Tri-Racial People of the Upper South

(Information on this page is taken from the book, Black Indian Genealogy Research. African Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes, by Angela Y. Walton-Raji, and published by Heritage Books in 1993. No information from this page can be extracted or duplicated in any way, without permission from the author.  All questions should be directed to

Perhaps one of the most valuable pieces of genealogical research about African and Indians outside the Indian Territory of the West has emerged from the work of Dr. Virginia Easley De Marce. The National Genealogical Society Quarterly of March 1992 featured an article by Dr. DeMarce in which she discussed what she referred  to as "Tri-Racial Isolates" of the Upper South. The Upper South, consisting of Virginia, the Carolinas. Kentucky, and Tennessee. Her work is essential for any African American researchers whose ancestors may not be from the Five Civilized Tribes, but whose family is still known to have Native American ancestry.  Her piece is entitled, "Verry(sic)  Slightly Mixt:  Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South. A Genealogical Study."(1)

The work is essential because Dr. DeMarce closely identifies and examines the migration pattern of these groups.  It is from this understanding of the tri-racial population that individuals may be  able to penetrate the realm of possible Indian ancestry. Her work is mentioned here because there are thousands of African Americans form Virginia to the Carolinas who claim Native American Ancestry, yet have no direction as to where to document this relationship The effort to trace Indian ancestry from  the Upper South is probably the more challenging areas of Black-Indian Genealogy.

Unlike the extensive records to be found on the Five Civilized Tribes, there was a deliberate effort to eliminate other tribes, particularly the smaller ones officially eliminating them from the census. In the 1800s it was not uncommon to learn that many were simply "terminated". The result was that Indian families were listed in the census as mulattos or white, depending in many instances on  the complexion of the persons being enumerated.  This official "termination" gave the impression that the population in many areas was either black or white, and that the indigenous populations had become extinct.

Marriages and Migration Patterns

African/Indian Mixtures

   Relations between blacks and Indians have been known to have occurred as far back as the 1600s. African Indian marriages did occur, but hit was neither a trend nor a widespread phenomena.  However, there were nations that did establish a pattern of intermarrying with both blacks and whites. For example, on the Eastern Shore area of Virginia, DeMarce points out that the Gingaskins were intermarrying into both the white and black communities.  And both whites and blacks were known to have married into the Nottoway according to the census of 1808.  This particular census was made by tribal trustees who had first hand knowledge. 

However, the black participants in legally recognized marriages were primarily free blacks, thus allowing them some freedom to intermarry. After the Civil War, intermarrying continued, even though in many places it was illegal. But when intermarrying occurred there seemed to be a pattern of selectivity with bi-racial offspring, who usually selected a spouse from other bi-racial groups. This marriage pattern led to the bi-racial families (Indian/White, Indian/Black, White/Black) becoming tri-racial. This need to find "suitable" mixed race spouses contributed to the need to move more frequently than the general population. For example, the Baltrip, or Boltrip family was commonly found in the central part of North Carolina, but later appears as a free colored family in Wilkins County farther to the west.

This comes as no surprise as it has not been unusual in African American families to note that many mulattos have also practiced the pattern of marrying exclusively mulattos.

Tri-Racial Groups

Certain nicknames are given to describe tri-racial groups and these labels are used today throughout the South.  Labels such as Brass Ankles, Red Bones, Lumbees and Turks are among the common names used in reference to the trr-racial people.  Other names are Guineas, the Haliwas, and the Melungeons. (Goins)  The families in those groups were bi-racial or tri-racial and married as a general rule with other mixed families.  For example the Goins clan a long standing family of tri-racial people form Tennessee were known to have lived with and intermarried frequently with other groups such as the Red Bones, of Louisiana. (2)

Over the years, Indian/white, and Indian Black mixtures existed but there were entire towns where these mixed people predominated. Usually the mixed population lived in a European culture, speaking English, practicing Christianity and giving European surnames to their offspring.  Thus the merger of cultures contributed to the loss of Indian languages and traditions. Most tri-racial families are either white-identified, or black-identified families, though genetically and historically they are tri-racial.

Notes on Searching for Tri-Racial Ancestors

DeMarce does make the effort to identify certain surnames of specific groups. For example, the Louisiana Red Bones frequently have the surname Willis, Sweat Ashworth, or Perkins. (3)  It will be helpful to become acquainted with the surnames from these groups but the challenge exists in identifying Indian ancestors.  Fortunately there are some leads that may assist the researcher in this effort. The researcher is cautioned that this quest will be extremely since the documentation just doesn't exist for tri-racial groups.

Of course if one has the benefit of an oral tradition in the family that gives the name of an Indian ancestor, then one has already moved ahead in the research. Obviously once an Indian ancestor has been found one might want to learn the history of that specific Indian nation, becoming familiar with the common surnames found in that group, and relate their family history to the history of that Indian group.

A possible pitfall exists here for the genealogist. The search for Indian ancestors from the tri-racial might steer the researcher into a frantic search to prove or to disprove a specific racial composition. It is essential to keep the focus on the search for the names of those ancestors, regardless of their racial composition. Dr. DeMarce spoke very tactfully of the fact that her research might not have been published several years earlier, because many would not have wanted their mixed ancestry to be known, preferring to blend into the white population. This phenomena is common among many mixed populations and was known among African Americans as "passing". Among Indian-whites the practice was to deny the Indian ancestry, while with some mulatto or Indian black populations may have been to deny the African ancestry. This is not unlike many immigrant populations who discouraged their children from speaking the mother tongue, with the intention to blend with the majority as soon as possible.

Contributing Indian Tribes

There are many nations among whom Africans can claim ancestry. For example it is not unusual to hear many Blacks of the coastal states referring to Pamunkey ancestors and others referring to the Lumbees.(4) In such cases, traditional census records will be essential and careful notation should be made when one finds the mulatto ancestor who may have indeed have been an Indian from one of the coastal tribes. Oddly, it is common to hear many African Americans make references to being descendants of the Blackfoot Indians. There has not been any indication that the Blackfoot Indians ever lived outside of the Montana and Canadian region, and the assertion of  family ties to this nation is perplexing and may be more figurative than actual.

DeMarce points out that the following nations of Indians contributed to the tri-racial isolate groups:

   Chickahominy, Gingaskin, Mattapony, Nansemond, Nanticoke, Nottaway, Pamunkey, Rappahanocks,       Saponi, Weanick, Werowocomo

There are some specific surname patterns that appear in the tri-racial communities. But De Marce cautions the researcher to avoid concluding too hastily that a relationship exists just because the surname is the same. On the other hands, she acknowledges that a specific pattern of name dispersal in a limited population may indicate which groups might be considered as isolates. As as result, her illustration of the tendency of the groups to intermingle among other similarly mixed groups and not on a regular basis to re-marry into the original racial group makes them no only isolated, from their original racial group, but also identifies them as isolate groups.

End Notes

1.  DeMarce, Viginia Easley, Verry Slightly Mixt: Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South. A Genealogical Study National Genealogical Society Quarterly, March 1992, p 5 - 35.

2. The surname Goins is a variation of the group name Melungeons or Meleungoins.

3. Mills, Gary B. Tracing Free People of Color in the Antebellum South The National Genealogical Society Quarterly, December 1990.  In this work, Mills discusses the origin of some families of free people of color in  Louisiana, such as the Goins, Chavis, Locklear, Hunt, Ivey, Kennedy, Scott and Sampson families. Some of these names are also those of free non-whites of Alabama

4 The Lumbee Indians are still seeking official tribal recognition.

(A List of the surnames of the Tri-Racial families appears as an Appendix in the book, Black Indian Genealogy Research. African Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes)

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(Information on this page is taken from the book, Black Indian Genealogy Research. African Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes, by Angela Y. Walton-Raji, and published by Heritage Books in 1993. No information from this page can be extracted or duplicated in any way, without permission from the authors.  All questions should be directed to