and runaway indentured servants joined with the
remnants of Native American tribes ravaged by alien diseases. The death rate
for some Native communities was 100%. It soon became clear that children of
mixed parents (white/native, black/native) had a much better chance of
surviving European and African diseases. In this way, Native Americans of
the east were genetically absorbed into the emerging tri-racial groups, as
their own distinct tribes were destroyed.

That fugitives would band together for survival isn’t unusual. The runaways
and refugees would have a common enemy, the colonial governments of the
coast and the slave masters of the plantations. The plantation fields of the
early colonial period also incorporated a wide diversity of forced labor.
There would have been Native Americans of the coastal tribes, kidnapped
Africans, Gypsies (who were transported to the new world by all the colonial
powers), and British and Irish prisoners working out their sentences.2 It’s
not hard to imagine that all the individuals interested in escaping would
have been drawn to the Native Americans, who knew the land and had contacts
in the wild.

Getting beyond the reach of dominant social authority was of great
importance, since that authority prescribed extinction for racially mixed
people. The “Free Land” of the Melungeons was a strip of disputed territory
between the colonies of North Carolina and Virginia. Being a “neutral zone”,
claimed by both colonies but administered by neither, it naturally attracted
people who were less than fond of government supervision, including mixed
race peoples and the many fugitives that would add to that mixture.

The cedar swamps and pine barrens of Delaware and New Jersey were also
noted refuges for runaways. Pennsylvania ads for runaway slaves in the 18th
century specifically mention the cedar swamps of Delaware as a runaway
destination. It’s in these very areas that current mixed race communities
now exist.

The Redbones of Louisiana originated from the mixed-race Red Bone people of
South Carolina, arriving in Louisiana in the late 18th century. They
gravitated to the area of Louisiana called the “Neutral Strip”, a 5000
square mile expanse of land between the Calcasieau and Sabine rivers claimed
by both Spain and the United States, but administered by neither. The United
States sent troops into the Neutral Strip on several occasions, as pirates
made their bases there (including John Murel and Jean Lafitte), but the
Neutral Strip was a wilderness of swamps and canebrakes, and many who went
in uninvited never came out again. The flight of runaway slaves to the
safety of the Neutral Strip was such that John Murel, a “land pirate”
(marauder) planned to organize a slave revolt, based on a fugitive army,
that would have placed him at the head of an autonomous fugitive republic.
Even after the border dispute was settled in 1819, the now former Neutral
Strip remained a place that the authority of the state was reluctant to
invade.

Lucy Parsons was (probably) born in Waco, Texas in 1853. Very little of her
early history is known. Physically she resembled many of the Redbone people
that inhabited southern Louisiana and eastern Texas. Like many Redbone
people she vigorously denied being an African American, claiming instead to
be of mixed Native American and Mexican ancestry. Scholars have just as
vigorously given her an African American background (“It’s possible she was
a slave” says Carolyn Ashbaugh), even though there is no documented reason
to believe this. It’s possible that her Mexican ancestry could have been of
the Yanga people, the “black Mexicans”. These people were descendants of
rebel slaves that established a community in Veracruz on the Gulf Coast in
1609. The African element of Mexican society has long been ignored in favor
of indigenous and European cultural contributions. In 1609 the ratio of
Africans to Europeans in Mexico City was over 10 to 1. The only obvious fact
is that Lucy Parsons was of mixed race. Given the time period and her
geographic location, it’s as likely that she was of Redbone origin as
anything else, which would have given her Native American, African and
probably Mexican and European ancestry as well.

DismalSwamp

 

 

The Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina was the site of an
extensive fugitive community from at least the early 18th century. It
functioned as an autonomous region, immune to outside interference because
of the twisting trails and waterways of the swamp. Trade, in the form of
shingles cut from swamp Cyprus, was even conducted with outside communities.
Its status as a refuge for fugitives led such a prominent figure as George
Washington to recommend its draining and conversion to farmland. Washington
and a number of other Virginia planters paid $20,000 for 40,000 acres of the
Great Dismal. This happened in 1763, the same year as the Slave Revolt in
the South American Dutch colony of Berbice (Guyana). I think its more than a
coincidence that Washington and other slave owners should decide to
eliminate the Great Dismal Swamp, a noted haven for runaway slaves, in the
same year as the largest slave revolt in the Americas to that date. This was
also the year after the suppression of a slave revolt in the Crown Colony of
Bermuda. Being at the time in excess of 2000 square miles, draining the
swamp was beyond their 18th century capabilities, though they did succeed in
cutting down a lot of trees, and did oversee a number of “wild fires” that
burned big sections of swamp. Washington eventually turned over his share in
the “Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp” to Harry Lee, Robert E. Lee’s
father.

In the years prior to the Civil War the fugitive community of the Great
Dismal Swamp became a major stop on the underground railway. Harriet Beecher
Stowe’s novel Dred: A Story of the Great Dismal Swamp, told of runaway
slaves hiding in the depths of the swamp, yet never mentions the permanent
fugitive community that existed there, perhaps because she was unaware of
it, or perhaps because she didn’t want to tip their hand. No doubt many of
the runaway slaves decided to remain in the swamp. During the war, the Great
Dismal Swamp was an area which confederate forces stayed clear of.

The swamps of Florida gave refuge to thousands of runaways in the years of
Spanish rule. In 1738 the Spanish offered freedom to any slave who fled the
English colonies and came to St. Augustine. This wasn’t out of any
anti-slavery sentiment on the part of Spain. They disputed English ownership
of Georgia and South Carolina. Inciting slaves to run away was an effective
way of disrupting those colonies. The British copied this tactic during the
War of Independence (Dunmore’s Proclamation), with the same success. Once in
Florida the fugitives encountered the refugee remnants of the southeastern
Indian tribes who had also fled to the Florida swamps. They also found
fugitive communities that had been there since the 17th century. The
fugitive communities they established in the Florida swamps became the
strongest in the country. Runaway slaves fled to these strongholds
throughout the colonial period up to 1819, when the United States took
Florida from Spain.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries the isolated fugitive
communities, those that survived the Civil War and Reconstruction, had
leaked their cultural mélange into the society of the south. Hoodoo, the
American folk magic tradition, is an amalgam of Native American, African
American and European American folk remedies and magic. For much of the 19th
and the first decades of the 20th centuries it was the primary folk
tradition of both southern African Americans and poor whites. The ubiquitous
swamp witch, root doctor and hoodoo man, doling out love potions, mojo bags
and lucky money incense was a product of the secret, fugitive America. A
regular icon in Hoodoo (and later in the Spiritualist Movement) was the
trusted “Indian Spirit Guide” who led the initiate through the perils of the
spirit world. Is it too much of a stretch to see this as a legacy of the
early escapes from the first plantations, where trusted Native American
fellow fugitives led the way through the perils of the wilderness?

The existence of an influential mixed-race culture was more than worrisome
to the racial purists of the early 20th century. The development of
“scientific racism”, eugenics, gave racists a tool to strike at the fugitive
communities. A by-product of the American Breeders Association, and largely
shunned by geneticists as “vulgar”, the Eugenics movement sought to “improve
the herd” of humanity by encouraging the most fit to reproduce in abundance,
and by eliminating the least fit from the national gene pool. “Defectives”
were to be kept from breeding either by forced institutionalization or
sterilization. The main targets of the Eugenics movement were immigrants,
minorities and people of mixed race. The term “tri-racial isolate” was first
used by eugenicists to label the various pockets of mixed-race peoples.
Viewed as genetically flawed and unfit because of miscegenation, the
isolated fugitive communities became a special concern of eugenicists. Their
poverty and lack of formal education was viewed as a result of
“mis-breeding” rather than the social antagonism of racial purists, which
had caused their isolation. Their defective germ plasm would be cured by
sterilization and forced assimilation into the African American communities.
The Ben Ishmael Tribe (a mixed-race Islamic community in the lower Midwest),
the Melungeons, Redbones, Delaware Moors, Lumbees, Brass Ankles, all were
faced with the choice of melting into the African American or European
American communities. Not surprisingly those that could “pass” for white did
so. Those that could not became “mulattos”. In various locations across the
south and east entire communities were given this choice. Names were
changed, history was suppressed, culture was subdued. Those that could not
bear this atrocity sought even further isolation. Losing their communities
they became hermit families of the back country and swamps. In any case,
they were cleansed from the popular reality. The Eugenics movement peaked in
the mid-1920s, a period that also saw Ku Klux Klan politicians win control
of state governments in Oregon, Texas and Indiana. Virginia created its
Racial Integrity Law (1924), which defined racial categories and was based
primarily on Eugenics. Alabama and Georgia eventually copied the Virginia
law. Twenty-eight States already had laws against whites and Negroes
marrying. Six included this prohibition in their constitutions.

Hoodoo became an almost entirely African American folk system by World War
Two. Only in the most rural and remote areas of the south was it still
practiced as a mixed-race folk tradition. Current African American racial
purists claim Hoodoo as a purely African American construct, despite all
evidence to the contrary. As the white racial purists were determined to
classify all mixed-race peoples as Negro based on the “one drop” rule,
African American racial purists seem determined to deny the evidence of
cultural exchange and amalgamation that was a feature of our secret history
from day one, when the first European ship wrecked against these shores.

The importance of group identification became critical with the Indian
Reorganization Act of 1934. Part of the New Deal program, it restored large
tracts of land to various tribes and began the process of making good on
unpaid monetary claims. Ironically, it suddenly became financially lucrative
to be a Native American. The fact that these allotments were based on tribal
affiliation was not lost on Indian activists of the time. The first decades
of the 20th century had seen the rise of a powerful pan-Indian movement
centered around the Native American Church and the “peyote cult”. Already
declining in the wake of internal disputes, the focus on tribalism of the
Indian Reorganization Act dealt it a deadly blow. It would not resurface
again until the rise of the American Indian Movement in the 1960s. The
scramble for identity among the surviving mixed-race descendants, as well as
the hunger for government payments, has caused many groups to deny (or
minimize) their African American ancestry, while overstating that of their
Native American, especially in seeking tribal status and allotments. Among
the Melungeons a trend to focus on the possible Mediterranean origins of
their people, and a minimization of their mixed-race origins and status, has
led to an all but complete denial of African American roots.

How does it help us to know that before the French and Indian War people of
different races were banding together in the face of repression? For one
thing it gives us a different perspective on American history, which never
hurts. It would be incredible if we could use their brave example as a guide
to future action. That’s the true positive result from looking at this
secret history: the example set by the fugitives in surviving the demand to
assimilate. They made a life for themselves outside the reach of Power. They
created an inclusive culture which survives at least somewhat in American
popular music, and which bubbles eternally in our dreams, just beyond the
frontier in the wilderness of our imaginations.

Notes:

1. MMD system: 0.000 would identical, 9.999 would be furthest possible difference.

2. “You can’t discount the notion that black and white servants and slaves were going to unite over their common oppression. We have evidence of them running away together. We have evidence of them rising against their masters together. They lived together. They slept together. So yes, there was a possibility of a lower class surge against the elites. So that’s a very important consideration for the Virginians, in terms of wanting to create one kind of labor force.” -Margaret Washington, Associate Professor of History, Cornell University

“There are many ways that human beings divide themselves up. Class is one, [and] gender, race, ethnicity. There’s a number of ways that people divide themselves up. And in early Virginia, race was a category that people recognized. Black people recognized difference, and sometimes, I would even argue, celebrated difference. But in this highly competitive, depressingly abusive world, poorer whites and poorer blacks-people who were marginalized in this system of dependent labor-oftentimes reached out to each other in ways that suggest that, at least in the first 50 or 60 years of Virginia…people of African background and English background were able to work together in ways that, again, in later periods of American history, were impossible.” Timothy H. Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University

Further Reading:

Gone to Croatan Edited by Ron Sakolsky and James Koehnline Autonomedia, 1993.

Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas Edited by Richard Price Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996 (3rd edition).

Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed C.A.L. Press POB 1446 Columbia, MO 65205-1446 USA

Anarchy… magazine web site: http://www.anarchymag.org

this was published in Anarchy: A Journalof Desire Armed #52

and parked at the a-infos site, by jason mcguin