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  • On the Antebellum FringeLumbee Indians, Slavery, and Removal
  • Malinda Maynor Lowery (bio)

In 1801 authorities in Robeson County, North Carolina arrested a Lumbee man named Aaron Cumbo for stealing sixpence worth of property from a white man named William Townsend. A few nights after a jury found Cumbo guilty someone shot and killed Townsend's horse, an animal that was undoubtedly worth more than sixpence. Townsend blamed Aaron's brother Elisha Cumbo, declaring they were both "infamous character[s]" and "notorious villains." He admitted that he possessed "no positive proof" that Elisha had killed the horse, but he nevertheless judged Aaron's brother guilty because they had "for a long time carried on an illicit trade." Their illegal network had two headquarters, Townsend avowed. One was in Robeson County; the other was in "a remote part of South Carolina, [which] enables them to do a great deal of mischief with little prospect of detection." The fact that the Cumbos allegedly participated in illegal activity, Townsend proclaimed, was evidence enough to prove that Elisha had gunned down the horse.1

Townsend and seven men retaliated by violently apprehending Elisha, who in turn responded by suing his attackers. The white men, who later described themselves as "industrious, honest, and submissive to the law," defended their actions as permissible albeit outside of the normal "process of law." At the same time, they dismissed Cumbo's right to bring suit as a "defiance of the law." The court disagreed and fined the men fifteen pounds for rioting. When they appealed, a committee of state legislators upheld the court's decision. In essence, a group of landowning whites were informed that they, not a Lumbee Indian man, had acted outside the law in Robeson County. What had started as a sixpence [End Page 40] theft ultimately cost Townsend more than one hundred pounds in fines.2

The 1801 conflict between William Townsend and Elisha Cumbo reveals a long forgotten South—one where citizenship and civic responsibilities did not necessarily adhere to a binary racial divide.3 Arbitrary racial structures may have divided free white citizens from enslaved and non-white residents in later decades, but it was not always the norm. The North Carolina court and legislature of 1801 treated whites and people of color/Indians equally. They did not unilaterally support the extra-legal behavior of white men who punished people of color for perceived transgressions. Whites in Robeson County may have perceived that Indian families were prospering unjustly, but local courts nevertheless were willing to uphold the latter's rights to personal safety and property.

The outcome of the Cumbo case stemmed from the fact that in 1801 "citizenship" was deemed a Tenth Amendment issue: one left to the states because nothing in the US Constitution specifically conferred upon the central government the power to define citizenship.4 Each state had a different constellation of laws indicating who could participate in the political process. In North Carolina, the 1778 Constitution allowed Indians and other free men of color to vote as long as they maintained additional markers of legitimacy: they had fought against the British Empire, paid taxes, and owned sufficient property. They made Elisha Cumbo as much a citizen of the state as William Townsend. Throughout North Carolina, free people of color consistently exercised their right to vote. One Robeson County resident even remembered that Indians possessed more political rights than white Loyalists after the Revolution.5

By the eve of the Civil War, however, North Carolina had stripped the Lumbee of their citizenship. Whereas in 1801 the Cumbos could both play a role in political affairs and participate in illegal activities, fifty years later the white community rested easier knowing that the state had turned Lumbees into degenerate lawbreakers outside the body politic. In essence, the assumptions about Indians that had shaped William Townsend's assault on Cumbo became the dominant narrative in North Carolina. Their presumed widespread participation in criminal activity—particularly making and selling liquor, trading with slaves, carrying weapons, and larceny—became a kind of venal litany that justified disfranchisement and marginalization from southern society.6

And yet physically the Lumbee remained, deeply rooted within their [End...