The Guineas of West Virginia

Posted by | November 23, 2011

In American culture, if you can’t prove you’re 100% white or ‘pass’ for such, you get lumped into the minority by default.  This is a cultural bias the Chestnut Ridge People (CRP) of West Virginia have been familiar with for several hundred years now.

“There is a clan of partly-colored people in Barbour County often called Guineas, under the erroneous presumption that they are Guinea negroes,” observed WV historian Hu Maxwell in the 1890s. “They vary in color from white to black, often have blue eyes and straight hair, and they are generally industrious. Their number in Barbour is estimated at one thousand.

“They have been a puzzle to the investigator; for their origin is not generally known. They are among the earliest settlers of Barbour. Prof. W.W. Male of Grafton, West Virginia, belongs to this clan, and after a thorough investigation, says ‘They originated from an Englishman named Male who came to America at the outbreak of the Revolution. From that one man have sprung about 700 of the same name, not to speak of the half-breeds.’ Thus it would seem that the family was only half-black at the beginning, and by the inter-mixtures since, many are now almost white.”

Indeed, Barbour County Courthouse records indicate that several of the CRP petitioned the courts (successfully) to be declared legally white during the Civil War era, and they undoubtedly would not have done so if being considered ‘West Hill Indians,’ ‘Maileys,’ ‘Cecil Indians,’ ‘G. and B. Indians,’ or ‘Guinea niggers’ offered any advantage.

Chestnut Ridge People, or Guineas,  Betsy Mayle“I believe each of our people has the name Male as an ancestor,” says genealogist Joanne Johnson Smith. This is Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Mayle, of Chestnut Ridge, in 1975/06.

By 1946, local courts treated the CRP as colored, regarding them as mulattoes. William Harlen Gilbert, Jr., of the Library of Congress, had more to say of the CRP that same year in ‘Social Forces’ magazine:

“They do not associate as a rule with Negroes or whites.

“Location: Primarily centered in Barbour and Taylor counties, West Virginia. Also, small scatterd families in Grant, Preston, Randolph, Tucker, Marion, Monongahela, and Braxton counties, West Virginia. Said to have originated in Hampshire County, West Virginia. A few occur in Garrett County, Maryland. Have recently migrated to Canton, Chillicothe, Zanesville, Akron, and Sandusky in Ohio and to Detroit, Michigan. Word Guinea said to be an epithet applied to anything of foreign or unknown origin.

“Numbers: Estimated to be from 8,000 to 9,000.

“Organization: Have own schools and churches in Barbour and Taylor counties. Have an annual fair at Phillippi, West Virginia. Family names are Adams, Collins, Croston, Dalton, Dorton, Kennedy, Male (Mayle, Mahle, Mail), Minard (Miner), Newman, Norris, and Pritchard.

“Environment and Economy: Many are coal miners, hill cultivators on sub-marginal lands, truck farmers and dairy farmers, domestic servants, and in cities industrial workers. Original habitat was inaccessible hilly area on a horseshoe bend of the Tygart River, the so-called Narrows. Live in compact settlements in this area.

“Physique: Sharp and angular features characteristic. Originally a mixture of white and Indian types to which Negro has been added. Deformities of the limbs and other congenital defects.

“In-Marriage: Has been pronounced in the past. Now said to intermarry with Italians who are also called Guineas in this area.

“Religion: Mainly Free Methodists in Barbour and Taylor counties.

“Schools: Have special schools classed locally as colored. Considerable tension over attendance at white schools in Taylor County. In Barbour County two schools have been burned down due to troubles.

“Military Draft Status: In Taylor County (Grafton and vicinity) have almost uniformly gone into the white status.

“Voting and Civil Rights: Have voted since organization of the State. Now hold balance of power in Barbour County.

“Relief: Received during the Depression.

“Cultural Peculiarities: Folklore, annual fair.

“History: Claim English descent from Revolutionary ancestors. Building of Tygert River Dam in 1937 scattered them in Taylor County due to flooding of original settlements.”

Today, widespread sharing of genealogical information via the internet has helped clarify much of the mystery and ‘otherness’ surrounding groups such as the CRP. “We would like you to keep an open mind as we, the Guineas, tell you about ourselves, since we know more about our heritage than anyone else,” said Joanne Johnson Smith & Florence Kennedy Barnett in a 1997 presentation at the First Union in Wise, VA., where about one thousand people converged on the College of Wise campus to reclaim their lost heritage. Their 20 years worth of combined research on Guinea bloodlines is available here.

Sources: The History of Barbour County, by Hu Maxweoo, (Morgantown, West Virginia, 1899) pp. 510-511.
Mixed Bloods of the Upper Monongahela Valley, West Virginia, by William Harlen Gilbert, Jr., Journal of the Washington Academy of the Sciences, 36, no. 1 (Jan. 15, 1946), pp. 1-13.
‘Memorandum Concerning the Characteristics of the Larger Mixed-Blood Racial Islands of the Eastern United States,’ by William Harlen Gilbert, Jr., Social Forces 21/4 (May 1946): 438-477

http://theoasis57366.yuku.com/forum/viewtopic/id/864

Chestnut+Ridge+People Guineas Philippi+WV Melungeons appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

7 Responses

  • Jim says:

    Myth and mystery always seems to follow mixed-race people in Appalachia. The ‘Guineas’ sound much like Tennessee’s ‘Melungeons,’ even some surnames are the same. My own family, the Hatfields of southern West Virginia, refer to themselves as ‘Black Dutch,’ a term that appears to be associated with mixed-race families.

  • darla blair says:

    My mother is a Mayle; both her mother and her father were Mayles. I am married to a caucasian man. I have 5 children, they do not look black, white, or Native American but peole ask them ALL the time, are you Portugese? Arabian, Jewish, one even has ice blue eyes. They are very beuatiful .

  • pam says:

    These are my family Norris, Mayle, Kennedy and Minards I am proud to count my early relatives as family. we are not Guinea
    but American indian

  • Kevin Pritt says:

    My family lived around Normantown, WV for 200 years or more. We still have our original family farm. I come from the Moore bloodline and Dooley bloodline. Then Pritt and I can’t remember the other side.

    My grandparents came to Grafton, OH to work along with thousands of other West Virginia people from that area. So I remember many years ago I heard great grandma Dooley say something about being called a guiniea when she was a kid. My great grandpa was dark skinned and black hair blue eyes.

    I’m brown and blue but I have a father who was Polish-German, so that’s what gave me the brown instead of black. Everybody else until my mom’s and aunt’s children had black hair. My girl cousin has black, but it could just be dyed—she’s young. Anyways it was nice to see this article; it explains a lot about my heritage.

  • Gregory Phillips says:

    I hope I can find some relatives through this site. I have listed my line below.

    Samuel Norris
    Sam “Fiddler” Norris
    William B. Norris
    Joseph “Joby” Norris
    William E Norris
    Fannie Leota Norris Phillips
    Edmond L. Phillips

    Email me at Hootah3@aol.com

  • Ol' Doc says:

    I lived and worked in Barbour County for 12 years. I love the people on the Ridge. Many of the Elders I knew have transitioned on, now. But, I have a silly-story to share about my first arriving in West Virginia. As I young man, I wanted to get acquainted and not be aloof like a “furriner.” So, I would chit-chat and schmooze the old geezers sitting around the courthouse waiting for King Coal to make a comeback.
    When I asked one of the residents about people I’d heard of in the region called “Guineas,” and what could he tell me about them? I guess he thought he’d pull my leg. He told me “the origin of them people is a genetic mutation created by John D. Rockefeller as a source of cheap labor in all of his industries! They were a poor set of people who became ….wait for it….”Guinea pigs!” I never found out if he was serious or not…but, I do know the Ridge Peopkle are eligible for grant money for college when they identify themselves as a member of a “tri-racial isolate” group. So, shove it, John D.! lol.

  • Karie Baker says:

    Hello, I am a descendant of Sam Norris & Pretty Hair. I am just looking for more information regarding my ancestors. From what I have found Pretty Hair was a Delaware (Lenape Tribe) Indian and Sam Norris was english descent. Further information would be greatly appreciated. I enjoy the history of it all and making new connections long lost.

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