Another Look at Deep Cypress

meherrin 2THIS IS HIGHLY SPECULATIVE. It has to be, because it’s based on a limited amount of information. What I have started to wonder in the past few days, is if there existed some kind of Indian community in and around Deep Cypress in the late 18th century and the early 19th century.

By looking at those early land deeds, I was able to see that these individuals of interest were living near the Sumner and Saunders properties just north of present day Eure. In fact, members of the Sumner and Saunders families witnessed their legal marriages. John Sumner was the witness to the marriage of my ancestors Thomas Collins and Anna Russell on 9 May 1801.

They must have been living in Deep Cypress before the move to Nansemond County. Many of the people I have profiled here in various posts — the Halls, Beasleys, Corneliuses, Collinses, Russells, Dennises, Custalows — were living in this specific area between the 1780s and the 1820s. While they were not identified as Indians, they were often not counted in censuses or militia lists and occasionally appeared as free colored persons when they were counted.

While there never was, as far as I know, an Indian town in this area, there was an Indian school at Sarem immediately to the northeast of this area. It was operational in 1712, and Thomas Hoyter, the chief man of the Chowanoke, expressed a desire to see his son educated there. It was described as being equidistant between two Indian towns. There were actually three settlements in this area: the Meherrin and Nansemond towns on the Chowan River, and the Chowanoke settlement on Bennetts Creek.

By 1728, William Byrd encountered Meherrin on the east side of the Chowan River, who had taken refuge among the settlers after being attacked by the Catawba. The Meherrin settlement in this area appears on the 1733 Moseley Map. In a 1752 letter, the Meherrin are described as consisting of a “mere handful” and living west of the Chowan, presumably at the Potecasi Creek settlement. In the 1760s, there was another migration of North Carolina Indians to join the Haudenosaunee in New York.

The names left on the Tuscarora Indian Woods deeds then appear in Gates County around Deep Cypress. Billy and Sarah Dennis had signed the deeds. Margaret Dennis appears in Gates County. Isaac Cornelius had signed the deeds, Thomas Cornelius appears in Gates County. Yet some of the people who appeared in this area: the Beasley children of Henry Saunders; Sarah Butler; Lemuel, William, and Thomas Collins; Henry and John Hall; the Russell family, bear surnames that are linked to the coastal Algonquian communities.

It appears that if there was a community at Deep Cypress, it was not made up of one particular Indian nation, but multiple families of diverse origins: the Tuscarora Dennis, Custalow, and Cornelius families from Bertie County; the perhaps Nansemond or Yeopim Hall and Collins families from Norfolk and Currituck; the Mattamuskeet Russell family from Hyde County; the Chowanoke Beasley family from Gates and Chowan counties.

There are two bits of anecdotal information that  might confirm this theory. One is the mention in F. Roy Johnson’s 1965 book Tales of Old Carolina of an Indian community at Fort Island, directly southwest of this area, that existed until “a few decades before the Civil War.” The second was oral history in 1979-1980 that described Indians living on the Winton Road up into Virginia, and identified them as — perhaps — Tuscarora Indians.

If this was such a community, its composition would be no different from the communities elsewhere in the region. A Neusiok Indian named “Neuse Will” signed the Chowan land deeds in the 1730s. Jeremiah Pushin was on record as a Nansemond and Chowan Indian. The Tuscarora Indian Woods deeds and the Nottoway 1808 census mention men and women named “Wineoke Charles” and “Jemmy Wineoak.”

These people living at Deep Cypress were probably a mix of Chowanoke, Nansemond, Meherrin, Tuscarora, Weyanoke, Yeopim, and other Indians. This is what the area around Deep Cypress looks like today. As you can see, there is still a major swamp in this neighborhood.

deep cypress

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In the Vicinity


The southwestern corner of Gates County, from a 1929 soil survey map.

ON 18 FEBRUARY 1803, John Lang gave Sarah Butler 10 acres, 2 cows, a sow and pigs, a pot, a feather bed and furniture, a pewter basin, dish, two plates and two spoons.

It was a “deed of gift,” and it was witnessed by James Ransom and my ancestor Thomas Collins. The acreage bordered “John Sumner’s line.” In an earlier deed from 1 October 1791, it is learned that John Sumner‘s line adjoins Henry Saunders and Fereby Parker‘s lines. A separate deed made the same day involving Sarah Saunders and Joseph Parker describes “100 acres running along cypress swamp to Ballard’s corner.”

“Ballard’s corner” still exists as a place name in Gates County, except it is known as Ballards Crossroads.


A close up of the area. Ballards Crossroads at right, Cypress Swamp, just north of Eure Church. The legendary “Fort Island” and Scratch Hall Pocosin are immediately southwest.

The land that John Lang deeded Sarah Butler was north of the Cypress Swamp, referred to as “Deep Cypress” in some records. He had acquired it on 16 May 1795 from William Saunders as part 221 acres described as being on the “north side of Cypress Swamp.”

This land would later pass in 1816 to Martha Butler, the head of a household of 10 free colored persons in the 1820 US Federal Census for Gates County.*

Sarah Butler did not appear in the 1800 or 1810 censuses in Gates County. Some, such as Paul Heinegg, have speculated that this Butler family originated from the union of John Castellaw and Martha Butler, a free colored woman of Bertie County in the 18th century.

There is no evidence to tie these families together.

Sarah Butler did witness the will of Sarah Saunders on 16 December 1803.

sarah butler

Sarah Saunders was the daughter of Henry King, who had previously acquired much of the land in this area. She was also the widow of Charles Saunders, and her 1803 will mentions sons Henry Saunders and Joseph Saunders. Henry Saunders did not live long after his mother passed.

He left a will dated 31 May 1804, in which he named his brother Joseph executor, and acknowledged four children: William, Nancy, Abigail and Polly Beasley. He did not name their mother. Thomas Beasley was listed in the 1800 census in Gates, as the head of a household of one white male, aged 26 to 44.

The earliest Beasley in Gates County was Charles Beasley, who authorized the sale of land held by the Chowan Indians in the 1730s. At this time, I cannot connect Charles Beasley to Henry Saunders’ children.

However, the fact that a marriage record exists for Beley Beasley in 1809 to Jacob Robbins, another Chowan Indian, and that Sarah Butler’s descendants married into the Robbins family suggests that all three families, the Butlers, Beasleys, and Robbinses, were related.

As such, this places two Chowanoke-linked families, the Beasleys and Butlers, in the area of Deep Cypress Swamp at the turn of the 19th century. But the reality is that there may have been other Indians living there. The 1825 marriage of Edward Custalow and Margaret Dennis was witnessed by Charles Sumner. Thomas Cornelius married Sukey Hall in 1804. That marriage was witnessed by Bryan Saunders.

By the time of the 1803 deed to Sarah Butler, John Lang had already moved to Pitt County, North Carolina, where he died in 1840. He was involved in the 1791 estate of his father, James Lang, the same year he married Elizabeth Rogers. It is unclear what his relationship to Sarah Butler was, or why he gave her 10 acres as a gift.

The other two men on the 1803 deed are James Ransom and Thomas Collins. James Ransom appears to have made some income in the slave business. The 1790 census lists him as the head of a household of four whites and 16 slaves. Of the few records that mention him in Gates County, two are involved in the sale of slaves. It is unclear where his land was located, as he witnesses deeds in several parts of the county.

The 1803 is the first (and only) mention of Thomas Collins in the deeds. He owned no property in Gates County, however the deed places him squarely in the area of Deep Cypress. He is listed in the 1800 census as the head of a household of six white persons, four of whom are females under 10 years of age.

This Thomas Collins first appears in the Gates County tax lists in 1792. He may have been the son of the Lemuel, Thomas, or William Collins who appeared in the tax lists in the 1780s.

Of these three men, Lemuel Collins appears on a 28 January 1789 deed of land from Henry Dilday to Eborn Sears.


In 1791, Eborn Sears sold the land back to Dilday. It was described as adjoining Joel Goodman, William Goodman, William Gatling, and Isaac Pipkin. William Collins witnessed the will of Joel Goodman, dated 7 May 1795.

william collings

This land was located a bit farther north from where the Langs, Butlers, Saunders, and Beasleys were living, and closer to Sarem, the site of the old Indian school from the earlier part of the 18th century. In the 1733 Moseley Map, Meherrin Indian cabins are actually shown in this precise area.

meherrin 2

It does not appear that the Collinses were related to the Goodmans. However, even in the 19th century, after they had acquired land on the Nansemond (now Suffolk) border, they retained some ties to the area around Deep Cypress.

Thomas Collins, for instance, acquired 50 acres in Nansemond County by 1804. His land bordered his brother-in-law James Russell‘s land, as well as his brother James Collins, and was located near Collins Road, just north of Drum Hill.  By 1815, he held about 100 acres, and his holdings would grow to 204 acres by 1822.

The account papers for James Beasley, deceased, from 15 May 1815 show that James Russell and James Collins both took part in the estate sale, even though they had left the area about a decade earlier. It’s possible that the Beasleys and Collinses were related, given their close proximity, and that all of these families that were originally landless — the Butlers, Beasleys, and Collinses — had deep roots in the Deep Cypress area.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Currituck County, 1790 and 1800

1790 basnight

Mary and Robert Basnett, Currituck County “other free” persons in 1790

THE 1790 US FEDERAL CENSUS for Currituck County in North Carolina provides a good glimpse at changing identities in the Albemarle in the early years of the United States.

The 1733 Moseley Map had depicted two indigenous communities in this area: a town called Yeopim on the North River, then part of Pasquotank Precinct, and another called Potoskite in Currituck near a place called Powells Point. These were both Algonquian communities: the name Yeopim stemming from a word that meant, “People of the dawn land,” and Potoskite perhaps meaning, “Where it divides in two.”

In the 1790 census, we find “Thomas Bunnett” listed as the head of a household of six white persons. He is listed beside Joseph Case, who is the head of a household of six white persons. In the 1800 census, though, Joseph Case is the head of a household of six free people of color, and Rachel Bennett, listed nearby, is the head of a household of four people of color. The Cases and Bennetts went from being “white” to “free colored.”

This was but a change in paperwork. As I have posted previously, Thomas Bennett is referred to as a “old Indian man” in an 1810 deed in Currituck County. This community lived precisely near Powells Point, where the Potoskite had been living in 1733.

There were perhaps other Indians living in Currituck County, however. At that time, there were Meekins and Basnett families living at both Powells Point and on Roanoke Island, which was part of Currituck until it became part of Dare County in 1870. In the 1790 Census, Mary Basnett and Robert Basnett and Margaret Meekins and Richard Meekins head households of “other free” persons. In the 1800 census, Mary Basnight and Robert Basnight, as well as Margaret Meekins, are the heads of free white households.

Basnight 1800

Mary, Robert, Willoughby, and Archibald Basnett, “free white” persons in 1800

These records offer a glimpse at assimilation. In the case of the Cases and Bennetts, their identity went from “white” to “free colored” in the span of 10 years. For the Basnights and Meekinses, it was the opposite. I have highlighted a similar situation with my own families, the Collinses and Russells, who similarly hopped the color line a few times.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Indian Ridge, 1827


THIS IS THE TANNER MAP from 1827. You can see “Chowan Ind.s” listed at the upper left in Gates County, while “Indian Vil.” and “Indian Ridge” straddle the border between Currituck and Camden on the right. The indigenous people of this area were, at last reference, the Yeopim Indians.

My ancestors emerged into the historical record at left, in Gates County, not far from the “Chowan Ind.s” listed. Thomas Collins (1769-1849), my ancestor, witnessed a deed in 1803 of land to Sarah Butler in the area of Deep Cypress, which is more or less where the text, “Wynn’s Ferry” is written on the map. A man named Lemuel Collins also witnessed a deed in this area in 1789, from Henry Dilday to Eborn Sears.

Without wills or deeds, it is impossible to understand the relationship between these two men in Gates County. However, they both appeared there around the same time. Moreover, the names Thomas Collins and Lemuel Collins do occur in Camden County. Another Lemuel Collins, for instance, is listed on a 1791 tax list in Camden County.

This suggests at least some relationship between the people and these places.

I have not yet been able to look through the Camden County deeds. However, Currituck deeds show another Thomas Collins in this area since 1738, when he authorized the sale of land on the North Banks, at right. Specifically, he authorized the sale of land around Kill Devil Hills. At the time, he was listed as a “planter of Pasquotank County,” which, included what is now Camden County. He signed with a mark.

A century later, in the 1860 US Federal Census, a man named Iles Collins was living at Indian Ridge in Currituck County next to a John Sears. Is it possible that these men were somehow related to the Lemuel Collins and Eborn Sears in Gates County? It’s likely.

One thing I have been searching for is a nucleus, a center from which these families emerged and spread out. What I have observed over time is that the Collins families in this area that appear to be connected to mine originated in the Indian Ridge and Indiantown areas on the Camden-Currituck border. I also think that these same families moved to Norfolk, Virginia, perhaps for work, rather than moved from Norfolk to Indiantown. As I have shown, we can locate Thomas Collins in this area in as early as 1738, whereas the family did not begin appearing in the Norfolk tithables lists until 1751. That means their presence at Indiantown predates the appearance in Norfolk.

Timelines, as they say.

Not far from Indiantown is Indian Creek, on the border between Norfolk and Virginia Beach, formerly Princess Anne County. This was the site of the homestead of Kinner Collins and his descendants, many of whom referred to themselves as Indians. Both this family, and a related one in Norfolk, specifically at Hodges Ferry in Portsmouth, were the source of the Collins family in the 1900 US Federal Census in Hertford County, North Carolina, that listed itself as Indian. This is also the likely origin of the Cati Collins, “Indian woman,” who was described in a 1765 case in Hyde County, North Carolina.

If someone was to ask me where Native Collins families originated in this region, I would say in the Yeopim Indian Town area.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 concept that has come to my attention, 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 the idea 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.”

Carolina Faces

Portraits of people from Gates County, Camden County, and Tyrrell County, North Carolina. With the exception of one person, all of these people were described as “white” in census records.

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment