A report on research of Lumbee origins.

Record Number: 

Thomas, Robert K. A report on research of Lumbee origins. Unpublished manuscript, 1976?  71 pages. Key source



Thomas begins by saying that he is submitting this confidential report to Lumbee Regional Development Association (LRDA) rather than writing an article for the Smithsonian because he has only a “limited amount of data,” most of it “indirect evidence” (p. 1).  Because of the “big furor in Robeson County about Lumbee origins and about the correct tribal designation for the Lumbee people” in recent months (p. 1), Thomas did not want to exacerbate the situation “by publishing a premature article which did not have the 'iron-clad' evidence needed to make a definitive scientific and historical argument” (p. 1).  Following this caveat, he discusses and evaluates each of the hypotheses for Lumbee origin, beginning with Hamilton McMillan's Lost Colony theory

Lost Colony Theory (Hamilton McMillan)

Thomas's opinion is that (1) the similarity of Lumbee surnames to those of the Lost Colonists, (2) the archaic dialect spoken by the Lumbee people McMillan talked to in the 1880s, and (3) the tradition of the Lumbee at that time that they had once lived on the coast of North Carolina and migrated inland amount to “very slim evidence of a Lost Colony connection” (p. 3).  Thomas adds that the Lumbee probably were not "in place" in Robeson County until the 1770s (rather that the 1730s, as McMillan initially claimed) and that McMillan was more interested in accounting for the white blood in the Lumbee than in figuring out the Indian roots. 

Cherokee theory (Angus W. McLean)

Thomas then discusses Angus W. McLean's theory that the Lumbee are descendants of the Cherokee. Thomas asserts that “there is no evidence whatsoever that Cherokees ever got as far east as Robeson County” (p. 6) and believes that the Lumbee picked up the Cherokee-origin idea from local whites in the first half of the 1800s (p. 6).  He offers several reasons why the Robeson County environment would have been unattractive to Cherokees and surmises that McLean may have meant to say Cheraw and simply got the names confused.  Thomas calls the hypothesis that the Lumbee are descendants of the remnants of several Siouan tribes “a pretty good guess” (p. 8), since there is “no direct evidence for the hypothesis” (p. 8). 

Tuscarora theory (Mary W. Norment)

Thomas believes that the Tuscarora theory of tribal origins is based solely on evidence in Mary Norment's book on the Lowery Gang, The Lowrie history (see item 1083).  Norment gives detailed accounts of the history of the Lowery family and of Robeson County Indians, presumably based on conversations with elderly people (in the 1880s) who knew the Lowerys well.  Norment speculates that Robeson County Indians are a combination of Indian, black and white (p. 8).  In the first edition of her book she uses the term “mulatto” and does not speculate on the tribal origins of the Indian blood.  In a later edition she drops the term mulatto, mentions Portuguese as part of their background, and adds that many early Robeson County Indians were part Tuscarora (p. 9). Thomas notes that W. McKee Evans used Norment's book as a source for his book,To die game (see item 1118), furthering the Tuscarora identification.  Although some Tuscarora say that “a few Tuscaroras were left behind in North Carolina,” Thomas doubts that the Lumbee are descendants of Tuscaroras (although he says it is “within the realm of possibility”) (p. 10).  Thomas became less convinced by the Tuscarora hypothesis as he read and thought more about Lumbee origins, although he believes North Carolina's Haliwa Indians may be partly descended from Tuscaroras.

Waccamaw theory (Wesley Taukchiray)

Thomas discusses a more recent theory of Lumbee origins based on Wesley White's (now Wesley Taukchiray) research.  White found a map showing a village of Waccamaw Indians on the Lumbee River, a few miles west of the  present-day town of Pembroke, in 1725.  He also found a document written by Colonel Rutherford, head of the Bladen militia (Robeson County was then part of Bladen County) in 1754, referring to a “mixed crew” living on Drowning Creek as lawless, violent squatters (that part of the Lumbee River was called Drowning Creek in those days).  White believes that Waccamaw Indians left South Carolina in 1718, had established their village west of Pembroke by 1725, and were the “mixed crew” referred to by Colonel Rutherford in 1754. Thomas disagrees with his analysis of the evidence, however.  Thomas thinks the “mixed crew” were not ancestors of the Lumbee.  He thinks “mixed” does not mean “racially mixed,” or the term mulatto would have been used.  Rather, he thinks the phrase refers to highland Scots who had migrated from Fayetteville to Laurinburg and then to Drowning Creek.  They seemed “mixed” because they were probably speaking Gaelic as well as English.  He adds that Michelle Lawing's research (see item 562) did not find any present-day Lumbee surnames in Bladen County in the 1750's. [Note: Lawing's report is dated 1978, but Thomas refers to her research. He may have had access to it before her report was officially submitted.] 

Tri-racial isolates and refugee communities

Thomas then discusses two hypotheses of Lumbee origin that were not put forth by historians and anthropologists.  The first came from Edward Thomas Price, who did his dissertation on mixed-blood communities in the Eastern United States (see The Lumbee Indians: an annotated bibliography, item # 705).  According to Thomas, Price believes the Lumbee “are basically the descendants of an old strata of free blacks which came into being before the Revolution, who have absorbed a lot of white blood over time and a small but incidental amount of Indian blood” (p. 14). Thomas points out what he feels are flaws in this hypothesis.  The second hypothesis put forth by non-historians and non-anthropologists  is the idea, promoted by some sociologists and demographers, that the Lumbee and similar Southeastern communities are “refugee communities which are formed by social deviants clustering up together—free blacks, loose Indians, Latin sailors, whatever” (p. 18). Thomas does not agree with the hypothesis that the Lumbee grouped and stayed together because of the racial caste system in Robeson County which assigned them to a middle ground between whites and blacks. He believes that a caste system hardly ever established a new community of people.  It may develop a group of individuals who share the same rank, but it wouldn't cause them to form a social group.  Thomas adds that the racial caste system in the South didn't begin to develop until 1800, with the laws which moved it along being passed in the 1820's and 1830's.  The Lumbee, and other “tri-racial isolate” communities, formed much earlier.  Calvin Beale (see The Lumbee Indians: an annotated bibliography, items # 708 and 716) and Brewton Berry (see The Lumbee Indians: an annotated bibliography, item # 711) wrote about this triracial isolate and caste system hypothesis.

Lumbee oral traditions of migration

Thomas, in his research, thought about four different migration patterns in the Carolinas, including Wesley White's (now Taukchiray) historical sketch on Indians of North Carolina during the first half of the eighteenth century and Michelle Lawing's genealogical research.  Thomas feels his main contribution to research on Lumbee origins has been to analyze Lumbee oral history—the people's own accounts of their origins.  Besides studying the oral history accounts used by Hamilton McMillan and Angus McLean between 1880 and 1915, Thomas interviewed older Lumbees (including Jim Chavis) and studied oral history accounts collected by Lumbee Regional Development Association (LRDA).  From his careful analysis of these statements (cross-checked with maps and historical records from the 1700's), Thomas discovered three tribal traditions. 

Hatteras Indians

The strongest one was Lumbee descent from Hatteras Indians. Thomas says that what was known of them at the time of his research was that they lived at Cape Hatteras and were a very small tribe (only a dozen families in the early 1700's). They were still at Cape Hatteras in 1754, but an account from a missionary in 1761-63 placed then near Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County, N.C., living with the Mattamuskeet Indians.  There are no references to them after that.  By tracing family names Thomas believes one can follow Lumbee families from Lake Mattamuskeet to the Neuse River to the Black River to the Cape Fear River to Robeson County.  He points to the Lumbee tradition, up until World War II, of going to the coast every summer and camping for two or three weeks to fish.

Cheraw Indians

The second tradition Thomas found was descent from the Cheraw Indians around Cheraw, South Carolina.  Some of the Chavis families among the Lumbee are descended from Ishmael Chavis, who came from the Cheraw area.  Claude E. Lowery, a local historian, believes that many of the Lumbee families in the Red Springs area came into Robeson County around 1820-1830 from Cheraw, S.C.  The Lumbee have a tradition that many of their ancestors fought with Barnwell against the Tuscarora in the Tuscarora War.  Since Barnwell's army was composed predominantly of South Carolina Indians, particularly Cheraw, this would fit with Cheraw origins for the Lumbee. 

Saponi Indians

Another oral tradition in Lumbee descent from the Saponi, but Thomas considers this theory the weakest.  It comes from writers who stated that Lumbee elders said they came from “Roanoke in Virginia,” which McMillan took to mean Roanoke Island.  McMillan said he had discovered that Lumbee elders called the Pamlico Sound area Roanoke.  Thomas doubts that they would have called Pamlico Sound “Roanoke in Virginia,” however.  The other possibility is that by Roanoke the Lumbee meant the Roanoke River region, which in early times was in Virginia but later was just over the border in North Carolina.  The Saponi always lived on or near the Roanoke River.

Migration from Edgecombe/Granville Counties

Thomas then puts these oral traditions together with Wesley White's and Michelle Lawing's research. Lawing discovered that in 1750 a cohesive social group of 25-40 families with some of the surnames now found in Robeson County was living in Edgecombe and Granville Counties, North Carolina.  Most were listed on legal documents as mulattos, meaning one White and one nonwhite (either Black or Indian) parent.  Thomas believes the cohesion in the group develojped because they considered themselves Indian.  Since the area was a frontier in 1750, it was socially fluid, permitting racial intermarriages.  Thomas believes the group was a concentration of refugee Indians from Virginia as well as from areas to the east in North Carolina.  The Indians were remnants of three small groups— the Yawpim and Potoskite of northeastern North Carolina, and the Nansemond of Virginia.  Before they lost their land and moved to the frontier region of Edgecombe and Granville Counties, North Carolina, Thomas believe they intermarried a good deal with Whites and perhaps a smaller amount with Blacks and became fairly acculturated.

Lumbee surnames/core families

Thomas presents several details regarding family names.  He also notes that in the 1700s, many Indians were moving from the Granville-Edgecombe area directly to Robeson County. He also notes that Indians were moving in and out of Robeson County throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s—including Locklears and Oxendines who moved to the mountains of North Carolina and East Tennessee (although most returned to Robeson County around 1830). 

Thomas generalizes that the present Lumbee conception of their own history is that they originally “came” from “Roanoke in Virginia,” although this idea isn't particularly relevant for their identity now.  This happened sometime before the Revolutionary War, and it began with the “core families”: Locklears, Braveboys, and Oxendines.  Other families, such as Ishmael Chavis's, the Woods, and the Stricklands, are representative of other tribes who joined the Robeson County settlement later.  Although various families came in from various places, according to Lumbee belief, the central fact is that the Lumbee people were “born” in Robeson County.

Beginnings of Lumbee identity as Indian

In addressing the question of how long the Lumbee have conceived of themselves as Indian, Thomas notes that there is simply no documentation to verify this belief among the refugee Indians on the Edgecombe and Granville County frontier in 1750.  Some of these people who migrated into Tennessee (including Maynors and Thompsons) were enrolled on the Cherokee rolls of the 1840s and 1850s.  Some of these same families, who moved to Newman's Ridge on the Virginia-Tennessee border and then to the Letcher County, Kentucky area, had Indian first names (such as Black Fox and Tecumseh).  Thus, there were clues of Indian identity among the descendants of the 1750 frontier settlers. 

Thomas considered it direct evidence of belief in Indian identity that the families who migrated to Newman's Ridge were, in 1890, referring to themselves as Melungeons (a mixture of Portuguese and Indian). 

As some point, Thomas believes, many of these people left the Edgecombe/Granville County frontier, moved to the Robeson County area, and intermarried with Hatteras and Cheraw people, making their identity more strongly Indian than mixed race.

Indian presence in Cumberland County

Thomas then reviews evidence of Indian identity for Lumbee ancestors that can be gathered from White sources.  In Cumberland County, in the Fayetteville area around 1700, there were place names such as Indian Wells, Indian Walls, and Old Indian Stonehouse.  In the late 1880's, Fayetteville absorbed an area including an Indian community of the same stock as the Lumbee. Thomas also mentions clues in Mary Norment's The Lowrie history and the writings of A.W. McLean. He concludes that “before 1800 a great many Lumbees, at least, thought of themselves as Indian and that after 1800 the vast majority identified as Indians” (p. 70).

Tribal name changes

Thomas discusses the various tribal names changes among the Lumbee and the fact that “this does not mean that the Lumbees do not have a strong sense of peoplehood.  Among themselves, they call themselves Our People or The Indians but it is in presenting a public face to the outside that there is disagreement” (p. 70). He explains the causes of the disagreements over the years on a tribal name. 

As an appendix, Thomas discusses the origins of other Indian groups in the region —the Haliwa, Coharie, Waccamaw Siouan, Indians of Person County, and others.

Further research needed

In the conclusion, Thomas explains some avenues of inquiry in historical records that he feels still need to be pursued. Included in his list is additional research on modern Lumbee culture, such as study of Lumbee healing practices and religion; Lumbee personality; Lumbee language; and social organization (or settlements).

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To my knowledge, the only publicly available copy is housed at the Louis Round Wilson Library, in Special Collections, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The library has one copy that can only be used on-site, and another copy that can be checked out. See: http://search.lib.unc.edu/search?R=UNCb3045867 A photocopy of the report can be obtained for purposes of personal reference. Visit this URL for directions and to estimate the cost: http://library.unc.edu/wilson/research/copy/ The full text can also be viewed, in 18 separate segments, at the Native American Heritage Project website. See the link, below.

View the full text of the report at this URL. This link is for Part 1 of 18 parts. Page forward from Part 1.