Can DNA Solve "The Lumbee Problem"?

How does a group of people who have American Indian ancestry but no records of treaties, reservations, Native language, or peculiarly “Indian” customs come to be accepted–socially and legally–as Indians?

That question is asked on the jacket of the 2001 printing of The Lumbee Problem–The Making of an American Indian People by anthropologist Karen I. Blu (University of Nebraska Press, 2001; copyright 1980, Karen I. Blu). And that’s just the surface of “the Lumbee problem.”

Suppose Scots-Irish settlers in North Carolina in the early eighteenth century came upon a group of people who in some ways seemed to be indigenous, but spoke seventeenth century English and had English names. History or an episode of the Twilight Zone?

Indeed, this seems to be the history of the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina. But who are they really? Are they Indians? What is their origin?

A prominent theory is that the Lumbees are descendants of Native Americans and survivors of the Lost Colony of North Carolina.

In 1587, a group of colonists under Sir Walter Raleigh’s charter landed in the Outer Banks of what is now North Carolina. This was the second or third group of colonists in the area. One group had returned to England with Sir Francis Drake. The latter group was headed by Governor John White. White returned to England to re-supply the colony; his voyage back to America was delayed by the complications of the English war with Spain and the winter weather. When White did return in 1590, the colonist were gone, but strange “clues” were found. The word “Croatan” was found carved in the wall of a structure that had been built by the colonists. The colonists were never found.

In the early 1700’s, Scots-Irish settlers came upon English-speaking people in the interior of southeastern North Carolina. These people appeared to be of mixed race. It is said that in the early censuses, these people were enumerated as “mulattoes” or “free Negroes.” The people themselves claimed to be Indians. They waged a legal and political struggle in t he nineteenth century for recognition as Indians.

The federal government never has recognized the Lumbee as tribal Indians. In the late 1800’s, the state of North Carolina recognized them as the “Croatan Indians.” This name was not fully satisfactory to the people so designated and in the 1950’s, the name was changed to Lumbee.

The truth of the origins and identity of the Lumbee has been complicated by a number of political and sociological problems. Among these problems would be the fact that there were black people in the area where the Lumbees were found and it may be difficult to tease out which of the “mulattoes” or “free Negroes” were Indian and which were of African descent.

There are several distinct surnames that occur among the Lumbee. These include Oxendine, Chavis, Locklear, Dial, Lowry, and Brayboy, among others. Some of these surnames occur with high frequency among Africian-Americans. Brayboy, for instance, is one of the surnames in my family tree.

My Brayboy ancestors lived in Louisiana and South Carolina. They had been taken to Louisiana in bondage from South Carolina. The question, however, is whether they are related to the Lumbees. Perhaps DNA can solve my Lumbee problem.

I understand that DNA generally cannot pinpoint a specific Native American tribe. But the Lumbee are an especially insular people, thought to number about 40,000, mostly in Robeson County, North Carolina. Under these circumstances, perhaps DNA can tell us about links to the Lumbee.


6 Responses to “Can DNA Solve "The Lumbee Problem"?”

  • diane king says:

    Yes, my grandmother’s mother was full indian. She married a Black man. We were told her last name was McKiver. When I try to find her name, it always comes up blank. Her mother married a Johnson around 1882. Any info would be greatly appreciated.

    thank you

  • sky says:

    the lumbee are a bi-racial mulattoe,creole,maroon,mustee group,not a tri-racial isolate group as previously thought. in all census of the 1700 until 1885,the lumbees themselves clearly self-identified as mulattoes,not indians, the huxford lumbee DNA project clearly shows 96% of lumbees to be of two races; #1-african black & #2 caucasion white,no native american in 96% of them, of the remaining 4% of lumbees,minute traces of native american dna was found,but even then this was also heavily mixed with african and european more so than native-american,. next in line is the free people of color studies of paul heinegg and virginia demarce showing that over 80% of lumbees surnames originated in tidewater colonial virginia, lumbee ancestors are shown in these genealogical studies to be be the offsprings of african males and white females that migrated to the roberson and adjoining counties slightly before major white settlement, the earliest lumbee ancestors self- indentified as mulattoes,never indians. when they slowly began to indentify as indians,this was only to achieve various specialities, see lumbees;wikipedia. the lumbees should not be written up as indians and i think all evidence you will find agrees with this. protect true american indians federal rights,please don’t call the lumbees indians,they are the biggest group of mulattoes,creoles,maroons,mustees east of louisiana. they are not indians and don’t deserve indian recognition.the should have their state indian status revoked.,same as the saponies,& the ocaneechees thank you. and please spread the word

  • […] My cousin Karen Burney and I have both told the story of the Lumbee Indians from whence we believe our Brayboy ancestors come. See our posts here and here. […]

  • KMalfi says:

    My love is of Lumbee descent, though I do not know all the names involved. His name is Gilford Stanley Wilson. He was born and brought up in Baltimore, and his maternal grandmother was Native Lumbee. He would know more, but I am fascinated, as I am partially of Scottish/Irish descent myself, fromboth Hoynes( County Cavan) and Bascom /baticomb descent.)
    Thank you soo much for any info., as I am entranced by family heritage:)

  • Craig Manson says:

    Yes, I’m looking into both right now. More news as things develop!

  • Janice says:


    This is fascinating stuff! Are you going to participate in either the Lumbee Tribe DNA Project or the Lost Colony DNA Project?


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