The Mystery of Henry Berry Lowrie

Photograph believed to be of Henry Berry Lowrie. From The Museum of the Southeast American Indian

Few names in North Carolina history rouse more controversy than that of Henry Berry Lowrie. Viewed by some as a hero and by others as a common criminal, Lowrie and the story of his band and his “war” have passed into the realm of legend since he disappeared in the swamps of Robeson County around 1872. In 1860 the county had 8,572 whites and 6,917 non-whites. At that time Lumbee Indians were considered free people of color. During the Civil War the Confederacy attempted to impress all non-whites of military age into performing labor for the army — their status as “free persons of color,” without the right to bear arms, made the Lumbees candidates for work on Fort Fisher or in salt mines. The combination of intolerable work conditions, demeaning conscription officials, and the ambiguous racial abuse provoked local Indians. Two murders, both attributed at the time to Henry Berry Lowrie, were sparked by the impressment of Indians.

Young Indians, like Lowrie and his brothers, took to “lying-out” in the swamps to escape forced labor, and began to raid the homes of white Robesonians, taking guns, clothing, and supplies. After a violent raid in February 1865, the Confederate Home Guard went to the home of Henry’s father, Allen Lowrie, where they found guns and goods. Allen’s family was taken into custody and Allen and his son William were executed. In March 1865 Henry and his brothers embarked on a seven-year campaign of murder and larceny. The core of the Lowrie band included several cousins, two freedmen, and one poor white. Most of the men who were murdered by the band were involved in the Lowrie executions. During the height of the “Lowrie War,” Henry often appeared in public, and occasionally shared the spoils of his raids. His Robin Hood-like behavior made him popular among the poor. His heavily armed gang and ability to elude capture made him an object of fear among whites.

Governor W. W. Holden declared Lowrie an outlaw in November 1868. The General Assembly placed a $10,000 bounty on him in 1871. Although a white militia was organized to capture him, Lowrie disappeared in February 1872 and the bounty was never collected. Whether Lowrie was killed accidentally or intentionally, or whether he lived for a time after his disappearance may never be known. The mystery surrounding his death served to enhance his legendary status.

Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin and First Lady Sheila Godwin lay flowers at the memorial for Henry Berry Lowrie for the anniversary of the Indian hero’s disappearance. The marker in the Union Chapel community identifies the last place Lowrie was seen before he mysteriously disappeared on February 18, 1872. Image from www.lumbeetribe.com.

On May 8, 1937, Dr. Earl C. Lowry, grandnephew of Henry Berry Lowrie, spoke at the Indian Normal School (now the University of North Carolina at Pembroke). The next day, the News and Observer ran a story with some fascinating quotes about the legendary Lumbee:

“Henry Berry Lowry was an unusual character. He wore boots with the heels in front part of the time so that he could not easily be traced. He was always courteous to strangers. It was not unusual to see a company of soldiers marching along the road and Henry Berry and the commanding officer at the rear.”

“[Henry Berry Lowry’s] wife cooked a cake and carried [it to] him. Inside was concealed a small pistol. When the jailer next came in, Henry Berry surprised him with the pistol, took the keys, and unlocked the jail, escaping, throwing the keys in the river and swimming across.”