What’s in a name — especially this one

Published 6:35 pm Tuesday, September 25, 2018

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Native Americans who were considered “pagans?” Pecan trees? Just what was the origin of the Pagan River’s name?

It’s been a mystery for generations, and is one of the most-often asked questions posed by tourists who visit Smithfield.

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No one seems to know for certain when the Pagan Creek was named, much less for whom. It certainly was not named by Captain John Smith who drew his famous map of the Chesapeake shortly after his return to England 1609. But it most certainly was the creek’s name in 1751 when Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (Thomas’ father) drew a later and equally important map of Virginia.

One possibility as to the name’s origin that no one seems to have ever considered is that the river was named for a family, but that now seems at least possible.

The late Anne Martin, a Smithfield native who lived in a Victorian home overlooking the Pagan, was also a volunteer docent at the Colonial Courthouse back in 2009. One day, a man walked into the courthouse and said he was visiting Smithfield because his family lived in the area during the 1600’s. He was particularly interested in visiting Smithfield because of the intriguing name of the river running through town. His last name was Pagan.

Could the river have been named for an ancestor, he wondered?

Mrs. Martin was chagrined that, when Mr. Pagan appeared at the courthouse door, so did a dozen other people, and she had only a couple minutes to spend with the man. When she looked around, he had left. He didn’t sign the register, didn’t leave a business card, and had commented that he was staying in the Williamsburg area, not here in town.

She doesn’t know his first name or his hometown — only that his name is Pagan and that he lives in “the hills of North Carolina.”

The name Pagan comes from the Latin paganus and the old French paien, meaning villager or rustic. Families with various spelling of Pagan and Payne resided in England and Scotland, and in time, many came to America.

A number of them, I have since learned from the internet, are interested in their genealogy, but so far, I haven’t found any who know of a direct connection to Smithfield.

One, however, who lives in Franklin County, Virginia has a family tradition she is trying to prove. It is that her family came to this country in the 1700’s and “landed” in Isle of Wight County.

Were there kin here to meet them? There are no references to Pagans in the early deed or will indexes at Isle of Wight Courthouse, but there are some early references to Paynes.

We may never know whether this mysterious gentleman was bringing valuable historical information with him or not. What is known is that the presence of a prominent family (the lady in Franklin County says her early family was well-heeled) could — repeat, could — be a very logical explanation of how the Pagan Creek (it was a creek until about 1900 when it was renamed a river) got its name.

There are, for example, a Lawne’s Creek, a Bennett’s Creek, and a Brewer’s Creek, all named for early settlers. And those creeks and rivers named for native inhabitants were, in all instances, named for specific tribes — Nansemond, Chuckatuck, Chippokes — rather than generic references (like pagan).

Of course, it’s possible we’ve been right all along. If someone decided to name the creek to honor native inhabitants, they could have gotten pretty frustrated trying to spell — or pronounce — Warrosquoyacke, the name of the tribe that lived here, though they did name the county for them initially.

The only thing that can be said without equivocation is that the river was not named for pecan trees. There were none here at the time.

I sure wish that gentleman from “the hills of North Carolina” would drop by again, or even send an e-mail.