SUBMITTED BY: Marvin T. Jones (vetted by Cheri Molter)
The Winton Triangle is a community of land-owning people of color in the Winton-Cofield-Ahoskie area of Hertford County, North Carolina. Originally inhabited by the Chowanoke people, the first landowners of color arrived in the 1740s, mostly from the Chesapeake Bay area. By the time of the Civil War, the community was over a century old and had founded Pleasant Plains Baptist Church, which became the center for religious and social activity for free people of color in Hertford and the surrounding counties. The Winton Triangle’s people had longstanding family and community ties. Many were literate and multi-skilled, yet they chafed from racial restrictions on their rights, including those of worship, voting, trade and education.
Once Union gunboats took control of the Chowan River in February of 1862, whites and people of color –enslaved or free – fled to the Union lines.
The men and women discussed here made their mark during and after the war. Families of soldiers – brothers, cousins, in-laws, uncles and nephews enlisted. Nine members of the Weaver family, eight Robbins (from NC and their relatives who migrated to Ohio), seven Reynolds, and other family groups served.
A Mixed-Race Community’s Civil War
Mixed race people were forced to build Confederate defenses and give over their crops, poultry and livestock to support tyranny. Beginning in 1862, Winton Triangle men, many with knowledge of local waters, enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Other men joined the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in 1863 or later. Some of the literate men were quickly given promotions.
Martha Keen and the Burning of Winton
On February 19, 1862, the Winton Triangle’s war began when Martha Keen, a free mixed-race woman was used by Confederates to lure a Union gunboat to Winton’s wharf. The boat’s captain avoided the trap and Ms. Keen was spared from being caught between the cannon fire. While the rebels claim they paid Ms. Keen and her husband for her role as a ruse, it is unlikely that the 35-year-old mother of three would willingly take such a risk. The Union Navy continued to visit Winton and controlled the Chowan River for the rest of the war.
Two years later, Ms. Keen’s brother-in-law [William H. Keen] enlisted in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), possibly boarding the same wharf. Her daughter was an early student at what is now Hampton University and became a teacher. Ms. Keen died in 1917 at the age of 90.
Andrew Jackson Robbins
Andrew Jackson Robbins served in the 34th Regiment Infantry, USCT. He and brother Noah Robbins Jr. worked on fortifications at Morris Island, helping to destroy Charleston. He was a Deacon at Philippi Church in Cofield, owner of a large farm, and father of 15 children. His youngest three went to college. One became a physician.
Augustus Robbins was Quartermaster Sergeant in the 2nd Regiment Cavalry, USCT. His 2nd Cavalry fought from Suffolk to Richmond in 1864 to 1865 and then served in Texas during the time of Juneteenth. After ending his service in Texas, Augustus Robbins was a farmer, carpenter, store owner, state legislator, founder of a church and a school. His son became a physician.
Parker Davis Robbins: A Man of Many Roles
Sgt. Major Robbins and the 2nd Regiment Cavalry, USCT fought from Suffolk to Richmond, Virginia. His regiment also served in Texas during the time of Juneteenth. He was a farmer, a mechanic, a state legislator, a postmaster, an inventor (holder of two patents), a sawmill operator, a builder, and a steamboat builder and operator. His brother, Augustus, was a sergeant and legislator. Their cousins included fellow regiment member John Robbins, plus Noah and Andrew Jackson Robbins of the 34th Regiment Infantry. The Robbins’ roots were in their fathers’ Chowanoke community in neighboring Gates County.
The Collins Family
The elder brother, Thomas Collins (188th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry) was wounded at Cold Harbor, VA in 1864. Weeks later, two of his brothers, Simon and John, along with their uncle John Bizzell, enlisted in the 14th Regiment, Heavy Artillery, USCT.
After the war, Thomas taught, pastored at Pleasant Plains Church, and as a brickmason, laid the underpinning for Philippi Church. Simon taught, farmed, and was a local leader of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) – a veteran’s organization of Union soldiers. John worked at the Winton Triangle’s high school. His son, John Francis, co-founded a law school in Washington D.C. Parker Robbins married their sister, Elizabeth Collins.
James Walden was a Sergeant in the 2nd Regiment Cavalry, USCT. He served in same regiment as Parker and Augustus Robbins. He was the head of the local G.A.R. and the treasurer of Pleasant Plains Baptist Church – the most influential church of color in the area. James was also a founder of Walden School near Cofield and a founder of the Chowan Education Association, which created the first high school for people of color in the region. He was a neighbor of Andrew Jackson Robbins.
Sgt. Luton’s Letter
A few months after the war’s end, James Walden’s brother, Samuel, died in service. Sgt. Enoch Luton wrote Samuel’s widow, Nancy Weaver Walden, to tell her that her husband and her cousin died of dysentery. Walden’s death set off a decades long quest for a widow’s pension. Four veterans, including James Walden, testified on behalf of Mrs. Walden. She received payment at the end of her life in 1922. Other casualties included the diseased death of another Weaver cousin and John Robbins’ loss of his eye while in combat outside of Suffolk, Virginia.
From Victory, Growth for a New Generation
While the literate people of the pre-war Winton Triangle were guarded about their education, they wasted little time in expanding and upgrading education for all people of color, free or formerly enslaved. William David Newsom taught at the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony for several months at the war’s end. A year later, the Pleasant Plains Church community built a schoolhouse and Newsome was its first teacher. He also oversaw other schools of color in the county. In doing so, Newsome brought in a Roanoke Island colleague, Lydia Warrick Reynolds of Philadelphia. Her father and two siblings also taught in North Carolina. The Boston-educated Reynolds improved the level of teaching.
Additionally, she and her husband kept and trained James Walden’s five-year-old daughter, Annie, for seven years. Annie later graduated from Shaw University. All of Annie’s ten children finished college. Among them was a physician, an engineer, a dentist, and a college president. In Annie’s later years, she wrote of her stay with the Reynolds: “To the early training I received while there I attribute much of my success in life.”