Folwell’s Folly: A Tale of Two Wives

When Republican Dale Folwell, Speaker Pro-Tem in a press conference on August 30th described the introduction of a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage he made a curious statement about the lineage of traditional marriage in North Carolina:

We all know about the time tested definition of marriage in North Carolina going back to 1655.

He was no doubt referring to the year that Nathaniel Batts, a fur trader and land speculator, became North Carolina’s first permanent European settler when Batts came from Virginia to establish residence in a 20 foot square brick house with 2 rooms and a chimney on the Bertie peninsula between the Roanoke and Chowan rivers, noted in maps of the time as “Batts House”.

Nathaniel Batts traded with the Indians and developed good relations with them, particularly the Chowanoke, and with a fearless nature became known as “Captain Batts”, the unofficial “Governor of Roanoke”. In 1660 Batts aquired an uninhabited island in the Albemarle Sound, known to the Indians as Kalola, and to the English as Hariot’s Island. It became known as Batts’ Island, and ultimately Batts’ Grave.

Batts fell in love with Kickowanna, the daughter of the Chowanoke Chief Kilcocanen, and subsequently married her. While they maintained their own home on the mainland, Batts liked to spend extended periods of time alone on his island. Kickowanna visited him by canoe and one night in a storm her canoe capsized, and she was drowned. Struck by grief, Batts never again left the island, and eventually died there, hence the name Batts’ Grave. The island eroded over time and disappeared completely in a 1950’s storm. A beautiful and tragic love story with all the romance and fidelity you would want in a state’s first settler.

Yet, there is another side to Nathaniel Batts’s story. Having established his permanent residence in the Carolinas in 1655, Batts returned to Virginia where on May 25, 1656, he married Mary Woodhouse, a wealthy widow with children. As Batts was known to be an asset rich, cash poor, wily man with creditors, Mary Woodhouse had the smarts to require a pre-nuptial agreement that Batts would not use her property to settle his debts. Having discovered an inlet on the Outer Banks, Batts was rewarded in 1657 by the Virginia General Court with a year’s respite from his creditors. This gave Batts time to sell his own Virginia property and settle his debts.

Meanwhile Batts took to charging his wife room and board for his step-children. This was apparently the last straw for Mary Woodhouse who took her husband to court to get him to give up his claim to property left to the children by the late Mr Woodhouse. It may also have been the last straw for Batts because he went back to Carolina permanently, acquired the island bearing his name in 1660, and married Kickowanna. There is no evidence that Mary Woodhouse ever came to Carolina to visit Batts nor that Woodhouse and Batts ever divorced even as he married Kickowanna. In fact, on Batts’ death in 1679, Mary Woodhouse became the executrix of his estate, and she promptly re-married.

So there you have Folwell’s folly, a tale of two wives, and a bigamous dead-beat dad, a “time tested definition of marriage in North Carolina going back to 1655”.

If you’re going to use the state’s history as the basis of having millions of people vote on a change to the state constitution to proscribe the rights of a minority of North Carolinians it’s worth getting the facts right.

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