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Famous Families

Gibson

This page updated January 2004. The news that Senator Strom Thurmond had a mixed race daughter who had remained a secret to the outside world for several decades was not news for genealogists and historians. They've long known about the many great families of the South with mixed race histories. Arguably, the most notable among these is the great political "Ur" family of the South, the Gibsons. Why the early and rich history of this family has been so ignored would be amusing, if it were not such a clear cut example of how certain subjects can be too politically incorrect to handle.

Gideon Gibson's family first appeared in the records when they applied for land in the Santee River area in South Carolina around 1730. Although some objected to their being "free colored men with their white wives," in the end they were given permission by Governor Robert Johnson.

Soon after, they became part of a sociological phenomenon which the few scholars who have looked at it have still not satisfactorily explained. Probably due to the difficulty of working land without recourse to labour (whether from slavery or indentured servitude) there occured in early South Carolina beginning sometime in the late 1740s and ending just prior to the Revolution, a rather surprising number of fairly substantial land holders who sold their properties and for lack of a better description, simply went 'bush.'

Living together in the woods in loose communities, they refused to work and existed by poaching, theft and as they grew more desperate, highway robbery and raids on the homes and farms of their law abiding, hard working neighbours. Besides the women they abducted who became just as criminally proficient, their ranks swelled with a great many Indians and runaway slaves.

In the end, these 'banditi' were brought to heel by the Gibsons and other farming families. Located too far from the centres of British colonial administration, they took the law into their own hands and eventually caused greater concern to the British government than the troublesome element they had initially gone up against. For these morally upstanding and highly industrious pioneers with the Gideon Gibson as their leader, go down in history as the country's first vigilantes - or'regulators' as they were known then. It was their initiative that instigated those movements which, a few decades later, would erupt into the most violent of that kind of action - lynching.

It should be pointed out here, however, that the most aggressive force employed by this group was a good whipping which at that time in history was the standard legal punishment for the behaviour they were attempting to curtail. Incidentally, and I cannot help but find some amusement in the fact, this is what they also meted out to the British soldiers who were sent out to quell them.

In what was then the only monograph written on these events, Richard Maxwell Brown's "South Carolina Regulators," the author was aware of the colour of these ambitious and successful farmers such as the Gibsons, but he made no mention of it in his work. Obviously, he was not about to take responsibility for pointing out that the most terrifying sociological reaction to the black community in the early 1900s had been initiated by people of colour a century and a half earlier.

Southern Families Other academics have skirted this history for another reason it seems. This group of mixed race plantation owners who finally subdued the 'bush' outlaws and whose descendants by the time of the Civil War had become some of the wealthiest and most politically influential figures of Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Tenesee - were of the same ethnic stock. The matrimonial alliances of one branch of the Gibson clan, for example, were contracted almost exclusively with congressional, senatorial and gubernatorial families of these southern states. Senator Gibson of Louisiana and the founder of Tulane University was a scion of this family.

A subsequent observation Maxwell Brown made caused me almost as much excitement as my discovery of this deep dark secret surrounding the African strain in the genealogy of our Southern aristocracy. For in this episode of Southern history can be heard some of the earliest drumbeats of the oncoming American Revolution. As a part of the campaign the Gibsons mounted demanding the government restore law and order, they further alienated the British colonial office by witholding their taxes. Hardly a dozen years or so earlier than the Revolution, it was they who started the famous chant, "no taxation without representation," which would gather momentum through the rest of the states and finally culminate in this country's great War of Independence.

It is undoubtedly due to local memories of families like the Gibsons and the Pendarvises that when, at the turn of the century, the one drop or "any amount whatsoever ascertainable" definition of "negro" was being adopted by a majority of the Southern states, the South Carolina Legislature in 189S decided not to follow suit. During the discussion on the floor, one of the members pointed out that were such a law enforced, too many descendants of those who had served during the civil war would not be allowed to marry into white families of the same social standing they had long presumed themselves to be. The Legislature finally settled on one eighth or more of African ancestry as their definition of who was Negro. Prior to this decision, South Carolina as well as most other Southern states, had usually ruled in questions of racial identity that if an individual looked white and acted white then he or she was legally white. Virginia, for instance, would not adopt the "one drop" law until the 1920s


4/25/96..... FRONTLINE's inquiry into the Gibson family history began when a Boston Globe article mentioned that Boston hairdresser Olive Benson had offered to manage Chelsea Clinton's 'naps.' In addition, The New England Historical and Genealogical Society had already spotted a South Carolina Gibson in the Clinton genealogy.


Researched and Written by Mario de Valdes y Cocom

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