On July 18, 1808, trustees of the Nottoway Indian Tribe in Southampton County dated a letter to Governor William H. Cabell in which a) they sought instructions regarding their ability to lease Nottoway lands; and b) they included a partial census of the tribe’s members.
The Nottoways, like other Virginia Indians, were matrilineal. As our entry on Tsenacomoco‘s political organization explains, inheritance ran through the mother, not the father. This site, run by Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), suggests that as such, patrilineal, or male, descendants were not included in the census. “This method of enumerating reduced the number of Indians the Trustees would have to deal with in any future land transfers.”
Whatever the case, the trustees counted seventeen people, including one Edy Turner:
54 years Her employments are knitting, sewing, and what is usual in common housewifery; 34 acres; she has had 2 Negroes hired for her last year by the Trustees and this year by her husband; her family consists of herself, Polly Woodson and John Woodson, whose allowances are paid to her for their maintenance.
Thirteen years later, Ms. Turner would surface again, this time, of all places, in the pages of London’s Gentleman’s Magazine.
An anonymous writer—probably John Wood, a mathematics professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg—recounted his visit the year before to Ms. Turner’s community:
The Nottoway Indians, in a number about twenty-seven, including men, women, and children, occupy a track of seven thousand acres of excellent land upon the west side of Nottoway river, two miles from Jerusalem in the county of Southampton The principal character among them is a woman who is styled their queen. Her name is Edie Turner; she is nearly sixty years of age, and extremely intelligent; for, although illiterate, she converses and communicates her ideas with great facility and perspicuity than women among the lower orders in society. She has a comfortable cottage, well furnished, several horses and cows, and keeps her portion of the settlement in a good state of cultivation.
Wood was keenly interested in whatever language allowed Turner to converse with such perspicuity. Identifying her as one of the community’s last three native speakers, he described her language as “evidently of Celtic origin.” With her help he composed a word list, which made its way to the language-collector Thomas Jefferson, who, in turn, passed it on to a real expert, Peter S. DuPonceau. A French linguist, DuPonceau excitedly replied that he was “at no loss to determine on the true Character of this language.” It was Iroquoian and not, as Jefferson had believed, Algonquian.
Why does any of this matter? Well, the census has provided the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) with a name list, allowing them to retrace some of their ancestral lines. And Turner & Wood provided modern-day linguists with a word list, allowing them to retrace bits and pieces of language and culture that in today’s world, as yesterday’s, struggle mightily against the tide.
IMAGES: Greg “Two Hawks” Stephenson and Josh Hardy at the 3rd Annual Pow Wow of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, Inc. (Miko Munden); George Laurence Gomme, F. S. A., ed., The Gentleman’s Magazine Library: Being a Classified Collection of the Chief Contents of the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1731 to 1868 (London: Elliot Stock, 1885), 4:314–315; letter from Peter S. DuPonceau to Thomas Jefferson, July 12, 1820, pages 1, 2, 4 (The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1, The Library of Congress)