Meherrin Rejected

It was with both pleasure and horror that I read through the US government’s “Proposed Finding Against Acknowledgment” of the Meherrin Tribe’s application for federal recognition, dated January 16, 2014. It gave me pleasure because it provided a frank assessment of Meherrin tribal history from the contact era through the 18th century. And that’s just the thing — as far as the federal government is concerned, the Meherrin ceased to exist as a recognizable tribal entity in the mid-1760s.

Here comes the horror. Most of the petitioners descend from a woman named Sallie Matilda Smith Lewis (c.1844-1904). Fortunately for us, Mrs, Lewis left behind several portraits that show her to have fairly recognizable indigenous features, which is probably why the Meherrin Tribe is so happy to display her image on its website. But, unfortunately, looking like Sitting Bull and claiming Native American descent does not make one eligible for federal recognition in the eyes of the state these days.

What plays a greater role is that her father, Jacob Smith, and family members, were described as mulattoes on the US censuses. As the anthropologist Helen Rountree wrote in Pocahontas’ People, the word “mulatto” did not always mean “of African and European descent.” But Rountree is not cited by the federal government. Instead, it turns to Paul Heinegg’s genealogical work on free African Americans in Virginia and North Carolina in its proposed rejection. Heinegg informs them that most of the people are descended from couplings of African males and European females in Virginia, who removed to North Carolina. And if he says it, it must be true.

One of the worst things I have seen reading both the points of the Meherrin’s application, and the notes attributed to Heinegg and used in the proposed finding against the Meherrin, is the use of something called “surname analysis.” This is the idea that if two people have the same surname, they must be related in some way. In this way, very generic English names — Lewis, Smith — become designated “Free People of Color” {read Mulatto of African Descent} names.

It’s troublesome in my research, because my ancestors lived beside a lot of people with these names, who weren’t ever categorized as being mulattoes. For example, my Collins’ ancestors land in Nansemond County bordered property belonging to the Wiggins family. Someone using Heinegg’s resource might go and say, “Oh, well,  according to Paul Heinegg, Ann Wiggins, born 1682, had a child with a ‘negroe’ in Northumberland County, Virginia, in 1705 and then another in 1726, who was on a tax list in Bertie County in 1764 …”

Okay — according to this theory, Ann Wiggins had her first mulatto child in Northumberland County in 1705, when she was about 23 years old. That part I follow. What I don’t follow is how Sarah Wiggins, born in 1726 and resident in Bertie County in 1764 is the daughter of this woman. First of all, Ann Wiggins would have had to have been 44 years old in 1726 (and did she have any children during the previous two decades?). Second of all, Northumberland County is pretty far removed from Bertie. It sits on the Potomac River facing Maryland. Bertie County is over 180 miles to its south.

So, allow me to say that I am skeptical that Sarah Wiggins, born 1726, of Bertie County, was the daughter of Ann Wiggins, born 1682, of Northumberland County. Wiggins is a common English name. A few blocks away from my house in New York, there is a “Wiggins Lane.” Just as there are Archers listed as FPCs in Hertford County, North Carolina, records, from whom many Meherrin claim descent, there are Archers in Nansemond County, Virginia, who are NOT listed as FPCs. And here’s the US government basing their rejection of recognition of the Meherrin Indian Tribe on such slippery genealogy? Not to mention that most of the information available regards males. Who was Jacob Smith’s wife Ann? Nobody seems to know. And without an uninterrupted line of female descent and a DNA test, nobody will ever know.

Not that records could even help, because one family that did designate itself as Indian on the 1900 Census — that of John and Georgianna Collins — is also dismissed as not being Native American by the government.

None of the evidence in the record documented these claimed Indian identifications and, therefore, they do not demonstrate descent from a Meherrin tribe, or from one alternative tribe

So even if you say you are, and have an older record to prove it, you’re not. Okay, good to know.

I’ve been in contact with Heinegg for years and use his website frequently in my own to try and piece things together. He’s been very responsive and I find his work very valuable, though there is a reason he uses the word “probably” so often — because it is almost impossible to nail down many of these relationships. There are “mulatto” members of the Lang and Sweat families in Collins households in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, for example. Both of these names are associated with African Americans and Native Americans {as is the name Wiggins, by the way. Members of the Wiggins family signed several deeds on the Tuscarora’s behalf in the 1760s and 1770s (but were THEY real Indians?}. I have no idea what is the relation between these Langs and Sweats and the Collins, who are designated as white. I do know that in the 1850 census one is listed as white, and in the 1860 census, the same person is listed a mulatto. Which goes to show you how reliable the censuses are.

At the end of the the federal document there is an appendix which lists the 16 names of Meherrin identified in documents between 1650 and 1727. Somehow, the poor people of the Meherrin Indian Tribe in Winton, North Carolina, are supposed to find the records that link their “mulatto” families with Nick Major of 1711, or Captain Rogers of 1727. Good luck with that!

All this leaves me believing ever more in DNA testing. At least I was able to have my grandmother tested, and to see her Amerindian DNA. If she had any African ancestors, which is possible, they were far enough back that they did not have any impact on her DNA results. Most of the evidence I can find now links associated families with the Chowanoke remnants. Sarah Hinton, who married John Collins, in 1779, for instance, was probably the granddaughter of Tabitha Hoyter Freeman. Henry Eborn Sears, whose will was witnessed by William Collings, was the husband of Bathsheba Bennett. Bennett was also a Chowanoke surname, in fact, I cannot find any other Bennetts in that county at that time who were NOT Chowanoke.

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