Colored Russells

THERE ARE SEVERAL documents that list members of the Russell family of Nansemond County, Virginia, and Gates County, North Carolina, as a color other than white. These have been crucial to me in unpicking my grandmother’s ancestry. These documents are:

  • Virginia Deaths and Burial Index, 1853-1917, for Elvy Russell (1793-1857), listed as colored
  • US Federal Mortality Schedules, 1850-1885, for Elvy Russell Collins (1806-1870), listed as colored
  • 1860 US Federal Census in Nansemond County for Sarah Russell (b. 1844), listed as mulatto
  • 1800 US Federal Census in Gates County for Charles Russell (b. 1776), which lists a free person of color as part of his household

Among Russell researchers with whom I have been in touch, these records are viewed as clerical errors or mistakes. They believe the Russells were of wholly European stock. Their DNA does not immediately suggest otherwise (although I am taking a second look at those Asia South and Finland/Northwest Russia results) and the only relative I have found with an Amerindian result matches me on the Collins side, not the Russell side. If so why were so many Russells listed as colored?

All of these people listed apparently descend from George Russell, whose estate was settled in 1791. George Russell first appears in the tax lists of Gates County in 1785, but he was listed on a Chowan County marriage in 1779 between John Collins and Sarah Hinton. This Sarah Hinton may be the daughter of Priscilla Freeman and granddaughter of Chowanoke Tabitha Hoyter.

In the Nansemond County tax lists, three Russells are listed in 1782, the starting year: Judith, Mary, and James Russell. I have not been able to intuit their origin, as there is only a single mention of the Russell family in the Vestry Book of the Upper Parish, with an entry for Charles Russell in 1752. That being said, living in the border region, there is also a entry for a land processioning from the neighborhood that resulted in no names being reported on account of the processioners being illiterate. Which is to say, that Russells may have been living there, but they were not reported in official documents.

No matter, when George Russell died in 1791, James Russell was appointed administrator of his estate. It is my theory that James Russell was George Russell’s son. If not, he was his brother or a close relative. George Russell’s 25 acres passed to James and his heirs. George Russell appeared on the same tax lists in Gates County as Thomas and William Collins. James Russell was neighbor to Thomas and William Collins in Nansemond County. These are closely linked families.

I have tried to deduce the identity of George Russell’s spouse. I have speculated that she might have been a Smith. Thomas, Arthur, and Ann Smith all appear on George Russell’s estate record. Three of his speculative children, James Russell, Charles Russell, and Betsy Russell, all married into the Smith family. Is it possible that the source of the “color” in the Russell family came from the Smiths? Or could George Russell’s wife have been a Collins?

We are now reaching back into the 18th century with little to go on.

I have thought that the free person of color listed in Charles Russell’s household in 1800 could be his mother. This woman (whose name was probably Ann, because of a later 1816 deed of land to Charles Russell) due to her status, could have been excluded from the estate of George Russell. That would make George Russell’s wife the source of color in the family.

One thing that puzzles me about this whole picture is why the Russells (and Collinses) never manage their own estates or proceedings. In almost every situation, someone else is appointed to supervise their assets. Typically, it’s a member of the Goodman, Austin, Sears, or Brady families. I have wondered if they were laborers on their properties, and therefore counted on these men to act as benefactors.

In playing around with DNA, I have been able to show descent in this time frame from the colored Hall and Butler families in the area. Later generations of both the Russell and Collins families married into the Pierce and Hall families, and lived side by side with the Robbinses at Bennetts Creek. All of these names: Collins, Hall, Pierce, Russell are associated with the Algonquian peoples of coastal Virginia and North Carolina. Joseph Russell is named as a Mattamuskeet Indian on land deeds in Hyde County in the 18th century, Cati Collins is described as an Indian woman also in Hyde County in 1765.  George Hall received a certificate of Indian descent in Norfolk County, Virginia, in 1833. There is a whole post here at Native Heritage Project about the Pierce family of Tyrrell County.

This is why I feel that the ‘color’ in the Russell family came from this deeper Indian connection and that it was mainly acknowledged around the time of the Civil War (the three core documents are from 1857, 1860, and 1870).

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