The Nansemond are a Native American tribe whose ancestral land surrounds the Nansemond River in southeastern Virginia. During the early 1600s, the tribe was briefly part of the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom along with approximately thirty other Algonquian-speaking tribes in the area. The arrival of English settlers and the subsequent Anglo-Powhatan Wars led to land loss and displacement for thousands of native people.
The majority of the tribe’s present membership traces its ancestry to the early intermarriage of a Nansemond woman, Elizabeth, and an English settler, John Bass, in 1638. While some Nansemond resisted English culture, many tribal members—including Elizabeth—converted to Christianity and assimilated. The complex history of colonial and post-colonial Nansemond life has been most thoroughly documented by anthropologist Helen Rountree.
Elizabeth and John Bass’ descendants spread throughout Virginia and North Carolina but the tribal core remained in a community called Bowers Hill along the northern perimeter of the Great Dismal Swamp. If you ask people in Camden County, many are familiar with the Bass family. In fact, the current chief of the tribe, Earl Bass, lives in South Mills but most people view the Nansemond as close Virginian neighbors rather than locals.
A brief study of the geography and development of Norfolk and Camden counties reveals the basis for a relationship much closer than neighbors. Though people frequently traveled across the Virginia-North Carolina border, the construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal created a direct connection between the communities of Deep Creek (at the northern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp) and South Mills (at the southern edge). U.S. Route 17, a causeway road, opened in 1790 and construction on the Canal began in 1793.
The Canal was dug from the ends to the middle and, when it was completed in 1805, it connected the Elizabeth River to the Pasquotank River—which further connected the Chesapeake Bay to the Albemarle Sound. This significant internal development transformed regional transportation and, before it was even in use, changed the composition of families in the area. Many communities long established north of the state border began to shift south.
One year after construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal began, a William Bass signed a six year lease (January 1, 1794 – January 1, 1800) with John Jones, Sr. for a plantation of 60 acres located on the east side of the Pasquotank River in Camden County. Indian corn and apples were noted as produce from the plantation and William was required to share a portion with John. By the 1800 Federal Census, William was listed with a household of seven–one male over 45 (born before 1755), one female 26-44 (born 1756-1774), one male 10-15 (born 1785-1790), and four females under 10 (born 1790-1800).
One year after the end of his lease, on April 10, 1801, William Bass purchased 125 acres of land from John Sikes. This land was also located on the east side of the Pasquotank River, opposite of Richardson’s Landing, and bounded by the land of Pharaoh Sawyer, David Hall, Thomas Overton, and Joel Sawyer (Deed Book I, Page 148). Six years later, a Joseph Bass purchased 6.20 acres from Mathias Etheridge on March 28, 1807. This land was located in Areneuse Creek and his neighbors were Demsey Etheridge, Peter Marcus, Esquire, William Pugh, and Thomas Ferrell.
In the 1810 Federal Census, Joseph was head of a household of four with one male 26-44 (born 1766-1784), one female 16-25 (born 1785-1794), one female under 10 (born after 1800), and one slave. William appears to have died some time between 1816 and 1820 (when his transactions ended and he stopped being recorded in the Federal Census), but his wife and children remained in the area. Joseph was also never documented in Camden County again but he too left family behind.
In the 1820 Federal Census, a Nancy Bass was head of a household of nine including one female over 45 (born before 1785), three females 26-44 (born 1776-1794), two females 14-25 (born 1775-1806), one female under 14 (born after 1806), and two males under 14 (born after 1806). Nancy, William’s widow, appeared to have been living with their daughters (and perhaps some grandchildren) but their only son moved out.
Thomas Bass‘ household of five included one male over 45 (born before 1785), one female 26-44 (born 1776-1794), one male 14-25 (born 1775-1806), and two females 14-25 (born 1775-1806). Based on order in the census and the names of neighbors it appears that Thomas’ household was close to Nancy’s and it is possible that some of his siblings were living with him.
From this core family, the Basses established themselves in Camden County just 20 miles south of the Nansemond Bass family of Norfolk County. Interestingly, the core of the tribal community lived around Galberry Road in Norfolk and the relocated Basses established a new Gallberry Road in Camden (see the full map here). Collectively, they owned hundreds of acres of land, held a number of different jobs, served in the military, and a road—Bass Lake Road (near McBride Church, which the family attended)—still exists in their memory. Some major questions remain to be answered about this family:
Although his birthplace is currently undocumented, William Bass (b. 1755) married his wife, Ann (Nancy) Sammon in Norfolk County, VA in 1786. Willis Bass (a likely relative) was the surety for William’s marriage and he married Jemima Nickens around the same time (both marriage bonds were dated December 18, 1786). While William established his family in Camden County, NC, Willis remained in Norfolk County, VA.
Nancy Sammon’s lineage is unclear but there is strong evidence that she descended from the Salmon/Sammon family of Lower Norfolk and Princess Anne counties. The Sammons owned land in an area called Pungo Ridge which was close to where the Norfolk Basses were living on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River near Great Bridge.
Rather than a lack of evidence of William Bass and Joseph Bass’ presence in Norfolk, the problem is an abundance of evidence related to multiple people by the same names. In fact, there were Basses of these names and ages in counties throughout Virginia and North Carolina. Until William Bass and Joseph Bass of Camden County can be differentiated from those in other locations, their relationships are an indirect means of studying their origins.
David Hall (b. 1755-1765) was a likely relative of William Bass. They may have been cousins and they may have had connections to the same Salmon(s)/Sammon(s) family (William Bass’ wife was Nancy Sammon and David Hall’s son was Willoughby Sammons). The Basses and the Halls lived together in Virginia, North Carolina, and those who received bounty land warrants for military service in the Revolutionary War moved together to Tennessee. David Hall and William Bass shared many familial connections and owned adjoining land for most of their lives in Camden County.
The Price family was also closely connected to the Bass family in both Norfolk and Camden. The descendants of Elizabeth Price (b. 1675) dispersed between the two counties and they intermarried so much that Price became a common surname of the Nansemond tribe. Sally Price married John Gibbs Bass in 1812 and Nancy Price married Nelson Bass in 1817. Asa Price, who married Sally Bass, received a court order certifying that he was of Indian descent and was ‘not a free negro or mulatto’ in 1833 (Norfolk County, Quarterly Superior Court, Minute Book 24, Pages 27-28).
Willis Bass and Jemima Nicken’s children were recorded in the Bass Family Bible—which is one of the primary records used to verify lineage for tribal enrollment with the Nansemond. Several of their children also went on to be certified as ‘not free-Negroes or Mulattoes’ but ‘of Indian descent’ in 1833.
These records, based on the testimony of friends, were the result of the ‘Not Negro Law‘ passed by Norfolk, VA legislator John Murdaugh. The law was intended to protect prominent people of mixed race (generally a combination of European, African, and Indian ancestry) from emerging anti-Black legislation after Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Many families of identical origins throughout the state of North Carolina do not have these records because this law was not passed in North Carolina.
The Camden Basses were documented as ‘White’ in the early 1800s but were often documented as ‘Mulatto’ and/or ‘Negro’ in later years. Though there was little consistency in their racial descriptions, this pattern was entirely consistent with the manner in which other Indian people—including the Norfolk Basses—were documented at the time. Several descendants of William Bass (of Camden County) traveled to Norfolk and several descendants of Willis Bass (of Norfolk County) relocated to Camden.
A number of other families from the Nansemond core followed similar migratory patterns. The two earliest surnames associated with the tribe were Bass and Weaver. Some surnames that later became associated with the tribe (primarily through intermarriage with people of European ancestry) are: Bateman, Bond, Brady, Bright, Cable, Collins, Craigins, Gaylord, Gray, Green, Harmon, Holloway, Howard, Jones, Okay, Osborn, Porter, Price, Rowland, Sawyer, Scott, Sebastian, Simcoe, White, Wilkins, and Williams.
Though the current evidence of the origin of the Camden Bass family is strong, more information must be collected to verify their lineage. This is a complex story and one must be adamant about supporting all statements with records. The Bass family and most other free families of color migrated in a number of directions and it is a challenge to keep chronologies and identities clear.
Through my exhaustive research of the Camden Basses, I have discovered a number of other potential Indian families living around them. Have you heard stories of Indians in your own Camden County research? I would love to collect oral history from others with similar ancestry. Stay tuned for new posts about the lives of William Bass’ descendants.
The featured image on this post is a custom map overlay I made using “Dismal Swamp Canal connecting the Chesapeake Bay with Currituck, Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds and their tributary streams, by D. S. Walton, Civil Engineer, 1867.” The original map was made after the migration of the Basses from Norfolk to Camden but it contains detailed information about early infrastructure.