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Where did the people of Crusoe Island come from?

Ben Steelman

“It’s a mystery,” said Harry Warren, director of the N.C. Museum of Forestry in Whiteville.

Theories abound about the origin of the Crusoe Islanders. Some sources claim their ancestors (at least some of them) were Portuguese pirates who wound up stranded in the Green Swamp. Another story identifies them as French Acadians who didn’t make it to Louisiana for some reason. At least a couple of people link them to Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony.

A more plausible tale has Crusoe Island residents – at least some of them – being descended from French settlers fleeing Haiti after the slave revolt there in the 1790s.

First, though, what’s Crusoe Island?

It’s an isolated territory of land in Brunswick and parts of Columbus County bounded by the Waccamaw River and the Green Swamp – technically, not an island, although it might as well be. (Old Dock, in southeastern Columbus County, is not too far away.)

Hard-surface roads only penetrated the region within the latest generation or so, Warren noted. Even today, as residents like to say, there’s just “one way in and one way out.” The area was always regarded as remote, and the locals had a reputation for being stand-offish and hostile toward outsiders poking into their business.

Crusoe Islanders long had a distinct local accent, which some people thought sounded vaguely French. Amy Gantt, a student of N.C. State University linguist Walt Wolfram, delivered a paper on the dialect at a 2000 conference in Lansing, Mich.

Here are some of the theories:

1. The Crusoe Islanders were French. The story goes that Jean Gerome Prosper Formy-Duval (1761-1821), a French physician or military surgeon, immigrated to Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was known back then) sometime around the French Revolution.

John Blythe, in a 2011 post for the UNC Libraries blog “Carolina Miscellany,” said Formy-Duval conspired to save a group of French royalists from the firing squad (a rather romantic tale, involving muskets loaded with blanks and the victims feigning death until the soldiers marched away), then led them to Haiti.

They didn’t stay very long, apparently. French slaves revolted after the Revolution broke out in the mother country, and many whites feared for their lives. By one account, Formy-Duval escaped in a fishing boat, just ahead of a homicidal mob.

Former StarNews reporter Ben Dixon MacNeill – who would go on to write “The Hatterasman,” one of the classic books about the Outer Banks – wrote about Crusoe Island for a Sunday feature in the New York Herald-Tribune for Nov. 1, 1931. His version (which doesn’t mention Formy-Duval) has members or five or six French families escaping for their lives in an open boat around 1804, where they were picked up in a barque bound for Wilmington. (Still other versions have them landing at Smithville, as Southport used to be known.)

Historian Wilson Angley, writing in “Columbus County, North Carolina: Recollections and Records,” notes that it was rather peculiar, but these French settlers chose to bypass more appetizing land to settle in a remote backwater, but (the story goes) that’s just what they did.

Their descendants made their livings by farming, supplemented by hunting, trapping, basket-weaving and a little freshwater fishing. (Today, most Crusoe Island residents have jobs outside the area, Warren said.)

MacNeill – who relied heavily on materiel from Kinchen D. Council of the Council Tool Co. – claimed the Crusoe Islanders designed cabins with distinctive chimneys that resembled those of a French peasant hut. He further claimed that several last names that are common in Crusoe Island, such as Clewis or Sasser, might have been derived from French origins. (Saucerre?) Of course, there are lots of Formy-Duvals, with various spellings, still around the area, and one also encounters folks named Dubois and Dupre.

Charles E. Patton of Lake Waccamaw, in his historical novel “Crusilleau,” contends that the Crusoe Island name might have come from Crusilleau, the name of Jean Formy-Duval’s plantation back in Haiti. Other local place names, according to Warren, have supposed ties to Haiti.

The North Carolina Gazetteer, however, says the “Crusoe Island” name comes from Daniel Defoe’s castaaway Robinson Crusoe – again, because the area was so remote and isolated.

Not everyone in Crusoe Island apparently likes the French-Haitian theory. In 1961, at residents’ request, the General Assembly formally changed the region’s name to “River View” (sometimes spelled “Riverview.”) This law, however, has been routinely ignored ever since.

2. The Crusoe Islanders are English, possibly from southern England, possibly from somewhere else. As John Blythe notes, many local families trace their descent from Cornelis Clewis, Laspeyre Long and Elias Register, who were in Brunswick County by the mid-1700s and who moved into the Crusoe Island area later. (Laspeyre does sound a bit French, though.)

3. The Crusoe Islanders are descended from an amalgamation of people, including English-Americans, Indians and maybe even some French. MacNeill and Council leaned toward this theory, suggesting the French-Haitian settlers intermarried with familes that were already there. As MacNeill wrote, “From time to time, the number of inhabitants had been increased by the arrival of others who for one reason or another preferred the swamp to the formally settled parts of North and South Carolina.”

In the early 1900s, MacNeill wrote, Crusoe Island men were noted for wearing “strings of gaily colored beads,” which they often used in place of neckties. Crusoe Islanders were also known for woodcarving, especially elaborate dugout canoes made from large tree trunks which were still available. well into the 20th century. Dodo Clewis and Tom Spivey were famous canoe-makers. Some examples of Crusoe Island dugouts are preserved and on display at the N.C. Museum of Forestry, 415 S. Madison St., Whiteville [Map this].


Crusoe Island and the French Revolution, by John Blythe

YouTube: Crusoe Island: One Way In, One Way Out

MyReporter: What is the Green Swamp?


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2 Responses to “ Where did the people of Crusoe Island come from?”

  1. On May 3, 2013 at 1:06 pm David Lee Mann wrote:

    Lee’s Township in Columbus County contains Crusoe Island. Lee’s Township was named after my great great grandfather Thomas Lee. When our family(Lee) left Columbus in the late 1800’s and settled in Fayetteville, a family by the name of Register boarded a room (lived with my grandfather) for several years.

  2. On September 27, 2014 at 1:25 pm Debra Anne Wintsmith wrote:

    I have good memories of visiting Crusoe Island in the long-ago with my grandparents. I remember the lyrical cadence of their speech that made them recognizable by all in the surrounding areas. I included the “one way in, one way out” sentiment in my poem “Crusoe Island” which is part of a collection of poems of longing for the Carolina low country. Also mention the lore connected to the island. The name of the book is CAROLINA MOURNING DOVE. http://www.amazon.com/Carolina-Mourning-Dove-Debra-Wintsmith/dp/1500557587/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1411838558&sr=8-1&keywords=carolina+mourning+dove

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