Moving West: On the Border Between the Races

As the doors closed around them in the early 18th century, many of Virginia’s free people of color moved west and south.  In the border areas of Virginia, the colony’s restrictive racial laws were only casually enforced, and south of the North Carolina border they did not exist at all.  The extensive research of Paul Heinegg, available online at www.freeafricanamericans.com, allows us to see that migration happening in Southampton County, Virginia, still sparsely settled in the second quarter of that century.

Among the neighbors of my Drew ancestors were mixed families who had moved south from the longer-settled areas of the Tidewater to avoid the discriminatory taxes imposed on all wives of “negroes or mulattos,” and others who may have been related to white families just north of the county border.  By the second half of the century, at least one and probably two families closely associated with the Drews had mixed-race relatives just south of the North Carolina border, the offspring of marriages between white men and black women.  Other families moved south across that border as the century went on.  It was not merely that land was cheaper on the frontier; social attitudes were more tolerant as well.

Some families moved a good deal farther.  The Invisible Line, by Daniel J. Sharfstein,  tells the stories of three very different families, who moved far enough, in different places and at different times, to shed their mixed-race ancestry.

The extended Gibson family, including a number of free black men and their white wives, arrived in South Carolina from Virginia in 1730.  The authorities were alarmed.  The Governor summoned their leader, Gideon Gibson, for an interview.  At the end of the interview, he concluded that the immigrants were “not Negroes nor Slaves but Free people,” respectable, productive taxpayers who even owned a few slaves themselves.  Their white wives were a bonus, being hardworking and “Serviceable in the Country.”  They received a land grant of several hundred acres in the backcountry.

Gibson’s family members intermarried with their backcountry neighbors.  His son, also named Gideon, became one of the wealthiest and most respected citizens of their frontier community.  In 1767, a series of battles with the Cherokees led to the collapse of public order on the frontier, leaving the settlers at the mercy of particularly vicious gangs of bandits.  When the Assembly in Charleston refused to provide any protection, the backcountry settlers organized themselves as Regulators under Gibson’s command.  They defied the militia that was sent out to capture him, and the militia backed off.  Ultimately, the Assembly granted their demands.Randall Gibson

By the beginning of the 19th century some of Gideon’s increasingly white descendants had moved to Mississippi, where they continued to flourish.  One of them, Tobias, moved on to Louisiana.  He borrowed money, purchased dozens of slaves, and made a fortune in sugarcane.  His children married into the Kentucky aristocracy.  His son, Randall Gibson (right), became a Confederate general and later a United States Senator.  To explain their dark skin, they created a myth of the “four Gibson brothers,” sons of a younger son of an English lord, who had married a “gypsy maid.”  Their African ancestry was almost completely buried – but not quite.  When a political enemy made the accusation that Randall’s grandfather was remembered as black in his Mississippi town, the rumor was dismissed in the newspapers as “madness,” and then forgotten.

For a more extensive history of Randall Gibson, see the article by Sharfstein at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/14/black-or-white/?_r=0

 

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2 Responses to Moving West: On the Border Between the Races

  1. Joanne Pezzullo October 29, 2018 at 4:39 am #

    Anyone who has even dabbled in genealogy would look at the pedigree sheet in The Invisible Line, by Daniel J. Sharfstein, and realize there are no sources. Sharfstein claims that Gideon Gibson is the son of Hubbard Gibson but Hubbard’s sons are named in a deed and no mention of a Gideon. He claims Gibby and Hubbard are brothers with absolutely no source whatsoever and then writes a history of the Gibson family. Heinegg has changed his history of the Gibson family a number of times since his first ‘award winning’ book on ‘freeafricanamerican.’ I believe at one point he has something like 29 question marks, probably, may have been, etc… that was the Gibson history.

    You wrote; “he extended Gibson family, including a number of free black men and their white wives, arrived in South Carolina from Virginia in 1730” but Johnson declared they were “not Negroes” — they were not ‘free black men’ their DNA is European R1b — not African. Court documents show the Gibson family from which these Gibsons descend were known as Indians, being born as early as 1640 in Charles City County.

    Furthermore you, as well as Heinegg and Sharfstein, have confused the Gideon Gibsons. Gideon Gibson Jr., was called before the Governor in 1735, he was a young man with two children, his father was Gideon Sr. Gideon Jr., was likely the Regulator ‘shot dead’ by his nephew in 1781 as the the Gideon Gibson you name ” became one of the wealthiest and most respected citizens of their frontier community” of Marrs Bluff went to Mississippi and died there in 1792. He was the son of John Gibson and Elizabeth Wilcox and he was the ancestor of Randall Lee Gibson – While he was related to the Gibsons called before Gov Johnson he was not a descendant of Gideon Senior or Junior. I wish people would do a little research on these families before they publish these fairy tales.

    • Carla Rabinowitz October 29, 2018 at 11:29 pm #

      Thank you for helping to untangle the relationships of the various Gideon Gibsons. Accuracy about individual identities is certainly important in understanding history. It is certainly possible that Sharfstein identifies the wrong Gideon as the ancestor of Randall Lee Gibson, and erroneously holds that particular branch of the family up as an example of buried African ancestry. But his more general point, and that of Heinegg, still stands. There are hundreds of thousands of “white” Americans whose African ancestry has been buried over the centuries. I’ve seen that personally in the family histories of a two local acquaintances and one distant cousin. Margaret Jones Bolsterli, a respected Arkansas writer, has traced the process among her own maternal ancestors, members of the “free colored” Chavis family that intermarried with similar families including Bunches and Gibsons, shedding their “mulatto” identity as they migrated west across the Mississippi. I’ve also seen in my research the struggles of free mixed-race people to maintain their tenuous status in the gap between the races,and the decision of many of them to solve the problem by simply changing their race. This is a significant piece of American history that, until recently, most people did their best to ignore.

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