The Lurry family (also spelled Leary and Lowry) has been an underlying influence in many of the stories I have shared on this site. William Lurry and his wife Miriam Caron (also spelled Caroon, Carron, and several other variations) were descendants of some of the first families of Currituck County which began as a precinct of Albemarle County and later became a county in 1739. A New and Correct Map of the Province of North Carolina (Moseley Map) shows Currituck Precinct in the 1730s during William Lurry and Miriam Caron’s lives.

William’s will1, left in Currituck County on 21 April 1746 (proved on 1 July 1746), included the following:

  • To his wife, Miriam, one negro man called Josep Hall, furniture, housewares, livestock, and dower rights to the plantation on which they lived
  • To his son, Thomas, the plantation on which they lived (with dower rights to his mother during her widowhood), one mulatto man called Thomas Floro and one mulatto boy called Solloman Floro (both to be under the care of William Mackie until Thomas was 21 years old)

He named William Mackie his sole executor and the will was witnessed by Edward Cox, George Gam(e)well, and Susanah Mackie.

By April 1747, Thomas’ mother was named as “Miriam Wilson” (having since remarried Nathaniel Wilson2) in a deed of gift from her father John Caron (Currituck County, Deed Book 4, Pages 72-73) which named two grandsons—William Lurry and Thomas Lurry. The deed of gift included the following:

  • To Miriam Wilson for the duration of her life, and after her decease to his grandson William Lurry (and his heirs) and after him to his grandson Thomas Lurry (should William Lurry die without heir) a tract of at the head of Sam’s Run3 described in his deed from October 1740
  • To Miriam Wilson, and after her decease to his grandson Thomas Lurry, one young negro woman called Hanah with all her future increase to be divided between Thomas Lurry and William Lurry

The deed was witnessed by William Piner, Samuel Sanderson, and William Mackie.

After their father’s death in 1746, William and Thomas would have been raised by Nathaniel Wilson and Miriam Caron Lurry Wilson. Nathaniel Wilson was recorded in Pasquotank County in 1754 in the NC Early Census and he also left a 26 April 1766 will naming his wife Miriam and step-sons Thomas Lurry and William Lurry. The will included the following:

  • Son-in-law Thomas Lurry my plantation and tract of land whereon I now live containing 100 acres4, my negro man named Luke and my negro girl named Janna and her increase excepting use of said land and negros for his wife during her natural life
  • Son-in-law William Lurry my negro man named Eton and my negro girl named Grace and her increase excepting use of said negros for his wife during her natural life, also negro man named Jonas and several livestock
  • To his cousin Nathaniel Wilson, son of his brother Malachi Wilson, his negro girl Silvie and her increase excepting use of said negro for his wife during her natural life
  • To his wife Miriam his negro woman named Frobe Lind (Ferebe Lindsay?), livestock (horses, cattle, sheep, hogs), and all household goods

He named Miriam and Thomas Lurry and his whole executors and the will was witnessed by John Jones, James Gregory, and Seth Bakly.

This small collection of records sets the stage for William Lurry5 and Thomas Lurry’s early lives. By adulthood, both men were heirs to several estates and their land and slave holdings represented multiple families.

Thomas Lurry (b. 1745 d. 1801)

Thomas Lurry was recorded in Pasquotank County deeds as early as 1765. By the 1769 Pasquotank County Tax List he was head of a household of 1 white male, 2 black males (Jeffery and Esop), and 1 black female (Jenny). He served in the Revolutionary War as a Captain associated with the Edenton District Minutemen (1775-1776), fighting in the Battle of Great Bridge on 9 December 1775, and with the Camden County Regiment in 1781.

Ivey Burnham's Revolutionary War Pension
Ivey Burnham’s Revolutionary War Pension mentions “…Troops stationed at a place called the Big Swamp on the dividing line between Camden & Currituck Counties in the State of North Carolina, where we erected Breastworks on the Causeway or Bridge through the Swamp…” He was under the command of Captain Thomas Lurry, Colonel Peter Dozier, and General Gregory.

It is unclear when Thomas Lurry married his wife (Mary Jones (b. 1755)?) but by the 1782 Camden County Tax List he had accumulated 1850 acres, 6 horses, 27 cattle, and 12 slaves. To better understand the stages of his life, I analyzed Thomas Lurry’s deeds leading up to each census year (with adjoining landowners and place names in bold).

Deed Analysis up to 1790

Deed InformationDeed DescriptionGranteeGrantorWitnessesNotes
16 November 1781 (Book B, Page 213)120 pounds for a 96-acre tract of land adjoining John Berry, William Gregory, Jonathan Whitehurst, Willis Wilson, and the Indian LineThomas LurryEvan StandlyLodowick Gray, John Berry+96 Acres
16 November 1781 (Book B, Page 213)100 pounds for a 50-acre tract of land on Sandy Hook RoadEvan StandlyThomas LurryLodowick Gray, John Berry-50 Acres
19 June 1784 (Book C, Page 225)50 pounds for a 500-acre parcel of Juniper Swamp near the head of the Pasquotank River in part of the Great Dismal Swamp called “Pritchard’s Juniper Swamp,” patented by Timothy Jones on 18 August 1783Thomas LurryTimothy JonesJonathan Hearring, Thomas Burnham+500 Acres
5 January 1786 (Book D, Pages 58-59)50 pounds for a 50-acre tract of land on the East side of the Pasquotank River in Joys Creek adjoining Caleb Abbott, Part of a 480-acre tract of land patented by John McBride in 1749Thomas LurryJohn JonesJoseph Jones, Timothy Jones+50 Acres
16 February 1786 (Book D, Pages 59-60)350 pounds for an 85-acre parcel of land on the west side of the North River near the Indian Town bridge adjoining William Ferebee, Thomas Howard, Cornelius Gale, and Thomas WilliamsThomas LurryJoseph Pell, Margaret (His Wife), and Sarah PellHenry Abbott, Evan Stanley+85 Acres
10 March 1786 (Book D, Page 106)49 pounds for a 26-acre parcel of land adjoining John Barclif, Job Gregory, and Joseph MorissetWilliam GregoryThomas LurryJoseph Pell, Isaac Dauge-26 Acres
8 May 1786 (Book D, Page 225)50 pounds (10 pounds for every 100 acres) for a 500-acre tract of land at the head of Joys Creek in the Great Dismal Swamp adjoining David Pritchard near his old orchard, Lamb’s patent line (to the north), and Timothy Jones’ patent line (to the south)Thomas LurryGrant, Signed by Governor Richard Caswell+500 Acres; See image below.
12 June 1786 (Book D, Page 128)10 pounds for a 50-acre tract of land in upper Camden in the edge of the Desert adjoining Newton Edney’s Islands (the upper part of Peter Cartwright’s 150-acre patent dated 27 October 1784) and Benjamin JonesThomas LurryPeter CartwrightBenjamin Jones, John Edney+50 Acres
2 February 1787 (Book G, Page 3)20 pounds for a 3-acre parcel of land on the Pasquotank River adjoining the land of Isaac Riggs and David Hall’s plantationBenjamin Jones and Thomas        LurryDavid HallTimothy Jones, Isaac Stokley+3 Acres; See other references to this land.
15 December 1788 (Book D, Page 413)Bill of Sale, 50 Pounds for Negro Man TomThomas LurryIsaac BurnhamJoseph Richardson+1 Slave
30 May 1790 (Book E, Page 63)Bill of Sale, 60 Pounds for Negro Wench SarahElisha DavisThomas LurryDavid Burnham, William Lurry-1 Slave
15 June 1790 (Book E, Page 36)23 pounds for 49-acre tract (1/2 the tract Thomas Lurry purchased on 16 November 1781 adjoining John Berry, William Gregory, Jonathan Whitehurst, Willis Wilson, and the Indian Line)John BerryThomas LurrySam Bell, Evan Stanley-49 Acres

Activity Up to the 1790 Federal Census

In the 1790 Federal Census Thomas Lurry had a household of 20:

  • 1 Free White Male Under 16 (Son?)
  • 2 Free White Males Over 16 (Thomas and ?)
  • 5 Free White Females (Mary and 4 daughters?)
  • 12 Slaves

Thomas Lurry’s neighbors in this census year were Elizabeth Griffin, Willis Dauge (also spelled Dozier), William Neval (also spelled Neaville), William Barcoe, John Jones, and James Sanderlin. Based on the composition of his household, it appears that Thomas Lurry was married to his wife Mary Jones (?) and may have had 6 children (2 sons and 4 daughters). His land holdings were divided between Indian Town (where his mother’s family owned land) and Upper Camden where he was an active investor in the Lebanon Company6.

Several of Thomas Lurry’s tracts are of longstanding interest in my research, such as the 3-acre parcel of land he and Benjamin Jones purchased at the Pasquotank River Bridge (on the Pasquotank-Camden county line). This site was owned by the copartnership of Hughs, Smith & Scarborough, which dissolved leaving all assets to be auctioned off by the Camden County Sheriff in the 1780s. Other investors, such as Elisha Davis, Thomas Gordon, Gardner Trafton, and Arthur and Hollowel Old, each briefly owned this parcel.

Thomas Lurry’s other land acquisitions were also strategic. The 1000 acres he purchased around Pritchard’s Juniper Swamp was on the regional mail route, which was established in 1734, and later fortified in the 1770s during the Revolutionary War. He purchased property along Old Swamp Road at the Pasquotank County line, northeast across upper Camden County (and Joy’s Creek) to the Currituck County line.

Map Showing the Post Office and River Bridge at the South End of the Dismal Swamp Canal, Circa 1830s.
On 23 January 1808, Joseph Pritchard sold half of Thomas Lurry’s 500-acre land grant to Gardner Trafton for $30. (Book M, Page 35). This sale happened around the time of Thomas Lurry’s estate settlement when his daughter, Chloe Lurry, may have inherited this land. On 7 August 1826, Gardner Trafton sold this land to Phineas Sanborn, Joseph Pritchard’s (deceased) brother-in-law through marriage to Keziah Pritchard (Book S, Page 311).

Deed Analysis up to 1800

Deed InformationDeed DescriptionGranteeGrantorWitnessesNotes
20 December 1792 (Book F, Page 134)100 pounds for 49-acre tract (1/2 the tract Thomas Lurry purchased on 16 November 1781 adjoining John Berry, William Gregory, Jonathan Whitehurst, Willis Wilson, and the Indian Line)Caleb BerryMajor Thomas LurryJonathan Hearring, Eustace English O’Brien-49 Acres; Jonathan Hearring was his son-in-law.
10 May 1793 (Book F, Page 318)Bill of Sale, 500 Pounds for One Negro Fellow Named Jack, One Negro Wench Named Cate, One Negro Girl Named Millisant, One Negro Fellow Named Jame, One Young Negro Boy Called Yellow Will, and One Old Negro Fellow Named WillThomas LurryJonathan HearringEustace English O’Brien, Mary O’Brien+6 Slaves
10 May 1793 (Book F, Page 322)150 pounds for a 100-acre tract of land near the River Bridge on the east side of Pasquotank River, it being the plantation and woodland belonging to Robert Chamberlain left by his last will and testament to his son Samuel Chamberlain adjoining Ezekiel Case and John Mason.Thomas LurryJonathan HearringEustace English O’Brien, Lemuel Lurry+100 Acres; Note the Black Swamp reference at River Bridge.
4 January 1794 (Book F, Page 243)50 pounds for a 50-acre tract of land near the head of the Pasquotank River at a place called the Lake (without the appearance of much water) between the lands of John Jones and David BurnhamThomas LurryBenjamin Jones (of Pasquotank County)John Jones, Sr, Tallyafro (sp?) Dill, Alexander Dunbar+50 Acres; Note the Lake reference.
31 January 1794 (Book F, Page 222)550 pounds for a 125-acre tract of land near White Oak Hill adjoining Joseph Morgan, Joseph Sawyer, and Absalom SawyerThomas LurryCornelius GregoryZepha Burgess, William Wright+125 Acres; White Oak Hill Cemetery (Also Known as Trafton Cemetery)
31 January 1794 (Book F, Page 223)450 pounds for a 101-acre tract of land near Indian Town adjoining the North River Swamp, near William Neavill, Joseph Pell, Evan Standley, and Mr. Abbott’s former propertyCornelius GregoryThomas LurryZepha Burgess, William Wright-101 Acres
29 July 1794 (Book G, Page 47)40 shillings for a 1-acre parcel of land near Pearce’s Mill adjoining Collin’s corner and Abbott’s lineThomas Harvey, Joseph Scott, Jr., and Benjamin Jones (All of Pasquotank County), and Nathaniel Payne (of Camden County)Thomas LurryJoseph Richardson, John Walmsley+ 1 Acre
3 July 1795 (Book G, Page 71)Grant and release to Benjamin Jones, Esquire—administrator of the estate of Jonathan Hearring—all my right, title, claim in all property, both personal and real estate, in the possession of Jonathan Hearring on which execution was levied at the instance of William Scarborough of South Carolina against the said Jonathan Hearring and which was sold by virtue of the said execution the second instant by the Sheriff of Camden County.Benjamin Jones, EsquireThomas LurryBenjamin PerryJonathan Hearring was his son-in-law.
3 July 1795 (Book G, Page 77)Bill of Sale, 168 Pounds for One Negro Wench (Judah) and Child (Reuben), also one mulato or negral girl called China bought at the sale by execution at the instance of William Scarborough against Jonathan Hearring, deceased.Thomas LurryNathaniel PayneJames Smith, Henry Herring+3 Slaves
17 March 1795 (Book G, Page 54)Bill of Sale, 250 silver dollars for One Negro Man Named SangaEdward UptonThomas LurryLuke Lamb-1 Slave
17 November 1795 (Book H, Page 29)200 pounds for a 100-acre tract of land and swamp adjoining John Sawyer and Cooper CreekThomas LurryGriffith SawyerJoseph Morgan, Willis Etheridge+100 Acres
30 January 1796 (Book G, Page 172)10 pounds for 7-acre parcel of land adjoining John Berry, William Gregory, and Robert’s lineCaleb BerryThomas LurryJoseph Pell, Willis Sawyer-7 Acres
25 February 1797 (Book H, Page 116)Bill of Sale, 100 Pounds for One Negro Wench Juda and her future increaseElizabeth Hearring (My Daughter)Thomas LurryChloe Lurry and William LurryHe bought Judah from Nathaniel Payne 2 years prior. Elizabeth was widowed at this time.
11 August 1797 (Book H, Page 66)Deed of Gift, 85-acre tract of land bought of Joseph Pell near the Indian Town Bridge adjoining William Neavill, William Ferebee, Cornelius Gale, Thomas Harvard, the North River Swamp, and Thomas WilliamsElizabeth Hearring (Daughter)Thomas LurryWilliam Neavill, Lemuel Lurry-85 Acres, Elizabeth sold this land to William Neavill on 14 October 1797 (Deed Book H, Page 74).
24 November 1797 (Book H, Pages 207-8)30 shillings for every 100 acres, a 180-acre tract of land on the Lake Desert beginning at the corner of Joseph Jones patent and John Kelley’s new surveyThomas LurryGrant, Signed by Governor Samuel Ashe+180 Acres
25 November 1797 (Book H, Page 134)140 pounds for a 63-acre tract of land at a place called the Lake adjoining John JonesJohn SikesColonel Thomas LurryWillis Etheridge, John Williams-63 Acres; Note the Lake reference and connections to William Bass’ land purchase.
26 December 1797 (Book H, Page 192)Bill of Sale, 150 Pounds for One Negro Woman Named Lettice and One Negro Boy Named JackEdward UptonThomas LurryJohn Kelly, William Jones-2 Slaves
1 November 1798 (Book I, Page 71)Bill of Sale, 25 Pounds for Negro Boy Named GeorgeJames SpenceThomas LurryCornelius Lamb, Lemuel Lurry-1 Slave; Note that Cornelius Lamb was his son-in-law at this time through marriage to his daughter Chloe.
20 November 1798 (Book H, Page 401-403)150 pounds for a 280-acre parcel of land adjoining David Pritchard’s line at the edge of the Desert near his old orchard, all lying east of the Old Swamp Road in a patent granted to Gideon Lamb (deceased) dated 8 May 1786. Also an adjoining 83-acre tract of land that Gideon Lamb bought from Hall & McPherson which in his last will and testament devised to his daughter Lovey as aforesaid bearing date 15 September 1781.Thomas LurryFrederick B. Sawyer & Lovey his Wife (Pasquotank County)Lemuel Lurry, Elizabeth Etheridge+280 Acres, +83 Acres
28 October 1801 (Book I, Page 185)Deed of gift for a 50-acre parcel of land adjoining John Jones, the edge of the Lake, Nody Causeway, and Burnham’s cornerPolly Lamb (Wife of Gideon Lamb)Thomas LurryLemuel Lurry, Job Sawyer-50 Acres, This was Thomas Lurry’s last transaction before he died. Was Polly his daughter?

Activity Up to the 1800 Federal Census

In the 1800 Federal Census Thomas Lurry had a household of 20:

  • 2 Free White Males 10 – 15
  • 2 Free White Males 45 and Over (Thomas and ?)
  • 1 Free White Female Under 10
  • 2 Free White Females 10 – 15
  • 2 Free White Females 16 – 25
  • 1 Free White Female 45 and Over (Mary?)
  • 10 Slaves

Thomas Lurry’s neighbors in this census year were Lemuel Lurry, Daniel Spence, Joseph Cartwright, John Kelly, Miriam Kelly (?), William Evans, Abraham Kelly, and Malachi McCoy. Throughout this period, Thomas Lurry remained invested at River Bridge while acquiring new land at the Lake. Other landowners named around the Lake included John Jones, David Burnham, Benjamin Jones, John Jones, Sr., Alexander Dunbar, Joseph Jones, John Kelley, John Sikes, Willis Etheridge, and John Williams.

Map Showing the Lake Lying South of Joy’s Creek and East of River Swamp, 1830 Federal Census Map (W.W. Forehand).

Thomas Lurry’s Heirs

Despite the number of records related to Thomas Lurry’s life, a complete account of his heirs remains a challenge. In a previous article, I introduced Chloe Lurry (b. <1801 d. 1847) as the daughter of Thomas Lurry and Mary Jones (?), and wife of Joseph Pritchard, but this presented a very narrow view of her life and her family’s influence in the area. The Lurrys, Joneses, and their many in-laws owned land in upper Camden County at the intersection of upper Currituck County and the Virginia state line. This location was significant because (at the time) all regional land transportation depended on Old Swamp Road.

Chloe was likely born in the 1770s and grew up through a period of economic development that drew many people into the area. In the late 1790s, Chloe married her first husband Cornelius Lamb, son of Luke Lamb and Mary Gray, another wealthy family in the community. Between October 1801 and January 1802, Thomas Lurry died leaving Gideon Lamb and Joseph Morgan as executors of his estate (Deed Book K, Page 162). Chloe went on to marry 3 more times and have 3 children.

Chloe Lurry’s Marriages

 Cornelius Lamb (b. ____ d. 1805)Joseph Pritchard, Sr. (b. ____ d. 1809)Miles Cartwright (b. ____ d. 1825)________ Williams
(b. ____ d. ____)
Spouse’s FamilySon of Luke Lamb and Mary Gray, Brother of Gideon LambSon of David Pritchard and Keziah McPhersonUnknownUnknown
MarriageBefore 1798? Cornelius and Chloe had one son, Cornelius Gray Lamb (b. 1798).Joseph had Joseph Pritchard, Jr. (b. 1790) before this marriage. Together Joseph and Chloe had Elizabeth Pritchard (b. 1805) and David Lurry Pritchard (b. 1807).Miles and Chloe married in 1819 but they did not have children together. Wilson Lurry, named as the guardian of Betsey, Joseph, and David Pritchard, orphans of Joseph Pritchard, sold Miles Cartwright 4 slaves belonging to the orphans in 18209. Unknown
DeathCornelius Lamb died before 1805 when his son was documented in the Camden County Orphans Accounts (1804-1809) as “Cornelius, orph. of Cornelius Lamb, dec’d; Gideon Lamb, gdn.”Joseph Pritchard, Sr. died in 18097 and predeceased his father who did not die until 1812. Wilson Lurry8 was appointed the guardian of all three Pritchard children after Joseph Pritchard, Sr.’s death.Miles was killed by a lightning strike in 1825. His heirs were named in his 1826 land division10.Chloe died as “Chloe Williams” in 1847.

Other than Chloe and Wilson, I have not been able to name the children of Thomas Lurry and Mary Jones (or other unknown unions). Based upon the 1800 Federal Census, they may have had 7 children. There were numerous other Lurrys in Pasquotank, Camden, and Currituck Counties:

  • In the 1810 Federal Census, N Lurry had a household of 2, J Lurry had a household of 10 with 2 slaves, and E Lurry had a household of 4.
  • In the 1820 Federal Census, Wilson Lurry had a household of 23 with 16 slaves, Evan Lurry had a household of 8 with 1 slave, Thomas Lurry had a household of 3 with 1 slave, and John Lurry had a household of 18 with 5 slaves.
  • In the 1830 Federal Census, Evan Lurry had a household of 6, Wilson Lurry had a household of 19 with 7 slaves, Samuel Lurry had a household of 4 with 2 slaves, Anne Lurry had a household of 10 with 4 slaves, Demsey Lurry had a household of 3, and Miles Lurry had a household of 8 with 7 slaves.

As I discover new details related to Thomas Lurry (b. 1745) and his descendants, I hope this article sheds light on his influence in Camden County. He served in the Revolutionary War and built businesses with some of the wealthiest investors in the area (many of which were his in-laws). He owned property in several strategic locations, like Indiantown and River Bridge, which were both commerce centers situated on county lines defined by local waterways. This laid the foundation for his grandson, David Lurry Pritchard, to become a ‘founder’ of South Mills, and the Pritchard House, located on Thomas Lurry’s land grant, still stands today.

Footnotes

*The names of enslaved people are in bold, red font. I descend from multiple people who were enslaved by the Lurrys. My research follows the story of Lurry slave owners, slaves, and the free people of color around them who lived between both worlds.

1William and Miriam had two children—William and Thomas Lurry. William (the oldest son) was not mentioned in his father’s will, likely receiving his inheritance based on primogeniture. Also note connections between the Floros and Flurrys who were later documented as part of the Nansemond Indian community in Norfolk County, VA.

2Nathaniel Wilson left a will in Pasquotank County in 1767 naming his wife Miriam and two step-sons William Lurry and Thomas Lurry. (Will Book H, Page 74)

3There were several Currituck County deed references to “Sam’s Run” which was generally described as being near the North River and Indian Town.

4Note that Jacob Caron of Currituck sold Nathaniel Wilson 100 acres of land in Pasquotank in 1751 on the North River Swamp which may be the 100 acres Nathaniel left to Thomas.

5By 1802, a year after Thomas’ death, William Lurry, Jr. had relocated to Sumner County, TN, and appointed Joseph Jones, Esquire and William Hinton, Esquire as powers of attorney for his property in Camden County, NC.

6Between Slavery and Freedom: African Americans in the Great Dismal Swamp 1763-1863, Edward Downing Maris-Wolf, College of William & Mary – Arts & Sciences (2002), Page 59 discusses the Lebanon Company’s ownership of 40,000-50,000 acres of land.

7North Carolina Bible Records, PRITCHARD, Notes from Jodie Pritchard Bible

8Part of supporting evidence that Chloe was born a Lurry. In Wilson Lurry’s 1852 will, he names sisters Julia and Elizabeth Lurry as heirs. Chloe died in 1847 and would not have been included.

9 Deed Book Q, Page 348. It is important to note that Miles Cartwright and Chloe Cartwright witnessed the 14 October 1822 will of William Sawyer who purchased all of William Bass’ land. This suggests that they may have been neighbors and that William Bass’ family was near Chloe Lurry Lamb Pritchard Cartwright.

10Deed Book S, Pages 300-301. Nancy Cartwright was named as a Miles Cartwright heir and a documented neighbor of Lydia Bass and Polly Bass. Nancy Cartwright was also the mother of mulatto son Theophilus Cartwright who became a son-in-law of Henry Newsom.

Note: There was at least one other Chloe Lurry who was the wife of Lemuel Lurry.

Throughout my research journey, maps have always been my favorite information source. I have collected more maps than I can count to develop this website, and I have created simple maps as visual references for some of my stories. Over the past year, I have finally shifted from that approach to using ArcGIS StoryMaps, and the possibilities now seem endless. I invite you to read my first StoryMap focused on indigenous life on the Nansemond River and to reach out with other StoryMaps you may like to see on this site.

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
North Street—Sign Reads: “IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE…LOVE IS LOVE, BLACK LIVES MATTER, SCIENCE IS REAL, FEMINISM IS FOR EVERYONE, NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL, KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING”
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_Sun__Aug_5__1900_
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_Sat__Jul_6__1895_
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
“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_Tue__Apr_29__1997_
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.

NANSEMOND MATRIARCHS

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.

 

References

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.” PLOS.org, 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…”
nansemond-indian-villages-resources
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.

References

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 landowners 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.

Post 1770 Map Depicting the Riggs and Sawyers at River Bridge in Camden County, NC.

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.

Note the Location of River Swamp South of River Bridge, 1830 Federal Census Map (W.W. Forehand).

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 landowners, 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 originally part of River Bridge ad River Swamp.

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 appeared 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 adjoined 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 adjoined 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.

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

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

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. To learn about Eliza’s lineage, I have researched 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.)
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.
DSC08905
End of Shipyard Road (Duckweed Growing on the Pasquotank River). Shipyard Road connects to Trafton Road.

Activity Up to the 1820 Federal Census

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 15-191 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 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).

Footnotes

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

Gallberry-Berries
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

Footnote

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.”