Between 1640 and 1650, my earliest North Carolinian ancestors made their way down the Chowan River (pronounced cho-WONN) from Virginia to an area known as Salmon Creek, across from present day Edenton.
It is near where the Chowan empties into Albemarle Sound and approximately where my 8th great grandmother Mary Jane was given birth, almost exactly two hundred years before me.
She eventually gave her birthplace as Bath, which, further south. became the first town here by the time she was in her 50s.
Of course, these ancestors weren’t the first people here.
Having migrated from the north, Native Americans including paleo-ancestors of the Chowanaoke or Chowanac people for whom the river had been named by explorers in 1584, had already been living here more than 10,000 years by then.
Listed simply as “Bay”, the Sound was not yet named Albemarle, nor was this area called Carolina at the time my ancestors ventured down, let alone North Carolina.
It was the northern reaches of what was simply referred to by Virginians as the southern province or plantation, which had only become a colony itself less than two decades earlier.
Officially it was known as Carolana at the time. It included what is now North and South Carolina, as well as Georgia and was stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean a little more than a decade later.
Shown in this essay is a very Virginia-centric map created the year after my 8th great grandmother was born in Carolana.
East to west, it depicted the continent clear to the Pacific, something famously reprised by a cover to The New Yorker in 1976 parodying the view of the continent from 9th Avenue in Manhattan.
General notions of this span had been created when Spanish explorers rode across North America a hundred years earlier. Ironically, the first was Estevanico, an enslaved African-American, who made the journey in part, as the main guide, all the way from Florida to New Mexico and Arizona.
The other was Hernando de Soto who crossed into what is now North Carolina in May of 1540 near what became Tryon, NC and explored across the Appalachians where Asheville is now and all the way to the Mississippi River near what would become Memphis.
I suspect my 8th great grandmother’s parents when she was born in North Carolina in 1650 were French Huguenots who had settled along the Virginia headwaters of the Chowan and had begun by the time she was born to venture down to trade in furs.
My hunch is because she married a Huguenot and because in the 1630s, this area had been intended for resettlement of large numbers of Huguenot refugees who had fled murderous religious persecution in France.
The grant was disputed and the idea eventually entangled in the English Civil War by 1642 just after some Hugenots had landed near Jamestown.
Huguenots are a branch of Protestant Calvinism and I have that heritage on both sides, though separated by 197 km in western France, the other settling near that time in Massachusetts.
My earliest Tar Heel roots eventually merged with the lines of an ancestor, James Shelton, who had arrived in Virginia in 1609 with a cousin and fellow London Company investor, Lord De La Warr.
This heritage was passed to me from my maternal great-grandmother Lizzie Shelton, whose grandfather Sebert had migrated first from Virginia to Illinois and then over my native Rockies coupled with a stint in the Mexican-American War before ranching in Northern California.
A life-long westerner and fifth generation Idahoan, I soon learned a part of me was coming home when twenty-six years ago I was recruited to North Carolina, a two hour drive west from where my ancestors gave birth to a baby daughter 339 years before.
In 1728, the border between Virginia and North Carolina was first jointly surveyed, with each side alternately measuring two mile segments.
But after the line had been run inland for 73 miles, the North Carolinians went home, refusing to believe that anyone would settle that far inland, let alone the more than 100 miles further where I would settle 261 years later.
It took twenty years before all 327 miles would be fully mapped.
One of my first purchases when I arrived was a newly published text to which I still refer today entitled, North Carolina Through Four Centuries.
Little did I realize how personal it would become.