THERE ARE MULTIPLE recurring anecdotes about Tuscarora moving into Gates County and up into Nansemond County, Virginia, sometime in the 18th century. In 1979-1980, a local history project in Gates County even pulled the following information from some old-timers:
Mr. Taylor said that there was another tribe of Indians in this part of Gates County, but he could not remember the name of the tribe. He said that they lived from the Winton Road up into Virginia.
Fort Island received its’ name from the Indian Forts that were set up here before and during the Civil War. Mr. Roy Eure said that he thought the name of the tribe was the Tuscarora Indians who also settled on the other side of the Chowan River. He said that several tee-pees or wig-wams that the Indians lived in were located on the land in front of his house.
In looking at the map, we can see that the “Winton Road” is actually modern-day Route 13, and that Fort Island is just off of 13 to the southeast. Winton can be seen on the other bank of the river to the west, while there is a landmark called “Tuscarora Beach” across from Fort Island, but the origins of this name may be more recent.
This is interesting to me, as my Native Collins family was originally found at Fort Island, then later moved up Route 13 into Virginia, where they finally acquired land around Drum Hill in the Cypress Chapel District in the early 1800s. DNA results suggest they originated at Indian Woods in Bertie County though I am still exploring that.
I’ve been asked if it is possible to flesh out a list of potential Tuscarora who moved into Gates County, if these anecdotes, or legends, are accurate. I should say that the first name that suggested to me that there might have been Tuscarora in Gates County was Thomas Cornelius, who married Sukey Hall in 1804. Interestingly, this name was not found in early censuses or tax lists, but that is not surprising. Many lists exclude my ancestors as well, even though various records provide evidence of their presence.
In looking at the tax lists I have on file (1784-1799), at landless persons, at those who seemed to come out of nowhere, without having a colonial paper trail or presence on Chowan County militia returns, I drew up the following list of potential Tuscarora.
George Allen; Thomas Blunt; James Boon; Sarah Butler; Thomas Collins; William Collins; Thomas Cornelius; Aaron Ellis; Ann Gibson; Jesse Hiatt; Thomas Hiatt; Willis Hughes; Winbourne Jenkins; Simmons Jones; John Miller; Jemima Mitchell; Thomas Smith; William Taylor; Jacob Wilkins
Some of these people were enumerated at one time or another as free people of color. This is true of Jemima (Mimey) Mitchell, who is counted as FPC in the 1790 census. She is later found in Nansemond County records as an indigent person. Why is that important? Because its shows movement from Gates County into Nansemond County by a person with what could be considered a “Tuscarora surname.” A James Mitchell signed deeds on behalf of the Tuscarora in Bertie County in the 1760s. Several of the other names here fit that profile, though not all were counted as free colored.
Allen, Blunt, Cornelius, Gibson, Miller, Mitchell, Smith, and Taylor all appear on Tuscarora deeds. Jenkins, Jones, Hughes, Wilkins, Vann, Ellis, and others have been claimed by various descendants and researchers. Hiatt/Highatt may coincide with the Howett of the Indian Woods deeds. Interestingly, these families married into local ones with some hypothetical Chowanoke links, such as the Russells, Beasleys, and Halls.
It is my opinion that not all Tuscarora were counted as free people of color when they dispersed from Indian Woods when the Reservation wound down in the 1760s and 1770s. It is possible that some were admixed with Europeans, others with Africans, many with both, and that those were darker in appearance were counted as free colored, while those who were lighter probably came into the “poor white” class.
Without land to sell or a legal identity as Tuscarora, these people no longer would be considered as such in any record. And since they were coming from outside of Gates County, following a period of political turmoil in which many mixed-race Bertie families became legally white persons, their status as a race other than white would not have been as contentious. For me, the true symbol of their Indian identity was the fact that many of these people appeared in few, if any records, and owned no land. This separates them from the Europeans and also free colored persons, who left behind a plethora of land deeds, marriage records, court appearances, receipts, etc.
Sarah Butler, for instance, was in Gates County in 1800 and 1810, but appeared in neither census. The same could be said for James Collins, a relative, who lived a full life from 1770 to 1825, but never appeared in a single federal document or local militia list. His existence is gleaned from a single marriage record, the death record of his son, and Nansemond County property lists.
As such, it is almost impossible to trace these families out to “confirm” their Indian identity. I have seen Corneliuses listed as white, others as black, perhaps from the same family. What I would really need to further my research is anyone descended from these families or others in the area to come forward with any family tradition of having Tuscarora heritage. Then we might be able to further unravel this mystery.