The Chowan Indians by Fletcher Freeman

A 1585 Map of Virginia drawn by Theodore de Bry designates several Indian tribes, one of which is the CHAWANOK. They are shown with at least five towns, being Chaunoock, Rannoushowog, Movatan, Metocuuem,and Tanduomuc. Also reflected are the SECOTAN and WEAPEMEOC Tribes. The SECOTAN area reflects 12 towns and the WEAPEMEOC area reflects 8 towns.

The 1647 map of Virginia drawn by Robert Dudley reflects several Indian tribes living along the Virginia/North Carolina eastern seaboard. One of these tribes was the CHAWONS located just south of the Chesapeake Bay near Nansemund.

The 1651 map of Virginia drawn by John Farrer prominently displays the CHAWANOKE RIVER, probably named for the Chawan Indians who lived along it.

William Byrd’s Map showing the Boundary lines of 1663 and 1665 between Virginia and North Carolina likewise prominently shows the Chowan River and Chowan Precinct, likewise named for the Chowans.

The Mosley Map of 1733 showing North East North Carolina shows Chowan Town just East of the Chowan River and south of Bennets Creek in Chowan Precinct of Albemarle County.

According to THE COLONIAL RECORDS OF NORTH CAROLINA by Saunders:

In 1707, the Chowanoke Indians own land on the South side of the Maherine ( Meherrin) River which they received from the Yawpin Indians sometime prior to 1675. It is called Chowanoke Town.

In 1715 a missionary spent 5 months in Chowan Town and learned the language.

In 1718, John Hoyter is mentioned as the “King” of the Chowan Indians.

In 1720, Captain John Hoyter of the Chowan Indians complains about someone not paying for a slave and John Hoyter, Chiefman of the Chowan Indians complains about white trespassers to the North Carolina Council.

In 1734, Thomas Hoyter, James Bennet, Charles Beazley and Jeremiah Pushing, Chief Men of the Chowan Indians sell land to JOHN FREEMAN, Thomas Garret, and 8 other white men.

In 1754, JOHN FREEMAN, John Bennet, and John Robins ( 2 headmen of the Chowan Indians) sell 200 acres of Chowan Indian land to RICHARD FREEMAN for 20 pounds.

January 4, 1755, there are 7 Chowan Indians left–2 men, 3 women, and 2 children.

THE AMERICAN INDIAN IN NORTH CAROLINA recounts an August 1585 exploration by Gov Lane which visited the Chowans:

“The Chowan Indians lived along the river bearing their name. One of their villages, called Ohanoak, situated on high land with good cornfields adjacent, was probably in Hertford County. The chief village, Chawanook, was not far from the junction formed by Bennett’s Creek, on the east side of the river. Lane estimated the number of warriors of this town to be seven hundred, certainly an exaggeration. The chief of the tribe, Menatonon, was described as being ” a man impotent in his limbs, but otherwise for a savage a very grave and wise man.” He gave Lane directions for travel by river and overland to Chesapeake Bay. His description of the abundance and fineness of the pearls of that region sounded alluring to the governor, to whom he presented a string of black beads, probably the dark colored shell beads called wampum. His son, Skyco, was retained by Lane as a prisoner and proved to be a valuable hostage.”

The book 500 NATIONS, AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS says that the Chowanocs, Weapemeocs, and Secotans were allied Algonquin nations. The book mentions that Gov. Lane seized Chief Menatonon of the Chowanocs and held him for ransom following which he kidnapped the Chief’s son and took him to Roanoke in leg irons to insure the obedience of the tribe.

A member of the Lane exhibition was an artist named John White. He painted 76 watercolors of the region and many are in the books referenced above. While none show the Chowans themselves, there are quite a few of the Secotan and Pomeoke who were close neighbors to the Chowans. There is a drawing in the book of the Town of Secotan which is south of Chowan Town and hence is probably similar to Chowan Town. It shows that the Indians raised corn and tobacco and lived in Quonset style huts.

Lane also drew a map of Carolina which shows the Town of Ohanoke located on the western side of the Chowan River. This map would date to 1585.

The book The AMERICAN INDIAN IN NORTH CAROLINA, has another section on the Chowan Indians as follows:

” The Chowan Indians, whose name signifies “Southerners” were still a strong tribe when settlers began to move in the Albemarle region about 1650. Their name was well known, as the following reference from early records of Virginia indicate.

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 Appamattox Indian guide. On the way the 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 Apamattuck 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 until 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 wounded, and brought word of the other three murthered 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 town called Pawhatan, 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 Pawhatan: Now it happened that the King of Chawan was invited by the King of Pawhatan to this place under pretence to present him with a gift of some great vallew, and there they med accordingly, and the King of Pawhatan 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, and strangled him; and how that in memoriall of this, the path is continued unto this day, and the friends of the Pawhatans when they passe that way, cleanse the Westerly end of the path, and the friends of the Chawans the other. And some two miles from this 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 of it, Oyeocker told us that there lay a great man of the Chawans 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 when occasion requires.”

Around 1610-1611, William Strachy, Secretary of Jamestown, was told by an Indian, Machumps, that seven survivors of Powhatan’s massacre of the colonists from Roanoke, (four men, two boys, and one young maid) had fled up the river of Choanoke and had taught the Indians in two villages how to build two-story houses and were working copper for the Chief of the Chawanoc tribe.

In 1663 the Chowans entered into a treaty with the English and “submitted themselves to the Crown of England under the Dominion of the Lords 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. This became known as the Chowanoc War of 1675-1677. A year of warfare followed with serious loss to the settlers. Later 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 in what is now Gates County. 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.

They were allied with the Colonists during the Tuscarora War. 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 agt 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 hoggs a Mare & Colt their Corne destroyed by all wch & ye wearing out of their clothes they are reduced to great poverty”, and asked that some allowance be made for their services and losses.

In 1712 Missionary Giles Rainsford of the English Church wrote:

“I had several conferences 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 & made myself almost a Master of their language.” In this same letter he offered to serve as missionary among them.

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 1723 a reservation of 53,000 acres was laid out for the Tuscarora and the Chowan.

By the year 1731 the tribe had dwindled to less than twenty families. Two years later, in 1733, the council gave them permission to be incorporated with the Tuscarora at Indian Woods Reservation in Bertie county. 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.” 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.”

In 1997 a Meherrin Indian historian provided the following information to me about the Chowans:

The Chowan Reservation originally lay in what is now Gates County, on the banks of Catherine’s Creek and Bennet’s Creek, It seems to have consisted mainly of swamp land, roughly 17 square miles in 1729. The land was sold off steadily through the 1700’s until by 1790 the tribe had been reduced to nothing. In 1782 a Mr. Henry Hill gave 30 acres of land to the remaining Chowanokes. This tract, which came to be known as Indian Town, lay north of the old reservation. It appears to have been in the immediate vicinity of Old Chapel Crossroads, south of Mintonsville. The area of the old reservation is now called Indian Neck. At about the same time that they received the land from Henry Hill, several of the Indian boys were ordered bound out as apprentices to local whites. The following appear to be the bulk of the apprentice records dealing with Chowanokes:

May 25, 1781, Benjamin Robbins, Indian, 17 years of age bound to Jethro Meltear

May 25, 1781, Elisha Robbins, Indian, 11 years of age, bound to Jethro Meltear

February 10, 1781, Josiah Bennett, Indian, 12 years of age, bound to Edward Briscoe.

February 10, 1781, George Bennet, Indian, 13 years of age, bound to Henry Booth.

February, 1785, Jacob Robbins, Indian, 10 years of age, bound to Jethro Lassiter

February, 1787, Samuel Robbins, illegitimate son of Lucy Robbins, bound to Jethro Miller Lassiter.

The 1790 census of Gates County shows the following households which are probably the bulk of the Chowanoke population at that time.

Bashford Robbins, 1 white male, 2 free persons of color

George Bennet, 1 free person of color

Hardy Robbins, 1 free person of color

James Robbins, 1 white female, 15 free persons of color

Joseph Bennet, 1 free person of color

The Chowanoke population may have been as high as 30 at this time. James Robbins appears to have been the most well to do of the Chowanokes, aided in part by his pay from having served as a soldier in the Revolution.

In 1782 Henry Hill sells the 30 acres to Nancy, Elizabeth, Darkis, and Christina Robbins, all identified as Indians. Apparently by the time the sale took place, the tribe had left the area of their old reservation and had sold or otherwise conveyed it to neighboring whites. The actual deed of sale is dated April 12, 1790 and is between “James Robbins, Benjamin Robbins, George Bennett, and Joseph Bennett, Chief Men and representatives of the Chowan Indians Nation of Gates County and William Lewis and Samuel Harrell”. Shortly thereafter the Bennetts disappear from the history of the tribe, never living on the thirty acres with the Robbins. In October 1790 the Chowanokes are described in a petition to the State from William Lewis and Samuel Harrell as “several freemen and women of mixed blood which have descended from said Indians.” Obviously in April, 1790 it was to Harrell and Lewis’ advantage to have the Robbins and Bennetts being in a position of authority in the tribe so they could sell the tribal land to them. After the sale was complete, however, it then became better for the white purchasers that the Indians became “free men mixed with Negroes” in case they might ever want to reclaim the land. The State confirmed the sale of the land in 1791 effectively disposing of the last reservation land although legally the sale should have been approved by the U.S. Congress as well.

By the time of the 1800 Gates County Federal Census, the number of Chowan Indian Families is as follows:

George Bennet, free colored, 4 in household

James Robbins, free colored, 3 in household with 1 white female

Sara Robbins, free colored, 2 in household

Dorcas Robbins, free colored, 6 in household

Ann Robbins, free colored, 4 in household

In 1810 the following families are listed in Gates County:

George Bennett, free colored, 5 in household

Darcus Robbins, free colored, 4 in household

Sally Robbins, free colored, 4 in household

Lewis Robbins, free colored, 3 in household

Nancy Robbins, free colored, 5 in household

Jacob Robbins, free colored, 5 in household

James Robbins, free colored, 2 in household

Lewis Robbins, born in 1790 and apprenticed in 1800, is never called an Indian in any of the written records, but it is logical that he is a child of one of the Chowanoke families listed in 1800.

The Chowan Indian settlement is noted on the 1808 Price-Strother map of North Carolina in roughly the same area where they had been granted the reservation. This would suggest that they still maintained some form of recognizable community in the area.

In 1819, the Chowanokes living on the 30 acres of land they had acquired from Henry Hill faced a new threat in the form of efforts by a prominent white neighbor to buy them out. On February 23, 1819, John Walton bought the interest of Christian Robbins, who at the time was living in Perquimans County, in a “certain piece or parcel of land at a place called the Indian Town, joining the lands of Nancy Robbins, Elizabeth Robbins, Sara Robbins, and the said John Walton containing by estimation 5 acres.” Then in May, 1820, Walton bought out Judith Robbins, who had moved to Chowan County. She owned one acre more or less, “at a place called & known by the name of the Indian Town …that descended to me from my mother Patience Robbins.” Then in 1821 through some fancy legal maneuvering, Walton sued Sara Robbins and obtained an execution upon her land to pay the judgment. This land was in the vicinity of what is now Waltons Crossroads in Gates County.

After this last loss of tribal lands, the Chowanokes dispersed throughout the surrounding area and it is thought married into or otherwise merged with the Meherrin Tribe.

There is a Robbins family on the Meherrin tribal roll who trace back to a Noah Robbins, born 1803. There is also a group in Perquimans County known as the “Lassiter Tribe” who moved into that area around 1820 and are probably Chowanoke descendents.

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 the Chowanokes which Grenville’s party visited in 1585 and was called Mavaton. The map of James Wimble, made in 1729, also locates it about this point. The mound extends along the riverbank 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.”

There is some belief among the descendants of JOHN FREEMAN mentioned earlier, that his wife “Tabitha” may have been a Chowan Indian and the daughter of either Thomas Hoyter or John Bennet, Chowan headmen. John was born in or near Chowan Indian town and probably married Tabitha around 1733. He was the reader at the Indian Town Chapel of the Anglican Church which presumably was where the Christianized Chowans attended church.  (Remember that in 1712 Giles Rainsford was a missionary to the Chowans and indicated that Chief Thomas Hoyle/Hoyter was inclined to embrace Christianity.)

Please join us tomorrow for Fletcher Freeman’s article about John and Thomas Hoyter, the Chowan Indian Chiefs.

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About robertajestes

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

6 Responses to The Chowan Indians by Fletcher Freeman

  1. I believe that the families to whom those Indian boys were bound out may have actually been relatives. In the Gates County Deeds, one marked 19 Nov 1758, James Bennett and John Robins, chief men of Chowan Indians, to Edward Brisco of Chowan … 5 pds … 300 acres on E side of Bennetts Creek … witnessed by Robert Taylor. Five pounds for 300 acres?! In the next deed, someone pays 145 pounds for 100 acres! Sounds like a sweetheart deal. Brisco later sells land to Eborn Sears, whose wife is Bathsheba Bennett. Perhaps his brother-in-law? This would make James Bennett their father-in-law.

  2. James Thomas Freeman says:

    My ancestors are of the chowan Indian tribe.

  3. Lenell McKenzie says:

    The Bennett’s are back and we will seek our land and our identity back.

    • Lenell McKenzie says:

      Joseph Bennett and Josiah Bennett are my greats. We have our tree they moved to Wakulla, FL the Mobile Alabama and married under the names Harris, Williams, Mack and Now McKenzie

  4. Michael Little says:

    I am researching the Lassiter (Lassetter of various spellings) mentioned in this article. If you have information to share, please do so at tmike@windstream.net

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