I stumbled across a strange name in an American Historical Society Journal footnote: the Ben Ishmael Tribe out of Ohio Valley. The article was about settlements in Illinois in the early 19th century but it gave no further information about that name. So, I dug around. First on the web and then in the library. What I discovered was a strange little story from the American past – a past that seems largely forgotten.
What I write below has been taken, mostly, from Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Dropout Culture, an edited volume by Ron Sakolsky and James Koehnline published in 1993.
I had always assumed that some of the slaves brought to Southern plantations from West Africa would have been Muslims – Islam being a heavy presence in North and West Africa as early as the 8th century. The beginnings of the Nation of Islam, always read to me as operating on that foundational myth of Muslim slaves. The name, Ben Ishmael, hence immediately struck to me as Banu Ismail – literally, the Sons of Ismail but better translated as the Tribe of Ismail. Gone to Croatan confirmed my hypothesis. Ben Ishmael were a collective of thousands of runaway slaves, Native Americans and “poor whites” who created a nomadic colony in the Kentucky Hills in 1790. They lived far from settled communities (for obvious reasons) and were forced out of inhabited lands at a regular pace. When Kentucky farmlands became slave-farms, they moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. From Cincinnati they were driven out, tracing a settlement pattern through Indiana and finally to various small towns in Illinois (mostly southern parts). Cities like Mahomet, Mecca, Morocco and Cairo bear the names of some of these settlements.
They remained nomadic in nature – their 350 mile triangular migration route stretched northwest from Indianapolis to the Kankakee River south of Lake Michigan, south through easten Illinois (Urbana-Champaigne) and Decatur and finally, due east, back to Indianapolis. They make an entrance in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1872 novel The Prairie as the family of a man called Ishmael Bush [though the tribe is “mostly” white in the book].
The tribe became a persecuted – and prosecuted – minority as the regions continued to be settled and the ‘morality’ began to be enforced. Their nomadic lifestyle, rather syncretic religion, free-loving, free-economy ways were often at clear odds to the majority. One, Oscar Carleton McCulloch 1843-1891, high on the fumes of Eugenics wrote a pamphlet on the Tribe that suggested forcible sterilization and incarceration for their members. The pamphlet, published in 1880, was only the second in the United States applying Eugenic science on a population. You can see some photos at the Eugenics Archive.
The Ishmaelites disappear from historical memory after the Indiana Laws for sterilization of feeble-minded and subhuman families went into effect in 1907.
I was still curious as to what their relationship was with Islam or more specifically the Nation. They seem to have carried some notions of sacred Islamic sites and totemic nomenclature but little evidence of ritual or belief seems apparent. The founding mythology of Nation of Islam obviously owes a lot to the Ben Ishmael history. But their larger impact was on the cultural memory of Black America struggling to survive out of slavery. Some anthropologist needs to study the songs and sites of the Ben Ishmael Tribe. Maybe they have. I don’t know. I just found this fascinating and thought…I’d share.
Furthermore: who are these people that I found at BoomBox.net? And what does it all have to do with the crescent on the South Carolina flag? Marlowe?