People of the First Light


A page from the Eliot Indian Bible, written in Natick language in 1663. Some linguists estimate that Natick and Powhatan were about 72 percent mutually intelligible.  

I AM NO EXPERT on Algonquian peoples or languages, but when it comes to Carolina Algonquians, there are a few basic ideas that are important to understand, and which help to explain later migrations between Indian communities.

The first is that Algonquian peoples migrated southward, out of Canada, along the coast. According to the archaeological record, the southernmost extent of Algonquian settlement was around the White Oak River in North Carolina. By the time of John Lawson’s journey in 1709, it had retreated somewhat to an island in the Pamlico River. “Indian Island” still exists.

Lawson also recorded a vocabulary for these “Pampticough” Indians that is similar to the vocabularies recorded for Virginia Algonquians. Some linguists have determined that the Algonquians who lived below the Indian River in Delaware spoke a variety of Algonquian that was more similar to the languages spoken in New England and Canada than it was to Lenape, immediately adjacent to the north. The Lenape represented a later influx of Algonquians from the west, which displaced this original group extending down the coast. However, the coastal people, from Canada to North Carolina, retained the same name for themselves — Wabanaki, Wôpanâak, Weapemeoc — “People of the First Light,” or “People of the Dawn Land.”

As such, the peoples extending south from Canada, through New England and Eastern Long Island, and then continued from northern Virginia and southern Delaware along the coast to the southern extent of modern-day North Carolina, were one group of people with a common name. Different nations, largely based and named by Europeans according to geography, at times comprised confederacies. It is worth mentioning here that the Chowanoke, or “Chawanook,” as they were rendered by the first European map makers, may have been a satellite of the semi-migratory Shawnee people.

In the early 17th century, Shawnee were found not only in the Ohio Valley, but just west of the Delaware River, and as far south as the Savannah River. It seems entirely plausible that the Indians who were living on the Chowan River were another group of migratory Shawnee. The names recorded for the “Chawanook” and “Suwanees” are almost identical. At the same time, it could just be another case of a common Algonquian word for “South” (Chuwon) being applied to disparate groups of people.

Another interesting detail is that according to the Weapemeoc, they gave the Chowanoke the land upon which they settled. The two groups were related. The Durant surname is listed on several of the early Yeopim deeds, while the Robbins name appears of the Chowan Indian deeds. In 1736, an Indian named “Thomas Durin” sued his fellow tribe member “John Robins” for a debt. The names John and Thomas Hoyter are recorded as Chowan Indian leaders in the 18th century. By the end of the century, though, they are found among the Yeopim in Camden and Currituck counties.

The Algonquians relied on a mix of fishing, hunting, gathering, and agriculture to survive, and the extent of their settlement was largely related to the coastal environment they inhabited. They too were semi-migratory and lived in seasonal villages. I am currently looking into the idea that the “Poteskeit” Indians recorded by Lawson as living in Currituck might have been a seasonal village of the “Pochayick” or “Pochick” band of traditional Nansemond, whom he does not name as being in North Carolina at this time. The relationship between these sites may explain why the same families are found in Norfolk and Currituck as are found near the old Nansemond and Meherrin towns in Hertford County. “Poteskeit” could have been one of their seasonal village sites.

The sounds and rivers of the Inner Banks represented a network that connected Algonquian settlements, rather than a barrier that separated different peoples. This is helpful to know when one is considering how Algonquians from the Eastern Shore migrated to the Norfolk-Currituck area. If one considers them to have been a single people, connected by water, then their migration up and down the coast makes sense.

Sometime after the failed Roanoke Colony left behind devastation among the Coastal Algonquians, the Tuscarora gained political control of the region. Hugo Leaming in Hidden Americans (1979) for instance refers to the Yeopim as a nation of the Tuscarora Confederacy. That does not mean that the Tuscarora completely replaced the populations of the towns, but rather the coastal peoples deferred to the will of their stronger neighbor in most political matters. It was not unusual for weaker, coastal Algonquian nations to ally with their stronger Iroquoian neighbors. This may explain why some families from the Norfolk-Currituck area later joined the Tuscarora at Indian Woods.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Dawn Land

algonquianTWENTY-SEVENTEEN was a year that saw me delve into and investigate a number of theories about the origins of my ancestors.

I swung between hypotheses that they were detribalized Pamunkey, or refugee Tuscarora, or merely Chowanoke fringe people.

Both DNA and records have led me to believe that these were coastal Anglo-Indian families that intermarried with similar families. DNA was critical here, as I matched descendants of the indigenous Hall, Weaver, and Sawyer families, all of whom claimed Indian descent, and all of whom matched each other.

They, in turn, have connections to both the Norfolk, Virginia communities, as well as those in Bertie County. In fact, I have come to suspect that John Collins, the Bertie County settler whom I profiled in depth, was actually a Nansemond Indian in part, given his close association with the Bass family in Bertie.

John Collins and his descendants make multiple appearances in the book Bass Families of the South. While Albert Bell’s book has been severely criticized, it does not erase the proximity and connections between the two families, and makes Norfolk a likely starting point for this Collins family.

It would make sense that if the Basses had migrated from Norfolk, the Collinses had come with them to Bertie. Which would make the Collinses of Bertie and of Norfolk the same family. There is no “Tuscarora” Collins family, and no “Nansemond” Collins family, and no “Mattamuskeet” Collins family. There is no “Meherrin” Collins family.

They are all the same Anglo-Indian family.

This is my family. It’s clear to me. In the coming year, I would like to learn more about Coastal Algonquian culture, and to dwell less on genealogical connections. Genealogy is fascinating in that it allows you to see connections between people on paper. DNA is equally as relevant, because it allows you to uncover connections that have been lost. Yet learning more about the coastal culture would be of greater interest to me at this point.

This is my ambition for 2018.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Douglas Collins

Douglas Collins 1Douglas Collins 2

I came upon this listing for Douglas Collins in the 1860 census in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. This is a town equidistant from Gettysburg and Tuscarora National Forest in the southern central part of the state. Douglas Collins is listed as an Indian, and as being from Virginia.

Interestingly, at the bottom of the page, it shows that census takers counted his family as “white” in the total count of white and colored residents. This would be relevant later, because in 1870, the family of Douglas Collins, this second time using perhaps his real first name, Presley, is listed as white.

Douglas Collins actually appears in the Norfolk County Register of Free Negroes and Mulattoes in 1850. “Douglass Collins, 23 yrs, 5 ft 11-3/4, Indian complexion, Indian descent, 16 Sept. 1850.” The same register lists William Collins, Cary Collins, and Presley Collins, all as mulatto, rather than Indian. However, the year their names were recorded was 1831. The William Collins listed is the progenitor of a family now known as Meherrin Indian, and that listed itself as Indian in the 1900 US Federal Census of Hertford County, North Carolina. I have written about that family here.

All of these names, William, Cary, and Presley Collins, are connected to Kinner Shoecraft Collins, who left a will in Princess Anne County in 1823. In that document, and others, Cary, William, and Presley are named as his sons. A century later, another man named Cary Collins is listed in the 1907 census of the Nansemond Indians. This was clearly an Indian family, as supported by multiple documents. Moreover, this family had some European ancestry. This is demonstrated by the fact that not only was Douglas Collins counted as white in Pennsylvania, but Kinner Collins was taxed as white until 1820.

My own ancestors were considered white in most documents. However, some were characterized as colored, especially around the time of the Civil War. My own matches with Hall and Weaver descendants, other Indian families from the east side of the Great Dismal Swamp, plus the appearance of my ancestor’s name “Graham Collins” among the Indian communities at Mattamuskeet, seems to incontestably link my family to these families. It’s worth noting that my ancestor Graham Collins’s sister Claresia married Thomas B. Hall in Gates County. These Halls were another one of these racially ambiguous families that were described as white in some documents and black in others.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tales from Old Carolina

JohnsonPublished in 1965, F. Roy Johnson’s Tales from Old Carolina is an invaluable source of local folklore about the Roanoke-Chowan area.

Why? Because unlike many of the ‘liberation narratives’ that emerged in the 1970s, where the maroon communities of the Great Dismal Swamp area were reinterpreted as multicultural, freedom-seeking vigilantes living a life on the margins away from racist, colonial rule, Tales from Old Carolina has no such overt sociopolitical objective.

Johnson even characterizes the “Civil War anarchy” that engulfed the region in a relatively neutral tone, describing “deserters from both armies who pillaged, stole, burned, and murdered as they gathered up commodities for their own subsistence and the contraband trade” (p. 234). He also delves into some of the class issues that framed the perspective in this area, which was too backward and swampy to fully support the classic slave-labor-based plantation system. Many of the smallholders — such as my ancestor William Howell — refused to fight for the Confederacy, and saw the cause of the South as a “rich man’s war.”

For these reasons, I trust his observations on the fate of the local Native Americans, at least as mere reportage. First of all, Johnson writes that the main Native American group living in this area at the time of European contact was the Chowanoke. Given their ideal location, spanning the Chowan River, he said they were “better fed by far” than the Tuscaroras who inhabited North Carolina’s central plains (p. 7).

The swampy, eastern bank of the Chowan, where my ancestors first emerged in the records, was not inhabited year round by the Chowanoke though, while it was used as a base for hunting and foraging expeditions. The first European settlers moved into the region in the mid-17th century. Johnson interprets a 1692 observation by a visiting doctor, that the area was “peopled with English, intermixted with the native Indians to a great extent” to mean that the first colonists formed families with the indigenous inhabitants (p. 13). This is interesting, because it is an instance of a pre-Civil Rights Act source openly acknowledging miscegenation in colonial North Carolina.

He reiterates this claim on page 23, where he says that by the time of the American Revolution,  the local Chowan, Meherrin, and Nansemond Indians had “for all practical purposes lost their tribal identity” and were “gradually being assimilated into the white and Negro populations.” So he again states that some Native Americans were absorbed into the European settler community, a fairly bold statement considering that in a 1915 article in The Windsor Ledger in Bertie County, the newspaper claimed, “There was no racial intermingling, there were no half-breed Indians.”

While modern descendants would take issue with this — and it is all too typical of the “vanishing Indian” myth — Johnson makes these statements based on colonial records. The Meherrin did mostly disappear from records after the mid-1760s. Multiple researchers have suggested that this group, which Johnson characterizes as a fragment of multiple refugee Iroquoian groups from Virginia and as far north as Maryland and Pennsylvania, such as the Susquehannock, actually left with the Tuscarora for New York in the late 1760s. Johnson cites a 1752 letter that refers to a “mere handful” of Meherrin preserving nation status who removed to the Potecasi in Hertford County, while other remained scattered in western Gates County.

Such was the fate of most of these nations, Johnson reported, referring to survivors who broke up into clannish, loosely-knit bands of Indians. This development is also described in the book Ross Baptist Church, The First Seventy-Five Years, 1800-1875: “According to local history, Indian tribal units had ceased to exist by 1750 … Most of the Indians had moved away, leaving the few remnants that chose to remain in the area. Those that remained in the area organized into family units, and adopted English surnames for identification.” It is unclear if Johnson is the original source of this information.

However, Johnson’s narrative for the Chowanoke has some holes in it. He notes that in 1731, this group was reported to have less than 20 families, and then cites the 1733 colonial council decision to allow the Chowanokes to incorporate with the Tuscarora at Indian Woods (p. 22). Johnson writes that there is “no evidence that any of their number joined their old enemy.” Yet a “Billy Bennett” is named as a Tuscarora chief in a 1766 letter. Bennett is one of the oldest names associated with the Chowanoke, dating back to deeds in the early 1730s. Meantime, by the mid-1750s, only two families are reported on the old Chowanoke Reservation in Gates County, as Johnson notes. This begs the question — To where did these 18 or so families remove in the years between 1731 and 1752?

In Anthony F. C. Wallace’s 1952 paper, The Modal Personality of the Tuscarora Indians, references a “Shawnee Beaver” clan among the northern Tuscarora. “Whether these ‘Shawnees’ were Ohio or Susquehanna River Shawnee or were the Sawanees (Chowans) of the Albemarle Sound is not clear,” he writes. “They represent a confusing element, as they joined the tribe during its migration northward.”

By the early 1720s, as Johnson notes, there was considerable blurring between the Indian nations of the Roanoke-Chowan area. In 1723, for instance, a reservation of 53,000 acres was set aside specifically for the Tuscarora and Chowanoke. One might wonder if the 1733 act enabling the Chowanoke to incorporate with the Tuscarora referred to the Indians already living on the same reservation with them. Also that year, the Meherrin and Nansemond Indians filed a petition together concerning their lands in what is now Hertford County. As such, we see a relatively fluid situation, with people moving between communities — with Chowanoke living among the Tuscarora in Bertie County, and Meherrin and Nansemond co-petitioning the colonial council about land in 1723.

Some of the Nansemond later moved north into Southampton County, Virginia, to incorporate with the Nottoway. There are even arguments over whether Edith Turner, the Nottoway leader, was actually a Nansemond Indian, as the name Turner appears on the last records related to the Nansemond Reservation from the late 18th century. Yet given the Nansemond’s earlier relationship with the Meherrin, it is likely that Turner had ancestry from all three of these groups — Nansemond, Meherrin, and Nottoway.

There are several other interesting stories related in Johnson’s book. For instance, he refers to Chowanoke “joining the nations of the western frontiers,” while others were captured and sold into slavery by enemy Indians. This validates stories of Chowanoke going to settle among the Pee Dee Indians in South Carolina, and even among the Choctaw of Alabama. I personally have found DNA matches with Choctaw living in Oklahoma. Perhaps this is the origin of that connection?

Johnson also describes an Indian settlement called Fort Island, in the Hall area of Gates County, where “people of full Indian blood lived … until a few decades before the Civil War.” This is a very interesting anecdote, because it matches the stories about Tuscarora Indians coming to the area within the same time frame. In that local oral history, collected from Roy Eure, who lived in Hall Township, he described these Indians as Tuscarora. Another interviewee mentioned a tribe of Indians who “lived from the Winton Road up into Virginia.”

This puts the Tuscarora in the area of Fort Island around the time that Johnson said there was an Indian fort there. It also coincides with stories found in Hugo Leaming’s book Hidden Americans (1979) that describe Tuscarora moving into this area. What I have come to wonder, is if the Tuscarora who moved into Gates County were actually the descendants of the Chowanoke who had gone to live among them back in the 1730s.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.


Perhaps Absalom Collins, Arthur Williams, and John Castellaw, were brothers in law. This might explain the relationship between these three families, and the fact that no marriage record exists for Absalom. If his wife was a Butler, and it was a common law marriage with an Indian woman, his children might have been counted as white. The Thomas Collins who witnessed the 1803 deed on behalf of Sarah Butler might have been her son.



Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments