WHEN I FIRST CONTACTED Paul Heinegg about 13 years ago while researching my ancestry, he pointed me in the direction of Princess Anne County, Virginia. I had just found a record for a relative named Elvy Collins (1806-1870) in Gates County, North Carolina, that described him as being of color, whereas all the other records I had found so far described him as white.
This was the first time that I became acquainted with the Native American Collins family of Norfolk County and Princess Anne County. The key figure in this family was named Kinner Shoecraft Collins (1758-1823). Paul has a good account of this individual on his site. While Heinegg stylized the family as “free African American,” members of this family were actually described as white, Indian, and free negro in records.
Often, when given the opportunity, they described themselves as Indian.
Kinner Collins was the son of William Shoecraft and an unnamed woman. In 1774, he was taxable in the household of his grandmother Lucy Shoecraft in Norfolk County. Lucy was the widow of Simon Shoecraft, who had moved to Norfolk from Lancaster County, Virginia, earlier in the 18th century. The family apparently held property in St. Bride’s, a parish close to the North Carolina border.
He was variously called Kinner Shoecraft and Kinner Collins during his entire adult life. While recorded in later censuses as a “free colored person,” Kinner Collins actually wasn’t referred to as a “free black” until 1820. Before that, he was recorded as a white person. This is important when we get to other branches of the family.
At least three sons are named in the records: Cary Collins, William Collins, and Presley Collins. Descendants of all three called themselves Indians.
- Cary Collins, perhaps named for Kinner’s relative Cary Shoecraft, was the ancestor of the “Kerry Collins” listed in the 1907 census of the Nansemond.
- William Collins was most likely the grandfather of John Bembry Collins, who listed his family as Indian in the 1900 US Federal Census of Hertford County, North Carolina.
- Descendants of Presley Collins moved to Pennsylvania in the 19th century, where they were recorded as Indian in 1860, and white thereafter.
Heinegg speculated that Kinner Collins’ mother was a member of the Collins family. He notes there was an Elizabeth Collins who was taxable on a horse in Princess Anne County. A look at the 1774 tax list where he is first listed though shows that there was a John Collins resident in the same district. My ancestor, Thomas Collins, had previously appeared in the same list until 1772, after which he apparently moved to Gates County.
It is therefore not possible to say with any certainty who Kinner’s mother was, though she was, in all likelihood, a member of the Collins family. There was apparently a continuous back and forth between a settlement at Western Branch, near Portsmouth, and the community that was taking root in Saint Bride’s Parish, and on the opposite side of the county line in Princess Anne. As Heinegg notes, Lucy Shoecraft was taxable in St. Bride’s in 1765, taxable in 1770 in Western Branch, and then taxable again in St. Bride’s in 1774.
These communities were home to a variety of families from different places around the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to the Shoecrafts and Collinses, neighbors included the Harmons, Weavers, Nickenses, Halls, Turners, and Newtons, and, of course, the Basses.
By 1807, Kinner Collins had acquired land in St. Bride’s adjoining the county line north of Indian Creek.
There may have been an overlooked but longstanding indigenous community in this area. The name Indian Creek was in use at least since the end of the 17th century.
July 6, 1692
SOLOMON WHITE, eldest son and heir of PATRICK WHITE—it was father’s desire that my brother PATRICK WHITE have 350 acres called Indian Creek Woods and 200 acres in Norfolk Co. on the North River. Wit: Lemuel Phillips, Patrick Angus
It’s unclear what community this was. It was most likely comprised of the same Algonquian-speaking Nansemond, Yeopim, or Poteskeet people who lived in the area.
By 1820 in Princess Anne County, there was a similar cluster of free colored or Indian families, Kinner Collins’s among them. Kinner Collins neighbored Uriah Collins, as well as Weaver, Harmon, Smith, Cuffee, and other families.
In 1823, Kinner Collins left a will, naming children Cary Collins, Sarah Collins, Lucy Turner, Franky Turner, and Patsy Newton.
Uriah Collins might have been the son of Joshua Collins, perhaps a brother or cousin to Kinner Collins, who was also taxable in Princess Anne County. Born in about 1776, Uriah Collins is in the 1820 and 1830 censuses for Princess Anne, where he heads households of free colored persons. By 1840, he had removed to Greene County, Tennessee, where he was counted as white in 1850 and again in 1860.
This is yet another example of a member of this family being able to change their racial status by moving out of their area of origin where their ancestry was perhaps better known to neighbors. It may also explain why my relatives were, with a few exceptions, counted as white in late 18th century and 19th century documents.
The origins of this family are still elusive. There is no definitive document connecting the Collins family to the Eastern Shore, although the names suggest a link, particularly in the area of Magothy Bay, at the southernmost tip of Northampton County, Virginia. It is here that you will find Thomas Collins listed in a 1666 tax list that also named the Harmon, Driggers, Webb, Archer, and other mixed-race families.
However, the use of the name Uriah Collins might point to a more southern origin for this family. Uriah Collins was also the name of a major landowner and planter in Hyde County, North Carolina, in the early 18th century. He left a will there in 1751/52, and witnessed deeds in Swan Quarter, which is where the Mattamuskeet Indians were living.
A decade later, Cati Collins was described as an Indian woman in a 1765 Hyde County court case.