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
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
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.
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