Another Look at Scratch Hall

wp_20160612_16_05_26_proHALL TOWNSHIP lies in the western part of Gates County in northeastern North Carolina. It’s left flank abuts the Chowan River, and much of the area is nearly impenetrable cypress swamp, or low-lying ground. There exists a great deal of anecdotal evidence about a mestizo community living in this area dating back to the late 17th century, and in 1965 local historian F. Roy Johnson made reference to legend that full-blooded Indians were living at Fort Island — an elevated part of Hall Township, surrounded by swamp — until a few decades before the Civil War.

I have tried previously to create a list of area families, with the aim of determining who these people, dubbed the “Scratch Hall Folk,” were. What is certain is that both the Collins and Russell families from whom I descend were living there in the 18th century. I have written a lot about the trajectory of the Collins family, but looking more deeply into the origins of the Russell family, I was surprised to find several links not to the Norfolk-Princess Anne-Currituck area, but rather to New Kent County in Virginia.

The first piece of evidence that sent me looking at New Kent County records was related to the Langston family, and the fact that the Langstons had acquired land known as Pamunkey Neck in what is now King William County before gaining land in modern-day Scratch Hall in Gates County. It was John Langston, from this same family, that deeded land to Charles Russell in 1743, establishing the family in the area. This made me curious if the Russells could be traced back to New Kent County, and the Pamunkey Neck area in particular.

In looking into the Russell and Collins families, and marriages in particular, one name that continues to pop up is Richard Austin. He was either the bondsman or witness for the marriages of James Smith and Betsy Russell in 1811; for William Collins and Abby Grant in 1809; for Charles Russell and Mourning Smith in 1796; for James Russell and Elizabeth Jenkins in 1804. A Richard Austin, likely his son, married Mary Collins in 1823.

The Austins, Russells, and Collinses were all neighbors living on the Gates County, North Carolina-Nansemond County, Virginia, line, and all of them arrived there via Hall Township. Consider that in November 1791,  William Crafford deeded 50 acres at Fort Island to Claiborne Oysten for $75.

This name, Claiborne Austin, is key to understanding the relationship between the Scratch Hall Folk and what Helen Rountree calls the “New Kent fringe” in her book Pocahontas’s People. Because in searching North Carolina and Virginia records, I did find a Claiborne Austin. He was living in New Kent County in 1791.

The more interesting tie-in here is that of local marriages, three Gates County men, Henry Hill, Jeremiah Jordan, and Josiah Lassiter, who all married Russell women (Elizabeth, Sarah, and Mary, respectively) and were named in a 1799 Gates County case that identified their father as William Russell and mother as Sarah Armistead of Cumberland County, Virginia. Of the two, at least the Armistead family originated in New Kent County. The latter is the same Sarah Russell named in a 1796 estate record. Chowanoke Headman James Robbins is on that record, as are Hill, Lassiter, Jordan, and others.

This again ties the Russell and Austin families more closely together in the New Kent area.

The Austin family from that area has a strong tradition of Pamunkey, and sometimes Catawba, descent. They also have Y-DNA haplogroup E1b1a, indicating West African descent. Claiborne Austin is likely from this same family grouping. In her book, Pocahontas’s People, Helen Rountree describes Indians in this area as the “New Kent fringe,” essentially Pamunkey  who had moved south of the reservation and out of King William County. The appearance of the names Langston, and also Sweat (neighbors of the Collinses and Russells in Gates and Nansemond counties), lends more support to the idea that there was a relationship between Rountree’s “New Kent fringe,” and F. Roy Johnson’s “Scratch Hall Folk.”

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