James E. Byrd, 1911-2002: Local historian spent life on the trail of the Nansemond Tribe

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 13, 2002

&uot;Farewell &uot;Old Dismal,’ thanks for the memories,&uot; goes the last stanza of a poem written by James Edward Byrd in 1972. On Sunday, his family and friends said goodbye to a man who has left behind not only wonderful memories for his family, but also a treasure trove of artifacts from the Great Dismal Swamp and the Nansemond Indians.

Byrd, 91, died Sunday. He was recognized as an amateur archaeologist and local historian and he spent most of his life searching for artifacts that would tell him more about our predecessors in the county, the Nansemond Tribe. He was also an avid collector of information and driftwood from the Great Dismal Swamp. Most of his vast collection now rests in local museums.

Byrd’s collections have been displayed at Paul D. Camp Community College, Riddick’s Folly, the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society and the Southampton Agriculture & Forestry Museum. He was also a member of the Historical Society, and on June 20, 2001, he helped perform the honors at the ribbon cutting ceremony at the historic Suffolk Train Station.

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A native of Nansemond County, Byrd began collecting Indian artifacts at age 12. Finding and cataloging the beads, arrowheads, pottery and other items of the Nansemond Tribe became a driving force in his life. As softly as the Nansemonds in their moccasined feet, he tread over most of the county on his quest. Byrd discovered his first arrowhead and he was hooked. When he was 14, he sold an arrowhead for 25 cents to a classmate and that fueled his love of learning about the Native Americans in Suffolk.

During the Great Depression, Byrd sold some of the antiques and artifacts he’d collected over the years. It was a way in which to supplement his income during the depression.

Byrd later married his life-long love, Helen Bateman Byrd in 1935 and they were married until her death 1998. The couple had three daughters, Janet Caswell, Betty Byrd, Sandy Barnes.

He went to work as an electrician for Virginia Power. During World War II, he began working for the Navy Yard in Portsmouth and later retired from there.

Still, whenever he could, Byrd walked over the same land that was once home to the Nansemond Indians. Carefully, he searched the soil for artifacts left by the Indians, and his collection amassed to more than 100,000 items. He had collected arrowheads, tools, weapons, mortars and pestles, beads, pottery shards, and game balls.

Byrd later sold his vast collection to the late O.K. Hobbs who catalogued it and contributed the items to Paul D. Camp Community College.

Hobbs’ son, Kermit Hobbs, has attributed much of Suffolk’s knowledge of the Nansemond Indians to Byrd, and Hobbs dubbed him &uot;Mr. Indian Lore.&uot;

Oliver Perry, Chief Emeritus of the Nansemonds, also said that most of the history he gathered on his tribe was contributed by Byrd.

Byrd’s discoveries were not limited to those of the Native Americans nor the Great Dismal. Many years ago, he went to work installing a ceiling fan and found another treasure, a gas fixture used to illuminate Suffolk’s city streets in the 1800’s. That item was donated to the Historical Society.

Another item, a spade believed to have been used to dig &uot;Washington’s Ditch&uot; in the Great Dismal, was donated and is on display at the Southampton Museum.

Byrd maintained his great interest in the Dismal Swamp, collecting many pieces of driftwood from its marshy home. Each piece was shaped like an animal and Byrd wrote extensive poetry about these items. He also wrote a beautiful poem about the Indians and the Great Dismal.

Also a passion in his life was the &uot;Saints Alive&uot; group at Suffolk Christian Church. Pastor Michael Halley described Byrd as bright, sunny and impish.

&uot;There is probably no one who knows history of Nansemond County before it was settled by the English better than he does,&uot; said Rev. Halley. &uot;Also, I always found him to be a kind, sensitive person who knew how to laugh at himself. He was always good natured and an absolute pleasure to be around. He and a group of his contemporaries worked very hard on this church and he crawled probably in every space in this building working on the electrical lines and such. He was a selfless dedicated servant of God and I very personally and deeply feel his loss, even this soon. He lived a long wonderful and fulfilling life and left us all with a great legacy.&uot;