Tales from Old Carolina

JohnsonPublished in 1965, F. Roy Johnson’s Tales from Old Carolina is an invaluable source of local folklore about the Roanoke-Chowan area.

Why? Because unlike many of the ‘liberation narratives’ that emerged in the 1970s, where the maroon communities of the Great Dismal Swamp area were reinterpreted as multicultural, freedom-seeking vigilantes living a life on the margins away from racist, colonial rule, Tales from Old Carolina has no such overt sociopolitical objective.

Johnson even characterizes the “Civil War anarchy” that engulfed the region in a relatively neutral tone, describing “deserters from both armies who pillaged, stole, burned, and murdered as they gathered up commodities for their own subsistence and the contraband trade” (p. 234). He also delves into some of the class issues that framed the perspective in this area, which was too backward and swampy to fully support the classic slave-labor-based plantation system. Many of the smallholders — such as my ancestor William Howell — refused to fight for the Confederacy, and saw the cause of the South as a “rich man’s war.”

For these reasons, I trust his observations on the fate of the local Native Americans, at least as mere reportage. First of all, Johnson writes that the main Native American group living in this area at the time of European contact was the Chowanoke. Given their ideal location, spanning the Chowan River, he said they were “better fed by far” than the Tuscaroras who inhabited North Carolina’s central plains (p. 7).

The swampy, eastern bank of the Chowan, where my ancestors first emerged in the records, was not inhabited year round by the Chowanoke though, while it was used as a base for hunting and foraging expeditions. The first European settlers moved into the region in the mid-17th century. Johnson interprets a 1692 observation by a visiting doctor, that the area was “peopled with English, intermixted with the native Indians to a great extent” to mean that the first colonists formed families with the indigenous inhabitants (p. 13). This is interesting, because it is an instance of a pre-Civil Rights Act source openly acknowledging miscegenation in colonial North Carolina.

He reiterates this claim on page 23, where he says that by the time of the American Revolution,  the local Chowan, Meherrin, and Nansemond Indians had “for all practical purposes lost their tribal identity” and were “gradually being assimilated into the white and Negro populations.” So he again states that some Native Americans were absorbed into the European settler community, a fairly bold statement considering that in a 1915 article in The Windsor Ledger in Bertie County, the newspaper claimed, “There was no racial intermingling, there were no half-breed Indians.”

While modern descendants would take issue with this — and it is all too typical of the “vanishing Indian” myth — Johnson makes these statements based on colonial records. The Meherrin did mostly disappear from records after the mid-1760s. Multiple researchers have suggested that this group, which Johnson characterizes as a fragment of multiple refugee Iroquoian groups from Virginia and as far north as Maryland and Pennsylvania, such as the Susquehannock, actually left with the Tuscarora for New York in the late 1760s. Johnson cites a 1752 letter that refers to a “mere handful” of Meherrin preserving nation status who removed to the Potecasi in Hertford County, while other remained scattered in western Gates County.

Such was the fate of most of these nations, Johnson reported, referring to survivors who broke up into clannish, loosely-knit bands of Indians. This development is also described in the book Ross Baptist Church, The First Seventy-Five Years, 1800-1875: “According to local history, Indian tribal units had ceased to exist by 1750 … Most of the Indians had moved away, leaving the few remnants that chose to remain in the area. Those that remained in the area organized into family units, and adopted English surnames for identification.” It is unclear if Johnson is the original source of this information.

However, Johnson’s narrative for the Chowanoke has some holes in it. He notes that in 1731, this group was reported to have less than 20 families, and then cites the 1733 colonial council decision to allow the Chowanokes to incorporate with the Tuscarora at Indian Woods (p. 22). Johnson writes that there is “no evidence that any of their number joined their old enemy.” Yet a “Billy Bennett” is named as a Tuscarora chief in a 1766 letter. Bennett is one of the oldest names associated with the Chowanoke, dating back to deeds in the early 1730s. Meantime, by the mid-1750s, only two families are reported on the old Chowanoke Reservation in Gates County, as Johnson notes. This begs the question — To where did these 18 or so families remove in the years between 1731 and 1752?

In Anthony F. C. Wallace’s 1952 paper, The Modal Personality of the Tuscarora Indians, references a “Shawnee Beaver” clan among the northern Tuscarora. “Whether these ‘Shawnees’ were Ohio or Susquehanna River Shawnee or were the Sawanees (Chowans) of the Albemarle Sound is not clear,” he writes. “They represent a confusing element, as they joined the tribe during its migration northward.”

By the early 1720s, as Johnson notes, there was considerable blurring between the Indian nations of the Roanoke-Chowan area. In 1723, for instance, a reservation of 53,000 acres was set aside specifically for the Tuscarora and Chowanoke. One might wonder if the 1733 act enabling the Chowanoke to incorporate with the Tuscarora referred to the Indians already living on the same reservation with them. Also that year, the Meherrin and Nansemond Indians filed a petition together concerning their lands in what is now Hertford County. As such, we see a relatively fluid situation, with people moving between communities — with Chowanoke living among the Tuscarora in Bertie County, and Meherrin and Nansemond co-petitioning the colonial council about land in 1723.

Some of the Nansemond later moved north into Southampton County, Virginia, to incorporate with the Nottoway. There are even arguments over whether Edith Turner, the Nottoway leader, was actually a Nansemond Indian, as the name Turner appears on the last records related to the Nansemond Reservation from the late 18th century. Yet given the Nansemond’s earlier relationship with the Meherrin, it is likely that Turner had ancestry from all three of these groups — Nansemond, Meherrin, and Nottoway.

There are several other interesting stories related in Johnson’s book. For instance, he refers to Chowanoke “joining the nations of the western frontiers,” while others were captured and sold into slavery by enemy Indians. This validates stories of Chowanoke going to settle among the Pee Dee Indians in South Carolina, and even among the Choctaw of Alabama. I personally have found DNA matches with Choctaw living in Oklahoma. Perhaps this is the origin of that connection?

Johnson also describes an Indian settlement called Fort Island, in the Hall area of Gates County, where “people of full Indian blood lived … until a few decades before the Civil War.” This is a very interesting anecdote, because it matches the stories about Tuscarora Indians coming to the area within the same time frame. In that local oral history, collected from Roy Eure, who lived in Hall Township, he described these Indians as Tuscarora. Another interviewee mentioned a tribe of Indians who “lived from the Winton Road up into Virginia.”

This puts the Tuscarora in the area of Fort Island around the time that Johnson said there was an Indian fort there. It also coincides with stories found in Hugo Leaming’s book Hidden Americans (1979) that describe Tuscarora moving into this area. What I have come to wonder, is if the Tuscarora who moved into Gates County were actually the descendants of the Chowanoke who had gone to live among them back in the 1730s.

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