Multiracial Families/Communities

Do Labels Determine Our Racial Identity? A Guest Post by Chuck Shoemake

By Chuck Shoemake

The Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp

In the dark fens of the Dismal Swamp

            The hunted Negro lay;

He saw the fire of the midnight camp,

And heard at times a horse’s tramp

            And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

“The Slave in the Dismal Swamp”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1842

Hell and High Water, Richard Grant’s article about runaway slaves or “maroons” of the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina, appeared last month in Smithsonian Magazine (Sept., 2016). Dedicated to African American culture and history, the story revolves around the research of historical archaeologist Dan Sayers, and his passion for uncovering the secrets of these lost populations.

The 1888 painting below depicts Maroons taking refuge in the Dismal Swamp before the Civil War. In addition to swamps, many fled to creeks and desolate river bottoms throughout the South. Mountainous areas were not as attractive as places of refuge due to bounties offered to Native American tribes in those regions for the capture, dead or alive, of those who escaped.

Slaves in the Great Dismal

Slaves in the Great Dismal

The swamp, Dan tells his interviewer, “teems with water moccasins and rattlesnakes and the mosquitoes are so thick they can blur the outlines of a person standing 12 feet away.” His description of “toiling through sucking ooze, with submerged roots and branches grabbing at your ankles” is testimony to the determination and endurance of anyone daring to enter.

My primary interest in this subject stems from my own ancestral research, and the discovery of a certain strand of my racial identity. Although I am white, early Federal Census records indicate that my 5th Great Grandfather, James Shoemake, and members of his household were listed under the category of “All Other Free Persons.” The households of his sons Sampson, Solomon, and James were likewise listed.

What exactly does the phrase “All Other Free Persons” mean? Were those so labeled free from indentured servitude as well as from the shackles of slavery? They were certainly not “free” to do as they pleased. One would assume that in the South of the late 1700s and early 1800s they were of African descent. Was the label applied by a census taker and based on the appearance of an individual, or were individuals asked “are you Indian; are you Negro?” But then, in this era of removal or annihilation of native peoples and enslavement of Africans, would someone posed with that question answer truthfully? Perhaps they were so well known in the community that their status and race were already known.

What about the terms “Mulatto” and “Mustee”? A Mulatto is defined as a person of mixed white and black ancestry, originally, as having one white and one black parent. A Mustee is the offspring of a white person and a quadroon (one quarter black) or octoroon (one eighth black). But can we depend on the knowledge of those who applied the terms? I’ve seen both labels—and, later, “Melungeon”—used in conjunction with my ancestors. The signatures, or marks, of James and his sons are on a 1794 petition, part of which reads as follows: “The Petition of the people of colour of the state aforesaid who are under the act entitled an Act for imposing a pole tax on all free Negroes, Mustees, and Mulatoes.” The petition in Georgetown, now Marion County, South Carolina, which was initiated to cease the discriminatory taxation of “free Negroes”, contains the names of Bolton, Shoemake, Gibson, Oxendine, and others.

Seventy-five years later, in Hamilton County, Tennessee, the testimony in a trial known as the “Melungeon Case”, which involved the descendants of Solomon Bolton and the grandchildren of Spencer Bolton (named in the above petition), stated that the Boltons, Shoemakes, Perkinses, etc., “were called Melungeons and known to be Portuguese or Spaniards,” further complicating the possibilities of their ethnic background. The term Melungeon is thought to have first appeared in print in the 19th century, and used in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina to describe certain groups thought to be comprised of European, Native American, and African ancestry.

mapAnd then we have the Maroons. Sampson and Solomon Shoemake had documented land holdings between Cat Fish and Gum Swamps along the Pee Dee River in Northeast South Carolina in the late 1700s. James Shoemake and his wife Mary appear on a list of “Black” taxables” in the Fishing Creek District of Granville County, North Carolina, in 1762. In Alexander Gregg’s History of the Old Cheraws, he describes how “a man named Thompson, from the Poke Swamp settlement, on the westside of the river, as he jumped the fence, found a large and powerful mulatto, Shoemake by name, pressing closely upon him, with his rifle aimed and in the act of firing.”

Happily for Thompson, the rifle miss-fired and before it could be adjusted he made his escape. Twenty years later, Thompson learned that Shoemake had gone to Camden, caught him, and inflicted severe punishment”. This story emerged between 1776 and 1783 during Tory and Whig confrontations in the Cheraws, an area in early Northeast South Carolina. Shoemake, the “powerful Mulatto”, and also a noted Tory, is thought to be James Shoemake.  Were James and his sons Maroons? Were they of Portuguese, Native American, or African descentor perhaps all three?

Throughout history, various terms were used to define the ethnicity of people labeled as “free persons of color.” Can such terms, used not merely to identify one’s race but to determine one’s rights and mobility in society, help researchers to determine their own racial identity?

After having my DNA tested through, the ethnicity report showed the following distribution: Great Britain 29%, Eastern Europe 22%, Scandinavia 20%, Ireland 13%, Iberian Peninsula and Italy/Greece both 5%, and Western Europe 4%. I linked my connection to Great Britain and Ireland through my family surnames of Boyce, McScrews, Landrum, Pitts, Holliman, Sumrall, Hutto and Walters. My maternal grandparents were of Prussian and German descent, so the Eastern Europe was easily understood.

But Scandinavia—I had no idea where that came in.  This is where the black and white of DNA became gray.

Viking Longships

Viking Longships

The Vikings invaded and occupied the British Isles and Northern Europe for hundreds of years. The Moors of Northern Africa did likewise in Southern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. The influence of Italy and Greece extended as far west as France, Spain and Portugal, northward to the British Isles and Northern Europe, and South into Africa. And Western Europe was conquered over the years by Celts, Romans, and Germanic tribes. Ancestry estimates that approximately 60% of DNA from native people of Great Britain actually comes from this region, that of the Iberian Peninsula 51%, and Western Europe 48%.

Any African DNA is apparently at this point too minor to register, though further testing might reveal its presence.

I’ve been researching my ancestry for over 30 years. Based on early findings, I was convinced that my family descended from Jean de la Chaumette (pronounced Shumate), a French Huguenot, expelled from France in the mid-1600s during the purge of the Huguenots. After settling in London the Huguenots were banished by Charles II and given transportation out of the country. They disembarked on the island of Martinique, considered a “dumping ground” for Huguenots, where Chaumette established a plantation, and lost his first wife to disease. Leaving his eldest son Antoine to tend to the plantation, he immigrated to America with the remainder of his family and settled in Elk Run, Virginia, ironically only a few short miles from where I was raised in Manassas. Both are located in what is now Prince William County. There has been extensive research done on the descendants of Jean de la Chaumette. Though researchers and historians are aware of and acknowledge the Shoemakes in Northeastern South Carolina, they have been unable to link them to Jean de la Chaumette. I’m not as convinced of the connection now, though somewhere between the “All Other Free Persons” of the James Shoemake household and Jean de la Chaumette there may well be a story.   

The 1800 census shows Solomon and Sampson Shoemake, brothers, living side by side in Liberty County, Marion District, South Carolina. Both are labeled “All Other Free Persons.” That designation disappeared from the Sampson Shoemake family in 1810, when they were labeled “Free White Persons” by the federal census enumerator, and on subsequent census records as well. In the Darlington District of South Carolina, however, Sampson’s brother, Solomon, and his family remained “Free Colored Persons” on the 1820 and 1830 census. In 1840 and 1860, the Darlington County enumerators designated their households variously as “free colored,” “Mulatto,” and “white.”

How can one brother be defined as free white and another free colored? With such inconsistencies, and knowing the social and political significance of racial labels in a society based on slavery, one must question the knowledge and motives of those who applied them.* Though highly significant socially and politically, biologically such terms can be meaningless, as revealed in this era of DNA.

In the final analysis, relying on historically-based racial labels, terms, and designations makes it easy to get hung up on our racial identity, and much harder to pin it down. True passion lies in discovering our ancestors—and their storiesand placing them in their historical and social context, of which racial designations supply an intriguing part of the picture.


*NOTE: On the historically political, shifting, and arbitrary nature of racial designations, see “Race and the One Drop Rule in Post-Reconstruction America,”   and “The Racially Ambiguous Family of Diza Ann Maness McQueen and Wilson Williams.”  on this blog. —–VB.

10 replies »

  1. Hi Chuck
    Some of my lines also came from the Bladen/Robeson Counties area & at least one is what some would call tri-racial. Having researched them & others extensively & had both YDNA & MtDna tested the outcome is very similar to what yours from Ancestry was except my Western Europe is more close to your Eastern Europe amount (like a reversal of those two) with the other difference being we do show a small amount of West African & a tiny amount of Native American or East Asian. I have traced back all European & English/Irish & Scandinavian lines so I know who originates from where.
    My main line from Bladen/Robeson was there at least before 1790 & there is my brick wall. They were said by older relatives to be so dark because they were part Portugee (that old code word). They left Robeson for GA after the 1830 census because of the changes made by the NC legislature against people of mixed race & those who were of just Native American or African American. Many of the families who left NC had roots going back in that area before the Revolutionary War. Once in GA my folks tried to become like their new neighbors, serving on juries, buying land, marrying some of their neighbors daughters, joining the local militia to fight the Creeks. Well it didn’t work, by 1836 they had to leave GA for AL where they went to greater lengths to hide & deny any heritage other than being only white/European. Now inside the family they did keep their Native American heritage, but did not tell it to outsiders. All census records record them as white, though in the 1930s they received some money from the Feds for some kind of reparations. They didn’t keep the paperwork & all with knowledge of it are long dead so we can’t figure out what exactly it was.
    I think that future DNA testing when the companies have more samples & data to compare to we will be able to see more info on non European DNA genes. The lumping of East Asian or Native American as one will likely stop & they will be separated. In my Scandinavian lines have my Saami ancestors put in with my Swedish ancestors. The Saami are more closely related to the Eskimo & Inuit like Native Americans. Have one Eastern European ancestor, a Russian from Kazan who had gone to Sweden & settled there. The rest came from France, Yorkshire in England, Ireland, like the Regans in Robeson & Bladen Cos., NC. Our African line is a puzzle. Probably from our married in Creole line from Louisiana, same folks brought us our Choctaw. So we are now identifying on records as tri-racial or other.


    • Marci, Thank you for the reply. Since posting this article I have been researching the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina and find the “coincidences” intriguing at the least. I came across a book online that has lists of common Lumbee surnames and “Shumate” is mentioned as are several other surnames mentioned in the “Melungeon Case”. Many Lumbee were enumerated as Free Persons of Color in early census records. The term was used to describe a mix of American Indian/European, African/European, or all three. The Lumbee resided in an area that today includes Robeson County. I’m wondering if my “circle” isn’t getting tighter. Chuck


  2. Kudos little brother!! I knew there was talent in that conglomeration of DNA. Now that you have gotten deeper into the literary process,hopefully there is more to come. Your passion is obvious so don’t lock it down. And, you are not the first to be frustrated by science. The answer you seek is most likely in the infinitely small portion of DNA that current science cannot differentiate; as we have discussed before. However, there are many more stories to tell. Go for it!!! Ron.


  3. Hi Chuck,
    You may want to check out the book “Carolina Genesis, beyond the color line” edited by Scott Withrow. Two chapters deal with Bladen/Robeson areas & folks who lived there & migrated out to other states. The first, “They were other: free persons of color, restrictive laws & migration patterns” by Stacy R. Webb has lots of maps of the migration routes from Carolinas to Texas. The other chapter, “Joseph Willis, Carolinian & free person of color” deals with Joseph Willis in Bladen/Robeson County & his migration west to the Opelousas region of Louisiana, also maps. Both chapters mention many families of the area who stayed & also migrated west. Other chapters are on the Goins, Goyens, Goings, etc. of Moore Co., NC, the Cheraws of Sumter Co., SC., the Winton triangle families, & the Quakers of the Dismal Swamp. Not hard to read & a lot of info on little known groups & families in the Carolinas.


  4. Hello,
    I too, am a descendant of James Shoemake, and have recently undergone genetic DNA testing with similar results. I was also under the impression that my Shoemake were huguenots, but tests show me as e1b1a, which is central African. My african ancestry registered at .9%, but ydna matched someone in France. Very confusing!

    Nathan Shoemake


  5. Nathan, Thanks for the comment. I’ve recently read three books on the history of the Lumbee Indians. They really didn’t offer any definitive information about our Shoemake line but did open windows to some insightful possibilities. There is also a lot of information on the Shoemakes, Oxendines and Lumbee Indians at the Shuemake Journal website at The site is hosted by Harring Dean Shuemake who claims to be a descendant of Jean de la Chaumette. I believe you and I have corresponded through and you have probably already visited this website. This is a quote from the page where he discusses the Shoemakes and Oxendines. “In my research, I have run across some important information that has been posted on the internet. This information concerns itself with the Oxendines and the Lumbee Indians who lived in the North Carolina and South Carolina areas. Also, in another post I found reference to a group of people living along the PeeDee River in North and South Carolina. They were called “Melungeons” a local designation for a small peculiar race. “Their own claim to be Portuguese is more generally known. Their original site is on the Pedee river in South and North Carolina . They were once especially strong in Georgetown and Darlington districts of the latter.” I am posting this information on my website in order to provide information that might help future researchers identify the Georgetown Shoemakes, and to help understand the intermarrying of the Shoemakes with the American Indians. Some of the Shoemakes who appeared in Bledsoe County Tennessee apparently intermarried with the Indians because they were listed on the Federal census as being Mulattos.” He also makes several references to the extensive research done by Richard Gates on the Shoemakes of Georgetown and Darlington districts. I am constantly amazed at the amount of information there is on the Shoemakes and as baffled as you with the inability to make a connection to Jean de la Chaumette, Native Americans and/or African Americans. The search continues……


  6. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. It is so timely during this period in our history and the current rising of racism. The strong advances and fine-tuning of our lineages may yet prove to be of future significance in a world where people are defined by the lack of or color of their body.


  7. I’m currently reading Black Indians, A Hidden Heritage by educator, historian and author William Loren Katz. He describes a June, 1526 attempt to establish a permanent colony at or near the mouth of the Pee Dee River in eastern South Carolina by Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, a wealthy Spanish official from Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. The expedition included 500 Spanish men and women and 100 African slaves. By October of that year Ayllon was dead and the colony erupted into anarchy. By November the Africans had rebelled and fled inland to build their own society with the Native Americans, creating a new mixed settlement. After five months, no longer able to support themselves, the remaining 150 Spanish settlers returned to Santo Domingo. And yet another plausible possibility!


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