Migrants from the Eastern Shore

Detail from a 1685 map. Nassawadox is visible at upper right on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, while the Western Branch can be seen at extreme lower left.

FOR SOME REASON, in the first decades of the 18th century, people began to move from the Eastern Shore into Norfolk and environs. This was not confined to just mixed-race families. It was all families. There was a migration of people from Northampton County, Virginia, up the peninsula into Maryland and Delaware, and across the bay into Norfolk.

Many of the most iconic free colored families arrived to Norfolk just this way. The Archers, descended from “John Archer, negro” born circa 1650 in Northampton County. The Driggers, descended from “Emanuel Driggers, negroe,” also of Northampton. The Harmans, descended from “William Harman Negro,” born circa 1630. The Manleys, who trace back to Gabriel Manley, “a malatto,” also of Northampton. The Webbs, same story.

(Interestingly, many of these families were living in and around Hungars Parish in Northampton County. This was also where one Thomas Collins is listed in a 1666 list of tithables. The closest town to this area today is Nassawadox.)

In the early decades of the 18th century, many found their way to Norfolk, and to Western Branch, the home of the remnant Nansemond Indian community, specifically. Here, they also encountered in-migrants named Nickens, Weaver, and Shoecraft, from the Northern Neck of Virginia. They also did not stay put. People were present in North Carolina and may have used Norfolk as a commercial hub. Thomas Driggers was sued in Chowan County court by Susan Lister in 1745. Richard Nickens and Simon Shoecraft were on the Currituck County militia list in the 1750s. Simon was the grandfather of Kinner Shoecraft Collins.

Most of these families were not described as Indian prior to their arrival to Norfolk, though they may have already had indigenous heritage. However, once they had lived in Norfolk and environs for several generations, there are more indications of an Indian identity, one that would resurface in the certificates of the 1830s or in later Cherokee enrollment applications.

An interesting question would be, how many indigenous people were living in this area at all? At this time, the 1730s, there still existed two Indian towns on the Chowan: the Nansemond Indian Town and the Meherrin Indian Town. There were also Meherrin living across the river in Scratch Hall. The Chowan Indians remained on Bennetts Creek, and were conveying land to settlers. Across the swamp in Currituck, there were at least two towns: Yeopim and Poteskeet. There may have been a settlement at Indian Creek in southern Norfolk County as well.

All of these people were still living in the area when people named Bass, Collins, Nickens, Driggers, Weaver, and Shoecraft rolled through. John Lawson had estimated the Poteskeet had 30 fighting men in 1700, meaning there was a population of about 100 people or more. There were also about 50 people living at Paspatank Town, maybe more at Bennetts Creek, and maybe 150 Meherrin based on his estimates. So there was still a sizable indigenous population in the area when the Eastern Shore migrants poured in.

It’s after this period when people from these families began to be called “Indian” in some records. In 1782, James Manley is described as “an Indian born at Edenton.” In 1765, Cati Collins is described as an Indian woman in a Hyde County court case. Most of the descendants of Kinner Shoecraft Collins described themselves as Indian in various documents.

Some suppose that free colored people claiming Indian ancestry were seeking some advantages in an increasingly racist American South. This was certainly the case when it came to obtaining legal documents that stated they were of Nansemond Indian descent. Yet though these families decided to stress that aspect of their ancestry over their African or European heritage, it did not make them liars. They were of Indian descent, and had every right to claim that heritage. They were not Cherokee though. That’s for sure.

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