Historian: Henry Berry Lowry is winning the war of words


“Legend makes better stories than history,” said historian William McKee Evans. In the case of Lumbee Indian hero Henry Berry Lowry, Dr. Evans said history is legend.

W. McKee EvansDr. Evans, a St. Pauls, N.C., native and author of “To Die Game; The Story of the Lowry Band,” spoke November 10 to an overflow crowd in the Native American Resource Center of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. It was sponsored by the Adolph L. Dial Lecture Series.

“Henry Berry Lowry was a man of few words, but a man of dramatic deeds,” Dr. Evans said. “The record of what he said wouldn’t fill up a page.”

Dr. Evans retold several of Henry Berry Lowry’s adventures that made him an “avenging angel” to some and a “demon incarnate” to others.

“When the bounty on his head was raised from $8,000 to $10,000, Henry Berry and about 100 of his followers were at the Moss Neck train station,” he said. “They cracked open a cask of cider and served the passengers.”

Lowry often flaunted the authorities who hunted him for over eight years. He murdered John Taylor, the “presumed head” of the Ku Klux Klan and Taylor killed Lowry Band member Henderson Oxendine.

“Henry Berry Lowry was laying in wait for him at McNeill’s Pond, not 500 yards from an encampment of troops who were supposed to be looking for him,” Dr. Evans said. “After killing him, Henry Berry took his pistol and $50 from him.”

Needless to say, they did not catch Lowry that day.

Dr. Evans set the stage for the Lowry uprising in the later days of the Civil War during a famine time for the poor.

“The Civil War was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” Dr. Evans said. “War brought inequality to absolutely grotesque proportions. The people who had it worst were the poor Lumbee, who were rounded up and forced to work at Fort Fisher.”

Lowry and many others, white, black and Indian, escaped into the surrounding swamps - “lying out,” he said. “Some were escaping the meat grinder in Northern Virginia.”

Food became scarce as more outliers, including escaped slaves, Confederate deserters and Union prison escapees, fled to the sanctuary of the swamps.

“The Lowry Band were not guerillas but hiding out,” Dr. Evans said. “When food became scarce, they were forced to change tactics and decided to live off the wealthy class of people instead of the poor.”

The band raided plantations and distributed food to the poor in Pembroke, N.C., which was known then as Scuffletown or the Settlement. But they were “no ordinary robbers,” he said.

“They were unusual, not the common grade of robbers,” Dr. Evans said. “They wouldn’t take everything a person had, and they would bring his wagons back. They always left enough for them to live on.”

Henry Berry Lowry’s disappearance in 1872 remains a mystery to his biographer too.

“The $10,000 reward was never collected,” Dr. Evans said. “He disappeared into a twilight world of mystery and legend.”

Dr. Evans addressed the duality of the Lowry legend.

“Henry Berry Lowry is a source of strength for the Lumbee people,” he said. “They have stood tall because of the legend.”

“The greatest critics of Lowry have given ground,” Dr. Evans said. “The legend friendly to Lowry has grown.”

Dr. Evans also authored “Ballots and Fence Rails: Reconstruction on the Lower Cape Fear.” At 82, his newest book, “Open Wounds: The Evolution and Crisis in the History of the American Race System,” is about to be published.

Growing up in St. Pauls, Dr. Evans heard stories of Henry Berry Lowery. Now a professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic University, he has become Lowery’s preeminent biographer.

The lecture was hosted by the American Indian Studies Department and the Native American Resource Center. Adolph Dial was the founding chair of UNCP’s American Indian Studies program, and the lecture series honors his contribution to the University and the pursuit of Lumbee history, said Dr. Stan Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center at UNCP.

“Adolph Dial was the father of American Indian Studies at UNCP,” Dr. Knick said. “In establishing this lecture series, it was his intention that we appreciate Native America from as many angles as possible. He saw us as active participants in the past, present and future of Native America.”

In the crowd that overflowed the Thomas Assembly Room, were a mixed group of students, faculty, community residents and local historians, including Blake Tyner, director of the Robeson County History Museum, and Henry McKinnon of Lumberton.

Some of Dr. Evans observations concerned:

Early Robeson County. “North Carolina was very lightly settled by Europeans. They were not an educated lot. From the very beginning, some of the earliest settlers were escapees into the wilderness. They left no paper trail. Many of them settled to live with Indians. This was not a very good place to live in the early days. The fields were small and the swamps were large. There were some plantations in the Rowland area.”

Lumbee origins. “It is a complex origin. There were certain families. For instance, the Lowrys were part Scotch and part Tuscarora. This area was home to whites, escaped slaves and defeated Indian tribes. The Lost Colony is another legend that developed in the 1880s. I’ve heard so many stories.”

Fort Fisher. “Fort Fisher was the beginning of the troubles here. The Port of Wilmington was key to the Confederates because it was the only open port in the later part of the war. They spared no expense to build it. Slaves worked on it. When planters petitioned to get their slaves back, who was left? It was easy for the Home Guard to come here and round up people.”

Civil War and the home front. Dr. Evans maintains that the story of the hardships at the home front during the Civil War is a great untold story. This is the backdrop for the Lowry War. “In times of war, the people back home had to do without. Soldiers are fed first. Eventually, taxes were levied in food by the Confederacy. There was a true famine here in this part of the country. The true suffering of the civilian population is an unwritten story. Confederate money was worthless. Fatback was $6 a pound, corn was $40 a bushel and ham, forget about it. Others made a fortune off war. This was a source of unrest and disaffection.”

The Railroad. “No rails were ever torn up. No trains were robbed. Henry Berry rode the train and so did the people who were chasing him. The immunity of the railroad is a mystery.”

Mary Norment. Mary Norment was the first to write about the story of Henry Berry Lowry in her book “The Lowrie War.” Norment’s husband was killed by Lowry, and Dr. Evans said, “she was thoroughly unhappy. She is basically an honest woman who gets very few facts wrong. Some of her information was unreliable.”

Colonel Francis Marion Wishart’s trunk. “A grandson of Col. Wishart’s living in White Plains, N.Y., called me and said he had papers. He did not know what they were. I went up there immediately. Col. Wishart was a person who led the final hunt for Lowry. There was a whole trunk full of papers. There was a description of the origin of the Lowry Band. His diary was in shorthand, and I never could read it all. The names were there.” Col. Wishart’s papers are now at UNC-Chapel Hill in the North Carolina Room, Dr. Evans said.

Lew Barton. A Lumbee historian and writer, Barton collaborated with Dr. Evans on “To Die Game.” “Lew Barton was a great help to me. He took me around and was my best source.”

The St. Pauls militia. In Col. Wishart’s papers, Dr. Evans “found a copy of the roster of the St. Pauls militia. It sounded like the names of my Sunday school class.”