The Lost Colonists and Edward Bland’s 1650 Expedition

In 1650, Edward Bland and others explored “New Brittaine.” A pamphlet published in London the following year told of the voyage to the Chowan, Meherrin, and Roanoke river area.

On August 27, 1650, a Virginia exploring party set out from Fort Henry (current day Petersburg) to reach the Tuscarora settlements. The company included Edward Bland, Abraham Wood, Sackford Brewster, Elias Pennant, two white servants, and an Appromattox Indian guide. On the way they secured a Nottoway Indian guide named Oyeocker.

While later explorers would also visit these areas, Bland’s expedition was unique because they were searching for, among other things, English people who were rumored to be living among the Tuscarora in current day North Carolina. These people were thought to be either Sir Walter Raleighs Lost Colonists from 1587, or perhaps their descendants, given that it has been 63 years since the colony was “lost,” or accidentally abandoned on Roanoke Island.

In the book, Westward from Virginia: The Explorations of the Virginia-Carolina Frontier 1650-1710, Alan Vance Briceland covers this expedition as well as the others that followed, tracking them as best as we can given the information provided.

In Bland’s pamphlet, The Discovery of New Brittaine, he included a map of the area he explored. North is to the right.

 Bland 1650 nap

The area where the colonists were believed to have been located is shown below.

 Bland 1650 nap

I have excerpted several sections from “Westward from Virginia.” I would heartily recommend this book, but it is unfortunately out of print today, making it very difficult to acquire. Excerpted sections in italics.

Page 9 – The Bland-Wood exploration of 1650 to “New Britainne” is generally depicted as a typical mid-century Indian trading expedition. It’s uniqueness lies only in the fact that an account of it has survived.

Page 29 – Although the title page states that the 6 Englishmen of the Bland-Wood party and their native guide reached a destination 120 miles to the southwest, an area Bland called “New Britain,” both the route followed and the location of New Britain have been surrounded with mystery and subject to a variety of interpretations. Historians and ethnologists have suggested a number of routes and destinations, ranging widely across southern Virginia and eastern NC. Because Bland stated that the explorers reached the “first River in New Brittaine, which runneth West”, one historian concluded that Bland and his companions reached the New River in southwestern Virginia. An ethnologist has placed Bland’s travels “to the west of the falls of the James River” among the Indians of “central and south-central Virginia.” But others have envisioned the party as far south as Fishing Creek, NC, 20 miles beyond the Roanoke River below Roanoke Rapids, or even at the mouth of the Roanoke on Albemarle sound.

A majority of scholars have located Bland’s New Britain near Clarksville in Mecklenburg, Co., Va [see map]. Seventy give miles southwest of Fort Henry and the falls of the Appomattox, the site is where the Staunton and Dan Rivers united to form the Roanoke River before the John H. Kerr Dam flooded the area in 1949. Although Bland’s narrative does not indicate the direction of travel consistently, when it is given, it is always to the west of south. In the first 5 days of travel the only direction stated other than “south and by west” is a 2 mile detour to the southeast in order to ford a river. The party began the return journey on the afternoon of the 6th day by traveling “north east”, “north and by east and due north.” This it appears that the party traveled in a reasonably straight line between south and southwest outbound and between north and northeast on the return journey. The Clarksville site is southwest of Fort Henry’s location, now Petersburg.

P 32 – Although actually less than the 120 miles Bland specified, the distance to Clarksville is a reasonable 4 days journey by horse and allowing for the probability that the early travelers could not keep to a perfectly direct course, conforms to Bland’s account. The striking geographic features in Bland’s description of New Britain are islands and falls in a river at a place where the Indians caught sturgeon. William Byrd’s “Journey to the Land of Eden” contains his 1733 description of Saponi, Occaneechee and Totero islands, of the shallows there, and of the Indians fishing in the Roanoke, Byrd’s Eden was at Clarksville.

Another attractive feature of the Clarksville hypothesis derives from the supposed existence of the Occaneechee Path. William E. Myers definitive study of “Indian Trails of the Southeast” characterizes the doubtless prehistoric path as leading from Fort Henry southwestwardly to the “important Indian trading town of the Ocaneechi” on their island “near what is now Clarksville.” Why would Bland’s party, “intending a southwesterne discovery,” have wandered about in the woods in search of trade when a well-worn path beckoned to an “important Indian trading town?”

The long and short of this is that we don’t know exactly where they were located. This only matters in that we are trying to approximate the location where the English would have been living among the Tuscarora. Briceland provides the following maps in his book. Three of the four proposed routes take the Bland party to a location on the Roanoke River near the border of Virginia and North Carolina.

westward map 1

 westward map 2

P 45 – In Bland’s pamphlet, The Discovery of New Brittaine, he recorded that on two occasions natives asked the explorers to explain their motives. When questioned by a Nottoway chief, Bland’s explanation was “the Tuskarood King had envited us to trade, and our governoour had ordered us to go and speak with an Englishman amongst them, and to enquire for an English woman cast away long since, and was amongst those Nations.” When the Meherrin Indians asked, he answered that “the cause of our comming was to trade in any way of friendship.”

If this English woman was Virginia Dare, born in 1587, she would have been approaching her 63rd birthday in August of 1650. If the colonists survived, there were likely additional children born after they were left on Roanoke Island.

P 46 – It is quite likely, as Bland told the Meherrin Indians, that colonial officials were highly intrigued by stories of an Englishman and an English woman separately living among the Tuscarora. For 60 years Englishmen had pondered the fate of the lost colony of Roanoke Island. If Virginia Dare was still alive, she would have been 63 and any surviving descendants of the Raleigh settlers would have been considerably younger. Word of Englishmen among the peoples in the vicinity of Roanoke Island even as late as 1650 may have aroused a glimmer of hope that the great mystery of English colonization might still be solved. If the Englishmen turned out to be Spanish or French, that too was worth knowing.

P 49 – When they sent a runner to the Tuscarora, they instructed him to seek out the mysterious Englishman and to tell the Indian king that a party of Englishmen wished to present him with a gift. Nothing was mentioned of trade [although that was the official reason for the trip]. Later when members of the Hocomawananck tribe of Tuscarora Indians visited members of the English camp near the Roanoke River, Bland recorded no discussion of trade. Then the runner sent to the Tuscarora king returned with the king’s son to arrange a meeting, the conversation focused upon the mysterious Englishman, not on trade.

P 50 – The only Virginians known to have traveled in the general area reached by Bland and Wood were John Pory in 1622 and a military expedition dispatched by Gov. Berkeley to the Chowan River in 1646. Pory recorded only a few comments about the vastness of the forest between the James and the Chowan. The military expedition, led by Col. Thomas Dew, went by boat south along Currituck Inlet, west along Albemarle Sound, north into the Chowan River. Major Richard Bennett led a second overland portion into the same area.

P 52 – It is not known from whom Plumpton and Tuke [two English men] purchased their claims, but at almost exactly the same time the identical tract of land was sold by the Tuscarora to the Weyanoke who lived upon and used the land for some years thereafter.

In the fall of 1653 Francis Yeardley a member of the house of Burgesses encouraged Nathaniell Batts to explore Albemarle Sound with an eye to opening a trading post and in 1654 or early 1655 employed a carpenter “for building a house…for Batts to live in and trade with the Indians.” The house was constructed at the west end of the sound below the mouth of the Chowan River and Batts became the first Englishman known to have resided west of the Chowan.

On the 1733 Mosely map below, you can see “Batts Grave” which is most likely, Batts Island. Given that Batts settled just 3 years after Bland’s expedition, one would think that if there were indeed English among the Tuscarora, Batts would have been aware of it and perhaps recorded it in some fashion.

 batts grave

P 54 – Charles the II had just sent instructions to Berkeley to grant a commission for exploration. He had been informed that an Englishman and an Englishwoman were said by the Indians to be living among the Tuscarora. Most importantly, he was anxious about the safety of the southern frontier.

P 68 – In August 1650 Edward Bland and Abraham Wood led 4 other Englishmen on the 9 day exploration through the territory of the Nottoway, Meherrin, Weyanoke and Tuscarora Indians. Bland included in “The Discovery of New Brittaine” an account of their encounters with several Indian groups which were at the time sufficiently isolated from the English that they were not yet tributaries. Bland described the Nottoway and Meherrin, 2 groups about which other 17th century observers said almost nothing.

P 73 – Chounterounte [a Nottoway] was undaunted. He “demanded of us” said Bland, “whither we did intend to go.” The English replied that “the Tuskarood King had envited us to trade, and our Governour had ordered us to go and speake with an Englishman amongst them, and to enquire for an English woman cast away long since.” Having elicited their goals, Chounterounte declared that he knew that there were no English, male or female, among the Tuscarora. Since that was their mission, they need go no further. As to the invitation to trade, “the way was long,” and there were “many rotten marrishes and swampps…to passe over.” Their quest was not feasible.

The Nottoway were not terribly friendly, and a pattern of deception began here with a Nottoway pretending to be a Tuscarora chief. Bland’s Indian guides became increasingly uneasy.

P 79 – Thus, the pattern of contact was set. On at least 2 other occasions when important Meherrin figures, a werrowance and “the old King Maharineck”, wished to speak with the English, they, in Bland’s words, “came to us.”

The English were not the only visitors in the Meherrin village. A Tuscarora Indian was also there. Since at least one of the purposes of Bland’s journey was to check out stories of an Englishman among the Tuscarora, the party questioned him and were told that there was indeed a European among his people, “a great way off at the further Tuskarood Towne.” Excited by the news, Bland hired the Tuscarora to act as runner and messenger. He was instructed first “to run before and tell his Werrowance wee intended to lay him down a present at Hocomowananck.” He was then to find “the Englishman” and deliver a written message informing him that an English party would be at Hocomawananck 3 days hence and desired to meet with him. Bland suspected that the term “Englishman” might include all Europeans, so the message entrusted to the runner was written not only in English but also in Latin, Spanish, French and Dutch. The Tuscarora runner promised to deliver the messages and “in 3 dayes to meet us at Hocomawananck.”

The further Tuscarora town could have been on or near the Neuse River where the Tuscarora Villages were known to exist some time later. There were several villages between the Neuse and the Roanoke River/Albemarle Sound region.

P 80 – Bland was never to know it, but “the Englishman” was Spanish. In the fall of 1653 an English party financed by Francis Yeardley visited a hunting camp of the Tuskarorawes emperor,” who invited them to his town. There, he told them, “was one Spaniard residing, who had been 7 years with them, a man very rich, having about 30 in his family, 7 whereof are negroes.”

P 81 – For the time being, the false “Werrowance” deceived the Englishmen. He convinced Bland that he was “very joyful that wee could goe thither” and explained, probably with a fair knowledge of the situation, why there had been so little contact between the Tuscarora and the English. The principal impediment had been the Weyanoke, who had been driven from their traditional lands along the James after the uprising of 1644. The English knew they had located temporarily somewhere near the Chowan River; in actuality, they lived on Cutawhiskie and Potecast creeks near present-day Ahoskie, North Carolina (some 35 miles southeast of the Meherrin and 25 miles east of the Hocomawananck branch of the Tuscarora).

This identified the location pretty specifically. If accurate, this confirms that Bland was indeed on the Roanoke River someplace near Roanoke Rapids.

P 84 – “About 3 hours after we had taken up our quarters” reported Bland, “some of the inhabitants came, and brought us roasting ears and sturgeon.” Early the next morning the local natives returned to the English camp to construct a house for the explorers use. Three characteristics of the Hocomawananck people set them apart from other Indian groups known to Bland: many of them wore beards, there were “many very old men,” and the inhabitants were “full of children.”[1] The beards worn by the older males of this region allowed Bland to see a disparity in age distribution: he noted an unusually large number of older men and children in comparison with the number of younger men. The younger men may have been out hunting, but it is also possible that an unusually large number of warriors had died. Bland said little about the material wealth of the Hocomawananck. He saw copper ornaments and was told that “they tip their pipes with silver.” The Hocomawananck possessed significant wealth in the form of the sturgeon they caught below the falls.

Native American men do not have much body hair and generally do not, and cannot, grow beards. This would confirm European admixture although it does not confirm that the admixture is from the colonists.

P 85 – Beside the Roanoke, the English began to sense that their situation was more dangerous than they had realized. Pyancha and Oyeocker were obviously uneasy. They had cautioned on arrival that the Hocomawananck were normally “very treacherous” and after a few of the Indians visited the camp, the guides “did not like their countenances, and shape well.” The night passed without incident. The following day was to be spent examining the area. The day after that was the appointed day for meeting the Tuscarora and for learning the whereabouts of the mysterious Englishman and the missing Englishwoman. These expectations were suddenly and decisively dashed early on the 6th morning by a short out burst from a frustrated Oyeocker. He demanded of Pyancha to know why “we did not get us gone” from this place. The Hocomawananck, he asserted, were “jealous of us and angry with us.”

The party moved away from Hocomawananck where they were to rendezvous with the Tuscarora and headed some 6 miles northeast.

So close, but so far away. Had the rendezvous occurred, we might today know if the colonist had survived. If they did, their DNA would surface among at least the Tuscarora, if not other tribes as well.

  Bland trip

The map above shows relevant locations from the Bland expedition. The top left red arrow is the location of the Meherrin Indian Village, and the arrow on the right depicts the second Nottoway Village visited.

The red arrow at Roanoke Rapids depicts the location of the Hocomawanack (Tuscarora) Massacre.”

Bland says “3 miles east of the island in the Roanoke, just north of Weldon NC, Bland in 1750 came upon a place where “several gret heapes of bones” were plainly visible.” The Powhatan slew 240 of the Hocomawananck Indians.

The village where the Hocomawanack Indians lived was 3 days from approximately this location on a river named for them, but renamed Blandina by Bland. This was possibly the Roanoke. The small red arrows that show the Roanoke River which travels northwest to southeast this point. The large red arrow near Williamston points to the location of the eventual Indian Woods Tuscarora reservation in Bertie County, also located on the Roanoke River. We know that the Tuscarora lived in this vicinity when white men first settled there. By 1711, the Tuscarora Chief, Blount, had adopted the surname of the white Blount family living adjacent the Tuscarora village in the area that would become Bertie County, NC.

Based on physical information regarding Tuscarora beards, it appears that adult Tuscarora are admixed, meaning the admixture would have occurred before 1630. Bland did not say that only young men had beards. If both young and old men had beards, then the admixture would have occurred sometime before 1600, a time that would align well with the colonists. The explorations by Lane and others in the 1585-1587 timeframe did not record anything about Indians with beards, so that admixture would appear to have occurred between 1587 and about 1600, and certainly before 1630.

It would appear that at a Spaniard and his family, including possibly slaves, of which 7 are negro, was living among the Tuscarora and had been since about 1646, but the Tuscarora are not described as having negro traits. If the slaves intermarried with the Tuscarora, the next generation may have been admixed.

It also appears that possibly at least one English male and one female may have been living among them as well, depending on who you believe. They may well have been elderly at this point because we hear no more about them in 1653 when Nathaniel Batts settles in that area or when the 1653 Yeardley expedition that documented the Spaniard visits the Tuscarora village. There were a few English couples that settled on Roanoke Island in 1587, so it’s certainly possible that some non-admixed children were born for several years after the colony was abandoned. There were a total of 17 English women, of unknown ages, plus Virginia Dare born in 1587.

Certainly, 63 years later, the colonists, or their children and grandchildren did not wish to be “rescued” anymore.  They may not have wanted to be identified for fear of being forcibly removed. The would no longer have been English colonists, but part of the Native American cultural family. So perhaps after their 1650 close encounter they simply melted into the forests and swamps.

This information also begs the question of what happened to the family of 30 Spaniards and negroes.  Surely some had intermarried.  Were they simply absorbed by the Tuscarora? It appears that the Tuscarora were already admixed by 1650 and by the next generation, if the negroes assimilated as well, would have been tri-racial.


[1] Narratives of Early Carolina 1650-1708, Vol 11 by Alexander Samuel Salley, p 13-19, http://books.google.com/books?id=rRMOAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA16&lpg=PA16&dq=blandina+river&source=bl&ots=76z3H5WWvk&sig=1fqjFA-UhSk_p9NOriJFnch5tfs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=0UHjUJ_iPJSrqQHW9YHwBQ&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=blandina%20river&f=false

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About robertajestes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Appomattox, Meherrin, Nottoway, Tuscarora. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Lost Colonists and Edward Bland’s 1650 Expedition

  1. Pingback: Yardley Sees Colonists’ Fort on Roanoke Island 1654 | Native Heritage Project

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