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November 2011

 

 

 

Beechland: Oral History versus Historical Records

 

By Roberta Estes

 

The 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 blonde-haired” Indians.

·        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.

 

This paper will attempt to reconcile these various oral histories with census and other historical records.

 

Phil 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 families.

 

In 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:

Within the memory of men still living[1], 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 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 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 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?

McMIllan 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 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



[1] This was written in 1966.  Within memory of men still living would be perhaps 80 years, so perhaps about 1886.  This was definitely after 1850 when only one family was supposed to be left at Beechland.

 

 

built.[1]   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.

McMillan 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[2] caused its disappearance.

McMillan 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:

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.[3]  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, Payne/Paine, White and Sanderlin.[4]  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.”

Mary 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[5]….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.

In 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.

Several 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.

By 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[6] after the Civil War the NC Attorney General had to intercede to secure the property rights of Thomas and his sister Polly Sanderlin. 

Thomas 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 word Malocki[7] 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.

James 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.



[1] This information is in conflict with the information from Whedbee regarding the cross and INRI inscription.

[2] Known cholera epidemics were reported in 1831-32, Asiatic cholera brought by English immigrants and in 1848-49, another outbreak of cholera.  Local outbreaks may not have been reported or recorded.  These reported outbreaks were larger in scale.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics

[3] The only group that we know of that “ran away” from Roanoke were the Grenville 15 in 1586 who had been attacked by the Indians. One skeleton was found in 1587, and reports that between 2 and 4 were killed have surfaced, but the remaining individuals indeed “ran away” after the Indian attack and were last seen by the Croatoan at Port Fernando, apparently leaving the island.  What became of them is unknown.  The colonists of 1587 took the time to disassemble their houses and remove them inferring an orderly and planned departure, not a hasty retreat. 

[4] Of these surnames, only Dutton, Payne and White are colonist surnames.

[5] Based on the 1786 reconstructed census, presented later in this paper, this number resembles the combined area of the Greater Alligator District and Gum Neck with possibly also Miltail the Lake included.  In 1786, Miltail had 33 households and 258 people.

[6] Mary Wood Long in her book The Five Lost Colonies of Dare, p 69, states that “within the collection of Blount papers there is no mention of any village within the boundaries known as the Blount Survey other than the sections called Mashoes and Croatan.”  She goes on to say that this is the area of Mann’s Harbor and the village of Mashoes today.  These two areas on the coastline, not the interior.  The Blount patent was apparently surveyed in 1796 as John Allen who was sent to survey the boundaries wrote to Blount that he had heard of a great forest of cypress in the wilderness but he himself had not seen it, inferring of course that he had not visited the interior.  Blount’s patent was issued in Washington, NC in September of 1796.

[7] Spelling during this timeframe was not standardized and names were common spelled any number of ways.  The conjecture that this was an Indian corruption of an English name is one of the ways that speculative information is introduced into family histories as fact.  Future generations who repeat this speculation may repeat it as fact, not conjecture.

 

In 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.”[1]

Twiford 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 1880s.

The above information from various sources cumulatively provides us with a wealth of information that can be verified.

We 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.

He and others provide us with a plethora of other names as follows in summary format:

Names from Beechland:

Dutton                                     Sutton                                     Payne/Paine

White                                      Sanderlin/Sandlin                  Sawyer

Edwards                                 Crain/Crane                           Owens

Basnight                                 Ambrose

Timmergin Sanderlin reportedly refused to leave Beechland and he was the only one left in 1850[2].  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[3], known to have been a Beechland family at some time during its history.  A section of woodland is still mapped as Duttons Field.[4]

A 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 above.

John Grey Blount’s 5000 acre land grant is confirmed by the 1808 Strothers map[5], 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?

Oral 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 mid-1830s.

When 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:

Smith

Basnight

Stokes  

The 1850 Tyrrell County census[6] shows is that Manly D. Twiford, the father of Marshall Twiford, is age 6, born 1844[7], 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

 

[1] Various sources indicate that bodies decay relatively rapidly, but that in a non-acidic environment bones can last for 100 years before turning to dust.  With the relative wetness of the swamp and the rising and lowering water table, these bodies may have decayed much faster, but given that only ashes were left, in the best circumstances (aside from being buried in a peat bog which mummifies corpses), we can safely say that the burials may have occurred within the past 100 years of when they were excavated, but that assuredly if they occurred prior to the 1850s, they would have been fully deteriorated.  I do have to question the "dust" comment, given that they pulled these coffins out of a wet marsh.

[2] Trimagin Sanderlin (listed in the census as Sandlin) was age 69 in 1850. His wife was Rodea age 39.  Thomas was age 9.  Polly (or Mary, a common nickname) as not listed in 1850.  In 1860 Trimagin is listed as age 58, Rhoda is 52 and Thomas is 20.  Still no Mary or Polly listed as a child, but in 1850 there is a Mary A. Sandlin, age 35, living with this family.  If she is Trimagin’s daughter, it would be from an earlier marriage.  In 1850 Trimagin also owns an 11 year old male black slave.

[3] The first Dutton is J.W. Dutton to appear in the 1840 census, so he apparently moved to Beechland between 1830/1840.  He lives beside Truxton Twiford, very near the Sanderlin family.  If these families had all moved by 1840, they all moved together and resettled as a group and Dutton was among them. However, if this occurred, how did the field at Beechland become known as Duttons Field?  It appears that these families were still living as a group in the 1840 census.  Dutton is not found in the 1850 census (Ancestry.com indexing and also manually searched 5 pages each direction from Truxton Twiford.)  The families of the 1830 and 1840 census are still living as a group in 1850, in the same household order with some new households interspersed.

[4] Long goes on to say that it is known that the families of Sanderlin, Paine, Basnight, Twiford, Dutton and Crain lived at the knoll in the woodland and that later other families such as Sawyer, Pinter, Cahoon and others came to East Lake.  Crain first appears in 1786 and resides among this group.  However, Carroon/Cahoon is also found there very early, a neighbor of John Paine in 1786.  Pinter is not found in the records to 1850, so perhaps this family arrived after that timeframe.  So while she has the correct names, the timeframes of when they moved to Beechland or East Lake are disputed by the records.

[5] Map is available to view in high resolution at: http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/ncmaps&CISOPTR=520.  Note the name Jackson to the right of Beechland, between the Beechland and Sandy Ridge dots.

 

[6] Ancestry.com, Tyrrell County 1850 census, page 51, house 389

[7] Manly was reported to have been born after the family moved from Beechland, but the 1830,1840 and 1850 census shows this family with the same group of neighbors, Trimagin Sanderlin, Edward Paine, Amos Owens, John Barnes and others.

 

 

 

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