Custalow and Dennis

Members of the Pamunkey Dennis family in the 19th century.

The following is a pretty good assessment of the amount of guesswork that goes into picking apart these would-be/could-be Indian families.

I recently came across a marriage record for a woman named Margaret Dennis and a man named Edward Custalow in Gates County. Actually, the man’s last name was transcribed as “Cutteller.” The marriage bond is dated 2 September 1825, and the bondsman was Charles E. Sumner.

Edward Custalow signed with a mark. His race is not recorded, but the race of the men and women described as Chowan Indians in deeds at this time was not recorded either.

Charles E. Sumner comes from a family that interests me. There were two Sumner-Beasley marriages in Gates County in the early 1800s, and a Josiah Sumner married Molly Collins in Gates County in 1804. Josiah Sumner appeared on the estate record of James Beasley in 1815, as did my relatives James Russell and James Collins. This suggests kinship between the Beasley, Russell, Collins, and Sumner families in Gates County.

Custalow and Dennis are not Gates County names, however. They do not appear in censuses at that time and I cannot trace the trajectory of this particular couple at all.

I can tell you that Custalow, or Castellaw, was the name of a Bertie County family though. Heinegg has drawn up a genealogy for this family based on the common law marriage of William Castellaw and Martha Butler, a mulatto woman, in Bertie County in the 1750s. He also suggests that Martha Butler was the head of a household of 10 “other free” in Gates County in 1820, even though she would have been between 80 and 90 years old. Heinegg subsequently shows how members of this family eventually emigrated north to King William County, Virginia.

K. Paul Johnson in his excellent book Pell Mellers: Race and Memory in a Carolina Pocosin, discusses the Tuscarora Indian ancestry of the Butler family. Another book, Ross Baptist Church, The First Seventy-Five Years, 1800-1875, also makes this claim.

Actually, it’s unlikely that the Martha Butler in the 1820 Gates County census is the same woman who was married to William Castellaw in the 1750s. The Martha Butler in Gates County actually inherited 10 acres from Sarah Butler when Sarah Butler stopped appearing on Gates County tax lists in 1816. Sarah Butler gained this property in an 1803 deed from John Lang, witnessed by my ancestor Thomas Collins and James Ransome. Still, it’s possible that if Butlers moved into Gates County from Bertie, Castellaws, or Custalows, might have migrated in that direction too. Perhaps Edward Custalow was one of the 10 “other free” members of Martha Butler’s household in 1820. This is speculative.

The name Dennis is interesting because “Billy Dennis” and “Sarah Dennis” appeared on the Tuscarora Indian Woods land deeds between 1766 and 1777. While I can find no Dennis family in Gates County at that time, a “Devere Dennis” is listed as the head of a household of 9 “other free” in Bertie County in 1800. “Littleton Dennis” is listed as the head of a household of 2 “whites” in 1790. I refer to these categories with caution because, as I have shown, they were assigned arbitrarily.

In the 19th century, both Dennis and Custalow were to emerge as common surnames among the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Indians in Virginia. One question that remains is whether or not they were Pamunkey Indians who had been living among the Tuscarora and returned once the community there fell apart, or if they were Tuscarora who married into other groups. The arrival of Dennis and Custalow to Gates County, though, along with Butler, adds some more names to the list of potential mixed-race Scratch Hall residents who reportedly moved into the area in the latter part of the 18th century.

As you can see, all of this is guesswork. One more interesting source though is this invaluable list of Bertie County bastardy bonds from the 18th century. Many of these families can be found on this list, including multiple Castellaws and Butlers. To me, as a researcher, this shows that these were large families, with numerous members who may or may not appear in the records from that time.

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5 Responses to Custalow and Dennis

  1. Lee McDaniel says:

    My ancestor Mary Dennis was said to be full blooded Tuscarora. She was born around 1785, the first record I can find of her is in 1841. I have no idea if Dennis was her married or maiden name. She had a daughter named Sarah. She was said to have been from Bertie County.

    • Hi Lee. Where did she live?

      • Lee McDaniel says:

        Pretty sure they were just white though.

      • Lee McDaniel says:

        Mary was born in 1784, according to family lore, in or near Bertie County. She had a child name Sarah in 1809, not sure if she was married or have children. I found her in 1840 enumerated as a white 50 to 60 year old woman in the household of her son-in-law Biggars Royals, in 1841 witnessing a will with Biggars, in 1850 living with Biggars, in 1860 living with her grandson-in-law Joseph Todd, and she is mentioned to have died on 16 February 1873 according to the Marion Star. All of these took place near the Loris section of Horry County.

  2. My experience is, unless they became part of a free people of color community, they were recorded as white in the records, especially displaced Tuscarora people.

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