It is said that Calvin Beale, a demographer for the USDA, was the first person to coin the term “triracial isolate,” in his article written for Eugenics Quarterly in 1957. In the article, entitled “American Triracial Isolates: Their Status and Pertinence to Genetic Research,” Beale called them, “a class more numerous than the Indians remaining in the East, more obscure than those in the West, less assured than the white man or the Negro who regards his link of Indian descent as a touch of the heroic or romantic. The reference is to population groups of presumed triracial descent. Such isolates, bequeathed of intermingled Indian, white, and Negro ancestry, are as old as the nation itself and include not less than 77,000 persons. They live today in more than 100 counties of at least 17 Eastern States with settlements ranging in size from less than 50 persons to more than 20,000.”
Beale was in a position to know. His job with the US Department of Agriculture required visiting the rural back roads and communities of this nation. It is said that of the 3140 counties that exist in the United States, Calvin Beale had been to 2500 of them.
Beale’s article included the largest and probably best known of these triracial groups - the Melungeons. Shepherd Gibson, who lived in Hancock County, Tennessee is one of the men who came to Newman’s Ridge and one of the earliest forefathers of the present day Melungeons. What is especially interesting about Shepherd, or Buck as he is called, is that it is believed he originally came from Louisa County, Virginia, and was part of the Gibson family that lived there. The Thackers, Dortons, and Nappers also came from the same area, some tracing their roots back to the Gibson family.
Jack Goins, who kindly replied to an email I sent to the MHS blog, once told me that the Melungeons didn’t become Melungeons until after they settled into what is now Hancock County in Tennessee. So while stories abound of a Native American component of our own clan’s heritage (and these exist among both white and African American descendants) our group does not fit under the Melungeon umbrella.
Because of this so called triracial heritage in my own family tree, I became an avid reader of any articles and books that touched even remotely on the subject of triracial isolates. I was very interested in reading Brewton Berry’s “Almost White.” My local library was able to get me a copy of this 1963 book. It many ways it was very informative, and in many other ways it didn’t answer my questions about my own family history.
A map, however, entitled, “Surviving Indian Groups in the Eastern United States” claimed my complete attention. Brewton Berry reported that there were roughly 200 groups of what he called, “racial orphans” located east of the Mississippi. He made a map of their locations. There in the state of Ohio was one dot sitting atop an area that looked in my own inexpert opinion, like that of Vinton County. Unfortunately, Berry did not name the areas that he had “dotted” in his map, so I couldn’t be sure. I flipped to the back of the book and began looking at his bibliographic sources.
I thought the most likely source was “Surviving Indian Groups of the Eastern United States,” written by William Harlan Gilbert Jr. for “Smithsonian Report of 1948.” Incredibly, I found a copy of the article online, but unfortunately, there was nothing remotely related to my Thacker family.
I next focused on Edward T. Price. In 1953, he wrote an article for the Association of American Geographers Annals entitled, “A Geographical Analysis of White-Negro-Indian Racial Mixtures in the Eastern United States.” He only mentioned in passing that there were other smaller groups, and the map he used, only showed the location of the Darke County Group and the Carmel Indians.
Stumped, and feeling like maybe I had imagined the whole dot located on Vinton County thing, I looked at Calvin Beale’s article. I had previously read his 1972 Article, “An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the Unites States.” In this article he mentions the Thacker vs Hawk case, stating, “In 1842, a member of a group in present day Vinton County, Ohio, that I have heard referred to only as “the half breeds,” sued the township trustees for refusing him the right to vote because he was partly of Negro ancestry. He lost his suit at the county court level but won a reversal in the state supreme court (Thacker vs. Hawk).”
No further mention of Vinton County is found in the article, but it proved that Beale was aware of their existence. Since the article was published in “American Anthropoligist” some nine years after Brewton Berry’s work, the article could not be the source for the little dot on Berry’s map. I then turned my attention to Beale’s 1957 article,” American Triracial Isolates: Their Status and Pertinence to Genetic Research.”
In the body of the article there was no mention of the Thackers or of Vinton County, Ohio. But as part of the article Beale included a table with columns labeled Area and Isolate, Population, Race Designation in Census Schedules. There under the state of Ohio is a group listed as Other Isolates – Vinton County, Population 190, listed as White and Negro in 1950 census.
It was official. The Thackers, Dortons and Nappers belonged to a triracial group, The Vinton County Group, that still existed as of 1950. William S. Politzer mentions our group in his piece, “The Physical Anthropology and Genetics of Marginal People of the Southeastern United States.” However, it appears that the brief mention comes directly from the Beale article with a nod toward Brewton Berry’s map.
Robert K. Thomas, an anthropologist, wrote a piece entitled “Cherokee Communities of the South” and also included the Vinton County Group. However, it is unclear whether he was talking about our ancestors or if he had us confused with another group. He mentioned that one of the last names was Goings, which in point of fact, there was never a Goings listed in Vinton County census records, at least through the 1930 census.
In the book, “North from the Mountains: A Folk History of the Carmel Melungeon Settlement Highland County, Ohio,” authors John S. Kessler and Donald B. Ball again mention the Vinton County Group.
“Known to have been present in Vinton County, (south-central) Ohio, as early as the 1840s, they were reported as still residing there in 1950. Within the area, they are generally regarded as white. The 1950 census reflected a total of 190 individuals classified as both white and Negro. Family surnames are not reported and no formal studies of this group are known.”
Essentially, it is that last sentence, that influences the writing of this blog. It’s time for us to shine a spotlight on these ancestors of ours. If you descend from this group, or have an interest in them, please feel free to send me a link, a post or any information you think relevant to the study of the Thackers, Dortons, Nappers and the allied families of this group. Perhaps our combined knowledge will help us solve the puzzle of who they were and how they came to be.
Note: If you are interested in reading more about triracial isoloates, Melungeons, or the subject of Mixed race, let me recommend the following sites:
1. Melungeon Studies – “a blog dedicated to the Melungeons and their descendents and to the world in which they have lived.”
2. Lumbee Indians and Goins Family Blog
3. Historical Melungeons, Native Americans, Appalachians Blog
4. Melungeon Heritage Associations - they have many of the articles I have touched on in this post. Awsome site!
5. Mixed Race Studies – a newer website that pulls together various disciplines and aspects of multiracial life. Lots of interesting material with a search feature to help you find the information you seek.
Beale, Calvin L. “American Triracial Isolates,” Eugenics Quarterly, Vol. 4. No. 4. December 1957, pp. 187-196, Accessed online May 14, 2009, Melungeon Heritage Association, www.melungeon.org
Beale, Calvin L. “An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the United States, ”American Anthropologist,” Vol. 74 (1972) pp 704-710, Accessed online, 7/24/2008, Melungeon Heritage Association, www.melungeon.org
Berry, Brewton, Almost White, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.
Gilbert, William Harlen, Jr., “Surviving Indian Groups of the Eastern United States, Smithsonian Report, for 1948, pp.407-438. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1949. Accessed online 6/0/2008, Janet Crain’s Gallery, http://picasaweb.google.com/craingen/Surviving_Indian_Groups#
Kessler, John S., Ball Donald B., North from the Mountains: A Folk History of the Carmel Melungeon Settlement of Highland County, Macon: Mercer University Press, 2001.
Pollitzer, William S., “The Physical Anthropology and Genetics of the Marginal People of the Southeastern United States,” American Anthropologist, Volume 74, No. 3, June 1972, pp. 719 -734. Accessed online 12/6/2010, Wiley Online Library, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/
Price Edward T., “A Geographical Analysis of White-Negro-Indian Racial Mixtures in the Eastern United States,” Association of American Geographers Annals, Vol. 43, June 1953, pp 138-155. Accessed online 7/24/2008, Melungeon Heritage Association, http://www.melungeon.org/
Thomas, Robert K., "Cherokee Communities of the South," unplublished paper, 1978. Accesssed online 1/6/2009, Selected Works of Robert K. Thomas, http://works.bepress.com/robert_thomas/
Obituary of Calvin Beale, New York Times, September 3, 2008. Online edition.