Ernest M. Bullard and the Coharie/Lost Colony Connection

by Brandon Fullam, Nov. 21, 2014

A number of legends about the Lost Colony have been handed down to us from the oral traditions of the native tribes or family histories which claim varying degrees of ancestral connections with members of John White’s 1587 colony. One of the most fascinating of these is “The Legend of the Coharie,” transcribed by Ernest M. Bullard (1881-1959). What is remarkable about Mr. Bullard’s Legend is the amount of detail–usually absent from such traditions–included in his account. It is the intent of this inquiry to explore the source of “The Legend of the Coharie” and test the plausibility of the legend’s narrative and its geographical contest against historical record.

While researching “The Legend of the Coharie”, I was fortunate to make contact with W. Stephen Lee, grandson of Ernest Bullard, who was extremely helpful in providing genealogical links as well as biographical information about his grandfather, depicted here in the 1940s.

Ernest Minson Bullard was born October 17, 1881, one of ten children of George W. Bullard (1856-1919) and Theodosia Ida McLamb Bullard (1859-1907). George was a large landowner, storekeeper, and postmaster of the community of Hayne in western Sampson County. Ernest attended Salem Academy in Salemburg and later taught in a one-room school near Autryville. He farmed land given to him by his father, ran his father’s store in Hayne, served as Hayne postmaster, and was the local Selective Service registrar during World War I. In 1921 he moved to nearby Roseboro to enable his children to attend the public high school there. During the Great Depression he was supervisor on various New Deal projects and also served as mayor of Roseboro. He eventually became a field representative for the Farmers Home Administration, a position he held until his retirement in 1951 at age 70. After retiring, he worked as a land surveyor. Ernest M. Bullard died on August 28, 1959.

Mr. Lee remembers his grandfather as a well-respected, friendly, and gregarious gentleman, very much involved in his community.

Ernest Bullard was a member of the Sampson County Historical Society, an indication of his keen interest in local history. Mr. Lee believes his grandfather transcribed “The Legend of the Coharie” after his retirement in 1951, and it was likely published at that time by the Historical Society. The story was reprinted in “Pitch ‘n Tar”, a series of publications for an oral history project in Roseboro in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Most recently Mr. Bullard’s “Legend” was reprinted in the January, 2014 issue of “Huckleberry Historian,” the quarterly journal of the Sampson County Historical Society.

The story was initially told to Ernest Bullard, however, “about 1892” when he was ten or eleven years old. Ernest Bullard did not identify his source, but Mr. Lee is confident that it was one of his relatives, since the story was well known among Ernest Bullard’s extended family. There is genealogical evidence indication that this story had its origins in Mr. Bullard’s own ancestral lineage, and had been passed down, as Ernest Bullard wrote, “…by word of mouth for more than three hundred years before one word of it was ever put into writing.”

Mr. Lee reports that, according to family tradition, one of their ancestors, Jemina Hall (b. perhaps 1761), was Native American. Jemina Hall was married to Thomas Bullard (1759-1837) and was Ernest Bullard’s great-great grandmother. The Hall connection to the Lost Colony is brought up in Ernest Bullard’s Legend. He noted that, “on top of a knoll overlooking the lowland of Big Swamp in the western part of what was known at the time (1779) as “The Territory of Duplin County-the western part of Duplin became Sampson County in 1784- there stood a small log cabin belonging to Enoch Hall. Hall was said to have been a lineal descendant from George Howe of the ‘Lost Colony,” the name having been changed from Howe to Haw, then to Hall, was married to Everett Hall, son of Enoch Hall, who himself was the son of another Enock Hall, and “that is suggestive of the origin and path” of Ernest Bullard’s “Legend of the Coharie.”

It has always been common practice to recount stories and traditions when extended families occasionally gathered from near and far for such events as wakes and weddings. Perhaps young Ernest Bullard first heard the Coharie Legend and the “Hall” connection when the family assembled for the funeral of Lucy Bullard Hall, who died in 1892, the same year the Legend was related to Ernest Bullard. In any case, the fact that the story was very likely part of the Bullard family tradition will play a role in the evaluation of the Coharie Legend as a credible oral history source.

No inquiry into the Bullard Legend would be complete without mentioning Hamilton McMillan and the Lumbee tribe. In 1892, when Ernest Bullard first heard the Coharie Legend, a great deal of attention was being paid to an extraordinary booklet which had been published by state assemblyman, Hamilton McMillan(1837-1916) just four years earlier. McMillan, an advocate for the Lumbee tribe in Robeson County, had recorded the Lumbee oral tradition which-like Bullard Legend-claimed a direct ancestral connection to Hatteras/Croatoan tribe and the Lost Colonist, McMillan’s arguments, in fact, led directly to North Carolina’s recognition of the Lumbee tribe as “Croatan Indians.”

It had long been known that the Lumbee tribe shared, at least in part, the same ancestral lineage as the Coharie tribe, and efforts were eventually undertaken in Sampson County to do for the Coharie what McMillan had done for Lumbee in Robeson. In 1914 Special Indian Agent O. M. McPherson was directed to investigate the Indians of Robeson and the surrounding counties, and in early 1915 he presented his “Report on the Condition and Tribal Rights of Indians of Robeson and Adjoining Counties.” In his report, McPherson included 213 Sampson County Indians as part of the Croatan tribe.

It might seem from all of this that Ernest Bullard, like his contemporaries, McPherson and Butler, may have been directly influenced by McMillans’s earlier work, and that the “Legend of the Coharie” could essentially be an adaption of McMillan’s 1888 publication. Such a conclusion would be grossly inaccurate. Other than its thematic link to the Lost Colony, Bullard’s “Legend of the Coharie” bears virtually no resemblance whatsoever to the narrative in McMillan’s publication.

In the first place, the Bullard Legend provides a far more detailed and coherent chronology of events from 1588. after John White’s colony had departed from Roanoke, to about 1690-1700, when the descendants of the mixed Colonist-Hatteras group reached Sampson County. The Lumbee oral tradition, as recorded by McMillan, recalls a somewhat vague connection to the Croatoan tribe and the Lost Colony in about 1588, but provides little or no information on the 123 years that transpired afterwards.

Oral histories usually rank among primary sources, which are the most credible, but their reliability decreases gradually as they are passed down- as both the Lumbee and Coharie traditions have been- for many generations. There is a degree of difference in the historical reliability of the two accounts. McMillan, as an outside interpreter of the Lumbee oral tradition, can only be considered a secondary source at best. Bullard, if indeed he was a direct conduit of Coharie oral history would be considered as close to a primary source as possible in this case and would normally be afforded a greater degree of credibility than McMillan. Nevertheless, both traditions have been passed down for centuries and consequently the reliability of both accounts as historical sources may be discounted to some degree.

Although the Bullard Legend and the McMillan publication are two completely different accounts, there are occasional instances when historical or geographical references in the former intersect with the narrative in the latter. The intent of this inquiry is to determine the plausibility or implausibility of the various elements of the Bullard Legend by testing its narrative within the context of the existing historical and chronological record. The Bullard Legend contains more detail than what is usually found in such oral traditions–certainly far more than McMillan’s Lumbee history– and consequently there is much more information here to assess. Where the relevant historical record is unclear or non-existent, the Bullard Legend of the Coharie will be afforded the “benefit of the doubt.”