The Ancestors of Rutha Jane Mason, Part I

Who do you think you are?

As it turns out, my answers to that question have been far more complex and interesting than I ever imagined, and knowing more about them has infinitely enriched my experience and my understanding of what it means to be an American.

One of the most compelling branches of my ancestors winds its way back from great grandmother, Sarah Rebecca Lee, through her mother, Rutha Jane Mason.

It is Rutha’s line that I will discuss in this post.  I know some basic facts about Rutha Jane Mason: she was born a little over a century and a half ago in 1859, in Knox County, Kentucky, not long before the start of the Civil War.  She married Stephen Lee when she was 22 years old, and they moved to Ohio, where she bore (at least) 10 children.  Sadly, she died young in 1904, when she was 44 years old, of ‘Tonsillitis’ while visiting her parents, possibly shortly after giving birth to her 10th child, Ruth, who also died the same day and is buried at her mother’s foot.

In 1999, I had the opportunity to speak with my great-uncle Dale Fleming, of Farley, who had this to say about Rutha’s family, including her daughter, Sarah Lee, Dale’s mother.

“Sarah’s dad … was a big, tall, rawboned guy. He drank a lot, was mean, and when his wife died, the twelve kids scattered like birds to survive.  Sarah went to Oklahoma to live with a cousin.  Sarah was little and slim.  She grew up hard and didn’t expect much.”

Rutha Jane Mason was the daughter of James Mason and Sarah Evans, both of whom were descendants of Native Americans and European immigrants, and probably some variety of other ethnicities, such as African and perhaps Jewish, Greek, Turk, or Arab. This is based on recent DNA evidence, and I’ll return to this topic later.

I would like to thank several cousins, including Dusty Pilgrim, Rollie Campbell, Jackie Utley, and Cheryl Bada, who have done the footwork of identifying names, dates, and places, with such consistently thorough scholarship.  Since they have established this framework, I thought I might be able to contribute to the family’s understanding by adding a little historical context.

Beginning with the inhabitants of Virginia at the time of European contact, I’ve tried to sketch out the history behind the names and dates of Rutha Jane’s ancestors, focusing on the Gibson and Collins families, as they migrated from Virginia to North Carolina, and then went on to Kentucky and Tennessee.


Native Americans of Virginia and North Carolina at the time of European Contact

I believe the story of at least one branch of Rutha’s family has its roots among the Native American people of what is now Virginia[i] and North Carolina.  This native lineage was later joined by European immigrants from Spain and Portugal, England, Germany, and beyond.  We don’t have names for these individuals, but we know a little about their people’s history.

The folk living in what is now Virginia and North Carolina at the time of European contact, were members of four distinct language groups divided into numerous tribes and bands. See also the “Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks – Eastern U.S.” map at the Perry Castaneda collection online for a nice depiction.

A very simplified outline of these groups and their general location is as follows:

  • Along the Atlantic coast, known as the Tidewater region, lived the Algonquian people, including the Powhattan and others (the famous Pocahontas was a woman of the Powhattan tribe);
  • in the hills of the Piedmont region to the west of the Tidewater area were the Siouan people, including the Monacan and the Saponi, with whom our ancestors appear to be most closely affiliated, as well as numerous other members of this very extensive language group that stretched far west into the continent;
  • they were bounded to the north by their hostile Iroquois neighbors,
  • and to the south by the Cherokee, and others.

There was both trade and hostility between these four native groups, and I imagine that they must have mixed to some extent, so that as descendants of the early people of Virginia, we may expect to have ancestors among all four groups.

Karenne Wood, Program Director, Historical Research Office, Monacan Indian Nation at the Monacan Nation website writes[ii]:

When the first colonists arrived at Jamestowne in 1607, they immediately met with Indian people on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. These Indians belonged to a vast Powhatan autocracy and spoke Algonquian languages. In the piedmont and mountain regions of this area lived Siouan Indians of the Monacan and Mannahoac tribes, arranged in a confederation ranging from the Roanoke River Valley to the Potomac River, and from the Fall Line at Richmond and Fredericksburg west through the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

As early as 1527, European explorers were sailing around the Chesapeake Bay, and presumably making journeys up the great rivers flowing inland, such as the Potomac and the York Rivers, encountering the native people along the way, and probably on occasion mingling with them, conceivably leaving descendants behind with European blood.  This is a relevant issue later in our family’s story, as mounting DNA evidence suggests some connection with the Mediterranean world, which likely occurred early in Colonial history.

Some of the earliest possible sources of this genetic admixture include the party of a Spanish conquistador named Hernando de Soto, who mounted an expedition that penetrated into the area, and ended on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1542.  A little later, there were several expeditions that included slaves of various races, including a group of captives from the Ottoman Empire, who had been kidnapped by pirates in the Mediterranean and sold to Portuguese slavers.  Some of this particular group of slaves may have escaped to live among the Indians, and others were rescued by Sir Francis Drake.  Other possible sources of early non-natives living among the Indians were the ‘Portuguese’ members of De Soto’s expedition, who may, plausibly, have been Converso Jews –part of dispersal of the Spanish Jews fleeing the expulsion from Spain that began in 1492. Certainly there are other groups whose remnants or runaways were taken in by the Native Americans throughout the history of the settlement of the area, most especially the African slaves who were imported to work the tobacco farms.  (See Penny Ferguson’s timeline at Jack Goins’ site for some interesting information on this era.)

At any rate, by the time the English decided to try to establish a colony in Virginia, the native populations had already absorbed a variety of Europeans and Africans, along with the newcomers’ DNA and their diseases which devastated the Indian tribes.

In 1585 the English attempted the first of several attempts at a colony on Roanoke Island, previously called Secotan, off the coast of North Carolina.  This is the famous ‘lost’ colony we learn about in school. From what I can ascertain, this island’s former, native inhabitants had been slaughtered by a previous English expedition in retaliation for a stolen silver cup, leaving it ‘uninhabited’ and available. Dispatched by Raleigh, this group of 75 men, none of whom knew how to work for their survival, lasted until late summer of the next year, when Sir Francis Drake passed by, and rescued those who remained.

A later attempt to build a colony at Roanoke began two years later, in 1587, with 150 colonists, including women and children.  When Indian hostilities toward the colonists began to escalate, they sent their leader back to England for help.  He was delayed for three years by weather and wars, and when he finally made it back to Roanoke, the colonists were gone, their buildings dismantled, and the island was empty.  Their fate is one of the enduring mysteries of US history.  It is possible that some surviving individuals from this colony were either captured by local Native Americans, or went voluntarily to live among them[iii].

In 1607, the English established their first successful colony in the new world at Jamestown, Virginia[iv].   This attempt was mainly a get-rich-quick scheme that really didn’t work as hoped, with the establishment of a colony as a secondary, poorly conceived plan.  Of the 500 colonists who arrived, 50 were dead in the first few months.  By 1610, only 50 survived.   This shockingly high mortality was caused as much by the colonists incompetence and ignorance, which often brought on the hunger, disease, exposure, accident, and Indian hostility that killed them.  The English went stomping about trying to impose their own social structure on the Algonquin-speaking Powhattan Indians, whose territory they had invaded.  They demanded food and were quick to kill their neighbors — perhaps not the most effective diplomatic strategy.  At any rate, several attempts were made by various Indian groups to exterminate the colony, and these very nearly succeeded.

Early (so far unconnected) Gibsons and Collins in Virginia

Although we don’t know if he was our relation, one of the men who lived in the Jamestown colony was a man named Thomas Gibson, who arrived in Virginia on the second supply ship in 1608, and was listed as a tradesman.  He is also listed as one of the original Planters in 1609 at Jamestown[v].  Further, Thomas Gibson’s name is among those who went with Captain Smith on his ‘diplomatic’ mission to the Indians in 1608, and was one of those who were sent to stay with the Powhatans to build their chief, Powhattan, a house[vi]Please note, there is no known documentation of any relationship between this Thomas Gibson, and our first known ancestor, Thomas Gibson, who would have been the right age to be the early immigrant’s grandson.  But the possibility is intriguing.

See the Gibson Timeline website for more details on the various Gibsons in early Virginia, but here I have given a few tidbits on some other intriguing ancestral possibilities:

In 1624 a Frances Gibson is listed among the settlers at Jamestown.  I have seen some speculation that the name Thomas was sometimes written as Francis, but I have been unable to verify that at all.  Also possible is that this is a family member of the Thomas Gibson who explored with Captain Smith — perhaps a child or a wife.  There are no further records of this individual.

There were several other Gibsons who also arrived in the colony during this period, but since there was nearly an 80% mortality rate among colonists, it is extremely difficult to make reliable connections between transported Europeans and later generations who appear in the record.  Further, when colonists mixed with natives, we have a rather less formal appropriation of family names, and surely, they did mix, when men comprised nearly three quarters of the European colonists as late as 1625, although evidence suggests that such intermarriage/intermixing was limited. (See “Women in Early Jamestown” by Kathleen M. Brown, one of the Jamestown Interpretive Essays at the Virtual Jamestown website.)

There are also records of  another Thomas Gibson, who was transported to Virginia Colony in 1642 and settled in Hanover County, Virginia.  Whether he was any relation to any of the earlier Gibsons at Jamestown is unknown, but Hanover County is where our first documented Gibson ancestor lived.

By 1642, the Virginia colony had successfully made the transition to an individual landholder system – as opposed to the dysfunctional corporate system in which hired laborers worked the land, which system had contributed to the downfall of the previous colonization efforts.  The new individual landholder system was a headright system, a complicated mechanism of land grants, by which the colonies were populated by providing essentially the only avenue to land ownership in the colony. A simplified explanation of the system is this: under the headright system, anyone who could pay for a person’s passage to the colony – their own or someone else’s passage – would be granted a certificate redeemable for a 50-acre land patent.  These patents were bought and sold, bequeathed and stolen, and sometimes redeemed decades after the new colonist had set out for the New World, but they did help to generate a steady stream of workers to help establish the colony.

The headright system rewarded individuals who had enough capital to bring their entire family – 50 acres for each woman and child – and also helped to establish the institutions of indentiture and slavery when wealthy colonists were able to buy the passages of numerous servants and/or slaves.  Indeed, something like 80% of the white immigrants came to these shores as un-free individuals – either because they sold themselves into indentiture to pay their passage to a land of more opportunity; or because they had been sold by someone else, such as a parent or guardian; or because they were prisoners of the crown (criminals, rebels, etc.).

These ‘lower classes’ of whites mixed more freely with Native Americans and also with Africans who were brought to the colony often under similar circumstances, and who, during these earlier decades, were sometimes able to earn their freedom just as white indentured servants could.  It wasn’t until later that the institution of black slavery was installed with the rigid boundaries of race and utter lack of rights that would eventually precipitate a civil war.

In spite of the desperate odds, many people, including some African slaves, did manage to survive, and some lived long enough to become landholders. For the English colonists, this was something they would never have been able to do in England; for the Africans, it was a window of opportunity they would not have again for centuries.  Once they became land owners, they had a great opportunity to earn wealth by growing tobacco, which was then exported, taxed, and sold at a great profit for everyone involved.[vii]  Well, almost everyone.

The downside of this lucrative system was that it required a great deal of land, and unfortunately for them, our Indian ancestors had land, which was taken by the colonists, usually by force or chicanery.  By the 1640s, the Algonquin people had been almost entirely dispossessed of their land and their way of life, as an unending tide of settlers poured off the transport ships.  Further to the west, the Siouan, Cherokee, and Iroquois tribes remained, if not untouched – at least much more intact than their coastal neighbors.

This would change rapidly, though, and by the mid 1700s, all the Native tribes of the Americas were feeling the impact of unending stream of European immigrants into their continents.  The Virginia and North Carolina Indians were on the front lines of this displacement.

The diseases that ravaged native populations had run ahead of the Europeans a century and a half earlier, sowing the first seeds of social disintegration, sometimes killing 80% of a given tribe. By 1730, inter-tribal warfare was on the rise, as one group after another was impacted by the influx of new settlers, and as some tribes took advantage of the unrest and change to victimize former enemies.  Of course the European settlers and their leaders were even more destructive to native groups.  And finally, as the transition to tobacco cultivation by individual land holders was established, the Indians were systematically pushed off their land. For a very interesting discussion of this period, see The Siouan Tribes of the East by James Mooney[viii].

The trauma to the tribes was profound.  Traditional lifeways had been disastrously disrupted, clans were splintered and destroyed, and most surviving native groups were repeatedly displaced from their homes, eventually pushing them further up into the Appalachian Mountains and west to what is now Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri.

But not all of the Indians disappeared from the Piedmont.  There were isolated groups of Indian families still moving about the landscape, and these included some bands of Siouan people who came to be called Saponi, from whom we believe we are descended.  A great source of more information on the Siouan people is

Our Gibson and Collins families

When reliable records begin to be kept, the Gibson and Collins families we believe we are descended from are variously described as ‘white’, ‘indian’, and ‘mulatto’, as they move from one location to another, trying to find a peaceful place where they will be allowed to raise their families.  These folk follow many of the same migration patterns as the Saponi people, and are often found in the records living near known Saponi settlements.  The same families are also listed among those in references to free persons of color and African American families in colonial Virginia, such as Paul Heinegg’s book, Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the colonial period to about 1820, Volume 1.6.  They were also probably the descendants of some of the early British colonists to the area, who may or may not actually have been Collins and Gibson men.

The first two documented generations of Gibsons in our direct lineage are murky (documented in a direct line, as opposed to documented, but not connected to our known lineage). There is the Thomas Gibson who was transported to America and settled in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1642, whom I mentioned above.  He may have been the European immigrant ancestor of this line, although the direct evidence is still lacking.  The fact that he was transported, indicates that it is possible he was brought to the Virginia Colony as an indentured servant, although this is not certain either.

50 years later, in 1695, in the vestry records for St. Peter’s Parish in Hanover County, we find mention of a Mary and Thomas Gibson – could this be the same Thomas, or perhaps a son or grandson?:

1695- At a vestry hold at ye house of Mr. James Moss in ye behalf of St. Peter’s parish octob’r ye 10, 1695.
To Mary Gibson upon acc’t drawn by ye Church wardens  208
To Thomas Gibson for keeping a bastard child a year and a half  1500
To Tho. Gibson for keeping a Bastard Child 10 months & a half 850

Whether these are our ancestors is not proven, but seems at least possible, as they were in the right place at the right time.  However, Thomas and Mary were very common names, which make positive identification difficult with the information I have to hand.  It is also possible that some of these foster children may have been Native children, and/or that they took on the name of Gibson.

At this time, the major church of the Virginia colony was the Anglican Church, the counties and parishes were very parallel in their jurisdictions, and the church served as the distributor of social aid.  Thus, the Thomas and Mary Gibson mentioned in these records were part of an early foster care system.  It is also interesting to know that the Parish was a very important political unit at this time as well, and that later county boundaries often corresponded with parish boundaries. According to the historian John Nelson, local government in early Virginia should be understood as “parish-county” government, these two “linked institutions sharing, dividing up, and intermingling their interests and responsibilities.” (Bond)

In about 1710 a child named Thomas Collins was born in Virginia, and at least one of his parents was probably a member of the Monasukapanough tribe, also known as the Saponi.  He and his relatives are mentioned several times in the court records in association with other known Saponi people.  According to Collins family tradition, as told to Will Allen Dromgoole by Calloway Collins in 1890, “The Collins were living in Virginia as Indians before they migrated to North Carolina, and they stole the name Collins from white settlers.” See the Searching for Saponitown website for lots of great links to information on the Siouan people of Virginia.

This map shows the known locations of the Saponi Tribe at this time.

Next, there is a Thomas Gibson who wrote his will in 1734, in Hanover County, Virginia.  He would be rather old to be the Thomas Gibson who was transported to Virginia, but could be a direct descendant.

There are also a number of other Gibson families making their way in Virginia during the same time frame, but it is very difficult to pick out the individual strands of related families, especially given that so many of the men are named Thomas and John.  In other words, we are uncertain about who the earlier ancestors of this line are, although there are many theories.  Recent DNA testing has shown that the descent of our line likely comes this way.  It does also appear that our Thomas Gibson was a close relation to one Gilbert Gibson, as they appear together in several records through the years.  Perhaps Gilbert and Thomas were brothers.

In 1734, as I mentioned, one Thomas Gibson made his will in St Martin’s Parish, (which had been created from part of St. Peter’s Parish):

I Thomas Gibson Senior of St. Martins Par., Hanover Co. Sick and weak but of sound mind and memory do make this my Last will and Testament. I recommend my soul to the hand of Almighty God and my body to the earth. After all my debts and funeral charges are paid I give to my loving son Thomas Gibson 50 a. of land; to my well beloved son John Gibson 50 a. of land; to be well beloved daughter Nice? Nicks wife of Edward Nicks, Frances Humdrey and Mary Brook one Shilling each; to my well beloved son Edward Nicks whom I do hereby constitute sole Exor. of this my will and Testament my house likewise my stock of hogs and cattle together with all my Estate goods and Chattels moveable and unmovable to enable c. I do hereby utterly revoke and make void all former wills made by me.

Thomas (+) Gibson Wit: Isaac (x) Johnson, James (x) Phillips, G. Gillingham, School Mstr.

7 Nov. 1734 proved by oaths of the witnesses.

REF: Hanover Co., VA Court Records, 1733-1735

Finally here, with the son Thomas, we believe we have a more firmly documented ancestor!

What we know of this younger Thomas Gibson’s earlier life is scant.  We know he had a wife named Mary, because she is mentioned in one of the land-sale records. I have found no reliable trace of her possible last name.  Yes, it is confusing, because this Thomas and Mary Gibson would probably be too young to be the Thomas and Mary mentioned in the St. Peter’s parish records in the 1690s.  Wish they’d been a little more creative in their namings!

Per the terms of his father’s will (see above), Thomas was granted 50 acres of land in Hanover County (the acreage commonly given in headright; although by this date, the ‘headright’ was possibly purchased instead of granted to a new immigrant). I have not seen the documentation for the location of this acreage, but it is not far from the Pamunkey River area where Thomas would soon have more land. Thomas would have been at least 30 years old at the time of his father’s death, based on the estimated birth date of one of his children.

In 1742, Thomas Gibson appears in a merchant’s account books for Hanover County. Later that same year, Hanover county was split up, and the part where the Gibsons lived was made part of the new Louisa County, Virginia. Below is a map of the various locations I mention in this post, as I work on this lineage, I keep it open in my browser for reference – perhaps it will help make the story clearer if you do so as well.

The migrations of the Collins and Gibson families and allied families (1710-1900s).

In January of 1742, in Orange County, Virginia, a court case was brought against a group of Indian men, among them John Collins.

“Alexander Machartoon, John Bowling, Manicassa, Capt. Tom, Isaac,  Harry, Blind Tom, Foolish Jack,  Charles Griffin, John Collins, Little Jack. Indians being brought before the court by precept under the hands and seals of Wm Russell & Edward Spencer, Gent. for terrifying one Lawrence Strother  and on suspicion of stealing  hoggs……..” The above put up security individually.   It was ordered that their guns be taken from them till they are ready to depart out of this county,  “they having declared their intentions to the Court to depart this colony within a week”   (Orange Co. VA Order Book 3 1741-1743. 309) Orange Co VA Microfilm Reel 31, VA State Archives.

One researcher, Brenda Collins Dillon commented on this case: “My research turned up [that] the above case could have had something to do with an Indian ceremony where the earth is scorched and a feast takes place to celebrate the coming of the planting season. Also my feeling [is] that this land that Governor Spotswood’s plantation was on, was probably Indian land to begin with, and the Indians were doing to them what seemed natural.

Then in 1743, Thomas acquired land on the Pamunkey River, in Louisa County, about five miles north of present day Richmond. I believe this was not far from the land he inherited from his father.  At this time, Louisa County was being settled by tobacco farmers who were rapidly taking over the former hunting grounds of the Pamunkey and Chicahominy Indians.  So the fact that Thomas was granted land there may indicate that he was farming tobacco.

Two years later, in 1745, we find the following, in the Louisa County Court’s records:

“William Hall, Samuel Collins, William Collins, Samuel Bunch, George Gibson, Benjamin Brannum, Thomas Gibson, & William Donothan appear to answer an indictment for concealing tithables. Plead not guilty, Case continued.” (Louisa County, Va., Tithables and Census). 

The concealed thithables in question may have been these men’s wives.  At that time, tithables meant the number of taxable individuals in a household[ix].  Thithables were variously defined during the colonial period; originally, as set down in 1624, it meant “every male head above sixteen years of age.” Over the next century, this was gradually adjusted to tax a broader range of people, including slaves and indentured servants of both sexes, and free non-whites (i.e., Indians, Blacks and people of mixed race) of both sexes.  In other words, women who were ‘white’ were non-tithable, women of color were tithable.  (I don’t know which one bothers me more!)

Therefore, when these men were brought to the Louisa County court for concealing tithables, it was likely that they were trying to either not report a wife at all, or were trying to pass her off as white, and therefore non-tithable, when whomever brought the suit considered said wife to be a woman of color.  From this we learn that the ‘color’ of at least some of the members of this household, probably women, were either Indian, African, or of mixed ancestry. In later records, the members of this family, including the men, are listed as being mulatto, and the family moved together with other families who are variously listed as Indian, mulatto, and negro, and along the same general migration path as the Saponi Indian tribe took.

The suit against Thomas Gibson was dismissed by the court on 24 September of the same year, because he was not an inhabitant of the county [Orders 1742-8, 152, 157, 167, 171], but within a few years, in 1747 and 1749, Thomas and Mary were selling their Louisa County land holdings on the Pamunkey River (adjacent to Gilbert Gibson’s land), and were moving south into North Carolina. About the same time, in 1747, Thomas Collins also sold his 186 acres of land on Turkey Creek on the south side of the South Anna River in Louisa County.  The records show that his land was near that of Gilbert and Thomas Gibson and Samuel Bunch. There would be some movement back and forth into Virginia by various members of the family, but our branch of this group would never again live in their ancestral lands.

Into North Carolina

We find the Gibson and Collins families next in 1750 in Granville County, North Carolina along the Flatt River.  In 1750, Thomas Gibson is on the tax list there, and in addition to himself, he also paid the tax for Charles and ‘Majer’ Gibson, presumably his sons.  Major Gibson has recently been identified by genetic testing as the ancestor for our line of Gibsons.  This is the first record I know of for him.  Also in Granville County’s tax list for that year are John, Samuel, and Thomas Collins, Sr.

It was also in 1750, in North Carolina, that David Collins, the son of John Collins, was born.

The following year, in 1751, Thomas Gibson received 640 acres on the south side of Flatt River joining John Collins, on the “Rocky Branch” He later sold part of this land to Joel Gibson in 1770.

Granville County, North Carolina, had been Tuscarora Indian territory, but after a war with that tribe in 1717, the British pushed the tribe out, and began to take over their former lands.  The Flatt River is very near the known area where a group of Saponi Indians was recorded in the early 1750s, and again in 1755; so this, combined with the other records associating the Collins and Gibson families with the Saponi, works to build the case for a possible tribal connection with at least some members of these families.  I say at least some members, because I think it is conceivable that English colonists, probably men, were married with Native women, or alternately white women who married ‘free men of color’, thus creating bi-cultural families.

At this time, children were conferred the social status of their mothers, therefore, if the mother was a free woman, her children would also be free; if she were a slave, her children were born into slavery, regardless of the status of their fathers.  Those families with a Native female head of household may have followed the woman’s Native kin group as it moved across the landscape.

Granville County was also on the edge of the settled frontier of North Carolina at this time, and the Collins and Gibson families likely traveled south along the Upper Road branch of the Great Wagon Road. The Great Wagon Road was an ancient and crucial inland route originally used by the Natives – part of it was known as the Great Warrior’s Trail. The European settlers used the road for trade and to get to new settlements, and it eventually ran over 700 miles from Philadelphia south through Virginia and the Carolinas into Georgia.  It ran between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains, crossing to the other side of the Blue Ridge at the Roanoke River Gap, and continued south into the Carolina Piedmont to modern Winston Salem, where it was joined by the east–west Catawba and Cherokee Indian Trading Path to at the Trading Ford across the Yadkin River, in Rowan, North Carolina, thence to Charlotte and on to Rock Hill, South Carolina where it branches to take two routes to Augusta, and Savannah, Georgia. (Map from Southwest Virginia Campbells web site; read more about the Great Wagon Road at the Georgian Index website).

Since this trail was an ancestral Indian road before the colonists ever arrived, so it was also a logical route for our Saponi folk to have taken. The Flat River grants were located just north of Hillsborough, and thus within easy access of the Great Wagon Road.  Many settlers traveled the road on foot, on horseback, with their families and herds of livestock, and even the occasional Conestoga wagons pulled by teams of oxen. Either way, the road was notoriously difficult to travel, although it was the only way to make the inland trek.

In 1752 parts of Granville County, Bladen County, and Johnston County were combined to form Orange County.  Our ancestors were primarily located in Granville and the new Orange Counties.

In 1752, in Granville County, North Carolina, we find that Thomas Collins received a grant on the Flatt River by Dial’s Creek.  Witnesses to this transaction were Paul Collins, George Gibson, and Moses Riddle, who may have been Thomas Collins’ father-in-law.   In the 1755 tax list for Orange County, North Carolina we find the following Gibsons:

Thomas Gibson 3 tithes (mulatto)
Charles Gibson 1 tithe (mulatto)
George Gibson 1 tithe (mulatto)
Mager Gibson 1 tithe (mulatto) (also in NC Federal Census)

John Collins also appears in the 1755 tax records for the Flatt River area, which was near the Virginia-North Carolina border, along with Thomas and Samuel Collins, and all three were also listed as mulatto.

At this time in the history of the eastern colonies, during the height of the slave trade from Africa, skin color was of paramount importance as part of the system of subjugation of anyone who was not white. Because of this, a person’s skin color had a great deal to do with their options in society.   Around the end of the 1600s and continuing into the early 1700s, there were a series of laws enacted which severely limited the rights of Free Persons of Color, as they were termed.  These laws forbade people of color from employing white servants, it kept slaves from being manumitted unless they were taken out of the colony, and perhaps most draconian, it forbade interracial marriages, and the illegitimate mixed-race children of white women were ordered to be bound out for 30 years!  Imagine having your children taken from you and sentenced to thirty years bondage for the crime of being born mixed race![x]

Our Collins and Gibson families would have been subject to all these restrictions to their freedoms.  This may be why they lived in the hill country, far from towns and cities, where perhaps they could attract less attention.  In the coming century, they kept moving.

In Part II of this narrative, I’ll follow these families from North Carolina into Tennessee and Kentucky, as the Bull/Turnbull, Mason and Evans families (and others) join the line.  I’ll try to get this posted soon.  In the meantime, I welcome your comments and corrections.

External Links

[i] For an excellent discussion of the Native Americans in Virginia, see the Swanton list at

[ii] Karenne Wood, “The Monacan Indians of Virginia”

[iii] For more about the Roanoke colony

[vii] For further discussion of the headright system, see Wikipedia : ; and Bob’s Genealogy Filing Cabinet II : Understanding Headrights :

[ix] For a great explanation of thithables, see

[x] If you are interested in learning more about the racial relations in the Virginia and North Carolina colonies, see Paul Heinegg’s website: Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware.

Will and Sarah Lee Fleming, the roamers who homesteaded in Farley, New Mexico

Harold Fleming with granddaughter Annie, c. 1965

My paternal grandfather, Harold Morton Fleming was a rancher who was born in Ohio, but lived much of his life on the high plains of north-eastern New Mexico.  His parents were William James Fleming and Sarah Rebecca Lee, who homesteaded there with their children on one of the sweeping grasslands plateaux above Las Vegas (the New Mexico one, of course), on a lonely stretch with a Farley address a bit north and east from Springer.  Farley no longer appears on the google maps, but when I was born in 1964, my mother remembers visiting her in-laws in a tiny town there, a mile or so away from the Fleming ranch.

Will was the son of immigrants.  His father, Thomas Morton Fleming came to America from Scotland in 1869, when he was 18. His line of Flemings was centered in the Lanarkshire area of Scotland, and my research has (so far) gone back to David Fleming and Janet Arbuckle of Glasgow. Their son William Fleming, was born about 1796, and grew up to be a farmer, and married Isabella Stirling, the daughter of a ‘plowman’. Their son, Robert Fleming, broke with family tradition and became a stoneworker in the limeworks near Glasgow, where he eventually was killed by a slab of rock that fell on him in 1883. His wife was Agnes Morton, and several of their children left Scotland for new opportunities in America.

Thomas Morton Fleming

Thomas Morton Fleming was one of those, and when he arrived in 1869 he was 18 and knew how to work hard. First, he worked for the Union Pacific Railroad setting out ties in Colorado. By 1875, he settled in Jewell County, Kansas, where he met and married Ida Elizabeth Kuhn.

Ida was born in near Zurich, Switzerland, and immigrated to America with her family before 1870 (their story is for a different post).  Thomas and Ida lived in Republic County until about 1902, when they moved to May, in Harper County, Oklahoma.


Thomas M Fleming & Ida M Kuhn Fleming

Thomas and Ida Fleming had 12 children, and William James, born in 1885 was their fifth child. He appears in 1900, when he was 15, living with his maternal grandparents, Katherine Baumann and Johan Ulrich Kuhn in Belleville, Kansas.  He would have been about 17 when his parents moved to Oklahoma sometime about 1902, and whether he accompanied them at first, or joined them later I do not know.  Will, as he was called, was in May, OK, at least by 1908 or 09, because he was living there with his parents when he and Sarah Lee met.

Sarah Rebecca Lee was born in 1886 in Pineville, Bell County, Kentucky, the daughter of Stephen Andrew Lee and Rutha Jane Mason, the third of their ten children.  The Lee and Mason families are very interesting, and I will take up their thread in a different post.

For this part of the story, suffice it to say that both the Lee and Mason families have deep Kentucky roots, but about 1900, Steven and Rutha Lee moved to Paulding County, Ohio.  I’m still figuring out why they emigrated out of Kentucky, but I do know that Stephen’s father and at least three of his brothers went there in the late 1800s. The men’s occupations on the census are all listed as Farmer, so it wasn’t some other industry that attracted them – probably just new land and new opportunities.

Rutha Jane Mason Lee, courtesy Cheryl Bada

Tragically, Rutha Jane Mason Lee, died in 1904, shortly after the birth of her tenth baby.

Dale Fleming had this to say about what happened after Rutha died:

“Sarah’s dad … was a big, tall, rawboned guy. He drank a lot, was mean, and when his wife died, the twelve kids scattered like birds to survive.  Sarah went to Oklahoma to live with a cousin.  Sarah was little and slim.  She grew up hard and didn’t expect much.”

Stephen A Lee

Steven Lee remarried to a woman named Sarah Saylor in 1908, the same year that his daughter Sara arrived in May, Oklahoma to earn her keep by working as a nanny for her cousin, Rosa Jane Lee and her husband, Will Sells and their three small children.

The story goes that one Sunday shortly after her arrival, Will Fleming stopped in to pick up his usual walking-to-church companions, and that Sarah was the only one going that day, so he walked with her.  They took a fancy to each other, and were married in 1909, in Doby Springs, Harper County, Oklahoma. Their oldest child, Harold Morton Fleming, was born the next year in Paulding County, Ohio, where Sarah traveled from their home in Bellville, Republic County, Kansas, to have her baby with family around her.  The Kuhn family, Will Fleming’s maternal relatives, was centered in Bellville, Kansas.

In 2000, Mary Sells Bond[1], sat down and recorded some recollections of Sarah Lee Fleming by Faye Sells (age 85 in June 2000) and Susie Crooks (age 100 in September 2000).  The Rosa Jane Lee Sells mentioned here was Sarah’s 1st cousin; their fathers were brothers.  Here is what they remembered:

“Sarah, Rosa’s cousin, came to Oklahoma on the train with Will and Rose Sells to help care for the children.” (best date 1907.  Viola was ca. 4, Hester 3, and baby Donnie perhaps 6 mos.  Reports are that Donnie he was a fussy baby.)  I think both Marvin Chambers and Faye Sells mentioned in about 1998 about Sarah hired out to help clean house or building for Fleming family.  This was Tom Fleming and Ida, parents of Will and another son named Tom.

A letter Grandmother Rosa Jane Lee Sells wrote to her parents in Ohio and dated Feb. 1908, was sent from May [Oklahoma] and mentions Sarah.  In this letter, Donnie takes his first steps one day during Rosa’s writing.  On Friday she reports both a thunder storm and rain the night before and that upon getting up they were about 4 inches of snow and quit snowing at 10 o’clock.  Later, in ‘afternoon Sarah is putting Donnie to sleep.’  They had recently had 4 meals of green onions.  Will and his father were hauling corn and fodder.

Faye recalls being in the big block 3-story house of the Tom Flemings or at least where Mr. Fleming had an office in it.  This was located just south of where the state highway runs east and west along south edge of May and just west of the May to Gage road.  For many years that location has been the farm and home place of Cecil Crooks and/or wife Susie.  Faye’s mother, Ida Jones, was a seamstress who helped in the WPA (or whatever the Federal project title was) for sewing women (1935- WWII years), which in May, OK, was in the same building where Mr. Tom Fleming had had his office.

T. M. Fleming moved from May to Waynoka where he bought the Dew Drop Inn Motel and ran it.  Sarah and Will lived in a building there that had tin siding which looked like blocks.

While Sara and Will lived in Waynoka, Faye says she and Hazel [Will and Sarah’s daughter] were in the same school, but she doesn’t think they were in the same grade.  Faye’s folks lived in Waynoka ca. 1924-25.  Her father Charlie Jones, worked at the R R. round house, or at least with the RR.  Fay at one time talked like Will and Sarah might not have lived at Waynoka very long (winter about 1925-26).

Susie Crooks recalls that one of her daughters was born in 1933 while they were living in New Mexico as neighbors to Bill and Sarah Fleming.  The Crooks lived out there around Farley for 3 years.  While there the Fed. Govt. had cattle slaughtered due to drought – no feed for the cattle.  Beef meat was given to people, size depending on number in family.  The Flemings, John & Phoebe Rogers, and the Crooks would get together and cook and can the beef.  They all tried to raise beans, but barely got seed back.  They lived on jack rabbits.

William Fleming and Sarah Lee, c 1909

“Sarah was a little woman, a head, or more, shorter than her sister, Phoebe, and shorter than Bill, her husband.  She had gray hair and was older than me.  Nice lady, I liked her.”

According to Dale Fleming, Will and Sarah ‘traveled a lot’. He said that in 1917, they went overland from Oklahoma  to Colfax County, New Mexico, in covered wagons with a team of ‘big blue’ horses, and homesteaded in Colfax County, along with Sarah’s sister, Phoebe Lee and her husband, John Aseph Rogers; and Will’s sister, Agnes, with her husband, Howard Smith.  Their family ties were strong.

Phoebe Lee, Sarah's sister, with her husband John Aseph Rogers, c. 1915

I find a homestead claim filed by William J. Fleming for 320 acres in Colfax County, New Mexico, filed in Clayton, NM, in July of 1919.  In 1931 he bought another 18 acres in the same area.

Dale told me that “W.J. would work from sunup to sundown for $1.50 a day to supplement the family income. They lived the old pioneer life. They built a little rock house on their homestead and lived there for many years before they could build a bigger house. That old rock house is still standing, although the roof and the floor are gone. They farmed and they worked real hard. Dad died sudden of a heart attack in January of 1965. He was 79 then. He died in a hospital in Springer, (New Mexico).”

The Flemings, from l. to r.: Hazel, Dale, Sarah, Rolland, Will, and Harold

During an interview in 1999, my father, Lee Fleming, remembered the following:

Wm James Fleming was very persevering and worked to instill in the kids this work ethic. His motto was “Patience and Perseverance”; I had a great respect for him. When he died, he was in the field working on his Farmall Tractor that had a hand crank. He was very conservative and well liked in the community. He was a farm auctioneer, and usually didn’t take money for this. He bought his land for about $1 per acre, and sharecropped with his sons. He got 1/3 and his sons got the rest of the proceeds from their crops. He would make loans to them anytime they needed it, and his sons used his farm equipment. When he died, he left about a quarter million dollars to Sarah. She gave this to the kids.”

Sarah Lee and William J Fleming

My mother, Mary Wyles Ogle remembers that Sarah, was “a very petite, energetic, elegant woman.  She was hardworking, and not as poor as many neighbors and other family members.”   Sarah was blind in the last decade of her life as a result of Diabetes, and died of cancer in 1974.

Bob and I visited their homestead site in 2000 or so, I think the summer after Dale Fleming’s death (unfortunately I have misplaced those notes sometime over the past two moves).  The land was no longer in the family, and at that time, was owned by a corporation in Texas.  At any rate, we were definitely trespassing, but I wanted to see the place, and walk on that land where so many of my kin had lived and even died.

Sarah Fleming with her Children: back - Dale, Hazel, Sarah; front - Harold, unknown child, and Rolland

There were pieces of large farm equipment scattered like dinosaurs throughout the property.  There were various outbuildings as well, and a little once-white house, now abandoned and falling to pieces. But the focal point of the homestead was still a large stone building, made, as I recall from large rocks with thick sturdy walls; the work of the grandson of a mason, perhaps.

Fleming Homestead, 2002

As we were poking around the ruins, a sudden hail storm rolled in, as they do in that part of the world in summer, and we took refuge in the stone building, which did have a roof, so I think it was the second house that Will built, and that the smaller stone house, which was in worse shape, was probably the original homestead house.

Fleming Homestead, Rock House, 200

Sarah Lee and Will Fleming

I have a few photos of Sarah and Will.  One of them shows the two of them in their garden.  The image is poor quality, but you can see that she is tiny, and that their garden is large and bountiful.   No doubt they mostly cared that it was bountiful, as these were their vegetables for the year.

[1] Notes from Mary Sells Bond, September 8, 2000, to me via Cheryl Bada, October 2000.  Memories about Sarah Lee Fleming by Faye Sells (age 85 in June) and Susie Crooks (age 100 in September), September 3 – 4, 2000; recorded by Mary Lou Sells Bond.