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Black Dutch is a term with several different meanings in United States dialect and slang. It generally refers to racial, ethnic, or cultural roots. Its meaning varies, and such differences are contingent upon time and place. Several varied groups of multiracial people have sometimes been referred to as, or identified as "Black Dutch," most often as a reference to their ancestors.[1] [2][3][4]

Black Dutch is an unofficial American ethnic designation. It was commonly used in Pennsylvania among ethnic Germans, some of whom migrated south to Virginia and other points. Separately, it became adopted around 1830 and afterward among certain Southeastern families of mixed-race ancestry, especially those of Cherokee descent.[5] When used in the South, it usually did not imply African admixture, although some families who used the term were of tri-racial descent.


  • Dutch and Sephardic Jewish colonists 1
  • Germans 2
  • Melungeon 3
  • Native Americans "passing" for white 4
  • Black Dutch in the Midwest and Deep South 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Dutch and Sephardic Jewish colonists

The term "Black Dutch" first appears in U.S. colonial history as a reference to people from the Netherlands of darker skin than most Europeans. In the Netherlands, the term Black Dutch was applied to the descendants of children (usually illegitimate) of Spanish soldiers and Dutch women born during the Spanish occupation of the Low Lands in the 16th century. Because of the circumstances, the term had negative connotations. Some such Dutch descendants came to the North American colonies, where most Dutch settled in the New York area.

Savannah, Georgia.

Like other English and European men in the American South, some Sephardic (and German) Jews had liaisons with enslaved African or free women of color, and fathered mixed-race "natural" (illegitimate) children. In some cases, the men had extended common-law marriages and provided support and education for their children, as did David Isaacs in Charlottesville, Virginia in his long life with Nancy West, a free woman of color.[7][8] In other cases, they abandoned the mixed-race women and children and contracted legal marriages, often to Jewish women. This was the case with Baron Judah, a Jewish American born in Charleston. As the result of a relationship between him and former slave Dido Badaraka, Baron Judah fathered Harriet Judah, of mixed race. In a common-law marriage, she became the mother of the abolitionist Robert Purvis. Baron Judah left Dido and his daughter Harriet to marry a Jewish woman.[9]

In colonial Virginia and Carolina records, the term Portuguese may have been used to refer to people of mixed race, as well as to Sephardic Jews. In addition, some mixed-race persons of European and African descent identified as Portuguese or Indian (Native American), as a way to explain their variations in physical appearance from Europeans and to be more easily accepted by European-American neighbors.[10] By the late 18th century, numerous free mixed-race families were migrating west, along with English neighbors, to the frontiers of Virginia and North Carolina, where racial castes were less strict than in plantation country of the Tidewater.[10]


English-speaking colonists gradually anglicized the word Deutsch (meaning German) to “Dutch.” in pronunciation. For example, over time, descendants of Palatine German immigrants who came to Pennsylvania prior to the American Revolutionary War came to be known as the "Pennsylvania Dutch." (Others from the Palatine had immigrated to present-day New York as early as 1710.) They were not related to the Dutch immigrants from the Republic of the United Provinces who had earlier settled in New York, particularly.

The term "Dutch" for people of German descent also acquired a wider meaning. In those days "Dietsch" or "Duitsch" and "Deutsch" were the words for the Germanic languages spoken in what we now know as The Netherlands and Germany. Germans with swarthy or darker complexions were called "Black Dutch" (or Schwarze Deutsche). According to the researcher James Pylant, who studied families claiming "Black Dutch" as part of their heritage:

"There are strong indications that the original "Black Dutch" were swarthy-complexioned Germans. Anglo-Americans loosely applied the term to any dark-complexioned American of European descent. The term was adopted [by some people] as an attempt to disguise Indian or infrequently, tri-racial descent. By the mid-19th century, the term had become an American colloquialism; a derogative term for anything denoting one's small stature, dark coloring, working-class status, political sentiments, or anyone of foreign extract. In contrast to the Anglo-surnamed Melungeons, nearly 60% of American families reporting Black Dutch tradition bear surnames that are either decidedly German or possibly Americanized from Germanic origin."[3]

Within Pennsylvania, which had a large German immigrant population in the 18th century, ethnic Germans differed in language by their regions of origin; such regional origin determined whether immigrants spoke what was called "High" or "Low German" (or Deutsche/Dutch). Even in the 1820s, ethnic German men who differed over politics used "Black Dutch" as a slur against opponents.[3]


The first known appearance of the word Melungeon (also spelled “Melungin”) in U.S. records occurs in the minutes of the Primitive Baptist Church of Stony Creek, eastern Tennessee, in 1813. It was used to refer to certain members whose behavior was criticized; their surnames were Minor, Gibson, and Collins. (Through other records, these have come to be considered core Melungeon surnames.) The meaning and origin of the term Melungeon have been debated, and people have often claimed Native American and European ancestry.

Years later, in an 1890 article, these and other families who clustered around Newmans Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee were classified as Melungeon by a Nashville journalist named Drumgoole. The term was widely used at the time. She was a descendant of Alexander Drumgoole (died 1837) and his Cherokee wife; Drumgoole was a Scots-Irish trader among the Cherokee. The journalist Drumgoole is credited with popularizing many elements of the Melungeon legend at a time when her cohorts among New York travel writers were inventing “hillbillies.”

Late 20th-century research by Paul Heinegg found that 80 percent of people listed as free people of color in censuses from 1790–1810 in North Carolina, could be traced back to African Americans identified as free in Virginia in colonial times. Based on his research, he found that most such free African-American families before the American Revolution were descended from unions in the working class – between white women (whose status made their children free by the principle of partus sequitur ventrem) and African men: free, indentured servants and slaves.[10] Originating primarily from the British colony of Virginia (where slaveholders gave most Africans English names), such families more often have English or Scots-Irish surnames than those of German or Dutch origin.

Since the late 20th century, DNA tests of people from core Melungeon families, as documented in the Melungeon DNA Project coordinated by Jack Goins, have shown most individuals are of European and African descent, rather than having Native American ancestry. This is a confirmation of Heinegg's genealogical research, summarized in his Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware (1995–2005), which is available for free online.[10]

Native Americans "passing" for white

As early as the 18th century, ethnic Germans migrated from Pennsylvania into Virginia through the Shenandoah Valley and settled in the backcountry of the Appalachian Mountains, areas considered the frontier compared to Tidewater Virginia and the Low Country of the coast. They likely continued to use their term of "Black Dutch" to refer to swarthy-skinned people or, more generally, political opponents. Historically, mixed-race European-Native American and sometimes full blood Native American families of the South adopted the term "Black Dutch" for their own use, and to a lesser extent, "Black Irish," first in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. As the researcher Paul Heinegg noted, the frontier was also the area of settlement of mixed-race families of African and European ancestry, who also used the terms.[10]

The practice of Cherokee and other Southeast Native Americans identifying as "Black Dutch" seemed to originate during and after the 1830s Indian Removal era. They used this term to explain their dark looks and to avoid being removed to Indian Territory or stigmatized by what became a majority Anglo-American society.[5] Some Native Americans, mainly from the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast, claimed "Black Dutch" or "Black Irish" heritage in order to purchase land in areas which United States treaties and other laws had reserved for people of European descent. Once they owned the land, such families who had escaped forced removal would not admit to their Native American heritage, for fear of losing their property.[5]

As an example, an exhibit at the state-run Oakville Indian Mounds Park and Museum in Lawrence County, Alabama gives the history of the term among Cherokee in the local area after Indian Removal:

Before the Indian Removal Act in 1830, many of Lawrence County's Cherokee people were already mixed with white settlers and stayed in the country of the Warrior Mountains. They denied their ancestry and basically lived much of their lives in fear of being sent West. Full bloods claimed to be Black Irish or Black Dutch, thus denying their rightful Native American blood. After being fully assimilated into the general population years later, these Irish Cherokee mixed-blood descendants, began reclaiming their Native American heritage in the land of the Warrior Mountains, Lawrence County, Alabama. During the 1900 U.S. Census only 78 people claimed their Native American heritage. In 1990, more than 2000 individuals claimed Native American descent. Today more than 4000 citizens are proud to claim their Native American heritage and are members of the Echota Cherokee tribe.

Black Dutch in the Midwest and Deep South

Over time, the term "Black Dutch" migrated with certain families of mixed ancestry from North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee to Missouri and Arkansas, as well as to Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma, where its original meaning became lost. Many people born in the 20th century have claimed Black Dutch heritage, sometimes in addition to Native heritage, without having any idea who their "Black Dutch" ancestors were supposed to be.[5] Unlike families in Pennsylvania or Virginia, most of the mixed-race "Black Dutch" families of the Deep South have English or Scots-Irish surnames, and have no German ancestry in their families.[5]

See also


  1. ^ Bible, Jean Patterson (1999). Melungeons Yesterday and Today. Signal Mountain, Tennessee: Mountain Press
  2. ^ Elder, Pat Spurlock (1965). Melungeons: Examining an Appalachian Legend. Blountville, Tennessee: Continuity Press
  3. ^ a b c Pylant, James (1997). "In Search of the Black Dutch", American Genealogy Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 1 (March 1997): 11-30
  4. ^ Cassiday, Frederic G. (1985) Dictionary of American Regional English, Vol 1, A-C, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press
  5. ^ a b c d e Jimmy H. Crane, "The Elusive Black Dutch of the South", Native Peoples Magazine
  6. ^ Mary Bondurant Warren, "Who Were the Black Dutch?", Family Puzzlers, No. 457, July 22, 1976, reprinted on Tennessee GenWeb
  7. ^
  8. ^ Justus, Judith, Down from the Mountain: The Oral History of the Hemings Family, Perrysburg, OH: Lesher Printers, Inc., 1990, pp. 89 - 96
  9. ^ "ROBERT PURVIS DEAD.; Anti-Slavery Leader Expires in Philadelphia, Aged 87 --His Work for the Black Race", New York Times, 16 April 1898, accessed 3 May 2008
  10. ^ a b c d e Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and DelawarePaul Heinegg, , 1999-2005

External links

  • Myra Vanderpool Gormley, C.G., "In Search of the Black Dutch", Shaking the Family Tree, 2 April 1998,
  • "Gypsies" in the United States", Migrations, Smithsonian Institution
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