The Riven Coffins

This article was written by Roberta Estes and originally published in the Lost Colony Research Group Newsletter in August, 2012.

I have attached a short compendium of information about the coffins discovered in Beechland in Tyrrell County, NC.  The one mention of a coffin found at Brigand’s Bay on Hatteras Island has been refuted and appears to be in error.

1950s – Beechland Riven Coffins

In “A Search for the Lost Colony in Beechland” by Phil McMullan, on page 15, he discusses the Riven Coffins accidentally excavated there.  From “Legends of the Outer Banks and Tarheel Tidewater” by Judge Charles Whedbee in 1966:

“Within the memory of men still living, there was at Beechlands (sic) a tribe of fair-skinned, blue-eyed Indians.

A few years ago when the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company was doing some excavating for timbering purposes, they had to dig into a rather large mound near Beechland.  In this mound, in the heart of the wilderness, they found numerous Indian artifacts, arrowheads, works of pottery, and potsherds.

They also found riven coffins that were made from solid cypress wood.  They were in a form that can best be described as two canoes – one canoe being the top half of the coffin and the other canoe being the bottom half.

On top of each of these coffins was plainly and deeply chiseled a Roman or Latin cross, the type that has come to be universally and traditionally accepted as the cross of Christianity.  Beneath each cross were the unmistakable letters I N R I.  These are thought to represent the traditional “Jesus Nazarenus, Rex Judaeorum” or translated, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, the inscription which adorned the cross of Christ at the time of the crucifixion.  It was common practice in Elizabethan times to write the letter I for the letter J. It was simpler and was accepted by the literate people of that day.  A riven coffin with English carving buried in the midst of a wilderness in an Indian burial ground – is that coincidence?”

McMullan goes on to say:  “Although there were several known 19th century graveyards in the Beechland and Sandy Ridge Vicinity, no one had ever before reported a graveyard near this site.”

McMullan discussing Mary Wood Long’s work, “The bottom section was carved so that a wooden pillow was provided for the headrest.  The coffin was wider at the shoulder section, narrower toward the foot.  Mr. Kemp decided that 5 of the coffins had been damaged and torn apart by his machine.  There were no descriptive marks on the coffins other than the tool marks struck into the wood as the coffins were built.   If anything had remained within the coffin, it was washed out into the swamp water when the scoop cut through the top section.  The cemetery was on a high knoll approximately 30 feet in diameter surrounded by swamp water and marsh at a depth of 5 feet.  The men decided it was a family burial plot dating from the time of the first settlers of Beechland.  Mr. Mann selected a site on high ground near the canal and reburied the portions of the old casket.”

Another report from David Mann, a supervisor at the site said that high water prevented the observation of the coffin remnants reported to be protruding from the canal bank.

P 18 – Bill Sharp in his 1958 “New Geography of North Carolina” states that there was once a thriving community in Beechland on Mill Tail Creek where planters cultivated a 5000 acre tract on which corn, a wheat like grain and a variety of tobaccos were harvested.  Shingles were cut from the forest and a canal dug by slave labor was used to move them to Alligator River from Beechland.

Cattle roamed 25,000 acres of reed lands.  Sharpe said the settlement disappeared before the Civil War.  His sources believed that a cholera epidemic caused its disappearance.

Victor Meekins, a journalist interviewed Beechland descendant Marshal F. Twiford for a 1960 article printed in the Raleigh News and Observer.  Twiford, born in 1876 told Meekins:

“Old people always told me that older people before them said that the Beechland settlement was founded by the English who ran away from Roanoke Island.  (RJE note – could this be Grenville’s 15?)  My grandfather who came over from Kitty Hawk much later lived there and married a full blooded Indian from Beechland.  When I was a boy, there never seemed to be any mystery about this settlement, for the old folks took it for granted that everyone knew it.  I used to go up there when I was a boy, and there were still several houses standing in Beechland. Most of the houses were log houses, and some had dirt floors.  You reached it by paddling up Milltail Creek about 10 miles from the Alligator River.”

Twiford recalls Beechland families with names similar to the colonists such as Dutton, Sutton, Paynes, Paines, Whites and Sanderlins.  He also remembered families of Sawyers, Edwards, Owens, Basnights and Ambroses.  In the article, Meekins said that he has heard similar stories over the 50 years that he had been a reporter in Dare County.  “It has been told by many people and a dozen old citizens of East Lake who would not be close to 100 years old have repeatedly told the story as Twiford tells it.”

In the 1960 Virginia-Pilot article itself Twiford said, “I saw one of those coffins opened.  It had been dug up accidentally by a bulldozer.  The top and bottom had been fitted together and fastened with pegs.  All I saw inside was a little ashes or dust.  It ought to have been examined for buttons or other objects but it wasn’t.  The men reburied it and the bulldozer crew circled around the graveyard.”

P 93 – 1950s – In “The Five Lost Colonies of Dare” by Mary Wood Long, she says that “the most dramatic discovery has been the coffins unearthed during a canal dredging operation, as West Virginia constructed its excellent series of roads and canals as part of its forest reclamation and development.

M.F. Kemp was operating the drag-line near the site of ancient Beechland when he struck a section that had been used as a burial ground.  His scoop brought up board-like tree sections and had moved forward into the site before Mr. Kemp realized what had happened.  He stopped the machine as it held a long object which he identified as a coffin.  This coffin was almost complete although the top had been broken by the dragline.  It was about 4 feet long and was hand carved from 2 sections of a log, one serving as the bottom of the coffin and one as the top; these were pegged together.  The bottom section was carved so that a wooden “pillow” was provided for the headrest.  The coffin was wider at the shoulder section, narrower toward the foot.  Upon examination of the other boards or coffin sections, Mr. Kemp decided that 5 other coffins had been damaged and torn apart by his machine.

There were no descriptive marks on the coffins other than the tool marks struck into the wood as the coffins were built.  If anything had remained within the coffin, it was washed out into the swamp water when the scoop cut through the top section.  Mr. Kemp stopped work, and returned to the West Virginia office, where he reported what he had found.  James Mann returned with him to the site, and together they investigated the area.  The cemetery was on a high knoll approximately 30 feet in diameter.  It was surrounded by swamp water and marsh at a depth of 5 feet.  The men decided it was a family burial plot dating from the time of the earliest settlers of Beechland.  Mr. Mann selected a site of high ground near the canal and the portions of the old coffins were reburied.

Mr. Mann inquired about the burial site and none of the older residents of the Mann Harbor or East Lake area could remember every hearing of a cemetery at that spot.  If the site had been known, said Mr. Mann, the road and canal would have been routed about it rather than desecrate a burial site.  All the residents he talked with felt that the type of coffin and its construction could have come only from the early settlers of the 18th century.”

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About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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