"Mixed Blood" Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South

"Mixed Blood" Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South

"Mixed Blood" Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South

"Mixed Blood" Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South


On the southern frontier in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, European men--including traders, soldiers, and government agents--sometimes married Native women. Children of these unions were known by whites as "half-breeds." The Indian societies into which they were born, however, had no corresponding concepts of race or "blood." Moreover, counter to European customs and laws, Native lineage was traced through the mother only. No familial status or rights stemmed from the father.

"Mixed Blood" Indians looks at a fascinating array of such birth- and kin-related issues as they were alternately misunderstood and astutely exploited by both Native and European cultures. Theda Perdue discusses the assimilation of non-Indians into Native societies, their descendants' participation in tribal life, and the white cultural assumptions conveyed in the designation "mixed blood." In addition to unions between European men and Native women, Perdue also considers the special cases arising from the presence of white women and African men and women in Indian society.

From the colonial through the early national era, "mixed bloods" were often in the middle of struggles between white expansionism and Native cultural survival. That these "half-breeds" often resisted appeals to their "civilized" blood helped foster an enduring image of Natives as fickle allies of white politicians, missionaries, and entrepreneurs. "Mixed Blood" Indians rereads a number of early writings to show us the Native outlook on these misperceptions and to make clear that race is too simple a measure of their--or any peoples'--motives.


In 1971 I was a law student at Mercer University. I found the repetitive nature of legal training to be mind dulling, so I decided to attend the Lamar Lectures delivered by George Tindall of the University of North Carolina. Published the following year as The Disruption of the Solid South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972), Tindall’s lectures focused on the role of race in southern politics. For the first time in my life, I heard someone discuss race academically, not as a fact of life, but as a social construct that served specific economic and political purposes. I suddenly became aware that race had a history and that its history had a great deal to do with the past and present South. As I listened to the lectures, I decided that I did not want to be a lawyer; I wanted to be George Tindall. I promptly quit law school and applied to graduate school in history. While my research has taken me into Native American history, the topic Tindall broached continues to have relevance for me. In these lectures, I explore race in a very different way than Tindall did, but he set me on this course.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many Europeans married Native women and had children whom whites called “half-breeds,” a word now considered racist and derogatory and replaced by the presumably less offensive terms “mixed blood,” “mestizo,” or “métis.” The large number of people of European ancestry . . .

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