I’VE WONDERED MYSELF these days what if any is my connection to North Carolina’s indigenous communities. I became obsessed as a teenager in learning about them, in part spurred on by that portrait of my great grandfather, but also because it helped me to learn some deep history of a region where my ancestors had been living at least since the 17th century. It was very hard to understand how uprooted British settlers managed to eke out an existence in the swamps of the Carolinas, and how they managed to do do. Add some Native Americans into the picture and I was hooked.

My own link is very, very tenuous. It’s through my father’s mother, Margaret Pittman (1918-2016), who was actually educated at James Madison University and became a schoolteacher. She was born in 1918. Like most people of any generation, she only knew her family history back a few generations. Our family memory goes back to the Civil War, but no further.

Through her father, Tom Pittman (1896-1971) though, we are connected to the settlers of the Chowan River area, particularly through his mother, Martha Lydia Collins (1877-1945). His father’s family, the Pittmans, were mostly of English ancestry and came from Isle of Wight County, Virginia, migrating south via Southampton County, and then back across the river into Gates County, eventually settling on the state line in about 1870.

As the DNA has more or less confirmed, along with a smattering of paper documents, these Collinses were related to the Halls, Weavers, Basses, Bissells, Meltons, and other families of indigenous descent in the region. It is excruciatingly hard to say through which family, or from which indigenous nation, but we can say, from the same family clusters, which included indigenous individuals. According to GEDmatch calculators, I am something like 0.7 percent Native American, which isn’t a hell of a whole lot, is it?

But of course, I already knew that. I know most of my ancestors come from the Mediterranean and the British Isles in a somewhat distant second place, just as I knew that I had indigenous ancestors, which is the case. I only wish I knew more about them.

The Wyanoak Pierces

ONE ISSUE genealogists encounter time and time again is the prevalence of certain family names in communities. I recall years ago doing research into my Pittman family ancestry and discovering a group of Pittmans living in southern Southampton County, Virginia, almost in the exact area of where my ancestors were later living. But, as I actually did the work, I determined these were likely distant relations passing through the same region into North Carolina. Proximity, and having a similar name, does not necessary mean you just grew another branch of your tree. You have to do the work.

In the nebulous world of Native American genealogy, there is the idea that surnames were a) either adopted by individuals in one group, then spread to others as they were taken in as refugees or b) were spread by traders, meaning that multiple individuals across many groups adopted the same surnames, but were not necessarily related.

Consider the surname Pierce, for instance. Pierce was a name mentioned in Frank Speck’s 1916 work on the Mattamuskeet.

A visit to their old home, however, and persistent inquiry among the settlers of Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, brought to knowledge a few individuals who are descended from Indians who came originally from Pungo river near Mattamuskeet Lake, Hyde county. These are evidently remnants of the Machapunga tribe who have left their name to Pungo River. Those whom I met traced their descent from one Israel Pierce, who was known as a Pungo River Indian.

Roberta Estes, on her blog Native Heritage Project has a lot of information on this Pierce family. However, we must note that it’s just one Pierce family. There may have been others. And while Thomas Pierce is noted as being of Chowan County, there is no evidence to specifically tie him to any Native Pierce families there. In 1710, a Jenny Pierce is named as a Wyanoak Indian woman living at Nottoway Indian Town.

There is some fascinating information in that 1710 deposition, by the way.

  • In the 1660s, the Nansemond Indians murdered the Wyanoak King
  • Busby and Flood were the names of the Nottoway interpreters
  • The Wyanoak King had an English-style house and orchard near the James
  • The Nansemond Town was seated on the Blackwater River
  • The Wyanoak retreated from the James River area and moved to the Roanoke area, eventually living on the Wiccacon, essentially opposite the Chowan Indian Town
  • Here, the Pochick (also known as Nansemond) killed their king (the story is corroborated by the interview with Jenny Pierce, the Wyanoak woman).
  • Then the Wyanoak returned the favor and killed the Pochick king, retreated to Cuttawhiskie (near modern-day Ahoskie)
  • Then the Tuscarora attacked them and they went up to the Blackwater Swamp
  • The Chowans once had lands on the north side of the Blackwater River opposite the Nottoway River

This last part is fascinating, because it places Chowan Indians all the way up in Virginia. This area is now unsettled and surrounded by swamps. It would an interesting location for archaeological investigation (if it hasn’t been attempted yet.) It’s interesting for me that both the Pochick and Tuscarora attacked the Wyanoak, and yet the Nottoway and Chowan took them in. These might have been vendettas of a personal nature, and not related to broader regional politics. What we do know is that Flood and Pierce, two family names that persist in the modern-day Meherrin and Chowanoke communities, were present as far back as the 1710s, if not the 1660s, and that it’s possible these families were originally Wyanoak Indians that were taken in by the Nottoway or Chowan. I’ve been through this area today, and it is still wild and removed from any traces of civilization. Kind of terrifying to think of roaming bands of Pochick or Tuscarora who at any moment might fall upon the Wyanoaks, refugees as they were.


The French Huguenots

ONE FORGETS AT TIMES, that all of these mysterious “white people” who invaded the shores of Virginia and North Carolina had languages and national origins as diverse as the people who were already living here. Not that they maintained those identities long. My grandmother — born in 1918 — said most of her ancestors were English or British. But modern-day DNA ancestry testing has told a bit of a different tale.

If you have had family in America over multiple centuries, DNA testing is a remarkably useful avenue for family history discovery. Because, if you are like me, your trees essentially end around the time of the 1790 US Federal Census. And, again, we often do not know or are not certain of the family names of our female ancestors. So many origins that could be ascertained by surname are just not there. Where else to turn but DNA?

The first test I got my grandmother to take was called Genographic 2.0. This test has since been discontinued. Many criticized Geno 2.0, which was administered by National Geographic’s Genographic Project, for not having the coverage of the other admixture tests. However, over time, these results have held up remarkably well. When I received my grandmother’s results back, it said she was 42 percent Northern European, 41 percent Mediterranean, and 16 percent Southwest Asian.

I quickly downloaded the raw data and sent it off to Doug McDonald, who provided the following interpretation back:

French= 0.510  English= 0.473  Iranian= 0.000  NaDene= 0.017 or
French= 0.699    Irish= 0.286 Georgian= 0.000  NaDene= 0.015 or
French= 0.832 Lithuani= 0.151    Druze= 0.000  NaDene= 0.017 or
French= 0.662    Irish= 0.329 Mozabite= 0.000     Maya= 0.009 or
French= 0.660    Irish= 0.331 Armenian= 0.000 Columbia= 0.009 or
French= 0.465  English= 0.524 Georgian= 0.000     Maya= 0.012 or
French= 0.464  English= 0.526   Jewish= 0.000 Columbia= 0.011
French= 0.883  Finland= 0.103 Armenian= 0.000  NaDene= 0.014

“Na-Dene” is Athabaskan. This was the first analysis to show some indigenous American ancestry in my grandmother’s DNA. Usually, it skewed more closely to the Athabaskan samples than the Mesoamerican and South American samples. Using a tool called Oracle-X (also discontinued, from GEDmatch), she had the following results for her kit:

1. Mixed Germanic 90.84%  2. Sardinian 6.43% 3. Ecuadorian 1.45% 4. AthabaskHD4 1.22% 5. MEX30 .02% 6. Colombian .02%

1. Mixed Germanic 89.1% 2. Sardinian 4.95% 3. Ecuadorian 3.53% 4. Aragon 2.29% 5, Ethiopian Jews .01%

While this drew out the indigenous genetic ancestry quite well, it’s worth noting that my grandmother’s first matching European population using McDonald’s calculator was French, not English. This matches the Genographic results, because using their reference populations, if she was mostly British, her Northern European should be closer to 50 percent and her Mediterranean should be closer to 30 percent. Yet in Geno 2.0, they are roughly equal.

Now, let’s break out some other results. Originally, AncestryDNA said she was 61 percent “Europe West,” which was essentially France. This has been replaced by 61 percent England, Wales, and Northwestern Europe. It also shows her to have 22 percent Germanic Europe — which is right in line with having a German grandparent (her grandfather was from Germany, but don’t get too excited, they also don’t typically have a high amount of Mediterranean ancestry). It also says she is 14 percent Ireland and Scotland, and 3 percent Swedish.

I was fortunate enough to upload her kit to 23andMe, after she passed away, and they now provide me with the following results: 35.7 percent British and Irish, 33.7 percent French and German, 5.9 percent Scandinavian. Her French and German results actually show French as the first highly likely match and all around the country, not just in Northern France, which might just indicate Norman ancestry. As for that 2.6 Eastern European, very interesting. The matching reference population on this segment is Tatarstan in Russia. This is an ethnic group from North and Central Asia that migrated from Siberia to western Russia centuries ago. It is possible that the Siberian/Athabaskan result is being read as Tatar by the 23andMe algorithm. I have no other explanation.

I also uploaded the data to MyHeritage. This provides an interesting analysis: 40.8 percent Northwestern European, of which just 14.1 percent is English. 17.6 Southern European, of which 15.9 percent Iberian. And 16.6 percent Eastern European. (It’s my personal opinion that that Siberian/Athabaskan ancestry is causing these algorithms to fit her with populations that have similar amounts of Siberian ancestry.)

Now, for the history part. I had to start wondering — while we generically think of the Europeans who moved into Virginia and North Carolina as being English, were there any French settlers as well? Apparently, French Huguenots had begun to settle the area south of the James River extending south into North Carolina by the middle of the 17th century. This book, FraNCe: The French Heritage of North Carolina, notes that Nansemond County, Virginia, and Gates County, North Carolina, were particular destinations for French Protestants fleeing “the Virginia plantation hegemony.” (Interestingly, it cites George Durant, one of my ancestors, as an example of this particular breed of Frenchman. Durant, anglicized from Durand, may have been from a refugee Huguenot family.)

In looking at my grandmother’s tree, I can find a few hints of what might be French surnames. She has an ancestor named Mary Maget/Majette, and this family actually has a paper trail that goes back to Holland. Supposedly, they were a Huguenot refugee family living in Middelburg, the Netherlands, before they moved to Virginia. But with pedigrees that go back to the late 18th century, it’s hard to tell who came before them or what their names are. However, even though the paper records and the memory of this ancestry has been lost, that does not mean that the genetics changed with it. My grandmother apparently had substantial French ancestry. So when people ask, what was your grandmother’s ancestry, I will feel less confident about saying “English” in the future.


People of the Divided Place

THE POCHICK was a name used by what historian Helen Rountree has dubbed the “traditional Nansemond,” who unlike the community at Western Branch, centered on the Bass family, continued to live a traditional life into the 18th century. In her work, she paints a picture of a group mostly severed from its origins, and gradually absorbed into the Nottoway in Southampton County, Virginia, by the end of the 18th century.

There are elements of truth in this, but the historical record paints a rather different picture.

First of all, Rountree is the source of the “Christianized Nansemond” versus “Traditional Nansemond” concept. There is no historical document that speaks of two separate Nansemond communities. What we do know, is that there were various bands of people calling themselves Nansemond living across a rather wide expanse of territory.

There was a Nansemond Indian Town just south of the border in Hertford County, North Carolina. This was later sold, and some Nansemond moved north, adjacent to the Nottoway in the 1740s. In the 1780s, they sold their town to go and live among the Nottoway.

But there were also Nansemond still living at Western Branch, and apparently at communities at Indian Creek in Saint Bride’s Parish in Norfolk and adjacent Indian Creek Canton in Princess Anne County, Virginia, and perhaps down on the Currituck Banks at the Poteskeet Town, in modern day Powells Point.


There was also continuous movement between these sites, so that Butler Turner, an Indian man from Western Branch moved down to Saint Bride’s, where he married Euphan Collins, an Indian woman. William Collins, from Western Branch, moved to Winton, near the old Nansemond Indian Town, where he married Jane Bizzell. David Bizzell, meantime, was living among the Basses and Collinses at Western Branch in the 1760s. And Nathan Bissell later claimed to be an Indian in Norfolk, as did members of the Bass and Weaver families.

This was all one community, moving between sites, and intermarrying over the course of several centuries. The genealogies of the Turners and Rogers at the Nottoway Reservation are well known. So there was no severing really, of the Pochick Nansemond from the Christian Nansemond community, and “the Pochick” never really absorbed, assimilated, or vanished. However, today, almost no one uses this term because of the state and federal recognized community names. The Meherrin, reorganized in the 1970s, have adopted an Iroquoian outlook, the Nansemond have maintained their tribal association centered on Bass descendants, and efforts to resurrect the Chowanoke and Yeopim are ongoing.

While it’s hard to tell the origins of the name Pochick, there is a Pochick Avenue in Nantucket, and it has been translated as “where it divides in two.” Pochick in Nantucket refers to a place where the tide divides in two, the so-called Pochick Rip off shore. But it could also mean the same in Pachaug, Connecticut, or Patchogue, Long Island, which are translated the same way, sometimes referring to the division of rivers, or a bend in a river. From Trumbull’s Natick Dictionary:

pohshe, pâhshe, it halves, divides in two, is severed; a half, a part of, some of (as opposed to wame, the whole of), p 11 Ex. 24, 6; 37, 1; Deut. 12, 7; Luke 19, 8; p p Rev. 8, 1; 11, 9,11. See po~. (Cf. Sansk. paksha, a side, half (a month). Zend. pas, y~-pAs/t, one half (Engl. piece). Tamul pag-ir, to divide; F<M, a part. )

See the Cree word pôsko, to cut, tear, break apart, halve. So that pohshe-oke (Pochick) and pohshe-ki (Poteskeet) might mean the same thing. “People of the Divided Place.”

Traces of the Tuscarora

Artwork by Dennis Cusick (1800-1824), a Tuscarora artist from New York

AT THE START OF THE 18TH CENTURY, the Tuscarora were the dominant indigenous people in Eastern North Carolina. Early exposure to British colonists had taken its toll on the Algonquian-speaking coastal people of the Inner and Outer Banks, and the Iroquoian Tuscarorans had gained power politically, projecting power from the Great Dismal Swamp down to the Core Sound.

The current narrative, however, is that following a war with colonial powers and allied indigenous peoples, the Tuscarora slowly trickled north, until the process was declared complete at the beginning of the 19th century. There are plenty of people in North Carolina today who claim to either have Tuscarora ancestry or to be Tuscarora people. Who are these descendants? Are they all just white, or black, or some other Indian people? Are they frauds? And, furthermore, is there any way to prove a link between the people who went north to the Six Nations and those who stayed behind?

Recently, I obtained the GEDmatch kit number of someone who is a Tuscarora descendant from New York. She descends from a certain well-known Tuscarora chief from the 19th century, through his daughter. Using Eurogenes K13, I was able to isolate a piece of a chromosome that had been painted as Amerindian and then run segment match to see who matched her there. The person who also had this Amerindian DNA, it turned out, was a Butler descendant from North Carolina.  The Butlers, as I have noted previously, have been described in oral history as being of Tuscarora descent. Yet there is no proof of this — there are no Butlers listed in the Indian Woods Reservation deeds.

There were, however, Butlers described as mulattoes in various Bertie County records. Robert Butler was described as a “free mulatto male” in 1763. Margaret and Isaac Butler were “free mulattoes” in the 1761 tax list. William Butler was a “free mulatto” in the 1763 list. Elizabeth Butler was similarly a free mulatto in the 1761 and 1763 lists. She was also the common-law wife of Arthur Williams. Her son Isaac Williams married Nancy Bunch. This family, despite its mixed race origins, was later counted as white. Martha Butler was the “mulatto” common-law wife of John Castellaw in Bertie County. This was clearly a family that had mixed ancestry.

One must ask, why is a person of Tuscarora descent from New York, whose ancestry is local to northern New York and Canada, matching a woman who descends from a family of mixed ancestry from the area of the Indian Woods Reservation in Bertie County, North Carolina? I noticed a relatively close DNA match of this Butler descendant also matches my grandmother. This second person, who matches the Butler descendant, descends from the Hinton family of Gates County, North Carolina. Specifically, she descends from James Hinton, to whom the Chowan Indians conveyed reservation land in the 1730s.

Thomas Hiter, Chief of Chowan Indians, and other Indians, to Jacob
Hinton. 200 acres land on Bennett’s Creek; November 15,1733. Test,
Thomas Carman, Henry Hill.

Same, to James Hinton. 500 acres adjoining Jacob Hill; January 9,
1733. Test, John Alston, Thomas Garrett, Thos Carman, John Thomas.

This raises some interesting questions. First, were the Indians of the Chowan Precinct, at this point, Tuscarora Indians? Second, did James Hinton gain his land through marriage into the tribe. Hintons descendants also married Freeman descendants. Priscilla Freeman, the daughter of John Freeman and Tabitha Hoyter, married William Hinton. Were these all mixed European-Chowan Indian families? William’s daughter, Sarah Hinton, later married John Collins in 1779 in Chowan County, George Russell witness.

Another issue is that the Tuscarora supposedly absorbed a large number of Chowan Indian families in the 1730s, and some have said that after the abandonment of the Indian Woods Reservation, many people returned to the Chowan River area, reinforcing the communities that today are called the Meherrin and the Chowanoke.

This is all quite vague, but the genetic link between the Tuscarora in New York and descendants in North Carolina appears to be quite real. It warrants further study and if more people in New York tested, it would no doubt allow a better understanding of the genetic relationship between the two communities.

A 1771 Lease

I JUST CAME ACROSS THIS, and mostly by chance while I was reviewing some genealogical research on the Cale family. It’s a 1771 lease from four “chiefs of the Indians belonging to Chowan County” to Thomas Garrett. The Indians named in the lease are John Bennett, James Bennett, Thomas Reading, and William Cole. Reading is spelled as “Riddin” and “Redden” in the document, and “Cole” is spelled as “Col” or “Cob.”

Both Reading and Bennetts had appeared on earlier Chowan Indian land conveyances, but I had not seen Cole before. Cole Creek is a major creek in southern Gates County, near Bennetts Creek, which was where the Chowan Indian land was located.



Migrants from the Eastern Shore

Detail from a 1685 map. Nassawadox is visible at upper right on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, while the Western Branch can be seen at extreme lower left.

FOR SOME REASON, in the first decades of the 18th century, people began to move from the Eastern Shore into Norfolk and environs. This was not confined to just mixed-race families. It was all families. There was a migration of people from Northampton County, Virginia, up the peninsula into Maryland and Delaware, and across the bay into Norfolk.

Many of the most iconic free colored families arrived to Norfolk just this way. The Archers, descended from “John Archer, negro” born circa 1650 in Northampton County. The Driggers, descended from “Emanuel Driggers, negroe,” also of Northampton. The Harmans, descended from “William Harman Negro,” born circa 1630. The Manleys, who trace back to Gabriel Manley, “a malatto,” also of Northampton. The Webbs, same story.

(Interestingly, many of these families were living in and around Hungars Parish in Northampton County. This was also where one Thomas Collins is listed in a 1666 list of tithables. The closest town to this area today is Nassawadox.)

In the early decades of the 18th century, many found their way to Norfolk, and to Western Branch, the home of the remnant Nansemond Indian community, specifically. Here, they also encountered in-migrants named Nickens, Weaver, and Shoecraft, from the Northern Neck of Virginia. They also did not stay put. People were present in North Carolina and may have used Norfolk as a commercial hub. Thomas Driggers was sued in Chowan County court by Susan Lister in 1745. Richard Nickens and Simon Shoecraft were on the Currituck County militia list in the 1750s. Simon was the grandfather of Kinner Shoecraft Collins.

Most of these families were not described as Indian prior to their arrival to Norfolk, though they may have already had indigenous heritage. However, once they had lived in Norfolk and environs for several generations, there are more indications of an Indian identity, one that would resurface in the certificates of the 1830s or in later Cherokee enrollment applications.

An interesting question would be, how many indigenous people were living in this area at all? At this time, the 1730s, there still existed two Indian towns on the Chowan: the Nansemond Indian Town and the Meherrin Indian Town. There were also Meherrin living across the river in Scratch Hall. The Chowan Indians remained on Bennetts Creek, and were conveying land to settlers. Across the swamp in Currituck, there were at least two towns: Yeopim and Poteskeet. There may have been a settlement at Indian Creek in southern Norfolk County as well.

All of these people were still living in the area when people named Bass, Collins, Nickens, Driggers, Weaver, and Shoecraft rolled through. John Lawson had estimated the Poteskeet had 30 fighting men in 1700, meaning there was a population of about 100 people or more. There were also about 50 people living at Paspatank Town, maybe more at Bennetts Creek, and maybe 150 Meherrin based on his estimates. So there was still a sizable indigenous population in the area when the Eastern Shore migrants poured in.

It’s after this period when people from these families began to be called “Indian” in some records. In 1782, James Manley is described as “an Indian born at Edenton.” In 1765, Cati Collins is described as an Indian woman in a Hyde County court case. Most of the descendants of Kinner Shoecraft Collins described themselves as Indian in various documents.

Some suppose that free colored people claiming Indian ancestry were seeking some advantages in an increasingly racist American South. This was certainly the case when it came to obtaining legal documents that stated they were of Nansemond Indian descent. Yet though these families decided to stress that aspect of their ancestry over their African or European heritage, it did not make them liars. They were of Indian descent, and had every right to claim that heritage. They were not Cherokee though. That’s for sure.