Written by Roberta Estes. Co-Founder of the Lost Colony Genealogy and DNA Research Group.
During our work with the Hatteras neighborhood project last year, we discovered a wonderful mystery. You may have the answer, and the answer could be extremely important.
We have located the land of three Indian villages on Hatteras Island. Two of those villages are very important to the Lost Colony and the Croatoan/Hatteras Indians as well. One of the villages was abandoned, we believe, by 1760. The other village, however, was not, and a deed was actually granted to William Elks and the Hatteras Indians for a parcel of land which contained the remaining Indian village…
We recreated this neighborhood using land grants, deeds and wills. In doing so, we made an extremely interesting discovery. Keep in mind that in North Carolina in the 1700s, it was illegal for a white person to marry a ‘person of color’, which included Indians as well as mixed race individuals who were then called mulattoes. Some of the property owners whose land abutted that of William Elks had some very unusual wills.
In 1782, the will of Josiah Basnett leaves to his son, Alexander Scarborough, 100 acres of land, to daughters Nancy Scarborough and Cassia Scarborough personal belongings, and then to Letishy Scarborough, 15 hogs. Letishy is actually mentioned first in the location in the will normally occupied by a wife. Later in the will, Josiah Basnett appoints Letishy Scarborough and William Scarborough, Sr. as the executors of his estate.
In 1790, there are two Basnett individuals who are shown in the census as heads of individual households, Robert and Mary, and both are free people of color. Mary lives beside William Scarborough.
In light of the will of Josiah Basnett, and the law preventing the marriage of white people to people of color, this strongly suggests that Josiah Basnett too was likely a person of color, and therefore could not marry Letishy Scarborough. But he could own land and he could leave his worldly belongings to Letishy and his children by her.
The Basnett and the Scarborough families both abutted the land held by the Hatteras Indians. Were the Basnetts Native, or part native? If so, not all Basnett lines may be Native. After all, Native people had to adopt surnames at some point, and many adopted the surnames of their neighbors, people they admired, or white people that had a kinship with, either blood or via a marital relationship.
In 1791, the will of John Whidbee leaves to his son, Elijah Basnett, land joining Robert Basnett’s line. Again, we have a situation where a man leaves to a Basnett land. In this case, it would appear that John Whidbee is white and Elihah Basnett’s mother may not be. If this is the case, this certainly suggests, twice, that the Basnett family is considered “of color”, and that heritage is not just in the current generation, but stretches back at least one generation in order for 4 individuals in the current generation to be considered of color. Elijah may be the son of Mary Basnett, shown as a head of household in the 1790 census.
Just a few doors away from the Scarborough and Basnett families we find an Elizabeth Whidby, so we know the family was living in the neighborhood. There is a John Whidbey shown in Perquimans County. Later this land owned by Elijah Basnett is shown to abut the land of Robert Basnett, so apparently John Whidbee was an adjoining neighbor to Robert Basnett. It causes one to wonder if that is where Mary Basnett was living, on John Whidbee’s land. By leaving his land to his son, he would assure his son’s mother a place to live for the duration of her life.
The first evidence of Basnett, by any spelling, is an entry for both a Joseph Basnett and a Robert Basnite on the 1779 Currituck tax list. Josiah was shown as “single”, which, were he living unmarried with a female, he would be considered as single.
John Whidbee is listed on the 1755 tax list and is involved with the families who live in the neighborhood with the Basnett family before 1768. He also has another son, Major Whidbee (Whidbey), who he also remembers in his will.
So what we have here is a Scarborough male, Alexander, who is apparently a Basnett genetically. However, he may have at some point in his life decided to use his father’s name, so we might be looking for an Alexander Basnett.
We also have a Basnett, Elijah, who is probably a Whidbee genetically. Similarly, he could have at some point decided to use the Whidbee surname, so we might be looking for Elijah Whidbee. I have seen this situation before, but at least in the case of Elijah Basnett, we know he sold land and had children, one of which was Willoughby, and that his children used the Basnett name.
We have not been able to track Alexander Scarborough forward in time, so we don’t know much about his line.
If you descend from any Whidbee, Scarborough, or Basnett…this is the story of your family on Hatteras Island. Do you have any information that might help unravel this story? It’s very likely that the Basnett line (not genetically Scarborough or Whidbee) is admixed in some way. Interestingly enough, the only other “person of color” household in the area is another neighbor, Percival Dring, who owned land, made his will in 1807 and died in 1814. He had witnessed the will of Josiah Basnett. Willoughby Basnett, son of Robert Basnett, witnessed the will of Percival Dring.
We very much would like to find descendants of the Whidbee, Basnett and Scarborough families to DNA test. The answer to the questions of who might be Native is held in the DNA.