March 2004 Newsletter, Surry County, Virginia, Historical Society and Museums, Inc. Surry County Virginia Historical Society and Museums, Inc.
Surry County, Virginia, Historical Society and Museums, Inc.
P. O. Box 262, Surry, VA 23883   Phone (757) 294-0404
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Newsletter and March 2004 Meeting Notice

Newsletter and notice of the Monday, March 8, 2004 Meeting of the Society. Please note that the meeting will be held at 7:00 P. M. at the Surry County Va. Recreation Center.

Our Speaker will be Jack Huber from the Dendron Historical Society. Jack will speak on Dendron, The Surry Lumber Company and the Surry, Sussex and Southampton Railroad. Jack and his brother, Thomas, have studied and published an immense amount of information on the history of Dendron. We will be updated on the wonderful work the Dendron Historical Society is doing.

President's Report.
by Bo Bohannan

One of my favorite childhood memories is going on day trips to the rural courthouses of Virginia with my father during the late 1940s. As a lawyer, he frequently had to go to these courthouses to look up deeds and other legal documents. Many of our ventures were in counties west of Petersburg, Va. I remember how much I was in awe of the majesty of courthouses in such counties as Nottoway, Amelia, Powhatan and Appomattox. Courthouses of such vintage had a pleasant smell of mustiness, age, old books and papers. I can still remember the familiar scent. These courthouses were solemn edifices where there was no loud talking or playful acts by a ten year old child.

The courthouse I remember most fondly of course is the courthouse in Surry County. This was home, where we came from. During the summer, Daddy and I would visit my grandfather at work. He would welcome us. This was the time I also met and befriended Virginia Savedge, Clerk of Court, who worked closely with my grandfather at the courthouse.

Recently I found a copy of a letter dated January 18, 1922, after the Surry County Courthouse fire of that date, from my grandfather to his oldest daughter, my aunt, Mary Wilson Bohannan, who was then a student at The College of William and Mary. This was a few years before Captain Jester's Jamestown-Scotland Ferry, so the distance between Surry and Williamsburg was time consuming. Reading this eighty-two year old letter gave me added pride in my grandfather, and the many adversities Surry County has lived through.

My grandfather played an important role in the planning of our present courthouse, which replaced the burnt courthouse. Now I fully realize that change is necessary and I look forward with great interest as to how Surry County handles changes and improvements for the Courthouse of Surry County. Let's keep the best and improve the rest.

Here is my grandfather's letter. I have omitted the names of the two alleged suspects in the 1922 courthouse fire because I have no evidence that they were guilty or even brought to trial. I hope you enjoy looking back at a bit of Surry County Courthouse history.
Bo Bohannan

Surry, Va., Jan. 18, 1922.

My dear Girl:

Well, our fine courthouse is a mass of bricks and ruined walls tonight. It is certainly a great loss.

I left my office, earlier than usual Monday night, around 9 o'clock. I did some writing at home and was up until about one o'clock. Shortly after going to bed, I smelled smoke and not long after that I heard hollering and screaming down the road. I got up and looked out of the window and saw that there was a fire down there. I was afraid it was the courthouse as soon as I saw it.

I dressed as soon as I could and went down there and my fears were confirmed before I got there, for I saw fire coming out of the cupola of the courthouse. There was no fire in my office when I got there, but the office next door, that is the Comth.'s Atty.'s office was beginning to burn. The roof was on fire also, but the main part of the fire was around the stairway.

I went in my office to try to get some of my books out, but the fire must have gotten in there by that time, although, I am not sure, but I notice the things that I brought our were pretty badly smoked. I might have gotten more, but the people outside were hollering for me to come out. After I came out I thought of my tax ticket books, and went back in after them. The fire was in the office then, but I got off all right with the exception of a cut hand, as I cut this on some glass when I went in through the window.

---------------- and ------------------ were suspected as it was thought that it might have been done by them for spite as raid was made on them recently and liquor was found in both of their houses, for which they will be tried next Court. As there was some snow on the ground, tracks were found leading to both of their houses. A warrant was issued for each one of them and I was in the Sheriff's posse that went to arrest them. We got both of them, but had to go as far as Spring Grove to look for ----------------- as he had been off after whiskey. He had about four or five gallons with him when arrested. He was held on the charge of transporting liquor, but the other warrant against him was dismissed as the tracks turned out to be his son's tracks. ---------- was held for the Grand Jury.

I haven't opened my safe yet as the dial on the combination was destroyed. I hope my books in there are all right. I saved my adding machine and type writer. I am glad I came out as well as I did. I lost everything in the other fire.

Will have to stop for this time.
Much love,
[signed] Papa

I am proud of your marks on English. It is fine. Hope you come to Richmond.

Donald Anderson, 71, a man who helped shape Surry County, died on January 19, 2004.

He founded the National Association for the Southern Poor. He developed a system to teach poor and illiterate black southerners how to help themselves. Surry County, Va. was the first county where he used his system to improve their lot and to achieve political power.

The organization in Surry became known as the Surry Assembly. It was very successful in achieving political power in the 1970s. Among other credentials he was on Rep. Adam Clayton Powell's staff and President Lyndon B. Johnson's manager of the "War on Poverty".

Black, White and Red - all Red, White and Blue
by James E. Atkins

Surry County was inhabited by Indians when the first white settlers arrived on May 5, 1607. Some few years later, approximately 1619, the first blacks came to Surry. The influence of all these melded together to form our county, state and country.

Traditional history tells us that the Indians were removed to south of the Blackwater River by the treaty of 1646. Later, in 1701 they were moved further south to the 6-mile round tract and the 6-mile square tract in Southampton County. From this time on they were largely written out of our history.

Our written history tells very little of the Indians beyond these earliest days. It was as if they had disappeared from present day Surry County. Not True!

We depend so much today on the written history, rightfully so in most instances. Yet the unwritten history is often an equally accurate and important part of our past. For all of my life I have heard whisperings of Indian blood and Indian servants in recent generations.

The word "Mulatto" means more then a mixture of black and white blood. Sometimes it's black, white and red. Many Mulattos had Indian blood, but this fact is missing from most records. In 1803 Surry County Commissioner of Revenue records separated Mulattos from free blacks. In 1810 and later, the word Mulatto disappeared, and free blacks became the description of all of color who were free. Records show that there were many Mulattos and free blacks around Salisbury Road and Carsley, Va, who owned their own farms, many well before the Civil War. Records do not, however, show that there were [many] [some], who were Black, white and red.

Society member David R. Burrell of Washington D. C. is studying these families. Using a blown-up Surry County map of the area he has located where many families lived during the 1920-30s. Many families lived on land they owned before the Civil War. Their names are included in the Surry County Register of Free Blacks. He has talked with the oldest living citizens of the area who have related their oral history to him. Included is information, only whispered in prior generations, of Indian blood lines. A recent DNA test showed 35% Indian blood line in a Surry Citizen. Much more from David Burrell soon.

The Society asks our members to give us any information you may have on Indian ancestors, tales or history. You may send it to me at the Society address or to David Burrell via E-mail at [email protected]. We expect to have David, and perhaps others, to speak on this subject at an upcoming meeting.


Blackwater Swamp
by James E. Atkins
Blackwater, the Place.

Blackwater Swamp has been part of Surry County for eons before settlement by the English in 1607. While called a river further downstream, it is a swamp throughout the area bordered by Surry County. As it drains south it becomes the Chowan River, which drains into the Albermarle Sound, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean. Because of it, the majority of land in Surry drains, not to the James River, but to North Carolina. Indeed, some areas less than three miles from the James River drain south to the Blackwater.

Many other swamps in Surry ultimately dump their water into the Blackwater. Otterdam, John Shehawkin goes into the Cypress, which goes into the Blackwater. There are Terrapin Swamp, Mill Swamp, Moores Swamp, Passenger Swamp, Golden Swamp, Pigeon-roost Swamp and countless others. These are all fed by literally hundreds of what we call branches, small feeder streams that drain our land and feed our swamps.

This swamp provides Surry County with an ancient and unique ecosystem. I will try to describe its features and give some feeling for the swamp, for indeed feeling is a big part of what we have in the Blackwater.

It is a silent stream, even when at flood stage. There is little or no noise of the movement of water. Surrounded by woodland, low, unlivable and unfarmable, there is little noise from the hustle and bustle of our civilization. Yes, bridges do cross it, and in some places farms are close by. Largely there is silence, a quiet that tells you this is a very special place.

Navigable? Yes and no. You can traverse it and fish it from a small flat bottom fishing boat. These boats, homemade of wood in my youth, are now largely factory made of aluminum. Most fishermen still prefer the wooden ones. They make almost no noise as they are paddled or poled in the silent stream.

Navigation, even for fishing or hunting, is problematical. Trees along the banks and in the swamp are largely cypress, gum, poplar and other long life trees. Cypress knees can bring your boat to a sudden halt. Some pines are close by where the soil is drained enough to satisfy their needs. Largely, these trees have never been harvested by man. They live their lives, often hundreds of years, but ultimately die and fall. Each visit to the swamp is likely to provide you with new obstacles recently fallen. Even further south of Surry, where the swamp becomes a river, navigation by larger boats is scarce, as an open area today may be blocked tomorrow. The early settlers were never able to completely overcome its obstacles.

There is a tranquility here. You fish, hunt or just watch and listen quietly. Open woods of ancient trees surround you, forming an umbrella that largely shields you from the sun. You listen for the wildlife that lives here, the chatter of squirrels, a deer surprised by your intrusion, a fish jumping or rolling as it searches for its next meal, or tries to keep from being the meal of a larger fish. Possoms and coons hunt silently. Your only chance to see them is their movement as they go about their lives, not expecting man's intrusion.

Bugs, jeweled and plain, small and large, scurry around the swamp. Small crustaceans leave tracks in the mud flats going down to the swamp. There is a hum in the air most of the time - mosquitoes and other bugs of all descriptions. Like a fog, they surround you, and any exposed flesh is considered a meal.

Often on still mornings there is a fog. As light comes, it hides the line between water and sky. Reflections and fog give a surreal feeling in that period between darkness and daylight.

Your tranquility can be shattered if you are not observant. Snakes are numerous, many harmless, some deadly. All are quiet, like nearly everything in and around the swamp. They swim, they sometimes climb the overhanging branches of trees, and they have been known to fall into boats. They love to rest and sun themselves on sunny fallen trees and the banks of the swamp. You see their meandering track in the soft mud banks going down to the swamp.

Springs contribute much water to the Blackwater and its tributaries. Many flow from the steep banks close to the swamp. Some are boiling springs, bringing a slurry of sand and water to the surface. One such spring off Rt. 603 in the edge of Sussex County was so deep a fishing pole could not touch its bottom.

Some are actually in the tributaries of the Blackwater. One, in the Johnshehawkin Swamp, is bold enough to continue filling the pond in times of drought. With no water entering the pond, or flowing from it, the pond gains water and remains nearly full throughout droughts.

There are strange noises, particularly as darkness falls. The flopping of wings, generally ducks landing, the crash of a spooked deer as it plunges into the swamp to cross. There are unknown noises, birds, fowl, or some animal that seems to follow you, unseen but close by wherever you go.

Blackwater, the History.

From a million years ago to approximately 25,000 years ago, the Ice Age controlled our area. Ice packs similar to what we see close to the North and South Poles covered this part of the world. What is now Surry County was indescribable. Ocean levels dropped, perhaps 300 feet in coldest times, and rose as the ice melted. It is likely all of what is now Surry County was under water.

The big bang, ca. 33,000 BC. A huge space rock approximately two miles wide, traveling at 60,000 miles per hour, slammed into the Atlantic Ocean where the Chesapeake Bay is today. It penetrated approximately seven miles deep. This formed the beginning of the topography of what became Surry County.

Who were the first humans to view the Blackwater? Traditional wisdom says the Indians migrated from Asia and were the first settlers. The Cactus Hill dig in nearby Sussex County dates back to around 13,000 B.C. Were the first humans from Asia or Europe? Permanent ice packs had covered most of North America. The first humans may have arrived by boat from Europe. This will be argued for many decades, if not centuries, in the future.

Ca. 1507 a tiny Bald Cypress seed falls into the edge of what we now call the Blackwater. The water being low, it germinates and becomes a seedling. More later.

In 1644-46 Chief Opechancanough of the Powhatan Confederacy, old and nearly blind, waged war against the English settlers. Nearly 500 settlers were killed the first day of hostilities, Maundy Thursday. In 1646 a peace treaty between the settlers and Necotowance, king of the Indians, settled [temporarily] relations with the Indians.

I quote Article 5 "and it is further enacted that neither for the said Necotowance nor any of his people, do frequent come in to hunt or make any abode nearer the English Plantations than the lymits of Yapin the Blackwater, and from the head of the Blackwater upon a straight line to the old Monakin town, upon such paine and penaltie as aforesaid". See The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century by Warren M. Billings, page 227.

Thus settlers were banned south of the Blackwater in what is now little Surry and Sussex County, and Indians were banned north of the Blackwater. The Indians, now weakened and with few warriors, depended on the English settlers, with their guns, for protection against other marauding groups of Indians. Tribes, or surviving remnants, combined. They settled along the south side of the Blackwater. In many areas along the Blackwater you find the relics of their civilization. They could still enjoy the fish, fowl and wildlife along the swamp.

The settlers also gained. No longer could the Indians move freely through their settlements. Trade with the Indians probably did not suffer. Most important, the Indians served as the eyes and ears of the settlers. Marauding tribes coming through the areas were discovered by the Indians and fought by the English settlers. It was somewhat an unequal mutual aid society.

The treaty survived until April 25,1701. By this time the English settlers of Surry County had been here for over 90 years. Several generations of settlers had produced many descendants and practically all the land north of the Blackwater was settled. Land had been platted for some years in preparation for the time land patents would be legal south of the Blackwater.

There was immense pressure to allow the settlers to move south. 19,918 acres in 27 separate patents were filed the first day allowed and another 16,858 acres later that year. The presence of the Indians on the Blackwater soon was nearly non-existent. When the treaty was abridged the even smaller group of surviving Indians were moved to and given the round tract and the square tract further south in Sussex-Southampton-Prince George Counties. There, in the English tradition, they were individually given title to pieces of land. They were now farmers or they sold their land.

Behind Shingleton plantation on the Blackwater, this part of the swamp was known [and still is] as Deep Bottom. All of the water had to go downstream, and it could do it through a wide shallow stream or a deep gut cut by nature. Back of Shingleton was the deepest and most narrow part of the Swamp. Dad took me there, and he would take our longest fishing pole and probe the bottom. It was not touched.

On each side of the swamp was a deep gully going down the banks to the Blackwater. Little did I know in my youth that these gullies had been the original road from what is now the Surry side going to the Sussex side. If you think about it, the easiest way to cross the swamp was to cut two or more large trees and lay them across the narrowest part of the swamp, put some planking on them and you had a bridge. The first bridge was built here around 1700. It was better than having to cross hundreds of feet of swamp to get to the stream. From the Surry Side you can still see the remains of the original road as it turns north just as you start down the hill to the Blackwater. A friend of my Aunt Mildred, who fished there regularly until his death around 8 years ago, when told of my recollections, said I must have been there yesterday, that's the way it is.

The land south of the Blackwater, north of Rt. 40, was supposedly first settled by Benjamin Harrison around 1685. He purchased it from the Waynoak Indians. While it was illegal to get a land patent south of the Blackwater, he allegedly was able to bypass the conditions of the 1646 treaty.

In a recent 2001 publication of the Virginia Forestry Association there was a picture of a huge cypress tree found in the Dendron Swamp, a part of the Blackwater off Rt. 614, on the Sussex side. The little seedling that dropped and germinated ca. 1507 is 100 years older than our country. With some luck, it may live hundreds of more years. The history of the Blackwater continues to be lived and written.

Blackwater, the Tales.

These are the tales of the Blackwater, many from my father, who lived all of his life close to its borders, some from other friends who likewise enjoyed the swamp, and some from my youth, visiting the swamp with my father and sometimes alone or with my young friends. I hope my memories are correct.

My father, Edward M. Atkins, was raised as a child at Shingleton Plantation off Rt. 40. His father, Charles David Atkins, was overseer on the plantation. Later as a youth he lived on the Blackwater near Spring Hill. He learned to swim when he was thrown in the swamp by older boys. When he moved to Carsley he would take me to the Blackwater to fish. In the days of Dad's youth, early in the 1900s, a new way of fishing became popular. Rods and reels became available. The moving artificial baits provided a new way of fishing, providing suspense, action and food.

The Blackwater became the premier place to fish in Southeastern Virginia. Its dark tanin-filled waters were filled with pike. These fish loved the new artificial baits and usually provided instant gratification. Dad said he would go down to the Blackwater after church on Sunday and catch a dozen before dinner was ready. Of course, the traditional fishing pole, line, cork, sinker and worm continued to work with brem, perch and other bottom feeders.

Fishermen from around the state came to fish. They needed a guide and a boat. Dad said that most of the money he had as a youth came from serving as a guide. Many were very generous after a successful day of fishing. Even fishing, you usually took a gun. After all, you never knew what you would confront, or what would confront you. Dad generally took his first rifle, a model 62 Winchester pump gun. Once he had a customer who imbibed too many spirits, stood up in the swamp boat, and turned it over. First Dad had to drag him out of the swamp. Next he tried to find his Winchester. This was a deep part of the swamp. He tried swimming down, and later using grappling hooks, but the swamp never gave up his gun. He bought another 62 Winchester. This one was later sold by his brother, but his third 62 Winchester is now the proud possession of his grandson, Mark Sheffield.

Trapping was another source of income from the Blackwater. Dad ran trap lines on the Blackwater. Fur coats were popular, and the Blackwater had more than its share of fur. He looked for tracks and then hid a trap. His favorite was a partially floating log. He would set a trap just under the water on the log. Mud slides of the animals also were favorite spots. The name of the game was to outwit the animals.

There also were sinister fish in the swamp - Carp. Boney with a long snout, these large ancient fish reached a length of up to eight feet. Rarely were they seen. Often from a distance, they appeared as a log, just below the surface. To my memory we never caught one. I don't think anyone ate them. An encounter with them was generally when you were fishing with a rod and reel. You would snag what you thought was a floating log, just under the water. When you tightened the line there was no movement. Then the end of your line would start to slowly move sideways. When the Carp had had enough, it just swam away, breaking your light line designed for Pike. For me as a child, these Carp were fearful unknown creatures.

Local hunters soon learned the places where deer would cross the swamp. If hunters were hunting a certain woods, it was likely spooked deer would cross at a certain point. Often a hunter in his swamp boat would be there.

An article in the Tri County News from Wakefield, Va. dated Aug. 3, 1934 gave a chilling fact. An alligator was killed in Sussex County. While its location was not mentioned, the article reported "Alligator Is killed by Sussex Negroes. An alligator was killed in Sussex County a few days ago, Carl H. Nolting, chairman of the State commission of game and inland fisheries, reported today after a visit to that county.
The alligator was killed by Negroes who say that it attacked them with great fury and without provocation. There are two theories as to the presence of the saurian as far north as Virginia. One of those is that it found an agreeable warmth up this way this summer. Another is that the alligator escaped from some citizen."


The swamp contains many hidden hummocks, higher ground nearly surrounded by swamp. Often they are adjacent to a branch that drains into the swamp. These became favorite places for a still. Probably most were on these branches away from the main run of the swamp, assuring that there would be no chance a fisherman would discover the still. Necessary were water, fuel, cover and transportation.

Once during a flood when I was a youth, there was a home in the swamp flats just south of Rt. 40 on the swamp. The new bridge and approach road, being well above the flood area were clear of water. There was an old home, small and hopefully uninhabited in the swamp flats. I saw someone row a swamp boat through the building, in one door and out the other. It was a shock. I still cannot believe anyone would have built their home there. Yet a storm like this may not come but once a century. Blackwater's history and tales continue to grow. I welcome your tales and history of the swamp.


Surry County Historical Society meeting dates.

The following are meeting dates for the remainder of 2004. All meetings are scheduled for 7:00 PM at the Surry County Recreation Center.
Please note: Check your newsletter, as there may be changes.
March 8Membership Meeting
April 12Executive Board Meeting
May 10Membership Meeting
August 9Executive Board Meeting
September 13 Membership Meeting
November 8 Executive Board Meeting
December 13 Membership Meeting


Keep your membership up to date. Check the renewal date on your Newsletter mailing label. For example, 5-04 means you are paid up through May 2004.
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