Given the frequency of racial mislabeling of Granville County’s Native Americans, how exactly can we be sure we’re correctly identifying “Indian” people? This is a fair and common question. Identifying Native Americans in the colonial and historical records throughout the Southeast is very challenging because Native Americans were seldomly identified individually by name and all free non-whites fell under the politically created term “free colored”. In addition, any real or perceived African racial “admixture” usually meant Native Americans with any African ancestry, were often not enumerated in official government documents as “Indian”. In spite of these challenges, there are still ways to correctly identify Native American communities.
This is why the writing of local Granville County historian Oscar W. Blacknall (1852-1918) is crucial in understanding the identify and social life of Granville County’s Native American community. As a white man, he provides an outsider perspective of the community but because of his family’s deep colonial roots in the area, he was intimately familiar with the community’s families. And one very important and consistent description in Blacknall’s writing about the “free colored” community is that although he includes the term “free negro” to describe the people, he is absolutely certain of their “Indian” racial identity.
Background Information on Oscar W. Blacknall aka David Dodge
Before we explore his writings, here is some background info on Oscar W. Blacknall (1852-1918). He was the son of fallen Confederate soldier Col. Charles C. Blacknall and Virginia Baskerville Spencer. His paternal great-grandmother was Mary “Polly” Kittrell, whose Kittrell family is the namesake for the town of Kittrell where her family has pre Revolutionary War roots. Blacknall wrote in many newspapers and magazines, sometimes under the pseudonym “David Dodge”. His life ended in a murder-suicide tragedy in 1918 when he killed his wife, his daughter, and then killed himself. This was after the devastating deaths of several of his children.
“The Free Negroes of North Carolina” from January 1886, The Atlantic Monthly
The first Blacknall writing that we will discuss is titled, “The Free Negroes of North Carolina” in the January 1886 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. Blacknall wrote this article under his pseudonym “David Dodge”. It is a long article and I will not be reposting the entire text, but you can access the full text here. Instead I will repost important excerpts, starting with this one:
The other factor in their decadence — or perhaps more correctly, another cause of their torpor and inelasticity — is the considerable infusion of Indian blood generally diffused by exclusive intermarriage in their own class, and which has unduly asserted itself owing to their irregular mode of life for many generations. From the nature of the case, the extent of this infusion is of course hard to approximate. If the account of the free negro himself is to be received, it is large, though his anxiety to disown all negro affinity causes one to receive his statement with caution and allowance. But, tradition aside, many, if not the larger part, of the free negroes whose freedom dates back further than this century show traits of mind and body that are unmistakably Indian. In many instances, long, coarse, straight black hair and high cheek-bones are joined with complexions whose duskiness disclaims white blood and with features clearly un-African. True, these extreme types are the exception; but the majority shade up to it more or less closely. These traits are more noticeable among women, forming no exception to the usual accentuation of racial characteristics in the female. The mental qualities of unrecuperativeness and transcendent indolence of a drowsy, listless type, coupled with lurking vindictiveness, all point the same way.
This excerpt shows that Blacknall is unequivocal in his statement that the “free negroes” of the area he lived in are Native Americans. He even describes how the people strongly self-identify as “Indian”, perhaps at times over-stating their Indian identity. Blacknall believes the people to be not only Indian in their appearance but also in their personality and lifestyle. He uses the common racial tropes of “high cheekbones” and “straight hair” to describe the women as “Indian”. And Blacknall also points out what he perceives to be the community’s anti-modern, backwards, suspicious, and lazy demeanor as characteristically “Indian”. Something that he eludes to but discusses in more detail in the subsequent excerpt, is the extremely endogamous marriage patterns of the community – i.e., people almost exclusively marry their own kin.
My neighborhood contains an “Ol’ Isshy” town, a petrified remnant of the past, hardly an exaggeration of the general type, in which the above race marks are to be seen in their full development. It stands about five miles from the railroad station, and consists of some half a dozen families, scantily provided with fathers, crowded into as many little huts scattered here and there on a “slipe” of very poor, rocky ridge. Here they have vegetated for several generations since their ancestors immigrated from Virginia, early in the century. They are intensely clannish and loyal to each other, timid and suspicious of the outside world, of which they are incredibly ignorant. Many of the women have grown old without ever seeing the cars or having been in a town, although almost within sight of both. They still cherish boundless respect for the class that are to them, and to them alone, “rich folks,” coupled with an abiding dislike of the “New Isshy,” especially if he is black. A marriage, even a liaison, with one would be instantly fatal to the reputation of any female among them, though, excepting the African, the children of many, in point of variety of color at least, might serve to illustrate the five races of mankind. After their own immediate class, they associate almost wholly with the poorest whites, though not quite as equals.
We see Blacknall describe in more detail why members of the Native American community exclusively married their own kin because it was socially unacceptable for them to marry blacks or whites. He does concede that the community would sometimes intermarry with “poor whites” because both groups occupied similar social standing. Even though most members of the Native American community had varying amounts of both African and European ancestry, Blacknall shows that they still self-identified as “Indian” and were identified as “Indian” by their black and white neighbors.
The term “Old Isshy” referred to the “free-born” status of the Native American community, whereas “New Isshy” referred to the “freed slave” status of the black community. This distinction was apparently important for both communities to make which resulted in the use of this terminology. Blacknall also describes a particular cluster of families from the Native American community living a few miles from his home that I have pointed out on the map:
As you can see, 5 miles from the Kittrell train station is the precise location of the Native American community that is mostly centered around Fishing Creek and then expands in various directions including Kittrell, Oxford, and Brassfield. Native Americans families lived in tight clusters throughout the county, but the Fishing Creek area is the oldest area with the highest concentration of Native American families. The Native American families who most commonly lived in tight clusters in the Fishing Creek/Kittrell area that Blacknall described include: Chavis, Harris, Pettiford, Anderson, Bass, Mitchell, Parker, Howell, Boon, Scott, Brandon, Evans, Guy, Richardson, Taborn, Tyler, Hedgepeth, Jones and Hawley.
The “poor whites” that the Native American community intermarried with, were most often white women. Blacknall further explains here:
Indeed, of all the hundreds of free negroes that I have known from childhood, I cannot now recall a dozen black or very dark ones. Hardly a neighborhood was free from low white women who married or cohabited with free negroes. Well can I recollect the many times when, with the inconsiderate curiosity of a child, I hurriedly climbed the front gate-post to get a good look at a shriveled old white woman trudging down the lane, who, when young, I was told, had had her free-negro lover bled, and drank some of his blood, so that she might swear she had negro blood in her, and thus marry him without penalty. Since I became a man I have heard it corroborated by those who knew, and I still occasionally see the children of this tragic marriage, now grown old men.
From looking at census records and marriage records for members of the community, I as well noticed a pattern of poor white women who lived among and had children with men from the community. For example:
What I find also very informative about this article is that Blacknall discusses the changing attitudes that whites had towards the Native American community. Before and right after the Revolutionary War, whites looked at the community favorably. But due to increasing fears of slave revolts, whites began to distrust all “free people of color”:
The attitude of the races towards each other was widely different from what it afterwards became. But about 1830, a growing mistrust on the part of the whites manifested itself. Abolitionism, hitherto the hobby of visionaries and isolated philanthropists, had now grown to be the watchword of a militant, uncompromising party. Its subtle leaven permeated the whole country, encouraging the slave, exasperating the master.
Blacknall later references the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia, which prompted the North Carolina legislature to completely disenfranchise the rights of “free people of color” in 1835. This included taking away the right to vote and the right to own firearms. As a result, attitudes towards the Native American community greatly shifted during the decades leading up the Civil War and the community suffered for it. Blacknall echoes this sentiment:
There is still a tradition among them in Granville County that they lost the franchise on account of their persistent support of the notorious Potter. Potter, though a man of parts and a natural orator, was a consummate demagogue and a violent, unscrupulous man, whose new departure in iniquity evoked special legislation. Toward the last, the free negroes falling more and more into disrepute, their support carried such a stigma with it as to be an element of weakness rather than of strength to a candidate. More than one candidate of those days, twitted by his opponent on the stump about this element of his constituency, retorted by declaring his willingness to throw out every free-negro ballot, if his assailant would do likewise. After this period, the life of the free negro grew unspeakably harder. Not so much that the laws were harsher, but because the attitude of the whites became and continued more hostile.
And Blacknall continues:
It is not to be wondered that the free negroes, unelastic and prone to unthrift, underwent still further deterioration. Cowed, perplexed, and dispirited, they huddled together on any scant, sterile bit of land that they were fortunate enough to be possessed of, erected clusters of their frail little huts, and like oppressed, hopeless classes the world over sunk into profound listlessness and sloth. The women grew unchaste, the men dishonest, until in many minds the term “free negro” became a synonym for all that was worthless and despicable.
Oscar W. Blacknall’s Letters to the Editor in 1895
Though the 1886 Atlantic Monthly article is full of rich description, Oscar Blacknall failed to provide any specific names of people from the Native American community. In this published letter from 1895 he did provide names, but he mixed up their identities:
In this letter, Blacknall cites a man named “Chavers” who was a school teacher that taught white students. (“Chavers” is a common spelling variation of “Chavis”). He says this same man owned a huge tract of land along the Tar River and that there is still a bridge and road named after him. Though, Blacknall did not give the man’s first name, there is no doubt he is referring to John Chavis (1763-1838), a Revolutionary War soldier who famously became a Presbyterian preacher and taught white students. However John Chavis was not the owner of the large tract of land along the Tar River. That was William Chavis (1706-1778), founder of Granville County’s Native American community. And it is William Chavis, not John Chavis, who is the namesake for the road and bridge. It is not known if the two men were related. John Chavis (1763-1838) was born in Mecklenburg Co, VA and was the son of a Jacob Chavis and Elizabeth Evans. I authored a blogpost you can read here about this John Chavis to help clarify his identity in the historical archive. Blacknall mistakenly conflated the two men but a couple of weeks later, Blacknall corrects his mistake in another letter to the newspaper:
Immediately, Blacknall admits his mistake in conflating the two men and says that it is William Chavis (1706-1778) who was the large land owner. He refers to Chavis’ land as the “old Chavis tract” and describes it as beginning at Lynch Creek and going 16 miles upstream to Fishing Creek. His land then extended continuously a full 5 miles inland from the banks of Tar River. I have outlined William Chavis’ land tract below:
51,200 acres is an enormous amount of land and is far beyond the Chavis land that was described in Wes White’s write-up for the Lumbee Tribe’s federal recognition. (The Lumbee Chavis family descends from William Chavis’ son Phillip Chavis). Blacknall believes that Chavis came to own such a large, continuous tract of land directly by way of John Cateret, 2nd Earl of Granville (1690-1763). As I discussed in an earlier blog post, the entire upper half of North Carolina was owned by John Cateret and was known as “Granville District”. The Blacknall Family property was originally part of the old Chavis land tract, so that is why Oscar Blacknall was intimately familiar with the history of who owned the land before his own family. This expansive tract of land that William Chavis owned, formed the land base for Granville County’s Native American community. So when I refer to the original land base for the community, you now know exactly what I’m referring to. Also note that this land was not “communally owned”, but rather privately owned by William Chavis and later divided into smaller plots privately owned by other community members. So it was not a bounded reservation, and increasingly over time as land was sold off, many unrelated families both white and black, came to reside in this location. (Note: William Chavis and his wife Frances Gibson are my 7th great-grandparents).
In this article, Blacknall also discusses William Chavis’ son Gibson “Gibbs” Chavis (1737-1777) who he says is the namesake for Gibb’s Creek (part of the original Chavis land tract). Gibson Chavis was the owner of a racing horse named “Black Snake” who won Gibson a lot of money. However one night, Gibson Chavis was killed by a group of men he had won money off of from his racing horse. The fact that Gibson named his horse “Black Snake” is very culturally relevant. Black snakes are common in the area and traditional indigenous belief is that the snake holds a lot of power and medicine. The black snake is even featured on the Haliwa-Saponi tribal seal:
As the letter continues, Blacknall reiterates many of the points he raised in the 1886 Atlantic Monthly article. Here is an excerpt:
“Excepting Wake county, I found them far more numerous in Granville County as well as much more characteristic of the type…I found that many of the families denied that their ancestors had ever been slaves. This denial I naturally attributed to their pride or ignorance. But it turned out they were right. An investigation as far as practicable of their genealogy SHOWED THEM TO BE LARGELY OF INDIAN BLOOD……Their prejudices against the slaves were so strong that nearly all the affinity of the free negro was with the lowest class of whites. As this exclusiveness still prevails, many known as free negroes probably have not one drop of negro blood.”
In the article, he also discusses slave ownership among the “free negro” population. Blacknall found that some of the “free negroes” were themselves slave owners. This is true – for example William Chavis (1706-1778) the community’s founder, did own slaves. Though by the early 1800s, nearly all of the community members no longer owned slaves.
As the letter goes on, Blacknall again emphasized the division between the Native American community and the black freedmen community, saying that intermarriage and socialization between the two was so frowned upon that members of the Native American community likely had little to no African blood. It is difficult to discern how true this statement is because of the way all non-whites were classified using the same racial terms. So “degrees of Indian blood” for members of the community were not historically recorded. It is very much worth mentioning that it may have been true that intermarriage between members of the free-born Native American community and black freedmen was nearly non existent during Blacknall’s lifetime, but starting in the early-mid 20th century, the communities did begin to intermarry and socialize much more.
I’ve come to learn that much of Oscar Blacknall’s writing and research was destroyed in a house fire. This is truly unfortunate because as you can see, Blacknall’s insights offer a rare glimpse into a community that few of his contemporaries had any interest in. However, if you come across more of his writing that is relevant to the Native American community in Granville County, please leave a comment.