The Hidden History of Mestizo America

The Hidden History of Mestizo America

The Journal of American History
Volume 82, Number 3 (December, 1995)
pages 941-964
5 illustrations

Gary B. Nash, Professor Emeritus of History
University of California, Los Angeles

This essay was delivered as the presidential address at the national meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Washington, March 31, 1995.

La Nature aime les croisements (Nature loves cross-breedings).
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

On a dank January evening in London in 1617, the audience was distracted from a performance of Ben Johnson’s The Vision of Delight by the persons sitting next to King James I and Queen Anne: a dashing adventurer who had just returned from the outer edge of the fledgling English empire and his new wife, ten years his junior. The king’s guests were John Rolfe and his wife Rebecca—a name newly invented to anglicize the daughter of another king who ruled over a domain as big and populous as a north English county. She was Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan. The first recorded interracial marriage in American history had taken place because Rebecca’s father and the English leaders in the colony of Virginia were eager to bring about a detente after a decade of abrasive and sometimes bloody European-Algonkian contact on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Rolfe-Pocahontas marriage might have become the embryo of a mestizo United States. I use the term mestizo in the original sense—referring to racial intermixture of all kinds. In the early seventeenth century, negative ideas about miscegenation had hardly formed; indeed, the word itself did not appear for another two and a half centuries. King James was not worried about interracial marriage. He fretted only about whether a commoner such as Rolfe was entitled to wed the daughter of a king. Nearly a century later, Robert Beverley’s History and Present State of Virginia (1705) described Indian women as “generally beautiful, possessing uncommon delicacy of shape and features,” and he regretted that Rolfe’s intermarriage was not followed by many more.

William Byrd, writing at the same time, was still commending what he called the “modern policy” of racial intermarriage employed in French Canada and Louisiana by which alliances rather than warfare were effected. Byrd confessed his preference for light-skinned women (a woman’s skin color, however, rarely curbed his sexual appetite), but he was sure that English “false delicacy” blocked a “prudent alliance” that might have saved Virginians much tragedy. Most colonies saw no reason to ban intermarriage with Native Americans (North Carolina was the exception).

In 1784, Patrick Henry nearly pushed through the Virginia legislature a law offering bounties for white-Indian marriages and free public education for interracial children. In the third year of his presidency, Thomas Jefferson pleaded “to let our settlements and theirs [Indians] meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people.” Six years later, just before returning to Monticello, Jefferson promised a group of western Indian chiefs, “you will unite yourselves with us,… and we shall all be Americans; you will mix with us by marriage, your blood will run in our veins, and will spread with us over this great island.”

In 1809, almost two hundred years after Pocahontas sat in the theater with James I, the sixteen-year-old Sam Houston, taking a page from the book of Benjamin Franklin, ran away from his autocratic older brothers. The teenage Franklin fled south from Boston to Philadelphia, but Houston made his way west from Virginia to Hiwassee Island in western Tennessee. There he took up life among the Cherokees and was soon adopted by Ooleteka, who would become the Cherokee chief in 1820. Reappearing in white society in 1818, Houston launched a tumultuous, alcohol-laced, violent, and roller-coaster political career, but he retained his yen for the Cherokee life. After his disastrous first marriage at age thirty-six, he rejoined the Cherokee, became the ambassador of the Cherokee nation to Washington (in which office he wore Indian regalia) in 1829, and married Ooleteka’s niece, the widowed, mixed-blood Cherokee woman Tiana Rogers Gentry.

…This brings us to a consideration of the virulent racial ideology that arose among the dominant Euro-Americans and that profoundly affected people of color. How most Americans came to believe that character and culture are literally carried in the blood, and how the idea of racial mixture was almost banished officially, has its own history. How would it come to happen, as Barbara Fields has expressed it, that a white woman can give birth to a Black child but a Black woman can never give birth to a white child? How would it come to be that the children of Indian-white marriages would contemptuously be referred to by whites as half- breeds?

The sequence of legal definitions of Blacks in Virginia demonstrates this progression. In 1785, the revolutionary generation defined a Black person as anyone with a Black parent or grandparent, thus conferring whiteness on whomever was less than one-quarter Black. Virginia changed the law 125 years later to define as “Negro,” as the term then was used, anyone who was at least one-sixteenth Black. In 1930, Virginia adopted the notorious “one-drop” law—defining as Black anyone with one drop of African blood, however that might have been determined…

There is nothing new about crossing racial boundaries; what is new is the frequency of border crossings and boundary hoppings and the refusal to bow to the thorn-filled American concept, perhaps unknown outside the United States, that each person has a race but only one. Racial blending is undermining the master idea that race is an irreducible marker among diverse peoples—an idea in any case that always has been socially constructed and has no scientific validity. (In this century, revivals of purportedly scientifically provable racial categories have surfaced every generation or so. Ideas die hard, especially when they are socially and politically useful.) Twenty-five years ago, it would have been unthinkable for Time-Life to publish a computer-created chart of racial synthesizing; seventy-five years ago, an issue on “The New Face of America” might have put Time out of business for promoting racial impurity…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , ,