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Excerpts From "The Buffalo Ridge Cherokees: Remnants of a Great Nation Divided"

Category: Columnist

Excerpts From
"The Buffalo Ridge Cherokees: Remnants of a Great Nation Divided"
Writen by Dr. Horace Rice, PhD: Heritage Press

  by Anita Wills
Copyright ©1998-1999 by Anita Wills. Reprints require approval by the author.

This article touches on a topic that seems to be a sore point for many Americans. It is the topic of the relationship between Africans and Native Americans. Many of us who are researching run into walls which we cannot get past. In order to break down the wall we have to follow the trail, no matter where it goes. If you cannot find your ancestors listed as black you may need to be looking for them in the "Mulatto" or "Indian" category. I found myself stuck many times when looking for my ancestors under the black designation.

I found out that some states had a "Black", "mulatto" and "White" designation. The "M" designation was used to designate Indians (or mixed race). To anyone who has heard of the United States Colored Troops and believe that "colored" designated only blacks, that is incorrect. "Colored" was a term used to designate anyone who was not white. Many Native Americans participated in the Civil War on the Union side and they served in the United States Colored Troops. The key that I used to get past the block was to look for the name first then the racial designation. In fact the racial designation was the last information I looked for since many of my relatives listed themselves as white. The information in this article should be helpful to those who run into walls. The article is about a Tribe in Amherst County who call themselves "The Buffalo Ridge Cherokees".

Cherokees In Amherst County Virginia:

The Cherokee language belongs to the Iroquian linguistic group. It is believed that, during some prehistoric time period, they lived in the Great Lakes region. This belief is based on numerous generations of Delaware Indian historians who passed on the oral tradition of their ancestors to their descendants whenever they had the opportunity in the northern woodlands 1(Terrell, 1971, 131). The tradition states that the powerful Delaware, whose ancient homeland was in New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania, and New York, fought the Cherokees over a period of the reign of three Chieftains before the Delaware's could finally claim victory (p. 10). Amherst, Nelson, Rockbridge and Augusta County were thought to be hunting grounds for the Cherokee.

Amherst County is located in Central Virginia along the Blue Ridge Mountains. "Amherst is the Genius of the Old Dominion, a living, real, everlasting representative of the State, to be seen and known of all men. Look at her, the great Giantess, sitting upon the highest portion of Central Virginia, with her back against the Blue Ridge, and her feet dabbling in the noble James (River). Mount Pleasant her head, lifted 4,090 feet in the air, the Tobacco Row her fruitful breast: The Ridge, her knees holding under them a wealth of minerals; the upper James her strong right arm,... 2"(Blankenship, R.B., 1907, 15).

At one time in their exciting history, the Cherokee were a powerful and great Nation. They possessed 135,000 square miles of area that covered eight states: North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia (Blankenship, B., Cherokee Roots, 1978, 5). This tribe, one of the largest in the Southeastern section of the United States, was the first to adapt to the arrival and civilization of the Europeans. In 1540, when Hernando De Soto explored the area of the Cherokee, he discovered that they had an advanced society in their capital city, Echota (itsati), near the modern city of Madisonville, Tennessee3 (Yenne, 1986, 35).

According to tradition, the Allegeni, the ancestors of the modern Cherokee, were defeated by the Delaware-Iroquois alliance and moved into Virginia. The settled in New Holston Valley after residing for a period of time at the Peaks of Otter in Bedford County 4(Johnson, 34). In just twenty years, from 1880 to 1900, the Indians in Amherst County were systematically erased from the record books by the stroke of a pen. They were forced by law in 1705 to be called "mulatto" and then called "black" in 1900. Many of the Cherokee descendants of Amherst County accepted this term without resistance. In fact, by 1850, as "Free Inhabitants" of Amherst County, the Cherokee families lived in the communities with blacks and whites and many of the families "went" for black or white, depending on the racial community in which they lived and felt secure ( p. 37).

Some of the Cherokee residents went in the Stapleton area "went for black" even though they knew that their major ancestry was Indian, Indian/white, Indian/black or Indian/white/black. The census enumerators classified some of them as black or colored, so many of them "went for black or colored." They attended the colored school, Fairmount, on Buffalo Ridge in the Stapleton area, even though a number of them were full, three-quarter, or half blood Cherokee. Directly across the James River, in the Stonewall Mill area of Appomattox, near Turner Mountain, however, some of their bi-racial or tri-racial Cherokee relatives went to school with children of white residents, even though they themselves chose to be considered as colored in the community5 (John Ferguson, 1991).

"During the mid-1700's a band, or tribe of disenfranchised "Mulattos" began moving from the Eastern Shore of Virginia and headed for the Mountains (Matoe) of Central Virginia seeking a place where they could keep their culture alive. The band was composed of various racial groupings, Indian, Indian/black, Indian/white or Indian/white/black. The surnames included such names as Pinn, Beverly, Sizemore, Evans, Branham, Redcross, Hartless, Carter, Coleman, Johns, Harris and Sparrow. It is believed that this group was headed for the Mountains, a place where their ancestors often hunted Buffalo, they called their settlement "Buffalo Ridge". The Native Americans viewed the Buffalo as a spiritual animal, whose coat they wore in battle and whose meat sustained them. The group that settled on the Ridge served in the Revolutionary War as Patriots and eventually became wealthy land owners. They were not unlike the Creoles in Louisiana, as most had never been slaves (Wills, Anita).

During the early to mid-1800's, the families started clustering together in geographical and/or religious groups. "Pinn Park", one of the first official church/tribal burial grounds in Amherst County, is believed to have been an interment site as far back as 1750 (Land Survey of Fairmount Baptist Church/ "Pinn Park Cherokee Grounds, Amherst County"). By the 1840s, Turner Pinn, Samuel Scott, Madison Beverly, Anthony Beverly, Bartlett Sparrow, Polly Beverly, George Jewell, and others were living in the same tribal setting (clustered together in a residential clan connection) and listed as "Free Colored" individuals (U.S. Census, Amherst County, 1840).

It was only later that white settlers began to purchase land from these Native Americans and build dwellings between them. Census records show these families clustered together in 1840 and earlier. The later census records show a progressively larger number of non-family members settling in these previously "closed" areas. They were prosperous farmers on the Ridge..., (p 64). Contrary to the common belief that all Negroes and other free coloreds, or Indians, were slaves in Virginia prior to the 6end of the Civil War, there were in fact a large number of "Free Colored" inhabitants in Amherst County (McLeroy & McLeroy, 1977, 52). Free colored inhabitants comprised approximately two to three percent of the county's population between 1810 and 1860. It is believed that the major portion of these residents were, in fact, Native Americans. While some of the free colored persons were former or freed slaves, the other residents were Native Americans, descendants of full or mixed blood ancestors. The children of Native American mothers were born free while the children of slave and Native American fathers were not free because the children usually lived with their mothers. If their mothers were in included in the institution of slavery, they were born in bondage. This fact partly accounted for the large number of slaves that had Native American features.

Remnants of this group still reside on the mountain today, although most leave for better opportunities. They are members of the Keetowah band of Cherokees who meet in Tennessee once a year. The Cherokees were able to prosper by keeping family ties strong. Within this band if you are a cousin, you are welcome, they believe that "Blood Is Thicker Then Water". The ties are now cultural as very few pure blood Native Americans are left. Some of the Ridge Natives attended Howard, Hampton and other of the "colored" schools in Virginia. Those who were educated did not forget those who stayed on the ridge. The Buffalo Ridge Cherokees do not deny that they are intermixed with blacks or whites, however, they are determined to keep their Indian heritage alive. Many still speak in the old language and pass it on to their children. They are a proud but friendly people- They are "The People Who Came Before Columbus".

Terrell, John Upton: American Indian Almanac: New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971
2Blankenship, Bob: Cherokee Roots: Cherokee North Carolina, 1978
3Yenne, Bill: The Encyclopedia of North American Indian Tribes: Greenwich, Connecticut: Arch Cape Press, 1986.
4Johnson, Patricia Givens: The New River Early Settlement: Pulaski, Virginia: Edmonds Printing, Inc., 1983
5Ferguson, John. Interview. Lynchburg, Virginia, January 7, 1992.
6McLeroy, Sherrie and William: Strangers In Their Midst: The Free Black Population of Amhert County Virginia: Bowie Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc., 1993

Copyright ©1998-1999 by Anita Wills.   Reprints require approval by the author.


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