Robeson County is a county in the U.S. state of North Carolina. As of the 2010 census, the population was 134,168. Since then, it has been one of the 10% of United States counties that were majority-minority; its combined population of American Indian, African American and Hispanic residents constitute more than 68 percent of the total. American Indians make up 38 percent of the population.
Robeson County was formed in 1787 from part of Bladen County. It was named in honor of Col. Thomas Robeson of Tar Heel, North Carolina, a hero of the Revolutionary War. In 1781, Robeson and 70 Patriots defeated an army of 400 Loyalists at the Battle of Elizabethtown.
Archaeological excavation performed in Robeson County reveals widespread, continuous occupation of the region by various cultures of indigenous peoples since the end of the last Ice Age. They had camps and settlements near the Lumber River for its water, transportation, fish and related wildife resources. Local excavations reveal that Native American peoples made stone tools, using materials brought to present-day Robeson County from the Carolina Piedmont. The large amounts of ancient pottery found at some Robeson County sites have been dated to the early Archaic Woodland period. Materials show that local settlements were part of an extensive Native American trade network with other regions. Portions of the river basin show that Robeson County was a "zone of cultural interactions."
Swamps, streams, and artesian wells provided an excellent supply of water for Native peoples. Fish were plentiful, and the region's lush vegetation included numerous food crops. "Carolina bays" continue to dot the landscape. Numerous 10,000-year-old Clovis points found along their banks indicate indigenous peoples used these depressions as campsites.
After colonial contact, European-made items, such as kaolin tobacco pipes, were traded by the Spanish, French, and English to Native American peoples of the coastal region. The coastal peoples traded with those further inland. Remnants of European goods have been dated prior to permanent European settlements along the Lumber River.
Early written sources specific to the Robeson County region are few for the post-contact period of European colonization. In 1725, surveyors for the Wineau factory charted a village of Waccamaw Indians on the Lumber River, a few miles west of the present-day town of Pembroke. In 1773, a North Carolina Governor Arthur Dobbs proclamation related to 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 mixed African Europeans.
Bladen County encompassed a portion of what is today Robeson County. English colonials named the river "Drowning Creek". After the violent upheavals of the Yamasee War of 1715-1717, and the Tuscarora War of 1711-1715, families of Algonquian Waccamaw left South Carolina Colony in 1718. They may have established a village west of present-day Pembroke, North Carolina by 1725.
The anthropologist John R. Swanton of the Smithsonian Institution tried to identify the origin of the people known as Croatan Indians before the 1950s (they have since identified as Lumbee). Swanton posited that the people were the descendants of Siouan-speaking peoples, of which the most prominent in the area were the Cheraw and Keyauwee. They were not his major area of study, however, and some of his findings have been superseded by more recent evidence.
The descent from Croatan peoples is part of the Lumbee oral tradition, as well as a basis of their campaign for federal recognition as a tribe. They suggest that Native American refugees of other tribes, such as Tuscarora, most of whom migrated to New York by 1722, gathered in the Robeson County area and merged as a people in the early nineteenth century.
Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, many migrants from Virginia entered the frontier area. By the late eighteenth century, settlement patterns shifted. The name of the region's river was changed. After the American Revolution, the state used a lottery to dispose of lots with which to establish 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 located 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 which formed a part of the "Red Bluff Plantation", owned 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, which included people of African and Native American descent, as well as African European. The settlers held few slaves. Late 20th-century researchers have traced 80 percent of the free people of color in North Carolina listed in those two decades of censuses to African Americans free in Virginia in colonial times. Based on court records, land deeds, indentures and other material, Paul Heinegg found that the mixed-race families were descended mostly from white women (which is what gave them free status so early) and men who were African or African American in unions of the colonial years. In addition, some African male slaves had been freed in Virginia as early as the mid-17th century. Together with free white women, they founded free families of several generations before migrating to other areas. In the early years of the southern colonies, working-class whites and Africans lived and worked closely together, marrying and forming unions. Many free people of color migrated to frontier areas to gain relief from the racial strictures of the coastal plantation areas.
In the nineteenth century, other settlers often referred to mixed-race people as Indian, Portuguese or Arab, in attempts to classify them to account for physical differences from northern Europeans. They sometimes self-identified as Indian as well, trying to escape from racial segregation associated with African slaves. 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, but most were descendants of English white women and African men in the British colonies. 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 self-identified Lumbee. Settlements included Prospect and Red Banks.
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 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, including those identifying as Native Americans. 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 other of the Five Civilized Tribes 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.
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 fled the region. The Confederate Army conscripted African-American slaves as workers to build a system of forts to defend Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, North Carolina. Such conscription affected the free people of color of Robeson County, too.
Robeson County's home guard, which included county magistrates, clergymen, and lawyers, who mainly represented the interests of the planter class (large slaveholders were exempted from participation in the army), had raided the farmstead of Allen Lowrie, Henry Berry Lowrie's father. In the confrontation, they killed Allen and another son William. Henry Lowrie swore revenge.
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 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 Lowrie and his gang were "doing much mischief in this country." Lowrie's gang had "torn up and destroyed" white homesteads. In the late stages of the war, gangs and insurgents carried out private feuds.
During the next seven years, Henry Lowrie 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.
Until late in the 20th century, Robeson County was a center of Ku Klux Klan activity and support in North Carolina. On January 18, 1958, armed Lumbee Native Americans chased off an estimated 50 Klansmen and supporters led by grand wizard James W. "Catfish" Cole at the town of Maxton in the Battle of Hayes Pond.