It’s All in a Name

SOMETIMES A GIVEN NAME offers a valuable clue, but not always.

I descend from a man named Graham Collins (1802-1880), who was born in Gates County, North Carolina, and died in Nansemond County, Virginia. In looking around for this relatively unique name, I did find another man who had the same one, Graham Collins, a 34-year-old mulatto who was living in Hyde County in 1860. I then found another colored Graham Collins who married Matilda Barrow in Pamlico County in 1881. It seems to be a name shared among the coastal Indians of North Carolina.

However, Graham Collins (1802-1880) had a son named Hugh Wilbur Collins (1839-1915), who was a private in both the Virginia and North Carolina cavalries during the Civil War. There was another Hugh Wilbur Collins who left a will in Chowan County in 1855. The similarities of the names seemed to leave no doubt of a family connection. Yet, the more I looked into it, I could see no clear link between the Hugh Wilbur Collins of Chowan County, who descended from the prominent, British-born slave trader Josiah Collins, and the illiterate farmers living on the Virginia-Carolina border.  It seems to be a case of appropriation: Graham Collins named his son after a well-to-do local businessman.

Which brings us to Burwell Collins, another man with a unique name from this enigmatic family. Burwell Collins is relatively well documented. He was born in 1822 in Cypress Chapel, Nansemond County, Virginia, the son of William Collins and Temperance Collins (1793-1868). Fortunately, the names of Temperance Collins’s parents were recorded when she died in 1868 as Thomas Collins and Annie Collins. This makes her the likely daughter of my ancestor Thomas Collins (1769-1849) and his wife Anna Russell (1770-1855). Interestingly, Thomas Collins and Anna Russell did not marry until 1801, although they are listed with six girls under the age of 10 in the 1800 Gates County census. The marriage may have been connected to the acquisition of property in the area now known as “Collins Road” around that time.

Burwell Collins’s father was William Collins, who according to census records was born in 1790. He was perhaps the son of the William Collins who was listed in the Gates County tax lists in the 1780s. It’s possible that Burwell Collins’s parents were first cousins, if William Collins, Sr., and Thomas Collins, Sr., both listed in the Gates County tax lists in the 1780s, were brothers. Burwell married Martha Jane Ellis before 1850. She was about a decade younger than him, and apparently the daughter of Solomon Ellis (an interesting aside, but if you search for the name ‘Solomon Ellis’ you will get hits in North Wales around Caernarfon, the area from which many of the settlers in this region originated).

Burwell served in the Confederacy, like his cousin Hugh, and left many descendants, some of whom are apparently proud of his service to the South and have used thumbnails of Confederate flags for his picture in their Ancestry trees. While he survived that great conflict, Burwell Collins did not live very long after, dying in January 1877.

While Burwell Collins’s life was no doubt eventful and interesting, it is his name that has caught my attention. I did do a search to see if anyone else had ever been named “Burwell Collins” — it turned out that quite a few had. One man had lived a generation or two prior and served in the American Revolution in North Carolina.


Unfortunately, this is the only document — save for a land warrant in Sumner, Tennessee related to his service — that shows that Burwell Collins existed. However, the other Collinses listed here — Dillard, Caleb, and William — do offer clues. I have been unable to find a solid lead for Dillard Collins in the records. Moreover, a just because they are listed beside each other does not mean they were related. A war-related pension application does exist for Caleb Collins in nearby Washington County. I also found this interesting clue: a sale of land on the north side of the Scuppernong River in Tyrrell County to Thomas and William Collins in 1792. Caleb Collins is also mentioned in these records. However, Thomas Collins and William Collins were already in Gates County at this time. Could these be the same men? It’s possible. They were living near Thomas Pierce. The Pierces, like the Collinses, are found at Mattamuskeet, as well as near Chowan Indian Town. But they are also found in Quitsna among the Tuscarora.

Other names included with “Burwell Collins” from the North Carolina Line include Zadock Coward and Ephraim Coward. I had searched for Zadock and came up empty handed until I found “Gadok Cowand” on a list of men who took an oath of allegiance in Bertie County in 1777. This is the same list that includes “Hes Collins,” who may have left a will as “Hezekiah Collins” in Gates County in 1822. Also appearing on the list are David Collins and Joseph Collins. Along with familiar names, like the Butlers and Bazemores, we also find Joseph Lloyd in this list, the same Joseph Lloyd who is mentioned as living on Tuscarora Indian Land in 1777. This is fascinating to me because one of the people who matches my grandmother’s DNA kit on one of her Native segments descends from the Lloyds of Bertie County.

So what are we dealing with here? We have names that suggest links to coastal Carolina Indians in the Washington, Tyrrell, and Hyde county areas, which suggests that Collins is an Algonquian family, and yet we also find them living among the Tuscarora in Indian Woods. I think it’s important to refer back to some history here. That the Mattamuskeet Reservation in Hyde County was home to Tuscarora and Algonquian Mattamuskeet people, and some of these people relocated to Indian Woods, and may have moved to or from Tyrrell County, and later up towards Gates County and the Virginia line. Which is to say, despite the similarities in names — and I did find a “Burrell Collins” living in Atlantic, Accomack County, Virginia in the 1920s, and another living in Norfolk, Virginia before — the story of my family is tied into the fate of the Tuscarora Indian Woods reservation. So it’s not always about names in this business. More than anything, it’s about location.

Use your ancestors’ names to hunt for clues, but assess them by the company they keep.

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