Moonshining

Rhoda Strong Lowrie

A portrait of Rhoda Strong Lowrie by Ellis Sampson. From The Musuem of the Native American Resource Center at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

The idea of Lumbee women moonshining first surfaced in our Lumbee History class when we read Josephine Humphrey’s novel, Nowhere Else on Earth, which tells the story of Rhoda Strong Lowrie, widow of the Lumbee hero, Henry Berry Lowrie. During a discussion of this book and its references to turpentine and moonshine stills (for more on the connections between moonshine and turpentine see postcards post), Professor Malinda Maynor Lowery mentioned to me a record of Rhoda herself being arrested for retailing liquor with out a license. I was able to find the newspaper article she mentioned, and from there I was able to follow the trail an exciting few steps farther.

The first article I found is from the November 10, 1897 issue of The Robesonian, a small newspaper based in Robeson County, NC. This article states that, as reported in the November 5, 1897 Morning Star, Rhoda Lowrie was arrested for “retailing liquor with out a license.” The Robesonian article repeats word for word what was said in the larger Wilmington, NC paper’s article from five days earlier.

The Morning Star from the 5th of November is more than just a simple court notice. It reads:

Upon the United States Court record of Wednesday last appears the following entry: “United States vs. Rhoda Lowrie, of Robeson county, charged with retailing liquor without license; verdict guilty and defendant sentenced to sixty days imprisonment in jail and to pay a fine of $100.” To the cursory reader, and even to the young, attentive and thoughtful, this bit of news, as recorded in the STAR appeared with out feature, save that some unfortunate woman had been meted out justice for breaking the law’s of man; but to the older readers the name of Lowrie ever sounds familiar, not on account of the numerous people who possess it as a cognomen, but because it recalls to memory the time (about thirty years ago) when Henry Berry Lowrie, the noted North Carolina outlaw, held full sway in Robeson county…

The article continues with details of Henry Berry Lowrie’s campaign and even mentions Rhoda’s famed beauty.

The earliest article, from the November 4, 1897 Morning Star, is simply the brief court notice quoted above.

It was deeply rewarding to find two more articles behind the original Robesonian article. The presence of three sequential articles revealed a fascinating progression of reporting, from brief court notice to home town story full of lore. Most arraignment notices reported in The Morning Star are probably not accompanied by autobiographical follow up articles. But even dozens of years after her husband’s disappearance, Rhoda’s name and beauty still held an arresting power, a fascination that resulted in two more articles.

In the beginning stages of this research project, I thought that Rhoda’s involvement in moonshining was an anomaly. This is because the idea of moonshining in North Carolina elicits an image of a wiry old mountain man, with no teeth, and a huge beard. But further sources also shattered the mountain man stereotype. Instead, they supported the image of a minorities and women moonshining in the piedmont.

Guy Benton Johnson Papers

Alicia Blue, one Lumbee interviewee who discussed moonshine with Guy Benton Johnson.

The second group of materials in this project is taken from the Guy Benton Johnson papers in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill. Guy Benton Johnson was an academic who did extensive field work with the Lumbee. Some of Johnson’s work is controversial, but I believe his field notes, in this case, are an appropriate and helpful source when considered in context.

One of interviewee of Johnson’s states boldy, “There is probably more liquor made and sold in this section than in ABC store in the state” (Guy B. Johnson Papers). Johnson’s field notes are replete with references to the pervasiveness of the practice of moonshine in Robeson County.  These sentiments are echoed in the book “Mountain Spirits” by Joseph Earl Dabney. Dabney writes:

[The Lumbees] own fertile tobacco farms, and one can travel many miles in the country without losing sight of Indian-owned farms. The Indians are also active in moonshining – mainly using very small, family-type stills. At one time, it was estimated there were more illicit stills in Robeson County than anywhere else in the country. As a judge of the area said: “Put a Lumbee and a swamp together and you’ve got a still.

It is striking that Dabney himself, writing a book on “Mountain” spirits, came to the conclusion that moonshining was extensively practiced, perhaps more than any where else in North Carolina, in the swamp country of Robeson County, thus refuting the mountain stereotype. The beginning of Johnson’s comment also reveals one possible reason for Lumbees moonshining: Simply to supplement their income and support their families.

Johnson’s interviews and Dabney’s comments show that the folk practice of moonshining is much more richly imbedded in North Carolina than usually thought. The Lumbee case illustrates: Moonshining is a practice found from the mountains to the sea in North Carolina.

Bricey Hammonds Case

The case of Bricey Hammonds, a Lumbee Indian who was executed in 1939 for killing a prison guard, is a wealthy potential resource for many topics. The case brings to light serious issues of court room discrimination against minorities and the mentally ill, for it appears that Bricey was the latter and he was certainly the former. In an added twist that connects to moonshining, He was drunk on “Indian women’s liquor” at the time of the killing.

In a letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, relating the events of the case, Hammonds’s lawyer, David Britt, writes, “The evidence tended to show that the defendant and the deceased then went into the residential section of Pembroke to Indian women’s houses and bought whiskey, drinking considerably at each stop…”

This final source solidifies the deep involvement of women in Lumbee moonshining. It is obvious in Britt’s letter that it was women who were making and selling moonshine. This was not necessarily always the case in Robeson County, but it is important to realize that it frequently was.

A letter from Bricey Hammond’s mother, asking Office of Indian Affairs CommissionerJohn Collier for his help.

In the end, these three sources on Lumbee moonshining reveal the diversity of moonshining in North Carolina. They make it very clear: Moonshining was practiced by women and minorities in the piedmont of North Carolina, not just by white men in the mountain country.

What does this matter to the Lumbee people and their history? It matters because the Lumbees have been involved in aspects of traditional North Carolina culture right alongside blacks and whites for hundreds of years, but their involvement is often not included in the mainstream narrative. The Lumbee story of moonshining should be told! For it adds a layer of richness to our North Carolina history and provides shared ground and an avenue of unity for our tri-racial state.

Citations for the Rhoda Strong Lowrie Newspaper Articles:

Author Unknown. “Rhoda Lowrie: Widow of the Noted Outlaw in Jail for Retailing Liquor without License.” Robesonian[Lumberton, NC] 10 Nov. 1897: The North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: C071 .R65. Microfilm.

Author Unknown. “Rhoda Lowrie: The Widow of the Noted Outlaw Henry Berry Lowrie Convicted of Retailing Liquor without License.” Morning Star [Wilmington, NC] 5 Nov. 1897: The North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: C071.S792w. Microfilm.

Author Unknown. “United States vs. Rhoda Lowrie.” Morning Star [Wilmington, NC] 4 Nov. 1897: The North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: C071.S792w. Microfilm.

Citation for the Guy Benton Johnson Papers:

Field Notes from Interviews with Lumbees, Box 80, Folder 1231, in the Guy Benton Johnson Papers #3826, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Citation for the Bricey Hammonds Papers:

Papers obtained from Professor Malinda Maynor Lowery, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For further reading:

Joseph Earl Dabney, Mountain Spirits.

Josephine Humphreys, Nowhere Else on Earth.

Malinda Maynor Lowery, Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity and the Making of the Nation.

The North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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