AFTER I WENT THROUGH another group of close DNA matches, I found they were also Hall and Weaver descendants from Winton in Hertford County, North Carolina.
This for me was the final evidence that my Collins ancestors were related to the same Indian Collins family from Princess Anne County, Virginia.
Interestingly, we also match the family of John Collins of Bertie County, North Carolina. This suggests that John Collins, whose sons were associated with the Bunch and Bass families, was probably from this family as well.
The major hurdle in almost all of this research has been the ill-fitting racial categories of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. People who were of a variety of backgrounds were lumped into categories like “mulatto” or “black,” or even “white” by census takers. This is how people whose ancestors were described as indigenous, and who professed an indigenous identity, wound up being identified as black, or, as genealogist Paul Heinegg renders them, “free African Americans.”
Some of them no doubt acquired African lineages over the generations. Yet this begs the question, how does one define one’s own identity? Is it the census taker who gets to say who is “mulatto” or “black”? Or the genealogist? And if having some, or any, African ancestry makes one “black,” then wouldn’t, by that same principle, having some, or any, Indian ancestry, also make one Native American? Or, for that matter, if someone was shown to be of majority European ancestry, would that make that person “white”?
Somewhat depressingly, the federal government still uses its ancient methods of racial categorization to deny people the ability to claim their own ancestry. On occasion, other indigenous people assist in this process. So that in Bureau of Indian Affairs documents denying acknowledgement to various groups — the MOWA Choctaw, for instance, or the Meherrin – they refer back to censuses that show these people to be “black,” or “mulatto,” in order to dispute or discredit any claims to having an indigenous identity.
Even people who are obviously Native Americans, like Louisiana Weaver, pictured, were described as “black” and “mulatto” in 19th century records. That her Weaver cousins across the Great Dismal Swamp in Norfolk were actually included in an Indian census or issued certificates does not matter. According to some, they were actually “black” too, as somewhere in colonial documents, they are described as something other than Indian.
While the “black Indian” phenomenon has been explored, one might also consider the situation for people who were of European and indigenous descent. They too found this aspect of their ancestry airbrushed away by racist laws that protected the purity of their European pedigrees, even if they weren’t actually so pure. These people too would be told — by other whites — that they actually were not Indian at all. All the real Indians were dead or out west or up north. Complicit in the erasure any remaining indigenous identity in eastern North Carolina and Virginia, were the groups that made up the rest of the local populations:
- African Americans, who sought to claim anyone with African ancestry as their own
- European Americans, who disputed that any of their own could have any ancestry other than European
- Other indigenous peoples, who sought to protect their own special relationships with federal authorities
All of this led to quite a damaging situation for people with indigenous ancestry from this region. Under the older, racist system, they were forced to deny their own ancestry. Under the newer, post-Civil Rights system, their claims of descent are treated with the utmost skepticism. The myth of a vanishing people is so powerful that any attempts to disturb that myth’s foundations, to bring about a new realization or understanding, are crushed, often by average people, for whom this topic is still somehow uncomfortable.
Even photographs are treated with suspicion, for even if a person looks like a Native American, and is described as such in some documents, there might be others where they are called “mulatto,” “black,” or “white.” That’s the only doubt anyone needs to bring that identity into question. What’s interesting is that these people were there before anyone ever used the words “mulatto,” “white,” or “black.” They had their own names for themselves, and they did not need federal recognition to tell them if they were genuine or not, or to gauge the veracity of their claims. Partaking in the whole construction is somehow absurd. Who cares, actually, what the BIA says? Or about “blood quantum”?
What does any of that have to do with speaking truthfully about one’s own past? All of these external pressures continue to influence people, especially those interested in their own genealogies. Family histories that are theirs, that belong to them, and to no one else. These pressures, though, are irrelevant. What is relevant is the truth and telling it well.