Absalom Collins, c. 1730 – c. 1780

ABSALOM COLLINS was perhaps the youngest son of John Collins, planter of Bertie County, whom I have discussed in my previously three posts. Due to the preponderance of people with this surname, it’s hard to conclusively trace this family in the colonial period. However, the name Absalom is distinct enough to offer some opportunities.

As I showed, Absalom was considered to be underage, ie. not 21 according to English law, when John Collins wrote his will in 1749. He was alive in 1742, when his father claimed his rights in Bertie County. Therefore, Absalom Collins was most likely born anywhere between 1728 and 1742. He begins appearing in deeds by the late 1750s. Recall a debt case involving him in 1757. It’s therefore possible that he did not reach his majority until that time. This gives us a narrower window of perhaps 1730-1735 for his year of birth.

Although Bertie County marriage records extend back into the 1740s, not all of them have survived. There is no marriage record for Absalom Collins in Bertie. According to that debt case, involving the estate of Joseph Thomas, as administered by Ann Thomas and Arthur Williams, Absalom Collins disappeared to a place called Flat Swamp in Tyrrell County around that time. Based on old deeds, this appears to be on the west bank of the Scuppernong River, near Creswell and Pea Ridge. It’s still a sparsely settled area, and one wonders a) what Absalom’s connection to the place was and b) what he was doing there. According to the same case, it was decided in Absalom’s favor in 1763. Perhaps that’s when he returned.

Absalom Collins took part in the estate sales of Edward Bryant in 1777. This is not the last we hear of him in Bertie County though. That same year he provided security for Phereby Wilford of Bertie County in the estate of her husband James Wilford, together with David Curry and John Castellaw.

The association of Absalom Collins with John Castellaw, David Curry, Phereby and James Wilford, as well as Joseph and Ann Thomas and Arthur Williams is very interesting, especially considering that the last we hear of Absalom Collins, he has moved to Chowan County, where he is listed in a tax list in the year 1780. The previous year, in 1779, a John Collins married Sarah Hinton in Chowan County, with George Russell witness.

Might this John Collins have been the son of Absalom Collins of Bertie County?

Meantime, the first deed that mentions my ancestor Thomas Collins occurs in 1803, where he witnessed the transfer of 10 acres to Sarah Butler, a free person of color, by James Lang in the Deep Cypress area, just north of present-day Eure in Gates County. Some, like Paul Heinegg, have speculated that this Sarah Butler and her daughter, Martha Butler, are related to the Butlers who lived in Bertie County in the 18th century.

Specifically, a Martha Butler was the common law wife of John Castellaw, who, together with Absalom Collins, provided security for Phereby Wilford in 1777 in Bertie County. Arthur Williams, meantime, had a common law wife named Elizabeth Butler, also considered to be a free person of color, and a daughter named Sarah Butler who married a Josiah Reddit in 1767. While this is unlikely the same Sarah who obtained 10 acres in Gates County in 1803, and whom bequeathed it to Martha Butler upon her death in 1816, the names line up perfectly, as do the associations with the Collins, Castellaw, and Williams families.

Moreover, the descendants of these mixed unions were considered to be white in colonial records.

It’s possible that the wife of Absalom Collins was also a Butler or a Castellaw, which would explain my DNA matches with those families. Both were considered to be either Indian, or Scottish-Indian families. It’s possible that my ancestor Thomas Collins (c.1768/1769-1849), was a younger son of Absalom Collins and his Butler or Castellaw wife.

One aspect though that does not support this hypothesis is the presence of a Thomas Collins on the Gates County tax lists in 1786 and 1787, followed by his disappearance and subsequent reappearance in the early 1790s, which would be expected if he reached his majority at that time.

I had thought that there was a Thomas Collins, Sr., based on the appearance of a Thomas and William Collins in the Nansemond County militia list in 1783. This leaves us two choices. Either my ancestor Thomas Collins was much older, perhaps born in 1762, rather than 1769, or there actually was a Thomas Collins, Sr., who fathered my ancestor. If that is the case, then there is no record trail for that family prior to the Revolution. This could be deeper evidence of leaving an Indian settlement — Chowan Indian Town or Indian Woods.

However, given the later associations with the Russells, Williamses, Butlers, etc., I tend to believe there is a link between the Bertie and Gates County families. Note that Sarah Collins married John Goomer in 1786 in Gates County, Abigail Russell married Thomas Goomer in 1800, and Sally Wilford married William Goomer in 1801 in the same county. As such, there is strong evidence of a familial link between these Bertie County families and the ones that later appeared in Gates CountyThis also matches anecdotes about mixed race people from Bertie County moving into Gates County in the 18th century.

One thing I learned from this experience of writing about Absalom Collins, was the existence of a link to the mixed race Williams family in Bertie County. My ancestor Thomas Collins married Anna Russell in 1801, and their son Graham Collins (1802-1880) married Nancy Arline (1800-1880) who was the daughter of Jesse Arline and Mildred Williams (c.1777-c.1819). She was the daughter of Jonathan Williams of Gates County. I have not fully traced that family beyond the mid-18th century, but it’s likely they connect to Arthur Williams of Bertie County, who fathered mixed race children with his common law wife Elizabeth Butler. Therefore, we can see the emergence of a whole group of intermarrying Anglo-Indian families in the Roanoke-Chowan area in the 1700s.

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John Collins, 1690-1751, Part III

IN MY PREVIOUS two posts, I provided a rough outline of the life of John Collins, an early planter of Bertie County in North Carolina, as well as some data on one of his sons, Joseph, who married into the Bunch and Bennett families, and whose descendants were occasionally referred to as being of color on account of this.

It’s worth noting that his son Josiah Collins, John Collins’s grandson, was taxed as a free mulatto in his household in 1771. In the 1790 US Federal Census for Bertie County, however, he is listed as white. Other families, such as the Bazemores and Bunches, that were listed as free people of color in the colonial era, made a similar transition.

This begs the question — how many early North Carolina families were mixed race and similarly blended into the European community?

Josiah Collins married Nancy Bunch, and died in 1809 in Laurens County, Georgia. Many of Joseph’s descendants moved to Laurens County and Tattnall County, where they continued to marry into old Bertie families like the Bunches, Summerlins, and Howards.

A good account of the descendants of Joseph Collins (c.1725-1802) can be found here.

Other sites trace the trajectories of three other sons — William Collins, who went to Tyrrell County; Michael Collins (c.1726-1799), who moved to Nash County; and Dempsey Collins, who moved to Marion County, South Carolina.

It seems that Joseph, Jesse, Absalom, John, and David Collins remained in the Bertie County area. As previously noted, upon their receipt of Bibles from their father’s will in 1752, John Collins, Jr., and David Collins disappeared from the historical record. There is a 1745 deed in Edgecombe County that may mention these two:

Pg. 435. Charles Stevens and Mary Stevens of Northampton Co. to Thomas Brown of Edge. Co. 17 Dec. 1745 50 pounds current money of N. C. 206 acres on the north side of Tarr river opposite to John Collins Wit: John Collins, David Collins, WILLIAM BRASWELL, William Cain X his mark Reg. Edge. Co. Feb. Ct. 1745 R. Forster C. Ct.

The coincidence of those two names is interesting, but it’s not clear if it’s the same men. By 1790, though, there are no Collinses in the US Federal Census of Edgecombe County.

It’s unclear what became of those lines of the family.

It’s also not clear what became of Jesse Collins or Absalom Collins, although I have kept an eye out for both in Bertie County records. I do have a copy of the Bertie County tax lists for 1757, 1760, 1775, 1778, and 1779 handy.

The 1757 tax list shows Joseph, Michael, and William Collins (the sons of John), as well as Edward Collins and his brother Thomas Collins (a separate family I mentioned in my previous post). A 1760 tax list shows Jesse Collins (a likely son of John) as well as a Sarah Collins, whose identity and relationship to these families is unknown.

The 1775 tax list shows Joseph, Jesse, and David Collins, as well as the aforementioned Thomas Collins. Tax lists for 1778 show William, Josiah, Absalom, Joseph, and Annie Collins, in addition to “Thomas Collins, Esq.” In 1779, that same Thomas Collins is listed with 7,818 acres. He is clearly not my connection. Another 1779 list shows a Locker Collins. The relationship to this family is unknown, however, he might have been a son of one of these men. Joseph Collins and his son Josiah Collins are also listed in 1779.

Of all these men, only Joseph Collins and his son Josiah Collins are listed in the 1787 state census for Bertie County though, as are Thomas and Luke Collins, who are associated with that separate family at Thunderbolt Plantation.

There are a large number of Collins households in Bertie in the 1790 and 1800 US Federal Censuses. One, Lucy Collins, is listed as the head of a household of four free colored persons in 1800. But after 1800, something strange happens. No Collinses appear on Bertie County censuses for 30 years. The next Collins we meet is James Collins, born about 1807, who appears in the 1830 census.

For my research, Absalom Collins becomes an interesting figure because of all the sons of John Collins, he appears to be the only one who moved back to Chowan County where he is listed in a tax list in 1780. I have found several records for this man. The first is the following from 1758-1761, that shows that he was sued for a debt by Joseph Thomas, and managed to disappear for a few years to Tyrrell County, where he was living in Flat Swamp, which, according to some research is off the Scuppernong River.


Absalom Collins was in Bertie County as late as 1777, as evidenced by these estate sales.


Yet by 1780, he had relocated to Chowan County, the last mention of him. The year prior, 1779, the first record mentioning a member of my Collins family appears in Chowan County, when John Collins married Sarah Hinton, with my ancestor George Russell as witness.

Could John Collins, as well as my ancestor Thomas Collins, have been sons of this same Absalom in some way? Or were my Collins ancestors the mestizo sons of David or John Collins who went to spread Christianity among the Tuscarora? A number of distinct Bertie County names appear on this 1783 tax list in Nansemond County, where they are recorded, before moving to Gates County, where they appear on tax lists from 1785 on.

Names like Purvis, Davidson, Kearney, and even “James Penny” — the same exact name of Bennett Collins’s half-sibling through his mother Elizabeth Bennett who was married to a Penny before she wed Joseph Collins. For me, it’s all still a mystery. But at least for my family, I can be fairly certain when I say, that this is where our Collins name came from.


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John Collins, 1690-1751, Part II

BEFORE I PROCEED, I want to address a few things. The first concerns Martha Collins, the wife of John Collins. Martha Collins first appears in this deed, dated Dec. 28, 1725.

Chowan Co, NC – John Collins & Wife Martha sold land to John Orris 200 acres . test: Andrew Hambleton, James Your, Martha Collins apptd Major John Alston her Atty to ack deed

She appeared in documents as late as 1742, at which time John Collins, Sr., proved his rights, naming: Martha Collins (his wife), as well as sons John, Michael, Dempsey, David, Jesse, Absalom, and Joseph.

Some have suggested that Martha Collins was from the Dempsey family, on the basis that they had a son named Dempsey. If this would be the case, then John Collins’s children would most likely have been of mixed race, as the Dempsey family in Bertie County was described in various records as “mulatto.” However, there is no other evidence to support this. I have suggested she may have been an Odom, given the land deeds from the Odoms to John Collins, and the fact that Martha Odom and John Collins witness a deed together in 1718. This too is speculative. There is just no more data on Martha.

It’s possible though that he was married before 1718. By the time John Collins proved his rights in 1742, his son William Collins was old enough to prove his own rights separately, naming Margaret Rhodes Collins, his wife, and a son John.

John Collins, Junior, meantime, was old enough to witness a deed in November 1742.

That means that William Collins and John Collins were most likely born around 1720. The fact that this list of children largely lines up with his will, written on December 27, 1749, means that he most likely did not have any more legitimate children after 1742.

In his will, which was probated in March 1752 (a December 1751 deed makes reference to John Collins, Sr., being deceased), John Collins divided up his estate among his children. His wife Martha had apparently died some time between 1742 and 1751, as Mary Collins, his new wife, and son Michael Collins, probated the will of Collins, Sr.

The full text of the will is available here. In it, John Collins, Sr., grants the following:

  • William Collins – a 200-acre tract of land on the Cashie River, purchased from Jonathan Standley. John Collins, Sr., also bequeathed to his grandson John Collins, son of William, a brass kettle.
  • John Collins – a Bible
  • David Collins – a Bible
  • Joseph Collins – a 150-acre plantation on the north side of Guy Hall Swamp. (Note: Guy Hall Swamp later became known as White Pot Swamp. It is situated just south of Askewville).
  • Michael Collins – a 300-acre property on “Red Bud.” This is also near Askewville.
  • Dempsey Collins – a 150-acre plantation on Guy Hall Swamp.
  • Jesse Collins – the 300-acre plantation he currently lives on.
  • Absalom Collins – a 240-acre parcel also on Guy Hall Swamp, where he lived. Absalom was still a minor when the will was written in 1749, meaning that he was probably born sometime in the 1730s.
  • The will also mentions another grandson, John Keen. It might be assumed that there was a second daughter who married to a Keen.

At the end of the will, John Collins, Sr., lists six of his sons: William, Joseph, Michael, Dempsey, Jesse, and Absalom, in that order. Noticeably absent are John and David. It has been speculated that the reason John Collins and David Collins were given only Bibles, and did not inherit property, was because they had gone to act as missionaries or teachers among the nearest Indian Nation, which would have been the Tuscarora. This is a family legend related by relatives in Georgia. This could be one reason they received only Bibles. It is also possible that they had already received parts of their father’s estate. Recall, John Collins, Jr., witnessed a deed in Bertie in 1742.

In 1749, therefore, he could not have been a minor.

Five years elapsed between the time that the will of John Collins, Sr., was probated and the 1757 tax list in Bertie County. On that list, three of his sons are still listed: William Collins, Joseph Collins, and Michael Collins. Jesse, Dempsey, David, John, and Absalom Collins are not listed. However, Jesse Collins does appear in a 1760 tax list as does Sarah Collins. Sarah Collins’s relationship to this family, or to John Collins, Sr., is unclear.

Between John Collins’s death in 1751 and the advent of the US Federal Census in 1790, we therefore enter a dark period. While certain relationships can be pieced together through appearances in wills, deeds, and tax lists, it becomes difficult to connect modern family lines with the family of John Collins.

Two of his sons — John Collins, Jr., and David — it has already been noted, disappeared from the historical record with their receipt of Bibles. Some people believe that this David Collins was a Saponi Indian, and the progenitor of the families that later moved to Tennessee. However, note that this David Collins was alive in 1742 (and therefore could not have been born in 1750, as some allege), and that he was in Bertie County in 1752. The name Collins, meantime, had already been mentioned among the Saponi in the early 1740s in Orange County, Virginia, 200 miles away. The Bertie County Collins family, the family of this John Collins, is not a strong contender for being of Saponi heritage. 

If anything, the most provable Native American link is to the Nansemond Indians.

This is through John Collins’s son, Joseph Collins, who was perhaps the best documented. He was also associated with some interesting families. Most estimate his birth year to be in the 1720s, perhaps 1725. It’s clear that his first wife was Rachel Bunch, the daughter of Joseph’s neighbor on Guy Hall Swamp, Henry Bunch. Henry Bunch was born in 1690 and left a will in Bertie County in 1775. He was described as a “free mulatto” in the 1763 Bertie County tax list. In his 1775 will, he referred to his daughter Rachel Collins, wife of Joseph Collins. Joseph Collins, as well as his son, Josiah Collins, witnessed Bunch’s will.

Henry Bunch’s other daughters were named as Thomazine Bass and Mary Bass, as well as Susanna Summerlin and Ann Crumie. He also acknowledged a grandson Cader Bass, son of Mary Bunch Bass and her husband Isaac Bass. As such, Joseph Collins married into the mulatto Bunch family, and through them became related by law to the Nansemond Indian Bass family. Later generations of this family continued to marry into the Bunches, as well as the Bazemores, another Bertie family listed as mulatto in colonial documents. Just not to gloss over that, Joseph and Rachel Bunch Collins’s son Henry Collins married Penelope Bazemore. Other associated families were the Keens, Summerlins, and Howards. There is a very good summary of this line here.  While I have not researched it independently, when I have looked into in person, I have found it largely checks out.

Following Rachel Bunch Collins’s death, Joseph Collins, son of John Collins, Sr., married again to an Elizabeth Bennett, and they had one son named Bennett Collins. He died without heirs in 1813. The administrator on his will is named as John Robbins.

This is interesting, as there are no Bennetts in the 1790, 1800, or 1810 US Federal Census for Bertie County. There is, however, a John Robbins. While this John Robbins is listed as white in the census, and owned a large number of slaves (21 in 1810), we can’t discount the argument that both the Bennetts and Robbinses living in Bertie were assimilated Chowanoke, just as the Basses were assimilated Nansemond.

The Robbins and Bennett families are described as Chowanoke Indian into the 1820s.

Note that in 1810, Esther Bennett is listed in Chowan County as the head of a household of four free colored persons and eight slaves. There were mixed Bennett and Robbins households in Gates, Hertford, Chowan, and Bertie counties, and as faraway as Currituck and Camden counties, who were described as white, free colored, and, sometimes, black in records. This is why I don’t take John Robbins’s designation as “white” at face value. This also shows the extent of the Chowanoke Robbins and Bennett families in the region. They were not solely concentrated at Indian Town in Gates County.

In John Robbins’s 1846 will in Bertie County, he left two parcels to his sons Josiah and George Robbins “in the Indian Woods which formerly belonged to Abraham Smith.” Witnessing the will were Thomas Smallwood and Joseph King, who both signed with a mark. It’s possible that Elizabeth Bennett, Joseph Collins’s second wife, was a Chowanoke or Tuscarora Indian. A “Billy Bennett” is listed as a Tuscarora headman in a 1766 deed. John Bennett is listed in this 1760 list of Bertie County settlers along with names that appeared on the reservation deeds as Tuscarora, such as Allen, Cain, Rogers, and Smith.

While I do not believe I descend from Joseph Collins, many of my Collins DNA matches do. This suggests that the John, William, Thomas, James, and David Collins who began appearing in Gates County records in the 1770s and 1780s, were also from this family.

In the next section, I will discuss what became of John Collins’s other surviving heirs.

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John Collins, 1690-1751, Part I

A MAJOR LANDOWNER in the Roanoke-Chowan area in the first half of the 18th century, John Collins left behind a brood of mixed race descendants, some of whom inherited his land, others of whom may have been illegitimate.

His ancestry is a mystery and his year of birth, 1690, is based on a 1716 deed. Some believe he was born in Nansemond County in Virginia. He may have been a relative of the William and James Collins who owned land on the Isle of Wight County-Nansemond border in a place called Kingsale. Others believe he descends from a John Collins who married Mary Tooke in Isle of Wight in 1694. The reality is that no one knows his origins. They were not recorded, and there are many Collins men in early records in this region.

That 1716 deed places him at the southern reaches of Nansemond County.

Chowan Co, NC – Jacob Odom of Chowan Prect and wife Susannah to JOHN COLLINS of Nansemond Co., VA; for 30 barrels of Tarr, [ ] acres, adj. Samuel Merritt, the said Odom, the Beaver dam branch and Moses Odom, part of a greater tract granted to the said Jacob Odom; witnesses: Moses Odom, John Bathe, Elizabeth Odom.

By 1719, though, he is already living in what is now Gates County.

Chowan Co, NC – petition of ARTHUR WILLIAMS praying leave to build Water Mill on Turkey Creek neer the Old Indian Path, it is ordered that Peticon be Granted and that the Surveyor Generall or his Deputy may Layout the Land as the Law Provides Ordered that a main road be Cleared from Sarum Road to COLL. MAULE’S Landing on Chowan River by the Inhabitants on the North side of Bennett’s Creek and that EPAPHRAS. BENTON, WILLIAM BENTLEY, JOHN ROGERS, JOHN HOBBS, EPHRAM. LYSLE, THOMAS ROOKS, JEFFRY LYSLE, JOHN COLLINS, JACOB ODAM, SAMUEL WATTSON, SAMUEL MERRITT and THOMAS ODAM be appointed Jury to layout the sd. road and that JOHN COLLINS be Overseer of the Same Road Adjourned till to-morrow morning 8 a Clock

This specifically places John Collins on the north side of Bennett’s Creek and also names some of the earliest settlers of this area.

“Maule’s Landing” can be identified by looking at the 1733 Moseley Map, which shows William Maule’s property opposite the mouth of Bennett’s Creek in Hertford County.


To make things confusing, the Collinses from Kingsale were apparently also moving into the region. In 1723, a William Collins witnessed a deed in Bertie County from Needham Bryant to John Hart on the Roanoke River, adjacent to Samuel Merritt, who is also named as a Bennett’s Creek inhabitant in that 1719 road order above, just like John Collins.

By 1725, John Collins apparently had married a woman named Martha based on a deed in December of that year. I have suspected that the Martha Odom who had witnessed a deed together with Collins in 1718 may have become his wife. What is certain is that Collins had become a major landowner by this point and apparently owned much of what became known as Scratch Hall. He also had multiple land dealings with the Odoms.

In 1727 alone, the Odoms deeded him 320 acres.

In 1726, one of the first deeds to mention the name “Scratch Hall” was made — when John Collins and his wife Martha sold 199 acres to James Eure. He would sell another 240 acres in Hall to Eure again in 1735.

It’s possible that Collins had married Martha by about 1719, because in 1738, he mentions a daughter in a deed, named Martha Bryant. He had also become a slave owner, as revealed in the record. He also must have had a son named John who had come of age by this time, considering he is referred to as John Collins, Senior.

Bertie Co, NC – JOHN COLLINS, Sen. of Chowan Precinct, to MARTHA BRYANT, one negro girl named Hannah, for love and goodwill and affection, to my loving daughter, MARTHA BRYANT, her heirs, but for want of any such heir, then I do give the said Negro girl, Hannah to the next heir in law.

By 1739, John Collins had moved to Bertie County. He patented 400 acres near present-day Askewville, and another 547 acres in Pell Mell Pocosin.

This would become the seat of his family and, as I understand it, Collinses still live here.

Before I proceed with John Collins, it’s important to mention that by this time, the late 1730s, there was another Collins family living on the Roanoke.

This is the family of Edward and Mary Mizell Collins. These names would appear and reappear throughout the 18th century, and it is this Collins family that became associated with Thunderbolt Plantation, a 200-acre estate located north of the Cashie River.

This separate, distinct Collins family had immediate roots in England, as evidenced by records, which makes their connection to John Collins questionable. In 1742, this Edward Collins named the following children in a deed: Elizabeth, Edward, Anne, Thomas, and Sarah Collins. I believe that Thomas Collins is the same one mentioned in this 1741 deed.

16 Dec 1741 Bertie County, NC Deed Book F, p. 368:
Susannah COLLSON and John COLLSON (her son) to Thomas BLOUNT and Thomas WHITMELL, 16 December 1741. 19 June 1742. 500 pds. for 600 acres “…Executors of the Last will and Testament of John COLLSON, Sen Dec’d . . . except for thirty two pounds quit rents Deducted to us paid by Thomas Collins . . . ” Land on SS Rocquis Creek. Part of tract to Luke Meazle …  Wit: Edward Collins, Mary Collins.

This Collins family was a wealthy local family. In the 1790 federal census for Bertie County, Luke Collins and Thomas Collins are listed with 20 and 13 slaves respectively. While this does place the name ‘Thomas Collins’ in the vicinity of Indian Woods, the Thomas Collins who appeared in Gates County in the 1780s had no property and was a laborer. I therefore do not believe that he was a legitimate descendant of this family.

Back to John Collins.

To be clear, by this point, there is no evidence that John Collins of Bertie County, or any of these neighboring landowners with the same surname, were Native Americans, or even of mixed race. However, it does show that John Collins was a major landowner living adjacent to both the Chowanoke and the Tuscarora.

The family would become mixed race though in subsequent generations though. In 1749, John Collins of Bertie County wrote a will that named eight children. In the following sections I will describe the property left to his heirs and what became of them.

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The above five portraits represent people who descend from a number of North Carolina’s first families. Their ancestors had names like Step, Owens, Collins, Phelps, Bray, and Pugh. They lived in an arc from the Roanoke River to the coasts of Currituck. And while they appear to have mixed ancestry to us, they were all described as ‘white.’

Enter the ‘Anglo-Indians,’ the people who both existed and never happened. Modern day genealogists tell us it was verboten for a European to take an Indian partner based on colonial law and that, outside of a handful of documented cases — Pocahontas and John Rolfe, John Bass and Keziah Elizabeth Tucker, Giles Brent and Mary Kittamaquund —  it just wasn’t done, despite abundant lore about mestizo communities and miscegenation.

Modern day genetic genealogists however will tell you that it is quite common for people descended from colonial southern families to discover a small amount of Native American ancestry in their results. Many of these people have limited if no understanding of their indigenous backgrounds, and as they spread across the South, the myth of the ‘Cherokee princess’ was born in part to fill this knowledge gap.  If you follow many of these families — including those affiliated with modern groups, like the MOWA Choctaw, for instance — you will find that they lead back to North Carolina or Virginia.

One aspect that is somewhat difficult is where to fit the Anglo-Indians into contemporary narratives about Native Americans. It is difficult for people descended from these families themselves. While ‘Afro-Indians’ — people of African and Native American descent — or multiracial people — place their ancestries in the context of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the ideal of a post-racial America, there are many Anglo-Indians whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy! This shouldn’t be seen as unusual: the Five Civilized Tribes also held slaves and some fought on behalf of the Confederacy. We should also remember that James Vann, John Ross, and many of the Five Civilized Tribes’ leaders were also ‘Anglo-Indians’ — the sons of traders and indigenous wives.

This is not an abstract concept for me. I am a Vann descendant, though not of James.

How to fit their actions in the context of a modern American Indian narrative of an identity kept in opposition to European aggression and colonialism, where Native people today aim to “decolonize” by reverting to traditional practices and culture? It’s a perplexing question for those descended from both the colonizers and the colonized. Coming from two completely different traditions, it’s as if you are at war with yourself.

In terms of genealogy, the predicament of the Anglo-Indians is similar to that of Indians who found themselves described as ‘free colored,’ ‘mulatto,’ or ‘black’ in documents, except in their cases, the Anglo-Indians were described as ‘white,’ an identity that equally erased their identities. While they enjoyed the privileges of having that status, most Anglo-Indians in Eastern North Carolina belonged to a caste colloquially known as ‘poor whites,’ a phrase that almost implied racial admixture, as if their destitute poverty made it likely that they would have no qualms with even taking an Indian as a partner.

It was said that the wealthier colonists had even more contempt for this bottom-rung of white society than they did for the free colored population.  As such, the Anglo-Indians are also erased from history, in that, as landless laborers, they often do not appear in tax lists, early censuses, or other records. By being “free” (white), they lost their ancestry. By being marginalized and poor (Indian), they remained invisible. As such, my ancestor Thomas Collins is in the Gates County tax list in 1786, but not in the state census that same year. He and his brother James are in the tax lists in Nansemond County in 1820, but are not enumerated in the federal census. They are both there and not there.

For those researchers who suspect they might be of Anglo-Indian descent, learning to read between the lines — why an individual might not appear in records — is a key tool. It was the absence, rather than presence, of documents that led me to understand that I wasn’t just dealing with another European settler family. These people were what James Nickens has called “the shadow people” — a social group that rarely occurs in records.

What is interesting, is that Anglo-Indians apparently maintained their family contacts with people who were lumped into the free-colored population, either through marriage with Africans, or perhaps even having more Native ancestry. My ancestor Thomas Collins witnessed a deed on behalf of Sarah Butler, a free woman of color, in 1803. Into the 19th century, ‘black’ and ‘mulatto’ members of the Cornelius and Lang families appeared in the Collins households. One can find mixed households in the region containing ‘mulatto’ and ‘white’ family members. One relative, Lucinda Russell, had just one of her daughters recorded as ‘mulatto,’ the other as white. Emmeline Lang, was recorded as ‘white’ in one census and ‘mulatto’ in another.

This shows you how arbitrary these social categories were. I am grateful for these ‘clerical errors’ though. They reveal the buried ancestry of a population that was supposed to be erased through assimilation.

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Those Green Leaves


Anyone who has taken the AncestryDNA test is aware of the iconic green leaf, known officially as the ‘shared ancestor hint.’ This is a tool that reveals a potential shared line of descent with your DNA matches. This does not conclusively demonstrate that the shared DNA is from those ancestors, but there is a likelihood that it might be the case.

My grandmother, Margaret Pittman, passed away in February 2016 at the age of 97. I had her tested several years ago using AncestryDNA though, and I can see from her kit that she has 32 Shared Ancestor Hints. I recently had my DNA analyzed by AncestryDNA too. The admix results were pretty good, and I will get to that later, but for now I will focus on the Shared Ancestor Hints of which I had only 17, just 10 of which I have in common with my grandmother (and two of those are my grandmother herself, as well as my father John).

That leaves eight Shared Ancestor Hints in common between my kit and her kit. Mathematically, this makes sense. I only inherited at most a quarter of my DNA from my paternal grandmother. So approximately a quarter of 32 is 8. The more interesting question is which quarter did I inherit, or from which ancestors did I inherit DNA?

Four of my eight matches (50 percent) descend from the marriages of Graham Collins and Nancy Arline, or the marriage of Thomas R. Collins and Polly Arline, in Gates County, North Carolina, in the early 1820s. It’s hard to tease these lines apart, because you have an example of a set of siblings marrying another set of siblings.

The remainder of my common matches with my grandmother descend from associated families — the Arlines, either through Jesse Arline, the father of Nancy and Polly, or through his father, James Arline, the Revolutionary veteran, or his mother, Mary Kittrell’s family.

This is really fascinating to me. It shows that my blog has been focused on the very people whose DNA I inherited.

I also match someone who descends from my ancestor William Howell and his wife Jerusha Rawls of Nansemond County, Virginia. I was aware of the Howell match through a relative who contacted me via 23andMe. However, I do not match my grandmother’s Rawls, Pittman, Scoggins, Maget, Cross, or other matches. I assume that a) I did not inherit DNA from those ancestors or b) There are other descendants, carrying other segments of their genomes who have not yet tested or identified their ancestors by building trees online. You can get a better sense of these families here.


Anyway, this has been a fun exercise in an entertaining way to use AncestryDNA. As for the admixture results, this time I was rather pleased. My main way of gauging results is not necessarily if they match my tree, but if they match the results of other family members testing by the same service. For instance, 23andMe does not give my mother or me any South Asian ancestry. However, AncestryDNA showed that both my mother and I carry about 2 percent South Asian, or Asian Indian, ancestry, which is a result that multiple GEDmatch calculators have produced. DNA.Land also said I had 2.3 percent Gujarati ancestry and assigned my mother’s kit 3.3 percent Gujarati ancestry. I tend to believe these results have some validity and are not noise.

Here are the breakdowns for my father, mother, and me, according to AncestryDNA. They are pretty accurate. Obviously, if my father is 51 percent Italy/Greece and my mother is 33 percent, I should be about 46 percent. 23andMe showed me as 49 percent “Southern European” which seems somewhat in line with these results. If you add up the 46 percent Italy/Greece, with the 3 percent Middle East, plus the other non-Northern European ancestry, you get about 50 percent. I am curious though about results like European Jewish, Finnish, or Europe East. I can imagine that for my parents, this represents some kind of Balkan ancestry, inherited from the Italian sides of their families. The Finnish though is more mysterious — our Scandinavian results are so small that it’s odd that some part of it would be identified as Finnish, not to mention that Finns and Scandinavians are not actually genetically similar. Maybe it’s noise, or maybe some component of any Amerindian ancestry is being read as such. DNA.Land, for instance, gave my father about 2 percent Native American ancestry, but my grandmother, his mother, about 7 percent of something called ‘North Slavic.’ Family Tree DNA also gave my grandmother a 40 percent (!) Eastern European result. When I have looked through the admix matching populations I can see that the Amerindian result grows higher as you head east. So that Ukrainians, or Mordovinians, have amount the same amount of Native American ancestry as my grandmother, who was primarily descended from British colonial settlers, does.

Here are the results. Perhaps this is helpful or interesting to some of you.

                               My father               My mother          Me

Italy/Greece       51%                          33%                         46%

Europe West      27%                           2%                           6%

Ireland                8%                             15%                         15%

Scandinavia      7%                             4%                           6%

Great Britain     3%                            25%                         9%

Europe East        2%                            6%                           7%

Middle East        <1%                             –                             3%

Caucasus            <1%                           7%                           <1%

Euro – Jewish      –                                 5%                           3%

Asia South           –                                 2%                           2%

Africa North       –                                  1%                          <1%

Finland                –                                    –                                1%

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Hidden Stories


Chromosome 20

A section of my grandmother’s chromosome 20, showing Amerindian, Siberian, and Oceanian segments.

This may be one of the most difficult posts I have attempted to write, because it concerns DNA, and where it can lead you.

Most of us who have been doing genealogy for decades were used to the paper game. We were given interesting-looking pedigree charts and family sheets, and the objective was to fill them out with as much corroborating evidence, records, as possible.

For a certain kind of mind, such a game is as much fun as trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. Autosomal DNA testing, however, changed all of that. For once, we could see, more or less, what DNA we had actually inherited from our ancestors. It could reveal unknown relatives to you, or verify or discredit long-cherished family traditions of descent.

My objective with my grandmother’s ancestry was to use DNA to see deep into her past. Her ancestors had described themselves as “English,” but I had found multiple instances of relatives being described as “mulatto” or “black” in records. Her admixture results from the major providers — AncestryDNA, or Family Tree DNA — were mostly useless. Was I really to believe that a woman with colonial British ancestry was 4 percent Greek? AncestryDNA said she was only 6 percent British. Family Finder said that she was 40 percent Eastern European and 17 percent British. Which was an impossibility. Although I have a feeling her Native American ancestry was causing the Eastern European result.

Like a lot of people, I sent my kit to Doug McDonald, who did the analysis for free. When he analyzed her Geno 2.0 kit, it reported something back called Na-Dene, at 1.7 percent. Mayan was a second small signal, at 1.3 percent. The Na-Dene sample is found in northern Canada and represents an indigenous population, as does the Mayan of course. After that, I turned to using various GEDmatch programs to explore this signature, which was confirmed using the various Eurogenes tools (K13, K9b), Dodecad World9, HarappaWorld, PuntDNAL, Gedrosia, and even MDLP World (which splits the signal into 0.8 percent Arctic_Amerind and 0.5 percent Mesoamerican).


My grandmother’s kit analyzed using the Eurogenes K13 tool on GEDmatch

Using chromosome painting tools, I set out to discover where these Native segments were, and if I could find anyone else who matched them. I decided to use Eurogenes K13 to paint the chromosomes according to ancestral origin, in part because the Indian and Siberian segments are painted shades of blue, which makes them easier for me to see. I thought, initially, that I would be able to find one line of my family that was Indian, to find others who descended from that line, and that the Native American DNA would be spread evenly among those descendants. What I found, however, is that the Native segments were quite random, and scattered among people not from a particular family, but who had ancestors in a certain location.


Moreover, the DNA could be found in diverse people with whom I shared no obvious common ancestors, from Choctaw Indians in Oklahoma, to people in Texas who had some tradition of Cherokee ancestry. Yet when I traced these families back, I inevitably found links to people who had once been living along the Roanoke River in Bertie County, North Carolina. Names like Whitmell, Harrington, Blount, Craft, Owens, Butler, Hollom, Lloyd, and Bryant, to name a few. In short, the characters found on these Bertie County Bastardy Bonds from the 18th century. Some members of these same families — Collins, Lloyd, Cane, and Lumpkin — later applied for Cherokee benefits from Georgia, where they were denied, as having no known link with the Eastern Cherokee.

One record that I found most interesting was this one:

16 Dec 1741 Bertie County, NC Deed Book F, p. 368: Susannah COLLSON and John COLLSON (her son) to Thomas BLOUNT and Thomas WHITMELL, 16 December 1741. 19 June 1742. 500 pds. for 600 acres “…Executors of the Last will and Testament of John COLLSON, Sen Dec’d . . . except for thirty two pounds quit rents Deducted to us paid by Thomas COLLINS . . . ” Land on SS Rocquis Creek.

This placed the name “Thomas Collins” on the periphery of the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in the 1740s, along with the Colsons, Blounts, and Whitmells. All of these families were involved with the Harringtons, a name that continued to surface among matches, and most of these families were involved in the Indian trade, from dealing with the Tuscarora to trading among the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek. While it did not mean that I descended from that specific Thomas Collins, who was living in Bertie in the 1740s, it was possible that my branch of that family was connected to him in some way, considering the DNA matches coming from that same neighborhood.

The really fascinating aspect of this journey, is that it has been almost impossible to document on paper. This really questions some of the underlying principles of modern genealogical practice. While the process of digging through archives, exploring associations between people of certain surnames, or tracking land transactions can form the bones upon which family histories can be constructed, DNA can point us in the direction of other, hidden stories in our family’s ancestries. Many of my matches from this community, which originally was located on the Roanoke River around Indian Woods, have admixture results suggesting deep mixed ancestry. Most have majority African or European ancestry, but autosomal testing allows us to see those distant Indian, African, European, or even South Asian ancestors who have been obscured by racist laws, record loss, and, in some cases, purposeful erasure of different aspects of family history.

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