Book Review: “The Indians of North Florida”

Christopher Scott Sewell and S. Pony Hill, The Indians of North Florida: From Carolina to Florida, the Story of the Survival of a Distinct American Indian Community, Backintyme Publishing (Palm Coast , FL, 2011). Kindle Edition.

I very much appreciate having this opportunity to collaborate with Billy Townsend on this new blog: When I read Billy's Age of Barbarity, I was impressed not only by the book's content, but also by Billy's engaging and dynamic writing style. Most of all, I was captivated by Billy's honesty: his writing was shaped by his outrage

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over his subject, but he was also frank about the questions raised and ready to admit where answers were uncertain. I immediately thought that he would make a great history blogger and I hinted that we should try to start something up. The result of my pressure is where we intend to explore our mutual fascination with the Sunshine state's 100 years of political, racial and economic struggle following the Civil War. We're making this up as we go along, but I think we hope to get an active conversation started and want to encourage others to contribute thoughts or objections. My regular blog, is intended as on-line repository for information, relating to my book of the same name, which could not make it into the book for

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space reasons, or was discovered after publication. is intended to be more of a conventional history blog by raising questions and inviting discussion. For my first contribution, I wanted to express my enthusiasm for a book that opened up to me another community and complicated facet of Panhandle life in the experience of the Catawba people. Below is my review:

The 1860 U.S. Census for Jackson County, Florida shows a total of 43 free persons classified as either black or mulatto. One might reasonably assume that these “free persons of color” are free blacks or former slaves manumitted by their owners. But there is something strange: several of these mulatto men serve in regular Union army units organized in Florida during the Civil War, not in U.S. Colored Troops regiments. The solution to this mystery can be found at where Steve Pony Hill identifies most of these Panhandle “mulattoes” as members of the Catawba tribe from the Cheraw Native American peoples.. In The Indians of North Florida: From Carolina to Florida, the Story of the Survival of a Distinct American Indian Community, Hill has collaborated with Christopher Scott Sewell to greatly expand his work and add depth to the story of the Catawba people. Mixing research, tribal lore

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and genealogy, Sewell and Hill present a portrait of a beleaguered yet resilient community that has resisted continuous effort to label it out of existence.

Dating back to their first encounters with Europeans, Native American peoples found their identity, and consequently their rights, defined by outsiders. The authors point out that an early and crucial milestone occurred in 1660 when the Virginia

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colony decidedthat “an Indian sold by another Indian or an Indian who speaks English and who desires baptism will now receive his or her freedom.” [p.6] This decree allowed “war captives held in

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slavery in the colony to regain their freedom, but it also provided incentive for their masters to downplay the Indian ancestry of those in servitude in order to retain them.” In the decades to come, the denial or skepticism toward Indian identity would be repeatedly asserted by whites to negate Indian land claims or to subject Indians to the controls and taxations imposed on free blacks. The latter point was crucial as Indians, as members of foreign nation, were not considered “free persons of color” subject to a poll tax. Consequently, defining them as

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Sewell and Hill trace how family groups of Catawba, in response to pressures on their land ownership and personal freedom, gradually migrated from their Southern Virginia homes to north-central North Carolina, then to South Carolina and eventually to the Florida panhandle. Their arrival coincided with the removal of the Creek peoples. It may be inferred that the arrival of one small Indian tribe coinciding with the intended eviction of Indians contradicted the narrative that territorial authorities wished to believe, and spurred white reluctance to acknowledge the Catawbas’ presence. In Florida, the Census takers imposed their classifications on the Catawba, designating them as mulatto, the category reserved for “persons who appeared to be obviously mixed-blooded of any kind.” But the Catawba did manage to carve out a twilight existence. As mulattoes they were taxed, but they were not subject to onerous laws that burdened free blacks or mulattoes requiring them to have white guardians appointed by the local magistrates or imposed restrictions on owning property [p.21]. Again, during the Civil War, the Jackson County Catawba contended with their ambiguous position: some members acknowledged as white served with Confederate units, while mulattoes served with white Union regiments.

In the Jim Crow era, the racial status of the Catawba continued to challenge whites who were determined to enforce the color line. Catawba children perplexed school officials. In Jackson County, the Catawba themselves avoided intrusive inquiries by setting themselves apart and establishing their own school. Despite these attempts at autonomy, ugly questions inevitably arose. The Sewell and Hill offer the case of Mary Francis Porter as a case study. After

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completing “the last grade offered at the little one room” school offered by the Catawba settlement in Jackson County in 1939, Mary sought more advanced education at the Cherokee Indian Normal School in North Carolina. [pp. 90-92]. The Dean of the Cherokee school wrote to Jackson County to inquire if the Mary’s school was for white or colored. The Jackson County schools Superintendent Finlayson replied that while many of the children in the Catawba community could “very easily be considered as belonging to the white race…it is generally believed in this county that they have some negro blood in them and for that reason they attend a negro school.” It was quite possible, the superintendent added that “they might have a large percentage of Indian blood.” Mary’s teacher in North Carolina intervened to demand a clear answer from Jackson County because it would be “a shame for Mary to have to miss

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wrote to Finlayson to insist that “I know that a drop of negro blood is not within me.” Finlayson investigated in good faith, obtaining family

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trees to show several generations of Mary’s ancestry. Although he confirmed Indian ancestors, Finlayson could not come up with a definitive answer that Mary had no negro blood.” That the education, and future, of an intelligent, ambitious young girl could rest on such questions, and the effort expended by adults to address such issues of identity, stuns the modern reader with the lunacy of Jim Crow.

Numerous photos of community members enhance the text. At times the authors get overly involved in genealogy and lose the trail of their devastating and powerful theme. It is easy however, to skim past the sometimes arcane review of census records. In summary, Sewell and Hill, writing as insiders, present an engaging story and introduce the reader to a vibrant, but insular, little community that has held fast to its identity despite daunting odds. If the Catawba of North Florida have been nearly invisible to outsiders, it is because white officials have been determined for generations to define the community out of existence. We can thank Sewell and Hill for focusing a light that illuminates their community and at the same time exposes the darkness of white American treatment of these Native American people.

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  1. chris scott sewell September 12, 2013
    • Dan WeinfeldAuthor September 16, 2013