Curio Americana: Ben Ishmael Tribe

Posted by sepoy on June 07, 2004 · 4 mins read


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 And what does it all have to do with the crescent on the South Carolina flag? Marlowe?


Marlowe | June 07, 2004

I am the product of whites, blacks and reds living together in the Kentucky hills. My aunt has sickle cell and I have two cousins born with afros. These people have been called by various names over the years--melungeon (malun jinn) and black dutch, among others. Their line is formed from various branches which came together in the isolation of Appalachia, where they originally congregated for safety. Some are the descendants of escaped slaves, some of Indians, some of Muslim Spanish/North African shipwreck survivors, some of criminal Scots-Irish white trash. The important thing to note is that for almost a hundred fifty years--that's five generations or so, none of these people had the luxury of prejudice. They literally screwed themselves into one color. The gentry considered them less than human for years, and had it not been for their remote mountain homes, supposed evil powers and ways with black magic, they would've been the recipients of more vitriol than they were. The supposed "black magic" I think refers to syncretistic hill religion borne of distant memories of great grandma speaking of how there is no god but god, etc. Modern white pentecostalism owes its quarrels with The Catholic Church and the trinity--especially its insistence on a unified godhead--to these memorial echoes. The group to whom Sepoy refers is but one poor group of these melungeons, with a particularly strong tie to the distant parent faith. Some of those who remain in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia are "rediscovering" thier roots instead of trying to hide or lose them; they're down with identity politics and not into apologizing for their multiracial identity. They're bolstered by the generally decent work of a responsible amateur scholar named Brent Kennedy, who has worked with groups as diverse as the Turkish and Libyan governments, which are interested in proving Muslims have been on the continent as long as Jews and Christians.

Marlowe | June 07, 2004

Addenda: During the post-war labor migrations, these ideas would have been of great interest to blacks living in Dearborn, who were then just getting to know their Lebanese neighbors. W.D. Fard, the Founder of NOI, was coincidentally not black. He did, however rise amidst this influx of immigrants from abroad and down south. As for the South Carolina flag, I can only speculate. There should be a history of the South Carolina state flag somewhere on the net.

sepoy | June 07, 2004

You done good, my friend. now, how come you haven't turned this into a novel yet? if you parlay enough of the low Islam, high masonry aspects of this story, you have a blockbuster on your hands. Two words for you: Dan Brown. You know we hate him but we gotta give him props for turning Art History 101 into billions of dollars.

Matthew Janovic | October 01, 2005

Dear Marlowe, I am doing my own research on the Tribe of Ben-Ishmael with the Indiana State Library. One aspect of my research concerns the infamous Revernd Jim Jones, and his shadowy-origins. It struck me that he did his early social-work in the depressed areas of Indianapolis--site of the Ishmaelite-ghettoes. He always said he had "Indian-origins," and this seems like something an outsider (or was he?) would say to the descendents of Ishmaelites. Any help would be greatly-appreciated, this a neglected-area of research.

Bishop Sotemohk A. Beeyayelel | November 20, 2005

Dear Friend: Thank you so much for the work you are doing in the history of the Ben Ishmael folk; it is much appreciated andm uch needed. We do hope that you continue your invaluable work in this area, and that Allah bless you and promote your every endeavor. Sincerely yours, (Rt. Rev.) Sotemohk A. Beeyayelel Bishop of New Jersey, Morish Orthodox Church in America; Rector, Hakim Bey Diocesan Theological Seminary; President & Vice Chancellor, Alamut College Pemberton Township, New Jersey

Emily Hicks | January 08, 2006

I am currently doing research on Ishamelite related topics (Hakim Bey, links to anarchism, free thought, human rights).

Chapati Mystery A Muslim Like Obama | December 03, 2007

[...] Muslim slaves, Africans, mulatto’s, moors and all largely disappear from the main streams of American historiography, even as fears of rebellions, miscegenation and [...]

Sean Fahey | January 22, 2008

I am a filmmaker and have been doing a little research myself - for documentary about Islam and Hip Hop. In my research, I found a book by Michael Muhammad Knight Titled, "The 5 Percenters". He does a great job of briefly revealing the history of the Ben Ishmaels. It is a great read. Anyone interested in talking in detail about this subject hit me up. Peace, Sean Fahey Endless Eye Chicago IL

mike bey | May 19, 2008

well, i can tell you this, there is a lost history in this country, did you know this is Al Morocco, meaning not all the black people (or so called) here came from africa...............they were all ready here and had been here since befor the Shamenites or (so called indians) and are from the land of Cannon................

Dr. Abu Yaseen | May 20, 2008

I am currently during research on the topic Islam in Indiana. Any assistance would be appreciated.

bobby bob | June 10, 2008

I'd like to see some hard evidence from the moorish scientists about their link to the ishmaelites... I fear that it too is weak self-glorifying speculation.

bobby bob | June 10, 2008

Another thing: Where are pictures of the Ishmaelites? And why is Cooper's presentation of them as mostly white met with some resistance by the author of this piece? Does it stand in the face of his desired history?

bobby bob | July 07, 2008

Here we go, something to demythologize opportunistic racio-political myths made on the sterilized nuts of voiceless victims. from the introduction to Nathaniel Deutsch's "Inventing America's "Worst" Family" "There is only one problem with Hugo Leaming's ingenious and inspiring portrait of the Tribe of Ishmael: it isn't true. Ben Ishmael was not an "Islamic saint or Imam," his name does not reflect a corruption of the Arabic "ibn Ishmael," as Leaming also suggested in his essay. Nor was Ben Ishmael of African descent. Moreover, the Tribe of Ishmael was never an Islamic community, and the vast majority of the people identified as Ishmaelites over the years were of Western European background, although a relatively small minority did possess some African or Native American ancestry. Indeed, as I will show, a careful examination of all the published and unpublished sources on the Tribe of Ishmael reveals that only one of Leaming's major claims remains a possibility, namely, that some of the individuals identified as Ishmaelites may have become early members of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. In light of the available evidence, however, even this assertion does not rise beyond the level of conjecture. If the evidence is so weak, how and why did Hugo Leaming arrive at his startling conclusions? Leaming had complex personal reasons for reimagining the Tribe of Ishmael as a primarily African American Islamic community. Born into a white, middle-class Christian family from Virginia, Leaming decided later in life that he was actually triracial and, despite his upbringing, became a member of the Moorish Science Temple, the first African American Islamic group. In short, Hugo Leaming assumed the same racial and religious identity that he invented for the Tribe of Ishmael. While Leaming's own dramatic metamorphosis helped shape his interpretation of the Ishmaelites, broader cultural and ideological currents also influenced his portrait. Unlike Oscar McCulloch, who "discovered" the Tribe of Ishmael when Islam was widely seen in the West as a religion in decline, Leaming produced his study of the Tribe of Ishmael in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights era in the United States, when prominent African American Muslims such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had become cultural icons. At the same time, Islamicists in other countries were attacking Western imperialism and their own corrupt governments. By the 1970s, far from being a symbol of decay, as it had been for Orientalists during the nineteenth century, Islam had now come to signify in the eyes of many—including Hugo Leaming—robust and popular resistance to colonialism, racism, and economic oppression. It is also important to appreciate that Leaming was able to reimagine the Tribe of Ishmael as Muslim because earlier authors had already exploited contemporary tropes of Islam in their own portraits, beginning, of course, with the Islamic sounding names coined for the group. In this respect, the Tribe of Ishmael's story sheds new light on what Vijay Prashad has evocatively referred to as "the undisciplined world of U.S. orientalism." 25 Contrary to popular belief, Americans did not encounter Islam for the first time in the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, the roots of Islam in America date back centuries to the numerous Muslim slaves brought to these shores from Africa. Nor did it take Malcolm X or even the members of Al Qaeda for Islam to become part of America's collective consciousness. Instead, Islam has been present in the popular American imagination for centuries. As I will argue throughout this book, each stage of the Tribe of Ishmael's story corresponds to a different phase in this fascinating but largely unwritten history of American Orientalism. 26 One way of understanding Hugo Leaming's radical reinterpretation of the Tribe of Ishmael, therefore, is that he literalized elements of their identity that had previously functioned on a symbolic level. Earlier writers like McCulloch and Estabrook had depicted the vast majority of the tribe's members as white Upland Southerners of Anglo-Saxon ancestry. At the same time, however, McCulloch and Estabrook symbolically likened all of the Ishmaelites—white and nonwhite alike—to marginalized groups such as Gypsies, Native Americans, and Muslims. In his revisionist study of the Ishmaelites, Leaming flipped the actual ethnic and racial proportions of the tribe's members so that African Americans now dominated numerically and culturally. Leaming also literalized the previously symbolic association of the Ishmaelites with Islam. Almost alchemically, he had transformed a collection of poor, overwhelmingly white, Upland Southern migrants into an African American Islamic community. Despite its mythical quality, Leaming's version of the Ishmaelites' story illuminates a number of recurring themes in the history of African American Islam. The first is the powerful role that reinvention has played in the creation of new and distinctly American Islamic identities. In this respect, Leaming's transformation of the Tribe of Ishmael into an Islamic community and Ben Ishmael into an "Islamic saint or Imam," recalls the equally dramatic religious transformations of individuals such as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. The second theme is best expressed by the Nation of Islam's phrase "lost-found nation," that is, the idea that the original Islamic identity of African Americans needs to be recovered and restored. Seen from this perspective, Leaming's revisionist interpretation of the Tribe of Ishmael fits into a broader pattern of reclaiming the supposedly obscured Islamic roots of all African Americans. Finally, Leaming's identification of the Tribe of Ishmael as a "colored" community reflects a common American tendency to racialize Islam and, more specifically, to view it as a religion of nonwhites. To appreciate how deeply this racialization of Islam has penetrated the consciousness of many Americans, we need only recall Malcolm X's great surprise upon encountering blond-haired, blue-eyed Muslims on his pilgrimage to Mecca or, more recently, how governmental profiling of terrorist suspects has relied on narrow and misleading assumptions of what Muslims are supposed to look like."

rachamim ben ami | November 01, 2008

Well, no stranger than the Baltimore Jew who also was a leading figure in the Moorish Science movement. In any event, while it might be a tad bit interesting from the anhtropological viewpoint, I for one would not care less if I never heard of Supremacists of any backgrounds, white, black, or rainbow. Moorish Science, Nation of Islam, and so called 5 PErcenters all have a commonality and that tie that binds is not Black Supremacy, although that is their main focus, ALL were founded by non-black conmen! That might be a better focus of investigation. Fard? Well I guess I cannot say that in truth about the 5 Percenters since their founder was black, albeit also a conman of great ability. News Briefs | February 25, 2009

[...] Family, reviewed in both Reason and the Wall Street Journal. The original story is also summarized here. And yet, says Reason’s Jesse Walker, the story does contain a kernel of truth: “The [...]

Ken Hoop | March 31, 2009

Marlowe, above, misrepresents Pentecostalism. Only a modest minority, the "Jesus Only" stripe, fit his description and hence fit his description as opponents of Roman Catholicism on the basis he avers.

Matt Janovic | April 01, 2009

I agree overall with the Deutsch intro comments, there's an element here of American orientalism, possibly even linked to Freemasonry. I've ordered the book and will be writing a review, but I think it sounds spot-on. The idea that the Ishmaelites were Muslims doesn't seem to hold much water, frankly, there's no solid proof of it, and therefore, it must be viewed as speculative only. But they were classified as a group and--for all intents--wiped-out through eugenics laws after 1907 under the "Indiana Plan" where "degenerate" populations were forced sterilized and/or incarcerated under the law. That's a much more significant story because it could very well be cultural genocide, a high crime that might have to be confronted as a part of Indiana's history. The fact is, they didn't have much of a problem associating with and even interbreeding (sorry for the term, it's meant technically only) with Blacks and Native Americans and simply didn't fit-in. The Deutsch book sounds like it might have few answers in it, at least one can hope so.

Serenity | April 28, 2009

Y'all are forgetting a few things. You can do and say what you want in this country. Period. If these people want to say that they are desceded from Islam, I don't see how you can dispute it. Just file the information and move on. Though it may not be provable it is neither dis-provable. Secondly, the government is shady and will do anything to continuously keep in the forefront of all Americans that Black people never have been anything and never will be. Make you wonder why the effort? Peace (The Universal greeting of a 5%er)

Islam in America III: A Conversation with Ingrid Mattson « The Shape Of The World | May 21, 2009

[...] Ahmed’s Curio Americana: Ben Ishmael Tribe and A Muslim Like Obama (Read the [...]

bobby bob | July 26, 2009

Here's the difference... They're not the ones saying they were descended from Islam.

Elz | August 14, 2009

This is truly strange to stumble upon. I am of Ishmael descent through my grandmother whose maiden name was Ishmael. Benjamin Russell Ishmael VI was her father. However, they settled along with allied families in Arkansas although they spent some time in Illinois. This is the first I have ever heard a persecution story related to my grandmother's maiden name. Intriguing.

Ali Dayton | August 20, 2009

This is a very interesting article to stumble upon in reference to the Ben Ishmail Tribe. Growing up in southern Ohio there are various names of cities of Semetic origins such as Medina, Lebanon, New Lebanon. So the names of some of these cities (among others across the region/nation) should be be taken in consideration for the people. The names people provide are highly identifiable for a people's ideas. There's no doubt that there was an "Semetic" identity within the Ben Ishmail tribe. The real question is to what extent?

John Pack Lambert | April 27, 2010

I should have suspected sooner than I did. The name of Cairo, Illinois has nothing to do with Islam. It was named because the area was called "Little Egypt", which was because the first European settlers believed it was like the Nile Valley. This makes me suspicious of the claims about the other town mentioned. What next, will people try claiming the first settlers of Canton, Michigan were Chinese?

Skeptic | May 25, 2010

More debunking of the Islamic myth: Kramer, Elsa F. Recasting the Tribe of Ishmael: The Role of Indianapolis's Nineteenth-Century Poor in Twentieth-Century Eugenics. Indiana Magazine of History 104:1 (March 2008): 36—64. (downloadable PDF)

Dr.Will-i-am Smith-Bey | August 02, 2010

Islam I am seeking knowledge from any one that have Our Moorish History.I am writing a Book on Moorish-Americans Our Story.Peace

Chapati Mystery what is the vertiginous chapati saying to me? Curio Americana: Ben Ishmael Tribe by sepoy on June 7, 2004 · 25 comments | Starquality954's Blog | August 23, 2010

[...] by sepoy on June 7, 2004 · 25 comments [...]

Pete | December 20, 2010

Came across the Tribe if Ishmael in the 2003 book "War Against the Weak" by Edwin Black, and wondered (yes, i know some were sterilized) if anyone has done a modern followup of this group. Modern genetics could tell quite a story I suspect. Haven't finished the book, but would think that if there was a Islamic core to the Tribe of Ishmael it would have been noted by those railing against it. JP Lambert: Pretty sure Canton MI was not founded by Chinese, ;-), but I did grow up in the western burbs of Detroit and there used to be a Nankin and Pekin townships in western Wayne Co. Nankin Mills is still there on the Rouge River. Apparently there was a China-mania back in the 1800's. And admiration for the Greek general of the 1800's Ypsilanti. Someone took an interest in the wider world. Cheers.

Jacob Devaney | March 20, 2011

A while ago I spent some time studying this tribe through oral stories and literature. There are many similar stories of disenfranchised peoples from different races coming together and creating their own communities and culture. Most prominently are The Black Indians of New orleans. One thing that is important to note about Ben Ishmael Tribe is that they "disappeared" or assimilated. Which means that there are many oral histories to be gathered that will not be found in books. When people have a reason to hide their history, they often find elaborate ways to continue practicing their beliefs through "costumed" or "veiled" expression. To look deeper, you should explore The Shriners in these areas, and you will start to uncover some very interesting things...

Shko | February 02, 2012

I appreciate that there are people showing interest in my people. But I must add a few notes. We did not disapear. We have done what we have always done. We hide in plain sight. The first arrivals were brought by the Spanish in the late 1500s. Spain was unsuccessful in colonizing the Americas. They left many behind in the area that would be known as the Rowland/Orange/Person counties of North Carolina. The second group would be brought here from the Netherlands and England. Some before the Puritans, New Amsterdam. For the next 75 boatloads of Roma from all over Europe would be used as labor and explorers. Who else to explore a new frontier than those who had 500 years of history being in a strange land surrounded by strange people? The next wave of Roma would come from Scotland and Germany. The Scottish were often expelled Jacobites. "Scots Banished to the Plantations" is an excellent source to see who was sent here and for what crime. All of these different groups of Roma migrated into NE Eastern Kentucky, specifically Wolfe and Magoffin County. We stayed there from 1790 until about 1920. The racial purity laws of that time made it very difficult. Starting around 1880, the people in north eastern Kentucky started traveling to Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. They would then go through the mid west Arkansas, Missouri, and over to Colorado. They would go south to Florida over to Texas. We would change our names from Roosa to Rose. Brandenburg to Brennan. Nickel to Nicholson. We'd change our first names from Elvira to Evelyn. Josephus to Jo. We'd join Baptist churches. We'd start churches. We'd hide among the Freemasons. We'd become governors and lawyers. We'd start cults. We'd start homeless shelters. We do all the things everyone else does. Some good. Some bad. We're people just like anyone else. We're Jews, and Muslims, and Atheists, and Mormons. But on the inside we are Roma. Among friends we are Roma. Some still travel to this day. Others haven't traveled for hundreds of years. But we didn't go anywhere. We're right here as we've always been. Hiding in plain sight.

Ben – Ishmael « PoderesUnidos:ARCHIVO | March 16, 2012

[...] {{site.baseurl}}archives/imperial_watch/curio_americana_ben_ishmael_tribe.html [...]

Gary Workman | March 21, 2013

There was no "Ben Ishmael Tribe" except in Oscar McCullough's mind. Ben Ishmael was a caucasian, revolutionary war soldier from Cumberland County Pennsylvania. He and his 2 brothers were possibly even born in Wales, where Ishmael is a popular last name, there are even two towns in Wales named St. Ishmael. Ben Ishmael fought in the Revolutionary War for a total of 3 years, got married to Jenny about 1780, moved to Kentucky after 1783, had 12 children before he died in Nicholas County KY in 1822. I am descended from him through my grandmother Letitia Ishmael Workman, she is Benjamin Ishmael's Great Great Grandaughter. Ben's brother Thomas settled in Tennessee after the war, their brother Robert died of dysentery during the war. There were very likely some of Ben's progeny in Indianapolis during the time McCullough was there, circa 1870, and they were very likely poor. Ben was always on or over the edge of poverty his whole life.