ONE ISSUE genealogists encounter time and time again is the prevalence of certain family names in communities. I recall years ago doing research into my Pittman family ancestry and discovering a group of Pittmans living in southern Southampton County, Virginia, almost in the exact area of where my ancestors were later living. But, as I actually did the work, I determined these were likely distant relations passing through the same region into North Carolina. Proximity, and having a similar name, does not necessary mean you just grew another branch of your tree. You have to do the work.
In the nebulous world of Native American genealogy, there is the idea that surnames were a) either adopted by individuals in one group, then spread to others as they were taken in as refugees or b) were spread by traders, meaning that multiple individuals across many groups adopted the same surnames, but were not necessarily related.
Consider the surname Pierce, for instance. Pierce was a name mentioned in Frank Speck’s 1916 work on the Mattamuskeet.
A visit to their old home, however, and persistent inquiry among the settlers of Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, brought to knowledge a few individuals who are descended from Indians who came originally from Pungo river near Mattamuskeet Lake, Hyde county. These are evidently remnants of the Machapunga tribe who have left their name to Pungo River. Those whom I met traced their descent from one Israel Pierce, who was known as a Pungo River Indian.
Roberta Estes, on her blog Native Heritage Project has a lot of information on this Pierce family. However, we must note that it’s just one Pierce family. There may have been others. And while Thomas Pierce is noted as being of Chowan County, there is no evidence to specifically tie him to any Native Pierce families there. In 1710, a Jenny Pierce is named as a Wyanoak Indian woman living at Nottoway Indian Town.
There is some fascinating information in that 1710 deposition, by the way.
- In the 1660s, the Nansemond Indians murdered the Wyanoak King
- Busby and Flood were the names of the Nottoway interpreters
- The Wyanoak King had an English-style house and orchard near the James
- The Nansemond Town was seated on the Blackwater River
- The Wyanoak retreated from the James River area and moved to the Roanoke area, eventually living on the Wiccacon, essentially opposite the Chowan Indian Town
- Here, the Pochick (also known as Nansemond) killed their king (the story is corroborated by the interview with Jenny Pierce, the Wyanoak woman).
- Then the Wyanoak returned the favor and killed the Pochick king, retreated to Cuttawhiskie (near modern-day Ahoskie)
- Then the Tuscarora attacked them and they went up to the Blackwater Swamp
- The Chowans once had lands on the north side of the Blackwater River opposite the Nottoway River
This last part is fascinating, because it places Chowan Indians all the way up in Virginia. This area is now unsettled and surrounded by swamps. It would an interesting location for archaeological investigation (if it hasn’t been attempted yet.) It’s interesting for me that both the Pochick and Tuscarora attacked the Wyanoak, and yet the Nottoway and Chowan took them in. These might have been vendettas of a personal nature, and not related to broader regional politics. What we do know is that Flood and Pierce, two family names that persist in the modern-day Meherrin and Chowanoke communities, were present as far back as the 1710s, if not the 1660s, and that it’s possible these families were originally Wyanoak Indians that were taken in by the Nottoway or Chowan. I’ve been through this area today, and it is still wild and removed from any traces of civilization. Kind of terrifying to think of roaming bands of Pochick or Tuscarora who at any moment might fall upon the Wyanoaks, refugees as they were.