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Lumbees - Descendants of the Lost Colony?

Nash Devon, the main character in Desert Winds, traces his roots back to his Lumbee Indian grandmother, mixed with the Scots-Irish heritage shared with the other European settlers in and around Hog Swamp, bordering the Lumber River in eastern North Carolina. The influences of his Protestant-Army inclinations and his grandma's Native American beliefs strongly influence his reactions with the Catholic Rene Granwin and Yakkin, the Iraqi boy and devout Muslim who becomes Devon's "blood brother." Our G.I.'s now deployed to the Middle East will discover a similarly confusing mix of beliefs, an unexpected reflection of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the "Lost Colony."

By tradition, the Lumbees trace their origins to the Croatan tribe of Roanoke Island, North Carolina where a grand highway bridge now rises to carry the tourists across to Bodie Island and the other barrier islands of the Outer Banks. When Sir Walter Raleigh returned to the Roanoke Island in 1590 looking for the first English colony he had deposited in 1587, only ruins and the letters "CROATOAN" carved into a tree remained. In the 1700's, European settlers discovered Native Americans who called themselves Lumbees farming and hunting the fertile lowlands along the Lumbee River, hence the name of the tribe, or the river. I am still uncertain which came first, typical of the confounding lack of facts surrounding the Lumbees. The Europeans were amazed that some of the Lumbees identified themselves with the English names of the colonists and had a rudimentary understanding of the English language.

The early attempts of English colonization in America began with Raleigh's first expedition in 1585 that stayed until 1586. The saga of these first explorers and their return with Sir Frances Drake to England in 1586 is only part of the story. Another reference source for these events is found in a series of research papers in the NC State archives. The first expedition was wonderfully recorded in a contemporary report penned by Thomas Hariot in his fancifully illustrated book, circa 1588, originally written for Sir Walter Raleigh and entitled "A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of VIRGINIA" which can be viewed in its entirety online on the University of North Carolina website. Twenty-five years old when he participated in  Raleigh's first expedition to the New World in 1585-1586, Hariot was an intellectual of such magnitude that he shares credit for the invention of the telescope with Galileo, giving much credence to his written and artistic observations.

Unfortunately, the popular theories describing the fate of the "Lost Colony" are only conjecture, especially regarding the final expedition which was to be a permanent colony and establish Raleigh's grant to the entire Virginias (as I recall, Raleigh hoped the grant would include approximately everything south of the Potomac, north of the Spanish colony of Florida and west of the Atlantic). The most popular theory presumes the survivors, mostly women and children, joined, or more probably, were captured and assimilated by the Croatoans.

Alternative possibilities involve other tribes of the eastern seaboard, including the Cheraw, Roanoke and Tuscaroras, a nation of the Iroquois. Later, the Tuscaroras fought the European Carolina settlers in the not-well-known Tuscarora War of 1711, leading to my use of the Tuscaroras as a source of "boogie man" tales from Nash Devon's Lumbee grandma in Desert Winds.

Several university linguistic studies (principally at one of my old alma maters, North Carolina State University) have uncovered intriguing suppositions. One links the Lumbees to a multi-ethnic heritage by tying the nineteenth-century speech patterns of the Lumbees to a mix of old English as spoken by the sixteenth-century colonists and roots from the Algonquin and Iroquois dialects that would have likely been spoken by the Croatoans. This line of research was originated by Hariot in the sixteenth century.

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Julie White's "Looking Back" perhaps is more entertaining than the scholarly articles, but quotes many authoritative sources, and may be the single "best" read of this wonderful story.

An excerpt from "Looking Back":
"A professional historian of national respect, after an examination of the oral and written evidence existing, concluded, in 1891: "The Croatoans (sic.) of today claim descent from The Lost Colony. Their habits, disposition and mental characterists (sic.) show traces of Indian and European ancestry. Their language is the English of 300 years ago, and their names are in many cases the same as those borne by the original colonists. No other theory of their origin has been advanced, and it is confidently believed that the one here proposed is logically and historically the best, supported as it is both by external and internal evidence. If this theory is rejected, then the critic must explain in some other way the origin of a people which, after the lapse of 300 years, show the characteristics, speak the language, and possess the family names of the second English colony planted in the western world."

Another interesting view was penned by Stanley Knick at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in an article entitled "Because It Is Right" which traces the evolution of the Native American presence along the Lumbee River from pre-history to today. I understand the purpose of the article was to help support the Lumbee effort to be recognized as a Native American tribe by the US government.

The Lumber River is a treacherous body of water, dark with tannins. The waterway was first called the Lumbee by early inhabitants, which reputedly means Black Water (do not know from which Native American language, so not certain of the original source), then Drowning Creek by the European settlers. An archeological site along the river uncovered a dugout canoe that is over a thousand years old. The waterway was re-named Lumber River in 1809, typical of the way native geographical names were garbled over the centuries of settlement across all of America, in this case probably through a misguided sense of European correctness and a reflection of the massive timbering efforts that has replaced much of our original forests with at best, rows of pine trees destined for the paper pulp industry, or, at worst, eroded wasteland.  

I recently received a signed copy of Josephine Humphreys' Nowhere on Earth, set in Robeson County, North Carolina during the Civil War.  Prior to the war, the Lumbees and the Scotch-Irish settlers had lived in general accord, but during and after the war, this once-peaceful relationship broke into cruel fighting. Humphrey's novel is a close reflection of the conflicts that tore the County - ambushes in the swamps, beatings, even lynchings - the sad side of the Lumbee story.

The Lumbee Indians were late being recognized as a Native America tribe, with the benefits that attend that recognition. It has been argued that this was primarily because in the early days of our nation they believed themselves so well assimilated with the European settlers along the Lumber River that they did not feel the need for separate recognition. An extract from the official Lumbee Tribe web site: "In 1885, the tribe was recognized as Indian by the State of North Carolina. The tribe has sought full federal recognition from the United States Government since 1888. In 1956, Congress passed the Lumbee Act, which recognized the tribe as Indian. However, the Act withheld the full benefits of federal recognition from the tribe. Efforts are currently underway to pass federal legislation that grants full recognition to the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina."

Ironically, at one time most descendants of European settlers denied any "taint" of Native American blood in their heritage, largely because of the real economic and cultural disadvantages. Today more and more people are searching out their Native American roots, perhaps recognizing the pride and admirable traditions associated with Native American cultures. Some, like myself, would be proud to find a link, but have not (recently confirmed by DNA testng). Dr. Tony Mack McClure, a mixed blood Cherokee and resident of Fayette County, Tennessee has released a new book entitled Cherokee Proud: A Guide for Tracing and Honoring Your Cherokee Ancestors. He also authored a "So your Grandmother is A Cherokee Princess," an interesting article on how to trace your Cherokee roots.

As an aside, Renee Stevens of Person County, North Carolina, brought the story of the Person County Indians to my attention. Centered around High Plains, NC, the Person Indians have a similar legend of association with early English settlers that also includes English surnames and a hint of links to the Lost Colony. What wonderful possibilities for intriguing fiction....

Conjecture, mystery, conflict...the story of the Lumbees and the European settlers of Robeson County are forever intertwined.

I choose to believe the ancestors of the Lumbees of Robeson County were a proud people, traceable to many tribes, as are most of the Native American peoples, with as diverse a cultural heritage as any American today. As a group, they have been wronged, but as individuals, I believe they still stand proud. Many of us can find, or at least suspect, ancestral and ethnic links to European, African, Oriental and Native American cultures. Truth be said, most of us probably have a bit of all, or at least a mix so diverse that "racial purity" is a fleeting myth. So be it. And be proud that mix is America's strength and future.


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