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Black Dutch is a term with several different meanings in United States dialect and slang. It generally refers to racial, ethnic, or cultural roots. Its meaning varies, and such differences are contingent upon time and place. Several varied groups of multiracial people have sometimes been referred to as, or identified as "Black Dutch," most often as a reference to their ancestors.[1] [2][3][4]

Black Dutch is an unofficial American ethnic designation, often derogatory, of an ill-defined and marginal group of dark skinned people. There are a number of competing theories regarding the meaning and origin of the term, none of which has been satisfactorily proven.

It has been posited that the Pennsylvania Dutch could be the source of the term, which would translate roughly as Schwarze Deutsche in German. Unfortunately, the term has never been encountered in any written record among the Pennsylvania Dutch. There is not a single, verified example of the early German speaking settlers in Pennsylvania referring to themselves as Black Dutch. Nor are there any references to the term among the non-German inhabitants of Pennsylvania or western Maryland.

Another theory is that the term refers to Dutch of Spanish extraction and possibly Sephardic Jewish colonists. There are claims that the term "Black Dutch" first appears in U.S. colonial history as a reference to people from the Netherlands of darker skin than other European colonists, but once again, there are no contemporaneous sources for such claims. It has also been posited that the term Black Dutch was applied to the descendants of children (usually illegitimate) of Spanish soldiers and Dutch women born during the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands in the 16th century. This is an appealing theory and may be the correct one, yet despite considerable effort researchers have failed to find a single verifiable example for the use of this term. The term Black Dutch is unknown in the Netherlands. If the term Black Dutch was ever used in the Netherlands it may have had negative connotations. Many settlers from Holland did come to the North American colonies, and most settled in the New York area. But once gain, the theory is unsupported by documentation. It should be noted that the term Black Dutch has not been found in any New York sources of the 17th through 19th centuries.

The advent of inexpensive DNA tests may finally help answer the question of just who were the Black Dutch. One such example comes from the testing companies Ancestry and 23AndMe. A DNA sample supplied by a white male in his fifties whose ancestors claimed to be Black Dutch came back negative for Native American DNA. But the results came back 10% for Iberian DNA markers, 1.3% for Ashkenazi Jewish, with the remainder being from the British Isles and France (nothing from Germany). So, the Spanish-Dutch and Jewish sources for the term may indeed have merit.

The term Black Dutch is almost exclusively found in the Southern Highlands and points west. It may be the case that some ethnic Germans migrated south to Virginia and the Carolinas and were referred to as Black Dutch by those they encountered {citation needed}, but this is speculative and, yet again, unsupported by documentation.

The term Black Dutch appears to have become widely adopted in the Southern Highlands and as far west as Texas in the early 1800s. Certain Southeastern families of mixed-race ancestry, especially those of American Indian descent.[5] When used in the South, it usually did not imply African admixture, although some families who used the term were of tri-racial descent.

Sephardic Jewish merchants from Spain and Portugal settled in the Dutch Republic following their expulsion from the Iberian nations in the late 15th century, and the Netherlands gaining independence from Spain in the 16th century. They called themselves gente del linaje ("People of the (Jewish) lineage"), or homens da nação, ("Men of the (Jewish-Portuguese) Nation"). The Amsterdam chief rabbi, Menasseh Ben Israel, gained approval by Oliver Cromwell's government to readmit Jews to England in the mid-17th century.[6] Many Sephardic Jews migrated from the Netherlands to settle in England, where some became prominent businessmen and professionals. Some migrated from there to the North American colonies, settling in Newport, Rhode Island; Boston, New York and Philadelphia, as well as Richmond, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.

Like other English and European men in the American South, some Sephardic (and German) Jews had liaisons with enslaved African or free women of color, and fathered mixed-race "natural" (illegitimate) children. In some cases, the men had extended common-law marriages and provided support and education for their children, as did David Isaacs in Charlottesville, Virginia in his long life with Nancy West, a free woman of color.[7][8] In other cases, they abandoned the mixed-race women and children and contracted legal marriages, often to Jewish women. This was the case with Baron Judah, a Jewish American born in Charleston. As the result of a relationship between him and former slave Dido Badaraka, Baron Judah fathered Harriet Judah, of mixed race. In a common-law marriage, she became the mother of the abolitionist Robert Purvis. Baron Judah left Dido and his daughter Harriet to marry a Jewish woman.[9]

In colonial Virginia and Carolina records, the term Portuguese may have been used to refer to people of mixed race, as well as to Sephardic Jews.[citation needed] In addition, some mixed-race persons of European and African descent identified as Portuguese or Indian (Native American), as a way to explain their variations in physical appearance from Europeans and to be more easily accepted by European-American neighbors.[10] By the late 18th century, numerous free mixed-race families were migrating west, along with English neighbors, to the frontiers of Virginia and North Carolina, where racial castes were less strict than in plantation country of the Tidewater.[10]


Over time, descendants of Palatine German immigrants who came to Pennsylvania prior to the American Revolutionary War came to be known as the "Pennsylvania Dutch." (Others from the Palatine had immigrated to present-day New York as early as 1710.) They were not related to the Dutch immigrants from the Republic of the United Provinces who had earlier settled in New York, particularly.

The term "Dutch" for people of German descent also acquired a wider meaning. In those days "Dietsch" or "Duitsch" and "Deutsch" were the words for the Germanic languages spoken in what we now know as the Netherlands and Germany.[citation needed] Germans with swarthy or darker complexions were called "Black Dutch" (or Schwarze Deutsche) {citation needed}. According to the researcher James Pylant, who studied families claiming "Black Dutch" as part of their heritage:

"There are strong indications that the original "Black Dutch" were swarthy-complexioned Germans. Anglo-Americans loosely applied the term to any dark-complexioned American of European descent. The term was adopted [by some people] as an attempt to disguise Indian or infrequently, tri-racial descent. By the mid-19th century, the term had become an American colloquialism; a derogative term for anything denoting one's small stature, dark coloring, working-class status, political sentiments, or anyone of foreign extract. In contrast to the Anglo-surnamed Melungeons, nearly 60% of American families reporting Black Dutch tradition bear surnames that are either decidedly German or possibly Americanized from Germanic origin."[3]

Even in the 1820s, ethnic German men who differed over politics used "Black Dutch" as a slur against opponents.[11]


It should be noted that there is no consensus about whether the Black Dutch and the Melungeons are one and the same ethnic group. The examination of the term Melungeon is added here for reference purposes.

The first known appearance of the word Melungeon (also spelled “Melungin”) in U.S. records occurs in the minutes of the Primitive Baptist Church of Stony Creek, eastern Tennessee, in 1813. It was used to refer to certain members whose behavior was criticized; their surnames were Minor, Gibson, and Collins. (Through other records, these have come to be considered core Melungeon surnames.) The meaning and origin of the term Melungeon have been debated, and people have often claimed Native American and European ancestry.

Years later, in an 1890 article, these and other families who clustered around Newmans Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee were classified as Melungeon by a Nashville journalist named Drumgoole. The term was widely used at the time. She was a descendant of Alexander Drumgoole (died 1837) and his Cherokee wife; Drumgoole was a Scots-Irish trader among the Cherokee. The journalist Drumgoole is credited with popularizing many elements of the Melungeon legend at a time when her cohorts among New York travel writers were inventing “hillbillies.”[citation needed]

Late 20th-century research by Paul Heinegg found that 80 percent of people listed as free people of color in censuses from 1790–1810 in North Carolina, could be traced back to African Americans identified as free in Virginia in colonial times. Based on his research, he found that most such free African-American families before the American Revolution were descended from unions in the working class – between white women (whose status made their children free by the principle of partus sequitur ventrem) and African men: free, indentured servants and slaves.[10] Originating primarily from the British colony of Virginia (where slaveholders gave most Africans English names), such families more often have English or Scots-Irish surnames than those of German or Dutch origin.

Since the late 20th century, DNA tests of people from core Melungeon families, as documented in the Melungeon DNA Project coordinated by Jack Goins, have shown most individuals are of European and African descent, rather than having Native American ancestry. This is a confirmation of Heinegg's genealogical research, summarized in his Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware (1995–2005), which is available for free online.[10]

Native Americans passing for white[edit]

As early as the 18th century, ethnic Germans migrated from Pennsylvania into Virginia through the Shenandoah Valley and settled in the backcountry of the Appalachian Mountains, areas considered the frontier compared to Tidewater Virginia and the Low Country of the coast. They likely continued to use their term of "Black Dutch" to refer to swarthy-skinned people or, more generally, political opponents. Historically, mixed-race European-Native American and sometimes full blood Native American families of the South adopted the term "Black Dutch" for their own use, and to a lesser extent, "Black Irish," first in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. As the researcher Paul Heinegg noted, the frontier was also the area of settlement of mixed-race families of African and European ancestry, who also used the terms.[10]

The practice of Cherokee and other Southeast Native Americans identifying as "Black Dutch" may have originated during and after the 1830s Indian Removal era. {citation needed} They may have attempted to "pass" and avoid being removed to Indian Territory or stigmatized by what became a majority Anglo-American society.[5] Some Native Americans, mainly from the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast, claimed "Black Dutch" or "Black Irish" heritage in order to purchase land in areas which United States treaties and other laws had reserved for people of European descent. Once they owned the land, such families who had escaped forced removal would not admit to their Native American heritage, for fear of losing their property.[5]

As an example, an exhibit at the state-run Oakville Indian Mounds Park and Museum in Lawrence County, Alabama gives the history of the term among Cherokee in the local area after Indian Removal:

Before the Indian Removal Act in 1830, many of Lawrence County's Cherokee people were already mixed with white settlers and stayed in the country of the Warrior Mountains. They denied their ancestry and basically lived much of their lives in fear of being sent West. Full bloods claimed to be Black Irish or Black Dutch, thus denying their rightful Native American blood. After being fully assimilated into the general population years later, these Irish Cherokee mixed-blood descendants, began reclaiming their Native American heritage in the land of the Warrior Mountains, Lawrence County, Alabama. During the 1900 U.S. Census only 78 people claimed their Native American heritage. In 1990, more than 2000 individuals claimed Native American descent. Today more than 4000 citizens are proud to claim their Native American heritage and are members of the Echota Cherokee tribe.

Black Dutch in the Midwest and Deep South[edit]

Over time, the term "Black Dutch" migrated with certain families of mixed ancestry from North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee to Missouri and Arkansas, as well as to Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma, where its original meaning became lost. Many people born in the 20th century have claimed Black Dutch heritage, sometimes in addition to Native heritage, without having any idea who their "Black Dutch" ancestors were supposed to be.[5] Unlike families in Pennsylvania or Virginia, most of the mixed-race "Black Dutch" families of the Deep South have English or Scots-Irish surnames, and have no German ancestry in their families.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bible, Jean Patterson (1999). Melungeons Yesterday and Today. Signal Mountain, Tennessee: Mountain Press
  2. ^ Elder, Pat Spurlock (1965). Melungeons: Examining an Appalachian Legend. Blountville, Tennessee: Continuity Press
  3. ^ a b Pylant, James (1997). "In Search of the Black Dutch" Archived March 8, 2012, at the Wayback Machine., American Genealogy Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 1 (March 1997): 11-30
  4. ^ Cassiday, Frederic G. (1985) Dictionary of American Regional English, Vol 1, A-C, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press
  5. ^ a b c d e Jimmy H. Crane, "The Elusive Black Dutch of the South" Archived May 11, 2009, at the Wayback Machine., Native Peoples Magazine
  6. ^ Mary Bondurant Warren, "Who Were the Black Dutch?", Family Puzzlers, No. 457, July 22, 1976, reprinted on Tennessee GenWeb
  7. ^ Stanton, Lucia. "Appendix H: Sally Hemings and Her Children: Information from Documentary Sources". Monticello Foundation. Archived from the original on 2008-07-15. Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  8. ^ Justus, Judith, Down from the Mountain: The Oral History of the Hemings Family, Perrysburg, OH: Lesher Printers, Inc., 1990, pp. 89 - 96
  9. ^ "ROBERT PURVIS DEAD.; Anti-Slavery Leader Expires in Philadelphia, Aged 87 --His Work for the Black Race", New York Times, 16 April 1898, accessed 3 May 2008
  10. ^ a b c d e Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, 1999-2005
  11. ^ James Pylant, " 'Black Dutch' As 19th Century Slur", Genealogy Magazine, 2007, accessed 17 January 2012

External links[edit]