The above five portraits represent people who descend from a number of North Carolina’s first families. Their ancestors had names like Step, Owens, Collins, Phelps, Bray, and Pugh. They lived in an arc from the Roanoke River to the coasts of Currituck. And while they appear to have mixed ancestry to us, they were all described as ‘white.’
Enter the ‘Anglo-Indians,’ the people who both existed and never happened. Modern day genealogists tell us it was verboten for a European to take an Indian partner based on colonial law and that, outside of a handful of documented cases — Pocahontas and John Rolfe, John Bass and Keziah Elizabeth Tucker, Giles Brent and Mary Kittamaquund — it just wasn’t done, despite abundant lore about mestizo communities and miscegenation.
Modern day genetic genealogists however will tell you that it is quite common for people descended from colonial southern families to discover a small amount of Native American ancestry in their results. Many of these people have limited if no understanding of their indigenous backgrounds, and as they spread across the South, the myth of the ‘Cherokee princess’ was born in part to fill this knowledge gap. If you follow many of these families — including those affiliated with modern groups, like the MOWA Choctaw, for instance — you will find that they lead back to North Carolina or Virginia.
One aspect that is somewhat difficult is where to fit the Anglo-Indians into contemporary narratives about Native Americans. It is difficult for people descended from these families themselves. While ‘Afro-Indians’ — people of African and Native American descent — or multiracial people — place their ancestries in the context of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the ideal of a post-racial America, there are many Anglo-Indians whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy! This shouldn’t be seen as unusual: the Five Civilized Tribes also held slaves and some fought on behalf of the Confederacy. We should also remember that James Vann, John Ross, and many of the Five Civilized Tribes’ leaders were also ‘Anglo-Indians’ — the sons of traders and indigenous wives.
This is not an abstract concept for me. I am a Vann descendant, though not of James.
How to fit their actions in the context of a modern American Indian narrative of an identity kept in opposition to European aggression and colonialism, where Native people today aim to “decolonize” by reverting to traditional practices and culture? It’s a perplexing question for those descended from both the colonizers and the colonized. Coming from two completely different traditions, it’s as if you are at war with yourself.
In terms of genealogy, the predicament of the Anglo-Indians is similar to that of Indians who found themselves described as ‘free colored,’ ‘mulatto,’ or ‘black’ in documents, except in their cases, the Anglo-Indians were described as ‘white,’ an identity that equally erased their identities. While they enjoyed the privileges of having that status, most Anglo-Indians in Eastern North Carolina belonged to a caste colloquially known as ‘poor whites,’ a phrase that almost implied racial admixture, as if their destitute poverty made it likely that they would have no qualms with even taking an Indian as a partner.
It was said that the wealthier colonists had even more contempt for this bottom-rung of white society than they did for the free colored population. As such, the Anglo-Indians are also erased from history, in that, as landless laborers, they often do not appear in tax lists, early censuses, or other records. By being “free” (white), they lost their ancestry. By being marginalized and poor (Indian), they remained invisible. As such, my ancestor Thomas Collins is in the Gates County tax list in 1786, but not in the state census that same year. He and his brother James are in the tax lists in Nansemond County in 1820, but are not enumerated in the federal census. They are both there and not there.
For those researchers who suspect they might be of Anglo-Indian descent, learning to read between the lines — why an individual might not appear in records — is a key tool. It was the absence, rather than presence, of documents that led me to understand that I wasn’t just dealing with another European settler family. These people were what James Nickens has called “the shadow people” — a social group that rarely occurs in records.
What is interesting, is that Anglo-Indians apparently maintained their family contacts with people who were lumped into the free-colored population, either through marriage with Africans, or perhaps even having more Native ancestry. My ancestor Thomas Collins witnessed a deed on behalf of Sarah Butler, a free woman of color, in 1803. Into the 19th century, ‘black’ and ‘mulatto’ members of the Cornelius and Lang families appeared in the Collins households. One can find mixed households in the region containing ‘mulatto’ and ‘white’ family members. One relative, Lucinda Russell, had just one of her daughters recorded as ‘mulatto,’ the other as white. Emmeline Lang, was recorded as ‘white’ in one census and ‘mulatto’ in another.
This shows you how arbitrary these social categories were. I am grateful for these ‘clerical errors’ though. They reveal the buried ancestry of a population that was supposed to be erased through assimilation.