- Dreaming with the Ancestors: Black Seminole Women in Texas and Mexico
In the early 1700s, Spanish and Native communities in Florida were offering refuge for runaway slaves from the British colonies. Meanwhile, dissidents from the Creek Nation were forming an independent confederation using the name “Seminole.” Persons of African descent found the Seminole communities particularly welcoming, and many developed relationships of servitude with the Indians. Although sometimes considered to be “slaves,” these blacks, in fact, enjoyed much more independence than their counterparts in the colonies that became the states of the Old South, particularly in their ability to maintain African-derived cultural forms while integrating with the Seminoles, often through marriage. Nevertheless, when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, these blacks were considered property and, despite the armed resistance known as the Second Seminole War, accompanied the Seminoles who were transported to Indian Territory in 1838. There they became subject to stricter slave codes. Finding these unacceptable, leaders of the Black Seminoles looked southwestward for relief. In 1849 a company of Black Seminoles made their way across Texas into Mexico, entering Coahuila at Piedras Negras in 1850. They established a home at Nacimiento de los Negros on the Río Sabinas.
Inclement weather and political unrest made life in Mexico less than ideal, [End Page 214] though, and some Black Seminoles longed to return to Indian Territory, where after the Civil War they would no longer be slaves. As part of the process of returning the United States, men in the group entered into agreement with the U.S. Army to form a scouting detachment headquartered at Fort Duncan near Eagle Pass, Texas. When Fort Duncan closed, some scouts and their families returned to Nacimiento while others moved to Fort Clark near Brackettville, Texas.
While Shirley Boteler Mock’s model ethnohistory deals with the factors that account for a Black Seminole presence in Texas and Mexico, it more importantly shows how descendants of the founders of the communities have maintained a sense of identity that draws upon African resources as well as aspects of Seminole culture. Women have been the principal repositories of the ideologies and behaviors contributing to that identity, so Mock’s gender-specific focus provides an effective ingress into understanding how Black Seminoles have endured as a distinct group. Mock pays particular attention to African retentions among Black Seminoles, many of which have had analogues in the Gullah communities in Georgia and South Carolina. For example, she attributes the matrifocality characteristic of Black Seminole life to patterns in West African family dynamics, and she describes many less abstract survivals from Africa in beliefs and practices that remain vital into the twenty-first century: naming practices, language, culinary traditions, and especially religion.
Mock’s study effectively combines history and ethnography with linguistics, religious studies, folklore studies, and other disciplines. Her interactions with her consultants, particularly Alice Fay, constitute the core of the book. Mock began talking to Black Seminole women in the mid-1990s, and the reader shares her experience of special access into their lives through her reportage of conversations and formal interviews with them. The reader gets not only a sense of what being Black Seminole means in a general sense, but also of the particular experiences of Mock’s consultants and of the relationships that she developed with them.
While readers interested in African Americans and American Indians in Texas will find this book of particular value, I recommend that others consult it as a demonstration of how good ethnohistory is done, particularly in an era when the importance of reflexivity in the research process and presentation has become paramount.