Triracial Isolates

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Triracial Isolates






Scattered throughout the eastern United States, particularly in the Southeast, there have been some 200 or more communities known as triracial isolates, which comprise individuals of mixed (blended) European-American, African-American, and Native American descent. Pluralistic in nature, triracial communities have historically lived apart from blacks and whites in isolated rural enclaves. In the early twenty-first century, large numbers of individuals remain in these rural communities as unskilled laborers or agricultural workers. However, some triracial communities boast of prosperous farmers, college graduates, and professionals. Since the mid-twentieth century, many individuals from these communities have migrated to the cities. This trend, along with increased intermarriage (generally with European Americans), has led to the extinction of many communities and the loss of collective identity.

Triracial isolate communities have historically straddled the racial divide. Some communities have identified with one particular group, usually white or Native American. Other communities have attempted to forge a new multiracial identity, refusing to deny their various ancestral backgrounds.


Although these communities have been designated by social scientists as triracial isolates, many vehemently reject any such labeling. In fact, it would be wrong to think of them as one identifiable group. Commonalties among these groups have less to do with actual cultural bonds than with similarities in experiences, particularly their refusal to accept the “one-drop rule,” through which individuals suspected of having any African ancestry are considered black.

Documentary evidence is scanty, and the exact origins of these groups are unknown. Furthermore, at different times in the antebellum period, depending on the determination of the census enumerator, the same families in some communities were listed variously as white, mulatto, and free people of color. To complicate matters further, the term “free people of color” did not become interchangeable with the categories of “free mulatto” and “free black” until the mid-nineteenth century. Up to that time, it had been an elusive term that included Native American reservations, Native American rural communities, multiracial populations of European-American and African-American descent, triracial populations, and free blacks. The communities probably evolved from frontier settlements that attracted runaway slaves, trappers, homesteaders, adventurers, deserters, outlaws, outcasts, and nonconformists of all racial backgrounds.

Triracial isolates have been known by a variety of names. New York has been the home of the Van Guilders, the Clappers, the Shinnecock, the Poospatuck, the Montauk, and the Mantinecock. New Jersey (and New York) is the residence of the Ramapo (or Ramapough) Mountain People (commonly referred to as “Jackson Whites”). In Pennsylvania, they have been called Pools; in Delaware, Nanticokes; in Rhode Island, Narragansetts; in Massachusetts, Gay Heads and Mashpees; and in Ohio, Carmelites. Maryland has its Wesorts; West Virginia, its Guineas; and Tennessee and Kentucky, the Melungeons. There are the Ramps, Issues, and Chickahominy in Virginia; the Lumbees, Haliwas, Waccamaws, and Smilings in North Carolina; and the Chavises, Creels, Brass Ankles, Redbones, Redlegs, Buckheads, and Yellowhammers in South Carolina. Louisiana has also been home to many triracial communities.

Appellations such as Chavis and Creel are family names, although many others, such as Brass Ankle, Red-bone, and Jackson Whites were externally imposed and clearly meant to be insults. As such, those who bear these names have often rejected them, although many groups now embrace the names with pride. Names such as Chickahominy and Nanticoke, which suggest Native American derivation, have always been borne with pride. Some individuals in these communities would readily be taken as Native American. Others are indistinguishable from whites. However, many clearly show varying degrees of African ancestry in combination with European and/or Native American descent.


In the U.S. South, any term describing a racially blended background has generally not only included African ancestry, but also been equated with Mulatto and translated as “black.” Consequently, Brewton Berry has argued that most triracial communities have historically tended to deny any African ancestry. They have prized indigenous origins, despite having retained little or no knowledge of either Native American culture or tribal affiliations, and despite being culturally indistinguishable from local whites. Thus, most of these communities have affirmed only two components—Native American and European American—if they acknowledged their multi-racial ancestry at all. In this sense, the triracial isolate quest for identity appears to be more reactionary than radical. Yet these communities have manipulated the historical U.S. binary racial construction (i.e., black and white) to their advantage, forging instead a ternary racial construction that has destabilized binary racial thinking.

While racial composition and ancestry have always been fundamental to determining who is defined as African American, there is no universally accepted definition of Native American. The definitions employed by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) have often been at odds with each other, and both have changed over time. The BIA includes on its rolls only those individuals entitled to BIA services. Acceptance by a tribe in conjunction with proof of at least one-quarter degree of indigenous ancestry is generally required. For census purposes, self-definition has been the prevailing policy for all racial and ethnic groups since 1970. In the past, however, enumerators were instructed to record as Native American only those individuals enrolled on reservations or listed in agency rolls, persons of one-fourth or more indigenous ancestry, or individuals regarded as Native Americans by their communities.


Historical accounts and oral traditions reveal that the indigenous ancestors of the contemporary Lumbees were composed largely of Cheraw Native Americans and related Siouan-speaking people known to have inhabited the area in present day Robeson County, North Carolina. They were first observed in 1724 on Drowning Creek (now known as the Lumber River), when the first European settlers arrived in the area.

North Carolina has recognized the Lumbee as a Native American tribe since 1885. With this recognition, the state provided educational assistance and other services. In 1887, the state established a Native American teachers-training school for the Lumbees, which grew into the nation’s first state-supported school offering higher education to Native Americans. In the early twenty-first century it is known as the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and boasts of an enrollment of approximately 3,000 students. The school is part of the University of North Carolina system, which gives credence to Lumbee assertions that they have produced more doctors, lawyers, and Ph.D.s than any other Native American community in the United States.

According to the 2000 census, 51,913 Native Americans in the United States identified their tribe as Lumbee, making them the second largest tribe east of the Mississippi River. The Lumbee are the largest nonreservation tribe in the United States, and the largest not recognized by the federal government. It was not until 1956, however, that the United States Congress passed the Lumbee Act, which officially recognized the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina. Unfortunately, the bill contained language that made them ineligible for financial assistance and program services administered by the BIA.

Many Lumbees have held local elective office, and a Lumbee has represented Robeson County in the North Carolina legislature. Also, Lumbee tribal members are active in Native American affairs at the state and national levels and are still fighting for federal recognition as a tribe. (An attempt in 1992, failed by only two votes in the United States Senate.) Some say that other Native American tribes have not supported recognition of the Lumbee because it would decrease their share of government funds. Other critics point out that the Lumbee do not live on a reservation, have never signed a treaty with the U.S. government, and cannot prove they are all members of the same tribe. To the Lumbee, however, being Native American has nothing to with such criteria, but is a matter of how they are perceived and whether they are respected. By 1980, the Nanticoke of Delaware, the Houma in western Louisiana, and the Poospatuck of Long Island, New York, following in the footsteps of the Lumbee, succeeded in officially changing their earlier classification as mulattoes to nontreaty Native Americans. By 1990 this was also true of the Jackson Whites, who were recognized as the Ramapo Mountain Native Americans. Although this status excludes these groups from most federal government benefits, it does place them squarely on the indigenous side of the racial divide. However, their claims to indigenous status have been met with reluctance, if not resistance, from treaty or reservation groups (e.g., the Cherokee, Comanche, and Choctaw) that qualify for federal subsidies.

Although some African Americans have accused the triracial isolate communities of claiming Native American status to escape the stigma of being black, various triracial groups have cast their lot with African Americans. Most, however, have historically maintained a strong antiblack prejudice that has, in no small part, helped bolster support for their own identity by whites. The clearest example of this was during the era of segregation. Denied entry into white schools, numerous communities not only refused to attend schools and use public facilities for African Americans, but they gained support for establishing their own public restrooms and education facilities, as well as separate sections in churches and theaters.


By the 1990s, groups such as the Issues and Melungeons succeeded in negotiating federally recognized identities as “other” nonwhites. Although some individuals have always passed for white, groups such as the Melungeons have fought for legal status as white—and succeeded in this in their local communities. However, these and other triracial communities have enjoyed a status just below that of whites, while elsewhere their status has been hardly distinguishable from that of blacks. This has often led to the denial of African ancestry, the avoidance of every suspicion of association with blacks, and at times to the casting off of darker relatives. Indeed, many contemporary triracial groups are now largely phenotypically indistinguishable from the surrounding European-American community. Over time, racial blending and the movement of many darker individuals into other communities of color, has diminished the earlier presence of more African and Native American phenotypical traits.

Since the 1990s, there has been a change in attitudes among some triracial communities such as the Redbones and Melungeons. Melungeon identity, after almost becoming extinct, is experiencing a resurgence. There has also been a surge of research that culminated in a gathering of Melungeons, called the “First Union,” held in July 2005 at Clinch Valley College in Wise, Virginia. Since the “Second Union,” held in 1998, these conferences have become yearly events. The Redbones held a similar event in June 2005, in Alexandria, Louisiana, titled “Taking Pride in Who We Are.” This “new” triracial identity displayed by the Melungeons and Red-bones differs from the “old” triracial identity in that it seeks to deconstruct the elitist and hierarchical premises upon which the previous identity was based by acknowledging and embracing the African and other ancestries.

This about-face in identification is best expressed by Brent Kennedy, a Melungeon who sees in the faces of his living relatives a panorama of all of those who have gone before. In a moment of eloquent prose, Kennedy writes:

When I watch my own summer skin turn with lightning speed too reddish-brown for a blue-eyed Scotsman, and struggle to tame the steel-like waves in my graying Black hair, I smile at the living traces of unknown Mediterranean, African, and Native American ancestors whose ancient precious lives still express themselves in my countenance … And in my mind’s eye, I can see those ancestors smiling back, wondering why it took the children of their children’s children so long to rediscover the truth (Kennedy 1997, p. xiii).

SEE ALSO Biracialism.


Berry, Brewton. 1963. Almost White: A Study of Certain Racial Hybrids in the Eastern United States. New York: Macmillan.

———. 1972. “America’s Mestizos.” In The Blending of Races: Marginality and Identity in World Perspective, edited by Noel P. Gist and Anthony Gary Dworkin. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Blu, Karen. 1980. The Lumbee Problem: The Making of an American Indian People. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bordewich, Fergus M. 1996. Killing the White Man’s Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century. New York: Doubleday.

Cohen, David Steven. 1986. The Ramapo Mountain People. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Daniel, G. Reginald. 2002. More Than Black? Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kennedy, N. Brent, and Robyn Vaughan Kennedy. 1997. the Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People—An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America, 2nd ed. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Available from

Marler, Don C. 2003. Redbones of Louisiana. Hemphill, TX: Dogwood Publishing Company.

Melungeon Heritage Foundation. Available from

Nassau, Mike (McGlothlen). 1994. Melungeons and Other Mestee Groups. Gainesville, FL: McGlothlen Publishers. Available from

Official Ramapough Lenape Nation Web site. Available from

Redbone Heritage Association. Available from

Sider, Gerald. 1993. Lumbee Indian Histories. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thornton, Russell. 1987. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Waak, Patricia Ann. 2005. My Bones Are Red: A Spiritual Journey with a Triracial People in the Americas. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press.

Winkler, Wayne. 2005. Walking Toward the Sunset: the Melungeons of Appalachia. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

G. Reginald Daniel
Christopher Bickel