Mapping Mary Ann Armstrong
The first time I saw her picture, I wanted to know everything about her.
I wanted to know where she’d lived before she married my great, great grandfather in 1859. I wanted to know what her parents, Mariah and William G. Armstrong, looked like; whether William G. had been a planter in Tyrrell County, North Carolina, or a yeoman farmer. I wanted to know which of Mary Ann’s six children looked like her, rather than their eagle-featured father, Edward Parisher. I wanted to know why she looked so very serious.
All of that wanting began in 2000, when distant relative and genealogical researcher Mark Bateman sent me a scanned photo of my great, great grandparents, along with a generous amount of his own Parisher family research. And even though I’ve gathered a little more information, even had my mitochondrial DNA tested, most days I’m sure that I’ll never have enough facts to salvage historical certainty out of the shipwreck of fantasy.
Instead, I’ll have a breeches bucket of images: smoke rising from decaying peat in the Great Dismal Swamp; moss hanging from a pecan tree in a sandy yard; dogs sleeping in the shade of a magnolia; the ghosts of torn-down farmhouses and tobacco barns; rows of corn bending under hurricane winds; gold-rimmed English paste ware sitting on a sideboard. A wide-cheek-boned woman in a lace collar frozen in her ante-bellum portrait, a man with a long goatee beside her. I’ll be left with mysteries and wish-based assumptions, and an impressionistic synthesis of how my own family illustrates the rich history of the people who have lived on the south shore of the Albemarle Sound for more than 400 years.
Long after I opened the envelope from Mark that contained the photos of Mary Ann Armstrong and Edward Parisher, as well as scanned tintypes of two of their six children, I remained intrigued by the racial ambiguity of my great, great grandmother. In 2008, I ordered a test kit from the research firm with the largest DNA database, sure that my matrilineal line would escort me back to Mary Ann’s genes and provide definitive conclusions. Was she biracial? Triracial? In all census records, she and her parents are listed as White, a mono-racial identity the picture seems to belie. Mark had heard she was “part Indian.” The molecular test results, I expected, would be oracular.
A cheek scrape later, I learned that I was a member of Haplogroup I—a somewhat sparse anthropological lineage associated with northwestern Europe. Gravettians, Palaeolithic Europeans defined by a set of mutations that gelled between 32,300 and 58,400 years ago, their short arc on the migration map shoots up out of North Africa, follows a route usually associated with Anglo-Saxon and Viking invasions, and lands, chillingly, in Scandinavia.
I studied the migration map that arrived in the mail with my mtDNA results. Unlike the stunted path my earliest relatives took, the five mitochondrial haplogroups associated with Native American ancestry—A, B, C, D, and X—wrap the globe with the bright ribbons of their long journeys. Members of my group had at some point left Europe and made a great voyage in the opposite direction, but I had no map with little boat icons dotted across the Atlantic, no Frenchman winding his way up the Alligator River to land on the swampy North Carolina coast at a place called Frying Pan. And no tribal boundaries, no legend for the coastal Algonquian and Iroquois lands of the Weapemeoc, Maratoc, Tuscarora, or Secotan.
The door to the past that I thought would swing wide open remained stuck. I was not alone: the genetic genealogical chat rooms are filled with female seekers, lacking a reference source of Y-DNA, and chasing family legends that have not been validated by their maternal DNA. Many of those amateur ethnologists are looking for proof of Native American ancestry, and most of those, it seems, are from the South. In one forum I met Helen, another haplo “I” with North Carolina roots who’s been looking for the truth—not, she says, another fanciful legend of the white male ancestor who married a Cherokee princess.
And I met Cathy, familiar with Tyrrell County lore, whose grandmother’s native ancestry has escaped genetic detection. She told me about the Lost Colony DNA Project. I also met Sharron, a descendant of Edward Parisher’s second wife, Sallie Owens, the woman who cared for my great grandmother, Sarah, after Mary Ann Armstrong Parisher had slipped off of everyone’s maps. Like the other women, I took what I could get, gathering online census, tax, and marriage documents, reading between the lines until a narrative emerged.
In 1850, Mary Ann Armstrong was 13, and lived with her family in Columbia Township, Tyrrell County, North Carolina. Edward Parisher, age 20, lived on what appears to be the adjacent property along Rider’s Creek with his family, headed by Thoroghgood Parisher. The Armstrong’s net worth was listed as twice that of the Parishers’ holdings, although Mary Ann’s father, William G. Armstrong, was only 36.
Mary Ann and Edward did not marry until she was 22. In the 1860 census, however, a year after she was married, she had both a baby boy and a five-year-old girl living with her and Edward. It is noted that she could not read or write. Edward then was listed as a carriage maker. By the time she was 33, she and Edward had three sons and three daughters. She died before reaching 40, and by 1870, Edward had remarried and fathered the seventh of his eight children.
The brief narrative I’ve been able to assemble does not, however, tell her story or place her life in context. In the 1840 Tyrrell County census, when William G. was only 26, he headed a household that included six slaves, making it likely that he was the son of Holaway Armstrong, a Tyrrell County planter whose will leaves significant holdings to five sons. In that document, sons William and Benjamin are willed “the plantation that once belonged to Franklin Armstrong,” along with “one hundred acres of land called White Oak Island” and “three hundred acres of swamp land lying on the east side of the Scuppernong river.”
Mary Ann's appearance and information about her planter paternal line raised new questions. Recently, I’ve been able to pose some of those questions to Dr. Arwin Smallwood, a University of Memphis history professor whose work in eastern North Carolina maps the entwined lives of Native, African, and European Americans from first contact to the present.
Smallwood, author of Bertie County, An Eastern Carolina History and The Atlas of African-American History and Politics: From the Slave Trade to Modern Times, as well as other scholarly works, grew up about 30 miles northwest of my maternal family’s farmstead. Triracial himself, he is currently overseeing additional research projects in eastern North Carolina. If anyone would understand the social permutations that were negotiated over hundreds of years in that region, and reflected in the picture of my great, great grandmother, it would be Dr. Smallwood.
In Bertie County, he chronicles the complex patterns of cultural and economic conflict that were intended to drive indigenous people out of the state. Yet, through intermarriage with both blacks and whites, Native Americans remained in the area. It was possible, he notes, but not common, for a slave-owning planter such as Mary Ann’s father to have a legal marriage to a racially-mixed wife, especially if she self-identified as white, as did Mariah Armstrong. And, although we do not find the racial designation Indian in the Tyrrell or Bertie census records in 1850—all residents were identified as White, Black, or Mulatto—we know that native ancestry cohabited with those labels, and that at various times in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, “mulatto” was used to describe Indians of mixed blood, European or African. Or both.
For everyone, life in North Carolina’s coastal lowlands was often a brutal struggle. In the Tyrrell County mortality indices for 1850-1870, we read how children and adults of all races succumbed to fatal diagnoses of whooping cough, croup, pleurisy, pneumonia, congestive chill, consumption, scrofula, brain fever, bilious fever, typhoid fever, diphtheria, cholera, erysipelas, worms and fits. And, of course, there was child birth. Genealogical records list second and third wives for many of the county’s farmers, with only brief gaps between marriages. The pragmatic need for indigenous wives for the male colonists perhaps morphed into the pragmatic need to replace one 19th century wife with another—and probably with far less consideration for ethnicity than we might imagine.
Dr. Smallwood says that his research in eastern North Carolina increasingly provides him with evidence that in that isolated and geographically inhospitable region, many attitudes about race—which we assume existed for hundreds of years—are actually 20th century constructs. A prime example of a “modern” take on multiracial identity occurred in Virginia, where from 1912 to 1946, Dr. Walker Plecker headed the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. Plecker made it his mission to locate, identify by surname, and categorize as “colored” members of the multiracial Melungeon people of Virginia, determined to expose their African ancestry, dismiss their Indian identity, and prevent them from contributing to the “ultimate disappearance of the white race in Virginia, and the country” through intermarriage.
From my own limited research, it seems that when we look closely at historic personal relationships—especially during the first 200 years in colonial America—and recognize the high probability of our multiracial heritage, whether we can lay claim to a specific family narrative or are unable to parse it out, we may get a glimpse of post-racial America.
In my own glimpse, I like to imagine being part of a kind of prelapsarian ancestral past that was unconstrained by the ugliness that would follow. I look at the picture of Mary Ann Armstrong and imagine what it would have been like had she lived long enough to know her beautiful granddaughter, Inez Chesson; and had Inez Chesson lived long enough to have been my living grandmother. It’s a new kind of ancestor worship, perhaps, this romanticized longing for conversations with the long-dead, wanting to know about the worlds they inhabited. If either of them had been able to pass along their stories to their granddaughters, I’d know things about family that flat maps and the partial trail of mitochondrial information will never be able to tell me. Without DNA isolation and sequencing, I’d know blood.
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