In this article, I present the story of David Leary Pritchard—a man whose life served as a perfect cross-section of early 19th century South Mills (Camden County, NC)—as an example of how one can learn more about ancestors of color through their white neighbors (who were sometimes relatives).
David Leary (also spelled Lurry) Pritchard was born on February 13, 1807—the youngest child of Joseph Pritchard (b. 1756-1774) and Chloe Leary/Lurry (b. 1756-1774). David was preceded by two siblings, Joseph Pritchard (b. 1790) and Elizabeth (Betsey) Pritchard (b. 1805) (based on the time between births, it is possible that Joseph was born of a previous marriage).
In the 1800 Federal Census, Joseph Pritchard’s household contained 1 male over 45, 1 male 26-44, 1 female 26-44, 1 female under 10 and 11 slaves. Joseph was not recorded in future censuses because he died on January 27, 1809 when David was just under 2 years old. Camden County will books prior to 1822 did not survive so it is unclear if Joseph died intestate but he was recorded in Camden County deed books numerous times. Newton Edney and Gideon Lamb were named as the administrators of his estate.
David’s grandfather, David Pritchard, Sr., did not die until 1812; so, David Pritchard, Jr. likely knew his grandfather better than his father. On November 17, 1812, David Pritchard, Sr.’s land was divided between his legal heirs—the heirs of Joseph Pritchard (namely Joseph, Elizabeth, and David), Keziah Pritchard, Sally Pritchard, and Mary (Polly) Pritchard. In the absence of a will, this is an invaluable account of Pritchard family property.
|No. 1 – Heirs of Joseph Pritchard (Deceased)||11 Acres Swamp|
27.75 Acres High Land
47 Acres Swamp
|No. 2 – Keziah Pritchard||8 Acres Swamp|
27.25 Acres High Land
22.75 Acres Swamp
|No. 3 – Sally Pritchard||73 Acres Swamp|
68 Acres High Land
Manor Plantation (Whole Amount, 301 Acres)
17 Acres Swamp
|No. 4 – Mary (Polly) Pritchard||Plantation Bought of Joseph McPherson (147 Acres)|
There are a number of implicit details in this record that are important to note. All of David Pritchard’s daughters were still Pritchards at the time of the land division which suggests that they were not married yet. Also, David Pritchard had two plantations—one 301 acre manor plantation and one 147 acre plantation (originally purchased from Joseph McPherson).
Chloe, David’s mother, married Miles Cartwright on June 3, 1819 when David was 10 years old. In the 1820 Federal Census, Miles was recorded with a household of 14—4 adults, 5 children and 5 slaves. That same year, on August 3, 1820, Wilson Lurry (Chloe’s brother) was named as guardian of Betsey, Joseph, and David (orphans of Joseph Pritchard) in a bill of sale in which Miles Cartwright bought 4 slaves (Mourning, Juda, Jim, and Jack) that were owned by the Pritchard children (Deed Book Q, Page 348). After only 6 years of marriage to Chloe, Miles Cartwright was killed by lightning on August 2, 1825.
Some time later Chloe married a Williams (which was the surname she ultimately died with). On October 10, 1826, David’s aunt, Keziah (Pritchard) Sanborn died leaving her husband, Phineas Sanborn, and her two children, John Stevens Sanborn and Eliza Sanborn Conner, as heirs. On July 3, 1828, David sold 50 acres of swamp land to Phineas Sanborn at the head of Joys Creek in the Great Dismal Swamp (this was likely 47 acres of swamp land David inherited from his grandfather which was bordering the swamp land inherited by his aunt Keziah).
Individuals Recorded as Living in “Pritchards” in W. W. Forehand’s 1830 Map of Camden County
|Wilson Lurry||Willis Richardson|
|Hugh McPherson||Ira Jones|
|Elizabeth McPherson||Benjamin Jones|
|William Williams||Malachi McPherson|
|Charity Williams||John M. Brite|
According to Three Hundred Years Along the Pasquotank, David Pritchard erected two watermills (some time before 1839) below the old locks on the Dismal Swamp Canal. Locals referred to the mills as the “south mills” to differentiate them from other mills in the area. This reference led to a formal name change from “Lebanon”—which had been used to describe the area for decades—to “South Mills.”
In the 1840 Federal Census, David was recorded with a household of 3—1 male 30-39, 1 male 15-19, and 1 male 10-14. His closest neighbors were Frederick Sawyer, William Bass, Eliza McCoy, and Joel Sawyer. William Bass (b. 1812) was recorded (as white) with a household of 3—where his presumed wife Lydia Bass (b. 1820) and daughter Nancy Bass (b. 1840) were also living. This close sequence (along with a number of other circumstantial clues) suggests that William and Lydia may have been living and working on D. L. Pritchard’s Farm at this time.
Phineas Sanborn (David’s uncle through marriage) died in January 1840 while living in Yalobusha, MS. His son, John, was either living with him before death or moved to his property shortly after his death because later deeds recorded him as a resident of Yalobusha, MS. In 1841, his daughter Eliza was living in Chester County, PA with her husband (and first cousin), Phineas Sanborn Conner.
Per their father’s will, John gave Eliza a life estate for their father’s property in Camden, NC. This estate was comprised of Sanborn’s acquired land and Keziah’s inherited land and it was bordered by David Pritchard, Jr., Timothy C. Chamberlain, Jesse McCoy, Timothy C. Smith, Enoch D. Ferebee, Benjamin Jones, and Dozier Perkins (Deed Book X, Page 252). Given that Keziah’s estate was bordered by her sisters’ inherited land, these borders provide important clues about who Sally Pritchard and Mary (Polly) Pritchard may have married.
Shortly before or in 1842, David married his first wife Sarah Elizabeth Lamb (b. 1818, the daughter of Abner Lamb—the son of Gideon Lamb who administered his father’s estate—and Dinah McPherson). They had a daughter, Mary Elizabeth, in 1842 who went on to become David’s sole surviving descendant. After Mary Elizabeth, David and Sarah had two other children, Joseph and Sarah Ann, who passed away in infancy.
In 1847, both David and Sarah Elizabeth suffered the loss of a parent with Chloe Williams’ death on January 14, 1847 and Abner Lamb’s death on August 27, 1847. In his will, which proved on September 10, 1847, Abner Lamb left Sarah Elizabeth “the land called the Lydia Sawyer tract” adjoining John Trafton and others. He also left her slaves Sally, Isaac, Ellick (nickname for Elliott), Marshall, Romulus, and Ellen. The slaves were kept as part of the Pritchard estate.
Shortly after these two family deaths, on October 13, 1847, John S. Sanborn (of Yalobusha, MS) gave his sister Eliza S. Conner a life estate of 1700 acres from their father (Phineas Sanborn). The land border description was the same as the one made before with the primary difference being the addition of land bordering Cox and Corprew’s line and John Cox’s line (Deed Book Y, Page 365).
Five days later, on October 18, 1847, David Pritchard bought 100 acres from William Culpepper for $400 on the south side of Joy’s Creek bordering Fanny Edney, Enoch D. Ferebee, and Samuel Edney (which was originally owned by John Edney, see image below). A month and a half later, on December 2, 1847, David sold this exact tract of land to Lydia Bass.
A hidden relationship existed between David Pritchard and Lydia Bass that was discussed in their respective families into the 1900s. Their actions in this land purchase/sale leave a number of unanswered questions:
In 1848, David and Sarah Elizabeth had another son, John, who passed away in infancy with Sarah dying shortly after his birth the same year. By the 1850 census, David was 43 years old, widowed, and living with his 8 year old daughter Mary Elizabeth (with Wilson Culpepper, 25 years old, possibly working on the farm). He had $6,000 in real estate and 21 slaves according to the 1850 Slave Schedule for Camden County, NC (which included 6 from his deceased wife’s father’s, Abner Lamb, estate).
David married his second wife, Margaret Frances Old (b. 1831, daughter of William Old and Maria ____) in 1853. They had one daughter, Mary Frances, born on December 8, 1854. Margaret died two weeks after giving birth and the baby died in 1855 at the age of 4 months. This left David widowed again and by the 1860 census he was living with Margaret Pritchard (21 years old) and Joseph G. Hughes (30 years old) with $25,000 in real estate and 29 slaves according to the 1860 Slave Schedule for Camden County, NC.
Life became tumultuous in South Mills during the Civil War. With the Dismal Swamp Canal as a strategic target and the Pritchard family living in very close proximity to the canal, they were at the focal point of local battle. David’s nephew, David Thomas Pritchard, was a private in the Confederate Army and John Sanborn Conner, the son of David’s first cousin Eliza and P. S. Conner (who had relocated to Hamilton County, OH by this time), returned to the family’s homestead to protect the property during battle.
Many of the Basses, despite being free, fled Camden County, NC during this time to move to northern states. This was a reflection of the extreme social tension that free people of color experienced in the area and family dynamics (for free people of color who had blended families with enslaved people). In 1863, David testified before the Justice of the Peace that 29 of his slaves (valued at $23,700) ran off in the night and went “to the enemy” to Norfolk, VA. He stated that he was entitled to the benefits of the August 30, 1861 Act of the Provisional Congress and included the names, ages, and estimated values of each of his slaves in his file.
|Slave Name||Age||Assigned Value|
The filing, which was witnessed by J.B. Boushall and Frederick Sawyer, is an invaluable record for the families of these enslaved people. Considering the date, the Civil War was nearing its end and this was likely the last document to link these individuals to a slave owner.
By the 1870 Federal Census, David was 62 years old and recorded with William Sawyer (22 years old) and Joseph Ralf (17 years old) living on his property. He had $12,000 in real estate and $1,200 in personal estate at this time. David remained a recognizable figure in the community for building mills and he was also elected as the county surveyor.
“Public Laws of the State of North Carolina, Passed by the General Assembly” noted that David L. Pritchard was granted authority to build a road from “the foot of the Old Swamp, in Camden County, to some point at or near John Cox’s corner, in Currituck County, on the Great Swamp Road” on 19 January 1872.
In the 1880 Federal Census, David was 74 years old, living alone, and noted as a farmer. In his 1888 will, he left everything to his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Hughes, and nephew, David Thomas Pritchard (and heirs).
An obituary posted in the Recorder by R. R. Overby said that David died of cancer at the age of 79. Overby described him as a Christian man (who became active in the church about 25 years earlier), who was modest in nature and of good character.
As a descendant of people whose lives were closely interconnected with that of David Leary Pritchard and his family, I can say that this research (which is still in progress) has added a new dimension to my understanding of my ancestors. As I continue to develop the history of David Leary Pritchard, the Pritchard and Conner Farms, and the Joys Creek community, I hope remaining hidden relationships will emerge.
Recently I stumbled upon a newspaper article so valuable I had to share it here (as an image and with full transcription). I have written extensively about several of the references within this article so I have added hyperlinks to related content.
Dear Sir: I have been requested by my neighbor, Mr. J. S. McCoy, to write you a short account of the “Old Swamp Road,” situated in the upper part of Camden and Currituck counties.
The Old Swamp Road was originally an Indian Trail, or supposed, from the fact that it crosses this part of the Dismal Swamp at its narrowest part. It became the first highway into Camden, or the section which is now Camden county, from the country North of it and a connecting link, in the route from the southeast section of Virginia to Edenton, N.C.
The road was the first mail route from the Norfolk section of Virginia to the old Lebanon mill, it being the first post-office in this section, and distributed mail to a large part of country now known as “Pasquotank and Camden counties.” This mail route was established about 1734. I think you can find something of this among the records in Edenton, N.C. It was continued by way of Joppa, now River Bridge, in Camden county, through the adjoining county to Edenton.
The road was used as a toll road as far back as 1800, and how much further I cannot tell. The first settlers that came into what is now the upwoods section, of Camden, came through that road and settled on the ridge lands bordering on the Dismal Swamp, before North Carolina became a state. David Pritchard, my wife’s great, great grandfather, who settled on what is now the D. L. Pritchard farm, obtained his grant from Lord Clarendon when he owned North Carolina and the land has ever since been in the family. The Conners are descendants of the Pritchard family. The old Lebanon mill was located between South Mills and Pearceville ceased to operate about 1818, after the Dismal Swamp Canal cut off its supply of water from Lake Drummond. This road is yet to become the pass way from upper Camden and Pasquotank counties to Norfolk, Va.
This road was fortified at the time of Col. Fordyce, the British commander and Gen. Gregory the American commander, fought the Battle of Great Bridge, Va. If the British had been successful, they would have attempted to pass through to Edenton, N.C. There is said to be two pieces of ordinance still buried where this fort was located. I have seen the foundation work of the old fortification.
It was about 2.5 miles from South Mills, and near McBrides church, that the first Baptist church ever established in North Carolina was erected. It was established by Rev. Paul Palmer, who was several times whipped and otherwise badly treated by the established church, which was only a few hundred yards distant, and at last he was driven away and his house burned. He then went to Shiloh, Camden county and established Shiloh Baptist church in 1727.
J. G. Huges
I have discovered bits and pieces of the information within this article over time but it was fascinating to see it all together as a story. In my earliest articles about the origin of the Basses of upper Camden County, I associated their migration with the construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal which began in the late 1700s. However, I soon learned that William Bass (b. 1755) and his wife Ann Sammon moved into a small community of free people of color that was established before the Dismal Swamp Canal was conceptualized. This letter from J. G. Huges provides invaluable insight into early connections between Norfolk County, VA and Camden County, NC that can be used to further investigate migration patterns.
This chronology provides new context for the migration of my ancestors and their extended family who lived across the Norfolk County, VA / Camden County, NC line. In subsequent articles, I will explain more about the role that the Old Swamp Road would have had in their lives.
Alchemy has a specific meaning in chemistry but, in a more general sense, it is the “process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.” This post will provide insight into how to turn records, seemingly of little value (i.e., those that do not explicitly state relationships), into genealogical breakthroughs.
I have written several posts about William Bass (b. 1755), who was my ancestor and the first Bass documented in Camden County. Shortly after him, a “J Bass” appeared—just once—in the 1810 Federal Census. When my search was limited to online resources, “J Bass” was quite a mystery. I could not even find his first name until my first trip to the Camden County Register of Deeds.
A search of the Camden County deed collection revealed that Joseph Bass purchased 6.20 acres from Mathias Etheridge on March 28, 1807. The land was located on Arenuse (a corruption of the name “Arrow Nose” which is now spelled Areneuse) Creek in the lower end of the county and was part of the tract that Demsey Etheridge purchased of Peter Mercer, Esquire. Joseph Bass’ neighbors were Demsey Etheridge, Peter Mercer, Esquire, William Pugh, and Thomas Ferrell and the deed was witnessed by Miriam Grandy and Malachi Forbes. In the 1810 Federal Census he, “J Bass,” was head of a free white household of 4 with 1 male 26-44 (born between 1766-1784), 1 female 16-25 (born between 1785-1794), 1 female under 10 (born after 1800), and 1 slave.
Six years later, on February 2, 1813, a Lurana Bass bought 6.00 acres adjoining Joseph Bass’ land from Thomas and Sally Ferrell. The land was near Plummer’s Point and her neighbors were William Pugh, Peter Mercer, and Sylvanus Sawyer. Though there is no explicit information about Lurana’s relationship to Joseph, the fact that she was able to enter into this contract (under coverture) indicates that she was either an unmarried woman, “feme sole,” or a widow (i.e., not Joseph’s wife but perhaps his sister or daughter). After this deed, both Joseph and Lurana were absent in the Federal Census in Camden County for 1820 and 1830.
The first major settlements in Camden County developed around four creeks flowing into the Pasquotank River—Joy’s Creek in the upper end of the county, Sawyer’s Creek in the middle of the county, and Raymond and Arenuse Creeks in the lower end of the county.
On November 22, 1738 Samuel Laban Plumer and Catherine (his wife) obtained two 150-acre land grants at the mouth of Arenuse Creek which came to be referred to as “Plummer’s Point” in many subsequent deeds. In 1740 Plumer attempted to establish a ferry route from Arenuse Creek (in Lower Camden) to Newbegun Creek (in lower Pasquotank).
Plumer’s ferry does not appear to have been a success but Arenuse Creek was a trade center, port of inspection for foreign imports, and was home to some of the wealthiest planters in the region.
Lurana Bass’ neighbor Miriam Grandy was a renowned business woman in the area with six children—Matilda Lamb, Felix B. Grandy, Greenwill S. Grandy, Willis S. Grandy, Titus T. Grandy, and Thomas T. Grandy. In 1835 Miriam Grandy purchased all of the real estate of Alfred M. Gatlin, a local congressman, who moved to Arenuse Creek from Edenton (Chowan County) due to its economic growth and access to transportation (Deed Book U, Page 461). The majority of Gatlin’s land was purchased from the Earle Plantation and the estates of Enoch Sawyer and William Pugh (suggesting that he was also a neighbor of both Joseph and Lurana Bass for a brief period).
On December 17, 1836, Lurana Bass witnessed Miriam Grandy’s will which was executed by Miriam’s friend and neighbor, Cornelius G. Lamb. The following year Lurana Bass appeared in another deed on August 3, 1837 when she, along with George Fleetwood and Catherine Fleetwood, sold 12.20 acres to Henry Brite. This deed is crucial because it reveals that Lurana Bass was an heir of Joseph Bass (his 6.20 acres plus her adjoining 6.00 acres equaled the 12.20 acres in the land sale). The deed also demonstrates that Catherine was an heir of Joseph Bass (with George Fleetwood likely only being included in the deed due to coverture).
This series of deeds is a perfect example of genealogical alchemy. Joseph Bass was only recorded once in the Federal Census for Camden County and Lurana Bass was never recorded there. Deeds and other seemingly minor records can reveal hidden family members and combine to establish important relationships.
While several questions were successfully answered, some new questions emerged:
Lurana Bass followed the Fleetwood family after selling her land. She was evident in George Fleetwood’s Perquimans County household in the 1840 Federal Census (1 female 40-49 matching Lurana, 1 female 20-29 matching Catherine, and 1 male 20-29 matching George). Lurana (b. 1785) remained in their household, likely as Catherine’s (b. 1815) mother and her childrens’ grandmother—who were all named in the 1850 Federal Census.
By 1860, both Lurana and Catherine were out of George Fleetwood’s household (he married a Harriet Burke in Chowan County on August 12, 1858) but their children—specifically, Sally A., Elisha and George—remained. This indicates that Lurana (who would have been in her 70s) and/or Catherine (who would have been in her 40s) probably passed away between 1850-1858.
Based on these events we see that if Lurana Bass and Catherine Bass were Joseph Bass’ sole surviving heirs (based on their inheritance of his land), then Joseph Bass’ line of descent may have “daughtered out“—meaning that the Bass surname stopped with him due to the lack of a male (or unmarried female) descendant with children.
|Child’s Name||Birth Year/ Location||Spouse(s)||Death Year/ Location|
|Sally A.||1842 / Perquimans County||____ White||Unknown|
|Elisha||1845 / Perquimans County||Sarah F. Smith (m. 1868), Rebecca Boyce (m. 1900)||1918 / Norfolk County|
|George M.||1848 / Perquimans County||Harriett Newborn (m. 1871)||1919 / Pasquotank County|
A number of questions remain but I now have a significant amount of information for a group of people who scarcely appeared in the Federal Censuses. I hope that this example is encouraging to other researchers who descend from people and areas with missing records.
While collecting records for this article I stumbled upon countless family trees on Ancestry.com made by descendants of Catherine (Bass) Fleetwood who did not know her maiden name—which was hidden in a deed indexed under another name (her mother’s) a whole county away! Progress is always possible and, as I gain new information, I will provide updates on Joseph Bass (b. 1766-1784) to continue to integrate his family into the larger Bass story.
When I first started researching my Camden County, NC ancestors it was clear that they had connections to the Nansemond community in Norfolk County, VA but it seemed like an impossible feat to demonstrate how the two groups of people were related. There were numerous individuals with the same names, same general places of birth and residence, and even the same approximate ages.
Despite this complexity, I eventually learned to individuate conflated lineages by using land as foundation of identity. For indigenous people in particular, land and its natural features literally define identity (so much that most tribes are named after the rivers they lived along). As tribal communities were displaced from ancestral land by the influx of colonists in the 1600s, land remained an integral part of tribal history.
In this article, I will add depth to the story of the Nansemond homestead at Deep Creek by mapping out familial land in Norfolk County, VA and highlighting families that lived on it with a focus on the Basses, Prices, and Halls. Clearly defining relationships in this area demystifies many relationships between individuals who migrated out of the area yet remained part of the same kinship groups.
In earlier articles I have discussed the present Nansemond Indian Tribal Association’s (NITA) lineage. While all descendants of William Bass (b. 1654) and Catherine Lanier (b. 1650) have Nansemond ancestry through William’s mother, Elizabeth (a full blooded Nansemond woman), not all descendants have the same documentation of Indian ancestry. A primary objective of this article to demonstrate that gaps in records do not equate to gaps in relationships and that sharing a single homestead across several generations is a stronger indicator of family cohesion.
The table below contains a collection of information related to the taxation of documented Nansemond Indians and their respective purchase(s) and sale(s) of land. These details reveal how the Nansemond homestead formed and how it changed across generations. Below this table, I present a series of maps to provide geographic context for the information contained within. (New readers starting here may better understand the table by reading my previous article on Nansemond ancestry first.)
|Nansemond Patriarchs||Tax Information||Land Gained (+)||Land Lost (-)||Notes|
|William Bass (b. 1654 d. 1741) & Catherine Lanier (b. 1650 d. 1691) |
In this generation, the family homestead was on the Western Branch with new relationships developing on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. Ancestral Nansemond land was along the Nansemond River and the migratory pattern of the Christianized Nansemond community was southeast toward the northeast edge of the Great Dismal Swamp.
|1730-1731: William Bass, Sr. was taxed on the Western Branch with his youngest son Thomas Bass in his household. |
1732: He was taxed with William Horse(y) in his household.
1733-1736: He was taxed near several members of the Price family (Richard, William, and their respective spouses).
|17 March 1726: William Bass, Sr. claimed rights to land near the Dismal Swamp which was used by his Nansemond forebears since before English governance in Virginia. Rights to this land were contingent upon Indian ancestry (under the Treaty of 1677) and William received a certificate of Nansemond descent which included his sons William Bass, Jr., Joseph Bass, Thomas Bass, and his daughter Mary Bass.|
6 January 1729: William Bass, Sr. (of the Western Branch) bought 103 acres at the head of “Deep Branch” from James Elliott (also of the Western Branch).
|1 October 1740: William Bass, Sr. wrote a will leaving all of his land to his daughter Mary Bass, a spinster, uncertain if she could save it.|
It is unclear what happened to the land referenced in his will, but it appears that Mary may have died before her father’s will proved (she was 60 years old at the time) and the land may have gone to her brother William Bass, Jr. (who appeared in court 3 days after their father’s will proved to acquire a certificate of Nansemond descent).
|Thomas Bass (b. 1687) lived with his father on the Western Branch. On 22 June 1724 he married Martha Willis. They had two sons—William (b. 1725) and Thomas (b. 1726)—who were born on their grandfather’s land. |
Martha died in childbirth with Thomas and, on 2 May 1729, Thomas married Tamer Spivey, the granddaughter of John Nichols. This, along with several other records, indicates that William Bass, Sr.’s home on the Western Branch was neighboring the home of the deceased John Nichols.
|William Bass, Jr. (b. 1676 d. 1751) & Sarah Lovina (b. 1682 d. 1762) |
In this generation, the family homestead shifted toward the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River with William Bass, Jr. as the oldest (local) son and primary landowner.
|1730-1732: William Bass, Jr. was taxed on the Southern Branch with John Staple in his household. |
1733-1736: He was taxed with his wife, Sarah, and son, John, in his household.
1750: He was again taxed with Sarah and John in his household (his daughter Sarah received an exemption).
|13 January 1726: William Bass, Jr. leased 150 acres on the Southern Branch from William Lovina. This lease was acknowledged in court on 17 March 1726–the same day as William Bass, Sr. claim for rights to ancestral land. He bought this land from William Lovina on 13 November 1728. |
20 April 1729: He married Sarah Lovina, heiress of 200 acres adjoining the land he bought from William Lovina. Under coverture, he became the legal owner of the full 350-acre tract of land (originally patented by Richard Batchelor) John Nichols left to his children by Jean Lovina.
|18 March 1736: William Bass, Jr. and his wife Sarah sold 48 acres (of her 200-acre inheritance from John Nichols) to Thomas Deal. |
14 March 1757: Sarah Bass (William’s widow), her son John Bass, and his wife Elizabeth sold 50 acres of land (from her 200-acre inheritance from John Nichols) to William Brackett. This tract was adjoining John Bass’ land (the 50 acres he re-purchased from Thomas Deal).
This land was likely sold to acquire funds to settle debts from William Bass, Jr.’s estate (which was appraised on 19 July 1756).
|20 September 1742: 3 days after his father’s will proved, William Bass, Jr. appeared before the county clerk to obtain a certificate of Indian ancestry similar to the one received by his father. |
THIS IS AN IMPORTANT ACTION. The flow of land from William Bass, Sr. to William Bass, Jr. despite the survival of Edward Bass (believed to be the oldest surviving son and next heir under primogeniture) raises questions about relationships and the law of the time (specifically inheritance law related to treaties).
|John Bass (b. 1731 d. 1771) & Elizabeth Tucker (b. ____ d. >1778) |
In this generation, a number of family dynamics came to light that are not explained by the present set of records.
Sarah Lovina died in 1762 and family debt problems escalated shortly thereafter in 1764. Why would both John Bass (son of William Bass and Sarah Lovina) and William Bass (nephew of William, Sarah’s husband) be sued for debt together? Were there unresolved financial matters related to their grandfather? Or perhaps Mary Bass’ inheritance from their grandfather?
|1751-1761: John Bass was head of his household on the Southern Branch from Batcheldor’s Mill to Portsmouth near William Bass (b. 1725, son of Thomas Bass). |
1752: John Murer was taxed in his household.
1756-1757: John Price was taxed in his household.
1761, 1765: He shared a household with William Bass.
1766-1767: John, Elizabeth, and Joseph Bass were taxable on 100 acres from Portsmouth to New Mill Creek (with John’s daughter) Sarah Bass in 1768, and by himself in 1770.
|8 July 1742: John Bass re-purchased the 50-acre tract of land his parents sold to Thomas Deal. |
30 August 1763: John Bass and Robert Kinder received a patent for 181 acres in Norfolk County near the head of Deep Creek adjoining John Bass’ land.
|14 May 1764: John Bass and his wife Elizabeth of Portsmouth Parish sold their 90-acre share of the Bass-Kinder patent to Ebenezer Hall. |
On the same day they sold a 50-acre tract adjoining this land to Ebenezer Hall on. (This appears to have been the land John re-purchased from Thomas Deal).
16 November 1764: John Bass and William Bass were sued for debt in Norfolk County by Solomon Hodges.
|Thomas Bass’ son William Bass (b. 1725) was living with John Bass (his first cousin, the son of William Bass). William married Ebenezer Hall’s sister, Naomi Hall. |
The Prices, another Indian family, were also living and working on Bass family land.
John Bass died 11 March 1771 (possibly intestate) and his wife, Elizabeth, was taxable that year on a tithe and 100 acres and taxable in 1772 with (their son) William Bass.
At this time the 150-acre tract of land adjoining Sarah Lovina’s 200-acre tract was gone. It is unclear what happened to this land but it may have been lost to debt.
|William Bass (b. 1755 d. 1809) & Lucy __________ (b. ____ d. >1809) |
In this generation, family dynamics continue to raise questions. Joseph Bass and Willis Bass (brothers) were both sons of William Bass (b. 1725)—who was born to Thomas Bass on the land of his grandfather William Bass (b. 1654).
|William Bass was taxable in the household of his mother, Elizabeth Bass, in 1772 and 1774, and in his own household in 1780. |
He was taxable in Norfolk County from 1782-1810.
He was head of a Norfolk County household of 7 persons in 1785 and 8 “other free” persons in 1810 (called William Bass, Sr.).
|24 August 1797: He sued Joseph Bass, his tenant on 60 acres of land, over the right to the land and a jury found in his favor. |
His will proved 17 July 1809. He left his son John Gibbs (Bass) the upper part of his land, his sons William Bass and Andrew Bass half his manor plantation each, his daughter Elizabeth Gibbs (Bass) personal items, and his wife Lucy Bass her dower (which was to be divided between his sons after her death).
|William Bass was living in Portsmouth Parish on 19 July 1798 when he made a Norfolk County deed of gift to Willis Bass “of Hertford County” for 30 acres at the head of the Southern Branch and Deep Creek near the main road and the dividing line between the land of Willis Bass and John Gibbs (Bass).||The fact that Joseph Bass was a tenant on William Bass’ land suggests that he may have been living on land that his father was previously living on (with family) that went under lease. |
The land that was given to Willis Bass was located in Deep Creek and had one of two possible origins—part of the 103-acre tract bought by William Bass, Sr. (b. 1654) OR part of the 200-acre tract (decreased to 100 acres) owned by William Bass, Jr. (b. 1676) through Sarah Lovina.
|William Bass (b. 1784 d. 1848) & Elizabeth Perkins (b. 1786 d. ____)||15 July 1833: William Bass registered in Norfolk County on as a “man of Indian descent.” |
19 August 1833: The Norfolk County court certified that Eliza Bass (“wife of Wm Bass, son of Wm Bass”) was “not a free negro or Mulatto but of Indian descent.”
|William left a 2 March 1847 Norfolk County will (proved 21 February 1848) leaving 18 acres of land adjoining Andrew Bass to his daughters Elizabeth and Bethsada Bass and the remainder of his land to his son James Michael Bass.||James Michael Bass was the father of Augustus Bass and Jesse Lindsay Bass—the first recognized Nansemond Chiefs of the present NITA. Elizabeth Bass, who inherited half of 18 acres from her father, married Joseph Bright who ultimately used her land to establish the Indiana Methodist Church.||Several descendants of Thomas Bass, through his son Willis Bass, also received certificates of Indian descent in 1833 (along with several Prices). They were named among their cousins who all lived at the Nansemond homestead.|
This table was developed using a combination of personally collected court records and deeds from the Library of Virginia and Paul Heinegg’s abstracts on FreeAfricanAmericans.com. Heinegg’s website provides an invaluable introduction to many families; however, there are several areas where I have found conflicting information. Presentation of this information is merely a reference to it—in its current form—as a secondary source of material. I encourage all researchers to retrieve and review original records.
The evolution of the Nansemond homestead at Deep Creek reveals many of the dynamics of colonial life. Retaining land was not easy for indigenous people and free people of color. These people, who faced similar sociopolitical pressures, formed small communities to support each other and kinship groups developed from their widespread intermarriages.
Many people who were recorded as part of someone else’s household (frequently family members or friends) were employees. The employer, or owner of the property, lived in one house and the employees lived in other house(s) on the land. At tax time, property owners paid the taxes for the people on their land and reported them on the census as living together even though they did not usually cohabitate in one home. In early colonial life, when currency was scarce and unreliable, this was a convenient arrangement for many people.
This dynamic was evident through William Horse(y), John Staple, John Murer, and John Price who lived on Bass family property at different times. In the case of the Prices, another documented another Indian family that neighbored the Basses for generations, there were several intermarriages. Note that many later families (in the 1800s) assumed an Indian identity through intermarriage with the Basses but the Prices were referred to as Indian prior to any known Bass intermarriage.
Clarifying these relationships at the Nansemond homestead in Norfolk County, VA explained numerous relationships across the state line in Camden County, NC. William Bass (b. 1755), the great grandson of William Bass (b. 1654) who relocated to Camden County, NC, was recorded in the census next to Demsey Price, the great grandson of Elizabeth Price—a documented neighbor on the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River and on Deep Creek. Aaron Price, Demsey’s brother, was nearby in Pasquotank County where he married and was counted with a family in the 1810 Federal Census.
In addition to the Prices, the Halls (relatives of Ebenezer Hall—adjoining land owner of the Bass family homestead) also moved to Camden County, NC. Absalom Hall, Ebenezer’s brother, married Rachel Nickens—heiress of Camden County, NC land (through her father Richard Nickens) which they sold in 1780. Ebenezer’s nephew, Joseph Hall, married Elizabeth Bass and remained in Norfolk County while another nephew, David Hall, moved to Camden County, NC and lived a parallel life to that of William Bass (his cousin).
In conclusion, there is currently irrefutable evidence that the Basses, Prices, and Halls of Norfolk County, VA migrated over the state line to several nearby counties in North Carolina—specifically Currituck, Pasquotank, and Camden counties. While many researchers have struggled to isolate individuals and determine migratory patterns, a careful study of the Nansemond homestead at Deep Creek reveals the origin of countless relationships. One migrant alone is not strong evidence but an entire interconnected group (with documented relationships) is.
While some researchers have focused exclusively on the small set of documentation in which individuals have been explicitly described as “Nansemond” or “Indian”, it is clear that there are other strong forms of evidence of Nansemond ancestry. The combination of: 1) lineal descent from documented Nansemond ancestor(s), 2) multi-generational residence on a shared homestead with other documented Nansemond people, and 3) shared legal actions (e.g., the sale of family land between cousins) presents a much broader perspective of the full Nansemond community at Deep Creek.
I am a descendant of Basses, Prices, and Halls who were documented as Nansemond Indians and/or lived on the Bass family homestead. In this article I have introduced a number of legal questions that have remained unanswered for decades. In upcoming articles, I will explore these issues further along with Nansemond relationships to other nearby tribal communities to provide a unique perspective of life in indigenous, mixed race communities along the colonial Virginia/North Carolina border.
The mid 1600s was a transformational period for the Nansemond people. After a series of violent conflicts between the Powhatan Chiefdom and English colonists, the Nansemond community was divided between those who chose to assimilate to a “Christianized” lifestyle and those who chose to remain “traditional.”1 As Nansemond people were displaced from their ancestral land (along the Nansemond River in present day Suffolk) through encroachment, the “Christianized” Nansemond shifted east toward Norfolk and the “traditional” Nansemond shifted west toward Southampton (and merged with the Nottoway).
Members of the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association (NITA) descend from the “Christianized” Nansemond who eventually settled in Deep Creek (a proximate reference to Yadkin and Bowers Hill) at the northeastern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp. The ancestral couple at the core of this community was John Bass(e) (b. 1616), an English colonist and minister, and Elizabeth (b. 1618), a “Christianized” Nansemond woman and daughter of a Nansemond Chief. Of their eight children, their son William Bass (b. 1654) has been the focal point of most Nansemond genealogical research.
In my previous article on the NITA, I shared a summary of researchers from inside and outside the tribal community. Despite decades of concentrated research on the “Christianized” Nansemond of Deep Creek, there are still a surprising number of data gaps regarding this group of people. In this article, I will present some Nansemond relationships as they are currently outlined by multiple published researchers and some errors and unanswered questions that have caused confusion.
The descendants of William Bass (b. 1654) and Catherine Lanier (b. 1650) define a number of prominent Bass lineages. Their two oldest sons, Edward Bass and John Bass, relocated to North Carolina in the early 1700s and have been thoroughly researched by their descendants (see Lars Adams’ Research (John Bass Descendant) and Kianga Lucas’ Research (Edward Bass Descendant)). The rest of William and Catherine’s children remained in Virginia; however, their two daughters, Keziah Bass and Mary Bass, appear to have died unmarried and without children and there is little information about the fate of their son Joseph Bass. Their sons William Bass and Thomas Bass carried the Nansemond legacy forward on ancestral land; however, there is unexplained disparity in their recorded history.
The earliest reference to William Bass’ (b. 1654) land was made on 17 March 1726 when he appeared before a Norfolk County court to claim rightful possession of cleared swamp lands adjoining the Great Dismal Swamp based on the use of these lands by his Nansemond forebears since before English governance in Virginia (a transcription of this court record is in Bass Families of the South, Page 74). Under the Treaty of 1677, an agreement between Charles II of England and representatives from several Virginia Indian tribes, Indians were entitled use of their ancestral lands for subsistence (fishing and hunting) and to bear arms as long as they were obedient to the English government.
This court record does not contain the detail of a deed so it is unclear exactly where this land was but there are some clues. The area of Deep Creek was documented as an Indian hunting ground and geographically matches the description of the land William Bass referenced in court. Then, on 6 January 1729 William Bass purchased 103 acres in Norfolk County at the mouth of Deep Branch. This may have been the time when William Bass’ family shifted from their residence on the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River (a short distance away) to the Deep Creek community.
William Bass’ family was not the only one with land spanning from the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River to Deep Creek. John Nichols was a neighbor with a manor plantation (500 acres) on the southeastern side of the Western Branch. Nichols also owned land in Deep Creek on the Southern Branch (350 acres originally patented by Richard Batchelor on 15 March 1675) and on the Northwest River (100 acres just north of the North Carolina state line) which he leased. Nichols owned at least one water mill which was a valuable resource of the time.
John Nichols, who was often referred to as Major—an indication that he was a member of a standing militia in the area—married Judith Bowers Spivey (the widow of Matthew Spivey) later in life and it is possible that he had a previous marriage (through which he fathered Sarah Nichols). Prior to marrying Judith, John also appears to have fathered two illegitimate children, John and Sarah, by his slave Jean Lovina. These details can only be inferred (not verified) through the contents of his will (which proved 17 May 1697).
By the time William Bass bought his 103-acre tract of land in Deep Creek on 6 January 1729, John Nichols, his wife Judith, step-son (and likely son-in-law) Matthew, and mulatto son John were all deceased but his homestead clearly remained. Just a few months after William Bass’ land purchase, on 20 April 1729, William’s son, William (b. 1676), married Sarah Lovina (Nichols’ daughter). A few weeks later, on 2 May 1729, William’s son, Thomas (b. 1687), married Tamer Spivey (Nichols’ granddaughter). This sequence of events presents a strong case that the family of William Bass and Catherine Lanier lived in a neighboring homestead to the family of the deceased John Nichols.
These relationships also suggest that Sarah Lovina and Tamer Spivey were living in the same location when they married Bass men. Despite being manumitted, as an unmarried mulatto woman Sarah Lovina likely would have continued to live and work where she did all her life. Similarly for Tamer2, as an unmarried woman whose parents were deceased, she likely lived with family members.
When William Bass (b. 1676) and Sarah Lovina (b. 1682) married in 1729 they were 53 and 47 years old. This is clearly late for a marriage but may have been advantageous to both parties. William secured a considerable amount of land through his marriage to Sarah (her 250-acre inheritance) and Sarah secured a legal representative to manage her inheritance (which was previously being leased by Daniel Burne).
|Judith (Bowers Spivey) Nichols||Dower interest in the plantation John Nichols was living on (500 acres) and any profits to be gained from land called an Island on the Northwest River in Norfolk County (100 acres).||Dower interest is only for the remainder of the spouse’s life and does not equate ownership. Judith Nichols’ Bowers relatives owned neighboring land.|
|Matthew Spivey||The plantation John Nichols was living on (500 acres) after the death of his mother and shared rights to swamp land (entered by Eleazer Tart) at the head of Nichols’ plantation.||Matthew Spivey married Sarah Nichols (likely the daughter of John Nichols). Matthew died (testate) before his mother leaving her as guardian of his children (suggesting that Sarah may have been deceased). Matthew’s daughter Tamer married Thomas Bass. The Tarts owned land adjoining Nichols and were also neighbors of William Bass (b. 1654, father of Thomas Bass), with Thomas Tart and Enos Tart as witnesses of his 1740 will.|
|Ann Spivey||Land called an Island on the Northwest River in Norfolk County (100 acres) after the death of her mother. This tract of land was purchased from Dan Browne.||Ann Spivey married John Granberry (a neighbor of John Nichols). They sold this tract of land on 13 July 1704 to Moses Prescott.|
|John Lovina||Manumission. 150 acres of land on the Southern Run of a 350-acre tract in the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River (now in possession and occupation of Daniel Burne). 160 acres of land in the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River joining the land of the late William Davenell. A water mill at the head of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River which was bought from John Ives and formerly owned by Captain Carver.||John Lovina was apprenticed to Nathan Newby at the time of this will. He later married Anne ________ and had a son, William Lovina. William sold all but 60 acres of his inherited land (presumably the remainder of the Davenell tract) and he was taxed in the home of John Bowers (the cousin of Judith Nichols) in the 1730s.|
|Sarah Lovina||Manumission. 200 acres of land on the Northern Run of a 350-acre tract in the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River (now in possession and occupation of Daniel Burne).||Sarah Lovina was a minor at the time of this will and likely continued to live and work for the family. She later married William Bass. Prior to their marriage, William purchased the land adjoining this tract from William Lovina (Sarah’s nephew).|
The details of John Nichols’ will reveal the close interconnectedness of Nichols’ heirs with the family of William Bass and Catherine Lanier. Their actions (e.g., witnessing records, intermarrying, buying and selling land) were common exchanges between neighbors. Their extended families spanned from the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River to Deep Creek which is where the “Christianized” Nansemond community has continued to live for centuries.
Thomas Bass also had two wives. His son, William Bass (b. 1725), was born of his first marriage to Martha Willis. Thomas lived on his father’s property (William Bass (b. 1654)) on the Western Branch at least through the 1730s. While his brother, Willam Bass’ (b. 1676), life was well documented, Thomas Bass’ (b. 1687) life is poorly documented after 1750 and his children migrated in a few different directions.
William Bass (b. 1654) left a will dated 1 October 1740 and died on 13 August 1742. In his will, he left his sons William, Edward, Joseph, and Thomas small bequests (a convention to avoid legal disputes over omission; John and Keziah were left out because they predeceased their father). William left his daughter Mary all of his cash and land if she could save it after his decease. This statement suggested that he may have faced financial and/or legal problems near his death.
The uncertain terms of William’s will beg the question, “Where did his surviving family members live after his death?” What can we learn from subsequent records about familial relationships? The actions of William Bass’ and Thomas Bass’ descendants reveal a number of clues about what happened.
William Bass (b. 1725), the son of Thomas Bass and Martha Willis, was taxed as part of his uncle, William Bass’ (b. 1676), household in 1751. They were recorded within the Southern Branch District from Batcheldor’s Mill to Portsmouth which is precisely where John Nichols’ 350-acre tract left to the Lovina children was located (note that the tract was originally patented by Richard Batchelor). From there, William was taxed in his own household from 1752-1754 (the years immediately following his uncle’s death), and then he was taxed in his aunt’s household, Sarah (Lovina) Bass, from 1756-1757.
William married Naomi Hall some time around 1765 and was taxed on and off with his cousin John Bass (b. 1731), the son of William Bass and Sarah Lovina, through the 1760s. On 17 May 1764, William Bass, his cousin John Bass (and his wife Elizabeth) sold a 50-acre tract of land to Robert Kinder together. John Bass also sold land adjoining Robert Kinder to William Bass’ uncle, Ebenezer Hall, on the same day. Later in 1764, William Bass and John Bass were sued for debt by Solomon Hodges (another sign that they had shared assets).
The descendants of these Nansemond brothers, William Bass (b. 1676) and Thomas Bass (b. 1687), remained connected into subsequent generations. William Bass (b. 1755, the great great grandson of William Bass and Catherine Lanier) gifted 30 acres to Willis Bass (b. ~1763, the great grandson of William Bass and Catherine Lanier). Beyond their shared lineage, these familial gestures more than 100 years later demonstrate that these people were part of the same cohesive Nansemond-descended family.
Several of the children of William Bass and Naomi Hall (i.e., Joseph, Thomas, and William) formed close relationships with their Hall relatives and migrated with them over the North Carolina state line into border communities in Currituck, Camden, and Pasquotank counties. Their son, James, fought in the Revolutionary War and migrated to Tennessee (along with several Hall relatives) to claim bounty land and their son, Willis, was the only to remain in Norfolk county.
The 1830s was another tumultuous time for people of mixed ancestry due to increasing laws and restrictions against individuals of any African ancestry following a number of slave uprisings (most notably Nat Turner’s Rebellion). Court records from the 1830s—representing an external perspective—reveal that descendants of William Bass (b. 1676) were identified as Indian the same as descendants of his brother Thomas Bass (b. 1687). The Bass family bible—representing an internal perspective—also contains the births of both William Bass and Thomas Bass’ descendants (through his grandson Willis Bass and his wife Jemima Nickens).
These records generated inside and outside the Deep Creek Nansemond community demonstrate two important points: 1) the descendants of both William and Thomas Bass identified as Indian and 2) they were part of the same functional family—living together and sharing assets. On a larger scale, these records also reveal that sociopolitical pressures (not tribal necessity) were the primary drivers for the generation of these records.
Evidence supporting the closeness of William Bass and Catherine Lanier’s children is undeniable. The sole difference between the descendants of their son William and the descendants of their son Thomas is that William’s children repeatedly appeared in court to affirm their Indian ancestry. What could be the cause for this difference in family records? A potential explanation is evident in the research of Helen Rountree.
In Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, Helen Rountree candidly discussed the fragility of Indian identity in early colonial life. The marriage of a local man (William Bass) to a freed former slave (Sarah Lovina) caused the neighboring English colonists to perceive them and their relatives as mulatto rather than Indian. The confusing thing about Rountree’s statement is that she notes the couple “may not have been ancestral at all” yet they clearly must have been perceived as part of the Nansemond community in order for their marriage to affect the Nansemond reputation as a whole.
In Rountree’s notes section she made some additional statements about William Bass and Sarah Lovina:
The inaccuracies in these statements—from the distancing of William Bass and Sarah Lovina from the Nansemond tribal lineage to the complete falsehoods about John Nichol’s will—are surprising. Rountree is the preminent researcher of Virginia Indians and has researched their corresponding communities for decades. One cannot say why Rountree made these statements but a large collection of records present an opposing version of history to hers.
It is possible that sociopolitical pressures around William Bass’ (of English and Nansemond ancestry) marriage to Sarah Lovina (of unspecified mulatto ancestry) forced him to declare his Indian identity more explicitly in order to differentiate himself from mulattoes. Meanwhile, Thomas Bass (also of English and Nansemond ancestry) and his wives, Martha Willis and Tamer Spivey (of presumably English ancestry) may not have encountered the same scrutiny. These efforts to control public perception—a response to external pressures rather than an internal requirement—have had lasting effects on the ongoing effort to document Nansemond ancestry.
Unfortunately, Helen Rountree is not the only researcher who has created confusion surrounding this lineage. Albert Bell, author of Bass Families of the South, also treated the descendants of William Bass and Catherine Lanier differently. Bell abstracted a number of Bass deeds from Norfolk County; however, he placed more importance on certain deeds than others.
Thomas Bass’ deed is listed as a “miscellaneous note” without detail while other deeds are listed with grantee, grantor, and other contextual details. Lack of detail about the land makes it impossible (at least within the context of the book) to trace its connection to other land referenced. Thomas is documented as part Bell’s Nansemond lineage so why was his land sale considered “miscellaneous”?
Paul Heinegg, author of “Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to about 1820” integrated Thomas Bass into Nansemond genealogy but used Bell’s book as a source of deed information. Thomas Bass’ exact location and relationships remain obscure compared to neighboring families and Heinegg’s chronology of William Bass’ life is inconsistent with his narrative (see order of marriage and land purchases). These issues draw the accuracy of the both Bell and Heinegg’s abstracts into question requiring review of the original records.
According to the Board for Certification of Genealogists, “reasonably exhaustive research” is a condition of credibility. It means that a researcher must examine a “wide range of high quality sources” to minimize the probability that “undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion.” Due to missing records, the misinterpretation of records, and the dependence on second-hand research over primary records, it is my opinion that no researcher (including myself) has met this genealogical standard for the “Christianized” Nansemond of Deep Creek.
The current evidence suggests that descendants of Thomas Bass (b. 1687)—the son of William Bass and Catherine Lanier—should be represented within the NITA. The pervasive obscurity on some of these details, along with a number of disagreements related to Nansemond genealogy outside of Virginia, has limited enrollment eligibility within the present tribal association to a very small group with complete, unquestioned lineage.
The legacy of the “Christianized” Nansemond demonstrates the challenges associated with using race- and ethnicity-related data sources (i.e., court records) as a stronger indicator of community cohesion than data sources which directly connect individuals and families (i.e., deeds and wills). The strong evidence needed to include all descendants of William Bass and Thomas Bass in Nansemond tribal lineage has survived but it must be collected from direct sources, thoroughly analyzed, and put into the proper context.
1Helen Rountree used these terms to distinguish between the two factions. The names of some of the Nansemond who lived with the Nottoway still exist in deeds. The Legislative Petition of 1786 contains a transcript in which the last five Nansemond (Celia Rogers, John Turner, Molly Turner, Simon Turner, and a fifth person who did not sign) requested to sell off the reservation. After the reservation was sold, the remaining Nansemond went to live with the Nottoway.
2Charles McIntosh, author of “Brief Abstracts of Norfolk County Wills, 1710-1753,” misinterpreted the text in the will of Matthew Spivey to read “Thomas” (suggesting a son). The original will as well as the will of Matthew’s mother, Judith Nichols, reveals the correct name to be “Tamer” (a daughter).
Paul Heinegg’s abstracts on the Bass, Hall, and Leviner families have been used as supplemental references throughout this article. Heinegg’s abstracts are living records and are updated intermittently. All references in this article are reflective of his abstracts as of this publication date.
This is my photo collection from the Nansemond Indian Pow Wow held at Mattanock Town on August 19, 2017. Kay Oxendine was the mistress of ceremonies with Dalton Lynch as arena director and Tatanka Gibson and Sierra Locklear as head dance staff. War Paint (Northern Drum) and Smokey River (Southern Drum) were the host drums for the event.
It is worth noting the strong presence of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe (among event staff, singers, and dancers) at the Nansemond Indian Pow Wow. The two tribes share common ancestry and the Haliwa-Saponi, who received state recognition in North Carolina in 1965, have been supportive to the Nansemond since the tribe’s formal organization in the 1980s.
In addition to singing and dancing at the center of the pow wow, attendees could see signs of Mattanock Town off in the distance. Four (out of a planned ten) dwellings (called “Yeehawkans“) have been constructed on site through a collaborative effort between the Nansemond Indian Tribe and local Boy Scout Troop 16. Lee Lockamy, current Nansemond Chief and historian at Old Dominion University, began the plan to construct the Yeehawkans on tribal land along the Nansemond River in 2014. Hunter Ward, an Eagle Scout, continued the project with the support of 50 other boy scouts and was awarded 2016 Eagle Scout Project of the Year by the Colonial Council of Virginia – Boy Scouts of America for its successful completion.
This year, in addition to attending the Nansemond Indian Pow Wow, I visited Indiana United Methodist Church. The church site is quaint and everything from the building to the sign outside appears the same as old photos I have seen. In a small grassy area in front of the church there is a Historic Landmark for the site of the Nansemond Indian Public School that was in use from 1890 to 1928. The memorial was dedicated on July 28, 1985 which was the summer of the year the Nansemond tribe received state recognition in Virginia.
Each year the Nansemond Indian Pow Wow has a slightly different atmosphere. This year represented a year of transition as Ronald “Lee” Lockamy enters his public role as Nansemond Chief (with Samuel M. “Flying Eagle” Bass as Assistant Chief) and other familiar faces shift out of the spotlight. As a member of the academic community and the Virginia Indian Advisory Board, Chief Lee Lockamy is continuing in the legacy of historic preservation left by former Chief Oliver Perry. As I write new articles about Nansemond history, I will continue to try to balance the story with recent Nansemond news.
|Chief||Ronald Lee Lockamy|
|Assistant Chief||Samuel M. “Flying Eagle” Bass|
|Chief Emeritus||Earl L. “Warchief” Bass|
|Tribal Council||Aaron “Silent Thunder” Bass|
|Brian C. Bass|
|Charles L. Bass|
|Robert “Buddy” Leary|
The 29th Annual Nansemond Pow Wow is just a few days away and, though most Nansemond research is focused on the 1600s through the 1800s, I thought this would be a great time to share some insight on recent Nansemond history and the people, both inside and outside the community, who have been influential in the formation of the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association (NITA). This article will include detail on Nansemond leaders, their lineage, state recognition, the establishment of tribal by-laws and enrollment processes, the reclamation of ancestral land, and potential federal recognition.
There is a small group of individuals who have held the title of Nansemond chief over the past century. Their contributions to the development of the present day NITA have varied greatly, with some being more focused on the outdoors and survivalism and others being more focused on cultural and political advocacy. In order to highlight these contributions, I have given a name to each chief that reflects who they were and what they valued.
Jesse Lindsay Bass was the youngest son of James Michael Bass and Elizabeth Ann Bass. He was raised in “Yadkin” on the northeastern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp where the Christianized Nansemond community lived for generations before him. He and his family attended Indiana United Methodist Church which was established in 1850 as a mission for the Nansemond families in the area. Jesse worked as a truck farmer, like many others in his community, and married Clara (Carrie) Lugene Anderson in 1899. He and Carrie had twelve children over the course of their lives and raised them on Galberry Road in Norfolk County, VA.
Due to his love and natural talent as a hunter, Jesse was known as the “Daniel Boone of Norfolk County.” He attributed this ability to his grandfather, William Bass, and passed the passion on to his own sons. Jesse’s favorite place to hunt was in the Great Dismal Swamp (where he was noted as trapping in Washington Ditch on the west side of Lake Drummond) and he was a member of the Yadkin Hunt Club.
Records reveal that Jesse and his family consistently identified as “Indian” and lived as part of an insular Indian community (with several marriages between cousins). During Jesse’s lifetime a number of anthropologists, most notably James Mooney and Frank Speck, researched Powhatan tribes throughout Virginia and had several visits with the Nansemond in the area. Despite their encouragement to organize and pursue state recognition for the tribe, Jesse had little interest in the bureaucracy and political action required for such an effort.
Jesse’s legacy with the Nansemond community is his legendary familiarity with the Great Dismal Swamp and his ability to survive from the land like his Nansemond ancestors. He and several of his contemporaries (e.g., his older brother Augustus A. Bass) opened their lives to anthropological research that led to the publication of several important references for future generations. Jesse Lindsay Bass’ name remains one of the most recognized among Nansemond descendants and researchers.
Earl Lawrence Bass was the son of Jesse L. Bass and Carrie L. Anderson. He married Lucille Bass (the daughter of William Henry Bass and Victoria Sculthorpe) in Camden County, NC on November 8, 1927. Earl and Lucille raised their children on Jolliff Road in Norfolk County, VA on the northwestern edge of the Yadkin Nansemond community. Like his father, Earl was a member of Yadkin Hunt Club and he was known for keeping 30-60 hunting dogs at a time. He too was a guide for prominent professionals of the region into the swamp on paid hunting excursions and was featured in statewide magazines for his expertise.
Earl lived through a number of societal changes. The Racial Integrity Act, which passed the Virginia General Assembly on March 20, 1924, required that all Virginians be divided into two races at birth—”White” or “Negro.” This meant that members of the Nansemond community who were documented as “Indian” for generations would be forced into one of these categories. Walter Plecker, who was Virginia’s Registrar of Statistics from the 1920s through the 1940s, specifically targeted the Basses of Norfolk County (as well as the Sawyers, Weavers, Locklears, Kings, Brights, Porters, and Ingrams) for “passing” as Indian and retroactively changed a number of birth records to comply with this new piece of legislation.
Earl also lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the political resurgence of tidewater Native Americans in the 1980s. Like his father, Earl Bass’ legacy was that of a hunter with an innate connection to the land, water, and wildlife. His legacy is also that of a transitional figure—his generation being the bridge between the unorganized, extended family of Nansemond descendants and the ultimate formation of the NITA.
Oliver Linwood Perry was born the son of Richard L. Perry, Sr. and Fannie Bond Perry (a fourth cousin once removed of Earl L. Bass). Unlike Jesse and Earl, he grew up on 32nd Street in Norfolk City about 20 minutes northeast of Bowers Hill. While many of the Nansemond men of the Yadkin area were truck farmers, Oliver had a long career in the United States military (as both a service member and civilian).
In the early days of his retirement, Oliver was inspired to learn more about his Indian ancestry by the organization of a number of Virginia Indian tribes in the 1980s. An Indian state council formed in 1982 with tribal representatives from the Mattaponi, Rappahannock, and Chickahominy (but the Nansemond were not represented because Earl Bass had not become involved). This created an opportunity for Oliver to engage as an organizer for the unorganized Nansemond descendants (many of which did not even know what type of Indian they descended from).
Oliver dedicated himself to the research and documentation of his Indian ancestors. After about a year, when he had a body of information to share (collected from local courthouses and libraries), he held the first meeting of Nansemond descendants on July 21, 1984. Oliver expected a small gathering of about twenty people but a surprising sixty-one people attended and strongly supported the goal to formally organize the tribe. Through a concentrated effort involving several other Virginia Indian tribes, anthropologists, and state officials, the Nansemond were granted state recognition on February 20, 1985 under House Joint Resolution No. 205.
The records submitted through the state recognition process are available at the Library of Virginia in Governor Chuck Robb’s (1982-1986) Papers (Accession # 32462). One might assume this record collection would contain a complete Nansemond genealogy but it does not. The recognition process was more focused on validating the continuous existence of a tribal community than on presenting a broad and complete tribal genealogy.
The most informative document in the set is a paper by Helen Rountree titled “The Ethnogenesis of a Virginia Indian Tribe: The Nansemond Indian Tribal Association.” In it, Rountree provided a candid account of her support to the Nansemond through the challenging process of forming of a tribal association after decades of living as an insular yet assimilated community of extended family. Her narrative includes everything from the earliest efforts to organize, to meetings with more mature tribal associations, the establishment of by-laws and enrollment processes, meeting format, and the re-creation of historically accurate Nansemond traditions.
These accomplishments made Oliver Perry one of the most influential people in modern Nansemond history. In his lifetime, he was appointed by the Governor to the Virginia Council on Indians from 1986 to 1995 (chaired by Thomasina E. Jordan, the namesake of the bill for the Federal Recognition of Virginia Indian tribes), a representative of the Commonwealth of Virginia to the National Governors’ Interstate Indian Council Conference from 1986 to 1995, and an educator at a number of regional events on Indian history.
Oliver Perry’s legacy, which is unstudied by many due to his lack of the recognizable Bass name, is that of a strong organizer and communicator in recent Nansemond history. Beyond leading the tribe to state recognition, he established a historical and genealogical foundation for the tribe to grow.
Barry Bass is the son of Joseph Alwood Bass (son of Earl Lawrence Bass) and Lucille Wyant who married in Pasquotank County, NC on January 13, 1950. He was elected as chief in 2008 (just two years prior to the passing of Oliver Perry). Under Chief Barry Bass’ leadership, the Nansemond tribe has seen significant advancements. After ten years of negotiations, the City of Suffolk agreed to return roughly 77 acres of ancestral land in Lone Star Lakes Park (facing the Nansemond River) to the tribe in 2013. This milestone, as the first Nansemond-owned land since the sale of the tribe’s last land in 1792, was celebrated at the 26th Annual Nansemond Pow Wow.
As part of an agreement with the city, the NITA developed plans for a 17th century replica village called Mattanock Town (named after one of the original four Nansemond villages mentioned in the writing of Captain John Smith). Development plans for Mattanock Town include a burial ground, cultural center, and a number of attractions for an estimated 50,000 paying visitors each year. This monumental vision will require a significant amount of private funding to come to fruition but progress has been steady through support from the community.
From initial state recognition in 1985 to today, the NITA has grown to approximately 200 tribal members. In more recent years, Chief Barry Bass has been seen less and (former Assistant) Chief Earl Bass has assumed leadership at tribal events and meetings (with his brother Samuel Bass in the role of Assistant Chief). Chief Barry Bass leaves a legacy as a respected leader during a period of Nansemond growth and revitalization and Chief Earl Bass has been an open and accessible leader in his time at the forefront.
As is evident from the history of Nansemond chiefs, tribal leadership has primarily come from the direct descendants of Jesse Lindsay Bass. Oliver Perry (a Bass cousin) rose to leadership through strong advocacy and political action on behalf of the tribe. Today, leadership has returned to the Bass line and a number of new opportunities wait on the horizon—most notably the 2017-2018 re-introduction of the Thomasina E. Jordan Bill for the Federal Recognition of 6 state-recognized Virginia Indian tribes.
In addition to official tribal leadership, a number of individuals of Nansemond ancestry have researched and published tribal history and genealogy. These people have both directly and indirectly influenced the growth of the tribe by determining the lineage(s) accepted for tribal enrollment. While the history of Nansemond people as a whole is well documented, Nansemond genealogy has been complex and controversial. The integration of genetic data (and the patrilineal Y-DNA of Bass descendants) into the establishment of Nansemond lineage has been a recent source of contention among descendants and researchers.
Lea Dowd is a Nansemond tribal member and refers to her ancestors as part of the Nansemond community that was not Christianized. While her direct ancestors are not publicly documented, she may have been referencing the Nansemond people who lived as part of the Nottoway community of Southampton County, VA after being displaced by colonists.
Among Nansemond researchers, Lea Dowd is recognized as the primary tribal genealogist of the 1990s through the 2000s. While she is noted as having researched the Nansemond for decades, her findings are not highly accessible. She published an article in the North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal (February 1996) titled “Conflicting Information on Basse/Bass Heritage” in which she strongly disputed some of the research of Paul Heinegg and some of the research of Albert Dehner Bell. She, along with fellow Nansemond researcher Patti L. Silvestri, also published an article titled “Descendants of Edward Basse and Mary Tucker: Another Native American Family“ in which they proposed that Edward Bass was part of another tribal community.
In addition to her published research, Lea has an inactive personal website and she is also the registrant (and likely webmaster) of the Nansemond.org web address. Many Nansemond descendants and genealogists have corresponded with Lea but in recent years she has been less accessible. Her reputation is complex as most researchers respect her dedication and experience yet disagree with a number of her published positions. Lea lives in Georgia and, while she has traveled to the Great Dismal Swamp for tribal research, she has not been a part of the close Nansemond community in Norfolk County, VA.
Fred Bright is a Nansemond tribal member and a Bass through his third great grandmother Elizabeth Bass (wife of Joseph Bright). Joseph Bright was born in North Carolina (possibly part of the large Bright/Brite family of neighboring Camden County, NC) while Elizabeth Bass was part of the Norfolk County Nansemond community. Together they provided the land used to build the Indiana United Methodist Church in Bowers Hill. The same land was used for the Nansemond Indian Public School which was first established in 1890. Fred enrolled in the Nansemond tribe in 1996 and he was already active in Nansemond research by that time. He recorded primary accounts from his Bright and Bass ancestors and was a Family History Director at his local Mormon church.
Fred eventually assumed the role of tribal genealogist and partnered in research with Lea Dowd, Patti Silvestri, and Sheila Stover. Like Lea Dowd, Fred has fielded a number of questions from people in the online research community; however, he has not published articles on the subject. As a member of the Norfolk County Nansemond community, he has dedicated most of his effort to cultural and environmental preservation by teaching lessons on flint knapping to craft arrowheads and serving on the Crittenden Eclipse Heritage Foundation’s project to map the Nansemond River. Fred has been a familiar face at many of the Nansemond Pow Wows and participated in a number of programs.
In addition to Nansemond-descended researchers, there have been a number of individuals without Nansemond ancestry who have researched and published tribal history and genealogy. There are many researchers who could be included in this section (most notably Paul Heinegg who has published one of the broadest and most widely referenced Bass lineages) but this list is limited to those who have received authorized access to tribal records and collected primary accounts from tribal leadership.
In 1885 James Mooney was hired by John Wesley Powell as an ethnographer with the Bureau of American Ethnology (part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC). Mooney’s research spanned from Southeastern to Great Plains Indians. He spent a number of years researching the Cherokee of southwestern North Carolina and later shifted his research to Virginia Indian history.
In his article “The Powhatan Confederacy, Past and Present,” published in the American Anthropologist (1907), he included a tribal census of 61 Nansemond households living around Bowers Hill in Norfolk County, VA. He named “A. A. Bass” (Augustus A. Bass, older brother of Jesse L. Bass) as the “principal man” at the time and captured a number of photos of him with various family members.
Frank Speck graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in anthropological ethnography in 1904. He went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in the same research area and became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. At a time when many anthropologists were interested in studying foreign cultures, Speck was dedicated to the study of Eastern Woodland Native Americans. As part of his research he visited many of the Algonquian Indian remnants of Virginia in the 1920s and actively advocated for their political recognition. In 1928 he published “Chapters on Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes of Virginia, Indian Notes and Monographs” which included notes on the Nansemond people.
The importance of Mooney and Speck’s research to Virginia Indians cannot be understated because it was conducted around the same time as the passing of the Racial Integrity Act when many members of state government were trying to erase evidence of Indian communities in Virginia. They gave validity to people who were thoroughly assimilated yet maintained an Indian identity (validity that is still relied upon today as the sole research references in the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017).
Despite the value of Mooney and Speck’s research, they have also been criticized due to their emphasis on racial purity as a means of “salvaging” Indian populations. Arica Coleman’s book “That the Blood Stay Pure, African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia,” provides a detailed analysis of the sociopolitical dynamics that formed the relationships between prominent anthropologists and Virginia Indians. Coleman’s research reveals that many conflicts related to race originated with the intentions of anthropologists rather than with Virginia Indians.
Albert Bell was a genealogist who published research on a number of families from 1947 to 1997. He was commissioned by Edward Bass to compile a Bass genealogy (including oral history from Bass family members) which was published in 1961. Bell’s book, titled “Bass families of the South : a collection of historical and genealogical source materials from public and private records” was the preeminent Bass family reference for many years. In more recent years, some have criticized his research (citing errors and a bias toward proving the Basses had Huguenot ancestry) but others have noted that his book is fundamentally a compilation of information from other resources and can be trusted (for the most part) as a reference.
Helen Rountree is the longest active and most published researcher of Virginia Indians. She began her research in 1969 and, over the course of her career, closely studied numerous tribes from historical, anthropological, cultural, and political perspectives. Rountree was openly critical of some of Mooney and Speck’s methodology (suggesting that they influenced tidewater Indians to conform to their preconceived notions of “Indianness” rather than objectively observing them as they were); however, she continued their legacy of anthropological advocacy to support Virginia Indian tribes during their petitions for state recognition in the 1980s.
Some of Rountree’s most popular publications are The Indians of Virginia: A Third Race in a Biracial State (1979), Ethnicity Among the Citizen Indians of Tidewater Virginia (1986), and Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia through Four Centuries (1990). While each of her publications sheds light on Nansemond people, her paper “The Ethnogenesis of a Virginia Indian Tribe: The Nansemond Indian Tribal Association” contains the most detailed and intimate account of recent Nansemond history.
While Helen Rountree is the most recognizable name in Virginia Indian research, Danielle Moretti-Langholtz should be of interest to Nansemond researchers. She completed a thesis titled “Other Names I Have Been Called: Political Resurgence Among Virginia Indians in the Twentieth Century” which included an in-depth account of two years of fieldwork in the late 1990s with the Nansemond tribe. Moretti-Langholtz was able to observe private historical records and interview tribal members on a number of different issues. Some of her research reiterates Rountree’s findings but it is also demonstrative of the next stage of social and political evolution for Virginia Indians. Moretti-Langholtz’s research is publicly available and is a source of information on Nansemond tribal dynamics that is not shared in other locations.
Part of my reason for writing this article is the perception that NITA information is “private” and that unenrolled Nansemond descendants cannot learn about the tribe. This perception is, for the most part, unfounded considering the candid information about the recent history of the tribe that is available in a variety of resources. It is true that there are a number of genealogical issues to be resolved that significantly affect eligibility for tribal enrollment but these issues originate from a number of sources—not solely from the tribe (i.e., inconsistencies in historical records, misguided anthropological advocacy, requirements for state and federal recognition, etc.). Decades of disagreement can be intimidating to new researchers but, after (somewhat) exhaustive research, I have seen nothing to suggest that these issues are insurmountable.
Camden County was formed from the northeastern section of Pasquotank County in 1777. The county seat was originally located at “Jonesborough” (in present day Courthouse), a waterfront settlement on the Camden side of the Pasquotank River. The name was in reference to Joseph Jones, a local statesman who was the primary advocate for the creation of Camden County. A stagecoach route from Princess Anne County, VA to Chowan County, NC changed horses at Jonesborough where there was a ferry owned by Gideon Lamb (“Lamb’s Ferry,” established in 1779 at the Narrows of the Pasquotank) to cross the river. The town also had a landing for the storage and shipment of timber from nearby swamps and a “port of entry” at Sawyer’s Creek for use by importers and exporters. With a tavern at its center and the confluence of statesmen, traders, and laborers, Jonesborough was a popular attraction for travelers of all sorts.
In addition to development at the center of the county, in the late 1780s and early 1790s, the upper end of Camden County began to transform in response to the construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal (which was authorized by the Virginia legislature in 1787 and by the North Carolina legislature in 1790). Investors throughout the mid-Atlantic bought shares in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company in anticipation of profits to be gained from connecting the Elizabeth River (in Norfolk, VA) to the Pasquotank River (in Camden, NC). Despite the project spanning both states, company leadership and investment was dominated by Virginians. Benjamin Jones was the only Camden County-based company director (out of five) and Joseph Jones, Isaac Gregory, Michael Ferrell, John Mason, James Pearce, Fred B. Sawyer, Isaac Stokelie and Polly Stokelie were the only early investors of Camden.
This economic development drew many Virginians across the state line—including William Bass (b. 1755), a free man of color and planter, who became the first documented Bass in Camden County. In 1786 he married Ann Sammon and his brother, Willis Bass, married Jemima Nickens (while also acting as William’s surety). Both men’s marriage bonds were filed on the same day and the fact that they were able to marry in Virginia suggests that they were perceived to be of the same race as their wives.
In the 1790 Federal Census, “Will” (and presumably Ann) were recorded in a household of 2 free other persons in Camden County, NC. It is unclear where they were living at this time (given that William did not lease or own land in the county yet) but some of his direct neighbors were Elizabeth Sikes, Rebecca Relfe, Benjamin Ferrell, and William Evans. William Bass was taxed in the 1792 Tax List on 0 acres and 1 poll and in the 1795 Tax List on 0 acres, 1 white poll, and 0 black polls (Camden County Extant Tax Records 1782-1890 By Sharon Rea Gable).
William signed his first contract in the area on September 15, 1793 in a six-year lease (January 1, 1794 – January 1, 1800) with John Jones, Sr. (a wealthy planter). The lease was for a 60-acre plantation located on the east side of the Pasquotank River adjoining John Jones’ own land and the land of Robert Gray. The contract included land, a plantation, houses, outhouses, and all commodities and advantages of the property (including getting rail timber and fire wood for personal use). Rather than paying rent in cash, the lease stipulated that William Bass was to pay John Jones 1/3 of all produce from the plantation. Due to instability in currency following the Revolutionary War, this was a common arrangement for lessors and lessees.
Despite being listed as a free negro in 1790, the 1800 Federal Census listed William with a household of 7 free white persons—one male over 45 (born before 1755), one female 26-44 (born between 1756 and 1774), one male 10-15 (born between 1785-1790), and four females under 10 (born between 1790-1800). This suggests that William was living with his wife (Ann Sammon), one son, and four daughters. Some of his direct neighbors’ surnames were Jones, Cartwright, Burham, and Old.
A year after the end of his lease, on April 10, 1801, William purchased 125 acres of land (formerly owned by Thomas Gordon) from John Sikes. William witnessed John Sike’s purchase of the land from Thomas Gordon on March 16, 1800 (Deed Book I, Page 142) as well as an earlier land purchase on June 3, 1797 (Deed Book H, Page 79) suggesting that he was living on land neighboring the tract he bought. This land was also located on the east side of the Pasquotank River, directly opposite of Richardson’s Landing, and bounded by the land of Pharaoh Sawyer, David Hall (land that was formerly owned by Thomas Overton), and Joel Sawyer. As a planter, William likely grew similar crops on his new plantation which was double the size of the one he leased for six years.
William sold 15-acre and 50-acre tracts of his land to Pharaoh Sawyer in 1804 and 1806. Though William was listed in the 1810 Federal Census, genders and ages for “all other free persons” were not recorded that year. His household remained at seven so it can be assumed that the same family members were present in 1810 as in 1800. His direct neighbors were E. Sawyer, A. Hwet, J. Farrall, and J. Cartwright. William’s last recorded contract (which was also the last of his land) was a 60-acre land sale to Joel Sawyer in 1816. William likely died between 1816 and 1820 because he was not listed in the 1820 Federal Census.
|15 September 1793 (Book F, Pages 238-239)||60 Acres Leased from John Jones, Sr.||Jeremiah Sexton, Caleb Jones||0|
|10 April 1801 (Book I, Page 148)||125 Acres from John Sikes (Formerly owned by Thomas Gordon) for $275||125 Acres|
|22 October 1804 (Book K, Page 326)||15 Acres to Pharaoh Sawyer for 16 Pounds and 12 Shillings||Edward Old, John Wilkins||110 Acres|
|5 January 1806 (Book K, Page 483)||50 Acres to Pharaoh Sawyer for $100||Hollowell Old, John Wilkins||60 Acres|
|26 April 1816 (Book R, Page 112)||60 Acres to Joel Sawyer for $35||George Ferebee, James Davis||0 Acres|
William’s widow, Nancy (a diminutive form of Ann) Bass, was first documented by name in Camden County in the 1820 Federal Census with a household of nine including one female over 45 (born before 1785), three females 26-44 (born between 1776-1794), two females 14-25 (born between 1775-1806), one female under 14 (born after 1806), and two males under 14 (born after 1806). Her household included her four daughters (and perhaps some grandchildren) while her son, Thomas, lived in a separate household. Some of Nancy’s direct neighbors were Joseph Jones, Samuel Sawyer, William Foster, and Hollowell Old (many of the same people referenced in William Bass’ deeds).
William’s son, Thomas Bass (b. 1785), was first documented by name in Camden County in the 1815 Tax List (Treasurers and Comptrollers Papers, Camden 1791-1815, NC State Archives). He was taxed on 1 Free Poll and was a part of Captain Jones’ District Number 7 (Returned by George Ferebee, Esquire). At the time North Carolina taxed all free males over 16, so this record supports that he was born before 1799 and that he was not a property owner yet. In the 1820 Federal Census, Thomas Bass‘ household of five included one male over 45 (born before 1785), one female 26-44 (born between 1776-1794), one male 14-25 (born between 1775-1806), and two females 14-25 (born between 1775-1806). Some of his direct neighbors were Pool Smith, Gray Barry, Thomas Linton, and William Williams.
It was clear by the 1830 Federal Census that the William and Ann (Nancy) Bass’ children had begun families. In my early research, I was confused to see several of their daughters unmarried with children. Fanney, Lovey, Nancey, and Salley were all over 30 years old, had children, and there were no male heads of household among them. Where were the men? The explanation for this pattern reveals an important dynamic in the community—many of these women had relationships with enslaved men. Despite being free, landless free people of color frequently lived and worked on plantations with enslaved people. Marriage between free people of color and whites was illegal, yet so was marriage to enslaved people. Nonetheless, they were part of the same communities and formed strong families together.
In the 1830 Federal Census, Thomas’ household had increased to 8 free colored persons with one male 36-55 (born 1775-1794), one female 36-55 (born 1775-1794), two males 10-24 (born 1806-1820), one female 10-24 (born 1806-1820), two males under 10 (born after 1820), and one female under 10 (born after 1820). Some of his direct neighbors were Fanny Edney, John Spence, Sr., Dolley Sawyer, and Lovey Sawyer (note that Dorothy “Dolly” (Riggs) Sawyer was the wife of Pharoah Sawyer who bought William Bass’ land).
|Name||Household Size||Location in 1830 Federal Census||Neighbors|
|Fanney Bass||4||River Bridge||Jesse McCoy, Elizabeth McCoy, Allen B. Jones, Samuel Proctor (James P. Marchant was also living nearby and Fanny was later documented with a formerly enslaved woman named Caty Marchant in her household.)|
|Lovey Bass||3||River Bridge||Directly next to Fanny Bass—Jesse McCoy, Elizabeth McCoy, Allen B. Jones, Samuel Proctor|
|Nancey Bass||4||Upper Woods||John Baker, William Culpepper, Willoughby Price, William Smith, Washington Brite, Grandy Sawyer, John Overton, James Beel|
|Salley Bass||4||Basses Lake||Anne Lurry, Joseph G. Hughes, Mary Gray, Luke G. Lamb, Redding Brocket, William Taylor, Edmund J. Barco|
|Thomas Bass||7||Basses Lake||Lydia and Polly Bass were likely living here—Luke McCoy, Joab Overton, Fanny Edney, John McPherson, Dolly Sawyer (Pharoah Sawyer’s Widow), Lovey Sawyer, Willis Ferral, John Sawyer|
An 1837 estate record for John Spence, Sr. (one of Thomas’ neighbors) contained a May 24, 1834 judgment against Thomas Bass for a debt of $2.16 (to be collected by John’s administrator Thomas P. Hinton). It appears that Thomas did not pay his debt because there was a warrant for his arrest dated August 22, 1840. John’s estate record contained a number of judgments against people in the area which suggests that he may have owned a store at Canal Bridge (which was located at the south end of the Dismal Swamp Canal).
The 1840 Federal Census is missing a significant amount of information and none of the Basses were enumerated that year.
In 1841 Thomas P. Hinton petitioned the court for direction in the division of John Spence, Sr.’s estate. He stated that there was more than $15,000 cash to be divided and that the will was not clear. The court gave $1,037.46 each to Ira Jones and wife, Benjamin Jones and wife, Edward Spence, Silas Spence, James Spence, Anderson Brite and wife, Joseph Edney and wife, William F. McPherson and wife, Doctor J. Burnham and wife, Miles Sawyer, Mathias Sawyer, John Sawyer, Isaac Sawyer, Mariah Sawyer, Willis Powers, James Powers, Henderson Abbott, Edwin Abbott, William R. Abbott and John Whitehurst. (Camden County Estate Record Notes, Carolina Trees & Branches, Volume XIX, Number 4, October 2010, Page 102)
In the 1850 Federal Census, Thomas was a part of “E Simmons” (45, female, white, of Pasquotank) household which included “Thos Bass” (57, male, mulatto), “Willoughy Bass” (14, male, mulatto), “Hol Bass” (21, male, mulatto), “J Griffin” (25, male, mulatto), “N Bass” (21, female, mulatto), and “Polly Bass” (1, female, mulatto). Some of their direct neighbors were H James, W Saywer, H Nosay, and Alson Brothers. Thomas and ‘E’ may have been the parents of Hol, N, and Willoughby Bass. N Bass and J Griffin—also unmarried—may have been the parents of Polly Bass, Thomas and E’s presumed grandchild.
In the same year, several members of the Bass family were living next to Silas Spence (a nephew and heir of John Spence, Sr.—recorded with $1000 in real estate which is the amount he inherited). John Bass (b. 1840) was recorded as part of the same household as Silas and his family. This indicates that John Bass, a son of Lydia Bass (b. 1820) (Thomas Bass’ niece), was living among the same neighbors as Thomas Bass (and supports the hypothesis that Lydia Bass (b. 1797) was living with Thomas Bass).
Later records reveal more information about Thomas’ probable sons. Holloway Bass enlisted in the Navy in Norfolk, VA in August 1856. He re-enlisted in August 1859 and was described as a mulatto, 5’9” tall, landsman in the African American Civil War Sailor Index (1861-1865). Willougby Bass was recorded in the 1860 Federal Census in Camden with a child named John Bass (5 years old) in his household. He was also recorded as an attendee of McBride Church on the 1858-1860 church roll. Thomas Bass was not recorded in the Federal Census for Camden County after 1850 and likely passed away some time between 1850 and 1860.
This article is a brief introduction to William Bass as a patriarch for many Basses in the area. His legacy and relationships continue to unfold as I access new record collections and integrate them into the story.
When your ancestors were common people from a small, rural area, you learn to set modest record expectations. I have few wills, few church records, few family bibles, and few family graveyards to walk through. Record scarcity can be discouraging but it is a normal part of genealogy and it encourages creativity and relationship building with other researchers. Your chances of finding obscure records are much better as part of an active research community than as an individual.
For this reason, joining the Family Research Society of Northeastern North Carolina (FRSNNC) has been one of the smartest decisions I ever made as a researcher. The FRSNNC contains a vast collection of resources, including many publications I never would have thought to search on my own. Recently a member of the FRSNNC found an interview of one of my ancestors who lived to be 105 years old. The article is likely the closest I will ever come to being able to talk to her and it provides invaluable insight about her life.
Blanche “Blannie” Price, born June 3, 1906, was the daughter of James E. Price and Emma L. Garrett who married in South Mills on December 22, 1892. James was the son of Samuel Price and Dilsey Lindsay (my third great grandparents) and Emma was the daughter of Lycurgus Garrett and Mary Cartwright (my first cousin three times removed). Blannie was raised near North Carolina Highway 343 and Lake Road and, like many others of her day, was contributing to her family’s livelihood at an early age.
According to the article, Blannie’s parents separated when she was eight or nine years old and she (along with her mother and three siblings) went to live with her mother’s parents. Blannie noted that her grandfather—Lycurgus—had a small store (frequented by both whites and blacks) where he sold general goods on the first floor and built caskets on the second floor. The family also farmed and grew a variety of crops.
Outside of doing what she could to support her family, Blannie’s life revolved around church and it was both the social and spiritual center for many members of the community. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, many families in the area were members of McBride United Methodist Church (established in 1792). An 1858-1860 McBride Church Roll contains the names of numerous “Whites” and “Blacks” who attended together; however, at some point a number of “Blacks” in the area began to hold prayer meetings in their homes.
These meetings started at Sammy Price’s house on Lake Road (Blannie’s paternal grandfather) and moved around to a few other homes. There are no records to document what happened around this time but one can speculate that Reconstruction Era social changes may have led people of color to want their own place of worship. These in-home gatherings went on to become the foundation of the present Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.
On Groundhog’s Day in 1927, Blannie married Herman Hunt, a neighbor and fellow farmer on Lake Road. Herman bought the Hinton farm (also on Lake Road) and the couple went on to have two sons—Leroy and Bernard Hunt. They raised a number of crops and livestock and filled their days with long labor. Blannie attributed her longevity to her love of vegetables and active lifestyle.
Due to her long life and community relationships, Blannie was well recognized in South Mills. Her story is representative of many other farmers of her generation. She was raised riding in a horse and buggy and lived through the transition to automobiles. Despite the freedom that came with newer transportation, Blannie remained on Lake Road for most of her life, married a man who was born and raised on Lake road, and also raised her own children on Lake Road.
This may seem rare by today’s standards but it is quite common to see neighbors who married neighbors for generations in small, rural areas. Likewise, endogamy between free people of color was evident throughout the region and South Mills was no exception. As I continue to study Blannie’s ancestors, here is some information on her grandparents (my third great grandparents) and some community relationships of interest:
|Birth Year||Parents||Spouse(s)||Community Relationships|
|Samuel Price||Pasquotank, NC (?)||1830-1833||Willoughby Price & Lucy ____||Dilcey Lindsay,|
|Dilcey Lindsay may have died before 1885. Anna Hunt was the daughter of Henry Newsom and Eliza Trafton (my third great grandparents).|
|Dilcey Lindsay||Camden, NC (?)||1836-1840||Leary Sanderlin (?) & Eliza Lindsay||Samuel Price||Andrew Newsom, brother of Henry Newsom, later married Eliza Lindsay (my fourth great grandmother).|
|Lycurgus Garrett||Currituck, NC||1841||William Ferebee & Clarky Garrett||Mary Cartwright|
|Mary Cartwright||Camden, NC||1855||Theophilus Cartwright & Martha Newsom||Lycurgus Garrett|
|Martha Newsom was another daughter of Henry Newsom and Eliza Trafton.|
Within this table one can see a number of relationships between a small cluster of families—the Hunts, Lindsays, Newsoms, and Prices were closely connected through land, lifestyle, church affiliation, and intermarriage. Although these families of color were free long before emancipation, they emerged later than the earliest South Mills families of color (e.g., the Basses and Halls) who were established in the area by the 1700s. This post is a brief introduction to the Lake Road legacy and I look forward to sharing many more stories about these families.
The Great Dismal Swamp and its surrounding communities have an incredibly diverse history. As a near coastal region with numerous inland waterways, many different types of people traveled through, settled in, and migrated out of the area—including multiple indigenous groups and people from throughout Europe and Africa.
Prior to the influx of newcomers, the identities of indigenous people were self-controlled. There were tribal differences between natives but there was no need for racial distinction. The colonial struggle for land, natural resources, and power expanded into a struggle for history, culture, and identity that continues to this day.
Ethnogenesis is an anthropological term defined as “the process by which a group of people becomes ethnically distinct : the formation and development of an ethnic group.” This process is generally driven by two forces:
While many people perceive ethnicity as something innate it is quite dynamic. As external and internal forces shift, ethnic groups evolve and change in both composition and size.
Though Virginia and North Carolina were densely populated by indigenous people, “Indian” was not added to the census until 1860. Prior to its addition, Indian people (and those of mixed Indian ancestry) had few means of self-identification or differentiation from other people with similar appearances yet different ancestry.
The social and political chronologies of Virginia and North Carolina are fundamental to understanding the complex set of external and internal forces that formed the racial and ethnic identities of people living around the Great Dismal Swamp. One must also note a number of other factors that affected community cohesion (e.g., economic status, occupation, community attitude, etc.).
Black Laws of Virginia: A Summary of the Legislative Acts of Virginia Concerning Negroes From Earliest Times to the Present is an important reference to understand the social and political pressures on people of color in Virginia (this includes people of African ancestry, people of different ancestries who may have been perceived as black, and people of mixed ancestries). This summary begins in 1723 and continues through 1864, providing early insight on race relations and a sense of how tensions escalated over time.
People frequently cite Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 as a pivotal point in racial history without the context of the many other actions that happened before and after it. In Norfolk County, the increasing laws and restrictions against people of any African ancestry led many people of mixed ancestry to petition the state of Virginia for exceptions. In 1833, John Murdaugh, the delegate to the General Assembly, introduced a bill to exempt “people of mixed blood, who are not negroes or mulattoes,” from such laws.
These legal petitions, while a seemingly minor moment in history, have had untold significance on the long-term ethnogenesis of many Great Dismal Swamp descendants by creating a historical schism between people of identical ancestry: those with pre-1860 Indian ancestry documentation and those without documentation. Below I will outline the story of a family of mixed ancestry with legal petitions and contrast it against one without to demonstrate how a small difference in “ethnogenic” forces can lead to completely different futures.
The Trummell Family of South Mills is a perfect case study in ethnogenesis and its manifestation around the Great Dismal Swamp (across the Virginia and North Carolina state line). The family descends from Willis Bass and Jemima Nickens’ daughter Lucinda Bass and her husband William Trummell. Willis and Jemima were documented Nansemond Indians who recorded the births of some of their children in the Bass family bible. (The surname “Trummell” is also seen spelled Trummel, Trammell, Trammel, Trumbell, and Trumble.)
In Norfolk County’s 1830 Federal Census, William Bass, Andrew Bass, Jemima Bass, and William Trummell were enumerated in a cluster as “Free Colored Persons.” William had a household of 6 (1 male 24-35, 1 female 24-35, 2 males under 10, and 2 females under 10). “Lucy,” his wife, and her mother Jemima received court certification of Indian ancestry on July 20, 1833 along with several other family members.
It is unclear where William and Lucinda lived at the end of their lives but their children, William, Thomas, Harriett, and possibly one other, moved before the 1850s. Analysis of census records, deeds, and intermarriages reveals that the Trummells migrated to the same small community as the Basses, Halls, and Nickens (other free families of mixed ancestry) in South Mills, Camden County, NC.
The 1850 Federal Census in Camden County, NC lists several members of the Trummell family. Thomas (25) and his sister Harriett (18) were noted as being born in Virginia. Meanwhile, Thomas’ wife, Sally (20), and his brother William’s wife, Dorcas (40), were noted as being born in Camden. This suggests that they moved to the area and then married within the community. The Trummells and several children within the household by the surname of “Brothers” were all described as “mulatto.”
During the 1860 Federal Census, the year when “Indian” was added as a census option, the Trummell family was enumerated as “black” but 10 years later during the 1870 Federal Census, the entire household was enumerated as “Indian.” Likewise, in the 1880 Federal Census, Thomas Trummell’s whole family was enumerated as “Indian.” These changes reflect a combination of external and internal forces of ethnogenesis—the government provided additional options for ethnic identification and the Trummells chose to identify themselves accordingly but the shift was not immediate.
It may seem as if the progression ends here—from a potentially misidentified group of people to a properly identified group of people—but the variation in their ethnic identification continued for decades:
William Trummell, Jr. (b. 1820-1830) & Dorcas (b. 1810-1830)
William Trummell, the oldest sibling, was never documented in Camden County. He may have had an occupation that involved frequent travel (his son Isaiah was noted as a sailor and it is possible that was he was one as well), but he continued to have children with his wife Dorcas, who was noted as a nurse, through 1862. William and Dorcas’ children went on to become part of the white community and their grandchildren were never recorded as “Indian.”
|Child’s Name||Birth Year||Spouse||Death Year||Final Residence (County, State)||Final Race|
|Polly||1850||Elisha McDonald||Camden, NC||White|
Thomas Trummell (b. 1820-1830) & Sarah/Sallie (b. 1830-1835)
Thomas Trummell, the middle sibling, was documented a number of times in Camden County. He appeared to have been a farmer and struggled with a relatively large amount of debt (he owed John Hinton $1360 which he partially repaid with 40 acres of “high land” and 20 acres of “swamp land,” Deed Book HH, Page 40). Thomas and Sarah/Sallie’s children went on to become almost equally divided between the white and black communities but their grandchildren were also never recorded as “Indian.”
|Child’s Name||Birth Year||Spouse||Death Year||Final Residence|
|Mary V||1852||Never Married||1896||Norfolk, VA||White|
|Henry||1855||Maggie Reed||Henrico, VA (?)||Black (?)|
|Sarah||1858||Warren Clifton||Norfolk, VA||White|
|Emeline (Emma)||1865||John Bass||Camden, NC||Indian, Black (?)|
|Rhoda||1866||Never Married||Norfolk, VA||White|
|Addison||1872||Frances Garrett||Hertford, NC||Mulatto|
Harriett Trummell (b. 1820-1833) & Unknown Partner (Possibly Daniel Powers)
Harriett Trummell, the youngest sibling, never married and remained in South Mills through the duration of her life—spending many of her early years living with her sister-in-law Dorcas. Caroline (b. 1858), Harriett’s daughter, had a son named Thomas but also appears to have never married. She and her son lived with her mother until 1920.
At Caroline’s death her family listed “Harriett Powers” as her mother and “William Trummell” as her father. It is unclear if there was any additional meaning to her choice of the name “Powers” as there was a Daniel Powers (waterman) in Dorcas Trummell’s household with Harriett in 1860. It is possible that Caroline was the child of Harriett and Daniel. Caroline became part of the white community and was also never recorded as “Indian.”
|Child’s Name||Birth Year||Spouse||Death Year||Final Residence|
|Caroline||1858||Never Married||Norfolk, VA||White|
In 1885, Emma Trummell—a daughter of Thomas and Sally Trummell—married my third great grandfather, John Bass. Emma, a descendant of Willis Bass, was a distant cousin of John, a descendant of William Bass, and they were both raised in similar diverse communities. However, Emma came from a family line that remained in Virginia just long enough to gain legal recognition of their Indian ancestry while John came from a family line that migrated into North Carolina before these distinctions were put into place.
Despite their descriptions in the Camden County, NC federal census (“Indian” for Emma and “mulatto” for John), both individuals were noted as “black” on their Portsmouth, VA marriage license. Was this because they self-identified as “black” or because they were perceived and labeled as black?
Marriage Date: 17 August 1885, Marriage Place: Portsmouth, Virginia
Name: John Bass, Gender: Male, Marital Status: Widowed, Race: Black
Age: 44, Birth Date: 1841, Birth Place: Camden County, N. C.
Parents: William & Lydia Bass
Name: Emma Trummell, Gender: Female, Marital Status: Single, Race: Black
Age: 21, Birth Date: 1864, Birth Place: Camden County, N. C.
Parents: Thomas & Sally Trummell
The life trajectories of these Trummell descendants prove the incredible flexibility of racial and ethnic identity around the Great Dismal Swamp. Individuals could be recorded under a different race during each census, when marrying, and when crossing state lines. Ethnicity was, and still is, a dynamic product of external and internal forces.
In genealogy, each detail in a record is an important component of an individual’s identity. Many new genealogists are confounded by these types of inconsistencies in records because it creates the illusion of two separate people when it is actually one person being documented differently. The Trummells, and many of the other mixed ancestry families in the area, demonstrate that race (as recorded) is not a strong reflection of anyone’s identity.
My first exposure to the concept of ethnogenesis was through Helen Rountree’s paper on the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association (NITA) submitted to the American Anthropological Association in November 1987. She described a group of people who were, for the most part, disconnected from their Indian ancestry and the effort required to reconstruct their community. This process included everything from establishing Nansemond traditions to retroactively changing birth certificates of new NITA members (from “White” to “Indian”).
This process, which happened in the early 1980s, was a surprise to me and it immediately became clear that the full reconstruction was not over. Today, through increased access to genealogical resources and genetic testing, the momentum is building around a new type of ethnogenesis. Individuals are no longer dependent on the government to certify their ethnic identities so the question becomes, “Who is the authority now?”
The answer is that we each have the authority to shine light on our family histories and ethnic identities. Here are three important points to keep in mind in genealogical research:
In many communities people refer to families of the same surname but different races as the “white” side and the “black” side. In cases of slave owners, there generally were two completely unrelated groups of people from the same homestead. However, in the cases of free people of color, “white” families and “black” families of the same surname often share the same origins. This is clearly demonstrated by the Trummell family which dispersed in three different directions: Indian, white, and black. This pattern is also evident in the Bass family (and many others) around the Great Dismal Swamp.
In the case of the NITA—which was provided Virginia state recognition in 1987—most present members are descendants of the formative 1830s period of ethnogenesis. Anthropologists and genealogists collaborated with the identified descendants of this group to establish the tribal structure we see today and the ancestral traditions currently in practice were put in place through an organized preservation effort.
From a genealogical perspective, this puts descendants of the same core families who relocated to North Carolina earlier (frequently mere miles across the state line) at a historical disadvantage because they lack legal petitions and/or documents connecting them across the state line (records that may have included them in the early days of anthropological intervention).
Proving ones Indian ancestry is a matter of lineage not a matter of documented race. If you suspect that you descend from an indigenous group of people, do not be deterred by the races you see in historical records.
Due to evolving instructions and inconsistent practices, countless errors have been made in the way individuals were described in documents. In the face of these external forces, it seems incumbent upon people of Indian ancestry to fortify the internal forces of ethnogenesis. Tribes do not have the resources to complete genealogical lineage for all prospective members but we each have the ability to do our own research and to reclaim our own legacies (with or without a goal of tribal enrollment). The struggle for historical preservation is never over and no story is insignificant when it comes to the broader history of a people.
The Ethnogenesis of a Virginia Indian Tribe: The Nansemond Indian Tribal Association (Paper presented at the meetings of the American Anthropological Association, Chicago, IL, November 19, 1987), Helen C. Rountree, Old Dominion University, November 1987
Position Statement Prepared by Oliver L. Perry, Sr. for Virginia Indians-Yesterday-Today and Tomorrow, April 3-4, 1987, Williamsburg, Virginia
That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia