Family Traditions of Tidewater North Carolina
By M. T. Plyler
Introduction by Phil Norfleet
The following article first appeared in the October 1938 issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly (Vol. XXXVII, Number 4). It was written by Marion T. Plyler whose wife, Eppie Smith Plyler, was a descendant of the Norfleet, Hunter and Riddick families of the Virginia and North Carolina tidewater regions. In the Eighteenth Century, all three families were closely linked through intermarriage. The early history of all three of these families are used as examples in the article, thus making the article of particular interest to Norfleet family genealogists. However, some of the Norfleet genealogical data contained in the article are factually in error. I have identified the most significant of these errors through the use of footnotes to the basic text.
Transcript of the Article
One who is familiar with the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of North Carolina knows how widely different they have been through the years. The type of early settlers as well as the topography of the country has had much to do with shaping and fashioning the life of the sections, giving quality and color to their people. In the Piedmont., especially in the early years, the Germans, Scotch [sic], and Irish were dominant, while on the coast the English held sway. In the Tidewater region English colonists kept in reasonably close touch with the Mother Country, but the pioneers of the foothills relied largely on the resources of the frontier. Naturally, with those far removed from the coast, trade could not be carried on with the old country as it was by those who lived near navigable waters. The rivers and the sounds and the high seas ministered favorably to those of the lowlands.
Then, too, it must be remembered that all the flat country along the Atlantic has had much in common. Eastern Carolina and Tidewater Virginia have been strikingly similar since the earliest settlements along our American seaboard. The easy communication by water for a people speaking the same language contributed to trade and profitable exchange of commodities all the way from Boston to Charleston. Furthermore, all that wide region between the James and the Roanoke rivers was populated by a homogeneous people long before the cross-country migration from Pennsylvania to the Piedmont region began. A trip from Charleston or from Philadelphia by wagon or oxcart to the rolling hills of Piedmont Carolina made for a serious isolation of life - a life unknown to those who were able to make full and free use of the high seas as an ocean highway. Furthermore, the counties of Norfolk, Nansemond, Isle of Wight, Surry, Southampton, Brunswick, and all of lower Virginia were far more nearly one with the Albemarle country of North Carolina than was all that vast region west of Raleigh.
Though a more decided difference in culture and habits of thought of the two sections existed prior to the American Revolution, some of these distinctive elements remain to this day. A few of the old families identified through the years with the life of the' Tidewater region may be used to illustrate what I mean. These can be nothing more than exponents of the civilization taking shape under the pioneer conditions of that day. Fortunately, enough of the life of these people remains to make a contribution to the present. The early settlers have not yet passed entirely out of the picture. Many of their early wills are in the office of the Historical Commission at Raleigh. The Land Grant offices at Richmond and at Raleigh, as well as the county courthouses, contain impressive records. Old mill sites and ancient homesteads on plantations that have continued for generations in the same families indicate the former stable citizenship having men who led in affairs civic and religious. Some of these men in public life held on through the long years as did General Joseph Riddick, who represented Gates County in the General Assembly for thirty-one years. From 1781 to 1817 he was continuously in public life. Such men were towers of strength in their day. The public records, the landmarks that remain, and the traditions that still live, speak eloquently of the stable pioneers of the Tidewater country. Through more than a century before the break with Old England these colonists displayed wonderful loyalty to the land and the traditions of their fathers.
As typical examples of the early settlers of Albemarle, the Norfleet and the Hunter families may be cited. These two prominent families, the influx of whose life currents for more than two and a half centuries have influenced our national existence, are representative of the many who have had I a part in the building of the commonwealth. In 1668, Thomas Norfleet patented land on the southern branch of the Nansemond River in upper Norfolk County) Virginia. This same year,, in lower Norfolk, William Hunter Patented land for transferring two persons into the colony. In 1695 William Hunter also patented 240 acres in Nansemond County (upper Norfolk had then become Nansemond) for transferring four persons. This same year, 1695, Thomas Norfleet, Jr., also patented land in Nansemond. So, from the very first, as disclosed by the land grants in Richmond, the two families have lived in dose proximity. Although through the long years many of their descendants have journeyed afar, they hark back to the flat lands of the Atlantic seaboard.
On the rent rolls to the King in Nansemond, 1704-05, appear the names of Thomas, Edward, John, and Christopher Norfleet. Following the survey of the Virginia-North Carolina line made by Colonel William Byrd in 1729, the names of James, Thomas, and Marmaduke Norfleet appear in the records of Perquimans County, North Carolina. This section of Virginia in 1729 became a part of North Carolina; so the citizens of that section had not transferred their residence from Virginia to North Carolina. It was merely a shifting of the state line that put them in North Carolina. So now, at this time, in this the original home of the Norfleets in America were the names of Thomas, Edward, John, Christopher, Thomas, Jr., James, and Marmaduke, the Last three being listed in the records of Perquimans County, North Carolina. In the first census,1790, more than one hundred years after the coming of Thomas Norfleet to America, the twenty-five heads of families - thirteen in Virginia and twelve in North Carolina - one hundred and thirteen Norfleets all told, were in this immediate section of Virginia and of North Carolina. 
Most of the North Carolina branch of the family of Norfleets were descendants of James and his brother Marmaduke. James Norfleet was a justice in 1731. He died November, 1732 (will probated January 15, 1733). The name of his first wife does not appear in the records but his second wife was Mary Sumner, whose will was probated January, 1743.  The children of James Norfleet were John, Thomas, Mary, Sarah, Margaret, and Philistia [sic]. John married Elizabeth Arnold, daughter of Edward Arnold, and Thomas married Mary Gordon, daughter of John Gordon, Senior; both of them leaving male heirs. John died in 1753 (will). The children of John Norfleet were Abraham, Jacob, James, John, and Pleasant, all of whom married. 
Abraham Norfleet, son of John, married Sarah Lewis. They left a large family in and around Edenton, one of his family belonging to the Edenton Tea Party. His brother, Jacob Norfleet, married Elizabeth Kinchen. Their children were Kinchen, Esther, Elizabeth, Pleasant, and Mourning, all of whom married and left large families, for the most part in Gates County. Jacob died in 1780 (will).
Of the three generations of James Norfleet's descendants, enough names have been cited to give glimpses of the family life and also to disclose the oft recurrence of Biblical names, such as the well known names of Jacob and Abraham and James and John, the four sons of John Norfleet.
Marmaduke Norfleet, the younger brother of James - the two standing at the head of the North Carolina branch of the family - was born in 1700 and died in 1775. He married first, Elizabeth Gordon; second, Margaret Rhodes. His children were Marmaduke, Reuben, Judith, and Sarah. Marmaduke Norfleet owned land in Bertie, Edgecombe, Northampton, and Halifax counties. His interests in business and in public affairs were many; several times he was a member of the Colonial Assembly.
Judith, who married Colonel William Baker, lived at Buckland in Gates County near Knotty Pine Chapel, at which place Francis Asbury often preached. Mrs. Baker was a, Methodist with whom Bishop Asbury was accustomed to stop. On one occasion he makes mention of his visit to the Baker home, following a visit to Suffolk, where he had preached on March 31, 1801. He made this entry in his journal, April 1, 1801:
Death had left this home broken and the family robbed of its highest hopes. The "Prophet of the Long Road" prayed and sympathized with the family; then he hurried on into Virginia to meet the preachers in conference. The Baker house still stands at Buckland, but all the beautiful staircase and panel work has been sold.
Doubtless the most numerous and influential of the Marmaduke line of Norfleets were the descendants of Reuben, the second son of the first Marmaduke. Marmaduke, the oldest son of Reuben, married Hannah Ruffin, daughter of William and Sallie Ruffin of Northampton County. They left a family of nine children. Louisa married David Clark of Halifax County, the first of this large and influential Clark family so well known in the state. Many of them have filled exalted positions in business and professional life. Perhaps the late Chief Justice Walter Clark was the best known of them all.
Although the original Marmaduke Norfleet died in Northampton County, and was buried at Rich Square, all his earlier life was spent in Gates County in the Orapeake section, where the Norfleets first settled. Orapeake lies west of the Dismal Swamp in a section that George Washington visited more than once. In 1766 George Washington and Fielding Lewis, gentlemen, bought of Marmaduke Norfleet four tracts of land, 1093.5 acres, for £1,200, Virginia currency, situated at a place called "White Oak Springs," in Perquimans County. This land lies near Orapeake, now known as Corapeake, west of the Dismal Swamp.
Washington's own account of a trip in the Dismal Swamp, dated October 15, 1763, has this memorandum of a trip the preceding May: "The Main Swamp of Orapeake is about one-half mile from this where stands the widow Norfleet's mill and Luke Sumner's plantation. This swamp cannot be less than 200 yards across but does not nevertheless discharge as much water as Cypress Swamp. At the mouth of this swamp is a very large meadow of 2,000 or 3,000 acres held by Sumner, the widow Norfleet, Marmaduke Norfleet, Powell and others, and valuable ground it is. From Orapeake Swamp to Loosing Swamp is about two miles and this seventy yards across."
The Riddicks, the Ballards, the Bakers, the Sumners, the Norfleets, the Hunters, and other leading planters were closely associated with Washington in his ventures in North Carolina. He is reported to have accepted their gracious hospitality during his excursions into the colony. His abiding interest in the Dismal Swamp Canal is well known. In Gates County the citizens west of "the Dismal" still speak of Washington's "Ditch," a small canal.
All this section has been closely associated with the Norfleets since the first of the family emigrated from Old England. To this section every Norfleet in America might trace his lineage were the records available. But this cannot be said of the Hunters of America, although the Hunters of this section were most intimately associated with the Norfleets, having intermarried and been engaged in business together from generation to generation.
The Hunters and the Norfleets owned lands, mills, shops, distilleries, slaves, and other plantation fixtures regarded as necessities in their day. Their many wills reflect the nature of their holdings. Some of these were written with great care, disposing of the legacies to generations following. Family life was stressed in it all. In similar fashion, they held fast to the characteristics of English life, even though in a new country. Much of the England of that day crossed the Atlantic with them. Early the leading citizens became a part of the government, William Hunter being a justice in 1699. Marks of distinction were cherished by them also. The impression on the seal of Isaac Hunter (will 1752), and a ship in full sail was on the seal of Mary Norfleet (will 1743).  The Hunters, however, were much more given to life in the public service than were the Norfleets, who were generally taken up with the demands of the family and the plantation.
Jacob Hunter, a son of the Isaac Hunter referred to above, was an owner of lands, mills, and Negroes; but, unlike his father who accumulated a big estate for that day, he was much involved in the Revolution as soldier, legislator, and administrator. Jacob was a member of the Provincial Congress at Halifax which formulated the first Constitution of North Carolina. He served as major and field officer of Minute Men. As vestryman of St. Paul's, Edenton, his name appears to a resolution for independence of England. His daughter Leah married Seth Riddick, whose family was much involved in the struggle for liberty and furnished many officers to the army.
Kinchen Norfleet, son of Jacob , grandson of John and great-grandson of the first James Norfleet, married Sarah Riddick, daughter of Seth Riddick and Leah Hunter, a daughter of Jacob Hunter. Kinchen and Sarah Riddick Norfleet left a family of ten. Their many descendants have scattered far, though not a few of them remain in the Old North State. With the many inter-marriages of these families a homogenous order of life became almost inevitable.
Along with the blood of the Norfleets, of the Hunters, and of the Riddicks has mingled that of the Arnolds, the Kinchens, the Hills, the Gordons, the Feltons, the Smiths, the Sumners, the Ruffins, the Bakers, and others indigenous to this section. A people so genuinely English and so intimately associated for eight and ten generations in rural life must certainly be a people of conservative habits and long-cherished traditions.
Epie Smith Plyler,  a genuine product of the Tidewater region writes thus in portraying some of her family traditions: "In considering the life of the early settlers of Tidewater Virginia and the Albemarle section of North Carolina which was an expansion of the Jamestown settlement of 16o7, it is necessary to keep in mind what they brought with them from Old England. Furthermore, they were located around Hampton-Roads, a perfect port, where it was easy to keep in constant touch with the old country and from which they could draw supplies to build a civilization in the new land of Virginia." Migrating from an island home, they must have found their new domain pleasing and familiar to them, for there were vast stretches of alluvial soil and unlimited waterways, creeks, rivers, bays, sounds, and the Atlantic Ocean.
But the climate was much milder and the land much kinder than that of the British Isles. The sea supplied an abundance of every variety of seafood and gave the people an outlet for trade. Many saw the possibilities in the soil and became planters on large plantations. Bringing with them the instincts and the culture of the British race, they emphasized family life and the virtues that perpetuate it. They prized family ties and family traditions and enjoyed a social life that will scarcely be matched by any succeeding generations. Hospitality abounded and was dominant in their plan of living. Consequently, the worth-while settlers aimed to acquire more land, to build large homes, to gather about them more slaves, in order to cultivate the soil and supply the necessities and the luxuries of a rural aristocracy. A man who was not " a good provider" and failed "to promote his family" was soon outclassed, and his children were not eligible to marry into the families that appreciated intellectual culture and the social graces. Thus, there were two distinct social groups and a certain understanding that kept them entirely separate. Should one from the higher strata marry "beneath her" she was counted out of the family group, and little mention was afterwards made of her.
To be born a woman in no sense carried with it the title of "lady." In my early childhood, my grandmother gave me the interpretation of "lady" that was given to her by her grandfather, and she made it plain that only one standard and one code of conduct entitled a woman to the privilege of being called "lady." She expected her children and grandchildren to follow naturally into the way that ladies lived, yet this way meant restraints. Possibly the restraints involved in "being a lady" do violence to many of the modern methods of child training, yet it produced beautiful women that have made an inestimable contribution to our American civilization. To keep the traditions one must "Be a lady in the kitchen and a lady in the parlor."
Much was embraced in that old adage that our great-grandmothers instilled in the minds of their descendants. On the one hand, it meant that every lady should provide good food for her family. If she did not know how to prepare it, she could not have it done by her servants. On the other hand, it meant that a lady must possess charm, ease, grace of manners, and good taste in dress so that she could make a parlor where friends would gather and find delight in conversation. There were parlors in those early days, and it meant spending the day, possibly the night or perhaps longer. If there was not so much furniture in other parts of the house, the parlor usually had substantial mahogany furniture, of exquisite design, with horse-hair upholstering that made good sliding for the children who were admitted for a short stay. The center table was an essential piece of parlor furniture, being heavily carved with a marble top.
In later colonial times every lady had her garden, usually surrounded by a picket fence. Many gardens were elaborate, yet all satisfied the needs of the household. There were well-kept walks that were bordered with favorite flowers. The vegetables were grown in beds laid off from a wide central walk. Usually, there was boxwood about the garden. Sometimes it grew on either side of the wide central walk, and frequently there was a grouping of the tree box in the center. In the corners were planted fig bushes and hazel nuts, and somewhere there had to be a summerhouse or trellis for running roses, and other vines. Oftentimes the woodbine was used effectively, for it I was easily transplanted from its native heath, only a short distance away. Madonna lilies, peonies, damask roses, moss roses, calacanthus, snowballs, syringa, flowering almond, lilacs, grape-hyacinths, snowdrops, and jonquils grew in great profusion. The most highly prized flowers of these old-fashioned gardens were those with delightful perfume, since fragrance was essential in a lady's toilet as well as in household management. 0 be sure, our grandmothers and their grandmothers were household-minded, for the homes before the Revolution and for some years afterwards were the centers of the industrial, the social, and the intellectual life of the people. The homes were storehouses from which were gathered the resources to build a mighty nation. The family circle was real, and in the evening it was complete, gathered around the great fireplace lighted by the flames from oak and hickory logs. These were the occasions when fascinating stories were told to the youngsters, and the feminine portion of the group kept their knitting needles going at high speed as a sort of an accompaniment to the general merriment. When more light was needed than the candles provided, the small boy sitting by the fireplace would heap on fat pine to make a brilliant illumination. By no means was that a day of specialists. Every one assumed individual responsibility with grim determination. Women had to gather around themselves the things they liked and needed in their daily domestic life. For this reason, they grew hops, sage, savory, sweet marjoram, thyme, rosemary, catnip, and lavender. They used the hops for making yeast, some of the herbs for seasoning, and great bunches of lavender blossoms were gathered each year to lay in the linen chests as well as in the chests which contained their fancy quilts.
Women had to know the ills common to humanity and a way of curing them. Since doctors were not abundant, they were not called in for minor ailments. So it came about that the black mammy, with her imagination, concocted a cure for every ill. She would advise: "Now don't let dat chile see himself in the looking-glass 'til he gets his teef cut 'cause hit will make him cut teef hard. But if you gits a bear's toof and puts it on a string around his neck, it shore will 'make him cut teef easy -and I tells you, I allers takes my babies upstairs de fust thing; hit makes em high-minded. Dat's what I done with Marse James, and Marse John and Marse Robert."
For many years after Captain John Smith's colony landed at Jamestown, the homes were necessarily crude, and living meant a heroic struggle to gain what brought satisfaction. Plantations were gradually extended. Slave labor was brought in to till the field and fell the forest in order that the resources at hand might be exchanged for products imported from Great Britain and the West Indies. In an issue of the North Carolina State Gazette, published at Edenton, dated January 10, 1794, there is printed the following advertisement:
In the same issue appeared this advertisement:
In the State Gazette for September 14, 1797, a merchant of Edenton, John Little, advertised for sale,
Often in the patents and deeds drawn appeared the designation "Gentleman," as in the case of a deed made by Marmaduke Norfleet, gentleman, to George Washington and Fielding Lewis, gentlemen, dated April 25, 1776, for certain tracts of land for £1,200 of Virginia money.
Such families as the Riddicks, the Sumners, the Smiths, the Bakers, the Hunters, the Norfleets, the Gordons, and the Brown - brought with them to America an appreciation of the finer things of life. They built homes, and the women who presided over these homes were refined and walked in gentle ways; they took ,great pride in everything that contributed to make a home of beauty.
It was an essential part of every girl's training to know how to use a needle skillfully and artistically. Even little girls were trained to "roll and whip," hemstitch, to do drawn-work, and to embroider fine linens. At the Edenton Tea Party, no doubt every woman there had made her own dress, and, perhaps, each was wearing her best silk with a "breast-pin" at her throat. A lady's brooch, or "breastpin," was usually a handsome piece of jewelry, oftentimes having a fancy arrangement of her husband's hair under glass in the center.
In the day of the beginnings of the commonwealth there were landlords who possessed dignity, chivalry, and honor. These qualities gave woman an exalted position, and created a sense of obligation to the unfortunate. In a raw country, they practiced the hardy virtues of daily living and preserved to posterity an appreciation of beauty and a love of culture and learning.
The foregoing paragraphs are a picture of the life and times of the people of the Albemarle country as handed down through many generations from grandmother to grandchild, for it must be remembered that the families of Colonial Virginia and of the Albemarle region have lived closely bound to the traditions and customs of the English people in the Mother Country as well as on this side of the Atlantic. Early the pioneers of all the Tidewater region of the Atlantic seaboard were caught in the tide that for two centuries flowed westward, finally reaching the Pacific Coast. The record of this steady flow makes the romance of American history. No one with modern means of travel can cross the continent without being filled with wonder, and often with astonishment, at the intrepid spirit and persistent hardihood of our heroic ancestors. The hardships endured and the opposition encountered did not crush the dauntless spirit of those who laid deep and strong the foundations upon which our national superstructure was reared. Names familiar to the Albemarle country can be found in the various sections of this state and in almost every state beyond the mountains.
The Hunters and others of the Tidewater region had no little to do with the movements that resulted in locating the capital of the state in Wake County. At the Convention at Hillsboro in 1788, to use the words of Governor Samuel Johnston,
On March 20, 1792, the commission appointed by the New Bern Assembly in 1791, acting in keeping with the instruction of the Hillsboro Convention in 1788, assembled at Hunter's Tavern to consider the tracts of land offered. After three weeks of consideration, having enjoyed the hospitality of Joel Lane the night before, the commission chose the Joel Lane tract, where Raleigh now stands. The location for the site of the capital city had strong personal and political backing because of intermarriage and business association.
Isaac Hunter first married Rebecca Hart; his second wife was Charlotte Thomas. Of his thirteen children, the oldest daughter, Pherebe, married Joseph Lane, brother of Joel Lane. Numerous descendants of the Lanes and of the Hunters and other families that intermarried in those early clays are still in Wake and are scattered across the nation. An illustration of the American advance westward appears also in the record of the Norfleets. Take this one instance from the Virginia branch of the family. Nathaniel Norfleet went from Nansemond County, Virginia, into that section of Caswell County, North Carolina, which later (1791) became Person County, he being at one time clerk of the Court of Person. In 1816 Nathaniel Norfleet gave five acres of land to Wheeler's meeting-house and in 1830 he gave to Clement Baptist Church three acres of land. The records show that Nathaniel Norfleet sold a Negro girl on October 5, 1805 and that on August 5, 1835, he gave a Negro to his daughter, Saphronia. Norfleet Wilson of Humphreys County, Tennessee. He subscribed to stock for building a mill on South Hyco Creek, January 8, 1836. Nathaniel Norfleet died in June, 1836 (will), having been an active citizen of his section up to the last. His son, John Marmaduke Norfleet, executor of his estate, at the September term of court, 1838, paid $4,335.73 to the heirs of Nathaniel Norfleet. Later, the descendants of John Marmaduke Norfleet moved to the Winston-Salem section of the state. Other children of Nathaniel Norfleet migrated to Mississippi and Tennessee. The descendants of John Marmaduke Norfleet are well-known and highly influential citizens of Winston-Salem. Other descendants of the Norfleets may be found all the way across the land to California.
After this fashion, the generations continued to live in their first homes on this side of the Atlantic and in the new land of this vast domain. But we may be sure that some held fast to many of the best things they knew. Notwithstanding their sins and shortcomings in a new and rugged country, the family circle about the open fireplace remained to them a cherished reality in cabin and "big house." There womanhood was enthroned and family ties were prized. Thrift and sociability were prime virtues. A sense of obligation and honor were the marks of a gentleman. They cherished the family and esteemed the finer things that belonged to culture and learning, though oftentimes they were far removed from all these.
1. Note by Phil Norfleet: Plylers census information is wrong, he apparently double counted several of the Virginia families; this was caused by use of redundant tax lists in the book published by the Census Bureau for the 1790 enumeration (the original Virginia census has been lost). My estimate, contained in my monograph entitled The Norfleets of England and America, indicates that there were eight Norfleet families in Virginia and thirteen in North Carolina. In total there were 83 white Norfleets who owned a total of about 223 slaves in the period 1784 1790.
2. Note by Phil Norfleet: I am not aware that James Norfleet was married twice. Most Norfleet genealogists believe that his wife, Mary, was a Gordon not a Sumner. Also, Mary Norfleets will, dated 12 October 1742, was probated "on the third Monday in Janry anno Dom 1742." Since England was still using the old Julian calendar at that time, the actual year was 1743 pursuant to our modern Gregorian Calendar.
3. Note by Phil Norfleet: Plyler has confused the John Norfleet son of James (d. 1732) with the John Norfleet (1699-1753), son of John Norfleet of Nansemond County, Virginia. See my essay on this John Norfleet for the details.
4. Note by Phil Norfleet: I have personally reviewed the original of Mary Norfleets will, which is on file at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh. Surprisingly, the seal is still intact, and although very faint, the image of a three-masted ship in full sail is outlined on the seal!
5. Note by Marion T. Plyler: Mrs. Epie Smith Plyler (Mrs. M. T. Plyler) is a daughter of the late Honorable Leroy L. Smith and Edna Norfleet Smith. Being eighth in line from Thomas Norfleet, seventh in line from Isaac Hunter and fifth in line from Seth Riddick, to say nothing of other parallel lines extending over two centuries, she could not escape many family traditions. Her lawyer father was an interested student of history, especially of the Albemarle country. The Smith family dates back to the early days of Isle of Wight County, Virginia.