Hugo Leaming (center), Thomas Jefferson High School, Richmond, Virginia – 1940
THERE ARE A LOT of books available today that discuss the mixed-race communities that lived along the Virginia-North Carolina border in the colonial period. One for instance, called Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South makes the case that the people who lived in “Scratch Hall” — modern-day Hall Township in Gates County — were the mixed-race descendants of “Roanoke Old Settlers” (European colonists who had arrived in North Carolina in the colonial era) and displaced Tuscarora Indians.
Much of this information has been recirculated and arrived to me from various sources — I wrote a post about “Black Mingo Pocosin” a while back — but almost always, when I try to trace the origin of the data, it leads back to F. Roy Johnson or Hugo Prosper Leaming.
Leaming’s main work is called Hidden Americans: Maroons of Virginia and the Carolinas, which was completed as a thesis/dissertation in 1979 and published by Routledge in 1995. It’s an important work in the canon of colonial mixed-race narratives that have emerged in the post-Civil Rights era as a way to both undo pre-Civil Rights narratives built on myths of racial purity, as well as to write a new version of American history, one that would support a multiracial future reflected in an idealized pre-history, one where rugged individualists of all colors came together in the wilderness to oppose tyranny.
This is not an easy book to get your hands on, but a few months ago, an academic who happens to also be Tuscarora, was able to get me a PDF (Thank you, Spunky!) The first “book” within Hidden Americans focuses on what Leaming terms “The Roanoke Community.” These were the fugitives from Jamestown, European — mostly British — colonists, as well as Africans, escaping the laws of Virginia to inhabit the lawless, swampy country to the south. He recounts the stories around some of these first Old Settlers — Nathaniel Batts, and my ancestor George Durant among them — placing them into a grander narrative of fringe coastal communities that dotted the East Coast.
Some of them were pre-Columbian, dating back to the fifteenth century or even the fourteenth. The people of these settlements were of Portuguese, Basque, Breton, Welsh and West-of-England descent, from the lands that jut out into the Atlantic.
This early period resulted in frequent miscegenation, the term for intermarriage of people of different ethnic backgrounds. Leaming argues that this early mixing of indigenous peoples and Old Settlers led to the creation of a class in society that would be later called the “Poor Whites,” outside of the Great Dismal Swamp.
As the generations passed, they came to be of Native American as well as European descent, if it be taken that their fathers, as sailors, were unlikely to bring women with them … At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were still tawny-skinned, English-speaking people of a culture distinct from the new majority, inside the Dismal Swamp as maroons, and outside, as Poor Whites.
While Leaming is an excellent storyteller, he is not necessarily an academic. He writes with the authority of an all-knowing source, rather than creating a mosaic of sources. Most of his material though can be substantiated by the colonial records listed at the end of each chapter. However, here and there, he displays some knowledge of Carolina tribal politics that hints at familiarity with oral traditions in addition to paper records.
The Yeopims were one of the branches of the Tuscaroras, or a client nation of that empire, located to the east of the Tuscarora heartland, interspersed with the immigrant settlers in Roanoke.
This is a contention of many Tuscarora today, that the Algonquian nations on the coasts — the Chowanoke, the Yeopim, the Machapunga — were client nations. However, I have yet to see a primary source that states that as such. He also mentions an adoption ceremony for Nathaniel Batts into the Tuscarora. I find this very interesting, because this is something someone would only know of via oral tradition. To me, this shows that Leaming had other sources when writing Hidden Americans, not only primary colonial sources. The only question is, who informed Leaming? With whom did he speak?
He also devotes a lot of time to discussing the “Scratch Hall Folk,” from whom I descend.
On the very edge of the Swamp, where wet and dry wilderness met, and at swamp areas detached from the Dismal itself, lived the Scratch Hall people, not so much in hiding as in seclusion, yet a seclusion that could readily turn into hiding if the enemy appeared in force. Scratch Hall was on the southern edge: other tawny maroons principally of Native American and white descent may have also lived on the edge in the other quarters of the Swamp. If encountered by an outsider they could pretend to be ‘tame’ Poor Whites of the outside who had strayed in.
There is also a reference to Black Mingo Pocosin, as previously discussed.
What appears to have been one of the much older abandoned settlements lay near the edge of the Swamp in the late nineteenth century but had probably been a much more secluded place before drainage canals began to diminish the size of the Swamp. This swampy field is, or was, called Black Mingo Pocosin (pocosin, a swampy area). Mingo means an Iroquoian-speaking person and the field is therefore named for such a people or for the maroon chief Captain Mingo, in either case a survival of Tuscarora influence. If there was a settlement here it was likely to have been a community of Black Mingoes, that is, persons of predominantly African descent with a special Tuscarora cultural tradition.
Black Mingle Pocosin, as it is called today, was located just south of where my ancestors were later living in Drum Hill, North Carolina. It’s literally down the road. However, I am skeptical about his assertion that “Black Mingoes” meant they were Iroquoians with African ancestry. “Black Mingo” and “Blue Mingo” were used interchangeably for Iroquoian groups, such as the Seneca and Cayuga, in the Ohio Valley. One might also recall that men named “Seneca” were counted among the Meherrin and the Tuscarora in the 18th century. One, a Meherrin Indian named George Seneca, was tried and hanged in a murder case in the 1720s. John Seneca and Thomas Seneca were named on Tuscarora Indian Woods deeds in the 1760s. Here, I feel Leaming might have embellished a bit. This raises questions about the accuracy of the rest of the text.
Leaming also delves into the Civil War era, detailing the exploits of Jack Fairless, whom he calls “Ferelis,” the leader of a group of vigilante “buffaloes” during the crisis in the south. He was described in The Civil War in North Carolina as a “hard-drinking, fast-living Gates County farm boy” who “pillaged, plundered, burned, and decoyed off slaves” in Gates and surrounding areas. He was later shot in altercation with a subordinate.
In his teens he had participated in maroon guerrilla raids upon the plantations, before the beginning of the Civil War between the United and Confederate States. Totally without education, his intellect was of the highest caliber. His name was transcribed Fairless by later writers, a form more acceptable as a modem Anglo-Saxon American name, but in his time it was written Ferelis. He was of the Scratch Hall or kindred heritage.
Actually, John Fairless was born in 1838 and is listed in the 1850 US Federal Census in the household of Joseph Fairless. While he is listed as “white,” his neighbors were the mulatto and Indian Burks and Taylors. He also lived a few households down from Elvy Russell, the nephew of my ancestor Anna Russell. The Chowanoke Robbins and Martin families were also close by. So Fairless was most certainly of Scratch Hall heritage, and likely had the same deep indigenous heritage shared by other families in this area.
While this book is a a great find for anyone interested in local history, one has to ask: who was Hugo Prosper Leaming to begin with? At the end of his life, he was a minister of the All Souls First Universalist Society of Chicago, and was 69 years old when he died in 1993. In addition to authoring Hidden Americans, Leaming also wrote a 1977 essay called The Ben Ishmael Tribe: A Fugitive “Nation” of the Old Northwest that was discredited in 2009 by UCSC Professor Nathaniel Deutsch in the book Inventing America’s Worst Family: Eugenics, Islam and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael.
In it, it recounts Leaming’s own personal transition in the 1960s and 1970s that accompanied his research into Hidden Americans. Unsurprisingly, he was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, which perhaps encouraged his research, and efforts to construct a post-racial narrative based on a very deep colonial history. “After living half a century as a white man, Hugo Leaming now claimed he possessed Native American and African American ancestry, and was therefore triracial.” Deutsch goes on:
By the time he died in 1993, Hugo Leaming has fully embraced his new identity as a Chickahominy Indian-African American-Anglo Saxon member of the Moorish Science Temple … It was an extraordinary transition for a man who had been raised as a white, middle-class Unitarian in segregation-era Virginia.
So Leaming’s work, while richly sourced, as masterfully woven into a compelling narrative, is still a product of post-Civil Rights era identity revisionism. This is a fact that is often not mentioned when it is cited in so many books about maroon communities in and around the Great Dismal Swamp today.
At the same time, while Leaming might have been a master of crafting new identity narratives, much of what people have written about mixed-race communities in this area of North Carolina and Virginia has been born out by DNA admixture results, which show a low but statistically significant amount of Amerindian admixture among people from certain communities in the region, along with African and, on occasion, South Asian ancestry, results that are not found in samples sourced from British Isles or other Western European populations. Which is to say that, however Leaming postured in public, whatever identities he adopted, or to whatever extent he took liberties with his accounts, his narratives, when it came to the settlers of the region, were often correct.