SOUTH CAROLINIANA LIBRARY
UNIVERSITY SOUTH CAROLINIANA SOCIETY
Charles James McDonald Furman papers, 1804-1903.Charles James McDonald Furman (1863-1904), a great-grandson of the Rev. Richard Furman, was an avid history enthusiast with a taste for ethnology and anthropology. Regarded as an eccentric by contemporary South Carolinians, he was held in high regard by the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology and by bureau members Albert Gatschet and James A. Mooney. Furman's research into the history and culture of South Carolina blacks and Indians fascinated these noted ethnologists.
Furman's work is not easily accessible to the modern reader and researcher. He never published a book or even a lengthy article, and declared that his aim was "every now & then, to write short and pointed articles about some historical subject." Most of his contributions appeared in the Sumter Watchman and Southron, The State, and the News and Courier. Today they are scattered through microfilmed newspapers and archival collections of clippings.
Furman's papers in the South Caroliniana Library are among its earliest and most interesting accessions. The four hundred twenty-four manuscripts include his diary from 1878 until 1903, and photostats and original drafts of a number of his articles. Two boxes of correspondence reflect his lifelong interest in all facets of South Carolina history and politics. They include letters such as those from William A. Courtenay and Edward McCrady concerning preservation and publication of the state's colonial records and financial backing for McCrady's history of the American Revolution.
Scattered holdings of Furman material relating to his interests in blacks and Indians can also be found in the Smithsonian Institution's National Anthropological Archives. They appear in the papers of ethnologists he corresponded with, notably those of Albert S. Gatschet.
The South Caroliniana Library has recently acquired one hundred thirty-three Furman letters and newspaper clippings relating to the Sumter County "Redbones" or "Old Issues." These strange people fascinated him for many years and the new material includes both letters and articles he produced in his attempts to track down their history. The Redbones lived in Privateer Township not far from Furman's home, Cornhill plantation, and as he explained to his newspaper audience, "They are a mixed race and have never been slaves. They are supposed to be descendants of Indians and negroes, but nothing is definitely known of their origin."
"It seems the irony of fate," he continued, "that we should have cyclopaedias giving accounts of races in which we are not interested, and with which we will never come in contact, when right here in our State we have a peculiar race about which comparatively little seems to be known, and yet it is a race which is worthy of ethnological research."
The manuscripts record Furman's investigations of common Redbone family names like Goins, Chavis, and Oxendine, and his correspondence with authorities on similar and possibly related ethnic groups. Hamilton McMillan of Red Springs, N.C., sent material concerning the Croatan (Lumbee) Indians, and Dr. Swan Burnett (husband of the children's writer Frances Hodgson Burnett) sent an article from American Anthropologist dealing with the Melungeons of East Tennessee. One of Furman's clippings recounted James Mooney's theory of possible Portuguese ancestry for the Pamunkeys, Croatans, Melungeons, and other groups.
Some items are of outstanding historical value. On 27 May 1897, The State published Furman's biographical sketch of Redbone patriarch James Edward Smiling, a Sumter County legislator in the radical General Assembly from 1868 to 1870. Information on Reconstruction figures like Smiling is often difficult to find.
On 17 May 1893, Bennettsville historian J.A.W. Thomas sent Furman four pages of detailed information on mixed breeds in Marlboro County. "Of course the people of `mixed breed,' that we have among us in Marlborough," Thomas wrote, "are not known as `Redbones,' and not until recently have they been called `Croatans,' a name which some of them are now adopting. For generations they have claimed to have been of `Portugese' extraction, while more commonly the white people have thought them Mulattoes." Some families among them had rendered distinguished service during the Revolution and won the respect of the white people. "And the consequence has been," Thomas explained, "that their complexion, their circumstances and general characteristics wonderfully improved, until now they are scarcely recognized as having `mixed blood' in their veins."
Often, however, Furman's search for information on mixed breed families yielded evidence of criminal activity. His newspaper clippings contained frequent references to murders and lynchings, and sometimes they related bizarre prosecutions under the miscegenation laws of the Jim Crow era.
The Bureau of Ethnology told Furman that if he would write his research as a monograph and supply photographs of the Sumter County Redbones, the bureau would solicit the publication money to print it. But when Furman died in 1904, his best printed summary of his findings was a 27 May 1896 article in the Sumter Watchman and Southron titled "The Privateer Redbones." James Mooney thought the piece significant and inserted a notice of it in the July 1896 number of American Anthropologist.
"While these people are classed with the negroes," Furman concluded, "their features & color as a race show unmistakeable evidence of white or Indian blood, or both. They are certainly an isolated people & I repeat here what I said in a communication to the News & Courier & the Columbia State a few months ago—that as a people, they are, if anything, more apart to themselves than are the Hebrews of our State."
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