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.
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