Friday, March 14, 2008

Who Were the Turks of Sumpter County?

by Pony Hill

First off let me say this, I have no doubt that prior to the Civil War that the community of mixed-blood persons residing in Sumter County were probably referred to as "Turks". That this label was meant to define a Turkish origin for the group, I do not believe. In other areas at the same time, people of the same mixed-blood were called "Portugeuse" and "Moors" yet their ancestors are not from Portugal or the coast of Africa. 'Turk' was used the same way 'Melungeon' was used in Tennessee...not to explain the origin of a people, just to give a label to a mixed-blood community in order to differentiate it from the whites and blacks around them.

That your ancestor referred to himself as a "Turk" when he lived away from Sumter as a way of explaining his dark skin, is no surprise. In his mind, i suppose, it was a way to explain his racial origin, "I'm not full-blooded Indian, I'm not part Black, I'm a Turk from Sumter County" The fact that he applied for Indian land (it was not freely offered, an individual had to apply) but was turned down because he was a 'Turk' (which at the time was known to the Indian Office as mixed-blood persons of Indian descent but of unknown tribal origin-see below-) should be evident that he at least believed he had some Indian blood. However, at the time, persons called 'Turk' in Sumter were very offended by that label. When a class action suit was filed to allow 'Turk' children into white schools it was very clear that "you do not call them Turk to their face", and it was also noted by historians and ethnologists in the 1930's and 1940's that these people would get fighting mad if you called them Turk. I also have no doubt that there are probably people who now proudly claim to be 'Turk', there are people now who proudly claim to be 'Melungeon', but this is now a more racially tolerant South....prior to World War 2, a sure way to get a black eye was to go to Sumter and call someone a 'Turk' or go to Tennessee and call someone a 'Melungeon'.

Before his death in the early 1800's, Joe Benenhaley was the subject of a court case in Sumter where citizens were objecting to his right to vote. Dr. Brewton Berry made note of this incident in his 1940's book "Almost White". Berry notes that Benenhaley was called to testfiy as to his racial origin. (an important note here is that Berry recounts the testimony as that Benenahley was a 'mestizo' but no mention of 'Turk'.. Tom Sumter, the General's grandson, also called Benenhaley a "mestizo" in his history book but made no mention of Turkish origin) While Benenhaley was testifying, General Sumter stormed into the Courtroom, walked up to the witness stand and firmly shook Benenhaley's hand. (it was well known in the South at that time that no respectful Southern gentleman would shake a Negroes hand) This was all the judge needed to see, and the case was promptly dismissed.

In the 1930's, a court case was pressed to allow 'Turk' children to attend white schools. Reports from this case reveal that all the children subject to the proceedings (including Benehaley, Scott, Ellison, Tidwell, Deas families) were presently attending a special 'Indian School' and all the grandparents claimed to be "of Indian ancestry".

Here are a few historical references as to the racial origin of the 'Turks':

-"The Croatan Indians comprise a body of mixed-blood people residing chiefly in Robeson County, NC. A few of the same class of people reside in Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Scotland, and Hoke Counties, NC, and in Sumter, Marlboro, and Dillon Counties, SC. 1914 letter from special Indian agent O.M. McPherson to Commissioner of Indian Affairs

-"The Croatan tribe lives principally in Robeson County, NC, though there is quite a number of them settled in counties adjoining in North and South Carolina. In Sumter County, SC, there is a branch of the tribe, and also in east Tennessee. Those living in east Tennessee are called "Melungeans", a name also retained by them here, which is a corruption of "Melange", a name given them by early settlers (French), which means mixed." 1888 pamphlet published by Mr. Hamilton McMillan of Fayetteville, NC.

-"At one time the Croatans were known as "Redbones," and there is still a street in Fayetteville so called because some of them once lived on it. They are known by this name in Sumter County, SC, where they are a quiet and peaceable people, and have a church of their own. They are proud and high-spirited, and caste is very strong among them."1891 article of Dr. William T. Harris, Papers American Historical Association.

-It is well known that for the majority of the War, General Sumter camped on the Indian lands which were inhabited by the confederated Cheraw and Catawba tribe. Every able-bodied male Indian of that group was enlisted as scouts and warriors under various captains who served under Sumter's command. Sumter never approached the coast, and there are almost entire libraries of writings about Sumter's campaigns which were written by people who witnessed the battles. I'm sure that if Sumter had a Turkish guide during the War, someone would have noted it (why would Gen. Sumter, a man familiar with the area, retain a 'guide' from Turkey?). The only written record states that Sumter used Indian guides, scouts, spys, and warriors extensively.

Full Article Here:


Anonymous said...

The Benenhaleys were turks not a
group of people named so because someone classified them due to thier color.

Anonymous said...

I am a Hood and my grandmother was a Benenhaley. I do not know where the "turk" came from but would like to know.

Anonymous said...

I am descended from leo cadeo Benenhaley and William Taylor, I had an Autosomal DNA test done last Feb. and it clearly states that I am 24% Middle eatern/N. African, 70% Irish, NA, Jewish. It was passed down through my Family that we Had Turkish Ancestry and the last time I heard this was 30 years ago and at the time it was never mentioned much at all. I also did a strenuous Family history search over the years and it all matches up with the DNA test. If anyone needs any information my email is , I will be glad to help

Anonymous said...

The term "Turk" was first used by the British during the Revolution, referring to the Native people living in the Statesburg area.