Traces of the Tuscarora

Artwork by Dennis Cusick (1800-1824), a Tuscarora artist from New York

AT THE START OF THE 18TH CENTURY, the Tuscarora were the dominant indigenous people in Eastern North Carolina. Early exposure to British colonists had taken its toll on the Algonquian-speaking coastal people of the Inner and Outer Banks, and the Iroquoian Tuscarorans had gained power politically, projecting power from the Great Dismal Swamp down to the Core Sound.

The current narrative, however, is that following a war with colonial powers and allied indigenous peoples, the Tuscarora slowly trickled north, until the process was declared complete at the beginning of the 19th century. There are plenty of people in North Carolina today who claim to either have Tuscarora ancestry or to be Tuscarora people. Who are these descendants? Are they all just white, or black, or some other Indian people? Are they frauds? And, furthermore, is there any way to prove a link between the people who went north to the Six Nations and those who stayed behind?

Recently, I obtained the GEDmatch kit number of someone who is a Tuscarora descendant from New York. She descends from a certain well-known Tuscarora chief from the 19th century, through his daughter. Using Eurogenes K13, I was able to isolate a piece of a chromosome that had been painted as Amerindian and then run segment match to see who matched her there. The person who also had this Amerindian DNA, it turned out, was a Butler descendant from North Carolina.  The Butlers, as I have noted previously, have been described in oral history as being of Tuscarora descent. Yet there is no proof of this — there are no Butlers listed in the Indian Woods Reservation deeds.

There were, however, Butlers described as mulattoes in various Bertie County records. Robert Butler was described as a “free mulatto male” in 1763. Margaret and Isaac Butler were “free mulattoes” in the 1761 tax list. William Butler was a “free mulatto” in the 1763 list. Elizabeth Butler was similarly a free mulatto in the 1761 and 1763 lists. She was also the common-law wife of Arthur Williams. Her son Isaac Williams married Nancy Bunch. This family, despite its mixed race origins, was later counted as white. Martha Butler was the “mulatto” common-law wife of John Castellaw in Bertie County. This was clearly a family that had mixed ancestry.

One must ask, why is a person of Tuscarora descent from New York, whose ancestry is local to northern New York and Canada, matching a woman who descends from a family of mixed ancestry from the area of the Indian Woods Reservation in Bertie County, North Carolina? I noticed a relatively close DNA match of this Butler descendant also matches my grandmother. This second person, who matches the Butler descendant, descends from the Hinton family of Gates County, North Carolina. Specifically, she descends from James Hinton, to whom the Chowan Indians conveyed reservation land in the 1730s.

Thomas Hiter, Chief of Chowan Indians, and other Indians, to Jacob
Hinton. 200 acres land on Bennett’s Creek; November 15,1733. Test,
Thomas Carman, Henry Hill.

Same, to James Hinton. 500 acres adjoining Jacob Hill; January 9,
1733. Test, John Alston, Thomas Garrett, Thos Carman, John Thomas.

This raises some interesting questions. First, were the Indians of the Chowan Precinct, at this point, Tuscarora Indians? Second, did James Hinton gain his land through marriage into the tribe. Hintons descendants also married Freeman descendants. Priscilla Freeman, the daughter of John Freeman and Tabitha Hoyter, married William Hinton. Were these all mixed European-Chowan Indian families? William’s daughter, Sarah Hinton, later married John Collins in 1779 in Chowan County, George Russell witness.

Another issue is that the Tuscarora supposedly absorbed a large number of Chowan Indian families in the 1730s, and some have said that after the abandonment of the Indian Woods Reservation, many people returned to the Chowan River area, reinforcing the communities that today are called the Meherrin and the Chowanoke.

This is all quite vague, but the genetic link between the Tuscarora in New York and descendants in North Carolina appears to be quite real. It warrants further study and if more people in New York tested, it would no doubt allow a better understanding of the genetic relationship between the two communities.

A 1771 Lease

I JUST CAME ACROSS THIS, and mostly by chance while I was reviewing some genealogical research on the Cale family. It’s a 1771 lease from four “chiefs of the Indians belonging to Chowan County” to Thomas Garrett. The Indians named in the lease are John Bennett, James Bennett, Thomas Reading, and William Cole. Reading is spelled as “Riddin” and “Redden” in the document, and “Cole” is spelled as “Col” or “Cob.”

Both Reading and Bennetts had appeared on earlier Chowan Indian land conveyances, but I had not seen Cole before. Cole Creek is a major creek in southern Gates County, near Bennetts Creek, which was where the Chowan Indian land was located.



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.

Little Pieces

THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY completely changed the dynamic for indigenous peoples living in eastern North Carolina and Virginia. They entered the era more or less as intact “nations” and exited it largely obscured by the first two federal censuses. Only on the basis of deeds and a handful of records can one determine that Indian families are the same as the free colored families listed in the census.

To make things more complicated, they are not always listed as free colored. Thomas Bennett, described as an “old Indian man” in Currituck records, is actually listed as white in the 1790 census for Currituck County. Here, you have to suspend everything you have been taught about race and inheritance in the South and understand that we are dealing with marginal communities in what was a pretty remote corner of North Carolina.

“White,” in this sense, just meant free.

Their identities obscured by terms like white, black, free colored, and mulatto, and their land base more or less liquidated in the 18th century — with the exception of the Indian Woods Tuscarora and the Chowan Indians in Gates County — Native Americans vanished more or less from the historical record. Most local history acknowledges assimilation into the white and black populations. However, there are a handful of records that allow us to piece together some Indian genealogy in the region, even at this late date in time.

We know from records that George Bennett was a Chowan Indian because on April 12, 1790, he sold part of the old Chowan Indian Reservation to Samuel Lewis and Samuel Harrell in Gates County. On July 24, 1787, we find the following entry

I Permenus SMITH for and in consideration of the love and affection that I bear to my Cousin George BENNETT as well as the sum of £5 paid to me by George BENNETT for a parcel of land whereon Thomas BENNETT now lives path side that leads to RAWLINGS and North course to Joseph CARSEs then Easterly said line to WOODHOUSEs line Southerly with said line to Joseph ENNALLs line Southwesterly binding said line to first station containing 40 acres. Witness: Thomas WHITE, Joseph CORSE

This links Permeanos Smith of Currituck County with George Bennett. It describes them as cousins. What’s more, the land conveys is where “Thomas Bennett now lives.” Thomas Bennett is described as an “old Indian man” in a later 1810 deed in Currituck County. The presence of the Carse/Corse family here also helps us to positively identify these people.

I Caleb ETHERIDGE Sheriff by Writ of Fieri Facias issued out of the Court of Pleas & Quarter Session commanding me out of the goods, chattles & lands of Pleasant YOUNGHUSBAND to cause the sum of £120 with interest which was recovered by Lessdid YOUNGHUSBAND againgst him for damages also the sum of £5, 18 Shillings & 4 Pence for cost. In obedience of Writ I took into possession a tract of land which Pleasant YOUNGHUSBAND claimed on Powels Point. Beginning at Thomas WHITE land adjoining Charles GRIGGS land various courses to the land formerly belonged to Thomas BENNETT an old Indian man to the first, being the land that Thomas YOUNGHUSBAND bought of Jonathan CASE containing 50 acres.

Now we have two linked Native American families, the Bennetts and Smiths of Currituck.  I have wondered where this land was. Related land entries reference “North River Swamp” point the way to a location somewhere near Coinjock on the east side of the North River. The Smiths also had African ancestry, it seems. There are various references to “John Smith, a free negro” and “Richard Smith, a free negro” in Currituck records from the 1730s that places them exactly in this area.


Paul Heinegg supposes that James Smith, grandfather of Meherrin Nation matriarch Sarah “Sally” Smith might have been the son of Permeanos Smith of Currituck. It’s certainly possible, considering the movement of other mixed race families — the Nickens, Weavers, and others — to Hertford County from Currituck and Norfolk, but it’s hard to prove. But “may have been” does not mean that it was so, and Smith is a common name.

In the 1800 census for Currituck County, there is a small, free-colored cluster in this same neighborhood including the Case, Smith, Robins, Bennett, and Bowser families. It’s possible all of these families had some indigenous heritage. The Robins and Bennetts are recorded at least as Native Americans in various records. This is one Indian cluster, in an area where “Poteskeet Indians” are reported earlier in the century. There are others.

Roughly 30 miles to the north in Saint Bride’s Parish there was another native cluster.


Making Sense of the Chesapeake

Monkey Island in Currituck Sound

I’VE BEEN READING a lot of primary sources recently and trying to make sense of the Chesapeake. It seems to be the consensus that there was a group of Algonquian speaking indigenous people living in the vicinity of modern-day Virginia Beach that were known at times as the Chesapeake.

The English adventurers and colonists at the time of the Roanoke Colony (1580s) called these people the “Chesapeans” and ascribed to them at least three towns, Skicoak, Apasus, and Chesepioc. All of these towns were located in sounds and rivers along the Chesapeake Bay. One has to be careful though, for Ralph Lane in his 1585/86 account refers to the “Opossians” as an entity, referring perhaps to the people from Apasus. This could indicate that the “Chesapeans” were just the people from the town of Chesepioc.

There be sundry Kings, whom they call Weroances, and Countreys of great fertility adjoyning to the same, as the Mandoages, Tripanicks, and Opossians, which all came to visite the Colonie of the English, which I had for a time appointed to be resident there.

I find this statement interesting, because it shows that the “Mandoages” (Iroquoian-speaking people, likely Tuscarora) were present in the Albemarle Sound even in the 1580s. This also sheds some light on the use of the word “Secotan” in the Roanoke accounts, even though no Indian group calling themselves this survived into the 17th century. I think that”Secotan” was most likely the name of a single Algonquian town. Lane actually provides a bit of information that helps us to better understand these people and their relationships with each other.

now they began to blaspheme, and flatly to say, that our Lorde God was not God, since hee suffered us to sustaine much hunger, and also to be killed of the Renapoaks, for so they call by that generall name all the inhabitants of the whole maine

The indigenous people in this area referred to themselves as “Renapoaks” (Renape). This is what they called “all the inhabitants of the whole maine.” North of the Albemarle Sound though, Lane actually points to two political powers: “Chawanook,” led by Menatonon, and “Weopomiok” led by Okisko. This makes me wonder if the Chesapeake towns — Skicoak, Apasus, Chesepioc — were actually subject to Okisko, in the same manner as the Albemarle Sound towns like Passaquenoke, Chepanoc, Weapomeiok, Muscamunge, and Metackwem. If so, though, why wouldn’t have Lane recorded that?

It seems that the “Chawanook” and the “Weopomiok” were two different groups of Renape (R-dialect Algonquians).

There is consensus that some time before the English arrived at Jamestown in 1607, Powhatan wiped out the Chesapeans and repopulated the area with loyal inhabitants. These could have been Nansemond from the neighboring river or Pamunkey dispatched from the heart of his paramount chiefdom. These people, however, continued to be called “Chesapeake” in the historical record, regardless of their origins. It was likely that when Thomas Willoughby was ordered to march on the Chesapeake Indians in 1627, it was against these people. John Smith’s map shows one village in this area: Chesapeake.

These “Chesapeake” did not remain as a cohesive entity after the mid-17th century. However, it’s possible the “Poteskeet” and “Pochayick” of the latter 17th century and early 18th century consisted of the same people, or that they were all just bands of “Weopomiok.” For Algonquians in the Albemarle Sound area at the time of colonization, identity was largely tied to town of residence, as well as to local chiefdoms (Chawanook, Weopomiok).  However all of them recognized each other as belonging to a common ethnic group, which they called Renape.

This being a border area between Virginia and North Carolina, records concerning indigenous people in the region are scarce. Maps generally show a Yeopim settlement in the vicinity of Camden County and Currituck County, North Carolina, deep into the 18th century. One does have to wonder about the story of Powhatan settling his own people in the area considering that one of the islands in Currituck was known as Pamunkey Island. These days, it has been shortened to just “Monkey Island.”

A Nansemond-Nottoway Genetic Connection

chr 6
A piece of chromosome 6 painted as Amerindian by Eurogenes K13

AS EXPLAINED PREVIOUSLY, I have attempted an approach of isolating the segments of my grandmother’s chromosomes called as Amerindian or Siberian using GEDmatch tools, and then determining who matches her on those segments. Then I look at their trees to identify any shared families. While this does not confirm the ancestry came from those families, it does provide some hint as to where it might have come from.

I found a nice chunk of Chromosome 6 painted as Amerindian. I like this segment because it doesn’t look significantly admixed with European or African ancestry, which can make these kinds of efforts confusing.

Next, I used a Tier 1 tool called Segment Search to find out who else matched my grandmother on this segment. There are two people who match my grandmother on that segment: me and a woman we will call SM.

SM is an interesting match. She has a very different genetic profile from my grandmother. She is 74 percent Sub-Saharan African, according to Eurogenes K13, but she is also about 1 percent Amerindian. I decided to run people who match both kits tool using her kit and my grandmother’s kit. It does not provide a long list, but my grandmother’s cousin on her father’s side is on the list. So we know the match is through my grandmother’s father, Tom Pittman, the man whose portrait is featured on this blog.

What’s really helpful is that SM has an AncestryDNA kit. She matches my grandmother as a 5th to 8th cousin on one 16 cm segment. She also has posted a small pedigree. Her father is from Alabama, and her paternal grandmother is from the Caribbean. It doesn’t look like the connection is on that side. Her mother, however, is a Hicks from Southampton County, Virginia. This is much closer to where my ancestors were living.

A deeper search of her tree reveals she descends from mulatto Hicks, Haley, Boon, and Artis families in Southampton. A deeper look at the Artis match reveals family ties to the Turner and Rogers families, both of which were connected to the Nottoway Reservation in Southampton. I am unable to trace the lines directly, but can see that siblings married into the Turners and Rogers over multiple generations.

However, the Turners and Rogers were named on the deeds connected to the Nansemond Reservation in the 18th century.

The list of common matches with SM doesn’t yield much more information, mostly because I do not have access to these people’s trees. One individual’s name I have seen before while doing this, SLA. SLA is mostly of European descent, but is 1 percent Amerindian and 1 percent Sub-Saharan African using Eurogenes K13.

When I run SLA and my grandmother, I get an extensive list of matches, one of whom, VP, I recognize because she matches on another segment of my grandmother’s chromosomes that is painted as Amerindian. This match descends like other matches on that segment from the marriage of William Byrd and Nancy Rogers in Gates in 1814.

Next, I run SLA and SM. Who do they have in common? One common match sticks out. It’s RO. RO is mostly of European descent, but is a Bass and Bright descendant from Norfolk.

What I find interesting is that my usual Collins and Russell matches aren’t coming up in these lists, while my cousin is. However, my ancestor Hugh Collins (1839-1910) married Celia Cross (1844-1912), who was the granddaughter of a woman named Celia Bird/Byrd. Is it possible that this Amerindian ancestry was actually inherited through that line?

What we can say is that people with ancestry from people identified as Nansemond Indians on records (Bass, Bright) are matching people who lived in and around the Nottoway Reservation (Hicks, Artis, Haley, Rogers, Turner) in Southampton County, and that those people are also matching my grandmother who has ancestry from Gates County. While these people have very different ancestries today — some are majority Sub-Saharan, others are majority European — they share a small amount of Indian ancestry.

We do know that some indigenous people from what is now Norfolk, often identified as Nansemond Indians, moved to the Chowan River area, and then over time relocated to the Nottoway Reservation in Southampton County. We also have at least anecdotal information of “spin off” — marrying into African American and European American communities adjacent to Indian communities in the Chowan River area. This chunk of DNA might have belonged to common ancestors from these communities centuries ago.

James Collins of Princess Anne

jamesJUST THIS MORNING, I came across the census records for James Collins in Princess Anne County, Virginia. James is listed as the head of a household of six whites and one other free person in 1810. He is the head of a household of eight white persons in 1820. Then, in 1830, he is the head of a household of free colored persons.

Looking at neighbors, it appears to be the same individual (or perhaps the James in 1830 is the son of the James of 1810). If it is the same person, it would be another example of this family skirting the racial line between mulatto and white in the censuses.

My ancestor Thomas Collins had a sibling named James Collins, who was a neighboring property owner in Nansemond County. This James Collins was never listed in the census in Nansemond or Gates County, North Carolina, where he married Katherine Russell in 1801. He appeared in tax lists, but not in the censuses there. James was the father of Elvy Russell Collins, who was listed as colored when he died in 1870, but white on other documents. Is it possible that James Collins of Princess Anne County is the same man?