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Beechland: Oral History versus Historical Records

 

Roberta Estes

Copyright 2009, all rights reserved  

 

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 built.[2]   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[3] 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.[4]  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.[5]  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[6]….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[7] 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[8] 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.  The ballast stones must have been brought into Milltail by the early handmade boats, although this is not a known Indian tradition.  Ballast stones could also have been brought 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.   

 

 

 

 

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.”[9]  

 

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[10].  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[11], known to have been a Beechland family at some time during its history.  A section of woodland is still mapped as Duttons Field.[12]  

 

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[13], 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[14] shows is that Manly D. Twiford, the father of Marshall Twiford, is age 6, born 1844[15], 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 laborer and his wife is 39, born 1811 in NC.  Their oldest children are twins born in 1833, so their marriage probably occurred in 1832 in Tyrrell County.

Marriage records do indeed exist for this timeframe and a marriage for Wallis Twiford is not recorded.  Searching on Ancestry.com and Rootsweb.com provides (unsubstantiated) information that Nancy’s maiden name was Payne.  It provides further information that Nancy died in 1884.   

 

Early Tyrrell and Currituck Records  

 

The earliest available records for Tyrrell County were actually from when it was a precinct of Albemarle County.  The 1729-1732 Quit Rent rolls exist.  Neither Payne, Paine nor Twiford are on these rolls, nor are any of the other surnames mentioned by Twiford or others.  Tyrrell was formed in 1729 but it wasn’t until 1739 that the precincts actually became counties.  

Miltail district is reported on Genweb to have been in Currituck Precinct/County prior to 1739.  At this time Currituck contained the entire area along the seaboard from Albemarle Sound to the Pamlico River.   The northern portion became part of Tyrrell which is now the part of Dare County from the Alligator River to the Sound. The southern portion of Currituck County was annexed to Hyde County in 1745.[16]  

Checking early Currituck County records, we find Sanderson there on the 1694-1696 rent rolls, never spelled any other way except Saunderson through the 1735 records which are the last Currituck records available before the Beechland portion of Currituck becomes part of Tyrrell. 

On the 1696 -1697 Currituck Tithable list, we find Sandersons, Mr. Courroon, Levi Smith, Samuel Barnes and William Bastett (possibly Barnett or Basnight).

On the 1714 Currituck Valuations list, we find the following:

John Neal 150 (value of property in pounds)

George Barnes 10

Richard Smith 50

Levi Smith 50

(Torn)siah White 1 year 18

(Torn)es Carroon Sr 20

(Torn)mes Carroon Jr 6

Samuel Paine 30

Capt. Richard Sanderson 400

John Smith free negro 26

Joseph Sanderson 300

Richard Sanderson Esq 750

Michael Oneal 75

James Brown 75

Jeremiah Smith 2-10-0

   

Samuel Payne is noted here, but is never listed again.  He is designated as having property, so perhaps Currituck County deeds and grants should be searched, or, the surname could be misspelled.  Searching the 1715 and 1716 lists, we discover that his last name is then spelled Poyner.  In 1716 he is in insolvent and then disappears from the record, although some years later there are other Poyner males.  

 

In 1714/1715 a list of money paid from the treasury John Carron to the names above.  

 

The 1715 Tithable list adds Josiah and Luke White as well as Jeremiah Smith.  1715 levies received lists Sarah Smith, John Oneal and James Mann in addition to earlier names.  

 

The 1717 Currituck Tax Levy list adds David Ambrose.  

 

In 1717 we also find John Penny, which might be Payne misspelled, but if so, it is consistently misspelled for several years.  Matthew Migitt is also added this year.  

 

In 1718 we find Webly Payve (sic), 3 tithables and no land.   

 

The 1719 Tithables list adds Thomas Seayers.  John Penny is still listed as such, but Webly is now listed as Payne with 3 tithables.  

 

The 1719 list of Levies and Land Taxes shows Weebly Peyve again, with 3 tithes.  It also notes that Richard Sanderson has 1000 acres “for Rowneoake”.  

 

 

Continued at 

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~molcgdrg/pubs/beechland2.htm 

 

 


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