Spring 1997

The McDonald Furman Papers, 1889-1903

McDonald Furman, a descendant of Richard Furman, was a history enthusiast with a taste for anthropology. Regarded as an eccentric by contemporary South Carolinians, he was held in high regard by the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology. His research on South Carolina blacks and Indians fascinated the noted ethnologists Albert Gatschet and James A. Mooney.

Today, Furman's work is not easily accessible. He never published a book or even a lengthy article, and said that his aim was "every now & then, to write short and pointed articles about some historical subject." Most of these appeared in the Sumter Watchman and Southron, The State, and the News and Courier, and they are now scattered through microfilmed newspapers and clippings in archival collections.

Furman's papers are one of the South Caroliniana Library's oldest accessions. Included in the original accession of 424 manuscripts are his diary (1878-1903) and drafts of his articles. Two boxes of letters about publication of the state's colonial records and McCrady's history of the Revolution reflect Furman's life-long interest in South Carolina history and politics. They include letters from William A. Courtenay and Edward McCrady.

Recently, the library added 133 Furman letters and clippings relating to his fascination with the Sumter County "Redbones" or "Old Issues." He wrote many letters and articles trying to track down the history of these strange people who lived in Privateer Township near Furman's plantation. As he explained to his readers, "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, North Carolina, sent material concerning the Croatan (Lumbee) Indians, and Dr. Swan Burnett sent an article on the Melungeons of East Tennessee. One item recounts James Mooney's theory of Portuguese ancestry for the Pamunkeys, Croatans, Melungeons, and other groups. Some items are of outstanding historical value. On May 27, 1897, The State published Furman's sketch of James Edward Smiling, a Redbone who represented Sumter County in the radical legislature from 1868 to 1870. Information on Reconstruction figures like Smiling is often hard to find.

In 1893 J. A. W. Thomas sent Furman information on mixed breeds near Bennettsville. "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 had fought in the Revolution and won the respect of the whites. "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 yielded evidence of criminal activity. His 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 a monograph on the Redbones and supply photographs, they would find money to print it. But when Furman died in 1904, his best printed summary of his findings was an 1896 article in the Sumter paper. James Mooney thought the piece significant and inserted a notice of it in the July 1896 issue 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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