Gale Letter

As to what y’u desire to know off ye Ind’s, some are Civil & some
barbarous, they using ye Seabord. They live in small Townes and barke
Cabbins, pallisado’d in w’th 2 or 3 Rows of Stakes; every Towne or nation
hes its perticular King & different language; they have some notion of ye
Flood, butt verry obscure. They offer ye First Fruits of every thing they eat
to ye Devil, by whome they cure deseases & act severall strainge things,
as laying ye wind, &c. Ye nations I am as yett acquainted with are, the
Portes Leites, Nazimumbs, Choans, Maherins, Pampticoughs, Bay Rivers,
Marchipooongs, News Rivers, Cores, Corennines, Connamocksocks, w’th
all w’ch (ye Cores & Corennines excepted) & ye Tuscaroorays, have verry
Free commerce w’th. To write every perticular custome, &c., requires
Volums, so must refer itt till furth’r opportunity (DocSouth, Letter from William Gale to his father, August 05, 1703).

It’s an interesting letter. There are no Yeopim mentioned here, but the “Portes Leites” (Poteskeet) are. Lawson similarly described just 6 Yeopim people. The Poteskeets, he said, had 30 fighting men, which could mean a population of 150 people. This is a pretty large number. Where did they go? Did they really just vanish from existence between the 1739-40 land deeds and the 1790 census? Moreover, the ‘Nazimumbs’ (Nansemond) are in North Carolina, along with the ‘Choans’ (Chowans), and ‘Maherins’ (Meherrins). It seems that ‘every town or nation’ has its own language, king, and name. It’s interesting that the Cores, Corennines, and Connamocksocks are listed as three distinct peoples. Some had conflated all three groups as being one people, or off-shoot Tuscarora towns.

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Norfolk Folk

A LITTLE genealogical breakthrough, and many thanks to James Nickens for advising me to look in Norfolk for my ancestors.

To recount, the source of my indigenous ancestry is through the Collins family of Gates County, North Carolina. I descend, through my grandmother Margaret Pittman, from a man named Thomas Collins, who lived between 1769 and 1849. The birthplace of Thomas Collins was always obscure, because this family did not appear in local records prior to 1783.

That 1783 document is the militia list of Willis Parker in Nansemond County. This covers families living along the border with North Carolina. Some of the families here intermarried with the Collins and Russell families or lived alongside them. These include the Elmore, Kearney (Carney), Goomer, and Reid families.

One can find Elmore, Carney, Goomer, and Reid in Norfolk County prior to the American Revolution. And one can find the name Thomas Collins as well. There is a Thomas Collins, Sr., and Jr., as well as a Lemuel Collins listed in the records between 1751 and 1772. That was the last year that these men were listed, before the appeared in the Nansemond lists in 1783, and later moved into Gates County, appearing on lists in the 1780s and 1790s, before they apparently acquired their land near Collins Road in the early 1800s.

What’s fascinating is that “Thomas Collins” appears in the same list as the Bass family. And in some cases near the Halls, Shoecrafts, and other mixed families, as seen above. This has led me to revisit some of the narratives I had created about the source of the “Scratch Hall Folk.” Because it looks like these families were actually living in Norfolk prior to arriving to Scratch Hall. In that sense, they are Norfolk Folk. This also opens up a new corridor of about 20 years of records to study related to this family. I have not yet seen the first 20 years of Norfolk tithables, from the 1730s to the 1750s, to determine how long this family was in Norfolk.

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People of the First Light


A page from the Eliot Indian Bible, written in Natick language in 1663. Some linguists estimate that Natick and Powhatan were about 72 percent mutually intelligible.  

I AM NO EXPERT on Algonquian peoples or languages, but when it comes to Carolina Algonquians, there are a few basic ideas that are important to understand, and which help to explain later migrations between Indian communities.

The first is that Algonquian peoples migrated southward, out of Canada, along the coast. According to the archaeological record, the southernmost extent of Algonquian settlement was around the White Oak River in North Carolina. By the time of John Lawson’s journey in 1709, it had retreated somewhat to an island in the Pamlico River. “Indian Island” still exists.

Lawson also recorded a vocabulary for these “Pampticough” Indians that is similar to the vocabularies recorded for Virginia Algonquians. Some linguists have determined that the Algonquians who lived below the Indian River in Delaware spoke a variety of Algonquian that was more similar to the languages spoken in New England and Canada than it was to Lenape, immediately adjacent to the north. The Lenape represented a later influx of Algonquians from the west, which displaced this original group extending down the coast. However, the coastal people, from Canada to North Carolina, retained the same name for themselves — Wabanaki, Wôpanâak, Weapemeoc — “People of the First Light,” or “People of the Dawn Land.”

As such, the peoples extending south from Canada, through New England and Eastern Long Island, and then continued from northern Virginia and southern Delaware along the coast to the southern extent of modern-day North Carolina, were one group of people with a common name. Different nations, largely based and named by Europeans according to geography, at times comprised confederacies. It is worth mentioning here that the Chowanoke, or “Chawanook,” as they were rendered by the first European map makers, may have been a satellite of the semi-migratory Shawnee people.

In the early 17th century, Shawnee were found not only in the Ohio Valley, but just west of the Delaware River, and as far south as the Savannah River. It seems entirely plausible that the Indians who were living on the Chowan River were another group of migratory Shawnee. The names recorded for the “Chawanook” and “Suwanees” are almost identical. At the same time, it could just be another case of a common Algonquian word for “South” (Chuwon) being applied to disparate groups of people.

Another interesting detail is that according to the Weapemeoc, they gave the Chowanoke the land upon which they settled. The two groups were related. The Durant surname is listed on several of the early Yeopim deeds, while the Robbins name appears of the Chowan Indian deeds. In 1736, an Indian named “Thomas Durin” sued his fellow tribe member “John Robins” for a debt. The names John and Thomas Hoyter are recorded as Chowan Indian leaders in the 18th century. By the end of the century, though, they are found among the Yeopim in Camden and Currituck counties.

The Algonquians relied on a mix of fishing, hunting, gathering, and agriculture to survive, and the extent of their settlement was largely related to the coastal environment they inhabited. They too were semi-migratory and lived in seasonal villages. I am currently looking into the idea that the “Poteskeit” Indians recorded by Lawson as living in Currituck might have been a seasonal village of the “Pochayick” or “Pochick” band of traditional Nansemond, whom he does not name as being in North Carolina at this time. The relationship between these sites may explain why the same families are found in Norfolk and Currituck as are found near the old Nansemond and Meherrin towns in Hertford County. “Poteskeit” could have been one of their seasonal village sites.

The sounds and rivers of the Inner Banks represented a network that connected Algonquian settlements, rather than a barrier that separated different peoples. This is helpful to know when one is considering how Algonquians from the Eastern Shore migrated to the Norfolk-Currituck area. If one considers them to have been a single people, connected by water, then their migration up and down the coast makes sense.

Sometime after the failed Roanoke Colony left behind devastation among the Coastal Algonquians, the Tuscarora gained political control of the region. Hugo Leaming in Hidden Americans (1979) for instance refers to the Yeopim as a nation of the Tuscarora Confederacy. That does not mean that the Tuscarora completely replaced the populations of the towns, but rather the coastal peoples deferred to the will of their stronger neighbor in most political matters. It was not unusual for weaker, coastal Algonquian nations to ally with their stronger Iroquoian neighbors. This may explain why some families from the Norfolk-Currituck area later joined the Tuscarora at Indian Woods.

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The Dawn Land

algonquianTWENTY-SEVENTEEN was a year that saw me delve into and investigate a number of theories about the origins of my ancestors.

I swung between hypotheses that they were detribalized Pamunkey, or refugee Tuscarora, or merely Chowanoke fringe people.

Both DNA and records have led me to believe that these were coastal Anglo-Indian families that intermarried with similar families. DNA was critical here, as I matched descendants of the indigenous Hall, Weaver, and Sawyer families, all of whom claimed Indian descent, and all of whom matched each other.

They, in turn, have connections to both the Norfolk, Virginia communities, as well as those in Bertie County. In fact, I have come to suspect that John Collins, the Bertie County settler whom I profiled in depth, was actually a Nansemond Indian in part, given his close association with the Bass family in Bertie.

John Collins and his descendants make multiple appearances in the book Bass Families of the South. While Albert Bell’s book has been severely criticized, it does not erase the proximity and connections between the two families, and makes Norfolk a likely starting point for this Collins family.

It would make sense that if the Basses had migrated from Norfolk, the Collinses had come with them to Bertie. Which would make the Collinses of Bertie and of Norfolk the same family. There is no “Tuscarora” Collins family, and no “Nansemond” Collins family, and no “Mattamuskeet” Collins family. There is no “Meherrin” Collins family.

They are all the same Anglo-Indian family.

This is my family. It’s clear to me. In the coming year, I would like to learn more about Coastal Algonquian culture, and to dwell less on genealogical connections. Genealogy is fascinating in that it allows you to see connections between people on paper. DNA is equally as relevant, because it allows you to uncover connections that have been lost. Yet learning more about the coastal culture would be of greater interest to me at this point.

This is my ambition for 2018.

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Douglas Collins

Douglas Collins 1Douglas Collins 2

I came upon this listing for Douglas Collins in the 1860 census in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. This is a town equidistant from Gettysburg and Tuscarora National Forest in the southern central part of the state. Douglas Collins is listed as an Indian, and as being from Virginia.

Interestingly, at the bottom of the page, it shows that census takers counted his family as “white” in the total count of white and colored residents. This would be relevant later, because in 1870, the family of Douglas Collins, this second time using perhaps his real first name, Presley, is listed as white.

Douglas Collins actually appears in the Norfolk County Register of Free Negroes and Mulattoes in 1850. “Douglass Collins, 23 yrs, 5 ft 11-3/4, Indian complexion, Indian descent, 16 Sept. 1850.” The same register lists William Collins, Cary Collins, and Presley Collins, all as mulatto, rather than Indian. However, the year their names were recorded was 1831. The William Collins listed is the progenitor of a family now known as Meherrin Indian, and that listed itself as Indian in the 1900 US Federal Census of Hertford County, North Carolina. I have written about that family here.

All of these names, William, Cary, and Presley Collins, are connected to Kinner Shoecraft Collins, who left a will in Princess Anne County in 1823. In that document, and others, Cary, William, and Presley are named as his sons. A century later, another man named Cary Collins is listed in the 1907 census of the Nansemond Indians. This was clearly an Indian family, as supported by multiple documents. Moreover, this family had some European ancestry. This is demonstrated by the fact that not only was Douglas Collins counted as white in Pennsylvania, but Kinner Collins was taxed as white until 1820.

My own ancestors were considered white in most documents. However, some were characterized as colored, especially around the time of the Civil War. My own matches with Hall and Weaver descendants, other Indian families from the east side of the Great Dismal Swamp, plus the appearance of my ancestor’s name “Graham Collins” among the Indian communities at Mattamuskeet, seems to incontestably link my family to these families. It’s worth noting that my ancestor Graham Collins’s sister Claresia married Thomas B. Hall in Gates County. These Halls were another one of these racially ambiguous families that were described as white in some documents and black in others.

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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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Absalom Collins, c. 1730 – c. 1780

ABSALOM COLLINS was perhaps the youngest son of John Collins, planter of Bertie County, whom I have discussed in my previously three posts. Due to the preponderance of people with this surname, it’s hard to conclusively trace this family in the colonial period. However, the name Absalom is distinct enough to offer some opportunities.

As I showed, Absalom was considered to be underage, ie. not 21 according to English law, when John Collins wrote his will in 1749. He was alive in 1742, when his father claimed his rights in Bertie County. Therefore, Absalom Collins was most likely born anywhere between 1728 and 1742. He begins appearing in deeds by the late 1750s. Recall a debt case involving him in 1757. It’s therefore possible that he did not reach his majority until that time. This gives us a narrower window of perhaps 1730-1735 for his year of birth.

Although Bertie County marriage records extend back into the 1740s, not all of them have survived. There is no marriage record for Absalom Collins in Bertie. According to that debt case, involving the estate of Joseph Thomas, as administered by Ann Thomas and Arthur Williams, Absalom Collins disappeared to a place called Flat Swamp in Tyrrell County around that time. Based on old deeds, this appears to be on the west bank of the Scuppernong River, near Creswell and Pea Ridge. It’s still a sparsely settled area, and one wonders a) what Absalom’s connection to the place was and b) what he was doing there. According to the same case, it was decided in Absalom’s favor in 1763. Perhaps that’s when he returned.

Absalom Collins took part in the estate sales of Edward Bryant in 1777. This is not the last we hear of him in Bertie County though. That same year he provided security for Phereby Wilford of Bertie County in the estate of her husband James Wilford, together with David Curry and John Castellaw.

The association of Absalom Collins with John Castellaw, David Curry, Phereby and James Wilford, as well as Joseph and Ann Thomas and Arthur Williams is very interesting, especially considering that the last we hear of Absalom Collins, he has moved to Chowan County, where he is listed in a tax list in the year 1780. The previous year, in 1779, a John Collins married Sarah Hinton in Chowan County, with George Russell witness.

Might this John Collins have been the son of Absalom Collins of Bertie County?

Meantime, the first deed that mentions my ancestor Thomas Collins occurs in 1803, where he witnessed the transfer of 10 acres to Sarah Butler, a free person of color, by James Lang in the Deep Cypress area, just north of present-day Eure in Gates County. Some, like Paul Heinegg, have speculated that this Sarah Butler and her daughter, Martha Butler, are related to the Butlers who lived in Bertie County in the 18th century.

Specifically, a Martha Butler was the common law wife of John Castellaw, who, together with Absalom Collins, provided security for Phereby Wilford in 1777 in Bertie County. Arthur Williams, meantime, had a common law wife named Elizabeth Butler, also considered to be a free person of color, and a daughter named Sarah Butler who married a Josiah Reddit in 1767. While this is unlikely the same Sarah who obtained 10 acres in Gates County in 1803, and whom bequeathed it to Martha Butler upon her death in 1816, the names line up perfectly, as do the associations with the Collins, Castellaw, and Williams families.

Moreover, the descendants of these mixed unions were considered to be white in colonial records.

It’s possible that the wife of Absalom Collins was also a Butler or a Castellaw, which would explain my DNA matches with those families. Both were considered to be either Indian, or Scottish-Indian families. It’s possible that my ancestor Thomas Collins (c.1768/1769-1849), was a younger son of Absalom Collins and his Butler or Castellaw wife.

One aspect though that does not support this hypothesis is the presence of a Thomas Collins on the Gates County tax lists in 1786 and 1787, followed by his disappearance and subsequent reappearance in the early 1790s, which would be expected if he reached his majority at that time.

I had thought that there was a Thomas Collins, Sr., based on the appearance of a Thomas and William Collins in the Nansemond County militia list in 1783. This leaves us two choices. Either my ancestor Thomas Collins was much older, perhaps born in 1762, rather than 1769, or there actually was a Thomas Collins, Sr., who fathered my ancestor. If that is the case, then there is no record trail for that family prior to the Revolution. This could be deeper evidence of leaving an Indian settlement — Chowan Indian Town or Indian Woods.

However, given the later associations with the Russells, Williamses, Butlers, etc., I tend to believe there is a link between the Bertie and Gates County families. Note that Sarah Collins married John Goomer in 1786 in Gates County, Abigail Russell married Thomas Goomer in 1800, and Sally Wilford married William Goomer in 1801 in the same county. As such, there is strong evidence of a familial link between these Bertie County families and the ones that later appeared in Gates CountyThis also matches anecdotes about mixed race people from Bertie County moving into Gates County in the 18th century.

One thing I learned from this experience of writing about Absalom Collins, was the existence of a link to the mixed race Williams family in Bertie County. My ancestor Thomas Collins married Anna Russell in 1801, and their son Graham Collins (1802-1880) married Nancy Arline (1800-1880) who was the daughter of Jesse Arline and Mildred Williams (c.1777-c.1819). She was the daughter of Jonathan Williams of Gates County. I have not fully traced that family beyond the mid-18th century, but it’s likely they connect to Arthur Williams of Bertie County, who fathered mixed race children with his common law wife Elizabeth Butler. Therefore, we can see the emergence of a whole group of intermarrying Anglo-Indian families in the Roanoke-Chowan area in the 1700s.


Perhaps Absalom Collins, Arthur Williams, and John Castellaw, were brothers in law. This might explain the relationship between these three families, and the fact that no marriage record exists for Absalom. If his wife was a Butler, and it was a common law marriage with an Indian woman, his children might have been counted as white. The Thomas Collins who witnessed the 1803 deed on behalf of Sarah Butler might have been her son.



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