GGM was an Indian

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Great Grandma was an Indian
and other ethnic family traditions...

Probably the single most common unproven family tradition is that some familial ancestor was "an Indian".  Often this tradition includes the statement that the ancestor was "passed off" as a white person to avoid persecution of the family.  There are many reasonable explanations of why this tradition passes undocumented through so many families.  I tend to lean towards the primary reason being that it's true (at least in part) and that there is/was no good reason to pass along the proofs

Consider for a moment; how many proofs do you have that your ancestry was German, Irish, or Italian?  These are also undocumented family traditions within many families.  I can look at photos of my great-great-grandmother and have little question that the family tradition of her Irish descent is based in fact, I don't however have any proof.

In many families, the Indian tradition is accompanied by the also ambiguous Black Dutch, Black Irish, Porteghee, etc.. descriptors.  That such an explanation was needed in the first place indicates that there is some "look" which required further discussion in some families.  Since the primary method we Americans use to determine ethnicity and race is appearance, the need to further explain some "look" among the family indicates clearly that some members of the family did not resemble the preferred community.

It is clear after exhaustive study that some of these families were in fact of mixed-racial descent.  Many were of Tri-racial decent while others simply "tanned easily" :-) or had "natural coal-black hair"...  Before the turn of the century American society had a classification system in place with regard to mixed-race individuals that is almost mind-boggling.  It makes for very interesting study in genealogical terms.  At that time, it was more socially acceptable in the Southern United States (if you were racially mixed at all) to be minimally Native American than any part "Black".  Strangely, it appears to be exactly opposite in the Western United States at the same time.  

We would be foolish indeed, as serious historical researchers, to discount the possibility that in some families there exists a history of black/white inter-marriage (or intimate indiscretion) which resulted in children who would have then been referred to as Mulatto and whose children and grand-children might have been referred to as Quadroon or Octoroon.  The census reports of the time are replete with reference to that word Mulatto.  It appears however that the term Mulatto was also used in reference to some Native Americans and the children of AmerIndian/European racially mixed children.  Reality is, whether many want to accept it -- that the census taker assigned the racial classification he reported based upon his own observations which were generally also the observation of the larger community.  If our ancestor wasn't happy with that designation then they could argue the issue in court -- or move.

We'd be equally foolish then to discount the possibility that AmerIndian/European or AfricanAmerican/AmerIndian or any manner of other multi-racial marriages and family events occurred.  And it remains, then as today, that some of these events become lost to history as the families try to conceal the facts.  A concealment that becomes easier with each passing generation.

My genealogical point here is this:  If your family holds a family tradition that includes any of these issues, don't discount the broader possibilities.  We must remember that the specific racial identity descriptors have been fluid over the past 200+ years in America.  Keep an open mind.

Additional reading on historical racial classification:

A People Divided (this site presents some clearly offensive terms of both modern and historical usage)
Instructions to the Census Enumerators.  This is how they determined who was white and who wasn't.
Diversity of Colours (in French but excellent source of descriptors)

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last edited on Tuesday, August 13, 2002
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