The ancient tartan of Clan Napier

Napier is one of the more unique surnames that has popped up in my research into the Scratch Hall Folk of Gates County. It’s a Scottish surname, like many – Hamilton, Delday, Vann, Russell – in the area. Sometimes rendered as “Napper,” and at least on one occasion, “Knapper,” it belonged to perhaps several generations of men named Robert Napier who were living in what was, at the time, a frontier area (and still is).

There are a smattering of records that provide some clue as to the trajectory of this family. The first is a 1707 record in North Carolina for a “Robert Napier late of New Kent County, Va.” Looking into this record, we find it refers to court case involving “Drew alias Robert Napier,” and was initiated by John Pettiver, who had received land patented by Napier in St. Peter’s Parish in New Kent County.

It is unclear why he prosecuted the case in North Carolina.

This man, Robert Napier, Sr., was born in Virginia in 1660, and was the only son of Patrick Napier, an Edinburgh doctor, and his wife Elizabeth Booth. He owned large tracts of land in Pamunkey Neck, including land still under the administration of the Pamunkey Indians. He also commanded four companies of Virginia Rangers during the Tuscarora War in 1712. He returned to Virginia though, and died there in 1731 leaving behind seven children, none of whom relocated to the Chowan River area.

The next record that shows a Robert Napier in the area comes several decades later, when a “Robert Napier” is recorded in a 1759 tax list for Hertford County. At that time, the western part of present-day Gates County, including Scratch Hall, was part of Hertford County. A review of William Murfree’s tax books for 1768-1770 does not show this name, though these cover the same area. Interestingly, Robert Napier does not appear in any of the colonial era Chowan County militia lists. He is also not in the 1786 state census for Gates County, nor in the 1790 US Federal Census for the county.

There is no explanation for where the Napiers were therefore between 1759 and 1790. They may have been there, and simply not counted. There may be a reason for that, because “Robert Napier” did not become a landowner in Gates County until 16 February 1791, when my ancestor James Arline granted him 50 acres on Beach Swamp, near the Virginia state line, witnessed by James Russell, Thomas Ellen, and Mills Odom, all of whom signed with a mark, meaning they were probably illiterate.

The land, James Arline noted, had been received from his father John Arline, who had died the previous year. James Arline, a Revolutionary War veteran, died later in 1791. And Napier sold the land, however, to William Dilday in 1794 for $36.

Why is this man of interest? In 1791, Robert Napier appeared on the estate record of my ancestor George Russell, who also died that year. He also appeared in the 1800 census for Gates County as the head of a household of six people. One white male under age 10, one white male aged 26 to 44, one free white female aged 16 to 25, another white female aged 26 to 44, one white female 45 and over and one free colored person, age not given. However, based on the fact that three people are listed as being over age 25, the free colored person was under age 25.

One might assume that Robert Napier is the white male aged 26 to 44, giving him a birth year between 1756 and 1774.

There is also a marriage record for Robert Napier from 27 February 1800 to Rachel Griffin. She was probably the daughter of Henry Griffin, the only Griffin listed in the 1790 US Federal Census for the county.  Henry Griffin acquired 100 acres in 1783 from Henry Hill and his wife Elizabeth Russell Hill on Bennetts Creek, bordering the land of the Chowanoke Indian woman Nan Robbins. Robert Napier also served as a bondsman for the marriage of James Collins and Katherine Russell in Gates County in 1801.

Now, Henry Hill’s wife, Elizabeth Russell, was the daughter of William Russell and Sarah Armistead of Cumberland County, Virginia. Their daughter, also named Elizabeth, married James Robbins, chief man of the Chowan Indians. The Hills had been in the area since at least the 1730s, when Thomas Hoyter, chief of the Chowan Indians, deeded 50 acres on Bennetts Creek to Henry Hill, John Freeman, Michael Ward, and William Flemmons witnesses.  Flemmons (Fleming) is another name of interest, because John Flemmons also appears on George Russell’s 1791 estate record. I’ll look deeper into that family in a future post.

This shows that these families were living near Chowan Indian Town by the 1730s.

The relationships between the Russells and Armisteads of Cumberland County, the Hills and Russells of Gates County, and the Griffins and Napiers of the same county, as well as the Chowan Indian Robbinses are unclear. Yet it’s clear that the Hills, Russells, Napiers, Griffins, and Robbinses were all related either by blood or by marriage.

After that, Robert Napier appears in a February 1810 deed in Gates County, but is not there at the time of the census. He surfaces in Marion County, South Carolina in 1820 as the head of a household of 10 people, including two free colored persons. He is still there in 1830 as the head of a household of 10. This time, though, there are no free people of color listed. There is one slave though. We also get, for the first time, a better idea of his age, which is listed as being between 60 and 69, meaning that he was born between 1761 and 1770. His wife, Rachel Griffin Napier presumably, is listed as being between 50 and 59, meaning she was born between 1771 and 1780.

Napier was dead by 1840 though. None of his descendants appear as anything but white in records. His son, Robert Napier was born in 1806 and lived until 1891 and listed his parents’ birthplaces as “Virginia.” He was also a baptist preacher in South Carolina. Robert Napier is not a relative, but he was a neighbor, and his ancestry sheds light on longstanding migration patterns between the people on Pamunkey Neck and those in Gates County, North Carolina, and Nansemond County, Virginia.

To summarize:

  • The Napier family was Scottish in origin, and settled in the Pamunkey Neck area during the mid-17th century, leasing land from the Pamunkey Indians, and acquiring large tracts of land, particularly in St. Peter’s Parish.
  • Robert Napier (1660-1731) was a major landowner in Pamunkey Neck and “gentleman” who commanded several companies of Virginia Rangers during the Tuscarora War in 1712.
  • He apparently was in the Chowan River area around 1707, where he was the defendant in a court case initiated by a New Kent man named John Pettiver.
  • Fifty years elapse until another man, named Robert Napier, is named in a 1759 tax list in Hertford County.
  • It’s another 30 years before we meet this family again in a 1791 land deed. In 1800, another Robert Napier, by this time living on the Virginia-North Carolina border, married a woman named Rachel Griffin from a family on Bennetts Creek in the southern part of Gates County, who was living alongside the Chowan Indians but not named as such.
  • This family later relocated to Marion, South Carolina, by the 1810s.


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