Monday, June 28, 2010

End Products of History

My North Carolina and American Revolution professor, Dr. Wade Dudley, has often commented on how unusual it was for me to have a major in American History yet a minor in "Mathematics and the Sciences," a title coined by another friend and academic adviser, my African History professor, Dr. Kenneth Wilburn.  As I'm sure that I've indicated previously, I am a "non-traditional student," a term use by universities that you can read as "old fart."  My academic pursuits took the better part of 27 years (with a 2-decade interim) to achieve what most do in 4 years!  Twenty years ago, I was an Astronomy major.  "A what?," you say.  Yep... Astronomy.  I really got discouraged with that line and dropped out of school to experience the "working-man's" life.  Still, I have many science credits, including a lot of chemistry and math.  So, there's the reason for the minor... what to do with ALL of those credits.

Can I possibly relate my scientific background to American History?  Quite possibly, that answer is yes.  My reasoning is chemical in nature.  To begin a reaction, you take two chemical compounds, heretofore unrelated, mix them together, and observe the reaction.  The end products quite likely include a totally unique compound not easily identifiable chemically with the reactants.  Sodium is a metal that explodes on contact with water and chlorine is a green, poisonous gas.  Together, however, they make NaCl or common table salt that we eat, indeed, absolutely need for our survival!  Ironically, two deadly ideas can give you something unique and even useful.  Same with history.

Take for instance our present work with determining what happened with North Carolina's native inhabitants of Hatteras Island and the long unanswered question of the "Lost Colonists."  What were the Indians like that we see in the 18th-century deed records?  Were they products of the "Lost Colonists" (now, more appropriately termed "Abandoned Colonists") and the local Croatoan Indians of Hatteras Island?

The natives along the mainland viewed Europeans as deadly as that Chlorine gas while Europeans (especially Ralph Lane) saw the natives as Sodium.  Could these two come together and make such a mild compound as salt?  Maybe.

John White certainly was not as destructive as Lane.  When he brought his 100+ colonists in 1587, they intended to settle down, not privateer against the Spanish as the militant Ralph Lane had desired.  Still, others believe that the English government might have had a hidden agenda, to seek Sassafras and they have adequately demonstrated that the medicinal properties of that tree were quite valuable for a short period of time that coincided with Sir Walter Ralegh's (also involved in merchandising Sassafras) colonization period, even that Samuel Mace returned to the area in 1602 to seek it out.  Indeed, the English government may have abandoned search efforts for the colonists to instead search for the tremendously valuable Sassafras.  "Follow the dollar," says Dr. Dudley. It hasn't steered me wrong yet.  Another point that I should make here is also that Cape Hatteras was considered by mariners of the day as a deadly place to go because of the dangerous shoals, contributing even further to the relative isolation of the Croatoan.  Mariners likely viewed Hatteras as the volatile crucible of our chemical experiment.  Eighteenth-century newspaper articles adequately demonstrate this. 

The Sassafras "craze" was a short "bubble" that eventually burst, but not until the colonists were long forgotten.  Still, only a few decades went by before Englishmen from Virginia began filtering down the Outer Banks repopulating the area.  By then, natives were mostly reduced to as much as 10% of their former numbers (disease has had a widespread devastation all across the contact areas in America). 

Without a doubt, some of those colonists lived with the natives of Croatoan, now known as Hatteras.  That's where John White expected to find them because that's where they told him to find them.  Unfortunately, White was prevented from returning to Croatoan by an ever-irritable phenomenon called a "nor'easter" and he never saw his daughter nor granddaughter, Virginia Dare, again.  And, of course, Mace was busy in 1602 looking for plants instead of people (if I need rescue, don't send Samuel Mace).  No mention was made of Hatteras' inhabitants by the English who came down in the 17th century... it was up to John Lawson, in 1701, to find the blue-grey-eyed Indians on Hatteras and claimed that "several of their Ancestors were white People, and could talk in a Book..." and also, in Lawson's words, "this Settlement miscarry'd for want of timely Supplies from England; or thro' the Treachery of the Natives, for we may reasonably suppose that the English were forced to cohabit with them, for Relief and Conversation; and that in process of Time, they conform'd themselves to the Manners of their Indian Relations. And thus we see, how apt Humane Nature is to degenerate."

In my opinion, however, the Indians of Hatteras were not a degenerative end-product of the combination of the two "explosive" elements from our traditional version of the story (related in its present form since the 1939 beginning of the play that rocketed Andy Griffith to stardom).  They were the salt of the earth, so to speak.  They were the mild testimonial of what we all are capable of... getting along when we try.  Lawson was better than most of his peers, but he was still biased toward English (later, American) viewpoints of the Indian "savage."  Sadly, the winner writes history, as they say.

This may not have been the perfect analogy for the chemical reaction, for the Croatoan were never really the "explosive" enemy of the early colonists.   But, the end-products were indeed something unique.  For a time, a handful of Englishmen may have experienced life in a simpler form.  They may have forgotten the struggles of modern existence and lived a pastoral life with friends.  The romantic in me wants to see it that way.  The historian/scientist in me will present the findings, whatever they might be.  But, there's still hope.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Colonial Squirrel Chase

Hear ye!  Hear ye!  All colonists prepare your muskets and yer snares! 

A 1723 Act of the North Carolina General Assembly, Chapter VIII, was entitled "An Act for destroying Squirrels."  Why?  Apparently, because of the furry little American natives, "much Damage and injury is Yearly done as well to the Corn as to the Mast in General in the Several precincts of Pequimins, Pasquotanck and Currituck within this province...."  Does that make sense to you?  Well, it did in 1723 apparently.  This Act was recorded in the North Carolina Colonial Records; available online specifically at

"That every person or persons who after the Ratification of this Act shall kill and. destroy any Squirrels shall, as Encouragem't therefore, have and receive for each Squirrel the Sum of three pence, to be paid to him or them or to his or their Order by the Vestry men of the parish where he or they are Inhabitants or Resident, in Such Manner and at such times and places as are herein after particularly Set forth; That is to Say, at the Vestry House or place of their Usual meeting, within one Month after Easter Monday now next ensuing..."

That's right... you shoot or capture as many squirrels as you can during the year, "bring in the Same or the scalps of the Same, with the Ears on" to your local church at a date to be set "within one Month after Easter Monday now next ensuing" and get 3 pence each for them.  And to raise the money for the Squirrel Bounty, "the said vestrymen are hereby authorized and impowered to lay a Levy or Tax equally on each Tythable in their Respective Parish to defray and discharge the aforesaid full amount, and no More, and thereupon Cause the Same forthwith to be collected and received by the Church Wardens or Church Warden or such other person or persons as he or they shall appoint for collecting and receiving the other parish Levys and at the Same time..."

Yeah, you got taxed for it.  Do we call it the "Nut tax?"  This was to be a yearly deal.  Happy hunting fellow colonists!  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Chasing Hatteras Indians

This summer, I have taken a break from the books to explore Hatteras Island history with Roberta Estes, Dawn Taylor, Anne Poole, Scott Dawson, and many other fine professionals and experienced volunteers to find out what happened to John White's Roanoke colonists. Yeah, I know... not again! Well, yes... this time, it's a serious and painstaking approach to find those who might have blended with the original Croatoan Indians and then spread out into Eastern NC, becoming "lost" in plain sight, as they say.

As Scott will tell you in his book, Croatoan: Birthplace of America, the colonists of 1587 were not "lost" but rather abandoned on Croatoan (Hatteras). John White knew that they had gone to Croatoan by the message they left for him on Roanoke and tried to get there but was held off by a storm. His captain told him that they couldn't stay and so they went back to England. White had waited for three years, held in check by the attack of the Spanish Armada that concentrated all of England's naval forces upon the attack. When he finally gets the chance to rescue his daughter, her husband and newborn daughter, Virginia Dare, plus the other hundred or so colonists, he is forced to leave and never to return. If Queen Elizabeth had lived, she may have sent another mission. Unfortunately, she died and James I became king. It was James I who had other directions to go... namely founding Jamestown in 1607. As a consequence, he simply abandoned the search altogether. The colonists presumably lived with the friendly Croatoan on Hatteras, possibly marrying into the tribe, to be rediscovered by John Lawson in 1701. "Grey-eyed" Indians that could "talk in a book" impressed him not too little and he made note of this in his book, A New Voyage to Carolina, text available at UNC's Documenting the American South website. [Scott Dawson is a local historian and researcher who maintains Hatteras Histories Mysteries museum in Buxton.]

Anyway, Europeans came into NC mostly through Virginia in the later half of the 17th century and probably refound the Croatoan still on the island (they had incurred the enmity of the mainland tribes for hanging out with the Europeans who had tried to kill them more than once). Still, White's colony was not Richard Grenville and his gang, the butthead that he was and the Croatoan got along just fine with them.

As for blending with the Indians, a process known as "miscegenation," a possible letter to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (whew!) tells of people from Hatteras and Ocracoke who came to get baptized. The letter states that, "these persons, half indian and half English, are an offense to my own and I gravely doubt the Kingdom of Heaven was designed to accomodate such. They stunk and their condition was not improved by the amounts of sacramental wine they lapped up nor by sprinkling with baptismal waters."  This letter was found in the Hatterasman, by Ben Dixon MacNeill.

If these guys are the descendants of half-English and half-Croatoans, they may also be the descendants of White's colonists! That's the supposition and that's what the Lost Colony Research Group (the group I joined) is trying to prove. DNA is going to be the answer to this question and it involves DNA comparisons across the Atlantic Ocean with samples obtained from living relatives of colonists who left Bideford, England. The former mayor of Bideford, Andy Powell, is gun-ho with this idea and would lead it himself if we didn't tag along. lol The rest of us, many of us students and researchers like myself are tasked with providing the historical research to link these early colonists with living descendants today for DNA comparison purposes. (Note that the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research has had some questionable practices lately and I do not recommend working through them.)

My task as of late has been to do Hyde County research on the surnames involved and also to piece back together a map of Hatteras in 1770. The Indian Town mentioned on many deeds from 1716 to 1801 is the target of our groups' archaeological study and we would like to know where it is. That would be a good idea before you start digging. Aside from this town, two digs have already been done, turning up thousands of artifacts, some of which are displayed in Scott's local museum. Compare this with Roanoke Island's 102 digs and the resulting lack of artifacts. Hatteras is a wealth of native knowledge yet to be explored. We could be very close to a discovery of immense importance. Time will tell. Personally, I'd like to think that North Carolina has the first English colony in North America. That would just be cool. But, to possibly be descended from those particular colonists is beyond exciting for many North Carolinians!