This is my photo collection from a kayak trip on June 20, 2020.
This is my photo collection from a kayak trip on October 16, 2020.
This is my photo collection from Olde Towne Portsmouth on the first day of summer—June 20, 2020. Ten days earlier, the Confederate Monument at the town square was overthrown amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and I was struck by the sight of revolutionary signage displayed on several Federal and Greek Revival style townhouses in the community. Brief descriptions are provided below.
There is an old Indian legend about a Firebird who lived in the center of the Great Dismal Swamp, a territory shared by surrounding tribes for thousands of years. The fearsome creature formed its nest (at the site of Lake Drummond) through a vast wildfire, killing countless Indian families as it burned a hole into the ground. According to the legend, an Indian hunter killed the Firebird’s babies within the nest and used their skin, feathers, and claws as a disguise to hunt the Firebird. When the Firebird realized what happened, it abandoned its nest, leaving the swamp in peace. The blood of the Firebird’s babies—the red waters that fill Lake Drummond—are a lasting reminder of the hunter’s success.1
The legend aligns with natural phenomena. Palynologists have discovered corn pollen in the peat surrounding Lake Drummond, which suggests that indigenous people lived and cultivated corn within the swamp before the lake formed.2 Further, peat fires have occurred in the swamp for thousands of years, and many researchers hypothesize that Lake Drummond formed through such a fire—which may have killed indigenous people living there. The red-colored water within the lake is due to tannic acid from Cypress and Juniper trees and Indian hunters, as featured in the story, have been masters of the swamp since time immemorial. Beyond the Nansemond River, the Great Dismal Swamp is the most significant natural site in Nansemond history.
As a descendant of a Nansemond family that migrated around the Great Dismal Swamp, this story fascinates me. The swamp is the geographic center of several Nansemond diaspora communities, many of which merged with descendants of other nearby tribes and free people of color.3 The origin story of Lake Drummond, which sits right at the Virginia-North Carolina state line, is characteristic of indigenous resistance to colonial borders. Our families have always flowed across the boundaries drawn around us, and victory over the Firebird tells us that our ancestors did not fear the swamp but chose to face its dangers and survive in a place where most colonists would not venture.
Despite my fascination, I was surprised to learn how few people knew the story when I started sharing it two years ago. In this article, I will contextualize the Firebird legend by sharing:
Before anything else, it is important to understand that indigenous people of this region lived for thousands of years without written language. Story, song, and dance were our original forms of knowledge management and were passed from generation to generation. Oral tradition was used to educate youth about the environment, survival, other tribal communities, moral values, and more.4
Captain John Smith’s account from the summer of 1608 describes the Nansemond using song and dance to communicate with his crew.5 Another account from Alexander Whitaker, a clergyman, from the spring of 1611 describes the Nansemond dancing and flame-throwing to produce rain.6 These descriptions are reminders of Nansemond culture before English influence and are evidence of our belief in song and dance as a means to influence the natural world. The English at the time perceived Nansemond spirituality “as witch-like and devilish.”
In addition to its use in education, storytelling was also a form of entertainment. Before newspapers, telephones, motion pictures, radio, television, or the internet, storytellers captivated audiences with their creativity. Stories blended fantasy, reality, and personal and collective tribal memories. In contrast to journalism, in which the goal is to present events as objectively as possible, storytelling can be subjective and evolve through experience. Storytellers often capture a variety of lessons in one story and emphasize points that are meaningful at the moment.
There is evidence of Indian oral tradition within the Great Dismal Swamp. Historical accounts describe the swamp as a refuge for Indians who were displaced from their ancestral territory by colonists. Indians were known for telling “fantastic tales” about the swamp that were “fearful yet beautiful” and “interwoven with mysticism of the area” yet often proven true. These accounts are part of the survival story of Nansemond diaspora communities that continued to use the swamp through colonial displacement.
The evidence is clear that the Nansemond community around the river and those who were displaced into and around the swamp had unique culture and oral tradition. However, the body of early Nansemond research from social, economic, and political perspectives is largely based on English accounts and government-generated records. Similarly, Nansemond genealogy (focused on lineage and migration patterns) has been based on how society and government officials recorded Nansemond people rather than how we perceived and discussed ourselves and our environment.
The ancestral couple at the core of many Nansemond families is John Bass(e) (b. 1616), an English colonist and minister, and Elizabeth (b. 1618), a “Christianized” Nansemond woman and daughter of a Nansemond Chief. Elizabeth was one of over a thousand Nansemond who was born, lived, and died in settlements surrounding the Nansemond River. Yet, the trajectory of her life changed when she was baptized and married. Many people, including myself, have spent years immersed in historical and genealogical research of Elizabeth’s descendants but far less have studied the unique culture that raised her.
If our ancestors survived through oral tradition—not the written documents we study them through—one must ask, “What is left of Nansemond oral tradition? Where did all the storytellers go?” Through forced assimilation and language loss, indigenous oral traditions were disrupted. Rather than sharing stories, songs, and dances from grandparent to parent to child, many signs of “Indianness” were hidden and replaced with English culture. The disruption has caused immeasurable loss; yet numerous stories have survived, scattered throughout the region like artifacts.
Just as artifacts are evaluated for authenticity, oral history should be authenticated as much as possible. I approached this by following the documented Firebird legend as far as I could go. I heard the story from elders (within and outside of the Nansemond tribal community) and collected numerous newspaper references to the story from as early as the 1960s. These dates were significant because they preceded the Nansemond Indian Tribe’s 1980s reformation and state recognition. The earliest publication I found was “The Great Dismal Swamp: Its History, Folklore And Science” by Hubert J. Davis (1904-1997).
Davis was a scientist and educator with a long record of innovative methodologies. He taught at the College of William & Mary and was the director of the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory Educational Program. After writing about science and marine biology for several years, he published his first book on the Great Dismal Swamp in 1962. Davis approached folklore from a different perspective than one would while researching a tribal community. He went directly into the swamp and documented stories from people still living there.
By going into the swamp and interviewing people who were hunting guides and laborers, Hubert J. Davis placed himself in a setting where indigenous oral traditions were still relevant. The interviewees’ lives were closely connected to the environment, and the subjects of the stories were familiar to them. Earl Bass, a Nansemond Indian and well known hunting guide, happened to be a contemporary of Davis’ and shared several of his experiences in Virginia Wildlife in the 1960s.
I admire Davis’ interview approach because he did not bias his subjects with external expectations (a common criticism of some early anthropological approaches). He documented candid conversations with storytellers and removed the barriers of social class, etiquette, and religion that may otherwise inhibit people from sharing
Davis’ account of the “The Wicked Firebird of Dismal Swamp” included a forbidden love story between a young Indian man (“Big Bear”) and woman (“White Swan”) of neighboring tribes who shared the swamp as hunting ground. It is possible that a love story was part of the original oral tradition but it is also possible that this was added to increase its appeal to those intrigued by swamp stories, such as the romanticized accounts from poets like Thomas Moore. Both Davis and subsequent authors (like Waverley Traylor7) were open about the fact that they were retelling stories that have evolved over time and they were passionate about protecting the history of the Great Dismal Swamp.
In addition to following the documented Firebird story, I compared it to other stories in both local and distant indigenous communities. I discovered that there was an almost identical oral tradition among the Mattamuskeet Indians, or Machapunga, regarding the formation of the Lake Mattamuskeet. The story did not include the Firebird, but all other components were the same and both describe a local natural event that happened long before colonists arrived.
More broadly, bird-related stories are common in Algonquian and Iroquoian mythology. The Thunderbird8 is known among many tribes as the ruler of the upper world with the ability to create lightning through its eyes, thunder through its wings, and wind through its flight. One has to wonder if the Firebird story is somehow related to the Thunderbird story given the possibility of a lightning strike as the cause of the formational fire in the center of Lake Drummond.
Aboriginal Australians also have an oral tradition of “firehawks” causing wildfires. Similar to the Firebird story, oral tradition about the firehawks has been proven to accurately describe a natural phenomenon in which raptor species use fire to increase their foraging sucess.9 The firehawk story is an example of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) which has recently grown as a field of study.10
These findings place the Firebird legend in context with other indigenous stories that each reference time before colonial influence. Through my search, I discovered several other legends that are rarely shared despite containing important information about the local environment and tribal communities. In her article entitled “Educating America: The Historian’s Responsibility to Native Americans and the Public,” Angela Cavender Wilson described this as a widespread issue:
After reading these references, I felt compelled to continue restoring lost oral tradition. Along with protecting our natural resources, we must protect the stories our ancestors left as legends, often leading us to medicines and teaching survival skills. Oral tradition shows us a different world than that of English accounts and government records and it serves a different purpose—to educate and build a sense connectedness to each other and to the environment which sustains us.
My journey to restore Nansemond oral tradition is just beginning and, thanks to the world I have discovered through the Firebird legend, I am committed to continue searching, contextualizing, and amplifying our lost voices. As part of that, I created this medallion design in honor of Nansemond women, like Elizabeth, and the diaspora they birthed.
The woman in the center is standing on the Nansemond River (Fishing Point) surrounded by corn and fish. She is facing southeast toward a sunrise, featuring a southeastern Algonquian pattern, over the Great Dismal Swamp. The fearsome Firebird rises in the center, and she is fearlessly venturing out toward it.
This design integrates the Nansemond origin story and survival story. The fires that burned through the swamp have also burned through our settlements, our communities, our records, and our rights as people. We cannot be afraid and—after so much has been lost—we cannot willingly forget anything, especially not the stories of our ancestors.
6Brown, Alexander. The Genesis of the United States ; a Narrative of the Movement in England, 1605-1616, Which Resulted in the Plantation of North America by Englishmen … Collected, Arranged, and Edited by Alexander Brown. Heinemann, 1890.
9Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless, and Maxwell Witwer. “Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia,” Journal of Ethnobiology 37(4), 700-718, (1 December 2017).
As a Bass, I was born with one of the most recognizable “Nansemond names.” However, the Bass name was not associated with Nansemond ancestry until John Bass(e) (b. 1616), an English minister, married Elizabeth (b. 1618), a Nansemond woman and daughter of a Nansemond Chief, in 1638. Descendants of Elizabeth (my 9th great grandmother) have become some of the most researched Nansemond people; however, she was one of over a thousand who were born, lived, and died in settlements surrounding the Nansemond River whose real Nansemond names (of the Algonquian language) have been lost. In this brief article, I will share some names of Nansemond people and places that were documented at first contact.
When the English arrived in Nansemond territory in the early 1600s, their objective was to acquire additional resources. The Jamestown settlement’s food supply was not sufficient to sustain the pace of growth and John Smith strategically sent out two expeditions to settle new areas. John Martin and George Percy were sent with 60 men by boat to Nansemond (while Michael Sicklemore led another group to the same area by land). The men described the Nansemond as being governed by four werowances1,2—Weyhohomo, Amapetough, Weyongopo, and Tirchtough. The term “werowance” (meaning “antler wearer”) and each of these names were part of the Algonquian language spoken by the Nansemond.
To date, these are the only documented Algonquian names of early Nansemond people and places3. All other “Nansemond names” are English names held by individuals of Nansemond ancestry.
1Conquest of Virginia, the third attempt, 1610-1624 : Virginia founded under the charters of 1609 and 1612 : an account based on original documents of the establishment of the colony, by the Virginia Company of London by Conway Whittle Sams
3Treaty Between Virginia and the Indians (1677) named Pattanochus as the King of the Nansanticoes, Nanzemunds, & Portabacchoes. This name is often cited as the King of the Nansemonds along the Nansemond River however this is an error. There were two signatures and this name, Pattanochus, was associated with a King who lived in King George County. The name of the Nansemond King who lived further south was not specified.
Pharoah and Joel Sawyer have been a part of my Camden County, NC research for years. They were adjoining land owners to my ancestor William Bass and they ultimately bought all of his land. I followed the stories of William Bass’ descendants; however, I failed to recognize the importance of including Pharoah and Joel Sawyer’s descendants in my research until recently.
On 10 April 1801, William Bass bought 125 acres of land (formerly owned by Thomas Gordon) from John Sikes (Deed Book I, Page 148). This land was located on the east side of the Pasquotank River, directly opposite of Richardson’s Landing, and was bounded by the land of Pharoah Sawyer, David Hall, and Joel Sawyer. This was William Bass’ first and only land purchase in Camden County, NC. He ultimately sold all of this land as follows:
Despite William Bass’ sale of all his land, there is no evidence that his family bought additional land or moved. When an ancestor sells all of their land before death and their immediate family did not independently acquire land, it is imperative to find where survivors went. In this article I will outline the families of Pharoah and Joel Sawyer to provide insight into where William Bass’ immediate family may have lived after his death.
The first documentation of Pharoah Sawyer in Camden County, NC is from 12 March 1779 in the Return of militia divisions commanded by Colonel Isaac Gregory. He was part of Captain Thomas Terry’s (?) Company in the Third Division along with Thomas Overton, Samuel Rhodes, John Abbott, William Sawyer, Darius Bright, Jabez Cartwright, Mack Perkins, William Linton, Jesse Winberry, John Jones, and Benjamin Jones.
It is unclear when they married, but by the 1790 Federal Census Pharoah Sawyer was married to his wife, Dorothy “Dolly” Riggs, and they appeared to have had children born in or before 1774. Dorothy Riggs was the daughter of Isaac Riggs and Ruth Durant1 who were documented as Pharoah’s neighbors for many years.
In the 1790 Tax List, Pharoah was taxed on 0 acres and 1 poll, in 1791 he was taxed on 0 acres and 1 poll, and in 1792 he was taxed on 100 acres and 1 poll2. It is unclear what land Pharoah was taxed on because his first land purchase was not recorded until 15 November 1793 when Joseph Jones, Sr. (merchant of Camden County, NC) sold Pharoah Sawyer (planter of Camden County, NC) 30 acres. The land was adjoining Robert Gray, Joel Sawyer, River Swamp, Butter Weed Swamp, David Burnham, and William Shirlock and the deed was witnessed by Isaac Murden and James Ferrill (Deed Book F, Page 217).
In the 1795 Tax List Pharoah was taxed on these 30 acres and 1 white poll then on 1 August 1799 he sold 30 acres to Arthur Old. The land was at the head of the Pasquotank River adjoining Robert Gray, Joel Sawyer, Joseph Jones, Sr., and Thomas Gordon and the deed was witnessed by Newton Edney and James Butt (Deed Book H, Page 428). By the next census year, Pharoah’s household increased by 1.
On 20 January 1801, Pharoah Sawyer bought 125 acres (formerly owned by Thomas Gordon) from John Sikes (Deed Book I, Page 157). Less than three months later, William Bass bought an adjoining 125 acres on the north side of Pharoah Sawyer’s land (Deed Book I, Page 148). Evidence indicates that Pharoah and William were neighbors before they bought equal portions of Thomas Gordon’s former land from John Sikes (i.e., adjoining land owners, like David Hall, and witnesses were the same for these purchases as previous deeds).
Pharoah Sawyer’s father-in-law, Isaac Riggs, died in early 1804 and his land was divided between his heirs. On 22 October 1804, Pharoah and Dorothy Sawyer sold her land inheritance (5.5 acres) to John Wilkins (Deed Book K, Page 315). On the same day, Pharoah bought 15.5 acres from William Bass adjoining his own land (Deed Book K, Page 326). A little over a year later, on 5 January 1806, Pharoah bought another 50 acres from William Bass (Deed Book K, Page 483).
Pharoah Sawyer appears to have died the following year based on his widow’s actions. On 21 February 1811, Dolly Sawyer (of Camden County, NC) leased land from Robert Gray (of Pasquotank County, NC) near River Bridge adjoining Arthur Old and Joel Sawyer’s (Deceased) lands except the orchard with permission to clear as much land she like for 7 years. The lease was witnessed by Joseph Spence (Deed Book N, Page 183-184).
Dolly Sawyer was documented in the 1820 Federal Census with a household of 4 (1 white female over 45, 1 white male 16-25, 1 white female 16-25, and 1 white male under 10). She was then documented in the 1830 Federal Census with a household of 4 (1 white female 70-79, 1 white female 40-49, 1 white male 10-14, and 1 white female under 5) still living in River Bridge next to Thomas Sawyer, Edmund Sawyer, William Sawyer, and Alex D. Sawyer.
It remains unclear how Pharoah and Joel may have been related, but Joel appears to have been in Camden County, NC as early as the 1780s. Willoby Nickols swore that he served as a substitute for Joel Sawyer in Captain Rufus Williams Company in March 1781.
In the 1782 Tax List, Joel Sawyer was taxed on 50 acres, 2 horses, and 9 cattle. It is unclear when they married but by the 1790 Federal Census Joel was married to his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Riggs (sister of Dorothy Riggs), and appear to have had several children born before 1774.
In the 1790 Tax List Joel Sawyer was taxed on 100 acres and 1 poll, in 1791 on 100 acres and 1 poll, in 1792 100 acres and 1 poll, and in 1795 on 100 acres and 2 white polls.
On 3 February 1806, Joel Sawyer, Sr. made a deed of gift to his son Joel Sawyer, Jr. for 50 acres he bought from William, John, and Willis Sawyer. The land was adjoining David Hall’s swamp, Robert Gray’s land, Joel Sawyer’s swamp, and Pharoah Sawyer’s road and the deed was witnessed by William Sawyer and John Wilkins (Deed Book L, Page 47). Based on the land description, it is possible that Joel Sawyer bought this land from the heirs of another Sawyer (deceased before 1806).
It appears that Joel Sawyer, Sr. may have died around this time (note that he was referred to as Joel Sawyer (Deceased) in Dolly Sawyer’s 1811 lease with Robert Gray). Joel Sawyer, Jr. remained on the land his father gave him and built his own family.
There was no deed for Joel Sawyer, Jr.’s purchase of the slaves recorded in his household so he may have acquired them through marriage. In the 1815 Tax List Joel Sawyer was taxed on 50 acres, 1 free poll, and 1 black poll.
On 4 November 1818, Joel Sawyer bought 81 acres from Joseph Riggs located in the upper part of Camden County and the deed was witnessed by Hollowell Old and Joshua Williams (Deed Book Q, Page 146). Joel’s wife (?) may have died before 1820 because there were no adult females in his household in the following census year.
On 26 November 1822, Nicolas Sawyer (of Pasquotank County, NC) sold William Sawyer (of Camden County, NC) one undivided fourth of one half of a 50-acre tract of land near River Bridge which formerly belonged to Joel Sawyer. The land was adjoining Grandy Sawyer, River Swamp, William Sawyer, and Robert Gray and the deed was witnessed by George Ferebee (Deed Book S, Page 220).
On 14 January 1823, Frederick Sawyer (of Pasquotank County, NC) sold William Sawyer (of Camden County, NC) one undivided half of a 50-acre tract of land near River Bridge which formerly belonged to Joel Sawyer. The land was adjoining Grandy Sawyer, River Swamp, William Sawyer, and Robert Gray and the deed was witnessed by Malachi Williams (Deed Book T, Page 87).
These two land sales indicate that a Joel Sawyer was deceased by 1822 and that his estate was being divided between his heirs. They also demonstrate that Frederick was more closely related to this Joel Sawyer (possibly a son) than Nicolas (possibly a grandson).
Elizabeth Sawyer (the sister of Dorothy Sawyer, widow of Joel Sawyer, Sr.), was documented in the 1820 Federal Census with a household of 2 (1 white female 26-44 and 1 white male under 10). She was then documented in the 1830 Federal Census with a household of 6 (1 white female 50-59, 1 white male 10-14, 2 white females 10-14, 1 white male 5-9, and 1 white female 5-9) living next to Evan Riggs, Abner Lamb, George Ferebee, Thomas Linton, David Hall, William Sawyer, Sr., Gardner Trafton, John Trafton, Jabez Sawyer, and Isaac Sawyer.
On 4 February 1825, Joel Sawyer and Noah Riggs sold Zebedee Williams 41 acres of land located near the old Burnt Mill Tract and the deed was witnessed by Joshua Long and William Mills (Deed Book S, Page 253). This deed indicates that Joel and Noah co-owned this land (which may have been inherited from a common ancestor).
A number of questions remain about the structure of the Sawyer family of River Bridge, but I have been able to draw one clear conclusion—William Sawyer came to own all of the land that was formerly owned by William Bass.
Later census records reveal that both the Basses and the Sawyers repeated family names so it is important to document each generation and differentiate fathers from sons and grandsons.
In my next article I will provide additional insight about William Sawyer and the people who lived with and around him.
1I have not located a primary source for this yet but I have chosen to include it so that I can return to it in the future. Several researchers have referred to Ruth Durant as a woman of Yeopim Indian ancestry.
3I have not retrieved these deeds yet but I have chosen to include this reference so that I can return to it in the future.
Jarvis Jones (originally of Norfolk County, VA) was a man of great influence in Pasquotank County, NC. In 1754 he was a field officer in the Pasquotank County Militia at the onset of the French and Indian War and his brother (?) Nehemiah Jones was captain of the third company “on the Fork Creek on the North side of the Pasquotank River and on the upper of said county.” The third company included South Mills, Tar Corner, Pearceville, and Upper Woods (all names that came into use later) and the most common names on the roster were Bright (Brite), Overton, Spence, Taylor, Burnham, Jones, Kight (Knight), and Upton.
Jarvis Jones acquired 7 land grants (totaling 3800 acres) from 1748 to 1762 and commanded a Pasquotank County Militia again in 1766. Throughout his life he carried the titles of Captain, Major, Merchant, and Esquire indicating that he was a military man who was also active in both business and law. Jarvis Jones and Nehemiah Jones are relevant to this story because their land acquisitions and military units represent the precise place of convergence for a number of my ancestors.
The land within and surrounding Jarvis Jones’ 615-acre land grant was referred to as “The Quarter“1 in the early 1700s. The origin of this term is unclear but it is clear that “The Quarter” was located on the south side of the “Great Swamp” at the head of the Pasquotank River. Tracing Jarvis Jones’ land sales from this grant connects several families of interest and, in more recent generations, the land descriptions increase in detail to reveal the exact location of “The Quarter.”
|Deed Information||Land Description||Grantee||Grantor||Witnesses|
|Acknowledged April 1747, Registered 18 April 1751 (Pasquotank County, NC, Book B, Page 144)||70-acre tract of land and swamp on the south side of the Great Swamp by the Road Side. Part of a 615-acre land grant from the Earl of Granville to Jarvis Jones||Richard Nickens of Currituck (Tailor)||Jarvis Jones of Pasquotank (Planter)||Joseph Jones, Henry Lamb, Henry Hollowell|
|27 March 1758||99-acre tract of land at the head of the Pasquotank River in a place called “The Quarter,”|
beginning at Keziah Linton’s land and continuing to Richard Nickens’ land
|Willis Bright (Planter)||Major Jarvis Jones||Joseph McPherson, Isaac Bright, Silas Linton|
|27 June 1758||150-acre tract of land at the head of the Pasquotank River in a place called “The Quarter” beginning at Willis Bright’s land in the Flat Swamp, continuing along to Alexander Spence’s line, then along to William Morris’2 line||Joseph Pritchard (Planter)||Jarvis Jones, Esquire||John Cartwright, Hugh Moorecroft, Rob Relf|
|Will of Richard Nickens (1774)||A parcel of land called “Overtons“3 to be equally divided with daughter Leah Rael to have the part where Overton lived and daughter Margaret Nickens to have the part where Sarah Smith lived||Leah Rael and Margaret Nickens||Richard Nickens of Currituck (Tailor)||Original Purchase: Pasquotank County, NC, Book I, Page 101|
|Will of Richard Nickens (1774)||Land and swamp lying in Pasquotank County near the Great Swamp||Rachel Nickens Hall (Daughter of Richard Nickens, Wife of Absalom Hall)||Richard Nickens of Currituck (Tailor)||Original Purchase: Pasquotank County, NC, Book B, Page 144|
This is not a complete list of all deeds that reference “The Quarter” (see Abstracts of Pasquotank County, North Carolina, Deeds, 1750-1770 by John A. Brayton) but this small set represents exchanges between several important people in Camden County, NC research. Richard Nickens was a pioneer of the free community of color at the “The Quarter” which was part of Pasquotank County, NC and later Camden County, NC (after its formation in 1777).
It was uncommon for free people of color to travel or migrate without connections so understanding Bass and Hall relationships with Richard Nickens is an integral part of understanding why they felt comfortable traveling through and migrating to Camden County, NC. Though Richard Nickens was an early settler in the area, he and he descendants did not remain in Camden County, NC. By analyzing Richard Nickens’ will and subsequent Nickens deeds we can see who purchased Nickens’ land and supplemental records identify the neighbors of the Nickens’ extended family in the area.
|Deed Information||Land Description||Grantee||Grantor||Witnesses|
|8 June 1780 (Book B, Page 134)||50-acre tract of land in the upper part of Camden County adjoining the Great Swamp Road leading from Lebanon to the land of Willis Brite and Joseph Pritchard||Gideon Lamb||Absalom Hall and Rachel (Nickens) Hall||Isaac Guilford, Timothy Jones (Younger brother of Joseph Jones)|
|30 August 1793 (Pasquotank County, NC; Book M, Page 295)||50-acre tract of land formerly know by the name of Willoughby Nichols land beginning at the mouth of a ditch at the head of Jacob Richardson’s Mill, binding to Benjamin Richardson’s line, then binding to Stephen Richardson’s line||Simon Smith Nickens (of Currituck)||John Jennings, Willoughby Nichols, and Jesse Cox (of Pasquotank)||Bailey Jackson, Polly Jackson|
|29 October 1801||75-acre tract of land beginning at the Great Swamp adjoining Joseph Pritchard’s land (part of Jarvis Jones’ 615-acre land grant).||Willis Cartwright (of Camden)||Edward Nickens (of Currituck)||Benjamin Rawls, Joshua McPherson, Jr.|
|20 February 1805||Lease for 5 acres of land in New Lebanon Mills (part of the tract formerly owned by John F. Pendleton); The land was adjoining Abbott’s old land||Benjamin Jones (of Camden)||Elizabeth Nickens (of Camden)||Dismal Swamp Canal Company|
|10 November 1838 (Camden County, NC; Book V, Page 251)||30-acre tract of land called the “Billy Williams tract” originally purchased from Caleb Wilkins||Silas Keeter (of Camden)||Noah Nickens (of Pasquotank)||Archibald Cherry|
|10 November 1843 (Camden County, NC; Book Y, Page 17)||30-acre tract of land called the “Billy Williams tract” originally purchased from Caleb Wilkins||Willis Keeter (of Camden)||Noah Nickens (of Camden)||Archibald Cherry|
These deeds reveal that several Nickens sold land in Camden County, NC without personally buying land and without being residents; however, Absalom Hall (with his wife Rachel (Nickens) Hall) was taxed in Camden County, NC in the 1780s, Simon Smith Nickens bought land in Pasquotank County, NC in 1793, Elizabeth Nickens was called “of Camden” (in 1805) and Noah Nickens was called “of Pasquotank” (in 1838) then “of Camden” (in 1843). By 1851, Noah Nickens was documented in the Norfolk County, VA Free Negro Register as a 56-year-old man of Indian descent. Elvin Bass (the son of Nelson Bass and Nancy Price of Deep Creek) was recorded immediately after him as a 28-year-old man of Indian descent.
There is still more to discover in this story but I share these deeds as direct evidence of the influence of individuals who were scarcely documented in the Federal Census and as documentation of sustained kinship between Camden County, NC and Norfolk County, VA into the 1850s.
1In addition to Brayton’s book, I also recommend Camden County North Carolina Deed Books A-D 1777-1790 and Camden County North Carolina Deed Books E-F 1790-1795 by Sharon R. Gable. Each of these books contain Place Indices which provide community insight beyond adjoining land owners.
2“Will Morris, A Free Negro” was recorded in Pasquotank County, NC in the 1790 Federal Census. This may be a different Will(iam) Morris than Richard Nickens’ adjoining land owner but it is possible that this neighbor was also a free person of color.
3This land was purchased on 9 April 1768 from the heirs of Robert Overton (Alice Jackson (widow), Ann Glasgow (widow), David Jackson with Anna (wife), William Jackson with Courtney (wife), Richard Bright with Anna (wife), and James Ward with Patty (wife)). The land that Simon Smith Nickens later bought may have been adjoining this land (note the Jacksons who witnessed the deed).
I am a Trafton descendant through my third great grandmother Eliza Trafton (b. 1820). Eliza was born free which is evident through her presence in the 1850 Federal Census (as the wife of Henry Newsom); however, little is known about her early life. In an effort to learn about Eliza’s lineage, I have begun to research the Trafton family of Camden County, NC. This article is an introduction to the patriarch, Charles Gardner Trafton, and some of his descendants.
Charles Gardner Trafton was born in Dighton, MA on December 31, 1760 to Joseph Trafton and Ziporrah Talbot. As part of a long line of military men, he enlisted in Captain Peleg Peck’s Company (of Colonel George Williams’ Regiment) on September 29, 1777. After the Revolutionary War he became a mariner and entered the Port of Currituck1 several times in the late 1780s (twice on the ship “Nancy” owned by Seth Talbot and twice on the ship “Salley” owned by Joseph Jones on the first entry and Benjamin Jones on the second entry).
On December 7, 1790 Gardner Trafton was called a mariner of Camden County, NC while buying 21 acres of land from Timothy Cotter (who was also called a mariner of Camden County, NC) near River Bridge on the west side of the Pasquotank River in Pasquotank County, NC. The land was adjoining Joseph Richardson, David Cartwright, Jonathan Herring, and Labeus Richardson and the deed was witnessed by Abner Whitney and Nathaniel Paine. He later sold this tract of land on July 12, 1796 to John Hamilton.
The area around River Bridge was originally called “Joppa” and was the shipping and trading center for those who lived in upper Camden County. As a mariner, this would have been a convenient community for Gardner Trafton and he had relationships with several other investors in the area—including Arthur and Hollowell Old who owned a warehouse at River Bridge. The name “Joppa” was eventually replaced with “Pasquotank River Bridge” and later “River Bridge” in the early 1800s.
On July 11, 1791 Gardner Trafton married Lovey McPherson. As a newcomer from Massachusetts, Gardner did not have close family connections in Pasquotank County, NC but his wife (believed to be the daughter of Joshua McPherson and Courtney Hixon) was part of an established family in the area. Gardner Trafton and his wife lived in Pasquotank County, NC through the births of all of their children2 (Courtney (b. 1793), Joseph Talbot (b. 1796), John Wesley (b. 1799), and Benjamin (b. 1799)).
The name “John Wesley” may have been in honor of John Wesley, a religious leader of the time and the founder of Methodism. The McBrides, Gamblings, McPhersons and Cartwrights were all named in the 1792 lease from Jeremiah Sexton to build a house of worship (McBride Church) for joint use between local Methodists and Episcopals. A few years after the birth of their last child, Lovey Trafton died on April 9, 1802.
Important details about Gardner Trafton’s life can be extracted from the deeds he entered throughout his life in Camden County, NC.
|Deed Information||Deed Description||Grantee||Grantor||Witnesses||Notes|
|6 August 1799 (Book I, Page 74)||$250 for a 50-acre tract of land and swamp near Pasquotank River Bridge in Camden County||Gardner Trafton||Joseph Jones||Charles Grice, Abner Whitney||+50 Acres (Land & Swamp)|
|30 September 1800 (Book I, Page 83)||600 spanish dollars for a 3-acre tract of land near Pasquotank River Bridge formerly belonging to the copartnership of Hughs, Smith & Scarborough (sold by the sheriff to Austin and Susanah Davis who then sold it to Elisha Davis who then sold it to Thomas Gordon)||Gardner Trafton||Thomas Gordon||Abner Whitney, Joshua McPherson (Gardner Trafton’s Father-in-Law)||+3 Acres|
|26 April 1802 (Book I, Page 293)||$613 for a 3-acre tract of land near Pasquotank River Bridge formerly belonging to the copartnership of Hughs, Smith & Scarborough including the piece of land called the “Jib”||Arthur & Hollowell Old||Gardner Trafton||Arthur Wilkins, Christopher Whitehurst||-3 Acres (See Book I, Page 83; A jib is a triangular sail. Could this refer to the island in the middle of the Pasquotank River?)|
|22 January 1803 (Book I, Page 372)||600 spanish dollars for one negro man named Thomas (formerly the property of Timothy Hixon) and one negro woman named Pamela (formerly the property of Benjamin Jones)||James Pearce||Gardner Trafton||Roger Slover, William Hinton||-2 Slaves|
|15 October 1804 (Book K, Page 243)||600 spanish dollars for one negro man named Thomas (formerly the property of Timothy Hixon) and one negro woman named Pamela (formerly the property of Benjamin Jones)||Gardner Trafton||James Pearce||Jeremiah (?) Murden, Benjamin Howell||+2 Slaves (See Book I, Page 372; Repurchased the same slaves that he sold)|
|__October 1804 (Book K, Page 322)||$550 for a 20-acre tract of land on the north side of Joy’s Creek adjoining Elisha McBride, Joseph Abbott, and James Haley||Gardner Trafton||Joshua Burnham||B. Jones, J. Pearce||+20 Acres|
|3 December 1805 (Book L, Page 37)||$250 for a 50-acre tract of land and swamp on the Pasquotank River Bridge in Camden County known by the name of Butter Weed (?)||Hollowell Old||Gardner Trafton||Malachi Wilkins, Nehemiah Riggs||-50 Acres (See Book I, Page 74, Land & Swamp)|
|3 December 1805 (Book L, Page 38)||$550 for a 20-acre tract of land on the north side of Joy’s Creek adjoining Elisha McBride, Joseph Abbott, and James Haley||Hollowell Old||Gardner Trafton||Malachi Wilkins, Nehemiah Riggs||-20 Acres (See Book K, Page 322)|
|23 January 1808 (Book M, Page 35)||$30 for a 250-acre tract of swamp land near the head of Joy’s Creek in the Great Dismal Swamp adjoining David Pritchard, Joseph Pritchard, and Timothy Jones||Gardner Trafton||Joseph Pritchard||+250 Acres (Swamp, See Image Below)|
|8 February 1808 (Book M, Page 65)||350 silver dollars for one negro man named Mat (formerly the property of Hollowell Old)||Gardner Trafton||Josiah Grandy||Thomas R. Butter, John K(?)||+1 Slave|
|25 October 1808 (Book M, Page 134)||$800 for 94-acre tract of land known as “Sawyer Lands” adjoining the swamp off the Pasquotank River, the road leading to the Shipyard, and the land of the heirs of Edmund Sawyer||Gardner Trafton||Nathaniel Downs||John Wilkins, Willis Wilkins||+94 Acres|
|16 February 1818 (Book P, Page 436)||$1725 for 74-acre tract of land (formerly the property of Griffith Sawyer) adjoining Edmund Sawyer and Willis Etheridge and a 40-acre tract of land (purchased from Enoch Sawyer from Susannah Shannonhouse) adjoining the up River Road and James B. Cunningham||Gardner Trafton||Thomas Jones||Thomas Gordon, Demsey McPherson||+114 Acres|
|23 April 1818 (Book P, Page 448)||$205 for 20.5-acre tract of land beginning at Down’s Shipyard Landing Road (previously purchased from Nathaniel Downs by Asa Sawyer, father of William Sawyer)||Gardner Trafton||William Sawyer||William Forbes, Catherine Forbes||+20.5 Acres|
|3 February 1819 (Book Q, Page 89)||$200 for a 55-acre tract of land (conveyed by Jesse Gregory to Caleb Gregory) in the Lake adjoining the land of Isaac Gregory on the side of the land next to the swamp||Gardner Trafton, Miles Gregory||Cason Hutchings||John Grandy, Justin B Jacobs||+55 Acres|
|22 February 1819 (Deed Book Q, Page 160)||$350 for one negro boy named Bob about 10 years of age, son of negro woman named Judith (formerly the property of Asa Sawyer, deceased)||Gardner Trafton||Jeremiah Forbes||Thomas Gordon||+1 Slave|
|14 January 1824 (Book R, Page 284)||$100 for a 61-acre tract of land or swamp on the Pasquotank River, part of the Thomas Leavy deed adjoining the Shipyard, William Forbes, and William Sawyer||Gardner Trafton||David M. Sargent (agent of Joseph White of the city of Boston)||Jordan Lurry, John Trafton||+61 Acres|
|28 July 1825 (Book S, Page 177)||$200 for a 20-acre tract of land that Asa Sawyer purchased from Nathaniel Downs adjoining William Forbes||Gardner Trafton||William Saywer||Justin B. Jacobs, John Trafton||+20 Acres|
|2 November 1825 (Book S, Page 206)||$227 for a 22.7-acre tract of woodland beginning at a bridge in the road running up to the swamp then up north easterly to the mouth of a ditch||Gardner Trafton||William Saywer||W.S. Bell, John Trafton||+22.7 Acres|
|7 August 1826 (Book S, Page 311)||$100 for a 250-acre tract of swamp land near the head of Joy’s Creek in the Great Dismal Swamp adjoining David Pritchard, Joseph Pritchard, and Timothy Jones||Phineas Sanborn||Gardner Trafton||W McPherson, George Ferebee||-250 Acres (See Book M, Page 35, Swamp)|
|30 April 1827 (Book T, Page 104-105)||$140 for a 14-acre tract of land near Creek Bridge adjoining Tully Robertson, the widow Polly Bell, Linus Williams, Benjamin Trafton, and Cason Hutchings||Gardner Trafton||Tully Robertson||Justin B. Jacobs, Jordan Lurry||+14 Acres|
|12 August 1828 (Book T, Page 259)||$500 for one negro boy named Enoch (formerly the property of Isaac Murden, the father of Robert Murden)||Gardner Trafton||Robert Murden (of New York City, NY)||Thomas Gordon||+1 Slave|
|4 February 1830 (Book T, Pages 512-513)||$650 for a 55-acre tract of land (and plantation) at the head of Sawyer’s Creek adjoining Richard Jarvis, Jabez Sawyer, and William Hearring||Gardner Trafton||William Hearring||Justin B. Jacobs, Enoch Sawyer||+55 Acres|
|2 December 1831 (Book U, Pages 150-151)||Appeared in court to divide Gardner Trafton’s land according to his last will and testament, Neighbors named were the heirs of Miles Gregory, Richard Jarvis, William Sawyer, William Forbes, Abner Lamb, and William Sanderlin||Joseph and John Trafton, Heirs of Gardner Trafton||Gardner Trafton||Chain Bearers were John Trafton and Jonathan Hearring, Surveyed by David Pritchard|
After analyzing the full collection of Garden Trafton deeds, it was clear that he owned property in a few different communities. In order to understand the stages of his life and his activity in each community, I divided information by census year.
Gardner Trafton had a household of 11:
Gardner Trafton’s neighbors in this census year were O. McPherson, W. Etheridge, G. Granger, J. Gallop, E. Burnham, and L. Berry.
Based on the composition of his household, it appears that Gardner Trafton was married to his second wife (Mary?) by this time (after the death of his first wife in 1802). By reviewing Gardner Trafton’s land purchases and sales, it is evident that only two purchases (both made in 1808) remained by the 1810 Federal Census—the 250 acres of swamp land near the head of Joy’s Creek (Deed Book M, Page 35) and the 94 acres known as “Sawyer Lands” adjoining the road to the Shipyard (Deed Book M, Page 134). All of his land at River Bridge was sold.
Gardner Trafton had a household of 10:
Gardner Trafton’s neighbors in this census year were Jabez Sawyer, Isaac Sawyer, Joseph Sawyer, Willis Etheridge, Harvey Burnham, Joshua Gallop, William Forbes, and Miles Gregory.
Gardner’s oldest son Joseph (24 years old at the time) had moved out of the household to Norfolk County, VA and was married to Elizabeth Miars. Benjamin (21 years old at the time) was recorded in his own household in Camden County, NC and was married to Nancy Upton. By process of elimination, the young male in his household must have been John (also 21 years old at the time).
Gardner Trafton’s second wife (?) Mary died on February 27, 1822. On January 20, 1824, Benjamin Trafton made his first independent land purchase from David M. Sargent. The deed was for a 23-tract of land near Creek Bridge adjoining Nancy Hastings, James Williams, Sawyer’s Creek swamp, and Cason Hutchings (Deed Book S, Page 88). Between 1826 and 1829, Benjamin Trafton sold 3 tracts of land located in Gumberry (just south of Shipyard) that his wife Nancy Upton inherited from her father (John Upton’s land division, Deed Book O, Pages 327-328, Deed Book S, Pages 337-338, Deed Book T, Page 236, Deed Book T, Page 395).
Gardner Trafton had a household of 8:
Gardner Trafton’s neighbors in this census year were Thomas Linton, David Hall, William Sawyer, John Trafton, Jabez Sawyer, and Isaac Sawyer. All three of his sons were alive and living in their own households at this time. Joseph remained in Norfolk County, VA with his wife and family.
|Benjamin Trafton’s Household of 12||John Wesley Trafton’s Household of 7|
There were several people recorded as part of Benjamin’s household (both adults and children) that did not appear to be part of his family. His neighbors in this census year were James O’Daniel, John O’Daniel, William Hastings, Ammon Sawyer, Cason Hutchings, Cornelius Sawyer, Sr., James Granger, and Miles Sawyer.
John was never recorded in a deed prior to his father’s death so he may have never bought land independently. His neighbors in this census year were David Hall, William Sawyer, Gardner Trafton, Jabez Sawyer, Isaac Sawyer, and Elizabeth Sawyer.
This was the last year that Gardner Trafton was recorded in the federal census. He left an August 1831 will and died on September 2, 1831 in Camden County, NC. His will was not proved until December 1848 meaning that the distribution of his estate was not resolved for 17 years. An analysis of his will (and supplemental information not included in the will) provides additional insight into his life.
Executor: William Herring (Friend), Witnesses: Miles Gregory, Isaac Taylor, Simeon Miller Thomas
|Heirs||Joseph Talbot Trafton (b. 1796)||John Wesley Trafton (b. 1799)||Benjamin Trafton (b. 1799)||Courtney Chamberlain (b. 1793)|
|Spouse(s)||Elizabeth Miars (m. 1818)||Nancy Etheridge (m. 1826), Permelia Banks Jarvis (m. 1840)||Nancy Upton (m. <1820)||Charles (?) Chamberlain (m. <1810)|
|Children (Grandchildren who were alive and/or named in the will in bold)||Walter Jones (b. 1821), Fanny B. (b. 1829), Virginia A. (b. 1833), Sarah (b. 1835), Mary J. (b. 1838), Benjamin (b. <1831), William T. (b. 1835)||George (b. 1827), Lovey (b. 1829), Thomas B. (b. 1831), Horatio (b. 1834), Mary (b. 1837), John Wesley, Jr. (b. 1841), Elizabeth (b. 1842), Pamelia (b. 1846)||Mary A. (b. 1826), Sarah (b. 1829), John (b. 1831), Philip (b. 1837), Mary (b. 1838), Joseph (b. 1842)||Timothy, Lovey, Sarah|
|1/3 of 233-acre residence and 1/3 of the 61-acre swamp land with the profits going for family support and at his death to his son Benjamin Trafton; Negros Enoch and Mary to be hired out in Camden County for schooling his children and at his death Negro Enoch to pass to his son Benjamin and Negro Mary to his daughter Fanny Trafton; One bed and furniture; Walton Jones Trafton: Negro Lurry (son of Rachel) to be hired out until he is an adult using the proceeds for the education.||2/3 of 233-acre residence (to be divided between sons George and Thomas Trafton after his death); Negros Bob, Isaac, Amy and her children, and Lydia; At his death Lydia and her issue to John Wesley’s other issue. Negro Bob to son George, Isaac to son Thomas, and Amy to daughter Lovey; Desk, one gun, one handmill||14 acres purchased from Tully Robertson; 20 acres purchased from Benjamin Trafton; 22.5 acres called the Lake Land; Debt Forgiveness; One bed and furniture; Gordon Trafton: Negro boy Jerry (the son of May) to be hired out with the purpose of schooling—should he die under the age of maturity the Negro goes to John Trafton (the son of Benjamin).||Timothy Chamberlain: Negro boy Cason; Lovey Chamberlain: Negro girl Sally; Sarah Chamberlain: One bed and furniture|
Gardner Trafton left his slaves Tony and Rachel each to have the choice of living with either of his three sons Joseph, John, or Benjamin and he left the remainder of his estate to be divided between his sons.
Gardner Trafton was buried where he lived on Trafton Road in Camden County, NC. His residence off of North Carolina Highway 343 was left to his sons Joseph Talbot and John Wesley while his land around Shipyard was left to Benjamin. Biographies of many of Gardner Trafton’s contemporaries were included in Jesse Pugh’s “Three hundred years along the Pasquotank” but Gardner’s name was only mentioned once. As I discover new information, I will continue to share more details about the Traftons of Bristol County, MA who became a Camden County, NC family.
My investigation into the life of Gardner Trafton has not yet revealed Eliza Trafton’s parents but there are many clues worth carrying forward into future research:
1Port of Currituck Mariner’s Records (1784-1789) by the Family Research Society of Northeastern North Carolina (2006)
2Gardner Traftons marriages and the births of his children were all recorded in the Trafton Bible.
In genealogy, much of one’s time is spent learning the geographical and historical details of ancestral communities. I have written many articles about life on the Virginia/North Carolina state line, lifestyles, and infrastructure development that transformed the region–but researching these details was merely part of capturing evidence (knowing where to look and what type of records to look for). Throughout this process, I have learned many other details of personal importance that are peripheral to genealogy.
In this article I will share a glimpse of the other side–the natural history of the Great Dismal Swamp and its representation in Nansemond culture. The more one learns about the environment and indigenous inhabitants’ relationship to it, the more natural influences become apparent in modern life. Soil quality, vegetation types, geographic distribution of communities, road names, and more are remnants of earlier times.
Jim Byrd, a charter member of the Suffolk Historical Society (established in 1966) and chairman of the Suffolk Indian Commission, studied Nansemond people for more than 60 years. While anthropologists of the early 1900s, like James Mooney and Frank Speck, studied the day-to-day lives of the small Nansemond community in Bowers Hill, Byrd studied the large Nansemond community (> 1000 people) prior to and during first contact.
Byrd’s archaeological research and artifact collection provided insight into Nansemond culture at Reid’s Ferry–the primary settlement on the Nansemond River in 1608 when the English settlers arrived. He documented Nansemond proficiency in agriculture and fishing (the word “Nansemond” meaning “fishing point“) and the people’s reverence for the sun. He also described Nansemond displacement from the Nansemond River front (the center of Nansemond settlements up to the early 1600s), to living with the Meherrin and Nottoway (mid-late 1600s to present day), to a small group living on the northern border of the Great Dismal Swamp near Bowers Hill (late 1600s to present day).
Although the Nansemond moved as a result of displacement from settlements along the Nansemond River, the Great Dismal Swamp was not foreign territory. The cleared swamp land where the Nansemond lived in the early 1700s, which was often referred to in deeds as the “Gallberry Swamp1,” was historically used by the Nansemond as a hunting ground. Interestingly, gallberry is highly adapted to areas with frequent fires due to its widespread subterranean root systems that connect bush-to-bush and enable proliferation on scorched land. Many Native Americans used fire strategically to clear areas for hunting and the presence of gallberry patches on this ancestral Nansemond land was not likely a coincidence.
“The natural growth of this land is: reeds standing very thick, of moderate size, small sickly pine saplings, red and white, bay bushes and gallberry. I have no doubt that this land has been often burnt.” (Page 30)
“The character of the gallberry lands require also new investigation. These have usually been regarded as worthless. They are usually flat and wet, and hence the temperature of the surface is always too low for the vigorous growth of the most valuable trees: aside from this fact it is probable that the soil is really poor and unfertile, and no measures within a reasonable expense could be employed to change this semi-barren condition to one of fertility.” (Page 39)
“Gallberry Road” (a reference to the gallberry swamp) was the name of the road the Nansemond followed from ancestral settlements in Nansemond County, VA just over the county line to Norfolk County, VA and it was also the name of smaller roads that many Nansemond lived along in northeastern North Carolina. An understanding of gallberry sheds light on an aspect of history that would never be captured in colonial records–gallberry patches were familiar grounds to indigenous people, especially hunters (gallberries are a favored food source for bees, birds, bears and a variety of wildlife), yet they were undesirable to agrarian colonists. By the mid-1700s there were Indian settlements around these areas throughout North Carolina.
This pattern is evident in Indian communities throughout North Carolina. There were displaced tribal people living around gallberry swamps from Halifax County, NC to Cumberland County, NC. The Haliwa-Saponi community, which has Nansemond ancestry (among others), and the Lumbee community, which has Nansemond, Potoskite, and Yawpim ancestry (among others), are both clear examples.
What can be deduced from this pattern? My hypothesis is that gallberry swamp land was attractive to displaced tribal people for at least a few reasons:
After decades of increasing displacement, settling on land that was undesirable to everyone else may have been a survival strategy. Clearly, proving this theory would require a significant amount of research but the pattern became so clear I had to at least document it in writing.
Indigenous hunters were far from the only source of fire in the region. The Great Dismal Swamp, a rich source of peat (a natural fuel for fire) has a long history of persistent peat fires. Some peat fires have anthropogenic origins but they can also start naturally (e.g., through forest fires, lightning strikes, etc.) and once they ignite they can be extremely difficult to extinguish because they burn deep underground.
Large fires in the Great Dismal Swamp have been documented in newspapers around the country. People in surrounding communities lost thousands of dollars in property and suffered the death of thousands of livestock. An unexpected consequence of the fires was that runaway slaves, even some who had been gone for “ten, fifteen, and twenty years,” fled the fiery swamp and returned to their former masters for safety.
Lake Drummond, a natural lake in the center of the Great Dismal Swamp, became the subject of Nansemond Indian folklore due to the prevalence of fire in the area. Oral history told of a great firebird that lived within the swamp on a smoldering nest. Some scientists believe that fire cleared the land of vegetation in the center of the swamp enabling the formation of the lake (i.e., the nest), which means the legend may correspond to actual natural history.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, the anecdotes and hypotheses shared here will not enable anyone to name a distant ancestor but they may inspire people to look beyond the constructs of roads, county lines, state lines, and government. We are required to study these man-made entities to document our ancestors but natural history is a means to understand our ancestors.
The more I learn about the natural history of ancestral Nansemond land, the more I am inspired to incorporate it into my art. Gallberries are especially inspiring because their deep, extensive root systems enable them to regenerate after fire. They are a subtle reminder of the strength of community and culture. No matter how much of our history has been destroyed we, like gallberry, can always restore it if we remain connected to our roots.
I will continue to share new genealogical information on Nansemond people but I will also return to natural history as frequently as possible as the true foundation for the story of our Nansemond ancestors.
|Many thanks to Luke Alexander for gallberry swamp land references in southeastern North Carolina. Luke is a family historian for the Benjamin & Edith Spaulding Descendants Association, Inc. with focus on Bladen, Columbus, and Robeson counties in North Carolina.|
1See Elizabeth Wingo’s “Key To Numbered Place Names,” the 1751-1756 Tithable List. “3. Batcheldors Mill: At the head of Deep Creek where the road to Nansemond County crossed and went through the Gallberry Swamp to Halls Mill.”
In this article, I present the story of David Leary Pritchard—a man whose life served as a perfect cross-section of early 19th century South Mills (Camden County, NC)—as an example of how one can learn more about ancestors of color through their white neighbors (who were sometimes relatives).
David Leary (also spelled Lurry) Pritchard was born on February 13, 1807—the youngest child of Joseph Pritchard (b. 1756-1774) and Chloe Leary/Lurry (b. 1756-1774). David was preceded by two siblings, Joseph Pritchard (b. 1790) and Elizabeth (Betsey) Pritchard (b. 1805) (based on the time between births, it is possible that Joseph was born of a previous marriage).
In the 1800 Federal Census, Joseph Pritchard’s household contained 1 male over 45, 1 male 26-44, 1 female 26-44, 1 female under 10 and 11 slaves. Joseph was not recorded in future censuses because he died on January 27, 1809 when David was just under 2 years old. Camden County will books prior to 1822 did not survive so it is unclear if Joseph died intestate but he was recorded in Camden County deed books numerous times. Newton Edney and Gideon Lamb were named as the administrators of his estate.
David’s grandfather, David Pritchard, Sr., did not die until 1812; so, David Pritchard, Jr. likely knew his grandfather better than his father. On November 17, 1812, David Pritchard, Sr.’s land was divided between his legal heirs—the heirs of Joseph Pritchard (namely Joseph, Elizabeth, and David), Keziah Pritchard, Sally Pritchard, and Mary (Polly) Pritchard. In the absence of a will, this is an invaluable account of Pritchard family property.
|No. 1 – Heirs of Joseph Pritchard (Deceased)||11 Acres Swamp|
27.75 Acres High Land
47 Acres Swamp
|No. 2 – Keziah Pritchard||8 Acres Swamp|
27.25 Acres High Land
22.75 Acres Swamp
|No. 3 – Sally Pritchard||73 Acres Swamp|
68 Acres High Land
Manor Plantation (Whole Amount, 301 Acres)
17 Acres Swamp
|No. 4 – Mary (Polly) Pritchard||Plantation Bought of Joseph McPherson (147 Acres)|
There are a number of implicit details in this record that are important to note. All of David Pritchard’s daughters were still Pritchards at the time of the land division which suggests that they were not married yet. Also, David Pritchard had two plantations—one 301 acre manor plantation and one 147 acre plantation (originally purchased from Joseph McPherson).
Chloe, David’s mother, married Miles Cartwright on June 3, 1819 when David was 10 years old. In the 1820 Federal Census, Miles was recorded with a household of 14—4 adults, 5 children and 5 slaves. That same year, on August 3, 1820, Wilson Lurry (Chloe’s brother) was named as guardian of Betsey, Joseph, and David (orphans of Joseph Pritchard) in a bill of sale in which Miles Cartwright bought 4 slaves (Mourning, Juda, Jim, and Jack) that were owned by the Pritchard children (Deed Book Q, Page 348). After only 6 years of marriage to Chloe, Miles Cartwright was killed by lightning on August 2, 1825.
Some time later Chloe married a Williams (which was the surname she ultimately died with). On October 10, 1826, David’s aunt, Keziah (Pritchard) Sanborn died leaving her husband, Phineas Sanborn, and her two children, John Stevens Sanborn and Eliza Sanborn Conner, as heirs. On July 3, 1828, David sold 50 acres of swamp land to Phineas Sanborn at the head of Joys Creek in the Great Dismal Swamp (this was likely 47 acres of swamp land David inherited from his grandfather which was bordering the swamp land inherited by his aunt Keziah).
Individuals Recorded as Living in “Pritchards” in W. W. Forehand’s 1830 Map of Camden County
|Wilson Lurry||Willis Richardson|
|Hugh McPherson||Ira Jones|
|Elizabeth McPherson||Benjamin Jones|
|William Williams||Malachi McPherson|
|Charity Williams||John M. Brite|
According to Three Hundred Years Along the Pasquotank, David Pritchard erected two watermills (some time before 1839) below the old locks on the Dismal Swamp Canal. Locals referred to the mills as the “south mills” to differentiate them from other mills in the area. This reference led to a formal name change from “Lebanon”—which had been used to describe the area for decades—to “South Mills.”
In the 1840 Federal Census, David was recorded with a household of 3—1 male 30-39, 1 male 15-19, and 1 male 10-14. His closest neighbors were Frederick Sawyer, William Bass, Eliza McCoy, and Joel Sawyer. William Bass (b. 1812) was recorded (as white) with a household of 3—where his presumed wife Lydia Bass (b. 1820) and daughter Nancy Bass (b. 1840) were also living. This close sequence (along with a number of other circumstantial clues) suggests that William and Lydia may have been living and working on D. L. Pritchard’s Farm at this time.
Phineas Sanborn (David’s uncle through marriage) died in January 1840 while living in Yalobusha, MS. His son, John, was either living with him before death or moved to his property shortly after his death because later deeds recorded him as a resident of Yalobusha, MS. In 1841, his daughter Eliza was living in Chester County, PA with her husband (and first cousin), Phineas Sanborn Conner.
Per their father’s will, John gave Eliza a life estate for their father’s property in Camden, NC. This estate was comprised of Sanborn’s acquired land and Keziah’s inherited land and it was bordered by David Pritchard, Jr., Timothy C. Chamberlain, Jesse McCoy, Timothy C. Smith, Enoch D. Ferebee, Benjamin Jones, and Dozier Perkins (Deed Book X, Page 252). Given that Keziah’s estate was bordered by her sisters’ inherited land, these borders provide important clues about who Sally Pritchard and Mary (Polly) Pritchard may have married.
Shortly before or in 1842, David married his first wife Sarah Elizabeth Lamb (b. 1818, the daughter of Abner Lamb—the son of Gideon Lamb who administered his father’s estate—and Dinah McPherson). They had a daughter, Mary Elizabeth, in 1842 who went on to become David’s sole surviving descendant. After Mary Elizabeth, David and Sarah had two other children, Joseph and Sarah Ann, who passed away in infancy.
In 1847, both David and Sarah Elizabeth suffered the loss of a parent with Chloe Williams’ death on January 14, 1847 and Abner Lamb’s death on August 27, 1847. In his will, which proved on September 10, 1847, Abner Lamb left Sarah Elizabeth “the land called the Lydia Sawyer tract” adjoining John Trafton and others. He also left her slaves Sally, Isaac, Ellick (nickname for Elliott), Marshall, Romulus, and Ellen. The slaves were kept as part of the Pritchard estate.
Shortly after these two family deaths, on October 13, 1847, John S. Sanborn (of Yalobusha, MS) gave his sister Eliza S. Conner a life estate of 1700 acres from their father (Phineas Sanborn). The land border description was the same as the one made before with the primary difference being the addition of land bordering Cox and Corprew’s line and John Cox’s line (Deed Book Y, Page 365).
Five days later, on October 18, 1847, David Pritchard bought 100 acres from William Culpepper for $400 on the south side of Joy’s Creek bordering Fanny Edney, Enoch D. Ferebee, and Samuel Edney (which was originally owned by John Edney, see image below). A month and a half later, on December 2, 1847, David sold this exact tract of land to Lydia Bass.
A hidden relationship existed between David Pritchard and Lydia Bass that was discussed in their respective families into the 1900s. Their actions in this land purchase/sale leave a number of unanswered questions:
In 1848, David and Sarah Elizabeth had another son, John, who passed away in infancy with Sarah dying shortly after his birth the same year. By the 1850 census, David was 43 years old, widowed, and living with his 8 year old daughter Mary Elizabeth (with Wilson Culpepper, 25 years old, possibly working on the farm). He had $6,000 in real estate and 21 slaves according to the 1850 Slave Schedule for Camden County, NC (which included 6 from his deceased wife’s father’s, Abner Lamb, estate).
David married his second wife, Margaret Frances Old (b. 1831, daughter of William Old and Maria ____) in 1853. They had one daughter, Mary Frances, born on December 8, 1854. Margaret died two weeks after giving birth and the baby died in 1855 at the age of 4 months. This left David widowed again and by the 1860 census he was living with Margaret Pritchard (21 years old) and Joseph G. Hughes (30 years old) with $25,000 in real estate and 29 slaves according to the 1860 Slave Schedule for Camden County, NC.
Life became tumultuous in South Mills during the Civil War. With the Dismal Swamp Canal as a strategic target and the Pritchard family living in very close proximity to the canal, they were at the focal point of local battle. David’s nephew, David Thomas Pritchard, was a private in the Confederate Army and John Sanborn Conner, the son of David’s first cousin Eliza and P. S. Conner (who had relocated to Hamilton County, OH by this time), returned to the family’s homestead to protect the property during battle.
Many of the Basses, despite being free, fled Camden County, NC during this time to move to northern states. This was a reflection of the extreme social tension that free people of color experienced in the area and family dynamics (for free people of color who had blended families with enslaved people). In 1863, David testified before the Justice of the Peace that 29 of his slaves (valued at $23,700) ran off in the night and went “to the enemy” to Norfolk, VA. He stated that he was entitled to the benefits of the August 30, 1861 Act of the Provisional Congress and included the names, ages, and estimated values of each of his slaves in his file.
|Slave Name||Age||Assigned Value|
The filing, which was witnessed by J.B. Boushall and Frederick Sawyer, is an invaluable record for the families of these enslaved people. Considering the date, the Civil War was nearing its end and this was likely the last document to link these individuals to a slave owner.
By the 1870 Federal Census, David was 62 years old and recorded with William Sawyer (22 years old) and Joseph Ralf (17 years old) living on his property. He had $12,000 in real estate and $1,200 in personal estate at this time. David remained a recognizable figure in the community for building mills and he was also elected as the county surveyor.
“Public Laws of the State of North Carolina, Passed by the General Assembly” noted that David L. Pritchard was granted authority to build a road from “the foot of the Old Swamp, in Camden County, to some point at or near John Cox’s corner, in Currituck County, on the Great Swamp Road” on 19 January 1872.
In the 1880 Federal Census, David was 74 years old, living alone, and noted as a farmer. In his 1888 will, he left everything to his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Hughes, and nephew, David Thomas Pritchard (and heirs).
An obituary posted in the Recorder by R. R. Overby said that David died of cancer at the age of 79. Overby described him as a Christian man (who became active in the church about 25 years earlier), who was modest in nature and of good character.
As a descendant of people whose lives were closely interconnected with that of David Leary Pritchard and his family, I can say that this research (which is still in progress) has added a new dimension to my understanding of my ancestors. As I continue to develop the history of David Leary Pritchard, the Pritchard and Conner Farms, and the Joys Creek community, I hope remaining hidden relationships will emerge.