Throughout my years of Great Dismal Swamp research, one of my greatest goals has been to find my ancestor William Bass’ (b. 1755, a free man of color) homestead in Camden County, NC. I analyzed all his deeds and studied his community connections but failed to locate his land. He lived among several prominent families with property in multiple locations, and he sold all his land before the end of his life. This left my family landless for a generation and created the genealogical challenge of having to study those who bought his land to find his homestead.
Last December, while researching River Bridge (a frequent reference in my family’s history), I reached out to fellow researchers to learn more about the uninhabited island at the head of the Pasquotank River. I have always assumed it was vacant in the past as it is in the present. Through our discussion, I learned this manmade island was not only a missing piece of my story but the focal point. In this article, I will add geospatial clarity to several of the stories I have shared about River Bridge and the adjoining area known as River Swamp.
Place names give a glimpse of people’s evolving interaction with space over time. For those who lived in upper Pasquotank and Camden Counties throughout the 1700s, the Pasquotank River Bridge marked the regional shipping and trading center. Although I have written about River Bridge for years, I gained a new appreciation for the area with the opening of the Museum of the Albemarle’s “River Bridge: Sunken Secrets” exhibition in 2018. The researchers who created the collection through underwater archaeology (Philip Madre, Eddie Coddington, Martha Williams, and many others) emphasized that River Bridge was an economic center long before the Dismal Swamp Canal existed.
River Bridge: Sunken Secrets immerses visitors in this forgotten place, and I loved experiencing the world they reconstructed. As I searched the exhibition for a section on families (and did not find one), I realized that might be my story to tell. I have studied the people of River Bridge for YEARS, and countless details have coalesced through my new understanding of this powerful place. In its natural form before the canal, this site was connected to Camden County by land and Pasquotank County right across the water. Descendants of this nexus often have 3 counties (and 2 states) of records to search.
My family was first recorded at this site around the end of the Revolutionary War, and trade-related transformation was well underway. Ocean-going vessels moved imports and exports through the Pasquotank River, and newly constructed roads moved products inland. The Pasquotank River Bridge and Old Swamp Road were integral to the local transportation system, with many landings, stores, and warehouses built nearby. Over the years, I have studied each of these features to contextualize deed findings and connect people to precise places in the community.
“Three Hundred Years Along the Pasquotank : A Biographical History of Camden County” by Jesse Forbes Pugh brings some of River Bridge’s infrastructure investors and major merchants to life:
After years of my own research, there is little I can add to Pugh’s detailed descriptions of these early settlers—however, I can introduce and elaborate upon the lives of important people he missed. The Halls and Basses were free families of color who migrated from the Nansemond homestead at Deep Creek to River Bridge, following the same economic development the Olds followed. David Hall and William Bass were strategic landowners with waterfront property at River Bridge (on the Pasquotank/Camden County line) and Old Swamp Road (on the Camden/Currituck County line). These men and their descendants had close connections to the Joneses, Olds, and other prominent families in the area but they have been left out of narrative history.
River Bridge Households: Fanny Bass*, Lovey Bass*, Miles Brite, Salley Gregory, Allen B. Jones, James P. Marchant, Elizabeth McCoy, Jesse McCoy, Jaque Dunkin*, Timothy McPherson, Solley Nash, Devotion Overton, Griffith Overton, Jeremiah Sanderlin, Alex D. Sawyer, Dolly Sawyer, Edmund Sawyer, Thomas Sawyer, William Sawyer, William Sawyer, Sr., Archie Wilkins, Elizabeth Wilkins
River Swamp Households: John Chamberlin, Jesse Douglas, Jacob Gregory, Abram Hewit, Jane Kelley, Hester Sawyer, Willoughby Sammons*, Nancy Spence, Samuel Spence
*Free People of Color
Continued development transformed the region and affected families who lived near the Dismal Swamp Canal. In the 1840s, the Gilmerton Canal was dug to avoid Deep Creek, which had a history of causing significant delays in canal navigation. In the 1850s, Turner’s Cut was dug to avoid the “Moccasin Track,” bypassing 7 miles of Joy’s Creek known for similar delays.
When I left the River Bridge: Sunken Secrets exhibition that day, I drove toward South Mills, turned down River Bridge Road, and continued around the curve in Bingham Road to one of my family’s old houses. It was my father and grandfather’s favorite place, full of memories and the setting of so many family photos. The site has always been meaningful to me for those reasons alone.
Returning to it, with clarity and countless records of my ancestors’ relationship with this specific site spanning more than 200 years, radically changed my perspective and will be reflected in my writing from here on. The stories of our ancestors are not lost. They are there—not dependent upon permanent structures, not dispersed across shifting county and state lines—but in the specific spaces, nurtured by our ancestors, waiting for us to return.
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:
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:
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:
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 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.
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 Information||Deed Description||Grantee||Grantor||Witnesses||Notes|
|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 Line||Thomas Lurry||Evan Standly||Lodowick Gray, John Berry||+96 Acres|
|16 November 1781 (Book B, Page 213)||100 pounds for a 50-acre tract of land on Sandy Hook Road||Evan Standly||Thomas Lurry||Lodowick 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 1783||Thomas Lurry||Timothy Jones||Jonathan 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 1749||Thomas Lurry||John Jones||Joseph 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 Williams||Thomas Lurry||Joseph Pell, Margaret (His Wife), and Sarah Pell||Henry 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 Morisset||William Gregory||Thomas Lurry||Joseph 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 Lurry||Grant, 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 Jones||Thomas Lurry||Peter Cartwright||Benjamin 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 plantation||Benjamin Jones and Thomas Lurry||David Hall||Timothy 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 Tom||Thomas Lurry||Isaac Burnham||Joseph Richardson||+1 Slave|
|30 May 1790 (Book E, Page 63)||Bill of Sale, 60 Pounds for Negro Wench Sarah||Elisha Davis||Thomas Lurry||David 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 Berry||Thomas Lurry||Sam Bell, Evan Stanley||-49 Acres|
In the 1790 Federal Census Thomas Lurry had a household of 20:
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.
|Deed Information||Deed Description||Grantee||Grantor||Witnesses||Notes|
|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 Berry||Major Thomas Lurry||Jonathan 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 Will||Thomas Lurry||Jonathan Hearring||Eustace 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 Lurry||Jonathan Hearring||Eustace 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 Burnham||Thomas Lurry||Benjamin 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 Sawyer||Thomas Lurry||Cornelius Gregory||Zepha 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 property||Cornelius Gregory||Thomas Lurry||Zepha 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 line||Thomas Harvey, Joseph Scott, Jr., and Benjamin Jones (All of Pasquotank County), and Nathaniel Payne (of Camden County)||Thomas Lurry||Joseph 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, Esquire||Thomas Lurry||Benjamin Perry||Jonathan 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 Lurry||Nathaniel Payne||James Smith, Henry Herring||+3 Slaves|
|17 March 1795 (Book G, Page 54)||Bill of Sale, 250 silver dollars for One Negro Man Named Sanga||Edward Upton||Thomas Lurry||Luke 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 Creek||Thomas Lurry||Griffith Sawyer||Joseph 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 line||Caleb Berry||Thomas Lurry||Joseph 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 increase||Elizabeth Hearring (My Daughter)||Thomas Lurry||Chloe Lurry and William Lurry||He 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 Williams||Elizabeth Hearring (Daughter)||Thomas Lurry||William 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 survey||Thomas Lurry||Grant, 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 Jones||John Sikes||Colonel Thomas Lurry||Willis 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 Jack||Edward Upton||Thomas Lurry||John Kelly, William Jones||-2 Slaves|
|1 November 1798 (Book I, Page 71)||Bill of Sale, 25 Pounds for Negro Boy Named George||James Spence||Thomas Lurry||Cornelius 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 Lurry||Frederick 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 corner||Polly Lamb (Wife of Gideon Lamb)||Thomas Lurry||Lemuel Lurry, Job Sawyer||-50 Acres, This was Thomas Lurry’s last transaction before he died. Was Polly his daughter?|
In the 1800 Federal Census Thomas Lurry had a household of 20:
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.
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.
|Cornelius Lamb (b. ____ d. 1805)||Joseph Pritchard, Sr. (b. ____ d. 1809)||Miles Cartwright (b. ____ d. 1825)||________ Williams|
(b. ____ d. ____)
|Spouse’s Family||Son of Luke Lamb and Mary Gray, Brother of Gideon Lamb||Son of David Pritchard and Keziah McPherson||Unknown||Unknown|
|Marriage||Before 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|
|Death||Cornelius 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:
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.
*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, enslaved people, 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.
This is my photo collection from a kayak trip on October 16, 2020.
This is my photo collection from Olde Towne Portsmouth on the first day of summer—June 20, 2020. Ten days earlier, the Confederate Monument at the town square was overthrown amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and I was struck by the sight of revolutionary signage displayed on several Federal and Greek Revival style townhouses in the community. Brief descriptions are provided below.
There is an old Indian legend about a Firebird who lived in the center of the Great Dismal Swamp, a territory shared by surrounding tribes for thousands of years. The fearsome creature formed its nest (at the site of Lake Drummond) through a vast wildfire, killing countless Indian families as it burned a hole into the ground. According to the legend, an Indian hunter killed the Firebird’s babies within the nest and used their skin, feathers, and claws as a disguise to hunt the Firebird. When the Firebird realized what happened, it abandoned its nest, leaving the swamp in peace. The blood of the Firebird’s babies—the red waters that fill Lake Drummond—are a lasting reminder of the hunter’s success.1
The legend aligns with natural phenomena. Palynologists have discovered corn pollen in the peat surrounding Lake Drummond, which suggests that indigenous people lived and cultivated corn within the swamp before the lake formed.2 Further, peat fires have occurred in the swamp for thousands of years, and many researchers hypothesize that Lake Drummond formed through such a fire—which may have killed indigenous people living there. The red-colored water within the lake is due to tannic acid from Cypress and Juniper trees and Indian hunters, as featured in the story, have been masters of the swamp since time immemorial. Beyond the Nansemond River, the Great Dismal Swamp is the most significant natural site in Nansemond history.
As a descendant of a Nansemond family that migrated around the Great Dismal Swamp, this story fascinates me. The swamp is the geographic center of several Nansemond diaspora communities, many of which merged with descendants of other nearby tribes and free people of color.3 The origin story of Lake Drummond, which sits right at the Virginia-North Carolina state line, is characteristic of indigenous resistance to colonial borders. Our families have always flowed across the boundaries drawn around us, and victory over the Firebird tells us that our ancestors did not fear the swamp but chose to face its dangers and survive in a place where most colonists would not venture.
Despite my fascination, I was surprised to learn how few people knew the story when I started sharing it two years ago. In this article, I will contextualize the Firebird legend by sharing:
Before anything else, it is important to understand that indigenous people of this region lived for thousands of years without written language. Story, song, and dance were our original forms of knowledge management and were passed from generation to generation. Oral tradition was used to educate youth about the environment, survival, other tribal communities, moral values, and more.4
Captain John Smith’s account from the summer of 1608 describes the Nansemond using song and dance to communicate with his crew.5 Another account from Alexander Whitaker, a clergyman, from the spring of 1611 describes the Nansemond dancing and flame-throwing to produce rain.6 These descriptions are reminders of Nansemond culture before English influence and are evidence of our belief in song and dance as a means to influence the natural world. The English at the time perceived Nansemond spirituality “as witch-like and devilish.”
In addition to its use in education, storytelling was also a form of entertainment. Before newspapers, telephones, motion pictures, radio, television, or the internet, storytellers captivated audiences with their creativity. Stories blended fantasy, reality, and personal and collective tribal memories. In contrast to journalism, in which the goal is to present events as objectively as possible, storytelling can be subjective and evolve through experience. Storytellers often capture a variety of lessons in one story and emphasize points that are meaningful at the moment.
There is evidence of Indian oral tradition within the Great Dismal Swamp. Historical accounts describe the swamp as a refuge for Indians who were displaced from their ancestral territory by colonists. Indians were known for telling “fantastic tales” about the swamp that were “fearful yet beautiful” and “interwoven with mysticism of the area” yet often proven true. These accounts are part of the survival story of Nansemond diaspora communities that continued to use the swamp through colonial displacement.
The evidence is clear that the Nansemond community around the river and those who were displaced into and around the swamp had unique culture and oral tradition. However, the body of early Nansemond research from social, economic, and political perspectives is largely based on English accounts and government-generated records. Similarly, Nansemond genealogy (focused on lineage and migration patterns) has been based on how society and government officials recorded Nansemond people rather than how we perceived and discussed ourselves and our environment.
The ancestral couple at the core of many Nansemond families is John Bass(e) (b. 1616), an English colonist and minister, and Elizabeth (b. 1618), a “Christianized” Nansemond woman and daughter of a Nansemond Chief. Elizabeth was one of over a thousand Nansemond who was born, lived, and died in settlements surrounding the Nansemond River. Yet, the trajectory of her life changed when she was baptized and married. Many people, including myself, have spent years immersed in historical and genealogical research of Elizabeth’s descendants but far less have studied the unique culture that raised her.
If our ancestors survived through oral tradition—not the written documents we study them through—one must ask, “What is left of Nansemond oral tradition? Where did all the storytellers go?” Through forced assimilation and language loss, indigenous oral traditions were disrupted. Rather than sharing stories, songs, and dances from grandparent to parent to child, many signs of “Indianness” were hidden and replaced with English culture. The disruption has caused immeasurable loss; yet numerous stories have survived, scattered throughout the region like artifacts.
Just as artifacts are evaluated for authenticity, oral history should be authenticated as much as possible. I approached this by following the documented Firebird legend as far as I could go. I heard the story from elders (within and outside of the Nansemond tribal community) and collected numerous newspaper references to the story from as early as the 1960s. These dates were significant because they preceded the Nansemond Indian Tribe’s 1980s reformation and state recognition. The earliest publication I found was “The Great Dismal Swamp: Its History, Folklore And Science” by Hubert J. Davis (1904-1997).
Davis was a scientist and educator with a long record of innovative methodologies. He taught at the College of William & Mary and was the director of the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory Educational Program. After writing about science and marine biology for several years, he published his first book on the Great Dismal Swamp in 1962. Davis approached folklore from a different perspective than one would while researching a tribal community. He went directly into the swamp and documented stories from people still living there.
By going into the swamp and interviewing people who were hunting guides and laborers, Hubert J. Davis placed himself in a setting where indigenous oral traditions were still relevant. The interviewees’ lives were closely connected to the environment, and the subjects of the stories were familiar to them. Earl Bass, a Nansemond Indian and well known hunting guide, happened to be a contemporary of Davis’ and shared several of his experiences in Virginia Wildlife in the 1960s.
I admire Davis’ interview approach because he did not bias his subjects with external expectations (a common criticism of some early anthropological approaches). He documented candid conversations with storytellers and removed the barriers of social class, etiquette, and religion that may otherwise inhibit people from sharing
Davis’ account of the “The Wicked Firebird of Dismal Swamp” included a forbidden love story between a young Indian man (“Big Bear”) and woman (“White Swan”) of neighboring tribes who shared the swamp as hunting ground. It is possible that a love story was part of the original oral tradition but it is also possible that this was added to increase its appeal to those intrigued by swamp stories, such as the romanticized accounts from poets like Thomas Moore. Both Davis and subsequent authors (like Waverley Traylor7) were open about the fact that they were retelling stories that have evolved over time and they were passionate about protecting the history of the Great Dismal Swamp.
In addition to following the documented Firebird story, I compared it to other stories in both local and distant indigenous communities. I discovered that there was an almost identical oral tradition among the Mattamuskeet Indians, or Machapunga, regarding the formation of the Lake Mattamuskeet. The story did not include the Firebird, but all other components were the same and both describe a local natural event that happened long before colonists arrived.
More broadly, bird-related stories are common in Algonquian and Iroquoian mythology. The Thunderbird8 is known among many tribes as the ruler of the upper world with the ability to create lightning through its eyes, thunder through its wings, and wind through its flight. One has to wonder if the Firebird story is somehow related to the Thunderbird story given the possibility of a lightning strike as the cause of the formational fire in the center of Lake Drummond.
Aboriginal Australians also have an oral tradition of “firehawks” causing wildfires. Similar to the Firebird story, oral tradition about the firehawks has been proven to accurately describe a natural phenomenon in which raptor species use fire to increase their foraging sucess.9 The firehawk story is an example of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) which has recently grown as a field of study.10
These findings place the Firebird legend in context with other indigenous stories that each reference time before colonial influence. Through my search, I discovered several other legends that are rarely shared despite containing important information about the local environment and tribal communities. In her article entitled “Educating America: The Historian’s Responsibility to Native Americans and the Public,” Angela Cavender Wilson described this as a widespread issue:
After reading these references, I felt compelled to continue restoring lost oral tradition. Along with protecting our natural resources, we must protect the stories our ancestors left as legends, often leading us to medicines and teaching survival skills. Oral tradition shows us a different world than that of English accounts and government records and it serves a different purpose—to educate and build a sense connectedness to each other and to the environment which sustains us.
My journey to restore Nansemond oral tradition is just beginning and, thanks to the world I have discovered through the Firebird legend, I am committed to continue searching, contextualizing, and amplifying our lost voices. As part of that, I created this medallion design in honor of Nansemond women, like Elizabeth, and the diaspora they birthed.
The woman in the center is standing on the Nansemond River (Fishing Point) surrounded by corn and fish. She is facing southeast toward a sunrise, featuring a southeastern Algonquian pattern, over the Great Dismal Swamp. The fearsome Firebird rises in the center, and she is fearlessly venturing out toward it.
This design integrates the Nansemond origin story and survival story. The fires that burned through the swamp have also burned through our settlements, our communities, our records, and our rights as people. We cannot be afraid and—after so much has been lost—we cannot willingly forget anything, especially not the stories of our ancestors.
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.
When the English arrived in Nansemond territory in the early 1600s, their objective was to acquire additional resources. The Jamestown settlement’s food supply was not sufficient to sustain the pace of growth and John Smith strategically sent out two expeditions to settle new areas. John Martin and George Percy were sent with 60 men by boat to Nansemond (while Michael Sicklemore led another group to the same area by land). The men described the Nansemond as being governed by four werowances1,2—Weyhohomo, Amapetough, Weyongopo, and Tirchtough. The term “werowance” (meaning “antler wearer”) and each of these names were part of the Algonquian language spoken by the Nansemond.
To date, these are the only documented Algonquian names of early Nansemond people and places3. All other “Nansemond names” are English names held by individuals of Nansemond ancestry.
1Conquest of Virginia, the third attempt, 1610-1624 : Virginia founded under the charters of 1609 and 1612 : an account based on original documents of the establishment of the colony, by the Virginia Company of London by Conway Whittle Sams
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 Sawyer, David Hall, and Joel Sawyer. This was William Bass’ first and only land purchase in Camden County, NC. He ultimately sold all of this land as follows:
Despite William Bass’ sale of all his land, there is no evidence that his family bought additional land or moved. When an ancestor sells all of their land before death and their immediate family did not independently acquire land, it is imperative to find where survivors went. In this article, I will outline the families of Pharoah and Joel Sawyer to provide insight into where William Bass’ immediate family may have lived after his death.
The first documentation of Pharoah Sawyer in Camden County, NC is from 12 March 1779 in the Return of militia divisions commanded by Colonel Isaac Gregory. He was part of Captain Thomas Terry’s (?) Company in the Third Division along with Thomas Overton, Samuel Rhodes, John Abbott, William Sawyer, Darius Bright, Jabez Cartwright, Mack Perkins, William Linton, Jesse Winberry, John Jones, and Benjamin Jones.
It is unclear when they married, but by the 1790 Federal Census Pharoah Sawyer was married to his wife, Dorothy “Dolly” Riggs, and they appeared to have had children born in or before 1774. Dorothy Riggs was the daughter of Isaac Riggs and Ruth Durant1 who were documented as Pharoah’s neighbors for many years.
In the 1790 Tax List, Pharoah was taxed on 0 acres and 1 poll, in 1791 he was taxed on 0 acres and 1 poll, and in 1792 he was taxed on 100 acres and 1 poll2. It is unclear what land Pharoah was taxed on because his first land purchase was not recorded until 15 November 1793 when Joseph Jones, Sr. (merchant of Camden County, NC) sold Pharoah Sawyer (planter of Camden County, NC) 30 acres. The land was adjoining Robert Gray, Joel Sawyer, River Swamp, Butter Weed Swamp, David Burnham, and William Shirlock and the deed was witnessed by Isaac Murden and James Ferrill (Deed Book F, Page 217).
In the 1795 Tax List Pharoah was taxed on these 30 acres and 1 white poll then on 1 August 1799 he sold 30 acres to Arthur Old. The land was at the head of the Pasquotank River adjoining Robert Gray, Joel Sawyer, Joseph Jones, Sr., and Thomas Gordon and the deed was witnessed by Newton Edney and James Butt (Deed Book H, Page 428). By the next census year, Pharoah’s household increased by 1.
On 20 January 1801, Pharoah Sawyer bought 125 acres (formerly owned by Thomas Gordon) from John Sikes (Deed Book I, Page 157). Less than three months later, William Bass bought an adjoining 125 acres on the north side of Pharoah Sawyer’s land (Deed Book I, Page 148). Evidence indicates that Pharoah and William were neighbors before they bought equal portions of Thomas Gordon’s former land from John Sikes (i.e., adjoining 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).
Pharoah Sawyer appears to have died the following year based on his widow’s actions. On 21 February 1811, Dolly Sawyer (of Camden County, NC) leased land from Robert Gray (of Pasquotank County, NC) near River Bridge adjoining Arthur Old and Joel Sawyer’s (Deceased) lands except the orchard with permission to clear as much land she like for 7 years. The lease was witnessed by Joseph Spence (Deed Book N, Page 183-184).
Dolly Sawyer was documented in the 1820 Federal Census with a household of 4 (1 white female over 45, 1 white male 16-25, 1 white female 16-25, and 1 white male under 10). She was then documented in the 1830 Federal Census with a household of 4 (1 white female 70-79, 1 white female 40-49, 1 white male 10-14, and 1 white female under 5) still living in River Bridge next to Thomas Sawyer, Edmund Sawyer, William Sawyer, and Alex D. Sawyer.
It remains unclear how Pharoah and Joel may have been related, but Joel appears to have been in Camden County, NC as early as the 1780s. Willoby Nickols swore that he served as a substitute for Joel Sawyer in Captain Rufus Williams Company in March 1781.
In the 1782 Tax List, Joel Sawyer was taxed on 50 acres, 2 horses, and 9 cattle. It is unclear when they married but by the 1790 Federal Census, Joel was married to his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Riggs (sister of Dorothy Riggs), and appeared to have had several children born before 1774.
In the 1790 Tax List Joel Sawyer was taxed on 100 acres and 1 poll, in 1791 on 100 acres and 1 poll, in 1792 100 acres and 1 poll, and in 1795 on 100 acres and 2 white polls.
On 3 February 1806, Joel Sawyer, Sr. made a deed of gift to his son Joel Sawyer, Jr. for 50 acres he bought from William, John, and Willis Sawyer. The land was adjoining David Hall’s swamp, Robert Gray’s land, Joel Sawyer’s swamp, and Pharoah Sawyer’s road, and the deed was witnessed by William Sawyer and John Wilkins (Deed Book L, Page 47). Based on the land description, it is possible that Joel Sawyer bought this land from the heirs of another Sawyer (deceased before 1806).
It appears that Joel Sawyer, Sr. may have died around this time (note that he was referred to as Joel Sawyer (Deceased) in Dolly Sawyer’s 1811 lease with Robert Gray). Joel Sawyer, Jr. remained on the land his father gave him and built his own family.
There was no deed for Joel Sawyer, Jr.’s purchase of the slaves recorded in his household so he may have acquired them through marriage. In the 1815 Tax List, Joel Sawyer was taxed on 50 acres, 1 free poll, and 1 black poll.
On 4 November 1818, Joel Sawyer bought 81 acres from Joseph Riggs located in the upper part of Camden County, and the deed was witnessed by Hollowell Old and Joshua Williams (Deed Book Q, Page 146). Joel’s wife (?) may have died before 1820 because there were no adult females in his household in the following census year.
On 26 November 1822, Nicolas Sawyer (of Pasquotank County, NC) sold William Sawyer (of Camden County, NC) one undivided fourth of one half of a 50-acre tract of land near River Bridge which formerly belonged to Joel Sawyer. The land 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, NC) one 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).
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
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.
On July 11, 1791 Gardner Trafton married Lovey McPherson. As a newcomer from Massachusetts, Gardner did not have close family connections in Pasquotank County, NC but his wife (believed to be the daughter of Joshua McPherson and Courtney Hixon) was part of an established family in the area. Gardner Trafton and his wife lived in Pasquotank County, NC through the births of all of their children2 (Courtney (b. 1793), Joseph Talbot (b. 1796), John Wesley (b. 1799), and Benjamin (b. 1799)).
The name “John Wesley” may have been in honor of John Wesley, a religious leader of the time and the founder of Methodism. The McBrides, Gamblings, McPhersons and Cartwrights were all named in the 1792 lease from Jeremiah Sexton to build a house of worship (McBride Church) for joint use between local Methodists and Episcopals. A few years after the birth of their last child, Lovey Trafton died on April 9, 1802.
Important details about Gardner Trafton’s life can be extracted from the deeds he entered throughout his life in Camden County, NC.
|Deed Information||Deed Description||Grantee||Grantor||Witnesses||Notes|
|6 August 1799 (Book I, Page 74)||$250 for a 50-acre tract of land and swamp near Pasquotank River Bridge in Camden County||Gardner Trafton||Joseph Jones||Charles Grice, Abner Whitney||+50 Acres (Land & Swamp)|
|30 September 1800 (Book I, Page 83)||600 spanish dollars for a 3-acre tract of land near Pasquotank River Bridge formerly belonging to the copartnership of Hughs, Smith & Scarborough (sold by the sheriff to Austin and Susanah Davis who then sold it to Elisha Davis who then sold it to Thomas Gordon)||Gardner Trafton||Thomas Gordon||Abner Whitney, Joshua McPherson (Gardner Trafton’s Father-in-Law)||+3 Acres|
|26 April 1802 (Book I, Page 293)||$613 for a 3-acre tract of land near Pasquotank River Bridge formerly belonging to the copartnership of Hughs, Smith & Scarborough including the piece of land called the “Jib”||Arthur & Hollowell Old||Gardner Trafton||Arthur Wilkins, Christopher Whitehurst||-3 Acres (See Book I, Page 83; A jib is a triangular sail.)|
|22 January 1803 (Book I, Page 372)||600 spanish dollars for one negro man named Thomas (formerly the property of Timothy Hixon) and one negro woman named Pamela (formerly the property of Benjamin Jones)||James Pearce||Gardner Trafton||Roger Slover, William Hinton||-2 Slaves|
|15 October 1804 (Book K, Page 243)||600 spanish dollars for one negro man named Thomas (formerly the property of Timothy Hixon) and one negro woman named Pamela (formerly the property of Benjamin Jones)||Gardner Trafton||James Pearce||Jeremiah (?) Murden, Benjamin Howell||+2 Slaves (See Book I, Page 372; Repurchased the same slaves that he sold)|
|__October 1804 (Book K, Page 322)||$550 for a 20-acre tract of land on the north side of Joy’s Creek adjoining Elisha McBride, Joseph Abbott, and James Haley||Gardner Trafton||Joshua Burnham||B. Jones, J. Pearce||+20 Acres|
|3 December 1805 (Book L, Page 37)||$250 for a 50-acre tract of land and swamp on the Pasquotank River Bridge in Camden County known by the name of Butter Weed (?)||Hollowell Old||Gardner Trafton||Malachi Wilkins, Nehemiah Riggs||-50 Acres (See Book I, Page 74, Land & Swamp)|
|3 December 1805 (Book L, Page 38)||$550 for a 20-acre tract of land on the north side of Joy’s Creek adjoining Elisha McBride, Joseph Abbott, and James Haley||Hollowell Old||Gardner Trafton||Malachi Wilkins, Nehemiah Riggs||-20 Acres (See Book K, Page 322)|
|23 January 1808 (Book M, Page 35)||$30 for a 250-acre tract of swamp land near the head of Joy’s Creek in the Great Dismal Swamp adjoining David Pritchard, Joseph Pritchard, and Timothy Jones||Gardner Trafton||Joseph Pritchard||+250 Acres (Swamp, See Image Below)|
|8 February 1808 (Book M, Page 65)||350 silver dollars for one negro man named Mat (formerly the property of Hollowell Old)||Gardner Trafton||Josiah Grandy||Thomas R. Butter, John K(?)||+1 Slave|
|25 October 1808 (Book M, Page 134)||$800 for 94-acre tract of land known as “Sawyer Lands” adjoining the swamp off the Pasquotank River, the road leading to the Shipyard, and the land of the heirs of Edmund Sawyer||Gardner Trafton||Nathaniel Downs||John Wilkins, Willis Wilkins||+94 Acres|
|16 February 1818 (Book P, Page 436)||$1725 for 74-acre tract of land (formerly the property of Griffith Sawyer) adjoining Edmund Sawyer and Willis Etheridge and a 40-acre tract of land (purchased from Enoch Sawyer from Susannah Shannonhouse) adjoining the up River Road and James B. Cunningham||Gardner Trafton||Thomas Jones||Thomas Gordon, Demsey McPherson||+114 Acres|
|23 April 1818 (Book P, Page 448)||$205 for 20.5-acre tract of land beginning at Down’s Shipyard Landing Road (previously purchased from Nathaniel Downs by Asa Sawyer, father of William Sawyer)||Gardner Trafton||William Sawyer||William Forbes, Catherine Forbes||+20.5 Acres|
|3 February 1819 (Book Q, Page 89)||$200 for a 55-acre tract of land (conveyed by Jesse Gregory to Caleb Gregory) in the Lake adjoining the land of Isaac Gregory on the side of the land next to the swamp||Gardner Trafton, Miles Gregory||Cason Hutchings||John Grandy, Justin B Jacobs||+55 Acres|
|22 February 1819 (Deed Book Q, Page 160)||$350 for one negro boy named Bob about 10 years of age, son of negro woman named Judith (formerly the property of Asa Sawyer, deceased)||Gardner Trafton||Jeremiah Forbes||Thomas Gordon||+1 Slave|
|14 January 1824 (Book R, Page 284)||$100 for a 61-acre tract of land or swamp on the Pasquotank River, part of the Thomas Leavy deed adjoining the Shipyard, William Forbes, and William Sawyer||Gardner Trafton||David M. Sargent (agent of Joseph White of the city of Boston)||Jordan Lurry, John Trafton||+61 Acres|
|28 July 1825 (Book S, Page 177)||$200 for a 20-acre tract of land that Asa Sawyer purchased from Nathaniel Downs adjoining William Forbes||Gardner Trafton||William Saywer||Justin B. Jacobs, John Trafton||+20 Acres|
|2 November 1825 (Book S, Page 206)||$227 for a 22.7-acre tract of woodland beginning at a bridge in the road running up to the swamp then up north easterly to the mouth of a ditch||Gardner Trafton||William Saywer||W.S. Bell, John Trafton||+22.7 Acres|
|7 August 1826 (Book S, Page 311)||$100 for a 250-acre tract of swamp land near the head of Joy’s Creek in the Great Dismal Swamp adjoining David Pritchard, Joseph Pritchard, and Timothy Jones||Phineas Sanborn||Gardner Trafton||W McPherson, George Ferebee||-250 Acres (See Book M, Page 35, Swamp)|
|30 April 1827 (Book T, Page 104-105)||$140 for a 14-acre tract of land near Creek Bridge adjoining Tully Robertson, the widow Polly Bell, Linus Williams, Benjamin Trafton, and Cason Hutchings||Gardner Trafton||Tully Robertson||Justin B. Jacobs, Jordan Lurry||+14 Acres|
|12 August 1828 (Book T, Page 259)||$500 for one negro boy named Enoch (formerly the property of Isaac Murden, the father of Robert Murden)||Gardner Trafton||Robert Murden (of New York City, NY)||Thomas Gordon||+1 Slave|
|4 February 1830 (Book T, Pages 512-513)||$650 for a 55-acre tract of land (and plantation) at the head of Sawyer’s Creek adjoining Richard Jarvis, Jabez Sawyer, and William Hearring||Gardner Trafton||William Hearring||Justin B. Jacobs, Enoch Sawyer||+55 Acres|
|2 December 1831 (Book U, Pages 150-151)||Appeared in court to divide Gardner Trafton’s land according to his last will and testament, Neighbors named were the heirs of Miles Gregory, Richard Jarvis, William Sawyer, William Forbes, Abner Lamb, and William Sanderlin||Joseph and John Trafton, Heirs of Gardner Trafton||Gardner Trafton||Chain Bearers were John Trafton and Jonathan Hearring, Surveyed by David Pritchard|
After analyzing the full collection of Garden Trafton deeds, it was clear that he owned property in a few different communities. In order to understand the stages of his life and his activity in each community, I divided information by census year.
Gardner Trafton had a household of 11:
Gardner Trafton’s neighbors in this census year were O. McPherson, W. Etheridge, G. Granger, J. Gallop, E. Burnham, and L. Berry.
Based on the composition of his household, it appears that Gardner Trafton was married to his second wife (Mary?) by this time (after the death of his first wife in 1802). By reviewing Gardner Trafton’s land purchases and sales, it is evident that only two purchases (both made in 1808) remained by the 1810 Federal Census—the 250 acres of swamp land near the head of Joy’s Creek (Deed Book M, Page 35) and the 94 acres known as “Sawyer Lands” adjoining the road to the Shipyard (Deed Book M, Page 134). All of his land at River Bridge was sold.
Gardner Trafton had a household of 10:
Gardner Trafton’s neighbors in this census year were Jabez Sawyer, Isaac Sawyer, Joseph Sawyer, Willis Etheridge, Harvey Burnham, Joshua Gallop, William Forbes, and Miles Gregory.
Gardner’s oldest son Joseph (24 years old at the time) had moved out of the household to Norfolk County, VA, and was married to Elizabeth Miars. Benjamin (21 years old at the time) was recorded in his own household in Camden County, NC, and was married to Nancy Upton. By process of elimination, the young male in his household must have been John (also 21 years old at the time).
Gardner Trafton’s second wife (?) Mary died on February 27, 1822. On January 20, 1824, Benjamin Trafton made his first independent land purchase from David M. Sargent. The deed was for a 23-tract of land near Creek Bridge adjoining Nancy Hastings, James Williams, Sawyer’s Creek swamp, and Cason Hutchings (Deed Book S, Page 88). Between 1826 and 1829, Benjamin Trafton sold 3 tracts of land located in Gumberry (just south of Shipyard) that his wife Nancy Upton inherited from her father (John Upton’s land division, Deed Book O, Pages 327-328, Deed Book S, Pages 337-338, Deed Book T, Page 236, Deed Book T, Page 395).
Gardner Trafton had a household of 8:
Gardner Trafton’s neighbors in this census year were Thomas Linton, David Hall, William Sawyer, John Trafton, Jabez Sawyer, and Isaac Sawyer. All three of his sons were alive and living in their own households at this time. Joseph remained in Norfolk County, VA with his wife and family.
|Benjamin Trafton’s Household of 12||John Wesley Trafton’s Household of 7|
There were several people recorded as part of Benjamin’s household (both adults and children) that did not appear to be part of his family. His neighbors in this census year were James O’Daniel, John O’Daniel, William Hastings, Ammon Sawyer, Cason Hutchings, Cornelius Sawyer, Sr., James Granger, and Miles Sawyer.
John was never recorded in a deed prior to his father’s death so he may have never bought land independently. His neighbors in this census year were David Hall, William Sawyer, Gardner Trafton, Jabez Sawyer, Isaac Sawyer, and Elizabeth Sawyer.
This was the last year that Gardner Trafton was recorded in the federal census. He left an August 1831 will and died on September 2, 1831 in Camden County, NC. His will was not proved until December 1848 meaning that the distribution of his estate was not resolved for 17 years. An analysis of his will (and supplemental information not included in the will) provides additional insight into his life.
Executor: William Herring (Friend), Witnesses: Miles Gregory, Isaac Taylor, Simeon Miller Thomas
|Heirs||Joseph Talbot Trafton (b. 1796)||John Wesley Trafton (b. 1799)||Benjamin Trafton (b. 1799)||Courtney Chamberlain (b. 1793)|
|Spouse(s)||Elizabeth Miars (m. 1818)||Nancy Etheridge (m. 1826), Permelia Banks Jarvis (m. 1840)||Nancy Upton (m. <1820)||Charles (?) Chamberlain (m. <1810)|
|Children (Grandchildren who were alive and/or named in the will in bold)||Walter Jones (b. 1821), Fanny B. (b. 1829), Virginia A. (b. 1833), Sarah (b. 1835), Mary J. (b. 1838), Benjamin (b. <1831), William T. (b. 1835)||George (b. 1827), Lovey (b. 1829), Thomas B. (b. 1831), Horatio (b. 1834), Mary (b. 1837), John Wesley, Jr. (b. 1841), Elizabeth (b. 1842), Pamelia (b. 1846)||Mary A. (b. 1826), Sarah (b. 1829), John (b. 1831), Philip (b. 1837), Mary (b. 1838), Joseph (b. 1842)||Timothy, Lovey, Sarah|
|1/3 of 233-acre residence and 1/3 of the 61-acre swamp land with the profits going for family support and at his death to his son Benjamin Trafton; Negros Enoch and Mary to be hired out in Camden County for schooling his children and at his death Negro Enoch to pass to his son Benjamin and Negro Mary to his daughter Fanny Trafton; One bed and furniture; Walton Jones Trafton: Negro Lurry (son of Rachel) to be hired out until he is an adult using the proceeds for the education.||2/3 of 233-acre residence (to be divided between sons George and Thomas Trafton after his death); Negros Bob, Isaac, Amy and her children, and Lydia; At his death Lydia and her issue to John Wesley’s other issue. Negro Bob to son George, Isaac to son Thomas, and Amy to daughter Lovey; Desk, one gun, one handmill||14 acres purchased from Tully Robertson; 20 acres purchased from Benjamin Trafton; 22.5 acres called the Lake Land; Debt Forgiveness; One bed and furniture; Gordon Trafton: Negro boy Jerry (the son of May) to be hired out with the purpose of schooling—should he die under the age of maturity the Negro goes to John Trafton (the son of Benjamin).||Timothy Chamberlain: Negro boy Cason; Lovey Chamberlain: Negro girl Sally; Sarah Chamberlain: One bed and furniture|
Gardner Trafton left his slaves Tony and Rachel each to have the choice of living with either of his three sons Joseph, John, or Benjamin and he left the remainder of his estate to be divided between his sons.
Gardner Trafton was buried where he lived on Trafton Road in Camden County, NC. His residence off of North Carolina Highway 343 was left to his sons Joseph Talbot and John Wesley while his land around Shipyard was left to Benjamin. Biographies of many of Gardner Trafton’s contemporaries were included in Jesse Pugh’s “Three hundred years along the Pasquotank” but Gardner’s name was only mentioned once. As I discover new information, I will continue to share more details about the Traftons of Bristol County, MA who became a Camden County, NC family.
My investigation into the life of Gardner Trafton has not yet revealed Eliza Trafton’s parents but there are many clues worth carrying forward into future research:
1Port of Currituck Mariner’s Records (1784-1789) by the Family Research Society of Northeastern North Carolina (2006)
2Gardner Traftons marriages and the births of his children were all recorded in the Trafton Bible.