Walter Plecker (1861-1947) is a very recognizable name in the history of Southeastern Native Americans. His name is not remembered for any good deeds though, but rather for his white supremacist views that essentially outlawed the identity of Native Americans during his lifetime. As the director of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Virginia from 1912 to 1946, Plecker had the ability to change records and authorize how vital records should be recorded throughout the state. In the racial binary that Plecker was molding, there was no place for Native Americans. There was either “white” or “colored”, no exceptions. Plecker was responsible for creating the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which legally classified all Virginians as either “white” or “colored” and outlawed all forms of miscegenation. Furthermore, Plecker pressured the Census Bureau to eliminate the “mulatto” category (a racial category that Native Americans in the Southeast were most often labeled under), and from 1930 onward “mulatto” was no longer used in the federal censuses.
What is important to understand about the Plecker era is that his obsession with keeping the races separate was well received by many Virginians. This was “Jim Crow” South, and Plecker’s racist ideas were mainstream. Adolph Hitler, leader of Nazi Germany was also influenced by Plecker’s views on race and eugenics. Because Plecker felt no shame in his actions, he left behind an extensive paper trail. Plecker and those working on his behalf were known to have changed vital records, for example:
With a stroke of a pen, Plecker attempted to erase the identity of Virginia’s Native Americans and the impact of Plecker’s work is still felt today. The Pamunkey tribe after decades of waiting, just received federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and have become the FIRST Virginia tribe to receive such recognition. However there are close to a dozen of state recognized tribes in Virginia that are still seeking federal recognition, and they are facing quite an uphill battle because of Plecker’s legacy.
Though there is much to write about Walter Plecker, the scope of this blog post is his January 1943 letter that he sent out to the head registrars of Vital Statistics in counties across Virginia. A full transcription of the 1943 Plecker letter can be found here. At the beginning of the letter, Plecker makes his intentions crystal clear:
Our December 1942 letter to local registrars, also mailed to the clerks, set forth the determined effort to escape from the negro race of groups of “free issues,” or descendants of the “free mulattoes” of early days, so listed prior to 1865 in the United States census and various types of State records, as distinguished from slave negroes. Now that these people are playing up the advantages gained by being permitted to give “Indian” as the race of the child’s parents on birth certificates, we see the great mistake made in not stopping earlier the organized propagation of this racial falsehood.
We see Plecker refer to the people as “free issues” which is reminiscent of the language that Oscar W. Blacknall used to describe Granville County’s Native Americans which I blogged about here. Also apparent is Plecker’s idea that the “Indian” racial category was providing social advantages that should not be allowed to “negroes”. Moreover, Plecker warns that “negroes” being able to pass for “Indian” is a threat to the white race, as stated here:
Some of these mongrels, finding that they have been able to sneak in their birth certificates unchallenged as Indians are now making a rush to register as white.
In Plecker’s warped view, “Indian” was a stepping stone for “negroes” to infiltrate the so-called purity of the “white race”. Plecker made it clear that any violation of this racial binary was against the law and should be reported:
To aid all of you in determining just which are the mixed families, we have made a list of their surnames by counties and cities, as complete as possible at this time. This list should be preserved by all, even by those in counties and cities not included, as these people are moving around over the State and changing race at the new place…Please report all known or suspicious cases to the Bureau of Vital Statistics, giving names, ages, parents, and as much other information as possible.
Plecker became so obsessed with keeping track of all these families that sought to be listed as “Indian”, that he created an actual list of surnames by county of these families. Here is the Plecker List:
And here is a fully transcribed version of Walter Plecker’s list from 1943:
SURNAMES, BY COUNTIES AND CITIES, OF MIXED NEGROID VIRGINIA FAMILIES STRIVING TO PASS AS “INDIAN” OR WHITE.
Albemarle: Moon, Powell, Kidd, Pumphrey.
Amherst (Migrants to Alleghany and Campbell): Adcock (Adcox), Beverly (this family is now trying to evade the situation by adopting the name of Burch or Birch, which was the name of the white mother of the present adult generation), Branham, Duff, Floyd, Hamilton, Hartless, Hicks, Johns, Lawless, Nuckles (Knuckles), Painter, Ramsey, Redcross, Roberts, Southards (Suthards, Southerds, Southers), Sorrells, Terry, Tyree, Willis, Clark, Cash, Wood.
Bedford: McVey, Maxey, Branham, Burley. (See Amherst County)
Rockbridge (Migrants to Augusta): Cash, Clark, Coleman, Duff, Floyd, Hartless, Hicks, Mason, Mayse (Mays), Painters, Pultz, Ramsey, Southerds (Southers, Southards, Suthards), Sorrells, Terry, Tyree, Wood, Johns.
Charles City: Collins, Dennis, Bradby, Howell, Langston, Stewart, Wynn, Adkins.
King William: Collins, Dennis, Bradby, Howell, Langston, Stewart, Wynn, Custalow (Custaloe), Dungoe, Holmes, Miles, Page, Allmond, Adams, Hawkes, Suprlock, Doggett.
New Kent: Collins, Bradby, Stewart, Wynn, Adkins, Langston.
Henrico and Richmond City: See Charles City, New Kent, and King William.
Caroline: Byrd, Fortune, Nelson. (See Essex)
Essex and King and Queen: Nelson, Fortune, Byrd, Cooper, Tate, Hammond, Brooks, Boughton, Prince, Mitchell, Robinson.
Elizabeth City & Newport News: Stewart (descendants of the Charles City families).
Halifax: Epps (Eppes), Stewart (Stuart), Coleman, Johnson, Martin, Talley, Sheppard (Shepard), Young.
Norfolk County & Portsmouth: Sawyer, Bass, Weaver, Locklear (Locklair), King, Bright, Porter, Ingram.
Westmoreland: Sorrells, Worlds (or Worrell), Atwells, Gutridge, Oliff.
Greene: Shifflett, Shiflet.
Prince William: Tyson, Segar. (See Fauquier)
Fauquier: Hoffman (Huffman), Riley, Colvin, Phillips. (See Prince William)
Lancaster: Dorsey (Dawson).
Washington: Beverly, Barlow, Thomas, Hughes, Lethcoe, Worley.
Roanoke County: Beverly. (See Washington)
Lee and Smyth: Collins, Gibson (Gipson), Moore, Goins, Ramsey, Delph, Bunch, Freeman, Mise, Barlow, Bolden (Bolin), Mullins, Hawkins. — Chiefly Tennessee “Melungeons.”
Scott: Dingus. (See Lee County)
Russell: Keith, Castell, Stillwell, Meade, Proffitt. (See Lee & Tazewell)
Tazewell: Hammed, Duncan. (See Russell)
Wise: See Lee, Smyth, Scott, and Russell Counties.
So what does this have to do with Granville County?
As I’ve shown through earlier blog posts and more yet to come, many of Granville’s Native American families have Virginia tribal origins. These families that came to Granville left behind plenty of family members that remained in Virginia. Additionally, Granville County shares a border with Virginia (Mecklenburg and Halifax Cos), and so the social influence of Plecker and his cronies certainly did not end at Virginia’s border with Granville County. We need to keep this historical context in mind when reviewing records of Native Americans in the Southeast.
The surnames that I highlighted from Plecker’s list above are from the same family lines of Granville County’s Native Americans. Some further information:
BRANHAM – Listed in Amherst and Bedford counties, the Branhams are a core family of the Monacan Indian Nation. The BRANDON (sometimes spelled Brannum, Brandum) family of Granville County is originally from the Virginia Piedmont and is the same family as the Branhams, just a spelling/pronunciation difference. I also believe the Branham/Brandon family to have ties to Fort Christanna in Brunswick Co, VA, where Saponi and allied tribes including the Monacan resided from 1714-1718.
REDCROSS – Listed in Amherst county like the Branhams, the Redrosses are also members the Monacan Indian Nation. Though no Redcrosses made it to Granville County, we know that they are the same family as the Evans family of Granville. Recall my blog post about some of the Evans descendants who were illegally enslaved and were freed on account that they descended from a free Indian woman. Testimony seen here from those court cases reveal that the Redcross family are descendants of the same Evans family.
HOWELL – Listed in Charles City, King William, and Henrico counties and the city of Richmond, the Howell family are from the Pamunkey Tribe. The Howells from Granville County have roots in New Kent County (in between Charles City and King William) and started to move into Virginia’s southside counties. One branch stemming from Freeman Howell moved across the state border into Granville in the early 1800s. Oddly, Plecker doesn’t list New Kent as a location for the Howells which is where the Pamunkey Howells primarily resided but lists them in every surrounding municipality (perhaps an oversight).
STEWART/STUART – Listed in Charles City, New Kent, King William, Henrico, Richmond, Elizabeth City, Newport News, and Halifax. The Stewarts found in all the municipalities except Halifax are from the Pamunkey and Chickahominy tribes. The Halifax County Stewarts are from the Sappony Tribe. It is unclear to me if both the Pamunkey/Chickahominy Stewarts and the Sappony Stewarts are the same family but I’ve included them both just in case. The Granville County Stewarts are the same family as the Sappony Stewarts in neighboring Halifax Co, VA and Person Co, NC. The Sappony Tribe’s tribal territory extends to both sides of the VA/NC state border.
BASS: Listed in Norfolk and Portsmouth, the Bass family have a well documented Nansemond tribal origin that I previously blogged about here. We know that many of the Nansemond Basses relocated to North Carolina, making their way to Granville by the late 1740s. Granville’s Anderson family also has tribal roots with the Nansemond Bass family that I blogged about here.
WEAVER: Listed in Norfolk and Portsmouth, there are Weavers in the Nansemond Tribe as well as the Meherrin Tribe (who adopted in Nansemond, Chowanoke, and other coastal Algonquin tribes). The Weaver family originates from East Indian indentured servants brought to Virginia in the early 1700s who intermarried with local Virginia tribes. The Weavers moved into North Carolina, with a few branches coming to Granville County in the mid 1800s.
LOCKLEAR: Listed in Norfolk and Portsmouth, the Locklear family is more well known in North Carolina, where it is one of the most common surnames found among Native Americans in Robeson County (Lumbee and Tuscarora Indians). There was one branch of the Locklear family that lived in and around Granville County. That branch comes from a man named Randall Locklear (born 1730) whose descendants lived in neighboring Granville and Wake counties.
GIBSON: Listed in Lee and Smyth counties, the Gibson family originally comes from the Charles City County area of Virginia, dating back to the early 1700s. There are two well known Gibson ancestors of Granville’s Native Americans. The first is Jane Gibson, the maternal ancestor of the Evans family who was described as an “old Indian woman” and I blogged about here. The second is Frances Gibson, wife of William Chavis (1706-1778). William Chavis’ original land plot formed the land base for Granville’s Native American community. There are many different opinions about the tribal origins of the Gibsons, but I suspect them to be originally of Algonquian heritage, given their earliest known locations.
GOINS: Listed in Lee and Smyth counties, the Goins have Tidewater Virginia roots. The Goins came to Granville County in the 1740s with many remaining in Granville. Though by the early 1900s, the Goins (also spelled Goings, Gowens) surname had mostly “daughtered out”. The same Goins family are also found in Robeson County, NC among the Lumbee.
BUNCH: Listed in Lee and Smyth counties, the Bunches as well have Tidewater Virginia roots. There were some Bunches in Granville Co in the 1750s, but they did not stay long, with most leaving the county and the state.