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Oral History versus Historical Records
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”
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
This paper will attempt
to reconcile these various oral histories with census and other historical
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
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:
the memory of men still living,
there was at Beechlands (sic) a tribe of fair-skinned, blue-eyed Indians.
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.
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 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 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.
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 Roanoke Island.
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.”
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
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 word Malocki
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. 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.
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.”
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.
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 summary
Sanderlin reportedly refused to leave Beechland and he was the only one left
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 above.
Grey Blount’s 5000 acre land grant is confirmed by the 1808 Strothers map,
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 mid-1830s.
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:
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
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
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.
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.
the 1696 -1697 Currituck Tithable list, we find Sandersons, Mr. Courroon, Levi
Smith, Samuel Barnes and William Bastett (possibly Barnett or Basnight).
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.
1714/1715 a list of money paid from the treasury John Carron to the names above.
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.
1717 Currituck Tax Levy list adds David Ambrose.
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.
1718 we find Webly Payve (sic), 3 tithables and no land.
1719 Tithables list adds Thomas Seayers. John
Penny is still listed as such, but Webly is now listed as Payne with 3 tithables.
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”.
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