Thanks to Fletcher Freeman for contributing part of the following information. In addition I used resources found in The American Indian in North Carolina (1947) by the Rev. Douglas Rights hosted at http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~jmack/algonqin/rights.htm and the book Villany Often Goes Unpunished, Indian Records from the North Carolina General Assembly Sessions 1675-1789 by William L. Byrd III along with the ever popular Wikipedia . This article was originally printed in the Lost Colony Research Group February 2011 Newsletter.
The Chowan Indians were found in North Carolina when Sir Walter Raleigh’s military expedition visited in 1585 -1586. At that time, they were documented as the “Chowanook”, or Chowanoke. Later, the name was shortened to Chowan and today, the Chowan River is one of the few rivers left that memorializes a Native tribe on the Eastern seaboard.
According to Ralph Lane, Raleigh’s expedition leader in 1585, the Chowanoke had 19 villages, with the capital being the town of Chowanoke near present-day Harrellsville in Hertford County, NC. They were the most numerous and most powerful of the Algonquian tribes in North Carolina. Lane described the town as being large enough to muster 700-800 warriors, which meant their total population was likely more than 3000. Another later account by Harriot, from the same expedition, estimated that all the villages could muster 800 warriors. Lane’s account was quite accurate in terms of his description of the town, its location and structures.
Archaeological excavations at the site of Chowanoke in the 1980s confirmed Lane’s report of its location. The town had been occupied by humans for 800 years, with radiocarbon dating establishing 825 AD as the earliest date of culture related to the Chowanoke. Including large agricultural fields, the town was a mile long and was home to several hundred Chowanoke people and possibly as many as 2100. It contained a precinct for the ruler and nobility or elite residences, public buildings, temples and burials near the north end of what the archeologists called Area B. This may have been the 30-longhouse cluster observed and reported by Harriot. Evidence of other residences was found in areas of erosion on the edges of the peninsula.
Other earlier inhabitations were found as well, predating the Chowanoke.
Dr. Richard Dillard has described a shell mound in the former Chowan region:
One of the largest and most remarkable Indian mounds in Eastern North Carolina is located at Bandon on the Chowan, evidently the site of the ancient town of Chowanokes which Grenville’s party visited in 1585, and was called Mavaton. The map of James Winble, made in 1729, also locates it about this point. The mound extends along the river bank five or six hundred yards, is sixty yards wide and five feet deep, covered with about one foot of sand and soil. It is composed almost exclusively of mussel shells taken from the river, pieces of pottery, ashes, arrowheads and human bones . . . Pottery and arrowheads are found in many places throughout this county, especially on hillsides, near streams, etc.
It is probable that diseases from the first English contact, such as measles and smallpox, considerably weakened the Chowanoke, as they did other coastal Carolina peoples. None had natural immunity to European diseases.
The neighboring Tuscarora, who had inhabited areas to the inland, expelled the remaining Chowanoke from the territory along the river.
In 1607 an English expedition, in the area on orders from Captain John Smith of Jamestown, found that hardly any Chowanoke people were left along the Chowan River. They had been reduced to one settlement across the river in present day Gates County on Bennett’s Creek.
Several decades later, in 1644 and 1675-77, the Chowanoke had strengthened enough to wage two wars against English settlers. They met defeat each time. After these wars, the English designated the Chowanoke settlement on Bennett’s Creek as the first Indian Reservation in the present-day United States.
On August 27, 1650, a Virginia exploring party set out from Fort Henry 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.
Some distance west of Meherrin River they came to an Indian trail. Their narrative states:
At this path our Appamattuck Guide made a stop, and cleared the Westerly end of the path with his foote, being demanded the meaning of it, he shewed an unwillingness to relate it, sighing very much. Whereupon we made a stop untill Oyeocker our other Guide came up, and then our Appamattuck journied on; but Oyeocker at his coming up cleared the other end of the path, and prepared himselfe in a most serious manner to require our attentions, and told us that many years since their late great Emperour Appachancano came thither to make War upon the Tuscarood, in revenge of three of his men killed, and one wounded, and brought word of the other three men murdered by the Hocomawananck Indians for lucre of the Roanoke they brought with them to trade for Otter skins. There accompanied Appachancano severall petty Kings that were under him, amongst which there was one King of a Towne called Powhatan, which had long time harboured a grudge against the King of Chawan, about a young woman that the King of Chawan had detayned of the King of Powhatan: Now it happened that the King of Chawan was invited by the King of Powhatan to this place under pretence to present him with a guift of some great vallew, and they met accordingly, and the King of Powhatan went to salute and embrace the King of Chawan, and stroaking of him after their usual manner, he whipt a bowstring about the King of Chawans neck, strangled him; and how that in memoriall of this, the path is continued unto this day, and the friends of the Powhatans when they passe that way, cleanse the Westerly end of the path, and the friends of the Chawan the other.
And some two miles from the path we come unto an Indian Grave upon the east side of the path: Upon which Grave there lay a great heape of sticks covered with greene boughs, we demanded the reason for it, Oyeocker told us, that “there lay a great man of Chawan that dyed in the same quarrell, and in honor of his memory they continue greene boughs over his Grave to this day, and ever when they goe forth to Warre they relate this, and other valorous, loyall Acts, to their young men, to animate them to doe the like whan occasion requires.”
In 1663 the Chowan entered into a treaty with the English and “submitted themselves to the Crown of England under the Dominion of the Lord Proprietors.” This treaty was faithfully observed for a decade, but in 1675 the Susquehanna War broke out in Virginia. Through incitement of the Indians of Virginia the Chowan violated their treaty. A year of warfare followed with serious loss to the settlers.
The tribe was largely extinct by the late 1600s; with many deaths likely due to diseases, including a smallpox in 1696.
The Chowan were forced to surrender all of their land on the south side of Meherrin River and were assigned a reservation on Bennett’s Creek. Here they struggled along for a hundred years. Many petitions were made to the council for a survey, but nearly fifty years passed before the request was granted. Their lands gradually dwindled from twelve square miles, as first assigned, to six square miles about 1707. At this time they had only one town with about fifteen fighting men.
In March of 1702, the area was beginning to be settled, and a group of settlers petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly, as follows:
Petitioners have right to considerable tracts of land on Bennet’s Creyke now known as Caret’s Creyke via patents and conveyances. Chowan Indians have their hunting quarters upon petitioners lands and pretend the land is theirs and destroy the stock of the petitioners and burn their houses saying they are under the protection of the English and that no Englishman ought to seat within 4 miles of their town…we implore the Indians lands be laid out for them accoriding to the aforesaid order of coucill and if petitioners hold land within the limits it shall be diserted and left to the said Indians. Signed by Benjamin Blanchard, John Campbell, Thomas Spivey, Francis Rountree, Robert Rountree, Robert Lacitar, George Laciter, Nicholas Stallings
In 1712 Missionary Giles Rainsford of the English Church wrote:
I had conference with one Thomas Hoyle King of the Chowan Indians who seem very inclinable to embrace Christianity and proposes to send his son to school . . . I readily offered him my service to instruct him myself . . . where I lodge being but three miles distant from his Town. But he modestly declined it for the present till a general peace was concluded between the Indians and the Christians. I found he had some notions of Noahs flood which he came to the knowledge of and exprest himselfe after this manner – My father told me I tell my Son.
Three years later Rainsford reported: “I have been five months together in Chowan Indian Town & make myself almost a Master of their language.” In this same letter he offered to serve as missionary among them.
Chief John Hoyter petitioned the council in 1714 for a survey of the six-mile reservation, stating that the Indians had been “fighting on Eight Expeditions against the Indyan Enemy of this province and during the time they were in ye Countys Service they Suffered Considerable loss in their plantations & Stocks loosing Seaventy five head of hogs a Mare & Colt their Corne destroyed by which ye wearing out of their clothes they are reduced to great poverty, and asked that some allowance be made for their services and losses.”
Apparently the land was surveyed, because in this 1714 petition request to the General Assembly, we find that Chief Hoyter is petitioning on behalf of the Chowan Indians for a resurvey:
John Hoyter Petition for himself and the rest of ye Chowan Indians. Upon ye humble petition of ye said indians to this honorible board in the time when Honorable Henderson Walker Esq. was president was past that ye governor or deputy should lay out a tract of land for ye said indians of 6 miles square and another order in the time of honorable Landgrave Robert Daniel Esqr persuant to ye order. In pursuance deputy Gov .Capt Luton came and undertook said survey and did lay out a tract of land but wholly contrary to the intent and meaning of said order for ye petitioners are very confident that ye intent of ye council was that such land should be layd out for them as would produce corn for their support and the petitioners do pray and averr that none other parcel of ye said land in ye said place will produce corn being all pines and deserts so they have not their land according to ye intent and meaning of the board, neither for quality nor quantity it being not near 6 miles squiare. We pray for relief. John (I, his mark) Hoyter for himself and the rest of the nation.
In 1718 and 1720 petitions were filed by Chief Hoyter complaining that the settlers were continually intruding upon the lands of the Indians and that the limits of the territory had never been determined. In the former petition he also asked for payment due one of his tribesmen by a settler for an Indian slave of the Core Sound region.
In 1717, Chief Hoyter complained to the governor and council that his people were starving, being kept off their land by the settlers.
According to notes by Fletcher Freeman, the N.C. council set aside the 53,000 acre Indian Woods Reservation in 1723 along the Roanoke River in Bertie County for the Tuscarora under Chief Blount and the Chowan who had sided with the colonists in the Tuscarora War of 1711.
By the year 1731 the tribe had dwindled to less than twenty families.
In 1733, the Bennett name is located on the East side of the Chowan River, but none of the other names mentioned are, including Freeman.
In 1733, just 10 years later, the Chowan and Tuscarora petitioned to merge. This citation is found in the Minutes of the North Carolina Governor’s council dated April 3, 1733, Vol. 3, pages 537-538 of the Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. The council authorized the “Suponees “to live with the “Tuskarooroes” and went on to say “ and that the Chowan Indians have leave to live with the Tuscarooroes Indians provide King Blount will receive them.” This is somewhat unusual since the Chowan were Algonquin speaking and the Tuscarora were Iroquoian, although they were allies during the Tuscarora war beginning in 1711. However, it appears from the Council records that the Chowan under Chief Hoyter stayed on their Indian town reservation in Chowan County until at least 1751 when they sold their land.
In May of 1733, we find our next document, as follows:
We James Bennett, Thomas Hit(t)er, Charles Beazley, Jeremiah Pushen (Pushing), John Robins, John Reding, Nuce Will, Indians of Chowan precinct in the county of Albemarle in NC for 150# NC money in hand on ? to be paid by Thomas Garrett whereof we the said Indians hereby acquit exonerate and discharge Thomas Garrett, heirs and assigns forever having sold all that part and parcell of land lying in Chowan precinct being part of a patent bearing the date 1724 for land beginning at the mouth of a branch known as Gum Branch up the swamp to a branch to Capt. Aron Blansherds line, along his line to a branch by his plantation at a bridge then from thr bridge along the path to the Gum Branch then down the branch to the first station containing 400 acres and we the said indians (names repeated) have good right and lawful authority to sell….bind ourselves for 1000#. Signed James Bennett, Thomas Hitter, Charles Beazley, Jerrmiah Pushing, John Robins, John Reding, Nuce Will, in the presents of Michael Ward, Henry Hill May 20 1733
In September 1733, the Chowan are leasing their land.
James Bennett, Charles Beasley, Thomas Hittor, Jereme Pushen, Thomas Pushen, John Reding of Chowan precinct to Thomas Tailor of Chowan let to farm Thomas Tailor 100 acres lying between the Myrey branch and the Poplar branch upon the pocoson side lying (torn) Chowan precinct belonging to the Jowan indians called the Rain Gras neck with land and all the profetes and preveledges there unto belonging to said Thomas Taillor from Sept 10 full term 13 years. Two yeares went free firm and fully completed and ended yealding and paying unto said indians aforesaid the rent or sum of 250# tobacco to them and asignes to be paid yearly after 2 years rent free now to the performance of these artikles and 200 pounds to be paid upon the nonperformance of this agreement. And if sold Thomas Taillor to have the refuse of ye said land. James Bennet, Charles Besly, Jereme Pushing, John Freeman, Walter Droughan, William ?, John Reading. There appear to be no witnesses.
Note that in this instance, John Freeman seems to be included at the end with the Indians, but not in the first sentence. The same situation occurs with Walter Droughan and William ?, and Thomas Hittor who is in the first sentence is missing from the last reference.
On January 30, 1734, the Chief Men of the Chowan, petitioned the North Carolina Assembly regarding the abuses against their people. Petitioners were Thomas Hoyter, John Robins, John Reading, Neuse Will, James Bennett, Charles Beasley and Jeremiah Pushing.
Later, in 1734, the Chowan Indian chiefs, James Beard, Tomas Hoyter, Charles Beazley and Jeremiah Pushing sold land to John and Tabitha Freeman (Chowan Deed book W-1 p 216).
In April 1734, the Chowan sold land to Thomas Garrett. The deed from James Bennett, Thos. Hiter, Charles Bearley (sic, probably Beasley), Jeremiah Ruffin, John Robins, John Reding, Hull Will, Indians of Chowan Precinct in the County of Albemarle to Thos. Garrett of the same precinct and county for land in Chowan Precinct, part of patent dated 1724 on Gum Br., bordering Capt. Aron Blansherds (full description is included). 7 Apr. 1734. Witnesses Mitchell Ward, Henry Hill.
All grantors signed with a mark, except Hull Wills.
In 1751, the headmen of the tribe, James Bennett and John Robbins, Indians, and John Freeman, planter sold the Chowan land to Richard Freeman, in the following deed:
Chowan County – To all to whom these presents shall come we James Bennet & John Robins Chowan Indians & John Freeman Planter of the County and Province aforesaid Know Ye that we the aforesaid James Bennet, John Robins & John Freeman for and in consideration of the sum of Twenty Pounds Lawfull money of Great Britain to us in hand paid by Richard Freeman of the county and Province aforesaid, Planter, the receipt of which we do hereby acknowledge have granted bargained sold conveyed confirmed & deliver and do by these presents grant Bargain Sell Convey Confirm and Set Over unto the aforesaid Richard Freeman one certain tract or parcel of land & pocoson lying on the No. side of Bennets Creek commonly called & known by the name of the Chowan Indian Land Two Hundred acres by Estimation beginning on Blanchards Line running then west … together with all and singular the appurtenances thereunto belonging unto the said Richard Freeman, his heirs and assigns forever hence they yielding and paying to our Sovereign Lord the King the yearly quit rents of and by(?) required for every hundred acres hereby granted by the said James Bennet, John Robins and John Freeman as aforesaid to the said Richard Freeman his heirs..the aforesaid James Bennet, John Robins, & John Freeman and do bind ourselves and each of our heirs and by these presents to forever warrant and defend unto the said Richard Freeman his heirs and the above mentioned tract or parcel of land and pocoson from all manner of persons whatever…whereof we the aforesaid Ja. Bennet, Jn Robins Chowan Indians and John Freeman, Planter have hereunto set our hand and seals this — of January, 1751
Signed & Sealed & Delivered in the presence of Richard Garret, Reuben Hinton, George S. Outlaw – Chowan County for January County Court 1751
These may testify that the within Deed of Sale of Land from James Bennet, John Robins, & John Freeman to Richard Freeman was duly proved in open Court by the oath of Richard Garret and on motion is ordered to be registered. Registered January 23, 1751
Signed Sealed & Delivered in the presence of:
Richard Garret James B. Bennett
Reuben Hinton John R. Robins
George S. Outlaw John Freeman
Chowan County January County Court 1751
Present His Majesties Justices These may codify that the within Deed of Sale of Land from James Bennet John Robins & John Freeman to Richard Freeman is hereby proved in open Court by the oath of Richard Garret & on Motion is ordered to be Registered. Registered Jan 23, 1751
It is unclear from this extraction whether or not James Bennett or John Robins could sign their names, but I strongly suspect from the B. initial and the R. initial above, that these were not initials but “marks” made by the native men. In this timeframe, European men by and large did not have middle names. These men were clearly stated to be Indians. John Freeman, on the other hand, appears to have signed his name and was not stated to be an Indian. I wonder what his relationship to the Chowan Indians was. Did he marry a female of the tribe? And how was Richard Freeman related to John?
Fletcher Freeman believes that Tabitha, the wife of John, was a Native female, possibly the daughter of Chief Hoyle. She could well have been, but there is no proof of such. One possibility is that Chief Hoyle had himself become Christian (given the 1712 record) and with him, his children, including Tabitha, who would also have been given a Christian name upon baptism. This would have enabled her to marry John Freeman, as he would not have been marrying a “savage”
Fletcher Freeman found records indicating that John Freeman was a reader at the Indian Town Chapel in 1733 and again in 1743. Interestingly, Edward Mosley who drew the famous Mosely Map of 1733 was also a member there and had been Thomas Hoyter’s attorney in 1723 according to the North Carolina Records. Another member of Indian Town Chapel was Tom Blount, probably the man after whom Tuscarora Chief Tom Blount named himself, signifying kinship. If this is not the case, how did John Freeman come to be listed with the Chowan Indians, although one deed record is somewhat ambiguous with his name omitted in one listing and included in another in the same document? It is possible that he was a witness, not a conveyor in one deed, but in the second deed, he is clearly a conveyor.
In 1752 Bishop Spangenberg wrote from Edenton, “The Chowan Indians are reduced to a few families, and their land has been taken away from them.”
Due to colonists’ encroachments and violations of treaties, by 1754 only two Chowanoke families: the Bennetts and the Robbinses, remained in the Bennett’s Creek settlement.
A report of Governor Dobbs in 1755 stated that the tribe consisted of two men and five women and children who were “ill used by their neighbors.”
Bennett and Robbins males served in the Revolutionary War. By 1790, European guns and disease was reduced the Chowan from thousands to a handful of people. Their leaders had European names. John Robbins was one of them and a lovely website documenting his family is found here – http://www.roanoke-chowan.com/Stories/MarvinTJonesStories/AChowanokeFamily.htm
During a sale of Chowanoke land in 1790, it was written that the Chowanoke men had died, “leaving a parcel of Indian women, which have mixed with Negroes, and now there are several freemen and women of Mixed blood as aforesaid which have descended from the s[ai]d Indians.”
In the 1790 census, there are two Robbins and two Bennett families listed as “free people of color” in Gates County, but none of the other surnames mentioned above as Native are found in that location. In Tyrrell County, an Elizabeth Will is found, but the rest of the surnames seem to have disappeared.
By 1810, only Robbins families were left at the Bennett’s Creek settlement. They seemed to have assimilated by 1822, having dispersed and married their more numerous white and black neighbors.
Many Robbinses migrated to the free states of Ohio and Indiana after Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion of 1831.
Noah Robbins stayed, but he was classified as “colored” in the fear-born backlash from the failed 1831 rebellion and possibly to remove any residual treaty obligations. All colored, even if they were born free as Indians, were required to register and carry their “paper”, as follows, at all times.
“State of North Carolina, Gates County August Court of Pleas, 1831…
..It was then and there ordered that the Clerk of said Court should [grant] to the said Noah Robbins a certificate certifying that he is a free man of colour and a native of said County and there in entitled to all rights and privileges of free persons of colour. Given under my hand and seal of office the 25th day of August Anno Dom 1831.”
Some of the Bennetts moved further south in Anson County, North Carolina with Native American trading families. Their descendants can be found there; some are members of one of the several Pee Dee Indian tribes.
One group of Robbinses remained intact. They first moved to Colerain in Bertie County, downriver on the Chowan. Many Robbins family descendants have since become members of the Meherrin tribe, based in Hertford County.
Fletcher Freeman mentions that he has seen another record that indicates that at least some of the Chowan merged with the Meherrin. He feels this makes more sense because both were Algonquian speaking and both lived near each other on the Chowan river.
Sadly with the end of these records, the Chowan disappear from the historical records, as Indians.
We don’t have any known descendants of any of these Chowan surnames who have taken the Y DNA test. Looking through the projects, there are no Native haplogroups for any of these surnames except for one Beasley gentleman from Texas and Freeman from Texas, Tennessee and Virginia. There is no indication that any of these individuals are from the Chowan families.
A Lost Colony DNA project member who does descend from the John Freeman family of Gates County is haplogroup R1b1b2, a European haplogroup, which is exactly what we would expect to see from a European man who married a Native woman. If they had daughters, and someone descends through all females from a daughter, indeed, we could test their mitochondrial DNA to see if Tabitha was a Native Chowan woman.