On Sep. 9, 2007, Jim Serra, Vice-President and General Manager of the KPLC-TV station in Lake Charles, LA, published an article entitled "The Mystery in Our Midst" on his blog site. Its focus was the ethnic minority known locally as the Louisiana Redbones, of which Mr. Serra had just recently become aware. The writer of this posting (LV Hayes) is a descendant of 5 of the original redbone families.
http://www.kplctv.com/Global/link.asp?L=184558&nav=menu66_8 is where Serra's article may be seen.
After reading the Serra article, I was not happy with parts of it because I felt the Louisiana Redbones had once again been tarred and feathered by errors, lies, and damned lies propagated by people who didn't really know what they were talking about. I tried to contact one of Serra's colleagues whom I had heard was to do a follow-up article in order to clarify the issues. He turned me over to Serra, and Serra and I exchanged e-mail with the result that he invited me to write a response to "The Mystery in Our Midst" and I agreed to do so. My response would be posted as a separate article on Serra's blog site as soon as I could get it written. Serra emphasized repeatedly that no personal attacks would be allowed, and I agreed to that caveat.
If you don't tell your own story, then somebody else will and they'll inevitably get it wrong. That's a truism of life which applies particularly well to the mixed-race people called Redbones, who live predominantly in southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas.
Until recently, knowledge about the Redbones has consisted mainly of the folklore of individual families, little of it ever written down, shared with anyone outside the family, verified in a scientific way, or integrated with the folklore of other families into a composite history of all the Redbones. This chaotic situation is surely one reason why no Redbone has ever written a comprehensive reference work on his or her own people. As a result, Redbones in general haven't known and couldn't know with any degree of certainty their origins, their ethnic background, how, why or when they got where they are, or the truth about most anything else about their people.
This situation made for a chronic knowledge gap, which has caused years of controversy, bickering, misinformation, and multiple, conflicting versions of most anything associated with the Redbones. In fact, the bickering has gone on so long that most people think that Redbones are only good at one thing---fighting. Actually, Redbones probably aren't more inclined to argue and fight than any other kinds of people; they probably just have more to argue about than most. Internet access has only made this situation worse.
Into this gap has come a small number of outsiders---people who are not and have never been Redbones---who have tried to tell the story of the Redbones for them and they have inevitably gotten a lot of it wrong just as predicted by the above-stated truism.
The most notable of these is Don C. Marler, who is not Redbone himself, but was born in Hineston, Louisiana just outside Redbone country proper. Marler's book, Redbones of Louisiana(ROL), was published by the Dogwood Press (which Marler owned) in 2003 at Hemphill, Texas. This book has been highly acclaimed and is widely touted as the needed reference work on the Louisiana Redbones. Closer review of the work, however, reveals the writer's point of view to be eccentric in many respects and the book's coverage and underlying research to be flawed. Much of what Marler states about the Redbones is simply historically false or at best unevidenced, and much of the data presented in the book is filler material having little or nothing whatsoever to do with them.
Nevertheless, Marler's book and/or his views are serving as the guiding light for the current leadership of the Redbone Heritage Foundation (RHF), a group chartered in recent years to study the Redbones. Marler's book and ideas have also been the main sources for two other recent outsider efforts to tell the Redbone story. One of these is Jim Serra's Sep. 9 KPLC-TV blog article "The Mystery in Our Midst". The other is Brad Goins's Sep. 20 Lagniappe Magazine article "The Mystery People", pp. 44-47.
Serra quickly recognized that he was probably going to get some things wrong, and he did. But he was also open- and fair-minded enough to listen to other sides of the story. I'm grateful to Jim for giving me, a Redbone descendant born and raised at Starks in northwestern Calcasieu Parish (but now residing in Fayetteville, North Carolina), the opportunity to present an alternative view and correct some of the misperceptions about the Redbones. Writer's note: Serra's high-mindedness was short-lived, as indicated in the Foreword. I have published the article here as it was submitted to Serra on Oct. 17, making only a few minor corrections and adding only the Foreword and this note, and the reader can determine for him or herself whether or not Serra was correct in his finding of personal attacks in the article.
Although outsiders have begun to tell their own versions of the Redbone story, the Redbones themselves have been working to reduce the knowledge gap and it is far less grave than it once was. Redbone genealogists such as Curtis Jacobs (1901-81) and Dewel B. "Uncle Pink" Barrow (1903-77) from Fields, Louisiana have been digging up bones since the 1960s or before, with the result that this writer has been able to amass a database containing the names of tens of thousands of Redbones, both living and dead. A number of others have also made significant contributions to Redbone research by writing books about their Redbone families, to include Vanda V. (Long) Ashworth (1910-2001; on the Ashworth family), James R. Johnson (Drake and Johnson), Jane (Parker) McManus (Bass), Dolly N. (Farrow) Nicol (Ashworth and Thomas), Lucille (Perkins) Robinson (Perkins), Patricia (Waak) Strom (Perkins), and Erbon W. Wise (Sweat). There's so many Redbone amateur genealogists out there now, both on and off the Internet, that they cannot be mentioned here, even if their exact numbers were known.
On Sep. 19, 1990, a small group of Redbones from the Starks area led by Elaine Metcalf, current president of the Starks Historical Society, met with Louisiana officials to launch a program of Redbone studies. Terry Jackson of DeQuincy and other Redbones in the area joined in later on. A major objective was to promote a campaign to convert the term Redbone from a detested racial slur to an accepted ethnonym. In the late 1990s, individual Redbones began discussing Redbone matters on the Internet in a variety of e-lists and e-fora. This activity undoubtedly led to the Dec. 2001 opening of the first Redbone discussion group on Yahoo by Beverly Jackson, another Redbone descendant from Starks. In 2006, Ray "Houston" Bridges and Larry Keels, both Redbone descendants, opened additional discussion groups (Ray's is now closed) while this writer opened still another, the Redbone Research Group, on Jan. 1, 2007. All aspects of Redbone life and history are discussed in these groups, but the main focus is on family genealogy.
In the fall of 2004, Sandra Loridans, a Redbone descendant born in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, organized, with the help of her husband Henry, the RHF, which has held annual conferences at Alexandria (2005), Natchitoches (2006), and Lake Charles (2007). The stated purpose of this organization is "to foster research into the origins, the history, the culture, and the ethnicity of those people known as Redbones." Unfortunately, petty politics, misguided policies, and excessive internal and external squabbling have marred the performance and reputation of this organization, and little research has been accomplished to date. Mrs. Loridans was the first RHF president, but was deposed in 2006. The RHF leadership has since metamorphosed into a mostly one-family affair which seems to be more interested in finding nebulous melungeon and tribalist affiliations than in researching Redbone concerns. RHF board members Don Marler and Gary J. Gabehart have become the chief spokesmen for the RHF, and it is from them that Serra and Brad Goins obtained the bulk of their Redbone information.
All of these events, which are part of what I like to call the "redbone movement", have played a role in expanding our knowledge of the Louisiana Redbones and their offshoot groups in Texas and in promoting a sense of community amongst Redbones. Unfortunately, this movement has had little impact beyond those Redbones who frequent the Internet world where most of the related discussion and research has been conducted. Little has been done to promote the movement amongst the Redbone populace in western Louisiana, the bulk of which still lives in small towns like DeQuincy, Elizabeth, Merryville, Oakdale, Pitkin, Singer, Starks and the rural areas surrounding them. The Redbone situation in Texas is even less well known, though it is believed that considerable numbers of Redbone descendants still live in the Texas counties of Angelina, Galveston, Hardin, Harris, Houston, Jasper, Jefferson, Newton, Orange, and Trinity as well as probably in others.
The above presentation is intended to familiarize the reader with the current state of the art in Redbone studies and research. In the remainder of this essay, the writer will endeavor to address specific topics covered by Jim Serra in his article and present alternative views of them where justified by the available historical evidence.
The Term Redbone. This word now has a number of meanings, which I don't recall it having when I was a young man in the 1950s, but the only one that concerns us here is its identification of a mixed-race people who live predominantly in southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas. This group has no known connections to the mixed-race group in South Carolina called Redbones. The origin of the term is unknown, but it's very doubtful that it ever had anything to do with "red clay", "red squirrel bones", or "Red Ibos from Jamaica" as some folks alledge; more likely, it arose as a slang term for any person, white or black, who had an amerindian (red) ancestor. At some point, Redbone became a racial slur, which is apparently why the people in western Louisiana to whom the term is now applied as an ethnonym have never generally accepted it as a proper name for them (though a few now claim that they have always used it in that sense). It's also unknown when the term was first applied to these people, but we have no evidence that it was ever used before they got to Louisiana, as Marler and others claim. Much has been made of the 1893 Albert Rigmaiden letter as being the first mention of the term, but descendants of Robert C. Neblett (1795-1871) recall that he lived amongst the "Red Bone" indians when he was living at Nibletts Bluff in western Calcasieu Parish in the 1833-40 timeframe. This tale is credible because Mr. Neblett was listed on the 1840 census as living "next door" to George Perkins, a Redbone (and one of this writer's ancestors), while other known Redbones were living nearby. This information could date the term back to the 1830s, but its verity is unconfirmable at present.
The campaign to make the term redbone more acceptable seems to have made little progress amongst the people themselves, largely because it has been more or less an Internet phenomenon (and not all Redbones are on the Internet).
Who and What are the Redbones. Here is where the views of Marler and the RHF differ significantly from those of this writer and most other Redbones. Marler (ROL:211) has offered the following definition:
"A Redbone is a person whose biological heritage is some combination of at least two of the following: Caucasian, American Indian or Negro and who is a member of a group that identifies itself as a Redbone group or Redbone community, holding certain values, beliefs, and worldviews."
This definition is so broad that any mixed-race person in the entire country (plus Canada and all of Latin America!) could qualify as a Redbone (not counting those with oriental ancestry, of course). Even Marler realized that that was overdoing it, so he devised the constraint that one also had to belong to a group that identified itself as a Redbone group or community and had certain common views and values. This idea is a farce because no group or community has ever identified itself as Redbone. Even today, after a decade and more of trying to make the term more acceptable, the only groups called Redbone are the RHF and the online discussion groups and a community called redbone has yet to appear. Moreover, Redbone views and values have never differed significantly from those of their neighbors as far as we can tell from the available historical evidence. Thus, Marler's overly inclusive definition can now be seen as far too imprecise.
In my own research, I have tried to develop a more exclusive Redbone definition based on the following four points, which were first publicized on 13 Sep 2006 in the Bearhead Creek Redbones Group:
First, a "redbone" is a member or descendant of a limited number of families which migrated from the eastern seaboard states to Louisiana during a limited period of time in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Most of these families appear to have come out of the same part of the state of South Carolina, namely the old Cheraws and Marion Districts on the border with North Carolina. Many of them also appear to have been already related by blood and/or marriage or at least to have known one another in their original homeland. It seems likely that a good many of them made the trip to Louisiana together.
Second, these "redbone" families are distinguished by the fact that they were classified in the category of "all other free persons except indians not taxed" on the 1810 and "free colored" on the 1820 and later federal censuses. We do not really know what exactly this classification meant at the time, but it is our only indication that the families so identified had the mixed race origin we believe them to have had. We further do not know what that mixture was, but we assume that it was primarily caucasian and amerindian with possibly the admixture of african in a few cases.
Third, these families had anglo-american surnames, which reflects their origin in the eastern part of the United States and excludes any families of French or Spanish origin.
Fourth, genealogical continuity can be shown to exist between these families and modern populations who are called "redbone" either by themselves or outsiders in their area of residence.
The fourth point is particularly important. All of the mixed-race families identifiable as Redbones by this writer's identification cited above are related by blood or marriage, and this fact can be demonstrated in the genealogical database I've compiled over the past 11 years. That fact is not true of just any mixed-race family in Louisiana, Texas, or elsewhere as Marler and the RHF would have it. Since their arrival in Louisiana, the people we call here Redbones (and their cousins in Texas and elsewhere) have amalgamated to become a unique group which stands apart from all of the other mixed-race peoples of this country.
As far as we know, the people to whom the term Redbone is applied have never had any other distinct ethnonym. If asked, they would most likely say that they're Americans of european and amerindian origin (Southern Americans to be sure). Beyond that, there has been for some time speculation as to what that origin was, with tales of indian tribal, Portuguese, and melungeon descent told amongst the Redbones, but historical fact does not corroborate or confirm the tales of Portuguese and melungeon ancestry and the tribal identity of the indians involved can be verified in only one or possibly two cases. The Redbone Bass family has been shown to descend from an English/Nansemond marriage in early 1600s Virginia. The other case is the claim that Joseph Willis was the son of a Cherokee slave and a "white" North Carolina plantation owner; some consider this tribal identification unproven.
The Race Question. Serra observes that "The term Redbone generally describes a person of multi-racial heritage...white, black, and/or red blood (the intermingling with native Americans apparently helped create the moniker)." This is an interpretation of the Marler Redbone definition cited above, which he restates in the Serra article as "Their ethnic heritage was a combination of two or more of the three most common ethnicities: Caucasian, Negro and Indian." Most all of the Redbones find these definitions offensive because they imply a black heritage which the Redbones and their ancestors have always steadfastly denied (which is also one reason they have generally detested the redbone term). DNA testing will settle this question eventually, but for the time being, let me observe that the physical features of the Redbones generally do not support such a conclusion. If there is negro ancestry, and I admit that there may well be in a few families, then it is probably limited and remote and dates back to well before the original Redbone families came to Louisiana.
What are the Redbone Families. The Marler/RHF broadband definition allows them to classify a large number of mixed-race families in Louisiana as Redbones, including a whole wagon train load of people who came to central Louisiana from the Florida panhandle circa 1857. I have seen no hard evidence to substantiate that these people had any connections to the Louisiana Redbones prior to their migration to Louisiana, and my genealogical studies reveal thus far very little association subsequent to that migration between that group and the real Redbones who live in the nearby area (Natchitoches, Rapides, Sabine, Vernon Parishes). The broadband definition also enables Marler to publish in his book a list of 154 surnames entitled "Redbone surnames" (ROL:316). Trouble is, nobody knows whether they are or not because Marler did not develop any criteria by which one can judge objectively whether any surname is really Redbone or not. Which allows false classifications to be made. Despite Serra and his sources, for example, the Abshire, Rigmaiden, and Ryan families are not redbone; some Bridges, Chavises, and Davises may be derivative.
In my own research, my Redbone definition (cited above) has permitted me to identify 11 surnames as the "original" Redbone families: Ashworth (1), Bass (1), Buxton (0), Dial (1), Drake (0), Goins (3), Johnson (5), Nash (2), Perkins (2), Sweat (2), and Willis (1). The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of separate families listed on the 1810 Louisiana federal census; the zero indicates the Buxton and Drake families are not on the census, but we know that they had arrived in Louisiana prior to 1810. The Buxtons and some of the Drakes were evidently missed by the census enumerators while other Drakes were temporarily in Texas. This listing of original families is not necessarily complete; additional research may uncover others.
To this listing, Hoosier and Nelson can be added as "derivative" Redbone families. Hugh Nelson, white, is listed on the 1810 Opelousas (St Landry) census with four other free persons in his household. He apparently took a Redbone wife, but we do not know her identity or to which Redbone family she belonged. The Hoosiers are not on the 1810 St Landry census, though they may well have been in Louisiana already. John Hoosier Sr married into the Bass family in Duplin County, North Carolina (he came originally from Virginia) and followed the Basses west. The Hoosiers are on the 1820 St Landry census, but were labeled "white"; some of their children would be labeled "mulatto" on later censuses. In this context, "original" means a Redbone family which came to Louisiana from the eastern seaboard states; "derivative" means a family which became Redbone via marriage into a family already recognized as Redbone, whether original or derivative. No one knows how many derivative Redbone families exist today, but the total surnames involved probably number in the hundreds and maybe even the thousands.
Nature versus Nurture. Marler (ROL:211-7) has devoted a whole chapter of his book to the question whether nature or nurture is the more important criterion for judging who can be regarded as a Redbone. Serra claims that this is a divisive issue amongst Redbones. Where they get such ideas is a mystery to me, for I do not see this clash as an issue at all. Blood (nature) is the only criterion by which redbone ancestry can be determined; cultural indoctrination (nurture) has absolutely no role to play. The Redbones in Texas are Redbones because their blood-line descendancy from the original Louisiana Redbone families can be demonstrated; whether or not they have anything else in common with the Louisiana Redbones, like views and values, is absolutely irrelevant. An outsider may marry a Redbone spouse and live amongst Redbones all his or her life, but he or she will never be a real Redbone, though their children will be recognized as Redbones due to their blood line. I believe this view is customary amongst most Redbones, though I do not have the testimonial evidence to confirm it.
Where Did the First Redbones Come From. Amongst the original Redbone families, the Ashworth, Goins, Johnson, Perkins, and Sweat families came out of the old Cheraws/Marion districts of South Carolina, which lie adjacent to the North Carolina border. The Buxton family also came out of South Carolina, but the district is unknown. The Bass and Drake families came out of Virginia. The Nash and Willis families came out of North Carolina; the Dial family probably did, too, but this cannot be confirmed at present. All of the cited locations are their earliest ascertainable origins in the United States; none of these families moved directly from there to Louisiana. The Drakes, for example, moved from Elizabeth County, Virginia to northeastern North Carolina, where they apparently lived for some time, thence to southwestern Louisiana. Joshua Perkins related in a court deposition that he was born in Marion District in 1759, but had been in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi before arriving in southwestern Louisiana where he died in the late 1830s.
Where Did the Redbones Settle. Marler and the RHFers are fond of relating colorful tales of Redbones coming to Louisiana and heading straight to the Neutral Strip (the disputed area between the Calcasieu and Sabine Rivers which Spain and the United States agreed to stay out of during the 1806-21 timeframe) where they alledgedly settled and started a number of towns around 1800. They and others would even have us believe that some of the Redbones originated in the Strip as progeny of outlaws (both white and black) and the redskinned mates they found living there. Tales of Redbones fleeing to the Strip to escape racial discrimination are also a popular theme. The real historical truth is far different. The Redbones didn't head straight for the Strip, they didn't get there in 1800, they never founded a single town there, and not a single Redbone family ever originated in the Strip. I have also yet to see the first evidence that any Redbone ever married an amerindian anywhere in Louisiana. They either brought their wives with them from the east or they married the daughters of their neighbors (white or Redbone; no marriages to blacks are known).
The real settlement patterns of these people can be discerned via study of the federal censuses, and several phases can be noted. The first phase entails the arrival of the original Redbone families in southwestern Louisiana. The Ashworths, Buxtons, and Drakes settled in the New Iberia area, which was then in Attakapas (later St Martin) Parish, while the rest of the Redbones settled in the Bayou Chicot area of northeastern Evangeline Parish (then part of St Landry Parish). The exact date of their arrivals is uncertain. The Drakes were there in 1786 or 1796 (the church records give different dates) while the rest probably got there around 1804 or shortly thereafter. Some claim Thomas Nash was the first to arrive in 1781, but I've seen no evidence substantiating that date of arrival.
The next phase lasted from around 1804 to the late 1820s and involved limited shifting of Redbone families westward from their initial loci of settlement. The Drakes moved to Texas in 1807, but returned. The Ashworths also left St Martin Parish and moved to St Landry Parish to join Joshua Perkins and the Goinses; it's unclear exactly where they were, but probably on the prairies west or southwest of Bayou Chicot. By 1815 or shortly thereafter, they had moved into the Neutral Strip, with the Ashworths settling on the Calcasieu River just south of Westlake and on Bayou Choupique just southwest of Sulphur (neither town existed then). Gibson Johnson and Thomas Nash moved up to Natchitoches Parish between the 1810 and 20 censuses and settled in former Strip territory (the Strip era ended by treaty in 1821). Reports that other Redbones moved into the Strip or had temporary indian trading sites there during this phase cannot be confirmed.
The third phase took place in the late 1820s and early 1830s when most of the Redbones in the Bayou Chicot area relocated into the old Neutral Strip (this is the migration Marler has in mind; he's just 30 years too early). This is apparently the time when the Redbones began moving into the areas like Bearhead Creek and Singer in Beauregard Parish, Six Mile (Pitkin) in Vernon Parish, and Ten Mile (Westport) in Rapides Parish where so many of them live today. A good number of the Bayou Chicot Redbones first moved to the western Calcasieu area where the Ashworths and Perkinses had settled on the Great Calcasieu Prairie west of Lake Charles, but then moved on up to the Bearhead/Singer and Six Mile/Ten Mile areas. Others moved directly into western Rapides Parish (which then included most of Vernon Parish) and on up to Natchitoches or Sabine Parishes. Much is still unclear about these movements and settlement patterns.
The final phase of Redbone settlement was the deployment into Texas, which was Spanish territory until 1821 and then part of Mexico until 1835. Redbones began migrating to Texas as early as 1807, but their numbers were limited until the 1830s when many Redbones from the Calcasieu area moved into the area along the Sabine River that later became Jefferson and Orange Counties, Texas. The last major Redbone migration took place about 1845 when a wagon train carried Redbones from Calcasieu and Rapides Parishes to Trinity County, Texas, whence they spread out to adjacent counties and other parts of that state. This phase could also use much additional study.
Errors, Lies, and Damned Lies. The Internet is undoubtedly one of man's greatest accomplishments, and anyone with access to it has easy access to a fantastic amount of knowledge. Ask any question on a search site, and you're likely to get thousands if not millions of responses. Unfortunately, much of that information is erroneous or false or worse yet deliberately falsified to mislead the reader. Such "errors, lies, and damned lies", as I call them in my research group, have become a serious problem in Redbone research the past few years, to the point that it now seems impossible to correct all of them. The Serra article contains a number of such inaccuracies as indicated above. Some of them I have addressed here; others I'll just have to pass by in the interest of saving time and space. But a few are so egregious that I cannot fail to include them in this exposition.
For example, I have never seen or heard of any evidence that any Redbone was ever held as a slave in Louisiana or any place else. Some Redbones fought for the South in the Civil War, some didn't; a few owned slaves at various times, most didn't. Otherwise, we have no means of discerning what their attitudes were on the slavery issue or most anything else. However, lack of information does not stop the disinformationists from creating all kinds of bogus or irrelevant associations, as in the following passage taken from Serra's article.
"Inevitably, wherever Redbones settled, there was an attempt by others to define them, both legally and culturally. That frequently was accomplished with the "one drop rule." One drop of non-white blood (Redbones inevitably qualified) collapsed their cultural quantum wave into a particle, and that particle was deemed "of color." So Redbones who appeared purely Caucasian would find themselves shunned by all outsiders; white, black, and pure-blood native Americans."
Where Serra got this passage, I do not know (I have been unable to find it in Marler's book), but as far as I'm concerned, it is phony as a three-dollar bill. I'm a Redbone descendant who appears "purely Caucasian" and I certainly have never been "shunned by all outsiders", in Louisiana or anywhere else. Moreover, the one-drop rule was not made the law in Louisiana until 1910. Redbones had been called "free colored" and "mulatto" on early Louisiana censuses, but by 1910 most of them were labeled "white" or "other" (meaning neither white nor black). It is of course possible that a few Redbones did suffer discrimination as a result of the one-drop rule and the specific circumstances are not known to this researcher. But I see no evidence for such sweeping generalizations as those made by the unknown writer in the above passage.
Marler and the RHF have also tried to paint a picture of the Redbones as a clannish, violent people who have always settled in communities where their principal activity was to keep to themselves and run off any outsiders attempting to enter their territory. Study of the settlement patterns indicated by the federal censuses tells an entirely different story. While it's true that Redbone families tended to group near one another upon entering new territory in the early days, other kinds of families did the same; that custom had more to do with the desire to be near family and help and protect one another than it did with any kind of clannishness. Study of the census and other data also shows that Redbones and non-Redbones lived more often than not interspersed amongst one another in the same communities, with members of each group intermarrying with members of the other group and attending the same churches and schools.
In the Starks area where I grew up, the average Redbone was a law-abiding, church-going person dedicated to earning an honest living and taking good care of his or her family. He lived by the old Southern customs of good manners and hospitality and minded his own business while expecting you to mind yours. I suspect that's the way it mostly was and probably still is throughout Redbone country. Every community has its trouble-makers, and we certainly had a few at Starks, but they should never be the ruler by which a community is measured. When it was lunch time, my Redbone grandmother would check the road going by her house, and if anybody was going by, she'd invite him or her in for dinner, no matter who it was. That simple act of kindness and generosity tells us more about the Redbone heart and soul than all the nonsense about clannishness and violence.