I’VE SPECULATED a lot about the origins of my ancestors on this blog, but some of the information contained in my last post led me to some astonishing revelations. To recap, I had been tracing a group of people called the “Scratch Hall Folk” from their final destination — the Virginia-North Carolina border on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp — to the swamps beside the Chowan River in current-day Gates County, and then to an origin in and around the old Tuscarora Indian Woods Reservation in Bertie County.
The trajectory of these mixed-race people — whose multiple ancestries are borne out by recurring instances of being classified as white, mulatto, and black on US federal census forms — jibed with anecdotal accounts of people moving from Bertie County up the Winton Road into Virginia in the mid- to late 18th century, including folklore about an “Indian fort” at Fort Island in what is modern-day Hall Township. Fort Island was an important landmark, because it is where my Collins and Russell ancestors first began to surface in 18th century documents.
However, the names of these people tied them to another place altogether: to New Kent County, Virginia, particularly Saint Peter’s Parish, across from the Pamunkey Indian Reservation. To review the names of Scratch Hall Folk — Claiborne Austin, Thomas Collins, Charles Russell, Robert Napier, William Wyatt, various Flemings — is to revisit the names of the first men to acquire land in Pamunkey Neck at the end of the 17th century. These are the names of the men on my ancestor George Russell’s 1791 estate record. They are also the names of Pamunkey Neck’s early, wealthy landowners, who were at that time leasing land from the Indians. Yet the men in George Russell’s estate record were smallholders, at best, with marginal acreage, and were almost uniformly illiterate. There was no clear genealogical connection, for instance, between the prestigious Napier family of New Kent, whose patriarch was an Edinburgh doctor, and the poor family in Scratch Hall.
Moreover, some of the Scratch Hall Folk took the names of multiple landowning families. The Claibornes and the Austins owned land in Pamunkey Neck. There was a man named “Claiborne Austin” who was actually listed in New Kent tax lists in 1791 before relocating to Gates County, demonstrating continuous ties between both areas. The Austins eventually owned 64 acres, land they obtained from the State of North Carolina, and intermarried with the Collinses and Russells. New Kent also hosted a Graham family. Hence the origin of my ancestor Graham Collins’s name. Beside the Grahams of New Kent County lived a settler named Thomas Lankford. Yet another name that pops up in Gates County at the end of the 18th century. There was also a Dillard family in New Kent. As per my previous post, there was a Dillard Collins in North Carolina toward the end of the 18th century who served alongside Burwell Collins in the North Carolina line.
I then recalled something I had read in Helen Rountree’s book, Pocahontas’s People, about “Cumberland Indians,” detribalized Pamunkey who had moved across the river from the reservation into New Kent County in the 18th century and apparently left the area (although it is clear that some remained). Interestingly, at least some of them had the same exact names as my ancestors Thomas Collins and William Collins. I also found an 1825 marriage record in Gates County for a Margaret Dennis and Edward Custalow — two compelling Pamunkey names. I recalled that a “Billy Dennis” had signed the Tuscarora Indian Woods deeds. It now seemed very obvious what had happened: when the Cumberland Indians — the detribalized Pamunkey — left New Kent County in the 18th century, some went to live among the Tuscarora in Bertie County. When the reservation was wound up, they moved up toward the Virginia border. These were my ancestors.
My Collins and Russell ancestors were detribalized Pamunkey Indians.