I’ve been at this a long time now, almost five years (or more). This is a collection of portraits of people from the Collins family of Gates County and Hertford County, North Carolina, and Nansemond County, Virginia. The first, third, and fourth are close relatives. The second is a girl from Quitsna, in Bertie County, which used to be a Tuscarora town.
In doing my research, I have relied on documents, but also looked at DNA. I have looked not for specific ancestors among matches that cannot be explained by a recent common ancestor, but clusters of families. I found that I match family clusters from the Indian Woods area of Bertie County — specifically the Bazemore, Butler, Bunch, Castellow, Cobb, Jenkins, and associated families. I also noticed in looking at marriages among relatives in Gates County, some Bertie-linked families such as the Wilfords and Johnstons recur. Since the Quitsna area is the only place I can find names matching my ancestors in the pre-Revolutionary period, other than a 1771 Portsmouth blacksmith apprenticeship, I tend to think that my family was living at Quitsna in the 1760s and 1770s and that the legend about Scratch Hall being populated by “Roanoke Old Settlers,” who had a degree of Indian ancestry, be it Tuscarora or Chowanoke or something else, is true.
I have also found images of Butlers from the Winton-Scratch Hall area that are obviously of Native American descent. The first deed I have where Thomas Collins (1769-1849) appears, is one where he witnesses the transfer of 10 acres to Sarah Butler, the ancestor of the top two women. Below is an image of my great grandfather Tom Pittman, a descendant of Thomas Collins, and Pleasant Butler, a descendant of Sarah Butler from the 1803 deed.
In doing this, I really came to better appreciate how North Carolina’s racial codes tore apart local Native American identity. It is obvious to me that the Butlers and Collinses shared this ancestry at Quitsna. However, since it seems the Butlers had some African ancestry, they became ‘free colored,’ while the Collinses, having taken European partners, became ‘white.’ In fact, these families were most likely an amalgamation of all three.
While modern descendants now argue over who was Meherrin, or who was Chowanoke, or who was Waccamaw, or who was Saponi, or who was Tuscarora, we neglect, or ignore, the fact that this heritage is obscured by centuries of racial categorization that denied the existence of Indian ancestry, pushed people on the margins of Indian communities into white or black identities, and left them there. So that Tom Pittman’s grandfather, Hugh Collins, wound up fighting for the Confederacy, even while his uncle Elvy Russell Collins was called ‘black’ when he died in 1870, having lived his entire life as a ‘white’ man.
The human connection transcends racial categories, transcends laws, transcends time. When you have European and African indentured servants taking up land adjacent Indian communities that no one else wanted, the result was families like the Collinses and Butlers of Quitsna. Or the Bazemores, or the Bunches. Or any of the other mixed families. Today you could call them ‘Tuscarora,’ because they probably were in part, or call them ‘Chowanoke,’ because they probably were in part, considering that some of them removed to traditional Chowanoke territory. But it sort of misses the point of what their lives were really like, or how these families chose to embrace or ignore that aspect of their ancestry. Only today, my grandmother could take a DNA test that would tell her she has 2 or 3 percent ‘Siberian’ or ‘Amerindian’ ancestry. But from where? And how?
From Quitsna, apparently. A very long time ago.