Making my way to Bertie County, I arrived predawn on Friday in advance of the conference which began in earnest on Saturday morning. My goal for the “free” day was to drive the county in search of descriptive imagery which in my mind’s eye best represented the local people and their culture. I witnessed the sun rising above freshly turned fields of peanuts. There were also fields of corn, cotton and soy beans. I also found the swamps; they are everywhere. Bertie County was covered with swamps and also those things the Indians called pocosins. A pocosin is not the normal watery low spot but rather, is a swamp-like body situated on high ground. Flowing away from such a swamp, the water is the source for many a creek in the area. In my travels across the land my untrained eyes saw little remnants of the native Indian culture. That would change.
I also witnessed a variety of homes and structure from the distant past. Most were decaying with their days being numbered. I saw what must have once been two room slave or tenant farmer housing. There were also large homes on spreads of land once known by the term plantation. Hope Plantation, home of Governor David Stone whose father Zedekiah married the widow Hobson. My possible ancestor may have lived on land adjoining Hope Plantation. Regardless of their size and valuation, I can imagine a day and time where each and all were surrounded by the sounds of children and the daily goings on of life on a farm
The conference opened ceremonially with prayerful words offered in the native Tuscaroran tongue. All such gatherings begin with similar words as it’s best to clear the mind by acknowledging nature’s blessings before directing thought to a specific purpose. It all worked well as from that point the gathering was sincerely open to the lessons to be learned.
I learned both from and about the remnant people who still live in Bertie County in a historically remote area aptly called Indian Woods. There were also talks from a delegation of the Tuscarorans who had removed to New York following their 1717 defeat at Neyuhekuke. We heard from 87 year old Leo Henry, Chief of the Tuscarora Nation. No forgiveness of past transgressions was offered as the US Government never recognized nor made any effort to rectify that which they knew to be wrong.
We heard a spirited talk from Dr. David La Vere on the life of King Tom Blunt who as chief of the northern Tuscarora (in Bertie) sought peace by taking sides with the contemporary English visionary. He took the less dangerous path for his people. Whilst agreeing to do much, King Blunt’s actions were guided and paced to the advantage of his people.
We also heard from my very distant cousin Gerald Thomas who descends from Lazarus Thomas of northern Bertie County. Gerald spoke on land and the original Tuscaroran reservation known as Indian Woods. He told of politically astute white neighbors who systematically stripped the Indians of their land. The government did nothing as what was once untaxed Indian land now bore governmental revenue. The piecemeal dismantlement of their reservation pushed the North Carolina band of Tuscarora into a diminishing space. Having nowhere to go, many married outside the Tuscarora leading to a slow and painful dissolve of the people they once were.
Next to speak was Vincent Schiffert of the New York band of Tuscarora. He spoke of Federal agreements in which the New York Tuscarora lost out to the neighboring Seneca and others in the six nations of the Iroquois. Coinciding with the demise of their southern brethren here in North Carolina, the northern band was faced with a huge need for land beyond the meager amount that had been allotted them. From money raised through agreed leases of the remaining lands in Indian Woods North Carolina, the Northern Band was able to acquire the land they so very much needed.
At the end of the Saturday session, all the participants gathered in the heart of Indian Woods at the Blue Jay Recreation Center. We shared conversation, time and a meal complete with bar-b-que, turtle, beans and corn. As much as learning from the experts, I enjoyed the down time spent informally with them, the locals and visitors from our north.
On day two E Thomson Shields read “The Indian Gallows,” a poem by William H. Rhodes. Having potential family ties to the Rhodes family, there will be more on this in a later post. We also heard a moving testimonial from a member of the New York band concerning legal and moral stances taken by their people. The speaker told of Wounded Knee and of her being there as part of a delegation in support of the cause. She told of the siege and of defying governmental orders and of hiking in provisions to those in need. She witnessed the armored troop carriers, night flares and even flying bullets that had been intended for her. The speaker also talked about marches and efforts by the Nation to preserve their environment. We also heard from Marty Richardson about interactions with neighboring tribes such as his own being the Haliwa-Saponi people.
The last speaker was Dr. Arwin Smallwood who gave a passionate talk on Indian Woods and of its pathway to what it is today. Growing up in the community, he said things have changed but that the spirit of the people remains strong. Arwin spoke of the slave rebellion of 1802 where eleven slaves were hung. He showed photos of “Gospel Tree” which was blown down by a hurricane in recent years. From families reaching back to the earliest days of the area, a coalescence of race and belief make Indian Woods what it is today. It’s really quite cool to me in that each and every one in community can tell you of their ties bringing together their white, Indian, and black heritage. At the same time, the people know of and are not forgiving of the wrongs that have been forced upon them.
Following a discussion on language, the conference adjourned to the back porch where corn was shucked and braided for drying. It was an amazing process and I can imagine what a porch or shed would look like with rafters covered by corn hung to dry. Following the corn shucking the conference closed with a banquet including a traditional meal of beans, corn soup and squash prepared by those from the New York band of Tuscarora. From one of the earlier talks by Vincent Schiffert, we learned of mound planting. Corn would be planted with beans growing up and around the stalk. Squash vines would be grown at the base of the corn to keep the roots cool and protected. Beans, corn and squash; they call it “Three Sisters.”
There were so many good people who made this conference work. Most importantly were the two communities who came together to learn and share from each other. I’d also like to close this post with appreciation of host David Serxner who gave an excellent talk on Hope Plantation. He made sure all needs were met at our meeting place on the grounds of Hope. Also, Dr. Larry Tise from ECU served wonderfully as announcer/moderator. At one point he made the statement: “in eastern North Carolina when you mention “The War,” it might come across as the Tuscarora War was more important than the Civil War. That is because the Tuscarora War did more to change North Carolina than the Civil War.” I guess that’s the point I’ll be pondering for the rest of my time researching family in Bertie County.