In 1885, the Lumbee were recognized by the State of North Carolina as Croatan Indians. They unsuccessfully sought federal recognition thereafter. In 1951, The Robeson County Commissioners conducted the first tribal election of a name wherein tribal members voted for adoption of "Lumbee Indians of North Carolina." The Lumbee claim to be descendants of the Cheraw and related Siouan-speaking tribes of Native Americans originally inhabiting the coastal regions of the state of North Carolina.
In 1956, the United States Congress passed House Resolution 4656, known as the Lumbee Act, which recognized the Lumbee as American Indians. However, the Act also specifically prohibited the Lumbee from receiving federal services ordinarily provided to federally recognized tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As the only tribe in this circumstance, the Lumbee have sought full federal recognition through congressional legislation. Federal recognition through congressional legislation is generally opposed by some recognized tribes.
Colonial tax records from 1768 to 1770 identified only one Indian in Bladen County, Thomas Britt, and Britt is not a name traditionally associated with Lumbee families. Inhabitants of Bladen County with characteristically Lumbee names were classified as "Mullato." Genealogical researcher Paul Heinegg traced the 35 Mullato families listed on the 1768-1770 Bladen County tax rolls and 24 "other free" families listed as Robeson County residents in the 1790-1800 censuses back to free persons referred to as "Negro" or "Mulatto" in Virginia or North Carolina.
A colonial proclamation in 1773 listed the names of Robeson County inhabitants who took part in a "Mob Railously Assembled together," apparently defying the efforts of colonial officials to collect taxes. The proclamation declared that "[t]he Above list of Rogus," which included many characteristically Lumbee names, "is all Free Negors and Mullatus living upon the Kings Land." A colonial military survey described, "50 families a mixt crew a lawless People possess the Lands without Patent or paying quit Rents."
In the first federal census of 1790, the ancestors of the Lumbee were among those enumerated as "free persons of color," a category used to describe free Negroes and Mullatos and meaning freed African slaves or products of mixed race unions. In subsequent censuses, they were counted in "all other free persons" or later "Mulatto." In the 1870 census, the first in which "Indian" was a separate category, almost all Robeson County residents with characteristically Lumbee names were classified as "Mulatto."
Alarmed by the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, North Carolina and other Southern states enacted laws known as the Free Negro Code, curtailing the rights of free persons of color. In 1835, North Carolina adopted a new constitution abolishing the right to vote granted to free people of color by the 1776 constitution. During the debate, Judge Gaston of Craven stated that the majority of free persons of color in North Carolina during the colonial period were the descendants of white women who had unions with blacks and were "therefore (because of the race of the mother) entitled to all the rights of free men." Craven's argument was rejected and free people of color were disfranchised, regardless of their maternal ancestry, property holdings or literacy. Reference to the origins of the present-day Lumbee population was made in 1840 in a petition by 36 white Robeson County residents, complaining that Robeson County had been "cursed" by the presence of what they described as being a "free colored" population that migrated originally from the districts near the Roanoke and Neuse Rivers.
The first recorded instance of any reference to the Lumbee being Indian dates from 1867 after the Civil War. During a multiple murder investigation by Lieutenant Birney of the Freedmen's Bureau, two suspected men wrote a letter that stated the tradition that the Lowry gang had descended from Tuscarora Indians: "They are said to be descended from the Tuscarora Indians. They have always claimed to be Indian & disdained the idea that they are in any way connected with the African race." The Freedman's Bureau had jurisdiction over newly emancipated slaves, not Indians.
In the 1870 census, the first in which "Indian" was a separate category, almost all Robeson County residents with characteristically Lumbee names are classified as "Mulatto."
In 1872 George Alfred Townsend published "The Swamp Outlaws" about the famed Lowrie Gang. Townsend described Henry Berry Lowrie, the leader of the gang, as being of mixed Tuscarora, mulatto, and white blood: "The color of his skin is of a whitish yellow sort, with an admixture of copper—such a skin as, for the nature of its components, is in color indescribable, there being no negro blood in it except that of a far remote generation of mulatto, and the Indian still apparent." Townsend also stated in reference to Pop Oxendine that "Like the rest, he had the Tuscarora Indian blood in him...If I should describe the man by the words nearest my idea I should call him a negro-Indian gypsy. Townsend's statements were reiterated three years later in both the memoirs of General Jno C. Gorman and in Mary Norment's "The Lowrie History" (1895)
During Reconstruction, the ancestors of the Lumbee joined newly freed African slaves in voting Republican. After Reconstruction, when schools and society were segregated, they objected to being classified as "colored" and having their children required to attend schools with children of freed slaves. In 1885, Hamilton McMillan, a North Carolina Democrat who represented Robeson County in the legislature, put forward the theory that the Lumbees were actually "Croatan Indians" descended from survivors of England's "Lost Colony" who intermarried with the Hatteras, an Algonquian people. McMillan's theory was motivated by the desire to politically separate the Lumbee from the newly freed slaves and bring them over to the Democratic voting column.
Other authors subsequently repeated McMillan's speculation as fact. However, no extant evidence exists for "Lost Colony" origins and the theory has been discarded by scholars. Of the many characteristically Lumbee names, none is shared with members of England's failed colony.
McMillan introduced legislation declaring the Lumbee ancestors to be Croatan Indians and giving them their own schools, separate from the white and black schools. This was the first official effort to classify the Lumbee ancestors as Indians. McMillan's success created a three-caste society in Robeson County. Prior to 1885, surviving records described Lumbee ancestors as colored, free colored, other free, mullato, mustie, mustees, or mixt blood.
Despite the lack of direct genealogical proof, in the early decades of the 20th century, various Department of Interior representatives also described the Lumbees as having Native American origin, and assigned them variously to one tribe or another.
Skeptics of McMillan's theories argue that the North Carolina politician may have been motivated by a desire to court the votes of the Lumbee. Free people of color were enfranchised again after the Civil War by the 15th Amendment, which protected suffrage for all male citizens, regardless of race, at the same time protecting suffrage of the new citizens who were emancipated slaves. Reclassification as Indians of McMillan's colored Robeson County constituents gave them a social status above the newly emancipated slaves.
In 1936, Carl Seltzer, a physical anthropologist engaged by the federal Department of the Interior, conducted an anthropometric study of several hundred self-identified Indian individuals in Robeson County. He determined that twenty-two were of at least half-Indian blood descent. In 1972, Dr. William S. Pollitzer published a combined anthropometric and serologic study of the Lumbee population. He estimated that the Lumbees had 47% African ancestry, 40% white, and 13% Indian. Most contemporary scholars no longer consider such types of studies valid for determining racial or ethnic identities.
In the late 20th century, genealogist Paul Heinegg and historian Dr. Virginia E. DeMarce performed extensive research in primary source documents, such as deeds, land records, wills, tax lists and court records to develop detailed genealogies of free people of color in the Chesapeake Bay area during the colonial years and later. They were able to trace the migration of numerous primary Lumbee ancestral families from the Tidewater region of Virginia into northeastern North Carolina and then into present-day Robeson County, North Carolina. They found that 80% of those identified as free people of color (or other) in the Federal censuses in North Carolina from 1790-1810 were descended from African Americans free in Virginia during the colonial period. Most of those free African-American families in Virginia were descended from unions between white women (servant or free) and African or African-American men (servant, slave or free), reflecting the fluid nature of relationships among the working classes. From documenting family histories through original documents, Heinegg and DeMarce have traced most Lumbee ancestors and have been able to construct genealogies that show the migration of specific families and individuals from Virginia to North Carolina.
In the first federal census of 1790, the ancestors of the Lumbee were enumerated as Free Persons of Color. In 1800 and 1810 they were counted in "all other free persons".
In 1885, Hamilton McMillan wrote that Lumbee ancestor James Lowrie received sizeable land grants early in the century and by 1738 possessed combined estates of more than two thousand acres (8 km²). Dial and Eliades claimed that John Brooks established title to over one thousand acres (4 km²) in 1735, and Robert Lowrie gained possession of almost seven hundred acres (2.8 km²). However, according to a state archivist, no land grants were issued during these years in North Carolina, and the first land grants to documented Lumbee ancestors did not occur until more than a decade later. The Lumbee petition for federal recognition backed away from McMillan's claims.
Land records show that beginning in the second half of the 18th century, ancestral Lumbees took titles to land described in relation to Drowning Creek and prominent swamps such as Ashpole, Long, and Back Swamp. The Lumbee settlement with the longest continuous documentation from the mid-eighteenth century onward is Long Swamp, or present-day Prospect, North Carolina. Prospect is located within Pembroke and Smith townships. According to James Campisi, the anthropologist hired by the Lumbee tribe, this area "is located in the heart of the so-called old field of the Cheraw documented in land records between 1737 and 1739." However, this appears to be pure conjecture on Campisi's part, since the Lumbee Siouan petition prepared by Lumbee River Legal Services in the 1980s clearly shows that the Cheraw old fields, which were sold to a Thomas Grooms in the year 1739, were actually located in South Carolina not far from the current day town of Cheraw, more than sixty miles (100 km) from Pembroke.
Pension records for veterans of the American Revolutionary War listed men with Lumbee surnames such as Samuel Bell, Jacob Locklear, John Brooks, Berry Hunt, Thomas Jacobs, Thomas Cummings, and Michael Revels. And in 1790, ancestral Lumbees such as Cumbo, "Revils" (Revels), Hammonds, Bullard, "Lockileer" (Locklear), Lowrie, Barnes, Hunt, "Chavers" (Chavis), Strickland, Wilkins, Oxendine, Brooks, Jacobs, Bell, and Brayboy were listed as inhabitants of the Fayetteville District, and enumerated as "Free Persons of Color" in the first federal census. Through documenting and tracing family histories, Heinegg has found that 80% of those people in North Carolina counted as "all other free persons" in the 1790-1810 federal census were descendants of African Americans free in Virginia during the colonial period. He found the surnames Cumbo, Gowen/Goins, and Driggers could be traced to slaves who had been freed in the mid-17th century in Virginia. Chavis was another family whose ancestors had been free since the 17th century.
Anthropologist Gerald Sider recorded accounts of "tied mule" incidents in which a white farmer tied his mule to the post of a neighboring Indian's land or let his cattle graze on the Indian's land. The white farmer then filed a complaint for theft with the local authorities who promptly arrested the Native farmer. "Tied mule" incidents were resolved with the Indian's agreeing to pay a fine, or in lieu of a fine, by giving up a portion of his land or agreeing to a term of labor service with the "wronged" white farmer. Sider did not document such incidents; instead he recounted stories which he had been told in the late 1960s. Robeson County land records do show an appreciable loss of Indian title to land during the 19th century, but mostly because of failure to pay taxes and other more common reasons. No tied mule incident has yet been discovered in Robeson County records.
In 1853, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state's restrictions on free people of color's bearing arms without a license with the conviction of Noel Locklear in State v. Locklear for the illegal possession of firearms. But in 1857, William Chavers, another Lumbee ancestor from Robeson County, was arrested and charged as a "free person of color" for carrying a shotgun. Chavers, like Locklear, was convicted. Chavers promptly appealed, arguing that the law restricted only "free Negroes," not "persons of color."
The appeals court reversed the lower court, finding that "free persons of color may be, then, for all we can see, persons colored by Indian blood, or persons descended from Negro ancestors beyond the fourth degree." Two years later, in another case involving a Lumbee ancestor from Robeson County, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that forcing an individual to display himself before a jury was the same as forcing him to provide evidence against himself. Most of the charges under the law were brought by members of the proto-Lumbee community against each other. They used the racist laws to settle petty disputes amongst themselves. Overall however, the ambiguity of the legal and political status of Robeson County's free people of color only increased in the years leading up to and during the Civil War.
Several dozen Lumbee ancestors served in regular units in the Confederate army; many of these later drew Confederate pensions for their service. Others tried to avoid coerced labor by hiding in the swamps. While hiding in the swamps, some men from Robeson County operated as guerrillas for the Union Army, sabotaging the efforts of the Confederacy, and sought retribution against their Confederate neighbors.
The gang committed two murders during the Civil War and were suspected in several thefts and robberies. After an interrogation and informal trial, Robeson County's Home Guard killed Henry Berry Lowrie's father and brother as Union General Sherman's army entered Robeson County. Shortly thereafter, Henry Berry Lowrie and his band stole a large stockpile of rifles intended for use by the local militia from the Lumberton courthouse.
Lowrie's gang avenged the deaths of his father and brother by killing several of the men responsible, one of whom was the sheriff of the county. The band stole two safes (one of which belonged to the sheriff), plundered the plantation storage bins and smokehouses of local elites, and gave the spoils to the poor in Robeson County who had suffered at the hands of local elites.
In 1868, Lowrie and his band were outlawed. The reward for his capture climbed to $12,000, second only to that offered for Jefferson Davis. Robeson's elites and the governor of North Carolina requested the aid of Federal troops and federal detectives in the attempt to apprehend North Carolina's most famous outlaw. These efforts proved useless. Lowrie enjoyed wide support, and he and members of his band were seen at public events. Reports of the Lowrie band's derring-do received national coverage; their exploits were featured in the New York Times and in Harper's Magazine. Lowrie's last-known feat occurred on February 16, 1872, when he and his band stole $20,000 worth of goods from a Lumberton store. They also managed to take the store's safe, which contained approximately $22,000 in cash.
Most observers believe that Henry Berry Lowrie accidentally killed himself while cleaning his gun. Some members of the community, however, claimed to have seen Lowrie in various town locales long after news of his death was broadcast. The true cause of his death remains controversial. All the members of the Lowrie band, save one, suffered violent deaths. One cousin and member of the gang, Henderson Oxendine, was publicly executed by the state of North Carolina.
The war that Lowrie gang waged against the Democrats in Robeson County had far-reaching consequences: the mulatto community developed a sense of itself as unique, possessed with a unique identity and history, while Henry Berry Lowrie became a culture hero to the Lumbee people.
Within the year, each Croatan Indian settlement in the county established a school "blood committee" that determined students' racial eligibility. In 1887, tribal members petitioned the state legislature to request establishment of a normal school to train Indian teachers for the county's tribal schools. North Carolina granted permission, and tribal members raised the requisite funds, along with some state assistance that proved inadequate. Several tribal leaders donated money and privately held land to the tribe on which to build their schools. In 1899, North Carolina representatives introduced the first bill in Congress to appropriate funds to educate the Indian children of Robeson County. Another bill was introduced a decade later, and yet another in 1911. In 1913, the House of Representatives Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on S.3258 in which the Senate sponsor of the bill reviewed the history of the Lumbee and concluded that they had "maintained their race integrity and their tribal characteristics."
Robeson County's Indian normal school evolved into Pembroke State University and later still, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. By century's end, the Indians of Robeson County established schools in eleven of their principal settlements.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, congressional legislation was introduced to change the Croatan name and to establish "a school for the Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina." Charles F. Pierce, Supervisor of Indian Schools, investigated the tribe's congressional petition, reporting favorably that "a large majority [were] at least three-fourths Indian" as well as law abiding, industrious, and "crazy on the subject of education." Pierce also believed that federal educational assistance would be beneficial but opposed any such legislation since, in his words, "[a]t the present time it is the avowed policy of the government to require states having an Indian population to assume the burden and responsibility for their education, so far as is possible." A later committee report of 1932 explicitly acknowledged that the federal bill of 1913 was intended to extend federal recognition on the same terms as the amended state law. Moreover, while the bill passed the Senate but not the House, the chairman of the House committee also abrogated any assumption of direct educational responsibility to the Indians of Robeson County by the federal government. He believed they were already eligible to attend Indian boarding schools. Thus, the federal government was meeting its responsibility to the Indians of Robeson County through Indian boarding schools such as Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
The next year, Special Indian Agent, O.M. McPherson, who investigated the tribe under the auspices of the United States Senate, found that the Indians of Robeson County had already developed an extensive system of schools and a complex political organization to represent their interests. While he, like Pierce before him, noted that Robeson's Indians were eligible to attend federal Indian schools, he also doubted that these schools could meet their needs. Despite McPherson's recommendations, Congress decided not to act on the matter.
At this point, the Lumbee population split into two groups. One group supported the Cheraw theory of ancestry. The other faction believed that they were descended from the Cherokee tribe. North Carolina's white politicians abandoned the recognition effort until the two factions agreed on an identity.
The Lumbees have repeatedly sought federal recognition as an Indian tribe, going before Congress in 1899, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1924, 1932 and 1933 with petitions variously claiming to be Croatan, Cherokee, Siouan and Cheraw Indians.
In 1952, the Lumbees adopted their present identity, naming themselves for the Lumber River, which winds through Robeson County, North Carolina, instead of claiming association with an historically existing Indian tribe. In 1956, Congress passed the Lumbee Act saying that the Lumbee were entitled to call themselves the "Lumbee Indians of North Carolina" but as a condition of recognition, denying them access to financial and other services accorded to other recognized Indian tribes. In testimony before Congress, Lumbee spokesmen denied that they wanted any financial services; they said they only wanted recognition as American Indians.
In 1987, the Lumbees petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior for federal recognition, in a bid for financial benefits accorded recognized Native American tribes. The petition was denied because of language in the Lumbee Act stating that the Lumbee were ineligible for federal benefits.
The Lumbee then resumed their lobbying, going before Congress in 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1993 with bids for federal recognition by Congressional action. All of these attempts failed in the face of opposition not only by the Department of Interior but also by the several recognized Cherokee tribes, including North Carolina's Eastern Band of the Cherokee, some of the Noth Carolina Congressional delegation, as well as some representatives from other states with federally recognized tribes. Some of the North Carolina delegation recommended an amendment to the 1956 Act that would enable the Lumbee to apply to the Department of Interior under the regular application process for recognition. The GAO and others have criticized Interior's process as backlogged, and the Lumbee do not want to go through those delays.
The tribe made renewed bids for recognition with financial services in 2004 and 2006, and again in 2007 with introduction of the Lumbee Recognition Act.
Celebrated today in Robeson County as the "Battle of Hayes Pond," or "the Klan Rout," the resulting confrontation made national news. Over 500 armed Lumbees overwhelmed and scattered 50 Klansmen (not the planned 5,000). Before Cole had a chance to begin the Klan rally, the Lumbee suddenly appeared, fanned out across the highway, encircled the Klansmen, and opened fire. Four Klansmen were wounded in the first volley – none seriously – while the remaining Klansmen panicked and fled. Cole reportedly escaped through a nearby swamp but was later apprehended, charged, and convicted for inciting to riot. He served a sentence of two years. The Lumbee celebrated the victory by burning the Klan regalia and dancing around the flames, making native whooping noises.
A number of Robeson Countians reject the modern Lumbee label as fictitious and claim descent from the Tuscarora Indians, a North Carolina tribe that suffered defeat at the hands of the English colonists in 1713. The Tuscaroras left their homes in northeastern North Carolina to emigrate north to New York, where they joined the Iroquois League. Tuscarora tribal leaders determined that the emigration was complete by 1802. Some of the current residents in Robeson County claim to be descended from Tuscarora stragglers who stayed behind. The Lumbees have advanced the so-called Tuscarora hypothesis in their bid to be recognized by the United States as a legitimate Indian tribe.
The Lumbee claim to Tuscarora heritage is hotly contested by both the federally recognized Tuscarora tribe in New York and the unrecognized Tuscarora Nation of North Carolina. The recognized Tuscarora tribe asserts that only a few Tuscarora remained behind and that by their intermarriage with other races, they lost their tribal membership. The Tuscarora Nation of North Carolina contends that the Lumbees are stealing their tribal history to advance their own specious claim to Indian heritage.
Proponents of the Tuscarora hypothesis make two arguments. First, the migration trail of the ancestral Lumbees from coastal Virginia to Robeson County passed through the territory in which the Tuscaroras had lived. This makes intermarriage with Tuscarora stragglers a possibility. Second, members of the outlaw Henry Berry Lowrie gang of the Reconstruction era laid claim to at least partial Tuscarora descent.
In the 1920s, some Robeson County Indians made contact with individual members of the Mohawk tribe, a tribe politically related to the Tuscarora. These mostly rural Robeson County Indians began to express a Tuscarora identity and strongly objected to the Lumbee name and to the Cheraw theory of ancestry. Many associate with the Tuscarora Nation of North Carolina, which is recognized by neither the United States government or the recognized Tuscarora tribe.