Since the invention of language, people have told each other stories to share their experiences, gain the perspective of others and make sense of the world around them. One of the more enduring storytelling themes has been that of the person who wakes up one day to discover that a secret world has co-existed completely unbeknownst to him or her.
Think Ireland's "little people." Certainly ghost stories and poltergeists come to mind. Not long ago, Will Smith played the role of hero in "Men in Black." His moment of realization came when he descended a glass elevator below the city streets into the dazzling MIB headquarters, through which roamed aliens of every description.
I had a similar though far more prosaic moment of unplanned enlightenment a few months ago. I was sitting in front of my home computer screen about one in the morning doing some research on an upcoming "Hot Button." I had Googled "Calcasieu" and a few other keywords, and up popped a couple of sites on "Redbones." I clicked to the first one, wondering what this word I had heard of (Leon comes to mind) but never really understood the meaning of, had to do with Calcasieu Parish.
I never did complete my original research. I spent the rest of the night clicking through link after link, site after site, blog after blog. When I finally crawled into bed about 4am, my head felt like it was going to explode. Information overload, for sure, but mostly I was incredulous at unearthing a mysterious motherlode of historical data and opinion which seemed to shed a great deal of light on this place in which I've lived for over 30 years, and of which I had thought at the stroke of midnight I had a pretty firm grasp.
Turns out I was wrong. A whole other world has existed all along in my own back yard. And front yard. And just about everywhere I might look, and I somehow missed it all. Later that morning, still groggy from sleep deprivation, I asked around the station what my co-workers knew about Redbones, and particularly Redbones in Calcasieu Parish. Shaking heads all around. I called a few friends. Same response. So at the very least, I wasn't alone in my ignorance.
What are Redbones? I'm still not completely sure, and have come to understand that the term is not only a source of great debate, but of great emotion. Just by doing a little innocent on line and in-person research, I wound up with at least one self-proclaimed Redbone publicly threatening to kick my a** (my words, not his, but the same basic idea). As it turns out, not only did he not kick my a**, the two of us have become friends. Such is the world of Redbones, I've discovered, and why I have become so intrigued with it all.
And so before I even attempt to get into the issue of who and what Redbones are, let me offer a caveat. There is no way to even attempt this column without admitting that I'm going to get it wrong. Maybe all wrong or maybe just part wrong, but this is a subject which has split its subjects into polarized camps. I apologize upfront to anyone I might offend. I'm just an interested outsider looking in and trying to explain what I'm seeing. My goal is not to take sides, but where there are sides to try and explain how they respectively see things.
The term Redbone generally describes a person of multi-racial heritage...white, black, and/or red blood (the intermingling with native Americans apparently helped create the moniker). Records show the first references in and around the Carolinas. Redbone Heritage Foundation board member Gary "Gabe" Gabehart describes them as "groups of clannish, self-sufficient people who were related by blood or marriage to each other even though they were located in other communities throughout the State."
The word "clannish" seems to recur. Indeed, the theme is of a people ostracized by local polite societies who found solace where they could, frequently with other races who were also shunned. They formed alliances and created their own bloodline and culture. They moved to where they could find opportunity. A branch (or the only valid branch, according to one school of local thought) brought Redbones west to Louisiana in the early 19th century, specifically enclaves in the western Calcasieu Parish region around Starks and DeQuincy, and also further north and east, with settlements scattered north to Natchitoches.
They placed a value on living in places where they could mostly keep to themselves and defend their turf from outsiders. Just as in the Carolinas and surrounding states, the Redbones here have pretty much done just that.
It's no surprise that the land which encircles the Sabine in our part of the world remains to this day a mystery to others. It is in many ways akin to "La Frontera," a Spanish reference to the U.S.-Mexico border, an odd no-man's land not really claimed by neighboring residents of either country.
From the perspective of nearby Houston or Lake Charles, the thick swampy woodlands hugging both sides of the Sabine between I-1o and US 190 might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Many residents there make it clear they prefer to keep it that way. The Big Thicket further to the west is another mystery place also spoken of mostly in hushed tones. Few outsiders have ever ventured in to try and set up trade or cultural outreaches in these places, which is fine with the locals.
Inevitably, wherever Redbones settled, there was an attempt by others to define them, both legally and culturally. That frequently was accomplished with the "one drop rule." One drop of non-white blood (Redbones inevitably qualified) collapsed their cultural quantum wave into a particle, and that particle was deemed "of color." So Redbones who appeared purely Caucasian would find themselves shunned by all outsiders; white, black, and pure-blood native Americans.
Perhaps the most contentious issue among Redbone researchers is whether the term is specific to bloodline or culture. Redbones (some or all, I really haven't figured out) in the Starks/DeQuincy area contend it's all about bloodline, and as such mock anyone in East Texas who claims to be Redbone. Others contend the term by definition is more cultural. In other words, if I had happened to take a wife who was of the Redbone bloodline and I were to immerse myself in her culture, I would in effect become Redbone as well.
I've found very little compromise on this issue. It divides those who claim to be Redbone just as surely and vociferously as the eternal war between the Hatfields and McCoys.
One thing is for sure. The Redbones who came this way were a prolific group over the years. What caught my attention in the Redbone genealogical websites is the silk purse collection of family names which emanated from the Redbone blood or cultural lines. It reads like a "who's who" of Lake Charles history. Ryan. Willis. Sweat. Johnson. Davis. Abshire. Bridges. (John Bridges, I'm sure you know, hails from Sulphur. He'll be doing an upcoming Redbone story.) Chavis. Rigmaiden. Goins.
One of my favorite friends is Brad Goins. Brad is the editor of Lagniappe Magazine. I especially like to get together with Brad when my world has become a little too predictable and orderly, in that numbingly conservative "Stepford Wives" way that some of my equally-favorite old Lake Charles society friends live their lives. ; )
It's both a professional imperative and my personal instinct to hug the middle ground and try to take in all opinions, but Brad is my designated Yang to the prevailing Southwest Louisiana Ying. It's a tribute to Lagniappe publisher Bob Hartnett that he keeps Brad around. I think Brad's one of the finest writers I've ever met. But he is also stubborn, opinionated and without compromise. Of course, that's the main reason I like him, though if we worked together we'd probably kill each other. Thankfully for Brad's present career and for Lagniappe's readers he is as invariably interesting as he is proseworthy.
Brad's not from here. He comes from eastern Tennessee. But there was no way I was going to pursue this story without bringing him into the loop. First, no one could write it better than him.
Third, he is as reclusive and ornery as any Redbone I've met or read about. Brad goes on about his life possessing neither car nor television set, which puts him out of step with about 99.9% of the rest of toy-obsessed America. He even has the curly hair indigenous to so many early Redbones (even if you don't know Brad, you've probably seen him on any number of Lagniappe covers).
"I've finally figured you out," I told him over the phone. "You're a Redbone."
"What the hell does that mean?" he replied.
So I invited him to join Gabe and published Redbone historian and author Don C. Marler for lunch. I've seen the draft of Brad's Redbone story which resulted from that meeting. It will appear in the September 20th edition of Lagniappe. It's excellent, as Brad's stuff always is. Be sure to pick up a copy.
The Redbone Heritage Foundation will hold its national conference here in Lake Charles this year. It is scheduled October 18-20th at the Carnegie Library Genealogical Center at 411 Pujo St. in Downtown Lake Charles. The public is invited, and I encourage you to visit for further insight into this fascinating and very local subject.
This is not "your father's (genealogical) Oldsmobile." But then, if your family has lived here a few generations, maybe unbeknownst to you, it is.
I asked Don to write a short narrative on Louisiana's "Mystery People" which I could include here as a precursor to the October conference, and he was kind enough to do so. For more where this came from, you can pick up his book on the subject, which is a great read.
For two hundred years those residents of Southwest Louisiana known in the past pejoratively as "Redbones" have added their brand of spice to the gumbo that constitutes the state's citizenry. They are mystery people having separated from their roots in the Carolinas and other southeastern states for reasons not always clearly known to them. In an effort to protect themselves from prejudice from the dominant society, directed at their mixed-blood heritage, they developed their own loosely-formed communities in and around the Neutral Zone between the Calcasieu and Sabine rivers. Their ethnic heritage was a combination of two or more of the three most common ethnicities: Caucasian, Negro and Indian.
They started coming to the area around 1800. The older settlements were around Pitkin, Westport, Elizabeth, Bearhead Creek, and later, Starks. The family names of some of the early settlers were Willis, Sweat, Goins, Johnson, Doyle (aka. Dyal and Dial), Thompson, Cloud, Davis and many others. Their worldview was focused on their community and protecting and isolating it from the dominant society. Consequently, they created a protective shell, the fabric of which was a hostile and often violent stance toward outsiders.
This stance was total and intense in its execution and combined with the prevailing belief that behavior, ideas and feelings were inherited, it became a way of life that lives on today. Many modern-day Redbones believe that their combative attitude is inherited and therefore beyond their control. "It is just the way we are," is often heard.
Redbones were and are quick to fight among themselves, but the slightest perceived threat from outsiders was cause to unite against a common enemy. They were and are loyal friends or dedicated, tenacious enemies as the situation warrants. As with most fighting minorities they learned early to use sabotage and ambush. One of the first Louisiana Redbones, Rev. Joseph Willis, is thought to have fought with General Francis Marion (the Swamp Fox) in South Carolina during the American Revolutionary War. They defeated the British there by using stealth and nighttime hit and run methods.
The skin tone of Redbones range from dark brown to copper colored to white. The hair is straight; with some kinky, wavy or curly; in color it varies from black to blond. As generations pass and amalgamation proceeds, the clearly Indian or Negro features fade.
Few pre-1860 Redbones were slaves or ex-slaves. A few owned slaves in Louisiana, but most could not afford them. Owning slaves may have been less acceptable to Redbones generally than it was to the dominant culture.
Most early Louisiana Redbones were poor hardworking farmers. They excelled in management of livestock and many were attracted to the timber industry.
Until a few years ago one could not use the term Redbone without risking a fight or someone taking offense. The term was almost always used in a pejorative manner or perceived as such by Redbones. In a few short years, the term has gone, or is going, the way of the term "Cajun." It is accepted as something positive that describes and identifies a group that is proud of its heritage. It is a bold stance to take in view of the long history of a contrary position.
Many Redbones are now actively searching for their ancestors and their genetic history. To aid in this search there is now a non-profit Louisiana Corporation (Redbone Heritage Foundation, Inc. -RHF) that is dedicated to uncovering the genealogical and migratory history of Redbones and preserving the history for all to share. Of course, true to their cultural heritage, members of the RHF and non-members exercise their prerogatives to fight among themselves over this organization and its activities.
In spite of this resort to their cultural heritage RHF is in its third year of operation and now has a web page dedicated to its pursuits, a blog, publishes the Redbone Chronicles and will hold its third annual meeting in Lake Charles on October 19th and 20th, 2007.
Anyone interested in the history of Redbones is welcome to attend this meeting or join the RHF. Stay tuned.
A second Redbone event, completely non-affiliated with the RHF conference, will also be held in October. Houston (Ray) Bridges, who was also very accommodating to me in discussing the West Calcasieu branch of the Redbone tree, is coordinating a gathering and barbeque at the VFW Hall in Starks on Oct. 27th.
Ray maintains his own Redbone website called "My Mother's People." As you will quickly grasp as you read it, he is also a board member of RHF, but a schism in that organization has him doing this event without the organization's involvement or "blessing." Generally, Ray's view of Redbone lineage traces bloodline, while the RHF event will deal with Redbone cultural roots and evolution as much as if not more than bloodline.
There is no love-loss there, as Don alluded to. Put on your asbestos glasses when reading any of the Redbone websites. It's fascinating, but this is their war, and the best advice to outsiders is to let them fight it.
My sincere thanks to all of Redbone heritage who have been so generous in sharing their stories and the images I've posted here, which can be seen in their original contexts on various Redbone web pages. It's my hope that Southwest Louisiana's Mystery People never completely lose their mystery. However, as with the Cajuns, their story is inextricably linked with anyone who calls this special corner of the world "home" and the rest of us will be enriched by knowing more about them. I salute all who have built a treasure trove of stories, documents and photographs on the Internet to share this accumulated knowledge. It represents a lot of passion and hard work.
One final note. I'm leaving the reply thread of this blog open (scroll down past the addendum for the comments button), and encourage all to add to this narrative. However, this is a family site, and I will enforce the "no personal attack" rule. It's ok to attack ideas here, but not individuals or families.
All the best to my Redbone friends and to everyone else who has made it this far in this admittedly long post. We warmly welcome both the Lake Charles and Starks events to the SWLA October cultural calendar.
Note that the views expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Raycom Media or KPLC. Please note that links frequently take the reader to third-party sites. Raycom and KPLC are not responsible for content on these sites. -Jim ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
NOTE: Here is an addendum received from RHF President Stacy Webb which I thought worthy of posting on this blog. -js
This picture depicts an average Redbone family, their features and characteristics, in the 1800's Louisiana.
Sena Goins, daughter of William Collins Goins and Mary P Wallace, was born on 23 Jul 1881 in Louisiana and died on 10 Sep 1953 in Woodlawn Cem., Deridder, La. at age 72.
Research Notes: Marriage record and received Civil War Pension for Manuel Command Nash.
Sena married Emanuel Command Nash, son of James Nash and Mary "Polly" Perkins, on 1 Feb 1901 in Trinity Co., TX. Emanuel was born on 18 Dec 1843 in Rapides Parish, LA, died on 10 Jul 1947 at age 103, and was buried in Mt. Zion Cem., Trinity Co., TX.. They had 12 children: Arletta, Ralph, Joseph, James, Lilla May, Jewel, Ruth, Josie, Mandy, Jefferson, Rufus, and Louis.
Sena next married Munroe Swilley.
Sena next married Ed Jackson on 5 Jun 1934 in Beauregard Parish. La.
Sena next married Harry Morgan.
Sena next married James Felder.
Sena was noted as a popular Pentecostal Preacher whose revivals are reputed to have gone on for many days, sometimes weeks.
Sena's mother Mary P Wallace was a "casket girl" later changed to "cassette girl". My great Grandfather made a trip to the Port of New Orleans specifically to marry a casket girl. The ladies were sent by officials from France specifically to marry settlers and pioneering men of the time.
Most of the residences were built of cypress timbers; a few of the more pretentious were of brick, or partly of brick and partly of plaster; and a few were two stories or even two-and‑a‑half stories in height. Among the names most conspicuously figured upon this ancient map are: Delery, Dalby, St. Martin, Dupuy, Rossard, Duval, Beaulieu-Chauvin, D'Ausseville, Perrigaut, Dreux, Mandeville, Tisseraud, Bonnaud, DeBlanc, Dasfeld, Villeré, Provenché, Gauvrit, Dellerin, D'Artaguette, Lazon, Raguet, Fleurieu, Bruslé, Lafrénière, Carrière, Caron and Pascal. These were among the leading landowners of the community.
In the winter of 1727‑28 the arrival of the first of those groups of reputable young girls sent by the French authorities to the care of the Ursulines, to be disposed of, under their superintendence, in marriage with the settlers, infused a new element into the population. They brought with them each a small chest of clothing, whence the name, "filles à la cassette" — casket girls — by which they, and other similar consignments in subsequent years, are known in the history of the colony.9