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Robeson County, North Carolina

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The county was formed in 1787 from part of Bladen County. It was named in honor of Col. Thomas Robeson of Tar Heel, a hero of the Revolutionary War.

Colonial Era

Early written sources specific to the territory of Robeson County region are few for the post-contact period of European colonization until the later 18th century and after.

Governor Arthur Dobbs related a report from his agent, Col. Rutherford, head of a Bladen County militia, that a "mixed crew" of 50 families were living along Drowning Creek. They were referred to as "mullatos," generally meaning people of African and European descent.

The anthropologist John R. Swanton of the Smithsonian Institution tried to identify the origin of the ethnic group known as Lumbee Indians since the late 19th century. Swanton posited that the multi-racial people were the descendants of Siouan-speaking peoples, of which the most prominent in the area were the Cheraw and Keyauwee.

After the American Revolution, the newly established state used a lottery to dispose of lots for developing Lumberton. The town was incorporated in 1788, and John Willis proposed the name "Lumberton", after the important lumber and naval stores industry. This dominated the otherwise agricultural economy of Robeson County throughout the nineteenth century

Lumberton was developed at a section known throughout that century as "Drowning Creek," a term still used for the headwater portions of the river. The first Robeson County courthouse was erected on land of the Red Bluff Plantation, donated for that purpose by Lumberton founder John Willis. Robeson County's post office was established in 1794. In 1809, the state legislature renamed Drowning Creek as the Lumber River, after the area's major industry.

In the 1790–1810 censuses, descendants of these families were classified as both white (European American) and free people of color, a classification which included people of African-European, Native American, and tri-racial ancestry. These settlers were subsistence farmers and held few slaves.

In the nineteenth century, mixed-race people sometimes identified as Indian, Portuguese or Arab, to account for physical differences from northern Europeans and to escape the racial segregation associated with descendants of Africans. Some may have descended from Atlantic Creoles, men of mixed African-Portuguese ancestry identified by the historian Ira Berlin as part of the "charter generation" of slaves. Some likely intermarried with remnants of Indian tribes who remained in the area. Names on early land deeds and other historic documents in Robeson County correspond to many of the families of free people of color, including ancestors of contemporary Lumbee. Settlements included Prospect and Red Banks.

Nineteenth Century

By the beginning of the American Civil War, many remnant Native Americans in the Upper South struggled to survive and their status continued to decline. Since 1790, Native Americans in the southern states were enumerated as "free persons of color" on the local and federal census, included with free African Americans.

By 1835, in the wake of Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion of 1831, North Carolina like other southern states reduced the rights of free people of color. Out of fear of slave rebellion aided by free blacks, the legislature withdrew the rights of free people of color to vote, serve on juries, own and use firearms, and learn to read and write.

During the 1830s, the federal government forced Indian Removal, relocating the Cherokee and others of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Deep South and lower Southeast to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Native Americans who stayed in the Southeast tended to live in frontier and marginal areas to avoid white supervision.

Civil War

North Carolina seceded from the Union in 1861. A major yellow fever epidemic in 1862 killed 10 percent of the Cape Fear region's population. Most white men of military age had either enlisted with the Confederacy or left the region. The Confederate Army conscripted slaves as workers to build a system of forts to defend Fort Fisher, near Wilmington. Some free people of color from as far away as Robeson County (80–90 miles) were also impressed as laborers.

Robeson County's home guard included county magistrates, clergymen, and lawyers, who mainly represented the interests of the planter class. During the war, large slaveholders were exempted from participation in the army. The Home Guard raided local farmers, taking food supplies and livestock for the Confederate Army and their own use. When they raided the farmstead of Allen Lowrie, they killed Lowrie and his son William.

His surviving son Henry Berry Lowrie, a mixed-race man of Amerindian and White heritage, swore revenge and led an insurgency against the upper class, raiding homesteads and driving off livestock.

Late in the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman and his army began to push their way toward Robeson County as they headed north. After hearing of the Union Army's burning of Columbia, South Carolina on February 17, 1865, residents of Robeson County worried about the troops' advance. Washington Sandford Chaffin, a Methodist minister in Lumberton speculated in his diary about how the county might be treated by Sherman and his Yankees. Chaffin noted that Henry Berry Lowry and his gang were "doing much mischief in this country." Lowry's gang had "torn up and destroyed" Confederate white homesteads. In the late stages of the war, such gangs and insurgents carried out private feuds.

During the next seven years, Henry Lowry led a group of free people of color, poor whites and blacks in one of many postwar insurgent movements during years of social disruption. He campaigned against the white elite. His activities made him a folk hero to many of the poorer folk.

In a county with a high proportion of people of color, both Native Americans and African Americans were oppressed by the Jim Crow system established in the state after white conservative Democrats regained power following the Reconstruction era. The state legislature passed laws to raise barriers to voter registration and disenfranchise minorities. In 1900 the Democrats adopted a constitutional suffrage amendment which lengthened the residence period required before registration (which worked against sharecroppers and tenant farmers) and enacted both an educational qualification (to be assessed by a registrar, who were white and applied it subjectively) and prepayment of a poll tax (difficult for poor people to raise who did not use much cash). A grandfather clause exempted from the poll tax those entitled to vote on January 1, 1867. The effect in North Carolina was the complete elimination of black and mixed-race voters from voter rolls by 1904. Contemporary accounts estimated that 75,000 black male citizens across the state lost the vote.

Twentieth Century

Racial segregation continued through the 20th century, affecting the criminal justice system and the administration of federal aid programs in the state and county. Racial discrimination has been documented in farm and other aid programs.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, local farmers in 1938 formed a mutual-aid cooperative, known as the Red Banks Mutual Association. They made a 99-year lease on a large plot of land, which they farmed together through the association until 1968. Historian Ryan K. Anderson explored this association for its contributions not only to members' survival during the Depression, but its influence in building stability and networks within the community.

As in other southern states, local Ku Klux Klan chapters persisted in North Carolina into the late 20th century (and some still likely exist). In early 1958 they called for a gathering in Maxton, intended to intimidate the Lumbee and other people of color. On January 18, 1958, armed Lumbee responded by gathering many more men and they chased off an estimated 50 Klansmen and supporters led by grand wizard James W. "Catfish" Cole in what became known as the Battle of Hayes Pond, after the site of the action.

Adjacent Counties

Cities & Towns

  • Fairmont
  • Lumber Bridge
  • Lumberton (County Seat)
  • Marietta
  • Maxton
  • McDonald
  • Orrum
  • Parkton
  • Pembroke
  • Proctorville
  • Raynham
  • Red Springs
  • Rennert
  • Rowland
  • St. Paul's

Townships & Communities

Alfordsville | Back Swamp | Barker Ten Mile | Barnesville | Bloomingdale | Britts | Burnt Swamp | East Howellsville | Elrod | Five Forks | Gaddy | Moss Neck | Pates | Philadelphus | Prospect | Raemon | Raft Swamp | Red Banks | Rex | Saddletree | Shannon | Smiths | Smyrna | Sterlings | Thompson | Tolarsville | Union | Wakulla | West Howellsville | Whitehouse | Wishart


Cemeteries of North Carolina



NC GenWeb

National Register of Historic Places

Lowry War

Genealogy Trails

Robeson County Genealogical Society

NC Estate Files - Robeson County

USGW Archives


Genealogy Village