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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Challenges of Hatteras Research

When digging in the dirt, you sometimes benefit by knowing whose dirt you are on.  But, what if they lived almost 300 years ago?  While archaeologists working for the Lost Colony Research Group were excavating an early-mid 18th century home on Hatteras Island, they couldn't just ask the man's neighbors or family.  No one really remembers them.  But, there are still some records of where these people lived in the genealogical sources available in the archives. 

That's where historical research benefits the archaeologist.  I know because that's what I do.  :)

As LCRG's historian since May 2010, I study deeds, wills, court documents, estates, etc for their historical content.   Before I began, there existed no map of Hatteras Island that showed details of the waterways, features, etc.  Besides, even topographical maps would give only the current names for any features and we were studying the 18th century.  We needed to create a map from these sources.  I created this map of 18th century place names on Hatteras Island by spending countless hours, days, and weeks pouring over these types of records:

 One Hatteras Island early resident owned a large piece of the island including present-day Buxton, north of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  This man, named James Wahab, happened to be the previous 18th-century owner of the land within which we were digging.  The house probably belonged to him.  Still, we needed to know later owners for purposes of the later period context of the house.  It had been destroyed and rebuilt by a subsequent owner.  Therefore, we needed to study the divisions of James Wahab's estate in order to determine who inherited and/or sold this particular piece of property.  

On 15 October 1772, James Wahab left a will in Currituck County, North Carolina (where Hatteras lay before 1823.  That will and subsequent deed analysis reveals the divisions of his estate:

This takes a lot of work, time, and  something that most historians despise - math.  Surveys are very mathematical and require some knowledge of angles and surveying practices in order to lay them out properly.  This is daunting, but there's another factor about studying Hatteras Island that makes this kind of work a challenge.  

Deed boundaries often state "N 45 W 120 poles" or something like this.  Well, for early 18th-century Hatteras, these details were somewhat plentiful.  The problem was that some surveyors understood the bulk of Hatteras Island to run west-east.  A common misconception (still observed in island prejudice today) was that the island runs north-south.  Other surveyors probably did not use a good compass and made a faulty assumption.  Even more confounding is that after about 1770, surveys were rarely done and the deeds only mention the names of neighbors... no exact boundaries with numbers.  "Pick up the LCRG historian, he feinted again..."

Reuben Burris to Absolum Scarborough, 1809, partial.
The deed above from Reuben Burris to Absolum Scarborough details a 50-acre piece of property bounded by the NE corner of Peter Brady's land and runs south with his line "into the woods."  Then, it veers east and runs to Reuben Burris' other plot.  No exact numbers.  Moreover, what did this deed mean by "NE" and which way is "south"?  

That's what I deal with in every deed.  By comparing these deeds to other deeds... say, Peter Brady's deed for his land, we can get a better idea of the land's orientation.  Maybe the mistakes or laziness is not repeated in all the connecting deeds and can provide a plot size related less to a wild ass guess and more of a reasoned hypothesis.  WAG's are not my favorite. 

Another thing that interferes with this type of research is that, on Hatteras Island, many former island "historians" published unsourced and uncited work and some of that work has been found to be in error.  This takes painstaking study to figure out.  For instance, a 1710 letter from Rev. John Urmstone to his superiors in London was misquoted by Ben Dixon MacNeill in his book, the Hatterasman.  That same quote was further elaborated by another author, adding specific details that simply were not true.  James Wahab was one of the details in that particular elaboration.  Perhaps the author wanted it to be true, but it simply was not.

 Accuracy in historical research is essential.  Citing our work is the most important thing that we historians do.  It makes the work of future historians so much easier and provides evidence for any proposals that you might make so they can be verified.  

So, there you have it.  Digging in the dirt sometimes gets dirty.  Persistence and patience will prove triumphant, as the study of James Wahab's estate divisions shows.  These were real results from previously unconventional historical resources.  

James Wahab, according to the deed records had a neighbor who was probably living there well before him, a Mr. Valentine Wallace.  That house survived longer that the first one, changing hands at least twice, well into the late 18th century.  I'm anxious to find that place, too.  

More dirt digging to come!

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