The thing I love about history is that there’s always more to learn. For instance, while perusing the library shelves a few months ago I came across a book with an interesting title. Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, by William Loren Katz, had a photo on the cover featuring a black man standing beside a First Nations man. It struck me as odd, but I was intrigued.
I had never heard of such people, but suddenly an image flashed in my mind. I was 16 and in Minnesota, playing volleyball for Team Saskatchewan at the North American Indigenous Games. All the teams from across North America were filing onto the track for opening ceremonies. We watched the colourful array of track suits winding around the track, but that wasn’t the only striking thing about the thousands of athletes gathered.
Several teams from places like Connecticut, Florida and New York had teams of predominantly black youth. Most of us were puzzled by this, but with blood quantum qualifications, we figured they were some sort of Black Metis, with a small portion of Indian blood, enough to represent their state at the games.
Reading the book jacket, my memory of the black Indians suddenly made sense. They were a sort of Metis, but were more commonly found in the states. I was just shocked that I had never heard of them; an entire group of people, with their very own history, and I knew nothing about them.
I was fascinated by the book, curious to learn more. The author pointed out that many Americans didn’t even know the history of Black Indians, so it made sense that I, in Canada, would know even less. I’ll do my best to summarize and highlight certain points but I will definitely miss some interesting facts because there is far too much to cover to simplify it all in one column.
Naturally the story begins with slavery. Those slaves that escaped their masters tried valiantly to hide out in the woods, fearful of recapture. Many tried to band together, creating their own “maroon” colonies, which sometimes grew into successful farming communities. Most of the runaways were men, so they often had to raid plantations and Indian communities for wives, and their babies were some of the first Black Indians.
The maroon settlements often produced enough crops to trade with other maroon colonies, and they sometimes traded with their former masters. Not all white people were content bartering with former slaves though, and some who were jealous of the success of maroon farms attacked the maroons and Black Indians, either killing them or enslaving them again.
Other Black Indians resulted from runaway slaves, who were quickly taken in and hidden among Indian nations. Those slaves who married Indian partners also had Black Indian children.
Yet in other places, like Florida, many Creek Indians who broke away from their nation, and called themselves “Seminoles” or runaways, sought refuge in maroon colonies. Those black people who had settled Florida created the very first settlements in the harsh jungle climate and they taught many Seminoles how to survive there. Here began the distinction between Red Seminoles (full-blooded Indians) and their children with maroons, who were referred to as Black Seminoles.
Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, welcoming slave fugitives, so in 1849 a Black Seminole, Wild Cat, led a motley group of slaves into exodus. About 800 blacks, Indians and Black Indians followed Wild Cat into Mexico, where they would remain for the next 20 years.
Some of Wild Cat’s people began to trickle back to America in the 1850s, but it wasn’t until Wild Cat died of smallpox that the rest returned to America. Slavery had finally been abolished, following the civil war.
Many Black Indians were recruited by the U.S. Army as scouts, to search out criminals that were hard to locate in Texas. Officially they were dubbed the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts and were promised food, necessities and eventually some good farming land in exchange for their efforts. After many years of dedicated service, most of these scouts died penniless, their efforts unrecognized, receiving no pension and no land.
Some Black Indians joined the army as regular officers. Race relations were still pretty tense on the frontier between black, white and Indian groups. Because they proudly took part in the last Indian wars, many Indians were resentful towards them and began to call them “buffalo soldiers” on account of their short curly hair, which reminded them of the hair on a buffalo’s neck.
However, not all Black Indians were quick to join the side of the law and many became illustrious renegades on the western frontiers. One of the most infamous outlaws was Billy the Kid, or Cherokee Bill, who despite inaccurate movie depictions was actually a Black Cherokee.
The book goes on to feature short biographies of prominent Black Indian figures, interspersed with their rich history. Langston Hughes, poet laureate, could trace his lineage back to Pocahontas. Renowned fur trappers and treaty negotiators George and Stephen Bonga, along with sculptor Edmonia Lewis, and cowboy/inventor of “bulldogging” or “steer wrestling, Bill Pickett, were also Black Indians.
Not mentioned in the book are a few other notable Black Indians: musicians Jimi Hendrix, Martha Redbone, and one of the founders of the Blues in the Mississippi Delta, Charlie Patton.
Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage is a captivating read, and one that I would recommend to any interested in learning more about a little known aspect of North America’s history.