By Chuck Shoemake
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.
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.
And 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 descent—or 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 Ancestry.com, 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.
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 stories—and 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.