Chestnut Ridge people

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Chestnut Ridge people
Total population
About 1,500
Regions with significant populations
 United States
Related ethnic groups
Melungeon, Mulatto, American Indian

The Chestnut Ridge people (CRP) are a mixed-race (or tri-racial isolate) community residing just northeast of Philippi, Barbour County in north-central West Virginia, USA. They are often called "Mayles" (from the most common surname — Mayle or Male) or "Guineas" (a pejorative term).[1] Some CRP have identified as Melungeon and attended the Melungeon Unions or joined the Melungeon Heritage Association.[2] Many CRP identify themselves as Native American, or as an Indian-white mixed group.[3]


The local West Virginia historian Hu Maxwell was bemused by the origin of these people when he studied Barbour County history in the late 1890s:

There is a clan of partly-colored people in Barbour County often called "Guineas", under the erroneous presumption that they are Guinea negroes. 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.[4]

The local pejorative term "guinea" was still being used more than a century after these words were written. By the 1860s, many individuals of these mixed-race families had married into the white community and their descendants identified as white, serving in West Virginia regiments during the Civil War. Records in the Barbour County Courthouse indicate that several of them petitioned the courts (successfully) to be declared legally white at this time.[5]

The people of "The Ridge" have traditionally been subject to severe racial discrimination, amounting to ostracism, by the surrounding majority white community. As recently as the late 1950s, a few Philippi businesses still posted notices proclaiming "White Trade Only" directed at the CRP. Although the local public schools were not segregated at this time, truancy laws — which were strictly enforced for white children — were typically neglected with regard to "Ridge people".


If related individuals in the surrounding counties of Harrison and Taylor are included, the CRP probably now number about 1,500, almost all of whom bear one of fewer than a dozen surnames. A 1977 survey of obituaries in The Barbour Democrat showed that 135 of 163 "Ridge people" (83%) were married to people having the last names Mayle, Norris, Croston, Prichard, Collins, Adams, Johnson, or Kennedy. In 1984, of the 67 Mayles who had listed telephones, all but three lived on "The Ridge."[6]


According to research done by College of William & Mary PhD candidate Alexandra Finley,[7] the CRP descend from an immigrant Englishman, Wilmore Mail (1755-ca. 1845), born in Dover, Kent, England.[8] Mail settled in Virginia with his parents William and Mary in the 1760s. As an adult, Mail purchased a black female slave named Nancy. In 1826, Mail — perhaps uniquely (so far as historians have found documentary evidence for it) — both emancipated and publicly "married" Nancy, despite the fact that interracial marriage was then illegal in Virginia. The emancipation/marriage document reads as follows:

Be it known to all to whom it may concern that I, Wilmore Mail, of the County of Hampshire and Commonwealth of Virginia do by these presents liberate, emancipate, and forever set free ... my negro woman Nancy on the condition that she may remain with me during my natural life in the quality of my wife. I have set my hand and affixed my seal on this 6th day of May in the year of our Lord 1826.[9]

— Wilmore Mail

Over the following two decades, Mail was himself variously designated as "white", "colored" and "mulatto" in official documents. Although clearly beginning life as a white Englishman, the Federal Census of 1840 finally indicates him as being "free colored". (In 2014, the Harvard historian and television personality Henry Louis Gates, Jr discovered, though DNA genealogy testing, that Wilmore Mail is among his ancestors. Although there is as yet no documentary connection made, Mail is the only one of Gates' white ancestors for which a name is known. This discovery was featured on the final second season episode of Professor Gates' television series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., along with his visit to Philippi and attendance at the "Heritage Day" gathering on Chestnut Ridge.)

Paul Heinegg has recently located many records from the 1790s to the 1850s that include racial descriptors ("free black", "free mulatto", "free colored", etc.) of the early Mayle/Male family.[10] The following individuals are all believed to be sons of Wilmore Mayle (Mail, Male), Sr. (Note that, prior to 1843, the area of Barbour County west of the Tygart Valley River was part of Harrison County and the area east of the river was part of Randolph County.)

Wilmore Male Jr.

  1. 1797 - described as "a free black" in tax list of Hampshire County, Virginia
  2. 1810 - head of household that included 8 "other free" persons in Hampshire County, Virginia
  3. 1810-1 - taxable for 2 "F[ree]M[ulattos]" in tax lists of Hampshire County, Virginia
  4. 1812 - taxed as "F[ree]M[ulatto]" in tax list of Hampshire County, Virginia
  5. 1813 - taxed as "of color" in tax list of Monongalia County, Virginia
  6. 1815 - described as "F[ree]N[egro]" in tax list of Monongalia County, Virginia
  7. 1817 - described as "Col[ore]d" in tax list of Randolph County, Virginia
  8. 1820 - head of household that included 8 "free colored" persons in Randolph County, Virginia
  9. 1830 - head of household that included 2 "free colored" persons in Hampshire County, Virginia
  10. 1840 - head of household that included 2 "free colored" persons in Hampshire County, Virginia

William Male

  1. 1803 - described as a "free Mulatto" in tax list of Hampshire County, Virginia
  2. 1810 - head of household that included 12 "other free" persons in Monongalia County, Virginia
  3. 1813-29 - described as "Mul[att]o" or "Col[ore]d" in tax lists of Randolph County, Virginia
  4. 1820 - head of household that included 7 "free colored" persons in Randolph County, Virginia
  5. 1840 - head of household that included 2 "free colored" persons in Randolph County, Virginia

James Male

  1. 1810 - head of household that included 6 "other free" persons in Monongalia County, Virginia
  2. 1813 - described as "man of colour" in tax list of Harrison County, Virginia
  3. 1816-1818 - described as "col[ore]d" in tax lists of Randolph County, Virginia
  4. 1830 - head of household that included 9 "free colored" persons in Frederick County, Virginia

George Male

  1. 1812-1817 - described as "man of colour" in tax lists of Harrison County, Virginia
  2. 1820 - head of household that included 6 "free colored" persons in Randolph County, Virginia
  3. 1822-1829 - tax lists of "Free negroes & Mulattoes" in Randolph County, Virginia
  4. 1830 - head of household that included 6 "free colored" persons in Randolph County, Virginia
  5. 1840 - head of household that included 7 "free colored" persons in Randolph County, Virginia

Richard Male

  1. 1813-29 - described as "Mul[att]o" or "Col[ore]d" in tax lists of Randolph County, Virginia
  2. 1820 - head of household that included 7 "free colored" persons in Randolph County, Virginia
  3. 1830 - head of household that included 3 "free colored" persons in Randolph County, Virginia
  4. 1840 - head of household that included 4 "free colored" persons in Randolph County, Virginia
  5. 1850 - widow Rhoda described as a "Mulatto" in census of Barbour County, Virginia

Dissenting views[edit]

Dissenting view #1: No black heritage[edit]

An extensive family history entitled The Males of Barbour County, West Virginia[11] was privately published in 1980 by B.V. Mayhle. He documented the origins of the Male, Mahle, Mayle, Mayhle name in the USA. His research found only one incident of interracial union. In an interview[citation needed], he pointed out that the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania press had carried repeated sensational magazine articles in the early 1900s about the area, highlighting its poverty and mixed-race communities. He suggests this was the origin of stories about the group. (Note: The account above predates such articles.) The photographs of Male descendants that are included in his book, many from this same time period, do not show obvious physical characteristics associated with African phenotypes. (But, numerous photographs of the Chestnut Ridge People during this time period show they had complexions noticeably darker than neighbors). Mayhle gave a detailed account of three brothers, direct descendants of Wilmore/William Male (the original Male immigrant), who served in regular white units in the US Civil war. Two served in the 7th West Virginia Infantry and one in the 1st West Virginia Cavalry, all white units. (Note the above discussion, however, on the court records of some of these soldiers petitioning to be declared legally white in 1861 and 1866.)

Dissenting view #2: Native American heritage[edit]

"What Ms. Finley fails to state is, that Wilmore Mail is the son of Wilmore Sr. who died 1800. Wilmore Jr. married Priscilla "Nancy" Harris a "Catawba"

Notes for Priscilla (Nancy) Harris: It has been told that Priscilla was a pretty little daughter of a slave girl and a Cherokee Indian. Her mother was supposed to have been a slave girl brought to this country in the middle 1700s by a Frenchman from the Bahamas by the name of Marquis Calmes. It is not known whether she was of native Bahamian Indian ancestry or not. She eloped with a Cherokee Indian by the name of Harris and to these two Priscilla was born. French and Spanish settlers in America intermarried freely with the Indians, but the English seldom mixed with the natives. Hence it appears that among the pioneer families of our County, The Mayle, Mail or Male family have Indian blood in their veins. Source: Bernard V. Mayhle & Marg Mayle Dalton, presented at

According to family tradition, Marquis Calmes, a Frenchman residing in Virginia, had a French servant woman, whether she was from France or from the French colony on the island of Hayti, we do not know. A Cherokee Indian came from the south to the Calmes plantation; whether he was of pure Indian blood or mixed, we do not know. Our French girl and Cherokee fell in love; whether or not they were legally married, we do not know, and that is not important to us at this late day, they loved each other and a daughter was born to them, who was known as Priscilla Harris. Priscilla grew up on the Calmes plantation, a beautiful girl, olive complexion, black eyes, and long hair -- "so long that she could sit on it." Her descendants kept some of Priscilla's wonderful hair for many years. (Source: Garrett County History of Pioneer Families, by Charles E. Hoye, Mountain Democrat (Oakland, MD), April 16, 1936)

According to Sachem Great Elk Dancer of the Notoweega Nation. "We now know "Harris" is well known to be a Catawba name from that era." Ian Watson in his compilation entitled "Catawba Indian Genealogy" described the death of General Ayers in 1837 as "the end of a conservative era of Catawba tribal government.", and indeed, 3 years later the Catawba relinquished their lands in South Carolina and scattered. The reality of this shift to a more progressive thinking leadership and the eventual self-termination of their reservation status and migration to North Carolina in 1840 may have an ethnic root instead of being the result of acculturation; Watson, Brown & McDowell clearly identify three of the Catawba surnames as being of Cheraw origin (George, Robbins, Harris)(1) and these families seemed to begin a push to dominate the Catawba leadership after the death of General Scott in 1821. The exodus of so many Catawba in the 1820s could possibly represent a reaction to the overtaking of the political structure by the mixed-blood Christianized Cheraw.)



  1. ^ Price, Edward T., "A Geographical Analysis of White-Negro-Indian Racial Mixtures in the Eastern United States", Association of American Geographers Annals, Vol. 43 (June 1953) pp. 138-55.
  2. ^ "The Guineas of West Virginia: A Transcript of A Presentation at First Union", July 25, 1997, Wise Virginia by Joanne Johnson Smith & Florence Kennedy Barnett
  3. ^ McElwain, Thomas (1981), Our Kind of People: Identity, Community, and Religion on Chestnut Ridge, A Study of Native Americans in Appalachia, (Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion, No. 20).
  4. ^ Maxwell, Hu (1899). The History of Barbour County, From its Earliest Exploration and Settlement to the Present Time, The Acme Publishing Company, Morgantown, W.Va. (Reprinted, McClain Printing Company, Parsons, W.Va., 1968). pp. 310–311.
  5. ^ Petitions of George W. Male and James Male, January Session, 1861; Petitions of Hiram Male, Stephen Newman, Richard Male, Stephen A. Male, Levi Collins, Franklin Male, George W. Collins, Elisha Male, Hezekiah Male and William Male, November Session, 1866; Barbour County County Circuit Court Records. Cited in: Shaffer, John W. (2003), Clash of Loyalties: A Border County in the Civil War, Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University Press, pp 220-221, n. 81.
  6. ^ "My Melungeon Depot", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 31 December 1984.
  7. ^ Finley, Alexandra (2010), Undergraduate thesis, Ohio State University: "Founding Chestnut Ridge: the Origins of Central West Virginia's Multiracial Community"; Finley graduated summa cum laude with research distinction in history from the OSU in June 2010. She won the department prize for best undergraduate research.
  8. ^ Ducibella, Jim (November 26, 2014), “Surprise! Finley related to 'Roots' show host”, News & Events, W&M Website. Finley is herself known to be a descendant of Wilmore Mail.
  9. ^ "Decoding Our Past Through DNA", Episode 20 (second season) of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; first broadcast by Public Broadcasting Service television stations on November 25, 2014.
  10. ^ Heinegg, Paul, "Male/Mail Family," Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, accessed 26 Nov 2014.
  11. ^ Mayhle, Bernard Victor (1980; 2nd ed., 1981, 3rd ed., 1983), The Males of Barbour County, West Virginia, Seattle, Washington, 167 pages. (West Virginia University, in Morgantown, West Virginia, has a copy of this privately printed item.)

Other sources[edit]

  • Gilbert, Jr., William Harlen (1946), "Mixed Bloods of the Upper Monongahela Valley, West Virginia"; Journal of the Washington Academy of the Sciences, Vol. 36, no. 1 (Jan. 15, 1946), pp 1–13.
  • Gilbert, Jr., William Harlen (1946), "Memorandum Concerning the Characteristics of the Larger Mixed-Blood Racial Islands of the Eastern United States"; Social Forces; 21/4 (May 1946), pp 438–477.
  • "Barbour County Home Of 'Guinea' Colony," Beckley Post Herald, 27 May 1965.
  • "We The People Of Chestnut Ridge", Goldenseal, Fall 1999.

See also[edit]