Early Muslim Settlers 1500-1850

by Muhammed al-Ahari El

This paper will cover early Muslim settlers from 1500-1850 not covered under the Unit on Muslims in slavery. This will include such individuals as Nasereddine (an Egyptian in the 1550’s), Salim the Algerian (Muslim present at the signing of the Constitution), and the Wahab Brothers in North Carolina. Groups ranging from the Tennessee Melungeons, the Ben Ishmael Tribe, the Delaware Moors, and the Dismal Swamp Maroons of North Carolina will also be covered.

Nasereddine an Egyptian in the Catskills in the 16th Century

An Egyptian named Nassereddine settled near the Hudson river in the Catskills region of upstate New York in the later part of the 16th century. He claimed royal lineage and was called Prince Nassereddine by friends and associates. He met his fate when he made a bet with a Dutchman. Gambling was, of course, against Islam, but the nature of the bet was one he felt he had to undertake.

The Dutchman wagered him a thousand pieces of crown gold that he couldn’t win the heart of a beautiful Native American princess named Lotwana. Nassereddine succeeded in befriending Lotwana’s father, the Mohawk chief Shordaken. However, he failed to make headway with the princess. Subsequently, she became engaged to a brave of her tribe of her own choice.

Nassereddine was smitten with love for the princess and vowed revenge. He poisoned Lotwana on her wedding night by giving her a gift with a poison snake hidden inside. After the princess was bitten, the warriors of the Mohawk tribe captured Nassereddine and burned him at the stake.

Salim the Algerian

Salim the Algerian, who was a Muslim from a royal family of Algiers that studied in Constantinople. After returning from a visit to Constantinople, he was captured by a Spanish Man of War and later sold into slavery to the French in New Orleans. Eventually he became free after running from slavery, lived among American Indian tribes, and settled in Virginia.

Salim was found in rags, almost naked, and was taught English. Eventually, it was ascertained that he knew Greek and he was given a Greek New Testament. Several future members of the U.S. Congress befriended him and he converted to Christianity. A new convert to Christianity he decided to go back home to spread the Gospel.

After a disastrous journey to his homeland (where he was shunned as an apostate), he returned to America, met Thomas Jefferson, attended the 1st Continental Congress, and died an insane man having given up his family and religion for America. While Salim was at the Congress, Congressman Page introduced him to the painter Mr. Peale. He would later paint Salim’s portrait.

Near the end of Salim’s life, he regained his long lost sanity. He had been insane since his trip to his homeland after his conversion to Christianity. According to some legends, he renounced Christianity, other say died a Christian at the Page estate, and still others say he died in an insane asylum. [Graham’s Magazine, 1857, pp. 433 437.]

Arab Muslims during the Revolutionary War

During the American Revolution the French helped the revolutionaries by sending aid in ships from Algeria. The islands of Cape Hatteras were the site of many ship wrecks. The Wahhab brothers were shipwrecked on the coast of North Carolina in the 1770’s. They settled, married, and started a farm. Ocracoke Island off the North Carolina coast has its Wahab Village. Wahab family tradition states that the founder of Wahab Village was a Muslim from North Africa and settled there due to the land’s natural beauty. Whether they or their ancestors stayed in the Islamic faith is something that I can not answer at this time. Earlier in this century their descendants owned one of the largest private hotel chains in North Carolina. On the North Carolina barrier island of Ocracoke there are two hotels built by Robert Stanley Wahab. The two hotels still exist under private ownership but not in the hands of the Wahab family. Blackbeard’s Lodge which was originally called Wahab Village Inn built in 1936 and The Island Inn with its Old Crow’s Nest Officer’s Club built in 1940. From Social Security records I believe he lived from Feb. 3, 1888 to Nov. 1967. Stanley Wahab was also associate manager of the Dare County Airport authority from 1947-1949. The main cemetery on the island is named the Wahab-Howard cemetery after the two most famous families on the island.

Around this same time, a ship of 70 odd Moorish slaves landed in Maryland. No more is known on these Moors. Another similar reference can be traced to 1753 when Abel Conder and Mahamut petitioned the authorities in South Carolina to be freed from indentured servitude. They came from Sali on the Barbary Coast. They fought the Portuguese at Maguson, lost, and were sold into slavery. Captain Henry Daubrig offered to buy their freedom if they would be his servants in South Carolina for five years and they readily agreed. In South Carolina they were sold to Daniel LaRouche and treated as slaves. Instead of being freed after five years LaRouche held them for more than fifteen years. It is believed the petition was accepted and they were freed. Records of other Moors also exist in public records in South Carolina, Rhode Island, Delaware, Florida, and Georgia.

Sumter Turks

Another groups like the Wahhab brothers was the family of Yusuf Ben Ali (Anglicized as Joseph Benenhali). He fought along side General Thomas Sumter during the Revolutionary War. In 1790 the House of Representatives of South Carolina passed the Sundry Moors Acts. These acts recognized Yusuf Ben Ali and about a dozen other North African Muslims in South Carolina as subjects of Morocco and not subject to laws regarding slaves and freedmen. Keep in mind Morocco was one of the first nations to recognize the new American Republic in 1783. Later General Sumter championed Yusuf Ben Ali’s rights to serve on all White juries. The descendants of the Sundry Moors joined the various Protestant denominations in the areas they settled. The Benenhali family intermarried with the Oxendine family and was listed as Turk (or non-White) in census records. These two families made many contributions to the social and historic development of Sumter, South Carolina and surrounding areas. There are over three hundred members of these families in South Carolina today. It is highly unlikely that any are Muslim today. Even though we can trace hundreds of Muslims in the United States prior to the War Between the States, Islam never gained a strong foothold until the arrival of immigrant Muslims from India and the Middle East after the 1870’s.

Omani Traders in the United States

The Omani Embassy published a pamphlet about the exploits of the first Arab traders to the United States in 1840. They did not settle here, however. [Eilts, Herman Fredrick The Visit of Ahmad bin Na’aman to the U.S. in the Year 1840, Embassy of Oman 1962.] The ship arrived on April 30 and left on August 7, 1840. Merchant ships from Salem, Massachusetts had already setup extensive trade with various European nations and the seafaring Omani’s wanted in on the commercial activities.

The voyage started from Muscat and Zanzibar. The captain Ahmad bin Na’aman was an Arab born in Basra interested in setting-up an import-export business with the United States. Being seen as a representative on the King of Zanzibar, he was given red carpet treatment and received many resolutions from politicians welcoming him. He tours the East Coast by train and visited Castle Garden, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C. He was a guest at a formal dinner at NYC’s city hall thrown by Commodore Vanderbilt. There he met NY governor William Seward and Vice-President Richard Johnson. Edward Mooney painted his portrait.

The Delaware Moors

The Delaware Moors are a group of mixed race individuals related to the Delaware Indians. The Delaware State Legislature refused to recognize the Moors as either Indians or as Moors. They were classified as “Negro” on state records and the Delaware Indians were proclaimed extinct. The Nanticoke Indians fought back as did their close relatives the Moors. Eventually both won some degree of recognition. The scholar C.A. Weslager writes of his time among these “Forgotten Moors” in his works The Nanticoke Indians (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983) and Delaware’s Forgotten Folk (Philadelphia, 1943). The Moors were a result of a mixture of Moorish, Irish, and Nanticoke blood. A similar group called the Ben Ishmael Tribe is described below in this lesson.

According to Weslager, several theories arose as to the origin of the Delaware Moors. On p. 27 of his 1943 work we read, “First is the Colonization legend. In essence, it says that a group of dark skinned Spanish Moors, sometime before the Revolutionary War, sailed to America to found a colony. They are supposed to have settled along the Atlantic Coast. From this ancestral stock, through intermarriage with Indians, came a race of people called Moors who lived apart in settlements of their own on the southeastern coast of the Delmarva Peninsula.”

A further modification of this theory is found on p. 30 where we read, “Sometime before the Revolutionary War a beautiful red haired lady lived on a large plantation in the vicinity of Lewes and owned many black slaves. A strange plague swept the countryside and killed many of her slaves. She went to the slave market at Lewes to purchase a new lot of blacks who had lately arrived on a slave ship. There she was impressed by a coterie of seven handsome men and seven beautiful women who stood apart from the other slaves and spoke a different language. Their skins were dark, but their hair was straight and their features were as regular as those of white persons. She recognized that they were Moors not Negroes and bought the seven couples and took them home. The children who were born to these Moorish slaves later intermarried with Indian descendants then living on the Indian River. The progeny of these mixed marriages became the people known today as Moors and Nanticokes.” [C.A. Weslager, 1943, pp. 27, 30].

Escape from Noble County — The Ben Ishmael Tribe

Around 1785 a number of freed and runaway slaves, along with poor, white indentured servants fled Noble County (now Bourbon County) Kentucky and settled near the future site of Indianapolis. They intermingled with Pawnee Indians and set up a nomadic tribal existence.

Their leaders were Ben and Jennie Ishmael. This fine artisan, musical pair taught polygamy, nomadic existence, and racial mixing. By 1810 they had three temporary villages: Mahomet, Illinois and Morocco and Mecca, Indiana. In 1827 James Fenimore Cooper wrote his book the Prairie about them. The leaders went West and became legendary occultated leaders (similar to Master Fard and many Shia’ leaders).

By 1880 they had so many run ins with the law over Polygamy, vagrancy, and similar “crimes” that a Minister O.C. McCulloch wrote The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation in favor of castrating the men and separating children from their Mothers. In 1907 Indiana passed a draconian eugenics law and the tribe fled Indianapolis for Chicago, Detroit and other cities and would have vanished from history if not for Hugo P. Leaming’s “The Ben Ishmael Tribe” in The Ethnic Frontier (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977). According to Leaming, Noble Drew Ali gathered many of his early followers from this group and this is one possible unexplored area for his teachings.

I have little doubt that the monthly magazine The Ishmaelite was a publication somehow related to the Ben Ishmael tribe members in Cincinnati, Ohio. Newberry Library in Chicago has monthly volumes for 1897 1898. There are poems for Cuba, Africa, and Egypt in many volumes. Also some of the contributor have Arabic sounding names that were common among members of the Tribe of Ishmael, such as: Farr, Rabb, and Latta.

In Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jan., 1897) there is a poem “Cuba” by Meredith Nicholson which has the lines: “Let vulture Spain hide in her nest the fair pearl of the Southern seas…,” “But while we prate of love of man, may not the Spaniard match the Turk?” and “I know not whether black or white they be who strive to make her free…”. There is also a poem by Albert Weston in this issue called “Out of Egypt.”

On the cover of each issue are the words: “His hand shall be against every man and every man’s hand against him and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren” and also the promise, from Mount Nebo Press (the publisher), “Written by men and women who are not employed to boom anyone’s Book Bindery Shop, who hate snobbery in life or literature, and who, expecting little shall be disappointed…”

In Vol. 2, No. 6 (Nov. 1897) the Editor writes a brief note to the readers. He writes, “with this number The Ishmaelite completes its second volume and celebrates its first birthday. Twelve months ago the young Ishmael was sent into the desert the desert of local encouragement — to struggle for his life… He has not been all that he wished to be, he has not taken on all the flesh he hoped for, yet to have lived is much. Right here does he pitch his tent…”.

On the back cover of the Sept. 1897 issue is the poem “Fate’s Arrears” by Emma Carleton. “Great Omar says that today is life/ Oh, blessed bard, you are far astray;/ Each day we die, in an endless strife/ Paying the bills of Yesterday.” In Volume 3, No. 1, 1897, we find the poem “To a Friend” by F.K. Farr from Lebanon, Tennessee. “With a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam/ Tho’ dark mistrust hath part in Omar’s strain,/ Tho’ youth is stealing from us, not again/ To open for us two his manuscript,/ Not this nor that, old friend, shall yield us pain./ For this alchemic rhyme makes blossom new/ That rose by Ivan’s garden side that blew;/ And certain memories our hearts keep well/ Shall yield our lives’ delight, till life be through.”

Finally on the back cover of the Nov. 1898 (Vol. 4, No. 6) we read, “Ishmael was no prophet, neither was he a prophet’s son. Yet the 57th verse of the 14th chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew was as applicable to Ishmael as it is today to his humble and unworthy descendant The Ishmaelite. ‘Tis the same old story of honor coming from afar. Oh, ye unenthusiastic Indianapolitans! Know ye not that the stamp of approval has been set upon our brow by Boston, by New York, and by Ottumwa, Iowa? Can it be that you are not yet convinced that it is the proper thing, not only to approve, but to subscribe? What will you? Must we follow in the footsteps of Mr. Beecham or Mr. Bok and print the seductive testimonial? No, no! Arose yourselves, ye conservative citizens, and show them that dwell beyond the borders of the Wabash that you know a good thing when you have been told about it.”

Tennessee Melungeons

Historic records show that from 1492 to 1600 over 500,000 Muslims and Jews were exiled from Spain. Many of these settled in their ancestral homelands of North Africa. The so-called Barbary Pirates sprang from this group and were able to attack Baltimore, Ireland and hold it for 68 days in the 17th century. The poem “The Sack of Baltimore” was written about this event. Some of these pirates were captured and sold as slaves by the British, Spanish, and Portuguese. These exiled Berbers and Moors frequently referred to themselves as “Portuguese” wherever they settled. Columbus hired a Moorish guide from this group on his first expedition. These “Portuguese” were able to make it to America before Columbus as were African traders from Mauritania, Mali, and elsewhere in West Africa due to ocean currents flowing from Africa to the Americas but not in reverse! Columbus saw a forty-foot ship with such people in the Caribbean and recorded the event in his diaries.

The earliest Spanish settlement was Santa Elena in South Carolina. Established in 1566, it flourished until overran by the British in 1587. The inhabitants escaped to the mountains of present-day Tennessee and North Carolina. There they intermarried with Cherokees and other indigenous peoples. In the same year Sir Francis Drake made a daring raid off the coast of Brazil and liberated 400 Portuguese and Spanish prisoners. Among them were 300 Moors. He planned to release them in Cuba as a stronghold against the Spanish, but a storm forced him to continue on to North Carolina. He left them unarmed at Roanoke Island. From there they gradually made their way inland and united with the remnants of the former colony of Santa Elena.

Later English settlers encountered bands of southeastern Indians that wore beards, dressed in European fashion, lived in cabins, and prayed dropping to their knees several times a day. These grey-eyed Indians spoke English and are called Lumbees and Melungeons depending if they are in Tennessee or in eastern North Carolina. French travelers also encountered them and called them “Christianized Moors,” “Portuguese,” and the mysterious term “Melungeon.”

In the 1700’s they were used in silver mines and farming. Jonathan Swift married one and called them “Mecca Indians” in his journals. Over the coming decades, they fled deeper into the hills of North Carolina and Tennessee to avoid the encroaching British settlements. They even avoided calling themselves Melungeon and attempted, when possible, to pass as “White.” This caused them to be isolated and to lose their heritage and customs. In the 1990’s an attempt to reclaim their lost heritage was started by Melungeon scholar Brent Kennedy (author of The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People). He found their blood types linked them to North Africa and Turkey and that the term “Melungeon” PROBABLY CAME FROM Turkish. In Turkish “Melun can” means lost soul.

The descendants of the Santa Elena colony and Sir Francis Drake’s Moors and Turks can be found in a wide area across the Southeastern United States. Names such as Chavis, Goin, Hall, Jackson, Lopes, Nash, Sexton, and Williams predominate. The Melungeons were victims of ethnic cleaning in Europe and their mostly Christian descendants are the living legacy of the first wave of Muslim immigration to the New World.

Dismal Swamp Maroons

The Great Dismal Swamp is over one thousand square miles today. In the time of the Maroons it was over two thousand square miles. Its beginning is on a hill from which seven rivers spring. Since the overall area is rather flat, a swamp developed. Several islands are above water level and villages developed on several. Lake Drummond, Paradise Old Fields, and Scratch Hill (mixed swamp and pine barrens) are prominent geologic features. Until the drainage of a large portion of the swamp in the twentieth century, there was an area of giant reeds known as the Green sea. The water of the swamp is black in color, highly acidic, and rumored to have health benefits. Sailors would fill kegs with it for sea voyages since it would stay fresh far longer than regular fresh water. The population of the area probably was never greater than two or three thousand individuals. Virginia Beach and the seer Edgar Cayce (called the sleeping prophet by followers) are the main things the area is known for today.

Life in the swamp was hard. Everything had to be made in the swamp and there was little area suitable for farming. Beds were made of fur and fallen trees and furniture was all hand-hewn. Houses were cleaner than the rural norm and man-made paths led to settlements deeper in the swamp. These did not connect with roads leading out of the swamp and had to be traveled with local guides, thus Maroons worried little from outsiders ambushing them. The developed body armor from turkey feathers stuffed into vests and carried on silver-smithing in the swamp. Shingle manufacture was an enterprise of the border areas, but no record of where the shingle’s Dismal Swamp wood source has come to light. The economic base of the Maroons was communal and they shared housing, food, and household supplies. They worked in gangs for the good of the community and all but the ill and pregnant shared in the work. Settlements were scattered, not clustered, and if one was discovered others likely would not be found easily.

In the Dismal Swamp region on the Virginia/North Carolina border, many slaves and indentured servants escaped to seek freedom. The area was also at the edge of a trading region. These Maroons fought many guerrilla wars to keep their freedom. The most famous was the Maroon war of 1801-1802. They attacked Norfolk, Virginia to free slaves held at the local jail and attacked the Pasquotank Militia. The leader of the Dismal Swamp Maroons at this time was named Peter the Second. He was named after Peter Legba – the Voodon messenger of the Spirits. The Maroons fought in the war of 1812 and gained a leader from a free Black community named Captain Mingo. In the swamp a community named Black Mingo Pocosin developed through his leadership. Some Tuscarora Indians lived in the village and contributed to the heritage that developed.

1823 to 1824 saw the greatest guerrilla warfare in the area since the Revolutionary war. The Maroon leader at that time was Bob Ferebee. Auntie Ferebee was a spiritual leader for the Maroons. One branch of the Ferebees became Maroon leaders and the other became prominent as one of the first families of the white upper South. Indian Town was originally called Culong after a vanquished North Carolina Indian Tribe and was the center for the White Ferebee clan.

The Nat Turner Revolt likely had Dismal Swamp aid since it occurred twenty-five miles from the area. However, Nat Turner proclaimed no aid from outside his area and historians have found no clear linkage. However, Turner and others in the Revolt did plan to retreat to the Dismal Swamp if defeated.

1831 to 1851 saw the development of the Dismal Swamp as a spiritual center. Leaders such as Father Gamby Gholar directed practitioners of Afician mysticism (a religion of the use of sorcery and spiritual powers for benign purposes). He held office for over thirty years. Father Alick, a Black Methodist minister, succeeded him. Father Alick was able to be a leader inside and outside the Dismal swamp, a bee keeper, and served as the area mailman. Father Alick also owned a mule that he claimed was Nat Turner’s mule. The mule had the uncanny ability to climb trees so some claimed it could fly!

The next great leader was Osman. David Hunter Strother was able to draw a charcoal sketch of him in 1856. Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) used him as the model for her Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. He died of a painful snakebite before the War Between the States.

The Maroons sided with the North in the War. Records of people in the Dismal Swamp are mostly twentieth century. A family Bible from the area dates to 1635 and has record of a Nansemond Indian linage for settlers from the Northern part of the Dismal Swamp. Wolf and bear trapping and canoe building techniques came from Native American influences as did carrying rabbit’s feet for good luck. However, dream reading, numerology and other religious practices have West Africa or European roots. A Congo Village was found when a portion of the swamp was drained. It was one of the largest and earliest settlements. Built on stilts, it survives as a model of other undiscovered Maroon villages. Besides the stilts, other Maroon villages probably looked similar to it. The leader of the village was King Jonah. He held court and was born on a litter and carried in a procession like in Bantu villages in West Africa.

The Maroons were religious as a whole, but the swamp itself was held as spiritual and their spirituality may derive from that. A group called the seven-fingered glister developed the hereditary spiritual leadership mentioned above. The seven rivers that the swamp grew from gave impetus to a seven-headed hydra-like leadership. If one head was captured, another could grow in its place. Each member was elected for fourteen year terms. Areas of the swamp held special significance, such as Paradise Old Field being a center for Serpent King worship. The symbol of the seven-finger glister was the snake. Besides the seven-headed glister, the area had ministers and witches as spiritual leaders. Grace Sherwood, a victim of a 1706 witch trial, hailed from the swamp. In popular folklore the area was haunted and a center of black magic and supernatural activity. In truth, Maroon freedom was the main fear that the swamp held for area Whites.

West Virginia Guineas

The modern day Guineas and Males of West Virginia are remnants of many diverse elements: British subjects that fled the area of the American revolution, their Palentine wives, soldiers of the Revolution and Indian helpers promised western land for salaries, and local Indian tribal members. The term “Guineas” may refer to a shortening of the Indian word “Allegheny.” The Delaware Indians were settlers in the Ohio River valley and named the river “the fairest river” or “welhiklanna” and the English butchered the word. Prior to 1800 the names Male, Norris, Dorton, Harris, Canaday, Newman, and Croston were the most common. The alternate name of Males likely comes from the first, but some say it is from the infusion of Mali blood into the area bloodlines. By 1810 the degree of non-White mixture was so great that census records listed the Males and Guineas as Mulattos or mixed-race. The Guineas and Males as a group are less well known than the Melungeons, but there is evidence of some Islamic West African linage and influence.


One Response to “Early Muslim Settlers 1500-1850”

  1. Do you have any more information about Gamby Gholar?

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