Sunday, August 17, 2008

Who are My Mother's People?

I had an email the other day from someone who asked me what names are generally considered Redbone names. That question begins more arguments than it settles.

To get to it, you first have to define what a Redbone is. Is it simply someone of mixed-race ancestry any where in the United States? Is it a combination of mixed-race ancestry and identity with place? Is it the remnants of a tribe of native Americans from the East Coast? Where did the word Redbone come from?

Except for a small group of families in South Carolina, there is no group that identifies itself as Redbone. The ones in South Carolina chose to call themselves Redbones because they considered the other names they were called, Issues or Old Issues, to be derogatory.

There are several concentrations of people with mixed-race ancestry in Louisiana who are called Redbones by others. They do not call themselves that. There may be people who are considered part of those groups who do call themselves Redbones, but there is no group identity, just individuals who identify with the idea and have adopted the name.

The closest you can come to having an identifiable group is the kinship among various family clans in southwest Louisiana who have shared the same geography for the past couple of hundred years. That kinship is based on family lines and not upon identification based on color or culture. These family clans have never called themselves Redbones, despite beling called that by others, and even then, seldom to our face.

Someone once asked me, if we didn’t call ourselves Redbones, what did we call ourselves? I answered that we called ourselves neighbors, friends, and cousins. Still, there is something there; something tenuous, but always present: an underlying acknowledgment of shared circumstance beyond family blood lines. A sense of belonging that is not easily quantifiable.

When used by the dominant culture, Redbone meant someone who looked Indian, was mostly White, but who also probably had some Black blood. The only people who were called Redbones were generally being called that by others. Is that alone enough to make someone a Redbone? I’m not so sure. Calling someone a bastard doesn’t make them a bastard. So you can see why it’s very difficult to determine who is and who isn’t a Redbone.

My family has been called Redbones at least since 1892 when the Lake Charles Press screamed in a banner headline “REDBONES RAMPANT!” It referred to a gunfight between my great-grandfather, a couple of his brothers and several cousins and neighbors because a crew chief referred to them as Redbones, a name to which they took exception. The story was picked up by various newspapers around the country, prompting a letter from McDonald Furman to Albert Rigmaiden, the Treasurer of Calcasieu Parish, which inquired about the people known as Redbones.

Rigmaiden referred very specifically to a small and isolated group of families in the area north and northwest of Lake Charles. He listed the names: Ashworth, Perkins, Drake, Hoozier, Buxton, Dial, Sweat, Johnson, and Goins. Rigmaiden told Furman that he didn’t know where the name came from. He speculated it was given to them by Blacks. The families he identified as Redbones were, according to Rigmaiden, originally from South Carolina.

There is no other record of any other group being called Redbones before that or even after that. There are a couple of place names where the word Redbone is used, but there is nothing in the record to link the word’s use in that context to mixed-race people.

The group Rigmaiden referred to as being from South Carolina are the ones from whom I descend. He got most of the names, but not all. LV Hayes, who is the most respected of Redbone genealogical researchers, thinks it is very important to identify those original names as the genus of who are real Redbones. From Marion County, in South Carolina, come the names Ashworth, Perkins, Dial/Doyle, Johnson, Sweat, and Goins. According to LV, The Buxton family came from South Carolina, but not the Marion District. The Bass, Bunch and Drake families came from Virginia via either North Carolina or Kentucky. The Nash and Willis families came out of North Carolina.

My regular readers know that I do not purport to be a genealogist. Genealogy is a tool I use (some might say poorly) to construct the historical timeline for the Redbones of southwest Louisiana. LV Hayes has been most generous in sharing his genealogical research. I also would like to thank the Starks Historical Society and its members for their help in researching and understanding the genealogy of our people in Louisiana and Texas.

While it’s popular to say how isolated and stand-offish the early Redbone settlers were, the facts just don’t support that conclusion. Within a generation, another dozen families had intermarried into that core group, giving birth to thousands of new mixed-race settlers and adding another dozen or so names to the list of what would become to be known as Redbones. Some of those other names Butler, Coward, Esclovan, Hayes, Jacobs, Thomas, and Strother were added almost immediately to the names associated with this group of mixed-race settlers from South Carolina. By the end of the 19th century, the names Berwick, McLeod, Droddy, Ozan, Myers, and Smith were also added. Miller became a Redbone name in the early 20th century when Nick Miller, originally from Bohemia, married Elizabeth Hoosier and founded a large and extended family of Redbones in the Starks area.

I may have missed a name or two, and others may have a different opinion about which names came first. I don’t think it matters too much. To be descended from one of those original names does not make one a Redbone. To have a name not on the list doesn’t mean that you’re not a Redbone.

All of these different names brought a unique combination of ethnicity to the mix. Some of the families were thought to have brought some African into the mix, but not having any African was a very important distinction emphasized among mixed-race families in southwest Louisiana. Most of the families believed their dark color came from a Portugese ancestor and maybe a little Indian somewhere way back. DNA suggests a strong South Asian component as well, but since there is no memory or myth of South Asian, nor any historical references to any possible source for South Asian, all dark genes were assumed to have come from American Indian. But each family brought a unique combination, and even today, 200 years after mixing it up, not all Redbones are related to each other, although it does seem that way sometimes.

Beginning in the 1990s, a popular movement started among people who are descended from those mixed-race families to rehabilitate the word Redbone and to use it as a collective noun for telling our stories. There hasn’t been much opposition from within the community of people who share the characteristics of the groups usually thought of as Redbone. Just the same, it’s still a slur to many people, especially those born before World War II. In another few years, there won’t be anyone who remembers the word as a racial slur.

There is an organization called The Redbone Heritage Foundation that has taken an aggressive approach to owning this term. It should be noted that these people do not have any identifiable ties to the people in southwest Louisiana who are still called Redbones by their neighbors. This organization does not represent any Redbones in Louisiana and has no right to speak on the behalf of anyone other than themselves. It can't be said strongly enough: these people have nothing to do with Louisiana's Redbones.

For two hundred years our struggle has been to live free, work hard, and practice our religion without the burden of being called a racial explicative. My 20,000 plus cousins in southwest Louisiana are proud to be called Americans, and some of us don’t even mind when you call us Redbones, but be sure to smile when you do, and it probably wouldn’t hurt if you can add cousin to it.


Anonymous said...

I think you did a very good job on explaning (redbones) I too come from the Ashworths and Perkins line.I was born after WWII, I still don't like being called a redbones except by family.

fragileindustries said...

Isn't blood funny. My mother's side, when you get into the geneological nuts and bolts of it, is at least 75% bog-trotter Irish, but my genteel maternal grandmother managed to boast every other Anglo-Saxon Celtic strain (English, Welsh, Scots) and attenuated European-American derivation (Pennsylvania Dutch) and never ever would the word "Irish" pass her lips. She had been raised at her off-the-boat Irish immigrant grandfather Hannon's knee. Two generations back on her grandmother's side, and again, at least half Irish, but never mentioned. And NO one, EVER, talked about her father's line(my g-grampa's mother, who died young and was conveniently replaced with a stepmother with the acceptable name of Cunningham.) Great-great grandmother Maria (last name lost to history) was a full-blooded Cree, and great-grandpa George Washington Hammer's hawk-shaped profile and raven hair was unfortunate but forgotten. The Irish were the n-word of Europe to grandma's generation, and Native Americans simply did not exist. Not a "Redbone" history, but another American history, with just as much true fascinating history clouded in shame, rediscovered with pride.

Anonymous said...

I think we could be related. There were some pictures that looked very familiar to me, but it has been so long. I do not live in the area but my mother was from there. There are several of my families names listed there. It would be interesting to find out if we are related.

Clint M said...

Thank you for posting the article, "Who are My Mother's People?" (dated, August 17, 2008) as well as mentioning LV Hayes as a researcher!

Sharon Jarrell said...

I was reading in Lee Murrah's genealogy site and stumbled upon a statement that led me to your blog. I had lost the site a while back, but always enjoy whatever you post. I have a second cousin - (my grandfather's niece) - Mom's 1st cousin) is has no knowledge of our family history so I'm trying to introduce her by giving her some info to read and look at. I'm certainly including this one. Thanks Ray!

Houston said...

Hey there, Sharon. I just retired. What a strange experience it is. I'm not sure yet what I'm up to. It's only been 4 months. I may need 4 years. I'm just saying...

lindsay_2181 said...

I just found your blog, and will definitely pass it along to my family. We are Doyles, my parents are from Glenmora, LA. I have the word Redbone tattooed on my arm, and it definitely raises a lot of questions! There wasn't always this much info online, just he said-she said out of grandparents' mouths. Happy to see several websites are out there now, your blog included.