Panel Discussion –– From left: Dr. Jamie Martinez, Dr. Malinda Maynor-Lowery, Jeff Currie, Kenneth Clark and Bruce Barton
Put several historians, a folklorist and a very colorful former newspaper editor together and turn them loose on one of the region’s most famous and controversial figures in history, and what will happen?
An audience of 110 found out on October 13 at UNC Pembroke’s forum on American Indian hero Henry Berry Lowrie celebrating the 150th anniversary of the start of the Lowrie War. The event was the first installment of the Native American Speakers Series, sponsored by PNC Bank and coordinated by UNCP’s Department of American Indian Studies and the Southeast American Indian Studies (SAIS) Program.
The Lowrie War began days before Gen. William Sherman’s men marched through Robeson County in 1865. The Home Guard, who were responsible for keeping the peace and rounding up deserters, had just executed Henry Berry Lowrie’s father Allen and his brother William.
Lowrie swore revenge, and before disappearing in 1872, he and his band of “swamp outlaws” killed an estimated 15 men, including prominent citizens, the county sheriff and one of the meanest men in the history of the county.
The Lowrie Gang robbed plantations and broke out of jail with impunity. From a canoe on the Lumber River, Henry Berry single-handedly shot his way out of an ambush by a large posse.
On the panel was Dr. Malinda Maynor-Lowery, a UNC-Chapel Hill historian; Dr. Jamie Martinez, a UNCP historian; Kenneth Clark, an Indian education cultural enrichment specialist; Jefferson Currie II, a folklorist with the North Carolina Folklife Institute; and Bruce Barton, author and former editor of the Carolina Indian Voice. Lawrence Locklear, SAIS program coordinator, served as moderator.
First, the panel took up the historical context of the Lowrie War.
Barton: “For Indians, the years 1864-65 were about staying away from Fort Fisher. Sherman arrived five days after the Home Guard murdered Allen and William Lowery. Sherman raised hopes to little effect. It was during Reconstruction that things heated up. This is the time in history I would have liked to be alive.”
Dr. Martinez: “The battle with the Home Guard started early during the Civil War. The Home Guard was a police force, and one of their jobs was to force local men to render service to the Confederates who were building Fort Fisher. Free black men and American Indians were the most vulnerable.”
Clark: “Building Fort Fisher was key to the whole situation.”
Currie: “As the war dragged on, people were in survival mode. Food was short, and life was tumultuous everywhere.”
Dr. Maynor-Lowery: “James Brantley Harris’ feud with the Lowry family was a starting point. Harris killed three of Henry Berry’s cousins in late 1864. There were also rumors of his abuses of Indian women. Harris targeted the Lowry family.”
Henry Berry Lowrie killed some of Robeson County’s most influential men, including Sheriff Rueben King and Col. Owen Norment, a prominent citizen and the husband of Mary Norment, who wrote the first history of the Lowrie War.
The ever-changing roster of the Lowrie Gang consisted primarily of Lowrie’s brothers and cousins. One white man and one African American gang members gave the group its unique tri-racial makeup.
History has been king to Lowrie’s reputation, and his legacy remains one of the important stories of the Lumbee people.
“Henry Berry was a dashing figure,” Dr. Maynor-Lowery said. “Mary Norment believed the Indian community were vermin.”
“He never accosted a white woman or burned a building,” Barton said. “Is that offensive?”
The mystery surrounding Henry Berry Lowrie was a central theme of the forum. The historical records do not provide a clear spelling of his name. The only photograph of him may not be authentic.
The most famous mystery concerns Lowrie’s fate. On February 18, 1872, the gang robbed the Pope and McLeod Store making off with a safe that allegedly contained $27,000. Then, the gang stole the sheriff’s safe and another $5,000. The next day Henry Berry Lowrie disappeared without a trace.
“Many people familiar with the story say that after the robbery, the gang went to Lowrie’s brother Tom’s house behind Evergreen Church to celebrate,” Clark said. “The story goes that there was a gunshot, and Lowrie was killed.”
This version has Lowrie buried on a sandbar in the Lumber River behind Harper’s Ferry Church within view of his wife’s grave, Clark said.
Barton offered a story of Lowrie escaping to Tennessee, joining relatives in Mississippi and living to a ripe old age in New Mexico.
The Lowrie War ended two years after Lowrie’s disappearance. It is a great American story of resistance to injustice. “The ones I killed deserved it,” Lowrie is believed to have said.
Clark summed up his feelings: “Henry Berry Lowrie was a man of the times. He did what he had to do; he fought back. He fought injustice.”
The forum touched on many other issues. Panelists agreed that UNC Pembroke’s roots can be traced back to the origins of the Lowrie War.
During an inquest into the murders of Lowrie’s cousins, George Lowrie (brother to Allen Lowrie and father of the three murdered Lowries) gave a dramatic and moving speech about how the Indians of the county had always been friends with whites. Present at the inquest was Robeson County citizen Hamilton McMillan.
Lowrie’s speech sparked the curiosity of McMillan, who developed an interest in the history of the county’s Indian people. When elected to the North Carolina General Assembly in 1885, McMillan introduced legislation that provided the Indians with state recognition and the established separate Indian schools in the county. Two years later, McMillan, at the request of American Indians of the county, introduced legislation to establish Croatan Normal School – known today as UNC Pembroke.
As the panel illustrated, Lowrie is an enduring symbol of the Lumbee Tribe, which survived and thrived during challenging times, and of resistance to social and political injustice. His image projects freedom, persistence, justice and violence for a cause.
The Native American Speakers Series continues on October 27 with award-winning chef and Native foods historian Dr. Lois Ellen Frank (Kiowa and Sephardic).