I recently read a New Yorker article about the complicated status of Black members of Native American nations, which stirred my memory and prompted me to research a Native American family I once knew.
Over fifty years ago on an autumn Sunday, I met formally with Chief BlackHawk of Tiverton, Rhode Island. My visit had been arranged through the chief’s sons, Algoma “Goma” Clarke (1926–1980) and Watacee “Tecee” Clarke (1934–1975), master carpenters who built my father’s office in 1964 and remained family friends. Tall and spare, with graying hair combed straight back and hazel eyes, Chief BlackHawk looked like he could have stepped out of an Edward Curtis photograph. He presented me with these booties, which I kept atop my bedroom dresser ever since, until they made their way into a display case with other cherished mementoes.
Goma Clarke once told me, “I am a Powhatan, a descendant of John Rolfe and Pocahontas.” He also said that he had ancestors who were enslaved Africans. Researching the story of the Clarke family has given me a distinct view of how race and identity were once recorded in American history.
Chief Blackhawk was born Robert Harvie Clarke in Occupacia, Essex County, Virginia, on 4 April 1884. His birth registration, with no first name, indicates that he was “colored.” Note how Robert’s enumeration in two United States censuses listed his race with no acknowledgement of his Powhatan ancestry:
1900, “R[obert] H.” Clarke, age 17, Black, farm laborer. 1
1910, Robert H. Clarke, age 26, mulatto, no occupation.2
Some time before World War I, Robert left the south and moved to Pennsylvania, where his draft registration card identified him as white. He married Virginia-born Captola Adkins in Philadelphia on 30 October 1924. In the 1910 census, she and her family had been identified as members of the Chickahominy tribe.3
As the young married couple journeyed northward from Philadelphia to New York City, then to Fall River, Massachusetts, they reclaimed aspects of their indigenous heritage. Robert became known as Chief BlackHawk, and Captola as Princess Snow Feather. They carried out roles that fulfilled expectations of how audiences imagined Native American life, not necessarily the historical reality. U. S. census records, once again, attest to the mixed identities which the couple inhabited.
1930, Robert Clarke, race crossed out to White.4
1940, Robert Clarke, race, Indian5
1950, Robert Clarke, race, White6
Newspaper clippings provide snippets of their activities, such as a Wampanoag Annual Pow Wow which included “beating of the tomtom and a ceremonial dance.”7 Other examples include Chief Blackhawk presenting peace pipes and eagle feathers from his headdress.Perhaps the most lamentable headline in Chief Blackhawk’s public life comes through this Boston Globe headline:
W.P.A. Drops Indian Chief With “Aliens” and “Others”
Fall River, July 12—When Chief Black Hawk, full-blooded Powhatan Indian and a W.P.A. recreation project leader, tried to find out why he was dropped from the relief organization’s rolls the other day, he was told “that a few aliens and others were being dismissed,” it was learned today…
“When I left the W.P.A. office I felt like an Indian without a country,” remarked the chief with a smile.8
Chief BlackHawk died on 5 September 1979, aged 95, with little public recognition of his death. His gift to me of these booties, more than tokens of remembrance, have opened new avenues of research for families whose stories need to be rescued from obscurity.
1 1900 USC, J. H. Clarke [father] household, Occupacia, Essex, Va., E.D. 26, p. 8.
2 1910, USC, James H. Clarke Sr. household, Occupacia, Essex, Va., E.D. 37, p. 7B.
3 1910 USC, Aurelious Adkins [father] household, Charles City, Harrison, Va., E.D. 19, p. 32B
4 1930 USC, Robert Clarke household, New York City, E.D. 474, p. 7A.
5 1940 USC, Robert Clarke household, Fall River, Bristol, Mass., E.D. 17–129, p. 8A.
6 1950 USC, Robert Clarke household, Fall River, Bristol, Mass., E.D. 18–61A, sheet 21. The Clarkes moved over the state line to Tiverton, Rhode Island in 1951.
7 Springfield Republican (Mass.), 6 July 1936, p. 3.
8 The Boston Globe , 13 July 1937, p. 1.
14 thoughts on “Booties from Chief BlackHawk”
Once again, a beautiful post. I am reminded of the many conversations about things Native and Anglo I enjoyed with Frank “Wamsutta” James on the Cape years ago. Thank you for helping to rescue the story of Chief Blackhawk from obscurity.
In the Commonworth of Virginia at that time, their was not any differentiation between “Black” and “native tribal members”. With this families genealogy , they are fully entitled to become members of the “First Families of Virginia”. In honor of the native treaties signed that colonial time, such tribal people as the Virginia recognized Pamunkey Tribe by delivering a deer to the governor in Richmond in November, are excused from state taxes. The Anglican/ Episcopal Church of Virginia did apologize for their role in the destruction of these peoples. While Puritan Massachusetts has never apologize for its role here and has yet to replace its flag – although at act has been sign to do just this!
Thank you for all this information. I look forward to learning more about Virginia’s early history.
Thank you, Andrew. So much more to learn! Happy Thanksgiving.
I enjoyed your post so much. Thank you for remembering Americas first people in such a lovely respectful way.
Your comment is much appreciated.
Any chance you can trace more of Chief Blackhawk’s ancestry? Could be hard to prove he is a descendant of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, but at least some of their descendants appear to be well identified.
I will certainly work on it! New research territory for me.
In case you are unaware of it, there is a multi volume set, Pocahontas’ Descendants, by Stuart E. Brown, which gives a fairly thorough listing of her descendants. Also, this might be of interest:
“Laws existed in many states that prohibited marriage between Whites and non-Whites to prevent the “quagmire of mongrelization.” Yet, this racial protectionism, as ingrained in law, blatantly exempted Indian blood from the threat to White racial purity. In Virginia, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 made exceptions for Whites of mixed descent who proudly claimed Native American ancestry from Pocahontas.”
Thank you for bringing this to my attention on both counts. I suspect there are going to be some gaps on the road back to Pocahontas.
Excellent post Michael! I recognized the Adkins name, which is the maiden name of my first cousin’s wife’s maternal grandmother, Virginia Anne (Adkins) Thomas (1926-2009), who was born in Hanover, Virginia of Black and Native American ancestry. Virginia’s father John Dandridge Adkins and Captola are second cousins (twice over) through their common great-grandparents John Adkins and Mary Elizabeth Bradby, as well as third cousins since John’s parents and maternal grandparents were Adkins first cousins.
Pleasant Adkins and Nancy Bradby were also first cousins through the Bradby family, their mutual great-grandfather, Edward Bradby (1748-1803) had a brother James Bradby, who was likely the Native American of the same name who attended William & Mary College in 1754.
Fascinating connections, Chris! Next step for me in tracing the migrations of the Adkins family: Captola had an older sister who moved to Tiverton, RI, and she is said to have given the Clarkes two acres of land. QED.
Was confused at first with the BlackHawk from the Midwest who was a mighty historical figure in his struggle for native rights. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Hawk_War
‘Fifty years ago’ sounds like a long time ago… until I remember that I am far older…and also my own John Rolfe connections through the Graves family…
Yes, more than one BlackHawk, which leaves me to wonder if Robert Clarke adopted the name from his famous predecessor.