A Report of Research on Lumbee Origins by Robert K. Thomas – Part 1 – Lost Colony Theory

This is the first in an 18 part series.  I have broken the original document into logical sections for publication on the blog.  This document was transcribed from a photocopy of an original report at the Wilson Library, UNC, Chapel Hill, NC in June of 2012.   Any comments I have will be made at the end of these transcriptions and it will be evident that they are mine.  To see more about Robert K. Thomas, go to:  http://works.bepress.com/robert_thomas/

Page 1 – I am sending in this report in lieu of an article for the Smithsonian, primarily because I decided that right now was an inopportune time to publish an article on the origins of the Lumbees, given the limited amount of data that we now have at hand.

I was not able to contact Helen Schierbeck about this decision so I alone am responsible for deciding not to write the article, but instead, to write this report to LRDA.  I understand that in recent months there has been a big furor in Robeson County about Lumbee origins and about the correct tribal designation for the Lumbee people.  I didn’t want to add any more “fuel to the fire” by publishing  premature article which did not have the “iron-clad” evidence needed to make a definitive scientific and historical argument.  At this point, I think we need to do a great deal more research than we have done in order to fill out the picture completely.  One of the things you will see as you read this report is that I have to rely mainly on indirect evidence.  I have an idea that indirect evidence will be most of our evidence, even with more research.  This means that we will have to have mountains of indirect evidence in lieu of direct evidence, bearing on whatever is our final historical hypothesis about Lumbee Origins.

Page 2 – Part I – Previous Hypotheses of Lumbee Origin

In this section I would like to, before I get into the main body of my paper, consider the different hypotheses of Lumbee origin and to evaluate each of them.

A.  The first hypothesis about Lumbee origin was proposed by Hamilton McMillan in the 1880s when he tried to tie the Lumbees into  the famous Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.  As most of you know who read this, Sir Walter Raleigh founded an English colony on Roanoke Island on the coast of what is now North Carolina in the late 1500s.  That colony had disappeared by the time white settlers from Virginia and other explorers began in infiltrate northeastern North Carolina later in the 1600s.

McMillan’s hypothesis is based on several types of evidence.  First, the family names of the Lumbees are basically English names.  This is quite a contrast to the white settlers in Roberson County who have primarily Scots names and are descendants of Scots Highlanders who came to NC from 1730-1760.  Moreover a great number of the Lumbee family names are the same as those of the settlers listed as members of the Lost Colony.  Secondly, McMillan found in talking to older Lumbees that they had a very strong tradition of having formerly lived on the coast of NC and then migrating inland to their present areas in Robeson County.  Thirdly, the Lumbees of the 1800s spoke a very archaeic dialect of English which McMillan ties to the period in which the Lost Colony was founded.  Fourthly, McMillan cites a tradition of local whites that the Lumbeees were already seated in Robeson County when the white settlers entered the area and at the time the Lumbees were living in houses, farming and speaking English.  He tends to (p 3) date this tradition from the 1730s.

Now this is very slim evidence for evidence of a Lost Colony connection.  I think the main piece of evidence which put McMillan onto such a hypothesis was that many of the Lumbee elders told McMillan that their ancestors came from Roanoke in Virginia.  He took this, of course, to mean Roanoke Island off of the coast of northeastern NC.  However, if we simply take the main evidence which he presents – the names, a tradition of living near the coast of NC, the archaeic dialect – then the rural inhabitants of present day Hyde County of the NC coast have an even more valid claim for being descendants of the Lost Colony.  Hyde County NC, in fact, has a higher percentage of names similar to the Lost Colony than do the Lumbees in Robeson County.  They also speak a fairly archaeic dialect of English, particularly the whites who live in isolated rural areas. 

Later, also, McMillan discovered, and he was an honest enough scholar to apprise us of that fact, that the area that the Lumbees means by Roanoke was the areas of the Pamlico Sound which is considerably to the south of Roanoke Island.  More, it is not surprising that the Lumbees would speak an archaeic dialect of English.  Appalachian whites, isolated like the Lumbee until recently, speak an archaeic dialect of English.  Further, it is my experience that when Indians learn English they tend to be more slower to change that English, particularly if they are not involved in a public school system, than do the whites from which they learned their English.  The whites are generally much more “hooked into” the changes in language in the general society than are English-speaking Indians. 

As far as the tradition that the Lumbees were living in the (p 4) 1730s in Robeson County speaking English when the white settlers first came upon the, I have serious doubts that this tradition comes from the 1730s.  McMillan takes the 1730s as a baseline because Fayetteville was being settled at that time.  However, it could have been very much later.  The swamps of Robeson County were not really penetrated by the whites until the 1770s.  I would guess that the tradition probably comes from sometime n the 1770s and is a very local tradition; that is to say, if settlers moved from the area of northern Robeson County south into central Robeson County in the 1770s, they would encounter the Lumbee at that time.  I do not mean to say that I am discounting this tradition, I just think that it is much later in time and much more local than McMillan believed.  In fact, there is a lot of evidence to show that the Lumbees were not in their present location until about 1770 in the particular part of Robeson County in which they now live.

My point is that McMillan simply does not make the case for the Lumbees being descendants of the Lost Colony; a mixture of the Lost Colony settlers with an Indian tribe.  What McMillan, a Scot, was trying to account for was the white blood present among the Lumbees and the startling English names in an area largely peopled by Scots.  McMillan was much less interested in establishing the Indian background of the Robeson County Indians. 

McMillan was an honest scholar and fairly thorough, but he leaps beyond his evidence to a flight of imagination and he was innocent in the extreme.  McMillan would have us believe that a small group of English speaking half-breeds moved from Roanoke Island to the Lumber River in a series of successive steps  in the period  from 1600 to 1700.  Presumably, this small group tarried (p 5) on the Neuse River in this period, the center of the Tuscarora country.  Such a course of action would have been planned suicide.  Further, we must believe that this group escaped the official notice of British and American authorities, explorers and traders for over 200 years.  All of this stretches my credulity beyond its limits.

However, many Lumbee came to accept McMillan’s ideas about their origin largely because it gave them a rather high status origin, I would imagine.  At this point in time, the “lost Colony theory” has almost become a part of the oral history for many modern Lumbee.

The best evidence on the Lost Colony comes from the testimony of Indians given in the 1600s in Virginia.  According to what we can make out, the English settlers on Roanoke Island very soon moved inland to better country; reasonably so, as Roanoke Island is hardly more than a sand dune.  They probably moved into the region of present day Bertie County.  Sometime after the English settlement in Virginia in 1607 they were wiped out by Indians at the instigation of Powhatan, the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy of Algonkian speaking people s in eastern Virginia.  Some few English seem to have survived and it appears they were taken further up on the Roanoke River to about the modern region of Clarksville , VA where the very powerful and influential Occaneechi were living; a tribe very interested in trade.  They few survivors became semislave crafts men for that tribe, but nothing more is beard from them. Presumably the survivors finally died.  As I remember, there were only about 2 or 3 survivors left. 

McMillan did us a great service by recording a great deal of Lumbee tradition, but he certainly did [unreadable sentence at bottom of page] (p 6) descent from the Lost Colony and in fact, the evidence I have just cited leads me to believe that the Lost Colony was massacred, according to testimony of Indians in Virginia.

About Roberta Estes

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.