Hi everyone -- it's a pleasure and honor to be a member of this group. I thought I'd say hello by kicking off a discussion of the Ben Ishmael tribe. Please forgive me for such a long-winded post, but I thought it might be most useful to have the info in one place for any future reference.
the extensive ongoing discussion in Stephen Lee Canner's thread: "The Ben Ishmael Tribe"
Update, Jan. 2009: New scholarship on this subject, including a new book and revisited primary documents, refutes the central aspects of the accepted mythology of the "Ben Ishamel tribe." This article will be updated accordingly soon(ish), and I have added some newly-found links and source information at the end of this post. Meanwhile please read the ongoing discussion here, which lately refers to the following sources:
Nathaniel Deutsch, Inventing America's "Worst" Family: Eugenics, Islam, and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael (University of California Press, 2009) -- "the stranger-than-fiction story of how a poor white family from Indiana was scapegoated into prominence as America's "worst" family by the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century, then 'reinvented' in the 1970s as part of a vanguard of [African American Muslim] social rebellion." (Publisher's blurb.)
WHO WERE THE "BEN ISHMAEL TRIBE"?
Rev. Oscar C. McCulloch, "The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation" (1888) -- PDF (scroll down for links), free public download via the IUPUI Library. The original proto-eugenic paper about the Ishmael clan.
The only source on the "Ben Ishmael Tribe" per se
is an essay by Hugo Prosper Leaming, "The Ben Ishmael Tribe: Fugitive Nation of the Old Northwest," originally published in 1977. It came to wider attention in more recent years when it was reprinted in the excellent anthology Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Dropout Culture
(Autonomedia/AK Press, 1993), edited by Ron Sakolsky and James Koehnline.
What follows is a summary of Hugo Leaming's essay, and all passages in quotes are excerpted directly from it.
"The Tribe of Ishmael, or Ishmaelites, was a tightly knit nomadic community of African, Native American, and 'poor white' descent, estimated to number about 10,000. Fugitives of the South, they arrived in the central part of the Old Northwest at the beginning of the nineteenth century, preceding the other pioneers. After a century of fierce culture conflict with the majority society, the tribe was forcibly dispersed. Camp sites became nuclei of present-day black communities, and Ishmaelites of the diaspora participated in the rise of black nationalism, perhaps even contributing memories of African Islam to the new Black Muslim movements."
Early History of the Ben Ishmael Tribe
"The first appearance of the organized tribe occurred between 1785 and 1790 in the hills, or 'Refuse land,' of Bourbon (then Noble) County, Kentucky. Those who became Ishmaelites had gathered from Tennessee, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland, in a region still largely wilderness and at a time still turmoiled by the Native American wars and mass slave escapes of the American Revolution."
The first patriarch of the Ishmaelites was Ben Ishmael, who led the group along with his wife and the group's first "queen", Jennie Ishmael ("a warrioress of mighty physique"). According to Ishmaelite tradition, sometime between 1802 and 1810 Patriarch Ben Ishmael and Queen Jennie "at an advanced age...set forth into the unknown, toward the setting sun, never to be seen again by their people."
Their eldest son John became the second patriarch and, due to Kentucky's increasing settlement as a slave state, led the Ishmaelites northward across the Ohio River. Initially, they settled in an area between present-day Cincinnati and Dayton but by 1819 or so they had moved into what was still "Indian territory" and settled in the deep woods along White River in the area that became Indianapolis. The Ishmaelites enjoyed extremely friendly relations with the local Native American peoples (including the Delaware), who evidently viewed them as a kind of "defeated brother-nation."
According to an 1884 history of Indianapolis and Marion County by B.R. Sulgrove, in 1821 when the first white surveyors and officials came to the area to stake out what was to become the capitol of the new state of Indiana they discovered the Ishmaelites living there along both sides of White River. Since they refused to budge, Indianapolis grew around their settlement. These Ishmaelite settlements became, much later, the loci of the oldest and longest-lasting black neighborhoods of the city.
At some point during this early period, the Ishmaelites began to pursue "a nomadic way of life as a central feature of their distinctive culture. The annual migratory route was northwest from Indianapolis to the Kankakee River..., from there south through eastern Illinois to the vicinity of Champaign-Urbana and Decatur, and finally due east, back to Indianapolis. This triangular route is about 350 miles as the crow flies. Every spring many hundreds of small carts set off, filled with children and the elderly, drawn by donkeys or horses..., the Ishmaelite men and women walking alongside them. In the late spring (until the 'Indiana removal' in the north in the 1830s) there was joyful reunion with the Native Americans of the Kankakee. During the summer the tribe moved south, and when the fall came they turned again to winter quarters [in Indianapolis]. The migration was repeated every year for nearly a century."
Attached to this post is a map of the Ben Ishmael tribe's annual migration route as published in Gone to Croatan
There are modern-day cities and towns along the Ishmaelite migration route which have names showing an obvious Islamic influence: Morocco, IN; Mahomet, IL (the oldest settlement in Champaign County); and Mecca, IN being three. This is in stark contrast to all other place-names in the area, which are of French, British, and other white provenance.
"The nomadism of the Tribe of Ishmael was its most distinctive institution, but its origin and meaning to the tribe are a mystery," although there is speculation that the practice may have been influenced by the group's earliest migrations under duress and further reinforced by contact with the migratory Shawnee nation and the ethnic traditions of Ishmaelite members, which included escaped African slaves and white indentured "servants" from Scottish and Celtic areas with nomadic traditions of one sort or another.
Ishmaelite Tribal Structure
"Reports frequently mention nobility and other notable members of the tribe of Ishmael, persons of striking character who were especially esteemed by the Ishmaelites. The reports are silent on tyhe tribe's system of government, its assemblies, whether there was a council of elders, and the relationship between leaders and members in decision-making. However, there was clearly a social hierarchy; and the reverence for paramount families, the character ascribed to notables, and the general pride of Ishmaelites in their tribe indicate the existence of a leadership and prestige group that warrants the term nobility."
The Ben Ishmael tribe consisted of 13 clans, each of which drew its name from the paramount family within the clan. All nuclear families within the Ben Ishmael tribe belonged to one of these clans, and new members joined by birth, marriage, or adoption into one of the nuclear families. Of the family names reported to state authorities, with the exception of Ishmael most were "unremarkable European names, mainly British."
Child rearing was shared amongst members of extended families and clans, which likely fed later charges by white authorities of child neglect, due to their fundamental misunderstanding of the Ishmaelite culture in this regard.
The Ishmaelites had their own marriage traditions, another source of conflict with the surrounding white settler culture. For wedding ceremonies, "officiants" were respected figures who stepped forward, but were not ministers in any western white sense. Most families were monogamous, but polygamy was occasionally practiced by both men and women -- when it was, it was done openly and apparently without shame. Divorce was not common, but was not stigmatized as in the white Christian culture of the time. Divorce could be obtained "by mutual consent or on the demand of either partner."
Women in Ishmaelite Society
"In contrast to the majority society, Ishmaelite women played important public roles in activities requiring physical strength and courage, as spiritual leaders, and as leaders of clan and tribe. More female than male nobles or notables of the clans appear in the case studies. The queens of the tribe were not merely the consorts of the patriarchs but important personages in their own right." (I'm sure this went over really
well with the surrounding honky settlers.)
"Polly H., director of an important dance hall center, is said to have held 'rank.' Susan S., daughter of Jehu S., is described as a remarkable character in the tribe, a superior being to whom homage was paid. Her funeral procession was marked by the rushing of the hearse and tribal carts at breakneck speed through a torrential downpour; it was referred to long after by the majority community as the day Susan 'Ishmael' was buried. Another enigmatic leader, Sarah Ishmael, tall and 'rawboned' like so many of the early Ishmaelites, is said to have been 'very prominent.' Perhaps a spiritual leader, she was called 'the Ishmaelite woman who walks like a man and talks bass.' She had had four husbands, and it was she who was first to leave and last to return on each annual migration. Her people had many oral legends about her."
Spiritual Traditions of the Ben Ishmael Tribe
I'll leave discussion of the Ishmaelite spiritual tradition to a later thread, since I imagine it might get involved (and interesting). Suffice to say that Leaming claims there are clear indications of a strong Islamic (or neo-Islamic) influence.
Music and the Ishmaelites
Music was a crucial focal point for the Ben Ishmael tribe. It "has been reported as a distinctive kind of music. The tribe was well known for its large and frequent gatherings to sing. The voices could be heard far away, singing 'the jollyest, noisiest songs.' These were not the songs of the majority community; they are described as 'quaint,' with 'some jingle of words' and 'some music.' There were many instrumentalists, some sought after by the majority community for its social events, such as a highly esteemed harpist and 'the blind fiddler,' who was reported to have been one of the finest musicians in the Midwest.
"...There was a...dance hall in each Ishmaelite neighborhood [including a huge one on the west bank of White River, discussed further below]. The dance was the tribe's passionate recreation. In the centers the Ishmaelites, cramped into winter quarters, passed the time dancing, singing, listening to their musicians, talking flirting, eating, but not drinking alcohol, a habit they eschewed."
Ishmaelite Buildings and Architecture in Indianapolis
During their annual migrations, the Ishmaelites mainly employed simple one-night lean-tos. However, more substantial structures were built at the cardinal points of their migratory route, as well as small cabins -- "sturdy and well proportioned, with tightly crafted windows and doors" -- used by tribe members for winter quarters in Indianapolis.
"The winter settlements were on the mud flats of White River and its creeks..., and this river frequently overflowed. They solved the problem by constructing wooden skids under the cabins. When the floods came, the homes floated until they could be pulled up the mud banks by the tribe's donkeys and horses...
"Identifiable cabins still stood in 1970, [then] used as sheds behind more recent homes. Also in that year, at the Ishmaelite or river end of the oldest black neighborhoods of Indianapolis, there stood sizable wooden 'Gothic' houses, apparently not designed by professional architects, with unusual decorations across their fronts: stars, circles, triangles, and other geometric shapes cut out of flat pieces of unpainted wood and attached in regular order to the structure. That these might relate to the Ishmaelites is suggested by a similar but larger cutout of the sun, with rays attached, across the upper front of one of the still existing Ishmaelite cabins..."
There is a surviving description of a large home at the White River wintering grounds, owned by Robert Chism (called "Papa" and "Grandpa" by the community) and his wife Milly Brown. It was a "three-story house with the unusual design that may have been characteristic of the homes of Ishmaelite leaders. The access system was particularly strange and -- it would appear -- difficult to describe: the second and third floors were entered by a small stairway, and by a 'half stairs' and 'half ladder' arrangement in the rear, apparently over the roof of a detached kitchen shed. The mansion [sic] was a refuge, with a dozen places for hiding and escape. In particular, Chism gave sanctuary to the poor who were sought for imprisonment in the poor houses or for sale as bound servants."
"...The tribe sometimes built in monumental dimensions. The winter home of Tom Ishmael, son of Patriarch John and grandson of Ben Ishmael, located in the northern sector of the migration route, was a vast log cabin, three-cornered and in other unspecified ways of a most curious design. In the majority community it was famed as the most unusually shaped structure in the state of Indiana...
"Another monumental building of the tribe was its central communal dance hall on the west bank of the White River, across from downtown Indianapolis. Its great size, its posts sunk twenty feet into the muddy ground, and materials obtained entirely from Ishmaelite scavenging, excited the pride of Ishmaelites and the gruding admiration of outsiders...
"[Other] central Ishmaelite dance hall social centers were the Christian Hill Place, the Crib, and the Big Bonanza; outlying were Brighton Beach, Hop-light Station, and the Nest, which may be the present well-to-do neighborhood 'The Crow's Nest,' elevated ground commanding a long view up and down the river."
The Fate of the Ben Ishmael Tribe
Hostility by the majority white settler culture toward the Ben Ishmael tribe is a recurrent feature of their history. This is hardly surprising, given that the Ishmaelites embodied nearly everything despised most by the hardly-tolerant majority culture: a fully integrated mixed society of blacks (mostly escaped slaves), "renegade" Native Americans, and lower-class and rural Scots, Irish and other rural British who were mainly freed or escaped indentured "servants"; avowedly non-Christians with a "foreign" sense of family; and an ethos of community property and ownership decidedly at odds with the prevailing mores of the settlers. All of this was further exaserbated by the insular and quasi-nomadic nature of the Ishmaelite society.
Classism was also a defining cause of majoritarian hostility toward the Ishmaelites, who were seen as the lowest of the lowly paupers and referred to as "Grasshopper Gypsies" in a reference to a insect scourge of area farmers. One way that the Ishmaelites supported themselves was by disposing of the whites' trash, refuse, and ashes for a modest fee -- often scavenging usables from the detritus and selling what they did not use themselves in their settlements. This was seen by the majority society as among the most unclean of practices and worthy only of contempt (even as they benefited from it).
Over time there were increasing majoritarian allegations against the Ishmaelites of prostitution, petty thievery, begging, "immorality and licentiousness", and other scandalous behavior. Poor laws clearly aimed, at least in part, against the Ishmaelites were passed allowing the arrest of "permanent paupers" and allowing for their sale to the highest bidder, as well as the seizure of their children (who were also sold into slavery. In later years, arrestees under these laws were sent instead to newly built prisons, "reformatories" and orphan asylums.
In the early 1900s, eugenics began to emerge and Indiana was an early fount of its development. Two studies of the Ben Ishmael tribe were written by early Hoosier advocates of eugenics, specifically in the context of advocating the alleged benefits of eugenics.
Forced sterilization of social undesirables was first introduced in the US (as a kinder alternative to castration) at the Indiana State Reformatory. Its superintendent, Dr. Oscar C. McCulloch (author of one of the eugenics-oriented Ishmaelite studies), began to agitate for the enactment of eugenics laws. In 1905 such a bill was introduced in the Indiana legislature, and in 1907 the first compulsory sterilization law in the world was enacted by the state of Indiana. These laws and the ideas embodied within them became known as "The Indiana Plan," and served as the basis for eugenics laws later passed in 29 states by 1931 and, ultimately, in Nazi Germany and six other European countries.
It is precisely during this period of 1900-1910 that the Ben Ishmael tribe vanished, fleeing Indiana and blending into the surrounding communities, perhaps as far as Detroit. In the early 1970s, one researcher found faint traces in oral tradition among the black communities of the Great Lakes region that spoke of the Ben Ishmael tribe. According to one account, as late as the 1950s or early 1960s a man "encountered persons who referred to themselves as Ishmaelites by descent and identified with the heritage of a Midwestern Tribe of Ishmael. They were still nomadic, traveling by car between Detroit and Philadelphia. They were definitely black nationalists and also had their own dietary laws; but he was never able to determine whether they considered theirs to be a religious or political movement."
As suggested by the above, some of these accounts as well as wisps found in other research suggest the Ishmaelite diaspora played a role in the development of secular and Muslim black nationalist groups and movements throughout the Midwest, as well as the founding of mosques and small Islamic sects in the region, notably Moorish Science (which was associated with Marcus Garvey's movement in the '20s and was also later acknowledged as a forerunner by the Nation of Islam).
SOURCES OF INFORMATION ABOUT THE BEN ISHMAEL TRIBE
The main modern source on the Ben Ishmael tribe is a 1977 essay by Hugo Prosper Leaming, "The Ben Ishmael Tribe: Fugitive Nation of the Old Northwest"
. Most recently it was included in the excellent anthology Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Dropout Culture
(Autonomedia/AK Press, 1993), edited by Ron Sakolsky and James Koehnline. (Read the editor's preface
. It's still in print via the title link, or you can search for used copies
.) Leaming's essay originally appeared in The Ethnic Frontier: Essays in the History of Group Survival in Chicago and the Midwest
(Eerdmans, 1977), edited by Melvin G. Holli and Peter d'A. Jones. (Read a contemporaneous review
of that anthology.)
Hugo Prosper Leaming
By all accounts I've seen, Leaming is the main authority on the Ben Ishmael tribe. According to the contributor's bio in Gone to Croatan
, Leaming was born in 1924 in Providence, Rhode Island. He got his BA at the University of Richmond, VA, in 1943, and subsequently taught history "in the American South and the Middle East." From 1948-1953 he was Religious Education Director of the Free Religious Fellowship in Chicago, then the only Unitarian Church that admitted "Negroes". Later, he served as a minister in Unitarian congregations in Miami, Trenton, NJ and Fort Wayne. From 1963-1968 he was pastor of the All Souls First Universalist Society in Chicago. During this period he was active in the civil rights movement and was arrested on occasion during sit-ins and protests, including one in Albany, GA led by Dr. Martin Luther King.
In 1979 he received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. His 505-page dissertation, Hidden Americans: The Maroons of North Carolina and Virginia
, was later published by the highly respected Routledge academic publishing house (which still offers the work, albeit for a whopping $110
Leaming's Primary Sources
J. Frank Wright, "The Tribe of Ishmael" (typewritten manuscript, ca. 1890) -- this document, housed at the Indiana State Library
in Indianapolis, was Leaming's core source. Dating from 1890, it is a contemporaneous primary source prepared while the Ishmaelites were still an existing and cohesive community. The Wright manuscript consists of "291 numbered biographical notes, some less than a page, some several pages, followed by an addendum. Internal evidence indicates that the manuscript is a mixture of Wright's editing and reports from many charity and correctional workers, local and state, [from] 1840-1890."
Wright's unpublished manuscript is a distillation of some 7,000 pages of documentation on approximately 5,000 members of the Ishmael clan. This documentation was gathered as part of an extensive study by Rev. Oscar C. McCulloch, a prominent Congrationalist minister in Indianapolis who ran a number of major local charities.
Rev. Oscar C. McCulloch, "The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degredation"
(1888). National Conference of Charities and Correction, Proceedings
(1888), pp. 151, 157-8. Subsequently published as a pamphlet by McCulloch's Charity Organization Society (Indianapolis, Ind.), in at least four editions (1888-1891).
The Papers of Rev. Oscar C. McCulloch, (1860-1924)
- Indiana State Library, Manuscript Section, Indiana Division.
Other key sources on "the tribe of Ishamel" are almost exclusively written by eugenicists, who held up McCulloch and Wright's Ishamel "study" as one of their two main inspirations and guiding lights. See, for example:
Arthur H. Estabrook, "The Tribe of Ishmael," Eugenical News
, VI (July-Aug. 1921), pp. 7-8, 50.
"The tribe of Ishmael: A group of degenerates found in Indiana, Ken...
(American Philosophical Society, ca. 1921) -- A pamphlet of photographs of purported Ishmael homes and neighborhoods.
Other Sources on the Ben Ishmael Tribe
Although the Ishmaelites were apparently largely illiterate, at least two tribe members became "authors whose works were printed and sold."
Most notable was Robert "Papa" Chism (mentioned above), who wrote two books -- the survival status of which are unclear but they're probably lost (tho perhaps the Indiana State Library or the rare books collection of the Indianapolis Public Library may have something worth finding). "One was published in 1885, when he was in his seventies, and contained a description of the wickedness of Indianapolis and its leading citizens; in it he charged that the region had been stolen from its original and rightful owners. He called on the state to indemnify those it had wronged. His other book, The Dark Lights of Indiana
, purported to be an expose of criminals. The persons so characterized and attacked were the leading lights of the majority community. Both books created wide if whispered interest in the Midwest."
The other was poet Pamelia H., "a tiny, 'very slender' woman who weighed less than seventy-five pounds, described as a 'queer character' whose 'curious looking face was not easily forgotten once seen.' When the authorities remonstrated with her for her begging, which was so successful that she banked the proceeds, she snapped back: 'That's all right; I'll leave my fortune to the Public Charities!' She had her poems printed as each was completed and sold them on the streets or on the annual migration."
Among white authors, the Ben Ishmael tribe surfaces in either disguised or explicit form in the following fictional works from the period, according to Leaming:
James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie
(1826) -- identifies the tribe by name (unverified).
Edward Eggleston, The Hoosier Schoolmaster
(1871) -- in the preface to the 1892 edition, a "rough and quaint population" featured in the book "is identified as a subculture distinct from the majority of settlers and the descendants of indentured servants who led a seminomadic life in little one-horse wagons."
Booth Tarkington, The Conquest of Canaan
(1905) -- "recounts a fierce struggle between respectable society and a large population of paupers and petty criminals, not European immigrants, not factory workers, but others well known to the Negro community. Their headquarters...is a huge ramshackle dance hall patched with scrap, built over the mud bank of the river."
James Whitcomb Riley, "Little Orphant Annie" (1885) -- describes a bound girl servant who terrorizes her master's children with supernatural lore. Leaming maintains his claim that she may be Ishmaelite is "supported by her characterization as a 'little gypsy' and 'from a wild country settlement' in Riley's essay which amplifies the poem." (Namely, "Where is Mary Alice Smith?", 1917