Multiracial Families/Communities

The Chowan Discovery Group: Documenting the Mixed-Race History of North Carolina’s “Winton Triangle”

By Vikki Bynum

Here’s another region of the South with a fascinating history of mixed-race ancestry. I discovered the Chowan Discovery Group after Steven Riley, creator and moderator of Mixed Race Studies, introduced me via email to the Group’s Executive Director, Marvin T. Jones. The “Winton Triangle,” located in Hertford County, North Carolina, encompasses the three towns of Winton, Cofield, and Ahoskie. Here, people maintain a distinctive identity rooted in Native American, European, and African ancestry.

According to Marvin Jones, the Triangle traces its origins to before the 1584 arrival of the English to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where Chowanoke (Choanoac) Indian settlements were prominent along the Chowan River. After the English invasion, diseases (to which Native Americans lacked immunity) and territorial disputes decimated and disrupted the Chowanoke settlements of present-day Hertford County.*

Choanoac Village marker

During the early 1600s, England continued its relentless effort to gain a stronghold in North American, successfully planting settlements on the James River in Virginia.  Again, disease and war displaced native populations. Indians traveling down the Meherrin River eventually settled in the Chowanokes’ previous home of Hertford County, North Carolina. In the century that followed, interactions between these Native Americans and English and African immigrants would produce the mixed-ancestry people of today’s Winton Triangle.

The mixed-race people of the Winton Triangle did not live far from those of Gloucester County, Virginia, the subject of an earlier essay on this blog. In both these regions, outward migration by Europeans, funded by Crowns and merchants in search of new lands, precious metals, and cash crops, brought a collision of continents, especially those of Europe, the Americas, and Africa. Within each, there were winners and losers. Those with wealth and power benefited from expanding empires. Others, such as England’s “sturdy beggars,” were forced into indentured servitude, or, like Africa’s captured villagers, into slavery. Many Native Americans were also forced into various systems of bondage.

In the Winton Triangle, however, as in Gloucester County, a number of people designated non-white escaped slavery. Legally defined as “free people of color,” people of mixed ancestry (particularly before the American Revolution) often maintained “interdependent relations” with local whites, which enabled them to buy land and to learn marketable skills.  Equally important, they founded schools and churches and built communities of mutual support that endured the centuries.*

The Winton Triangle and Gloucester County share similar characteristics, yet each region has its own unique history. Their  common features, however, speak to the social and economic forces that shaped the Atlantic coastal history and eventually enabled England to lay claim to its Thirteen Original Colonies. Often overlooked in the panoramic history of empire and bondage in the Americas are the new peoples who emerged, and the mechanisms by which they survived, even prospered, by building tightly-knit communities amid eras of slavery, segregation, and white supremacist laws and customs imposed by the dominant society.

During the Civil War, Parker fought for the Union with the 2nd Cavalry of U.S. Colored Troops. Photo courtesy Benj. Gary Robbins and Marvin T. Jones

During the Civil War, Sgt. Parker D. Robbins fought for the Union with the 2nd Cavalry of U.S. Colored Troops. Photo courtesy Benj. Gary Robbins and Marvin T. Jones

Elf and Annie Jones Family, circa 1914. Photo courtesy of Alice Jones Nickens and Marvin T. Jones

Elf and Annie Jones Family, circa 1914. Photo courtesy of Alice Jones Nickens and Marvin T. Jones

The history of the Winton Triangle is too long and too complex to do it justice in a short essay such as this. Luckily, Marvin Jones and the Chowan Discovery Group’s Directors, Laverne Jones and Dr. Harold Mitchell (all of whom were born and raised in the Triangle), are dedicated to collecting, preserving, and presenting materials relevant to that history. They hope to coordinate their efforts with other individuals, community leaders, organizations, and institutions that share like interests. Check their organization out at Chowan Discovery Group!

*See Marvin T. Jones, “The Leading Edge of Edges: The Triracial People of the Winton Triangle,” in Carolina Genesis: Beyond the Color Lineedited by Scott Withrow (2010): 181-209.

 

Note: On October 25, 2014, the Chowan Discovery Group was awarded the following Award of Excellence from the North Carolina Society of Historians, Etc. :

chowan discovery group

 

Congratulations to Exec. Director Marvin T. Jones and all those who have contributed to this fine project!

14 replies »

    • Thanks, Valerie! I’m very pleased with the over all interest in this post, especially on Facebook, where it has been shared on multiple pages.

      Vikki

  1. Hey Vikki,

    This bit of history is so very interesting. I also love the pictures. I continue to remain in your debt. Always a treat to log on to your history blog. Many thanks.

    Warmest regards,

    The other Vikky ..the one still living in San Diego

    • It’s great, as ever, to hear from you, Vikky. Glad you enjoyed the latest!

      Vikki (after this long Missouri winter, I do miss my days in San Diego)

  2. Hi Vikki,

    I find it interesting that given America’s tendency to view race strictly in terms of black and white, that there are so many of these mixed-race groups, particularly in North Carolina. Paul Heinegg and Virginia Easley DeMarce have done a great job in tracing the origins of these families. I think the Lumbee, Coharie, and Waccamaw groups found further south in NC have very similar histories, although many are resistant to claiming a black identity as part of their make-up.

    • Thanks for your comment, Atiya. Like you, I have benefited greatly from Heinegg and DeMarce’s work. And, as you point out, there are many mixed-race groups and people in American history–revealing the absurdity of the image of a “black and white” society.

      Vikki

  3. I have been researching my families origin for quite sometime. It is not enough to say our heritage makes us as indigenous as any of the plains or bering straits people. This piece is comforting and stands as a “sign” that some of us are still courageous enough to speak with our hearts, for we speak the truth

    Thank you for this blog Vikki

  4. I worked for a church directory company from 1993-2005 and had the privilege of serving several churches in the Ahoskie-Winton area where the people were obviously members of this group. I enjoyed working with them and have since then been fascinated with their existence and their history. I found this information very helpful.
    Mike Isbell
    Washington, NC

  5. if anyone knows the history or heritage of the cross family and diddley family, john and etta diddley cross. please contact me at sunes821@aol.com…i heard on the xm radio of the chowan discovery group and I was wondering if my ancestors was a part my heritage,

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