Musings on Elizabeth Warren

warrenTHIS IS CERTAINLY the most-talked-about issue related to Native America today, though as many have pointed out, it absolutely shouldn’t be. Amateur genetic genealogists are breaking out their calculators and sifting through reference populations.

I am not going to retrace for you the trajectory of the story of Elizabeth Warren and her claimed Native American ancestry, but I can think of ways in which it has influenced my thoughts about my own work and the way I think about the research I do.

The first is that many, many people in the US claim Cherokee ancestry. The myth of the Cherokee princess ancestor runs deep in millions, I guess, of family histories and genealogies, to the extent that it has become a joke among Native Americans, with photographic evidence revealing the” high cheekbones and straight black hair.”

The second is that Americans, particularly people of mostly European descent, typically called “white people,” have a fetish for Native American ancestry, and this is to give them something to lay claim to, or boast about, while never actually having to experience what it means to be a Native American.

Another aspect, from a slightly different perspective, is the extent to which any claims by people who are not either enrolled in federally recognized tribes, or have significantly mixed ancestry, to the extent that they appear to be “white,” or “black,” are scrutinized and ridiculed. This is demonstrated perfectly by calling Elizabeth Warren, “Fauxcahontas.”

Into this comes the perspective of the tribes themselves, such as the Cherokee Nation, which reserves the right to determine who is a Cherokee and who is not, based on some internal criteria, such as having ancestors listed on certain US government-sanctioned rolls.

Then there is the great argument about DNA and identity. Now that she has had one of the world’s best population geneticists interrogate her chromosomes, does that mean that Elizabeth Warren is an “Indian?” Does having some tiny remnant of genetic ancestry from an indigenous ancestor allow a person to claim that identity as their primary one? (Which, by the way, Warren did not do).


As I have written previously, I never had a Cherokee princess story in my family. We had virtually no discussion of having Native ancestry, beyond remarking that my great grandfather definitely resembled a person with partial Native ancestry in old photos. The explanation for this was fairly simple: my grandmother’s family had lived in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia for at least four centuries, and in the colonial era, it was highly likely that the first European settlers into this area had admixed (read: had sex) with the local Algonquian and Iroquoian people in the region. My grandmother told me this, and with a bit of a shrug. For her, it was no big deal.

I think the scrutiny I mentioned though is what drove me to pursue my research. I wanted the when, and the how, and most of all the who. I had to prove — to someone — that this was not just kitchen talk, and was “real.” The idea of Pocahontas: a single, Native American ancestor, from whom many people descended, equally sharing her Pamunkey ancestry among them, also influenced my approach. This is easily debunked. No one had a single Native American ancestor ever. They had a set of parents and so on.

The racist laws of North Carolina and Virginia obscured this ancestry from anyone who tried to learn more though. Everyone was W, B, or, more rarely, M. Even if my great grandfather was born in 1896, it had been over a century since these tribes even registered mention in the local press, and when they appeared in a smattering deeds in the early 19th century, it was to sell off the remainder of their reservations.

There was no overt “Indian community” for my great grandfather to grow up in in Gates County, North Carolina. There was “the white church” and “the black church.” There was “the white school” and “the black school.” This doesn’t mean that the old links did not continue. Several of his aunts, for instance, married people from the Indiantown community in Camden County. This had been going on for at least a century. Why Indiantown? Was it a continuation of the old links between the Yeopim and Chowanoke?

Like many people in that region of mixed ancestry though, in his case, primarily European ancestry, he lived his life as a white person. This wasn’t uncommon in the Indiantown community either. Time and time again, we see the same phenomenon of photos of people from this area who “looked Indian,” but “were white.”

This is why DNA testing became invaluable. Because DNA could allow us to see, in some fashion, what the records would never tell us: the deep ancestry of the first settlers of the region. For centuries they had been forced into “white” and “black” boxes and kept there. With ancestry testing, we might get a sense of who their ancestors actually were.


When Doug McDonald sent back my grandmother’s kit years ago, he had 1.9 percent “Na-Dene” included in the analysis of her Geno 2.0 data. I had to look up what “Na-Dene” even meant. And so began my journey of learning about the background of the first people of this region, following them back up the coast into Canada, toward some origin. I was even unnerved a bit to see, when I looked up photos of Athabascan women, how some of them resembled my grandmother. It was disturbing, in a good sense, to see that. It felt as good as it did to visit Italy, and have people recognize me as an Italian on the street. The idea that this was not just some illusion, but there was a reason for all this. One might consider it overcoming one’s American amnesia, where the past is forgotten.

Of course, I continued my genealogical research, and hunted down those matching pieces of chromosomes that had come from these people, in order to establish from what community they had originated, only to frustratingly ping pong back and forth between the “Poteskeet” of the Currituck Banks and the “Nansemond” of Norfolk, or the “Chowanoke” of the Chowan River. While we most certainly matched other Indian families in the region — the Weavers, the Halls, the Sawyers — it began to dawn on me how silly this all was. If they had wandered south out of Canada, then down along the coast into these scattered communities, did it really matter if they were “Poteskeet,” or “Assateague,” or “Nanticoke?”

And how did, say, data collected by the US government a century ago — in the case of the Dawes Commission, as an example — become the chief determinant of a person’s identity or even deep ancestry? It became clear from looking at the actual Native people in our family, that we weren’t dealing with characters of various “blood quantum,” with proven genealogies and “paper trails,” with “state recognition” or “federal recognition.” All of that was rather superficial and externally imposed. These people had just been living there in the swamps for a long time, long before any of these concepts even existed.

I’m not sure where I am now in this process, nor even what I am searching for anymore. Perhaps it would be an even greater understanding of these people and their lives. For me, it is not the tragedy of what happened to their identity, or their assimilation into “white society,” but rather the rich insights one can gain from learning about a wholly different society, a wholly different sense of self, that still somehow lurks there, buried back behind generations of ancestors who either ignored or remained aloof to it all.

There is so much to be gained from learning about one’s past. I recommend the search.

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Aleutian Islands


I HAPPENED ACROSS an interesting study of surnames, Y-DNA, and mtDNA haplogroups among indigenous Aleutian islanders a few years ago, and I have wondered since if it could at all provide some insight into the fate of indigenous people living in coastal Virginia and North Carolina.

Published by Wayne State University researchers in 2010, the study described the outcome of field work carried out between 1999 and 2006. The authors summarized that the Aleutian Islanders were closest in genetic structure to Siberian Eskimos and the Chukchi of Far East Siberia. More interestingly though, almost all of the material haplogroups were indigenous in origin, most belonging to haplogroups A and D.

The Y haplogroups, however, told a very different story.  Only 14 percent of the men surveyed were haplogroup Q3 or Q. The overwhelming majority carried haplogroups belonging to Slavic (R1a, 25.5 percent), Western European (R1b, 21.9 percent), and Scandinavian (I1a, 13.9 percent) men. And, to make it more interesting, a separate study carried out by the same researchers found that paternal surnames did not correlate with haplogroups in these communities.

Russian explorers led by the Danish captain Vitus Bering reached the islands only in the mid-18th century. While intermarriage was promoted, the outcome of the study demonstrates that within a short period of time (200+ years), the genetic structure of the Aleutian Islanders was significantly altered.


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Meherrin Indian Town, 1850


But Master Futrell knew a group of Indians who lived about two or three miles away on Potecasi Creek. (According to tradition, in the 1830’s several Indian families were living on Potecasi Creek about two miles east of N. C. Highway 11.)

This is from F. Roy Johnson’s 1974 book, Supernaturals among Carolina Folk and Their Neighbors. There is no reason to doubt its veracity. It locates a Native community in the same place where the Meherrin Indian Town was plotted in various late 18th century maps. Looking at the 1850 census, one can find this cluster containing names like Smith, Weaver, Manly, Reynolds, Bizzell, Lang, Sears, Archer, Brown, Wiggins, Flood, etc.

One thing that is most obvious is the connection to the communities to the east, particularly the Nansemond and Yeopim settlements in Norfolk and Princess Anne in Virginia, and in Currituck and Camden in North Carolina. This sharing of lineages is not at all uncommon, when one considers the overlap between the Nottoway, Tuscarora, and Nansemond families, etc. Another aspect is the heavy presence of Algonquian families at Meherrin Indian Town. One can either assume that these family names were taken up by the remnant Meherrin in Hertford, or that they married in. Yet already in the 1720s, the Nansemond and Meherrin were living side by side in Hertford, and filing joint petitions.

The current tribal historiography is of one group “absorbing” others. What I see instead is a community based around a location — called Meherrin Indian Town — hosting a variety of families of various origins.

Every Indian settlement had a core group of families around which others orbited. For the Meherrin, I have not seen the Reynolds or Bizzell families in other communities. This leads me to suspect they might be the core Meherrin families at Meherrin Indian Town. For the Chowanoke in Gates County, for instance, this was clearly the Robbins, Bennett, and Beasley families. At the Nansemond settlement in Norfolk, it was the Basses and Weavers. Into these families married others from other settlements, the Nickenses, the Halls, the Collinses, etc. This was how these communities operated. It makes it, however, quite difficult for these nations today to document descent from a particular group.

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Which Nation?

One of the reasons I have been trying to introduce a new perspective of looking at Native groups as part of a larger cultural group extending south of the Lenape to the Pamlico River, is that people these days are often caught up in the concept of “national identity.” This is often linked to the very sketchy concept of “surname analysis.” The idea is that if there is a person named as belonging to a certain group, for instance “John Robbins,” of the Chowan Indians, then that surname is associated with that tribe. Therefore, modern day descendants of the Robbins family can claim to be Chowan or Chowanoke Indians.

However, as I have shown, surnames were shared across many different nations. The surname Bennett, for instance, often associated with the Chowanoke, is also found among the Tuscarora at Indian Woods, and the Yeopim in Currituck County. So what is it? Are the Bennetts Chowan Indians who joined the Tuscarora or Yeopim? If you are a Bennett descendant, who do you claim to be? Do you start studying up on Dekanawida, or is it time to devour collections of “fellow Algonquian” Abenaki folk tales from Maine?

For the many — and there are many — descendants of the Collins families, people get tangled up in these falsely constructed ideas. They take documents that show someone named Collins was referred to as Saponi in northern Virginia in the 1740s and extrapolate that all people with that surname anywhere in the region are wandering Saponi. Which is not true. Nor is it true that the appearance of Collins among the Mattamuskeet in the 1760s makes it a “Mattamuskeet name,” anymore than it is a “Nansemond name” because some people with this surname, among them my ancestors, were living near the “Nansemond” Basses at Deep Creek in the 18th century. It’s also true that this name might have been present among the Accomack on the Eastern Shore before then.

So what’s going on? Am I actually an Accomack descendant? This is why I am in favor of describing all of these people by what many of them called themselves from Maine to North Carolina, Weapemeoc, Wampanoag, Wabanaki: “The People of the Dawn Land.”

Or,  “The Easterners.”

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Clues from a Map

These are two details from a 1685 Dutch map of the English colonies in North America. On the left, you will see “Accomack” located south of present-day Boston, Massachusetts, while on the right, you will see “Sauwanoos” outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. To the northwest, you see “Minquaas”: an almost universal Eastern Algonquian term for Iroquoian peoples. This dynamic is mirrored in Coastal North Carolina and Virginia, where we find the same word, “Accomack,” to describe the people on the Eastern Shore, and the term “Mangoaks” to describe the Iroquoians to the west. The “Sauwanoos” would be analogous to the “Chowanoke” who lived in the Chowan River basin. And the “Wapanoos” (Wampanoag) would be analogous to the “Weapemeoc” or “Yeopim” people.

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Henry Hall

THERE IS A REASON I look through old records over and over again. Each time, I turn up something new. This morning was no exception. I was looking into the Hall family of Gates County and found that a man named Henry Hall had witnessed two deeds involving my relative John Arline.

18 Oct 1792 – “John Arline appoints his friend, Henry Goodman, as his attorney to sell land, etc.” Witnesses: Henry Hall, William Goodman

18 Oct 1792 – “John Arline to Henry Goodman, 76 pds, Negro Benjamin.” Witnesses: Henry Hall, William Goodman

John Arline was the brother of my ancestor James Arline (1739-1791). Their father, also named John Arline, had died in 1790. The Arlines held land between Cole Creek and Bennetts Creek in Gates County. I have written more about this family here.

Henry Hall is a new character. He is not in the Gates County state census in 1786 or the federal one in 1790. He is also not over across the river in Hertford County at this time either. However, as we have shown, just because a person was not counted, doesn’t mean he wasn’t there. In the case of Native Americans, they were actually not supposed to be counted. He was certainly living with or near the Arlines though in the early 1790s.

Remember that James Arline had two bastardy bonds in the 1780s, one for Sarah Collins in 1783, the other for Charity Russell in 1788. Could it be that the Collinses, Russells, and Halls were indigenous laborers on the Arline property? And given the very long list of Hall DNA matches I have, this provides more evidence that the mother of my ancestor Thomas Collins or the mother of my ancestor Anna Russell might have been a Hall.

Right now, I speculate that Thomas Collins’s mother was a Hall living on the Arline property at Bennetts Creek, while Anna Russell’s mother was a Pierce. This is based on DNA matches.

But here we have the 18th century, in all its silver-plated grotesqueness and depravity. Arline descendants maintain that our ancestor, Jeremiah Arline, was born in Ireland circa 1650. We have an Irish settler family selling Africans and bedding Indian laborers. Two generations later, my ancestor Graham Collins would marry Nancy Arline.

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The De Bry Map

De Bry

THIS MAP OF VIRGINIA, made by engraver Theodor De Bry based on the watercolors by John White, provides some interesting insights into the populations inhabiting the North Carolina and Virginia coast at the time of contact. While modern anthropologists have created a dotted line between “Virginia Algonquians” (Powhatan), and Carolina Algonquians, the De Bry engraving actually shows three nations in this area. The “Weapemeoc” inhabiting the land from the Albemarle Sound to the James River, the “Chawanook,” inhabiting the Chowan River basin, and the “Secotan,” inhabiting the peninsula to the south.

Nowhere will you find “Poteskeet,” “Mattamuskeet,” “Chesapeake,” or “Nansemond” Indians.  These are names that arose later to describe peoples. Both “Weapemeoc” and “Chawanook” have analogues among other Algonquian groups: the Abenaki and Shawnee, respectively. “Secotan” looks vaguely like “Secatogue,” which was the name of a group of Mohegan-Pequot people who inhabited Long Island. As I have written previously, there were linguistic and cultural similarities between the natives in this area, and those in southern New England.

This had made it impossible though, for me as an amateur genealogist, to claim that anyone individual was a “Nansemond,” “Hatteras,” “Yeopim,” or “Mattamuskeet” person. They were all, more or less, one people. This occurred to me today when I found an 1816 marriage record for George Hall and Mary Mackey in Norfolk, Virginia. I believe this is the same George Hall who was described as a Nansemond Indian in an 1833 certificate. The Mackeys were a native family from Mattamuskeet in Hyde County. If correct, would this really be the union of a “Nansemond” person and a “Mattamuskeet” person?  I don’t think so. They were all part of one larger kinship group of Coastal Algonquian peoples.

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