From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Ishmaelites of Kentucky

There are at least two differrent accounts concerning the existence of the the Tribe of Ishmael.

According to earlier sources, between 1785 and 1790 an Islamic denomination called Ishmaelites was first noticed in Nobel County (now Bourbon County), KY. The group was led by Ben and Jennie Ishmael. Individual members were of a multiracial background of African, Native American, and poor whites.

The first generation included escapees from enslavement and the Indian Wars, all having made their way to Kentucky from Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. In the early 1800s, the Ishmael's son John led the group across the Ohio River to the area that today is part of Indianapolis, IN; soon afterward the group became a nomadic community.

They were viewed as odd and referred to as gypsies. The group was suspected of having a high infant death rate, and in the 1880s it was common for the children to be taken away from their parents. Adult members were arrested on an array of charges, then imprisoned, committed, or bound to servitude. By the late 1800s, three-fourths of the patients at the Indianapolis City Hospital (a mental institution) were from the Tribe of Ishmael.

In 1907 the compulsory sterilization law was passed in Indiana and used to further reduce the number of new births by Ishmaelite members.

For more see Black Crescent: the experience and legacy of African Muslims in the Americas, by M. A. Gomez, pp. 196-200; O. C. M'Culloch, "The Tribe of Ishmael: a study on social degradation," Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction at the Fifteenth Annual Session Held in Buffalo, NY, July 5-11, 1888, pp.  154-159; and The Tribe of Ishmael: a group of degenerates... at the Eugenics Archive website.

According to more recent sources the Tribe of Ismael is a myth, and Ben and Jennie Ishmael were Christians. One of the current sources,   Inventing America's "Worst" Family  (2009) by Nathaniel Deutsch suggests that the Ishmael Family, a poor Christian family that included a Civil War veteran, was used as a representation of the urban poor in the late 1800s. Then during the 1970s, the descendents became a very much admired family credited with founding an African American Muslim movement and community.

For additional information see E. A. Carlson, "Commentary: R. L. Dugdale and the Jukes Family: a historical injustice corrected," BioScience, vol. 30, issue 8 (August 1980), pp.  535-539; R. Horton, "Tribe of Ishmael" in The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, by D. J. Bodenhamer, et al.; E. F. Kramer, "Recasting the Tribe of Ishmael," Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 104 (March 2008), pp. 36-64 [available online in IUPUI Scholar Works Repository]; Siegel, Brian, "Tales of the Tribe of Ishmael: A Research Note," Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 106, no. 2 (June 2010), pp. 189-196; and Deutsch, Nathaniel, Inventing America's Worst Family: Eugenics, Islam, and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Bourbon County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

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“Ishmaelites of Kentucky,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed April 14, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-03-17 18:15:16