‘A Preponderance of Evidence’

IT’S BEEN A FEW YEARS now since I happened across a death record for Elvy Collins in Nansemond County, Virginia, in 1870 where his race was given as B.

I had suspected that Elvy was a close relative because of his proximity in the censuses to my ancestor, Graham Russell Collins (1802-1880), and further research led me to believe that Elvy’s father, James Collins, and my ancestor Thomas Collins (1769-1849), were brothers. This evidence included the facts that Thomas and James Collins were immediate neighbors in Nansemond County, and that they married sisters Anna Russell and Katharine Russell within a month of each other in Gates County in 1801.

Since Elvy’s father and mother were siblings to my ancestors, and Elvy was listed as colored on his death certificate, it seemed likely that either the Collins or Russell families were not completely of European descent. This was reinforced when I discovered a similar death record for Elvy Russell (1793-1858), who was also listed as B.

This led me to attempt to reconstruct the Collins and Russell families from that time, while also obtaining autosomal DNA test results from my grandmother. These results showed that she had no recent African admixture, but some Amerindian admixture. Perhaps the source of the Collins and Russells’ “color” was actually Native American ancestry?

Proving Native American ancestry is no easy task, because, unless an individual lived on a reservation, or was involved in the sale of land, he or she was seldom described as Native American in historical documents. Instead, I kept my eye out for additional instances of a racial designation other than white. To date, I have found three other documents that support this.

1. The 1800 US Federal Census for Gates County, which lists one free person of color in Charles Russell’s household. Charles Russell, based on my research, was likely the younger brother of my ancestor Anna Russell, as well as James Russell, the father of the Elvy Russell listed in the 1858 death record as colored.

2. The 1840 US Federal Census for Gates County, which lists one free person of color aged 55 to 99 in the household of Thomas Colling. Thomas was, based on my research, the first cousin of my direct ancestor Graham Collins, as well as the aforementioned Elvy Collins.

3. The 1860 US Federal Census for Nansemond County, which lists Sarah Russell, daughter of Lucinda Russell, as mulatto. Lucinda Russell was most likely an older daughter of Elvy Russell. Sarah Russell would have been his granddaughter.

I also began tracing these families back to their earliest roots. In the case of the Russells, it seems likely that we descend from Charles Russell, who settled on Fort Island, in what is now Hall Township, Gates County, North Carolina, in 1743, through his son George Russell. George Russell appeared on the same tax lists as the Collinses in the 1780s, and in 1791, James Russell was named administrator of his estate and inherited his 25 acres. This same James Russell was later neighbor to the Collinses in Nansemond County.

The Collins descend from Thomas and William Collins, as well as likely from Lamuel Collins, all of whom first appeared on the Nansemond County militia list of Willis Parker in 1783, but later were on James Arline’s company, with George Russell, in the 1780s and 1790s. The proximity to James Arline, whose property was situated near Bennetts Creek in southern Gates County, plus the fact that James Arline fathered two illegitimate children with Sarah Collins in 1783 and Charity Russell in 1788, seemed to tie these families to the same area where Charles Russell first acquired his land in 1743. James Arline’s son Jesse Arline later moved to Cypress Chapel District, Nansemond County, as did the Collinses and Russells.

Circumstantial evidence seemed to tie the early Collinses to families in Hertford County that are now considered Meherrin Indian. For example, an 1803 deed lists the names Butler, Lang, Collins, and Ransom on it — all of which are considered to be Meherrin names today. Another record lists the surname Sears, another Hertford County name considered to be Meherrin. And in the 1860 household of Thomas Russell Collins (brother of Graham Collins), there is a mulatto woman named Emmeline Lang (who is listed as white on the 1850 census). There is also anecdotal evidence about a longstanding Meherrin settlement in Western Gates County on Fort Island which is exactly where the Russell family lived originally.

Earlier records though pointed toward other origins for the Russell and Collins families. There was a Joseph Russell recorded on Mattamuskeet Indian deeds in the 1740s and 1750s, and a Cati Collins described as an Indian servant woman also at Mattamuskeet in Hyde County. It could be reasoned that the Collinses and Russells who coalesced in Western Gates County from the 1740s to 1780s might have been mixed-blood Coastal Algonquian people that married into other families with Meherrin, Nansemond and Chowanoke roots.

This is really the best I have been able to do in understanding this aspect of my ancestry. It’s taken hours of work, but I will have to stop here for the foreseeable future.

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