Islam in America — The American Revolution

Contribution From The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington

In February 2016, former President Barack Obama said “Islam has always been a part of America.” This has come to surprise some, though the history of America confirms it.
Image of Mt Vernon estate for the Islam in America article

 America’s Founding Fathers
Historian and Professor Allen C. Guelzo reveals how America’s Founding Fathers played their own unique roles in shaping the grand story of the U.S. Constitution.

 

Life at Mt. Vernon, VA — 1799

By 1799 most of the enslaved individuals at Mount Vernon were second or third generation Americans. Some slaves were involved with Christian denominations in the area, including the Episcopalian, Baptist Methodist, and Quaker communities.

However, elements of both Islam and other traditional African religions are found in the documentary and archaeological records of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population.

Evidence of similar cultural survival has been found elsewhere in Virginia, Maryland, and in the Carolinas, as African-born slaves frequently continued to practice the religions that they had grown up with after their enslavement and transportation to the Americas. These traditions survived longest in areas where the enslaved population had the highest concentrations of African-born individuals. 

“If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Mohammedans/ Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.” Geo. Washington

George Washington expressed little preference as to the religion practiced by the Mount Vernon workforce. Writing in March of 1784, Washington noted: “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Mohammedans/ Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.”1

George Washington, 1797, G.S. Williamstown

Despite Washington’s outlook, there were significant, inherent challenges to anyone trying to practice Islam at Mount Vernon. The typical work week in Virginia stretched from Monday through Saturday, making traditional Friday Islamic prayers nearly impossible to continue at Mount Vernon since Friday was a work day. The degree of supervision by an overseer would also have interfered with the requirement to pray five times a day.

On most plantations, pork formed a significant part of the rations provided for slaves, and alcohol was often utilized as a reward or was dispersed during times of especially hard work, in the belief that it was necessary for health. This certainly would have made it difficult for individuals to follow Islamic dietary guidelines. In addition, pilgrimage to Mecca would have been out of the question for anyone with slave status in the Americas.

History, As Told Through The Names Of Slaves

Much of the evidence for the presence of Muslim slaves at Mount Vernon comes from naming practices as well as individual histories. The names of at least three female slaves at Mount Vernon indicate an Islamic influence on the Estate, if not the actual practice of Islam, over a period of roughly thirty years.

Two women, presumably a mother and daughter, named “Fatimer” and “Little Fatimer” were included on a 1774 tithables list at Mount Vernon, a document prepared for local authorities listing the people whom George Washington was responsible to pay taxes for. These names appear to be a variation of the popular Muslim woman’s name Fatima, meaning “Shining One” in Arabic, and the name of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter.

Painting of Mount Vernon estate

Sambo Anderson Introduces Islam To Mt. Vernon

The documented history of an African-born carpenter at Mount Vernon known as Sambo Anderson suggests that he was a practicing Muslim. The name Sambou is common throughout West Africa, used primarily for a second son among the Hausa people of what is now northwestern Nigeria and southern Niger.

Sambo Anderson was described as having mahogany-colored skin, with high cheekbones, and a stout build. His face was marked by both tribal cuts and tattooing, and he wore gold rings in both ears. Interestingly, Sambo told several people that he was of royal birth, and that his father was a king.

One of the things Sambo probably brought with him to Mount Vernon was Islam. The ethnic group from which he most likely came, the Hausa, was heavily influenced by both the Arabic language and Islamic religion, which spread to them from Mali beginning in the late fourteenth century.

Late in 1800 a young, unmarried mixed race woman named Letty who lived at Washington’s Muddy Hole Farm gave birth to a girl she called “Nila.” This name is a known variant of an Islamic woman’s name “Naailah,” which means “someone who acquires something” or “someone who gets what they want.” Even if no one was actually practicing Islam at Mount Vernon by this time, this child’s name provides evidence that some knowledge of Islamic tradition or a familiarity with Arabic could still be found in the larger African-American community in Fairfax County or Alexandria, if not at Mount Vernon itself, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Mary V. ThompsonResearch Historian
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
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Notes:
1. “George Washington to Tench Tilghman, 24 March 1784,” The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 1, ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 232.
Bibliography:
Curtin, Philip. D. Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans From the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.
Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Gomez, Michael A. “Muslims in Early America,” The Journal of Southern History (November 1994), 671-710.
Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877. New York, N.Y.: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Thompson, Mary V. “‘And Procure for Themselves a Few Amenities’: The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves.” Virginia Cavalcade 48, no. 4 (Autumn 1999): 178-190.
Thompson, Mary V. “Religious Practice in the Slave Quarters at Mount Vernon.” Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter 21, no. 1, (Spring 2000): 10-14.
Walsh, Lorena S. From Calabar to Carter’s Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community. Charlottesville, VA.: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

4 Comments

  1. In mentioning that it would impossible for Islamic slaves to go to Mecca, I imagine as free men in west Africa, it would also been, most likely , also been impossible for them to travel to Mecca, at this time in history.

  2. The could have’s and might have’s become proofs in order for ideologues to prove a non-existent narrative. Then the headline says that Islam is as old as the country. And the lies and distortions are off and running.

  3. Exactly, Steven, these are proofs of nothing.
    In fact, the ardently Catholic Christian poplations emanating across this world, from the Iberian Peninsula, routinely use Fatima, Nila and several other given names, as well many surnames, of Arabic origin.
    Furthermore, tattoos and piercings are no more acceptable to the faithful Muslim, than they are to Orthodox Jews or fundamentalist Christians, so that cast extreme doubt upon Sambo Anderson being aNY thing more than ,perhaps, a confused Muslim convert, if Muslim, at all.
    Finally,it is an absolute fact that the various Muslim tribes were the root and branch of the African slave trade, capturing, enslaving and selling their “infidel” neighbors, to European slave ships, from their coastal forts.
    It is against Islamic Law for them to sell a brother Muslim into slavery.
    Without a doubt, there were some Islamic Africans brought here, but that number must have been extremely small.

  4. Interesting discussion. The amount of Muslim slaves coming to the
    Americas would have been very small since most were from west Africa
    in locations like the Congo Kingdom, and were predominately animists
    and a very slim group of Catholic converts via Portuguese
    missionaries. Arab slavers routinely trolled east Africa for slaves to
    be sold at Mozambique to India (Mughal Empire), and the Middle East
    (Ottoman Empire). Many would have been converts to Islam through trade
    and intermarriage. This traffic did not come to the Americas but to
    Oman and for redistribution throughout the Muslim world. Some were
    trained as warrior slaves (Mameluks) and a higher percentage (the
    Zanj) woked the southern Iraq salt marshes or trained as servants for
    numerous sultans. Overall, 10,000 a year went to the Arab slave trade,
    while 50,000 or so went were shipped by European slavers to the
    Western Hemisphere.. I think the article is promoting a bit of
    revisionist history.

    Cheers, Bob
    – Show quoted text –

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