Robbins Family History

By Sidney Swaim Robins*

This is September 10, 1954. I have long considered that before “getting ready to die” I ought to set down a few of the sparse historical facts and traditions about family that I have picked up, and also a little account of my own father and mother. I know I have often wished that my father had made accessible some of the stories of family that were in the back of his own mind, so familiar that he did not think them worth mentioning. As we grow older, interest in such things seems to develop. Today it occurs to me that perhaps I might better not put off my part until ready to die, lest I miss the signal or something happen. Especially since the .story is not long, my memory of incidents and events never having been of the kind that makes real story-tellers — never full enough for that.

The first Robins that we know anything about is William Robins, whose Last Will and Testament, though apparently, for lack of indications that it was ever registered, not his final one, is now, in original manuscript and signed, sealed, and witnessed by Christopher Nation and Christopher Vickery, in the possession of my brother, Henry Moring Robins, of Asheboro, North Carolina. This Will is dated October 8, 1786. In it William Robins identifies himself as of Randolph County, N. C., calls himself “Blacksmith,” and notes that he is under some indisposition of body which causes him to think of a final disposition of his property. Apparently he was farmer as well as blacksmith, for the will disposes of farm-tools as well as blacksmith-tools, and distributes five hundred and eighty acres of land among the family. These heirs are his sons John and Christopher, his grandson Abel (son of Silas deceased), and his widow and youngest son — these last two together. The widow was to have the home-place during her lifetime, and after her this youngest son Daniel. Daniel evidently lived with his parents.

Cousin Sarah Lambert, in her seven-page manuscript history of the Robins family, relays the report that William “took up much government land in Randolph County in the long ago,” and that may represent older family tradition on the point of his being an original settler in those parts. For Sarah’s mother, who was my father’s oldest sister,had a long memory and many stories to tell which I am sorry to have forgotten.

We do not know when William was born or when he died. He must have lived on a while after getting ready to die with a Will — a Will which is one of the two things we know about him. The census of 1790 apparently brings him forth once more into the light. This census lists only the heads of households. It gives one and only one William Robbins (the census is responsible for its own spelling and often makes a curious job of it) in Randolph County. It lists eight other Robbinses at least, including two Johns and a Christopher. One of the Johns and this Christopher could be the two older sons of William. Daniel is not named and would not be, because he lived on the home-place with his father and mother and was not the head of a household.

Early censuses are not always too correct in other matters than spelling, but this one fits on to the Last Will fairly well on the whole, though with one minor problem and one larger and rather interesting one. William Robbins, or Robins in his own way of it, is credited in the census report with three male dependents “over sixteen years of age, including heads of families”; and with none under sixteen. Two of these dependents would be Daniel (aged 20) and Grandson Abel. The third could be a younger brother of Abel, over sixteen, or son Christopher — if the Christopher in the census came from another family. Our Christopher remained a bachelor. “Christopher” and “Marmaduke” were among the names much in use in that part of Randolph, in several different families.

William is further credited with eight white female dependents, including heads of families. These could be his wife Frances; his daughters Elizabeth, Frances, Charity, Ann, Rachel (all mentioned in the will) ; the widow of Son Silas; and one unknown. Seven out of eight is not bad. Many a married woman has an unmarried sister alongside.

The more serious difficulty in putting together Census and Will is that the former credits Father William with owning nine slaves, and of slaves there is in the Will no mention. Could he have acquired that many slaves between 1786 (the date of the Will) and 1790 (the date of the Census) ? Could he have purposed to free his slaves or to summon the family and dispose of them in some other way than by Will — that is by gift ? Could there be a mis-print in the Census? Could the William of our Will have died before 1790, as he half-expected to do, and could some other William be the only one in the county at that later date ?

If this last were the case, then why is there no Daniel listed in the census ? He would be a land-owner and head of household; the paternal roof would have ceased to hide him. Moreover he would be living on the home-place of his father, a considerable land-owner of the past. My brother has a deed, dated 1793, from Christopher Robins to Daniel, conveying a hundred and sixty acres of land on Polecat Creek (his inheritance and a little more apparently), and calling for Abel _Robins’s line as a boundary. So Daniel was locally a coming man, and. where is he in the census if the William of the census is not his father, and if he is not accounted for as a dependent?

We might interject that since Daniel married in December 1790, there is a bare possibility that his wife is the one female missing to make up the eight called for in the census.

We were rather surprised when we found William credited with owning nine slaves, even though nine might be only one sizeable family of them. Our original prejudice was that there could not have been very many slaves in upper Randolph in those times. But looking the census report over further, we find there were actually more than we had supposed. William Bell, not so far off, is credited with sixteen. He was the largest slave-owner that we definitely know to have lived fairly near our folks. But there were quite a few others. Perhaps in our case the real puzzle is that our family, in its later history, showed no signs of having fallen from any slave-owning class, and that they intermarried twice with the Swaims, some of whom we know to have been with the Quakers on the slavery question. But the thing is not impossible. Randolph County was short on aristocrats anyhow, as in some degree was the Old North State.

Well, most of the Robinses I know are rather fond of mystery stories, so we drop this little one on them as we go along.

William’s son Daniel is our ancestor. Born in 1770, he lived until October 8, 1831. In 1790 he married Massah, daughter of John and Elizabeth Vickery Swaim.

Sarah Lambert says that Daniel must have had more than the ordinary country education of his time. I may say that all the notations I have seen in the Daniel Robins or the Marmaduke Swaim Bibles (Sarah had both of these and her daughter Massah has them today) are written in a right clerkly hand that would be a credit to any of us and more than that to some. The proof though which Sarah gives of Daniel’s literacy or education is of a different kind. She says that she has in her possession an old torn and tattered manuscript book containing original hymns and poems written by Daniel. Somehow or other I missed seeing that book, perhaps failed to ask for it at the right time. (Massah Lambert told me the other day that she thinks she has it still, but that it is mostly illegible.) . It is said that he had the design, never carried into effect, of getting out a book of poetry or hymnology, all of his own stuff. The only proof of his talents available to me now is a single hymn of his which Sarah got printed in the Asheboro Courier. Here it is, and some of us have no doubt written worse poetry in our time:

Ye glittering orbs around the skies,
That speak his glories in disguise,
Your silent language cannot tell
The powers of Emmanuel.

Tall mountains that becloud the sky,
Whilst all the hills around them lie,
Whilst time endures, you cannot tell
The powers of Emmanuel.

Ye World, and worlds with all your throng,
Through every climate extend the song.
Guilty sinners preserved from hell
By Christ the King Emmanuel.

Behold Him leave his Father’s throne;
Behold him bleed, and hear him groan;
Death’s strong chain would fail to tell
The strength of King Emmanuel.

Behold Him take his ancient seat
Whilst millions bow beneath his feet;
He conquered all the hosts of hell;
We’ll crown him King Emmanuel.

His fame shall spread from pole to pole,
Whilst glory rolls from soul to soul.
The gospel is sent forth to tell
The glories of Emmanuel.

Whilst I am singing of His name,
My soul rejoices in the same.
I’m full, I’m full, but cannot tell
The love of King Emmanuel.

I long to hear His trumpet sound
And see his glories all around.
I then shall shout, and sing and tell
Salvation through Emmanuel.

Ten thousand thousands join the song,
Ten thousand thousands in the throng.
He saved us from a gaping hell;
All glory to Emmanuel.

To me at least it feels funny not to know anything about your great-grandfather except his having written such a hymn as that. I mean anything personal, for dates and that mention in the Will are not personal. It is almost as bad as if the family had to reconstruct me out of a bit of Woofus poetry. One guesses that he was a better churchman than most of the Robinses we have known, and that he was impressed by the popular theology of the day enough for some of it to come out of him rather sonorously. He must have had more education than a good many people of his day, and it seems as if he had some ear for music or rhythm as well as rhyme.

Daniel and Massah Swaim Robins had seven sons and only one daughter. The sons were Eli, William, Daniel, John, Christopher, Joshua, Richard. The daughter was named Charity and died at the age of. thirteen.

Sarah Lambert lists nine children of this second William and four of this Christopher (Daniel’s sons), and no doubt their descendants are scattered around in Randolph and thereabouts. But there are none of them that we know just how to hang on the family tree, or to connect up with. And besides they must all have taken a second ‘b’ unto themselves.

Once when I was a student at Chapel Hill, I met Dr. Kemp P. Battle on the campus. He was ex-president of the University and the man who chiefly revived it after the Civil War. He was now professor of history, and he was always full of antiquarian interests. He inquired about my father’s health (he had taught my father back in the 1850′s), and asked me presently if I knew the origin of my family name. I told him No. He said it was a shortened form of Robinson, just as Roberts is of Robertson, Richards of Richardson, and Davids and Davis of Davidson; and that some people had put two ‘ b’s in it to keep it from being pronounced “Ro-bins,” the ‘o’ long. I presume that is correct. So far as I can discover, from Father William on down our direct line has always adhered to the original form of the name.

Daniel’s son John, my grandfather, and his brother Joshua married two sisters, respectively Margaret and Esther Swaim. Joshua moved West in early life, eventually to Iowa, and the family in Carolina lost track of him before or about the time of the Civil War. I chanced upon one of his descendants in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when the young’ man with whom I was dealing about a fountain pen inquired across the counter how .1 got the “Swaim” in the middle of my name. I had given the invocation at Michigan University Commencement the day before and my name had been printed in full on the program. That is how he got it. When it came out that my father was named Marmaduke Swaim Robins, that clicked in his mind at once. One value in an unusual name like “Marmaduke!” The young man was a great grandson of Joshua, name of Ryder. I believe somebody in his family had invented a fountain pen, or improved on one. If that inventiveness came on the Robins side, it would be the one faint touch of scientific genius in the family up to or preceding the present generation.

The suggestion of possible obligation to other tribes we have intermarried with makes this a good point to bring in the Swaim family. My father used to say he was three-fourths Swaim, and he was proud of the fact. Both his mother Margaret and his paternal grandmother Massah were Swaims. He always pronounced it “Swim” (as in “swimming”) and so did everybody else in North Carolina until some member of the tribe sprouted an interest in phonetics or reformed spelling and set a new style, or until some logical-minded schoolteachers got hold of the Swaim children and persuaded them that such pronunciations as the ancient one just simply could not be. The 1790 Census spells the name “Swim.”

Father’s uncle, William Swaim, became a rather famous editor in North Carolina considering the very short period of his active life at that vocation, which was only six or seven years. In fact, he was a challenging liberal for the times. The North Carolina Historical Review for July 1953, published by the state’s department of Archives and History, has an interesting article on ante-bellum newspapers of the State in which it gives an impressive and interesting account of the Greensboro Patriot, and in particular of the strenuous controversies over slavery and free speech which that paper entered into while under the leadership of William Swaim. This was along about 1830. William Swaim had a daughter who married a Porter and became the mother of William Sidney Porter, known to the literary world as “0. Henry.” An enlarged photograph or daguerreotype of Editor William hangs alongside the 0. Henry collection in the Greensboro Public Library. The year before he died, 1834, he started a second newspaper in what must have been the very rural hamlet of New Salem, in Randolph County, and made his “distant cousin,” Benjamin Swaim, editor.

Benjamin Swaim appears to have been a son of the eldest brother of great-grandmother Massah. He was long a lawyer at Asheboro and published several legal text-books designed to help intelligent people be their own lawyer. More sensible project then than now, since the law has become so complicated. Swaim’s “Justice,” printed first at New Salem, went through another edition or two elsewhere. He also published in monthly installments from that New Salem office a book of legal forms and general advice, garnished with a few stories and bits of humor.

After Editor William Swaim’s death, the Greensboro Patriot presently came under the leadership of another Swaim from New Salem and from the printing office which had been established there. Lyndon Swaim was a son of great grandmother Massah’s younger brother, Moses. He was called to the Greensboro editorship when, a year or so after its fighting editor’s death, the paper had fallen to a low ebb. Lyndon Swaim succeeded well, carried along in that post much longer than his more exciting and stirring predecessor, and was a prominent citizen of Greensboro for almost half a century. He presently married the widow of William Swaim. I have recently seen a newspaper sketch of his life written by Judge R. D. Douglas. After paying tribute to Lyndon Swaim as editor, the judge mentions his services as Clerk of the Court for quite a period, and then tells of how in his later years he took up the study of architecture and rendered a valiant and honorable service to his community along that line. He was also an elder of the Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, which church had his life written up for its records.

A lot of North Carolina Swaims went west before the Civil War as did a lot of the Coffins and others. Cousin Oscar Coffin claims that his family was mostly drained out of North Carolina, and mostly to Indiana, on account of discomfort over the slavery question. Some of the Coffins were Quakers, and some of the Swaims associated a lot with the Quakers, on top of being close neighbors, there in northeast Randolph County, and in Guilford. William Swaim, for example, shared the Quaker view of slavery. Slavery may have had a good deal to do with many of our Swaim relatives leaving for Indiana, which of course was a big, new, fertile country anyhow. In any case they got there. In the year 1890 there was a Swaim family reunion at David Stanton’s, Level Cross, at which my father spoke, and to which he took Henry and me, and to which came a number of Swaims and Swaim kin from the West. I remember in particular a stalwart old farmer from Henry County, Indiana, with six stout sons in his train or his quiver. He had made the trip back by wagon, and they tell me that he made the trip as many as eight times before he died. I think his name was Jonathan.

Driving by car across Indiana, to or from Galesburg, Illinois, where we lived the two years from 1928 to 1930, I looked up Mrs. Ella Tomlinson (“Tomlinson” is another Randolph Quaker name), at the town of Summitville, she being at that time secretary of the Swaim Family Association, of Indiana, or in general, I know not which. From her I got that short sketch of old Swaim family genealogy which I turned over to Sarah Lambert and which she included in her paper.

This record begins with Anthony Swaim, who came to America “from Holland about 1700,” and settled near Richmond, Staten Island, New York. He had four sons: Michael, Mathias, William, and one whose name is not known. Michael, the brief notation continues, remained on Staten Island and his descendants “live up the Hudson.” Mathias removed to Essex County, N. J. William settled in Surry County, N. C. (The fourth may have settled in Ohio, but that is a suggestion from some other source.)

William of Surry County, N. C., had three sons. Of these we are told that Michael and Moses “probably remained in Surry County.” Son John, born in 1748, settled in Randolph in 1767, and the very same year was married to Elizabeth Vickery, she being seventeen years old and he nineteen at the time.

In his biographical sketch of Lyndon Swaim. Judge Douglas has this to say about our common ancestor, John Swaim, and his wife: “He was born in 1748, reared in the pioneer surroundings of the times and became a friend and hunting companion of Daniel Boone. His wife was Elizabeth Vickery, a daughter of one of the Regulators who became the vanguard of American freedom on the field of Alamance.”

If you do not know your North Carolina history, “Alamance” is the name of a battlefield in the county of that name on which rebellious colonists of the state, led and inspired by Herman Husbands of the northeast part of Randolph County and before that of Pennsylvania met and stoutly opposed the forces of the Royal governor in the year 1771.

Judge Douglas adds that John Swaim, settling in Randolph, “carved a home -and farm out of the wilderness, and became a successful farmer and raised a large family.” We may specify that the “large family” means eleven children, eight sons and three daughters. Their eldest daughter, Massah, as we have seen, married Great-grandfather Daniel Robins. One of their sons was named Marmaduke, which leads me to comment that this name occurred at least three times in the Swaim family before it was handed on to my father. This particular owner of that moniker was born in 1784 and died in 1822. Both he and his brother Moses, Lyndon’s father, are buried in the almost lost Timber Ridge cemetery near Level Cross. (We find the cemetery and their headstones in December 1954. It is a Swaim family cemetery in the main, although there are many of the graves marked only by an unreadable or an uninscribed stone.)

Sarah Lambert relays the tradition that all the Swaims in North Carolina are descended from William of Surry County. And after his son John comes to Randolph we hear no more in our traditions of Surry relatives coming down. But therein lies another small mystery. In our old friend, the 1790 census, John Swaim (“Swim”) is the only Swaim listed in Randolph County. Of course his eldest son would not then have arrived at the status of “head of a family.” In nearby Guilford County, there are no Swaims at all given, and that is not surprising. In Surry, there is listed a Michael Swaim, and two or three more. The question then is whence comes this the second Swaim cross in our family line ?

Perhaps it is just as well to bear in mind that our earliest public records are not too reliable ; and also that family traditions, especially when not based on almost contemporary written records, are less than fully dependable. Here is this Marmaduke Swaim, with that family-pet, that Randolph-pet of a given-name, showing up from nowhere so far as either tradition or records show. My guess is he was a son of Michael of Surry County. The Ryders, of Ann Arbor, had the name “Michael” strongly fixed in their tradition.

As already noted, John Robins and his brother Joshua made a second descent upon the Swaim tribe, and carried off Margaret and Esther. Then John and Margaret, my grandparents, had four sons and four daughters. The eldest child was Massah, Mrs. Lambert’s mother and a very familiar figure of my youth. Her husband was a Primitive or Hard-shell Baptist preacher. That kind of Baptists did not have regularly settled preachers, whether the fact had anything to do with their distinguishing doctrine of Predestination or not. The ministerial vocation was a precarious one among them. I always knew Aunt Massah as living in a log cabin under pretty primitive conditions. It seems as if her hat was always a bandanna handkerchief. I forget how many times she had read the Bible through from cover to cover; but so far as I know she holds the family record on that. She had four children, but the Lamberts are her only living descendants.

Marmaduke Swaim Robins, my father, came next in the family, being born in 1827. After him, the next son was Isaiah Spurgeon Robins, born May 30, 1837, who was one of the two brothers lost in the Civil War.

There is in the family a good though now dim daguerreotype of Isaiah Robins. Old Doctor Sam Henley, the only doctor settled in Asheboro when I first knew it, once took me aside to talk about Isaiah and to relieve his mind from one little suppressed thought of what might have been.


* Note: We found this and thought it would be of interest to many because of the picture it paints of a Randolph County family in the 19th century. It appears it was privately printed. I believe it to be in the public domain and I could find no copyright information. We hope his family would be happy to see his “letter” posted here. We did try to find a family member to seek permission to post it but have been unsuccessful thus far. Should any viewer know how we might reach a close family member, we would like to hear from you. If the family sees this and wishes it to be removed, please let us know and we will do so immediately.

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