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Henry Berry Lowrie & The Lumbee

Henry Berry Lowrie & The Lumbee


Henry Berry Lowrie or "Henry Berry Lowry" (born c. 1844 – 1847-disappeared 1872) led an outlaw gang in North Carolina during and after the American Civil War.

Stories about Henry Berry Lowrie & The Lumbee

Robin Hood Figure

    Many locals remember him as a Robin Hood figure, particularly the Tuscarora and Lumbee people, who consider him one of their tribe and a pioneer in the fight for their civil rights, personal freedom, and tribal self-determination. At the height of his fame, Lowrie was described by George Alfred Townsend, a late 19th century New York Herald correspondent, as “one of those remarkable executive spirits that arises now and then in a raw community without advantages other than those given by nature.

    Early life:

    Lowrie was born in the Hopewell Community, Robeson County, North Carolina. Born to Allen and Mary (Polly) Cumbo Lowrie, Henry was one of twelve children born to Allen's two wives. As head of one of the most affluent non-white families in Robeson County, Allen Lowrie owned and operated a very successful 200 acre mixed-use farm in Robeson County.

    Rise to power:

    During the Civil War years, several Lowrie cousins, like many free men of color, had been forcibly conscripted to work on behalf of the Confederacy in building Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, North Carolina. Many resorted to "lying out" or hiding in Robeson County's swamps to avoid being harassed and rounded up by the Home Guard. Two of Henry Berry Lowrie's cousins were killed by James Harris after returning from their brothers' funeral. Henry Lowrie and his gang then killed Harris.

    After Allen Lowrie's neighbor, James Barnes, accused the Lowries of stealing food and harboring escaped Union prisoners of war, the Lowrie gang killed him. The Confederate Home Guard convened a kangaroo court, and then executed Henry Berry's father and brother. The Lowrie gang then embarked on a series of robberies and murders with political overtones that continued on-and-off until 1872, a conflagration that would come to be known in North Carolina as the Lowry War.

    Lowrie's gang continued its actions after the end of the war. Republican governor William Woods Holden outlawed them in 1869, and offered a large reward for their capture, dead or alive. The band responded with more revenge killings.

    Henry Berry Lowrie's band of guerillas had become a powerful force opposing the Conservative Democratic power structure, who were pro-white supremacy. The Lowrie gang stole from, sabotaged, and killed many Conservatives. Moreover, they recognized the plight of the non-white population of Robeson County. Despite their best efforts, law enforcement was unable to stop, or even hinder the Lowrie gang, largely due to their popular support. However, shortly after one of his most daring raids, in which he robbed the local sheriff's safe for more than $28,000, Henry Berry Lowrie disappeared. Shortly thereafter, every member of his gang, save two, were captured and killed. Henry himself is reported to have been accidentally killed while cleaning his gun.

    Henry Berry Lowrie's fame is unhindered by the relatively short amount of time he spent directly influencing the history of Robeson County. While there is no direct evidence that any member of the Lowrie gang self-identified as Indian there were numerous accounts describing Henry as being a mixed blood Tuscarora, there was one (listing nine witnesses) that stated that his grandfather claimed to be of Tuscarora heritage and another that went so far as to say that Pop Oxendine (another member of the gang) had the Tuscarora Indian blood in him just like the rest. As a consequence of these outsiders' descriptions of Lowrie as Indian, he has become one of the most notable figures in North Carolina Indian history. Paul Sant Cassia observed of Mediterranean bandits that they "are often romanticized afterward through nationalistic rhetoric and texts which circulate and have a life of their own, giving them a permanence and potency which transcends their localized domain and transitory nature. The same can be said of Henry Berry Lowrie.

    Since 1976, Lowrie's legend has been presented every summer in the outdoor drama Strike at the Wind!.  Set during the critical Civil War and Reconstruction years of Lowrie's career as outlaw-hero, the play portrays Lowrie as a Tuscarora culture hero who flouts the South's racialized power structure by fighting for his people's self-determination and allying with the county's downtrodden citizens, the blacks and poor whites.

    The Lumbee:

    The Lumbee are a Native American tribe of North Carolina, though their origins are disputed. While Lumbees today identify ethnically as Indians, according to documentary sources they are in origin a mixture of Native Americans, European Americans and African Americans. The name "Lumbee" is derived from the region near the Lumber River (or Lumbee River) that winds through Robeson County, North Carolina.

    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. Tribal members voted for adoption of the name "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.

    Origins and legends:

    The area of North Carolina today occupied by the Lumbee is called Robeson County. Until 1787 it was part of Bladen County. When North Carolina Governor Matthew Rowan dispatched surveying parties in 1753 to count Indians in the state, the report stated there are "no Indians in the county."

    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

    Civil War

    As the war progressed and the Confederacy began to experience increasing labor shortages, the Confederate South began to rely on conscription labor. A yellow fever epidemic in 1862-63 killed many slaves working on the construction of Fort Fisher near Wilmington, North Carolina, then considered to be the "Gibraltar of the South." North Carolina's slave owners resisted sending more enslaved African Americans to Fort Fisher. Robeson County, along with most eastern North Carolina counties, began to conscript young free men of color. A few were shot for attempting to evade conscription, and others attempted to escape from work at Fort Fisher. Others succumbed to starvation, disease and despair. Documentation of conscription among the Lumbee is difficult to locate and the practice may have been limited to a few specific areas of the county.

    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.

    Lowrie Gang War

    Perhaps the most famous Lumbee ancestor is Henry Berry Lowrie, who organized an outlaw group. Most of the gang members were related, including two of Henry Lowrie's brothers, six cousins (two of whom were also his brothers-in-law), the brother-in-law of two of his cousins, in addition to a few others who were not related through kinship. The Lowrie gang included formerly free men of color and also freed slaves and whites.

    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, 187, 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.

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