Research reveals a Black Seminole family’s continent-crossing migration in search of freedom and battlefield glory.
Dear Professor Gates:
I’ve discovered that my paternal great-grandmother, Leona July Blanks, was a descendant of the Black Seminoles who migrated with the Native American Seminoles from Florida all the way through Mexico. She was born in April 1900 in Mexico and died in June 1970 in Del Rio, Texas. She married Roscoe Blanks in 1912. Her father, Sampson July, was a Black Seminole scout, born in 1826 in Tampa, Fla. He died in 1918. I am sending more information about her children and half-siblings.
Can you help me trace my great-grandmother’s Seminole roots? I discovered that the Seminoles were U.S. Army scouts, among whom four were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. —Steven Young Sr.
It appears that you descend from a group of people whose fighting spirit and search for freedom took them to far-flung places in North America.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Black Seminoles (also known as Seminole Maroons and Seminole freedmen) began as African-descended people—free individuals and escaped slaves—who joined forces with the native Seminoles in Florida during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Black Seminoles were attracted to Spanish Florida because slavery had been abolished there in 1693. The two groups remained distinct but fought fiercely side by side against Euro-American domination through the three Seminole Wars against the United States between 1817 and 1858. However, by 1845 most of the Seminoles and Black Seminoles had been resettled in Oklahoma under the rule of the Creek Nation.
Subject to kidnapping and enslavement (pdf) and seeking a better life, the Black Seminoles fled again—this time to Coahuila, Mexico, which currently borders Texas. Their bravery was legendary, and in 1870 the U.S. government invited them to return to the United States as Army scouts, promising money and land (the latter of which never materialized). Nevertheless, they distinguished themselves in service during the Frontier Indian campaigns, and four Seminole-Negro Indian scouts were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (pdf). To learn more about the origins of the Seminoles, we suggest picking up Jane Landers’ excellent book Black Society in Spanish Florida.
It was easy to connect your family to the Black Seminoles using the information you provided and tracing backward in time. The death record for your great-grandmother Leona July Blanks, dated June 13, 1970, states that she was born in Brackettville, Texas, on April 11, 1900, and that her parents were Sampson July and Refugia Baltierrez.
We located Roscoe Blanks and “Elenora” residing in Del Rio, Val Verde, Texas, in 1930 with seven children. Working even further backward, we found that the couple were residing in the same location in 1920 with three children and Refujio/Refugia Vallier/Valbins (the original record should be scrutinized to check the spelling), who was described as Roscoe Blanks’ mother (likely Leona’s mother, based on the information in Leona’s death record). Refujio was recorded as a 52-year-old white woman born in Mexico, placing her birth about 1868.
Not locating Leona or her father, Sampson July, in the 1910 or 1900 U.S. census, we shifted our attention to Leona’s half-siblings. One was James July, residing in Fort Clark, Kinney, Texas, in 1900 and again in 1910. In both records, James and all those recorded around him are noted as being “black Indians,” and the 1910 census identifies them as Seminole.
Many of the families around them were also Seminole and would have had similar migration histories. A number were recorded as being soldiers. These would be people your family was closely connected with, and if you are having trouble locating records in Florida for the July family, you could try researching the origins of one of these other families.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs did include the Florida Seminole in the enumeration of the Indian census rolls starting in 1880. We know that your great-great-grandfather Sampson July was already living in Texas by then and was recorded with his wife, Mary, at Brackettville, Kinney, Texas, with seven children in the household. We did not locate anyone with the surname July in the rolls, but you could search the Indian census records for another family that you know to be connected to your July family to see if you can learn more about their origins.
In searching for more information about Sampson July, we discovered the application for a veteran’s gravestone for Sampson July that states that he was a U.S. Indian scout who enlisted March 4, 1875, and was discharged May 12, 1884. It also says that he died May 16, 1918; was buried in the Seminole Indian Scouts Cemetery at Brackettville, Texas; and was born in Florida.
In this same collection, there is a headstone application for Fay July, who died Aug. 6, 1940, and was also a Seminole Indian scout; as well as Charles James July, who was also buried in Seminole India Scouts Cemetery, in 1937, and also has a headstone application for his service. This suggests that Sampson was not the only member of this family to serve as an Indian scout. Records for his sons who also served and other close relations can always help you locate more information on your direct ancestors.
Leona’s half-brothers may prove crucial to your search for more information on the family. In 1900, Fay July, Ben July and Billy July were all recorded at Fort Ringgold, Texas. The birthplace of both Ben July and Fay July was listed as Mexico, and the birthplace of both their parents was listed as Florida.
Others on the sheet that recorded the same information about them and their parents were Joseph Phillips and Isaac Payne, perhaps a related family. Billy July recorded that his parents were born in Indian Territory instead of Florida, suggesting either that he interpreted his family history differently than his brothers or that he was a cousin or some other relation instead of a brother.
Fay July also applied for a pension for his service. The Index to Indian War Pension Files states that his application number was 1454.477, certificate a-1-19-33. You could order the original pension application to see if it includes any more details about his family. This same application also appears in the Civil War Pension Index.
These records have not yet been digitized, but you can order copies from the National Archives with the application and certificate numbers provided by the index. Often, the pension files include depositions from people who knew them while they served, and may include information about their families.
Military records can also provide you with clues about where your ancestors were at various moments in history. Fold3 (subscription required) contains several military records for the July men who served as Indian scouts, and even has a picture of Fay July included with the description of “Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts.”
These records will help you create a timeline of the family. From the records on Fold3, the following July men served as Seminole scouts: Ben July, Billy July, Carolina July, Charles July (may be the same as Charles J. July and Charley July also listed), Fay July, John July and Sampson July.
In another avenue of research, since you know that your Sampson July was an Indian scout and connected to the Seminole freedmen, you can search the Dawes Final Rolls to see if any members of the family applied to be recognized members of the tribe.
The Oklahoma Historical Society has an easy search of these records and the option to order original copies. Searching for just the surname “July” returns three results, one of which is a Ben July who was a Seminole freedman. According to the index, Ben July was 24 years old and was recorded on Card No. 631, Roll No. 1953. The “About the Dawes Roll” section of the page tells you that the ages listed are usually the age the person was around 1902, placing Ben July’s birth around 1878. This is likely the brother of your Leona July.
Do not limit yourself to the finalized rolls. Often, the most valuable genealogical information is included in the applications and especially the rejected applications. Individuals would include a great deal of information about their families to demonstrate their connection to the tribe for enrollment. Sometimes, freedmen enrollment applications include information about their former slave owners (as was the case in a previous article), which may provide you with a name to help you work even further back on the family tree.
The Family History Library has several searchable and browsable collections of the Dawes Rolls specifically relating to the Seminole that may prove useful. When we searched for the surname “July,” the one result was for a Louisa July, who, according to her application card, was a member of the Creek Nation and was the daughter of John Leslie. Her children’s father (also listed on the card) was Sam July, suggesting that July was her married name.
Given the close relationship between the Creeks and the Seminoles, it seems possible that “Sam July” could be Samuel, the son of the Sampson July whom you mentioned. The record also states that she was recorded in 1890 as Louise Bear.
Louisa July of the Creek Nation also applied for a land allotment, as did Ben July of the Seminole Nation on July 5, 1901. The questions asked in the application can often prove valuable in determining details about how long a person had been in the area, his or her other relations, and the location of the lands allotted. For instance, Ben July’s application records his membership in the Ceasar Bruner band of Seminole and indicates that he was included in the Seminole Roll of 1901 as No. 1953.
You can always request copies of the enrollment records and census cards from the National Archives, since the originals will likely contain more information than the indexes. Since you have a band name, you could also try to contact the Seminole tribe to see if it has any records that might be helpful.
Finally, you can keep searching census records for other family members. The only person recorded in the 1870 census with the surname “July” in Florida was a Milly July residing in Columbia County, Fla. She was a 66-year-old black domestic servant born in Florida. She would have been old enough to be your Sampson July’s mother if she did not travel with him to Texas. She does not appear on earlier census records, suggesting that she may have been a slave and therefore did not appear by name in the 1860 census.
The post office address for Milly July in 1880 indicates that she was residing in Suwannee Shoals in Columbia County. The Suwannee River is north of present-day Lake City, Fla., which began as a Seminole Village and was formerly known as Alligator. With Milly July residing in an area that was historically Seminole, it warrants further research to see if she is an ancestor.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.