The  "Turks" of Sumter County

The "Turks" of Sumter County, SC are descendants of American Indians"  

or, as Pony now puts it: "The Turks of Sumter County are, by majority, of Indian descent, however there are some lineages which most likely are of Arabic descent."

By Steven Pony Hill

The information I have gathered on the so-called "Turks" is due to an attempt to locate the original ancestors of my Indian community here in northwest Florida. Isham Scott, Absalom Scott, Joseph Scott, Moses Manning, John 'Capt. Jack' Ayers, and Henry Stephens moved down here in 1828 from Sumter, SC.  

The only 'oral tradition' that exists in my family is that we originated from Indians. No one ever mentions our white ancestors (although it's obvious that we are far from full-bloods). I descend from the Isham Scott family and the James Moses family who lived in Sumter from 1810 to about 1820, after moving down from Halifax NC and then moving on to Florida. The Moses family lived about 10 households down from the Benenhaleys in Providence, Sumter.

-------------------------- Benenhaleys -------------------------

All the documents that were forwarded to me (even pre-1900 documents) point to the fact that Joseph Benenhaley was a man of "Arabic ancestry"..he was most likely mixed Turkish and who knows what else.  The Benehaleys intermarried with the Scott, Oxendine, and others, and these families are, without question, of Native Indian ancestry. It is documentable that the Scott family came down from Halifax, NC and the Oxendines from Robeson.

I believe the most relevant fact about the 'Turks" is to analyze the very essence of what made them considered different from the other residents of Sumter, SC. Were they discriminated against for being Arabic? Were their schools listed as seperate Arabic schools? Were their churches referred to as Arabic churches by the local townfolk? The answer is obvious. A 'Turk' in Sumter was a person generally considered by the local townsfolk to bear Indian blood, and lived seperately geographically and socially from whites and blacks in the area. It is a fact that one family did have a Middle Eastern ancestor, and because of this the whole community was given the label of "Turks", yet this is not the deciding factor in determining what a "Turk" was or is. One would have to look at the ancestry of the majority of the community, and the perception of the community's ancestry by the surrounding populace.

I do recognize that the weight of evidence suggests that Joseph Benenhaley was most likely of "Arabic ancestry" and was most likely Turkish and because of the Benenhaley family being one of the most prominant, that "Turk" label was generically applied to the whole mixed-blood community at Sumter. The Scott, Oxendine, Deas, and others also connect to these Indians and do not have any Arabic ancestry.

The "Yusef Ben Ali" reference seems to me to have plausably originated with Brewton Berry (1960's), and even he said "Joseph Benenhaly...possibly Yusef Ben Ali" as he tried to make a case for possible Arab ancestry to justify the Turk label. If his name had actually been "Yusef Ben Ali" I believe it would have appeared as such on some, if not all, of the documentation (census, court, land etc.). Brewton Berry also misrepresented that the 1790 petition of "Sundry Free Moors" came from the Turks (which it did not...I have also seen this falsehood recounted in other books, and on the net as truth) and Berry mentioned the old 1820's case involving a voting dispute and referred to him as "Joseph Benenhaley". I'm sure if those old records had mentioned Joseph claiming his name was originally "Yusef" and he was Arabic, that Berry would have surely quoted it. (someone needs to get a look at these old records and end this debate).  

---------------- The Remainder of the "Turks" ----------------

The true history of the "Turks", which can be verified by historical documentation, is that the majority are of American Indian ancestry from a group of Algonquin and Siouan speaking remnants who gathered at Fort Christianna on the Virginia/North Carolina border.

A group of these English speaking, Christianized Indian-White mixed-bloods was living in Halifax, North Carolina at the time of the Revolutionary War, and also maintained a village among the Catawba at the NC/SC border (this village was called TURKEY TOWN). There were several families identified as Indian connected to the Cheraw and Catawba including the Scotts, Stephens, Browns, etc.

When Thomas Sumter's home in Sumter was burned by British forces attempting to capture him, he headed NORTH (not to the coast as some have said) to the North Carolina border to muster men to form militias. It was here that Sumter first linked up with these Indian mixed-bloods who readily joined him and caused much ruckus. In "Colonel William Hill's Memoirs of the Revolution" written in 1815 and edited by General Sumter sometime prior to his death in 1832, it is mentioned that during the War "Sumter's Camp which was then on Indian Land on the East side of the Catawba River." It is also documented that a sizable company of Catawba Indians were mustered out under Captain Drennen to serve under General Sumter. Included in this company of Indians was several Scott men and one "Joebe" (maybe Joe Ben?).   

By 1810 Halifax county was beginning to fill up with white people, and the Catawba tribe had leased off almost all of its land, and so, some of these Indians moved down to Sumter at the invitation of the General. Scott, Benenhaley, Driggers, Oxendine, etc. Indian families first appear on the records of Sumter, South Carolina in 1810, prior to that time they are identified as residing at Halifax NC, or on the Catawba lands.   

The story of the "Turks" descending from pirates, Arabs, Turkish sailors, etc. all appears to have begun with the 1930's publications of several ethnologists like Brewton Berry who interviewed local white people about their theories as to where the "Turk" label originated. These fanciful romanticized legends recounted by local townsfolk have since been recounted as fact by present-day historians. A plausible theory as to where the "Turk" label originated was from "Turkey Town Indians" shortened over time to "Turkey Indians" to "Turks".

These same family members who remained in Robeson, Warren, and Halifax counties NC are now known as "Lumbee" and "Haliwa-Saponi" Indians. Those of us who moved down here to Florida in 1828 are known as "Cheraw-Saponi" Indians. In 1857 several families from here (northwest Florida) joined a 'wagon train' for Louisiana and these families are now known as "RedBones".  Though we have all been labeled differently by our white and black neighbors, we all descend from the same Indians.

What I have seen, and I believe what you will find, is a reoccurring theme in regards to these descendants of mixed-blood Christianized Indians from the Virginia/Carolina border:


EXAMPLE: Someone questions the ancestry of one of these people, families, groups, etc. and it starts up some kind of investigation (school enrollment, tax status, voting privileges, etc.).

  Local white people are brought in to testify and they say some variance of the same theme "I have known the insert name here family all my life. Their skin is dark like a colored person, though their hair is different. It is said that there is Negro in their blood, but they don't associate with Negroes."

  The people in question themselves always testify to some variation of the same thing...."My grandfather insert name here was a white man and served in the (Revolutionary/Civil/etc) War...his wife was insert name here and she was a full blooded Indian. There is only White and Indian blood in my veins and no other."

Before long, some well-meaning historian, Professor, Anthropologist, etc. appears and says "You silly back woods country people, these people are not mullatoes...they are a tri-racial isolate...the reason they don't look like the stereotype of the Western Indian is because they are the grandchildren of Portuguese sailors/Moorish pirates/shipwrecked Italians/lost colony of Roanoke/etc."

Generations later, historians, book writers, genealogists, etc. look at these records to get information and recount any one of the above theories to explain the "proof" of the origins of this "mysterious group of people". Even the descendants of the people themselves gradually pick up the popular explanation and pass it on as "Oral tradition".

You can find a variation of the above with any remnant group in the south-east; Melungeons in Tennessee, RedBones in Louisiana, Lumbees, Issues, Red Legs, Brass Ankles, Pond Shiners, Domminickers, and yes, even Turks. The best advice a descendant of one of these groups can get is to not listen to the stories, legends, exotic origin theories, etc. that are thrown out by local people, historians, etc. Look for the actual documented evidence, census records, and when it all boils down, listen to what your grandparents and their parents said that their roots were.  

The actual documentation does not directly disagree with the oral tradition (though the oral tradition should also be suspect unless it pre-dates 1900, as family members separated from the Sumter core groups often read articles which "explained" their history - this was common among Melungeon descendants who lived away from Tennessee, read newspaper articles about their relatives, then would "testify" that they descended from Portuguese, when the Tennessee group kept saying "We are Indians").


The "Free Moor" petition was credited to the Turks by Brewton Berry in his book "Almost White" in the 1960's, where he quoted  Anne King Gregorie in her 1950's book "History of Sumter County SC" and this misinformation has been repeated in countless newspaper, magazine, and of course internet accounts. As far as I can tell, no one has ever done the 'on the ground' hard core research on the "Turks" (actually going to Sumter and looking at old court cases, land records, interviewing elders, etc.)  The "Turks of Sumter County" and the "Free Moors" were not even in the same location. The Free Moors were just north of Charleston, as documented in the 1790 census.

  My full legal name is "Steven Pony Hill", I was named after my grandmothers brother "Albert Pony Hill."  I live in Blountstown, Florida...south of Marianna and northeast of Panama City. The Bass side of my family (Alexander Bass) also lived in Thomas County ,GA prior to the Civil War, then moved down to the Ocala area (Marion Co.) then back up to Thomas Co. GA by 1900, then back down to FL by 1920.  Alexander was a documented descendant of the Nansemond (Bass) and Cheraw-Saponi (Goins) Indians and his wife (Nora Holly) was traditionally a full-blooded Indian as well. My g-g-grandmother was Elizabeth Scott Hill who was born 1825 in Sumter, SC and is buried here at the Indian Cemetery at Scott's Ferry, Florida


The "Turk" surname was owned by a large family in the nearby counties of Georgia...there is no implication that they were anything but white, and they carried the surname over from England.

I believe there WAS a family connection between John N. Scott and Isham. On the 1860 census there are three Scott households side-by-side: Isham Scott and his wife Margaret; John N. Scott, then Henry Scott. John N. Scott had a 12 year old son at that time named Isham Scott and a 4 year old daughter named Margaret; Henry Scott had a 2 year old daughter named Margaret.

10 years earlier, John Scott appears in Granville Co. NC at Fishing Creek District living next to William and Silas Pettiford. Abraham Scott, the first cousin of Isham, had posted bond for Sewell Pettiford in Cumberland Co. NC Court in 1842.


The weight of evidence points to our ancestors being a group of eastern sioux and related families who escaped "to the white settlements" for protection during the Rev War. Prior to the War the Scott families lived in two areas, at Halifax NC and on the Catawba Reservation. At the onset of the Rev War the young Indian men fought for the NC/SC milita under Gen. Sumter and the elederly and under-aged Indians went to the white settlements at Henrico Virginia for protection. After the War, some of the family members went back to Halifax, some back to the Catawba, and some settled on the Pee Dee River.

The oldest Scott Records I could find are regarding a William or 'Billy' Scott who was an elderly Indian in Henrico VA at the close of the War..he was most likely a Cheraw Indian married to a Catawba Indian ( Jacob Scott was reported to be the 'nephew' of General New River..his mother was New River's sister) it is highly possible that he was the father of Isham Scott, John Scott, Joseph Scott, Francis Scott, and Jacob Scott (these given names continue to be repeated in each generation).



This document offers a good explanataion of the roots of these Sumter families prior to moving down to SC....


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Copyright ©2005 Steven Pony Hill, all rights reserved, and may not be sold, nor given to anyone who may attempt to derive profit from same without written permission of the author.  It may be used in your family history or genealogy, for which purpose it was intended.