Grandma Margaret Elizabeth Howell Pittman “Peg” Petrone is going to be 95 years old in December. A long time ago, when I first became interested in Native Americans, reading all the books I could in the children’s library, I asked my grandparents if we were in fact part Indian.
My grandfather, who was of Italian extraction, laughed and said, “Sure, we’re members of the Shoshone tribe.” Grandma was a blue-eyed Southern Belle from Virginia, so it seemed kind of obvious that she wasn’t either. Of course, I would have loved to have been told “Yes,” but I accepted the “No.”
Another reason for my interest in Indians is because I grew up finding arrowheads and “paint pots” and “wampum” — that I even knew what “wampum” was (just explained it to my daughters the other day). We had razed an entirely different civilization and all that was left behind were some shards.
Meantime, the local “Indians” had basically folded into the African American community. They wore their ancestry with pride, and some donned feathers for local “powwows,” (and I put feathers on, too), but there seemed something ersazt about the whole phenomenon of Eastern Algonquian Indians affecting Western Native American garb and culture if only to appear “more Indian” to the local European-descended populations.
While I accepted that we had no familial connection to Native peoples, images of my great grandfather, Wilmer Thomas Pittman gave me pause, if only because he looked so unusual, that his eyes were so obviously Asiatic in origin, and that my grandmother also had “that squint” and that my father looked like a “little Chinese boy” as a child. When doing genealogy, I always kept a lookout for Native connections on the father’s side on that suspicion, but never found any convincing evidence.
Wilmer’s father’s line, the Pittmans, were descended from Thomas Pittman, who was born about 1615 in either England or Wales. Experts I have queried say that the commonly found notation of a birth in Monmouthshire, a county on the border of Wales and England, has nothing to substantiate it. The best leads they have found are in Dorset and Devon. I agree, because in looking through later English census records, I found a preponderance of Thomas Pittmans in those counties. Anyway, the Pittmans and associated families remained in Isle of Wight County, across the James River from the first settlement at Jamestown from the late 17th century, through the early 19th century, when a descendant named Jordan Pittman removed to Southampton County on the border of Hertford County. His grandson, Thomas Pittman, was to marry Anna Eliza Battle from across the state line. The Battles seem to have come from the north of England (sources place their origins at Alnwick in Northumberland). They had a similar path of settlement, except arriving at Hertford through Nansemond County, now Suffolk.
It’s important to keep in mind that these were both landowning families, and that the Battle family at least has a well established pedigree. Moreover, I found little to substantiate any idea that either the Pittman or Battle families, or associated families, had Native roots. The majority of these families had roots in England, with the exception of the Maget family (Anna Battle’s mother’s family) which was apparently of Dutch origin.
So, that was great grandfather’s father’s family. His mother was Martha Lydia Collins, known as Lydia. My grandmother never met her, even though she died when my grandmother was 27 years old. I have traced Lydia’s family for you here. Lydia’s parents were Hugh Collins and Celia Cross. The Crosses are another well documented family, with land patents going back to the 17th century. But the Collins have given me trouble.
As you can see from this map of deeds, there were no Collins deeds in the area where they are known to have settled, near Drum Hill in Gates County. There are deeds near Somerton for Thomas and Stephen Cowling, but not Collins. Other deeds and records show that the Cowling family retained this spelling into modern times. So these Cowlings are not our ancestors, unless a branch of the family began spelling its name Collins, rather than Cowling.
William Collins was a landholder in the area, but his land is on the opposite side of the county, on the IoW border, a property called ‘Kingsale.’ And, as I have explained previously, this Kingsale Collins family had removed to Franklin County, North Carolina, after the American Revolution. Moreover, my ancestors do not appear in Nansemond County land tax records until 1796, which means they either did not own or rent land until that time, or they held land somewhere else.
That somewhere else appears to have been in Gates County, as there are “Collings” families in Gates in the 1786 North Carolina state census and the 1790 and 1800 censuses. These families are tied to other families associated with Lydia Collins maternal line. For instance, I recently found a bastardy bond for Sarah Collins, who had a daughter out of wedlock with James Arline in 1783. James Arline was the grandfather of Nancy Arline — Hugh Collins’ mother.
My instinct, has been that my family of Collins is not connected with the Kingsale Collins (or the Cullens family of
Hall Township, the Nathan and Thomas Cullens, sons of Jonathan Cullens, who left a will in 1779), or the Cowlings family. My instinct is that they are connected with John Collins, who held land in Gates County and died in Bertie County, leaving a will that named many sons, none of whom are our apparent ancestors. However, as I have shown below, this John Collins had dealings with our ancestors, including the Arline family, making him more likely to be our ancestor, or a relative of our ancestor.
The problem is there is a 50-year gap between when John Collins is last mentioned in the area as a processioner of land north of Bennett’s Creek (ie. present-day Gates County) in 1725, together with Jacob Odam (who I believe was his brother-in-law) and the appearance of our Collins in any records in Gates County, Chowan County, Hertford County, or Nansemond County. To be fair, the Nansemond County records burned, but, as we can see, they did not appear in tax lists there from 1782-1796. And the area in question was part of Hertford for only about 20 years, from 1759 to 1779. Additionally, I have not found my Collins in local tax or militia lists that survive for these counties, until the militia list of 1783 for “Willis Parker’s District,” which was near the border, and may have included men from Gates, where I believe my Collins were resident from the early 1780s on.
That 1783 bastardy bond for Sarah Collins is the first mention of a Collins in Gates County records. There are also some interesting land deeds that mention land near “Rogers Pocosin” originally patented to John Collins. So, if the Collins owned any land in Gates County, it was farther south, near a place called Sarem.
And that is the end of the paper trail. To briefly discuss my grandmother’s maternal family, the Howells were also an old family of Nansemond with land patents going back to the 17th century, as were the Jones, Rawls, and affiliated families. Grandma’s grandfather was Robert Riedel of Sebnitz, Germany, who was from the border of what is now Germany and the Czech Republic
According to National Geographic, my grandmother is 42 percent “Northern European,” 40 percent “Mediterranean,” and 16 percent “Southwest Asian.”
As soon as I downloaded the data, though, I ran it through some other Dodecad calculators. One showed Grandma with 9 percent Amerindian ancestry, two others showed her with 2.2 percent Amerindian ancestry. I also sent the data to Doug McDonald for an independent analysis, which showed about 2 percent Amerindian ancestry.
So, as far as her DNA goes, Grandma has some Native American ancestry. Tracing back the generations, her Native American ancestor would have lived in the mid-18th century.
How to explain NatGeo’s results (which were largely corroborated by McDonald’s analysis)? Northern European populations tend to retain some Mediterranean and Southwest Asian components. In fact. my grandmother’s reference population was Danish (mine was Bulgarian). However, her Mediterranean component was somewhat larger than your average Briton’s or Dane’s. McDonald’s analysis gave her 98 percent heritage in Western Europe. And I suspect that this is due to shared heritage between northern Spain, France, and the Celtic countries — Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. In fact, Grandma’s mtDNA, U51a1d, is most commonly found in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Now, remember those names from her maternal family — Jones, Howell — these are typical Welsh names. I have also learned that a group of settlers from Caernafon, in northwestern Wales, arrived in Nansemond County toward the end of the 17th century. Perhaps it is not too much to assume that a sizable part of Grandma’s heritage is actually Welsh.
As for the Native American heritage, my working hypothesis, is that some time between 1725 and 1783, a Collins male related to John Collins (or perhaps John Collins himself), married or had children with a Native American woman in Gates County. I suspect this woman was Meherrin (or Tuscaroran), on the basis that Collins is a common surname in the Meherrin tribe, and we have some connections (via affiliated families) to proven Meherrin lines. There are also a number of Collins in the region, especially in Hertford County, that have traced their ancestry back to Collins of this same time period and have hit a brick wall. My guess is that we share similar origins.