Beechland: Oral History versus Historical Records
oral histories of the families that lived in and near Beechland in early
Tyrrell (now Dare) county are indeed robust and involve four critical
elements of content:
An oral history of
Beechland being the first settlement in Dare County
An oral history of the
inhabitants of Beechland being initially the Lost Colonists.
Their descendants were reported to be “blue-eyed
An oral history that the
inhabitants of Beechland deserted the area in the 1840s, or between the
1830s and 1840s and that by 1850 only one family remained.
An oral history that the
Beechland residents moved away before the census takers, the tax
collectors or historians knew about them, which infers that they were
therefore anonymous and unrecorded.
paper will attempt to reconcile these various oral histories with census
and other historical records.
McMullan in his paper “A Search for the Lost Colony in Beechland”
records the various oral histories that he has collected from various
sources. His expertise
garnered from his time spent with Prulean Farms and in particular his
project with the U.S Corps of Engineers preparing an Environment Impact
Statement for their proposed 22,000 acre farm on the Dare County
mainland provides him with valuable insight.
Many important historical and archaeological finds were
discovered during that project and Phil collected various supporting
information. An area known
as Beechland that Phil described and mapped has been confirmed by
archaeological survey and the local residents to be the location of a
high piece of timbered land that at one time supported a number of
an excerpt from his report, McMillan discusses the riven coffins
accidentally excavated on Beechland Road in the 1950s.
He quotes from “Legends of the Outer Banks and Tarheel
Tidewater” by Judge Charles Whedbee written in 1966:
the memory of men still living,
there was at Beechlands (sic) a tribe of fair-skinned, blue-eyed
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 which is resistant to wood rotting fungi.
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
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 similar 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?”
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.”
quoting historian Mary Wood Long’s comments about the coffins, “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 [the
machine operator] 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
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 dept 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.”
Others have stated that when the water level is low, one could
see the ends of coffins protruding from the canal bank.
quotes Bill Sharp in his 1958 New
Geography of North Carolina where he states that there was once a
thriving community on 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.
then discussed Victor Meekins, a journalist who interviewed Beechland
descendant Marshal F. Twiford for a 1960 article printed in the Raleigh
News and Observer. Twiford,
born in 1876 told Meekins:
people always told me that older people before them said that the
Beechland settlement was founded by the English who ran away from
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
recalls Beechland families with names similar to the colonists such as
Dutton, Sutton, Payne/Paine, White and Sanderlin.
He also remembered families of Sawyer, Edwards, Owens, Basnight
and Ambrose. 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.”
Wood Long says “on a high sandy
ridge known as Beechland there once lived a large village of people
numbering at one time 70 families or roughly 700….All
had English names, many found at East Lake today. Living with their white neighbors were Indians of the
Croatoan or Machapungo tribe. During
the 1840s all but one family left Beechland.
Soon this family moved away and the forest covered the site of
this once active village.” She
goes on to report that the men routinely sailed in their large juniper
log canoes to Barbados, the West Indies and Jamaica to barter their
shingles for sugar, salt, flour, coffee, cloth and other items.
the 1830s a preacher from Mann’s Harbor went to Beechland and
discovered no evidence of a church, a Bible or of the Christian religion
and told the people that if they didn’t build a church and turn to God
that the devil would take them. Then a terrible plague called the Black
Tongue plague appeared and the people were stricken and many died.
When it was over the settlement was decimated and the people
remembered the preacher and his warnings.
People began moving away and by 1850 only Trimmergin
Sanderlin’s family remained.
of the families moved northward onto the mainland onto the neck between
East Lake and South Lakes. Some
came back to Sandy Ridge and their descendants remained there until the
purchase of the Blount survey by West Virginia Pulp in 1953.
They built a church of the Disciple doctrine and a few years
later in the 1880s the Kehukee Primitive Baptist Church was founded with
a local man, Manley Twiford as its first preacher.
fact of possession rather than deed Beechland was soon inherited by
Trimmergin’s son Thomas who kept his cattle there. John Gray Blount obtained a patent to the entire peninsula
after the American Revolution but his company never attempted to develop
the interior. McMillan says
that Blount’s surveyor reported people living on his land without a
grant or deed. When John L.
Roper laid claim to the Blount patent
after the Civil War the NC Attorney General had to intercede to secure
the property rights of Thomas and his sister Polly Sanderlin.
Sanderlin was the great-grandfather of both Frank Cahoon and R.D. Sawyer
Sr. who were important sources of Mary Wood Long’s oral history.
Frank Cahoon, former sheriff of Dare County, was born in East
Lake in 1907. He could trace his lineage back to a sister of Malocki
Paine who was a son of Henry Paine, one of the blue-eyed, blond-haired
Indians of early Beechlands. The
is probably an Indian corruption of the Old Testament name of Malachi.
It is said that both Malocki and his sister were blue-eyed and
blonde-haired. Other descendants of the original Beechland settlers
still live at East Lake, on Roanoke Island, and in the surrounding
counties. The names of many are the same as those of the first settlers
in the swampland.
Mann who was maintenance director for WestVaCo when Mary Wood Long was
researching her book said that he could still see ridges within the Old
Field where corn was grown. Many
ballast stones of unknown origin have been found in Milltail Creek beds
where nature placed no stones. Ballast
stones must were not used by Indians.
Ballast stones were used in English 9and probably other European)
ocean going ships, and they could have been brought to this location by
small English ships (pinnaces perhaps) of shallow draft who were seeking
trade of either sassafras or silk grass, two items of great interest to
the English. Records
indicates that they harvested sassafras and returned with it to England.
the 1960 Virginia-Pilot article itself Twiford says, “I saw one of
those coffins opened. It
had been dug up accidentally by a bull dozer.
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.”
recalls accompanying his father to the district as a small boy.
Three families lived there then, Smith, Basnight and Stokes.
After a few years those families disappeared too, Twiford said,
I guess they just moved away. Marshal
Twiford will be 84 next October 7th.
This information provides us with Marshall’s birth year as
1876, so his visits to the area as a small boy would have been in the
above information from various sources cumulatively provides us with a
wealth of information that can be verified.
know the names of Marshall Twiford, when he was born, his father’s
name, Manley, and the fact that his grandfather reportedly came from
Kitty Hawk and married a full blooded Indian from Beechlands.
and others provide us with a plethora of other names as follows in
Sanderlin reportedly refused to leave Beechland and he was the only
one left in 1850.
Mary Wood Long says he was the last left by 1840.
Quoting Long who references the 1790 census, “knowing that
the Sanderlin and Twiford families were living at Beechland at this
time, we examined the records carefully to see if these names were
recorded. Sanderlin was
not and there is also the absence of Dutton,
known to have been a Beechland family at some time during its history.
A section of woodland is still mapped as Duttons Field.
review of Tyrrell County records shows that the first appearance of
John Sandlin (sic) is in the 1810 census where he appears among the
Owens, Hookers, Twifords, Paines and others whose names are mentioned
Grey Blount’s 5000 acre land grant is confirmed by the 1808
shown below, from McMillan’s paper.
Note the “J.G.B. 5000” in the lower right quadrant.
This tract was surveyed in 1796 and sold in 1953 to the West
Virginia Pulp Company. In
between, it was apparently owned by the Sanderlin family.
How did they come to own this tract and how much did they own?
history says that Beechland families all left in the 1840s.
Another source says before the Civil War.
Mary Wood Long says that the average of all of the various
dates she was told in the oral histories she collected is that the
plague struck and the remaining families left sometime in the
Twiford was young (he was born in 1876, so between 1880 and 1896) and
visiting with his father, he tells us that surnames at Beechland were:
The 1850 Tyrrell County census
shows is that Manly D. Twiford, the father of Marshall Twiford, is age
6, born 1844,
living with his parents Wallis Twiford and wife, Nancy, who, if
Marshall’s information is correct, would be the Indian woman from
Beechland. Wallis, age 49 born in 1801 in NC is listed along with his
two 17 year old sons as a