This is my photo collection from a kayak trip on June 20, 2020.

Lake Drummond Photo Gallery

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.

North Street—Sign Reads: “JUSTICE”
North Street
Middle Street
Middle Street
Court Street

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

Red-Colored Water

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:

  • the importance of oral tradition in Native American culture,
  • the effects of disruption in oral tradition, and
  • how to restore oral tradition.

The Importance of Oral Tradition in Native American Culture

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.”

Captain John Smith at Nansemond in Late Summer of 1608.png
The Journals of Captain John Smith: A Jamestown Biography (Page 86)
A Festive Dance by John White 1585-1593
A Festive Dance by John White (1585-1593)
Whitaker to Crashaw in Spring 1611
The Genesis of the United States: A Narrative of the Movement in England, 1605-1616 (Pages 498-499)

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 Inter Ocean, Sunday, August 5, 1900
Richmond Times Dispatch, Sunday, March 22, 1936

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.

Asheville Citizen Times, Saturday, July 6, 1895. “Wandering Bill Nye” (Edgar W. Nye) interviews a “colored” man who was a “very old inhabitant of the swamp.” This article is one of many that demonstrate that people of color also kept indigenous oral traditions that preceded their ancestors’ arrival in the area.

Disruption in Oral Tradition

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.

Exploring the Firebird Legend

Hubert J. Davis Books
Hubert J. Davis’ Books

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

Jesse Bass on Deep Creek
Jesse Bass and Earl Bass on Deep Creek

The Indian Legend of Great Dismal
Richmond Times-Dispatch, RICHMOND, VIRGINIA, Sunday, March 22, 1936

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.

S. 2441
Great Dismal Swamp and Dismal Swamp Canal: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation …, 92-2, on S. 2441, May 9, 1972. Hubert J. Davis’ research was referenced in support of S. 2441 to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a study of the Great Dismal Swamp in support of its protection and preservation. This year Congressman A. Donald McEachin introduced the Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area Act with a similar goal.

Local Comparison

“Lake Mattamuskeet: Using the Past to Help Determine the Future” from Coastal Studies Institute

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.

Fire in the Swamps
The Greensboro Patriot, GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA, Saturday, May 17, 1845

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.

Global Comparison

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

Restoration of Oral Tradition

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:

“Native American oral tradition focuses less on European-Americans, more on Indian–Indian relations, and includes stories of interactions with non-human spiritual beings—all elements which have served to baffle some academic historians.”

The Baltimore Sun, BALTIMORE, MARYLAND, Tuesday, April 29, 1997. Chief Oliver Perry advocated for the preservation of all indigenous history, regardless of tribal origin. While the Firebird legend is part of Nansemond history, it could also hold meaning for other tribes.

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.



1Davis, Hubert J. The Great Dismal Swamp: Its History, Folklore and Science. Johnson Pub. Co., 1971.

2U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 5. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (N.W.R.) Master Plan (NC,VA): Environmental Impact Statement, 1986.

Bradley, Kevin Christopher. The Great Dismal Swamp: A Twentieth-Century Perspective. American University. 2013. Page 20.

3A New and Correct Map of the Province of North Carolina by Edward Moseley, late surveyor general of the said province ([London]: Sold at the Three Crowns, 1733). 

4Cavender Wilson, Angela. Educating America: The Historian’s Responsibility to Native Americans and the Public | Perspectives on History | AHA, 1 May 2000

5Smith, John, and John M. Thompson. The Journals of Captain John Smith: a Jamestown Biography. National Geographic Society, 2007.

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.

7Traylor, Waverley. The Great Dismal Swamp: in Myth and Legend. RoseDog Books, 2010.

8Lenik, Edward J. “THE THUNDERBIRD MOTIF IN NORTHEASTERN INDIAN ART.” Archaeology of Eastern North America, vol. 40, 2012, pp. 163–185.

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).

10Atkins, Jeff. “The Birds That Start Fires: Using Indigenous Ecological Knowledge to Understand Animal Behavior.”, 9 January 2018.

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.

John Smith’s Map of Virginia (1624) named Nandsamund, Mattanock, Teracosick, Sharps Isle (island in the Nansemond River), and Mantoughquemend as Nansemond settlements.

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 werowances1,2Weyhohomo, 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.

Weroance Names
“…and these fower togither may make of sturdy and bold salvadges two hundred…”
Based on map by John Wolf and Helen C. Rountree; reproduced by permission, National Park Service. Another version is printed in Rountree et al., John Smith’s Chesapeake Voyages, 1607–1609 (Charlottesville, Va).

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

2The Cradle of the Republic, Jamestown and James River – Lyon Gardiner Tyler 

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 SawyerDavid 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:

  • 22 October 1804 – Sold 15.5 acres to Pharoah Sawyer (Deed Book K, Page 326)
  • 5 January 1806 – Sold 50 Acres to Pharoah Sawyer (Deed Book K, Page 483)
  • 26 April 1816 – Sold 60 Acres to Joel Sawyer (Deed Book R, Page 112)

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.

Pharoah (Farrow) Sawyer (b. <1765)

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.

  • On 10 January 1786, Pharoah Sawyer (of Camden County, NC) sold John Taylor (of Camden County, NC) 50 acres adjoining Tull Sawyer, Isaac Riggs, David Hall, and Jabez Cartwright and the deed was witnessed by Willoby Nickols and Noah Riggs (Deed Book D, Page 54).
  • On 12 May 1788, Pharoah Sawyer (of Camden County, NC) sold Mack Perkins (of Camden County, NC) 30 acres adjoining Willis Sawyer, Isaac Riggs, Jabez Cartwright, and Robert Gray and the deed was witnessed by Jabez Cartwright and Nehemiah Riggs (Deed Book D, Page 426).
  • On 7 November 1788, Pharoah Sawyer (of Camden County, NC) sold David Hall (of Camden County, NC) a tract of land adjoining Isaac Riggs, Benjamin Jones, John Jones, and Jabez Cartwright and the deed was witnessed by Leaven Rhodes and Noah Riggs (Deed Book D, Page 339).

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.

1790 Federal Census

  • Free White Males Under 16: 1 1 Young Son Born After 1774?)
  • Free White Males 16 and Over: 2 (Pharoah and 1 Older Son Born Before 1774?)
  • Free White Females: 4 (Dorothy and 3 Daughters?)
  • Number of Household Members: 7

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.

1800 Federal Census

  • Free White Males Under 10: 3 (3 Young Sons Born After 1790?)
  • Free White Males 26 – 44: 1 (Pharoah Born 1756-1774?)
  • Free White Females Under 10: 1 (1 Young Daughter Born After 1790?)
  • Free White Females 10 – 15: 2 (2 Older Daughters Born 1775-1790?)
  • Free White Females 26 – 44: 1 (Dorothy Born 1756-1774?)
  • Number of Household Members: 8

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).

Heirs of Isaac Riggs
Isaac Riggs’ Land Division, 2 March 1804 (Deed Book K, Page 253). Elizabeth “Betsy” Riggs was married to Joel Sawyer and Dorothy “Dolly” Riggs was married to Pharoah Sawyer. Their brothers Nehemiah Riggs, John Riggs, Evan Riggs, Isaac Riggs, Jr., and Noah Riggs were lifelong neighbors.

1810 Federal Census

  • Free White Males 45 and Over: 1 (Pharoah Born Before 1765?)
  • Free White Females Under 10: 2 (2 Young Daughters Born After 1800?)
  • Free White Females 10 – 15: 1 (1 Older Daughter Born 1795-1800?)
  • Free White Females 26 – 44: 1 (Dorothy Born 1766-1784?)
  • Number of Household Members: 5

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.

Turner's Cut Canal
Turner’s Cut Canal (parallel to Bingham Road) was created to bypass the Moccasin Tract (the section of the Pasquotank River from River Bridge Road to the end of Bingham Road) and shorten navigation distance by four miles. The island between the Moccasin Tract and Turner’s Cut Canal was formerly called Pharoah Sawyer’s Island (then Grandy Sawyer’s Island, then George Sawyer’s Island) in various deeds3. This map visualizes why many of these people were recorded in both Pasquotank and Camden counties.

Joel Sawyer, Sr. (b.<1755)

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.

Willibe Nichols as Joel Sawyer's Substitute
Willoby Nickols describes defending the borders of Virginia and North Carolina, serving alongside Farrow Sawyer, John Kennedy, and Cornelius Lamb, and marching to Norfolk County, VA to receive his discharge.

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.

1790 Federal Census

  • Free White Males Under 16: 1 (1 Young Son Born After 1774?)
  • Free White Males 16 and Over: 4 (Joel and 3 Older Sons Born Before 1774?)
  • Free White Females: 5 (Elizabeth and 4 Daughters?)
  • Number of Household Members: 10

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.

Joel Sawyer's 1793 Land Grant
Joel Sawyer entered a 65 acre land grant (No. 60) on 9 February 1789 that was issued on 14 December 1793 (Book No. 82, Page No. 58). It was located near Richardson’s Landing between Isaac Sawyer and Joel Sawyer’s Landings and Frederick Sawyer and Pharoah Sawyer were named as chain bearers.

1800 Federal Census

  • Free White Males Under 10: 2 (2 Young Sons and/or Grandsons Born After 1790?)
  • Free White Males 10 – 15: 1 (1 Older Son Born 1785-1790?)
  • Free White Males 45 and Over: 1 (Joel Born Before 1755?)
  • Free White Females Under 10: 1 (1 Young Daughter or Granddaughter Born After 1790?)
  • Free White Females 10 – 15: 1 (1 Older Daughter Born 1785-1790?)
  • Free White Females 16 – 25: 1 (1 Young Adult Daughter Born 1775-1784?)
  • Free White Females 26 – 44: 1 (Elizabeth Born 1756-1774?)
  • Number of Household Members: 8

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).

Joel Sawyer, Jr. (b. 1776-1784)

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.

1810 Federal Census

  • Free White Males Under 10: 2 (2 Young Sons Born After 1800?)
  • Free White Males 10 – 15: 1 (1 Older Son Born 1795-1800?)
  • Free White Males 26 – 44 : 1 (Joel Jr. Born 1766-1784?)
  • Free White Females Under 10: 2 (2 Young Daughters Born After 1800?)
  • Free White Females 10 – 15: 1 (1 Older Daughter Born 1795-1800?)
  • Free White Females 16 – 25: 1 (Joel Jr.’s Wife Born 1785-1794?)
  • Numbers of Slaves: 2 (Where did they come from?)
  • Number of Household Members: 10

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 26 April 1816, Joel Sawyer sold William Sawyer 50 acres of land adjoining David Hall’s swamp, Robert Gray’s land, Joel Sawyer’s swamp, and Pharoah Sawyer’s road and the deed was witnessed by George Ferebee and Malachi Williams (Deed Book P, Page 112). This land sale matches the description of land that Joel Sawyer, Sr. gifted to Joel Sawyer, Jr. in 1806.
  • On 28 February 1818, Joel Sawyer sold William Sawyer 60 acres of land (that William Bass bought of John Sikes) on the Camden side of the Pasquotank River adjoining Joel Sawyer’s land, Pharoah Sawyer’s swamp, and David Hall’s land and the deed was witnessed by George Ferebee and Miles Cartwright (Deed Book Q, Page 132).
William Bass' Land Reference
Joel Sawyer, Jr. named William Bass as the former owner of the land he sold to William Sawyer in 1818 (Deed Book Q, Page 132).

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.

1820 Federal Census

  • Free White Males Under 10: 2 (2 Young Sons Born After 1810?)
  • Free White Males 10 – 15: 3 (3 Older Sons Born 1805-1810?)
  • Free White Males 26 – 44: 1 (Joel Jr. Born 1776-1794?)
  • Total Free White Persons: 6

On 26 November 1822, Nicolas Sawyer (of Pasquotank County, NC) sold William Sawyer (of Camden County, NCone 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, NCone 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).

Joel Sawyer 1840.png
1840 Federal Census Listing David Pritchard, Frederick Sawyer, William Bass, Eliza McCoy, and Joel Sawyer as Neighbors

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.

2Camden County Extant Tax Records 1782-1890 By Sharon Rea Gable

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.

The Quarter

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.

Post 1770 Map
Post 1770 Map Depicting “Fork Land” and “River Bridge” in Pasquotank County, NC

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.

Jarvis Jones 615-Acre Patent
Jarvis Jones’ 615-acre land grant on the south side of the Great Swamp in Pasquotank County, NC adjoining William Norris and Joseph McPherson (issued on December 20, 1748).

The land within and surrounding Jarvis Jones’ 615-acre land grant was referred to as “The Quarter1 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.”

The Distribution of Jarvis Jones’ 615-Acre Land Grant

Deed InformationLand DescriptionGranteeGrantorWitnesses
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 JonesRichard Nickens of Currituck (Tailor)Jarvis Jones of Pasquotank (Planter)Joseph Jones, Henry Lamb, Henry Hollowell
27 March 175899-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 JonesJoseph McPherson, Isaac Bright, Silas Linton
27 June 1758150-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 lineJoseph Pritchard (Planter)Jarvis Jones, EsquireJohn Cartwright, Hugh Moorecroft, Rob Relf
Will of Richard Nickens (1774)A parcel of land called “Overtons3 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 livedLeah Rael and Margaret NickensRichard 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 SwampRachel 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.

Nickens Deeds in Pasquotank & Camden Counties
After Richard Nickens’ Death

Deed InformationLand DescriptionGranteeGrantorWitnesses
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 PritchardGideon LambAbsalom Hall and Rachel (Nickens) HallIsaac 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 lineSimon Smith Nickens (of Currituck)John Jennings, Willoughby Nichols, and Jesse Cox (of Pasquotank)Bailey Jackson, Polly Jackson
29 October 180175-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 1805Lease 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 landBenjamin 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 WilkinsSilas 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 WilkinsWillis 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.

2Will 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.

1790 Federal Census for Joshua McPherson depicting neighboring families.

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.

Gardner Trafton Camden County, NC Deed Analysis

Deed InformationDeed DescriptionGranteeGrantorWitnessesNotes
6 August 1799 (Book I, Page 74)$250 for a 50-acre tract of land and swamp near Pasquotank River Bridge in Camden CountyGardner TraftonJoseph JonesCharles 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 TraftonThomas GordonAbner 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 OldGardner TraftonArthur 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 PearceGardner TraftonRoger 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 TraftonJames PearceJeremiah (?) 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 HaleyGardner TraftonJoshua BurnhamB. 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 OldGardner TraftonMalachi 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 HaleyHollowell OldGardner TraftonMalachi 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 JonesGardner TraftonJoseph 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 TraftonJosiah GrandyThomas 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 SawyerGardner TraftonNathaniel DownsJohn 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. CunninghamGardner TraftonThomas JonesThomas 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 TraftonWilliam SawyerWilliam 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 swampGardner Trafton, Miles GregoryCason HutchingsJohn 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 TraftonJeremiah ForbesThomas 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 SawyerGardner TraftonDavid 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 ForbesGardner TraftonWilliam SaywerJustin 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 ditchGardner TraftonWilliam SaywerW.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 JonesPhineas SanbornGardner TraftonW 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 HutchingsGardner TraftonTully RobertsonJustin 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 TraftonRobert 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 HearringGardner TraftonWilliam HearringJustin 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 SanderlinJoseph and John Trafton, Heirs of Gardner TraftonGardner TraftonChain 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.

Activity Up to the 1810 Federal Census

Gardner Trafton had a household of 11:

  • 1 white male and 1 white female 45 and over (Gardner and wife)
  • 3 white males 10-15 (sons Joseph, John, and Benjamin)
  • 6 slaves (Thomas, Pamela, Mat, and 3 unnamed?)
  • Daughter Courtney, who would have been 17 at the time, may have already been married and out of the household.
Joseph Pritchard Gardner Trafton Plat
Joseph Pritchard and Gardner Trafton’s Adjoining Land—Gardner Trafton Sold Land to Phineas Sanborn in 1826 (Deed Book M, Page 35)

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.

Trafton Road Map
Trafton Road map depicting the proximity of Bell Farm Drive and Shipyard Road.

Activity Up to the 1820 Federal Census

End of Shipyard Road (Duckweed Growing on the Pasquotank River). Shipyard Road connects to Trafton Road.

Gardner Trafton had a household of 10:

  • 1 white male and 1 white female 45 and over (Gardner and wife)
  • 1 white male 16-25 (John Wesley)
  • 1 free colored male 14-25
  • 4 slaves (1 male under 14 (Bob?), 1 male 14-25, 1 female under 14, and 1 female 26-44).

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 MiarsBenjamin (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).

Activity Up to the 1830 Federal Census

Trafton Road
1830 Federal Census Map (W.W. Forehand). Gardner Trafton and John Trafton were not recorded but Benjamin Trafton was recorded at Shipyard.

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 327-328Deed Book S, Pages 337-338Deed Book T, Page 236, Deed Book T, Page 395).

Gardner Trafton had a household of 8:

  • 1 white male 60-69 (Gardner)
  • 7 slaves (1 male  under 10 (Enoch?), 3 males 10-23, 1 male 24-35, 1 female under 10, and one female 36-54)

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
  • 1 white male 5-9
  • 1 white male 15-19
  • 1 white male 20-29
  • 2 white males 30-39 (Benjamin and ?)
  • 1 white female 5-9
  • 1 white female 15-19
  • 1 white female 20-29
  • 1 free female of color 24-35
  • 3 slaves (1 male 10-23, 1 female under 10, and 1 female 24-35)

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.

  • 1 white male under 5 (George)
  • 1 white male 30-39 (John)
  • 1 female under 5 (Lovey)
  • 1 white female 30-39 (wife Nancy Etheridge)
  • 3 slaves (1 male 10-23, 1 female 36-54, and 1 female 55-99)

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.

Gardner Trafton’s Will

Executor: William Herring (Friend), Witnesses: Miles Gregory, Isaac Taylor, Simeon Miller Thomas

HeirsJoseph 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 handmill14 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 Traftons Land Division.png
Gardner Trafton’s 1831 Land Division depicts his residence (on high land) and adjoining swamp land and how it was divided between his two sons Joseph Talbot Trafton and John Wesley Trafton. (Deed Book U, Pages 150-151) Joseph received Lot No. 1 which included 77.5 acres of the Trafton residence and 20.66 acres of swamp land. John received Lot No. 2 which included 155 acres of the Trafton residence and 40.66 acres of swamp land.
Gardner Trafton Headstone
Charles Gardner Trafton’s Headstone

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:

  • The lives of Gardner Trafton’s wives are poorly documented and may reveal hidden relationships with further research.
  • Gardner Trafton was a documented neighbor of  David Hall (b. 1755) and may have been a neighbor of William Bass (b. 1755).
  • Gardner Trafton had a free person of color in his household in the 1820 Federal Census.
  • Benjamin Trafton had a free person of color (and adults and children outside of his own famly) in his household in the 1830 Federal Census.
  • The Traftons had close connections to the Pritchards. Gardner owned land adjoining Joseph Pritchard (the father of David L. Pritchard) and Abner Lamb (the father-in-law of David L. Pritchard).
  • The Traftons had close connections to the Sanderlins. Gardner owned land adjoining William W. Sanderlin (where Henry Newsom and Joel Newsom were living and working in 1850).


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.

From “Fishing Point” to the Great Dismal Swamp

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).

Jim Byrd Interview 1984
Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia), 22 February 1984. “Byrd said the Nansemonds were sun worshipers who used tobacco in their religious rites, and they were men of their word. “Once they made a promise, holding one hand to the sun and one to the heart–you had it, he said.”

The Gallberry Road

Read more about gallberry at Treasure Coast Natives. (Photo Credit: John Bradford)

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)

Galberry Roads.png
Galberry Road in Norfolk County, VA was the main road through the Nansemond homestead in Virginia. Gallberry Road in Camden County, NC was the location of the Nansemond family on the North Carolina border. Gaulberry Road in Pasquotank County, NC was the location of the settlement where many Prices and Halls who originally lived on the Bass homestead moved.

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.

Gallberry Swamps & North Carolina Indian Communities

Galberry Road in Scotland Neck
There was a Galberry Road (and a Deep Creek) in Scotland Neck in Halifax County, NC. These are common names; however, it is worth investigating if these names were more than a coincidence. Several descendants of the Nansemond community settled in this area (see the children and grandchildren of Edward Bass (b. 1672) and John Bass (b. 1673)).
Col. John Herbert Indian Trade Map 1725 Gallberry Swamp
There were also gallberry swamps at the center of indigenous communities in southeastern North Carolina. In the southwestern corner of Cumberland County, NC there was a gallberry swamp at the mouth of “Indian Camp Branch” (later called “Cold Camp Creek”). See Col. John Herbert’s Indian Trade Map (1725) with depiction of a gallberry swamp (referenced in several other deeds ) along the Lumber River in the precise location of the present Lumbee community.
NC Land Grant No. 291
North Carolina Land Grant No. 291, Issued November 12, 1779 to Isaac Sims. “…200 acres of land in Bladen County lying on both sides of the Gallberry Swamp and the mouth of the Indian Camp branch…”

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:

  • It was familiar as ancestral hunting ground
  • Repeated burning made the soil undesirable to agrarian colonists
  • This likely made the land more affordable

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.

The Legend of the Great Firebird

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.

The Mississippi Free Trader (Natchez, Mississippi), 26 April 1845

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.

Great Firebird
Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia) 07 August 1985

Natural History as a Foundation for Research

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.

Gallberry Road Hat
“The Gallberry Road” Hat (2017). This hat depicts a bear walking backwards symbolizing the exploration of personal history. Within the bear’s body are lightning and gallberries, symbolizing destructive and creative forces all beings encounter in life. The colors are a combination of the four direction colors and green for growth and renewal. To me, “The Gallberry Road”–as the route from sacred ancestral land to undesirable refuge land–represents the story of our survival.
Luke AlexanderMany 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.Spaulding


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.”

Pritchards & Basses
Pritchard and Bass Homesteads on the North and South Sides of Joy’s Creek

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.

Division of Land Among Pritchard Heirs
Camden County Deed Book N, Pages 241-243, Division of the Land of David Pritchard (Deceased), Appointed Commissioners: George Ferebee, Hollowel Old, Walton Jones, James Pearce, County Surveyor: Joseph Cartwright

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 Pritchard8 Acres Swamp
27.25 Acres High Land
22.75 Acres Swamp
No. 3 – Sally Pritchard73 Acres Swamp
68 Acres High Land
Manor Plantation (Whole Amount, 301 Acres)
17 Acres Swamp
No. 4 – Mary (Polly) PritchardPlantation 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.

Miles Cartwright 1826 Land Division
Camden County Deed Book S, Pages 300-301, Division of the Land of Miles Cartwright (Deceased), March 17, 1826. Cartwright’s heirs were: the heirs of Rhoda Jones (deceased), Job Spencer (in right of his wife Ellis), Peter Ferebee (in right of his unnamed wife), Nancy Cartwright, and Jane Davis. Adjoining landowners named in the land division were Willoughby Sammons, Nehemiah Riggs, and Hollowel Old.

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).

1830 Federal Census w Dr Sanburn
Phineas Sanborn was the “Dr. Sanburn” noted on the 1830 Federal Census Map made by W.W. Forehand. Both the Pritchards and the Sanborns lived on the Camden/Currituck County line.

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.

Connor Farm Road
Phineas Sanborn Conner, the husband of David’s first cousin Eliza, was the founder of the Connor Farm. In addition to being a planter, P. S. Conner was a partner of D. L. Pritchard’s in the timber and shingle business.

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.

John Edney 1826 Land Division
Camden County Deed Book S, Pages 351-353, Division of the Land of John Edney (Deceased), October 1826. Edney’s heirs were: Chloe Edney, Newton Edney, Sarah (wife of John Old), Charlotte (wife of Nathan Wilkins), Mary Edney, Samuel Edney, and John W. Edney.

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:

  • What was the reason for this land purchase?
  • Where was Lydia Bass (b. 1797) living prior to buying this land?
  • What was Lydia’s relationship to the Pritchard family?
  • Was her daughter (?) Lydia Bass (b. 1820) also living on the Pritchard Farm?

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.

The Battle of South Mills happened on April 19, 1862 and a map of the engagement shows what David Pritchard and all of his relatives and neighbors would have seen happening in their community.

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.

An Inventory of David L. Pritchard’s Runaway Slaves

Slave NameAgeAssigned Value
 Miles 2 $100
 Amelia 43 $300
 John 22 $1200
 Edith 12 $300
 Toney 21 $1200
 Matilda 7 $400
 Angeline 4 $200
 Josephine 2 $100
 George 24 $1200
 Lesse 30 $1200
 Elijah 12 $1000
 Tamar 42 $300
 George 15 $1200
 Charles 11 $1000
 Fanny 12 $900
 William 54 $400
 Isaac 37 $100
 Elliott* 28 $1200
 Marshall* 24 $1200
 Romulus* 23 $1200
 Jack 16 $1200
 Joseph 14 $1000
 Jordan 30 $1200
 Isaac* 22 $1200
 Milly 45 $300
 Mary 8 $500
 Henry 5 $300
Slave names that match those Abner Lamb (David’s father-in-law) left to his daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Lamb, in his will are marked with an asterisk.

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.

Correspondence From South Mills
The People Busy—Important Enterprize and Improvements—The Advance in the Value of Property—The People Encouraged. To the Editor of the North Carolinian. The North Carolinian (Elizabeth City, NC), 5 February 1873

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.