In 1872 Henry Berry Lowrie disappeared after nearly a decade-long battle against corruption and injustice in Robeson County. But that is really when the story just started taking off.
No one knows for sure exactly what happened to Henry Berry Lowrie, although his legacy has been preserved in story for a long, long time. The most famous story about the Lumbee outlaw is our local historical drama “Strike At The Wind!” which was written by late playwright Randolph Umberger. And even Umberger helped to tease the growing legend by just making Henry vanish at the end of the play, giving no answers to what happened next.
“Strike At The Wind!” has done more than anything to tell “Henry Bear’s” story even though the script was completed about 100 years after he disappeared. One of the drama’s former directors, Van Coleman, even directed a documentary in 1999 about Lowrie called “Through Native Eyes: The Henry Berry Lowrie Story.” Henry Berry also was featured on a separate History Channel documentary.
The local outdoor drama provided Henry Berry Lowrie a bigger platform, but local Robesonians will tell you that the story is something they grew up with.
“Before ‘Strike At The Wind!’, Henry Berry’s story was preserved mostly through oral traditions, some of which were recorded and others just passed down from family member to family member,” said Malinda Maynor Lowery, professor of history at UNC Chapel Hill and widow of Willie Lowery, a descendent of Henry Berry and composer of the soundtrack for “Strike At The Wind!”
The drama was not the first attempt to tell Henry’s story. According to historian Christopher Arris Oakley, chair and associate professor of history at East Carolina University, in 1920, playwright Paul Green wrote “The Last of the Lowries,” and in 1924 William Norment Cox wrote “The Scuffletown Outlaws,” and in 1939 Clare Johnson Marley wrote “Swamp Outlaw.”
But the ground was fertile for Henry Berry’s legend to really blossom in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Robeson Historical Drama Association began planning for the return of an historical Lumbee pageant. During a time of turmoil and turbulent social change, “a strong Native American rebel who stood up to a corrupt and racist government” had even broader appeal than just the Lumbee community for whom Lowrie resonated as a courageous folk hero, said Oakley.
Fueled by generations of oral storytelling, Henry Berry’s legend really took off when “Strike At The Wind!” came out.
Randolph Umberger once said, “One must always remember that history is not theatre. There is not one exciting play in the world that is actual as a history book — and vice versa.”
William McKee Evans, a St. Pauls native and former professor at California State Polytechnic University, wrote the most authoritative historical account of Henry Berry Lowrie in 1985, “To Die Game.”
“Legend makes better stories than history,” Evans told a small audience in 2009 on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. “Henry Berry Lowrie is a source of strength for the Lumbee people. They have stood tall because of the legend.”
Evans is also quick to note that “Henry Berry Lowery was a man of few words … the record of what he said wouldn’t fill up a whole page” and the $10,000 bounty on him was never collected, adding to the mystery.
In 2000, Josephine Humphreys, a Charleston-based writer, released “Nowhere Else on Earth.” Unlike Evans, who is a native of Robeson County, Humphreys is not. Her interest in the story of Henry Berry Lowrie came about by a chance meeting with a Lumbee girl she met on a train.
Humphrey’s story is narrated through the voice of Rhoda Strong, Henry’s bride, and tells their story through the lens of their relationship, not just with each other but with the conditions in their homeland during the Civil War.
Coincidentally, Humphreys credits McKee Evans’ book for providing some historical knowledge, as well as “The Only Land I Know” by Adolph Dial and David Eliades. She has also confessed that much of her research for the book was done over a plate at Fuller’s BBQ Restaurant, where food and culture became inspirations for the book.
But despite her thorough research (and a really good book if you haven’t picked it up), Humphreys is still left with a literary conundrum: What happened to Henry Berry Lowery?
“One part of the ending was unresolved until the very moment of its writing. I had collected various theories as to Henry’s fate. Many Lumbees believe that Henry escaped to another state, and some even report that he was sighted several times, coming back to see Rhoda. Others think he accidentally shot himself and was secretly buried by his family in a spot that will never be revealed.”
Henry Bear’s legend became so big that, according to Evans, the Jesse James gang were even aware of the Lowries, dropping the name of Henry and his gang in a news media report.
We’ll probably never know for sure what happened to Henry Berry Lowrie. I’m not sure it really matters. What we are left with is a story, and that story has power, power that goes beyond annual productions of “Strike At The Wind!” and the myriad books and articles about the Lowrie gang.
“I think preserving [Lowrie’s] history is important because we have to understand that history is more complicated than good vs. bad,” said Malinda Lowery. “To begin to understand the truth of what happened and why, and how it created the world we know today, we are better off if we understand stories like HBL’s. He and his family and community reveal the consequences of justice and injustice, and that no one is purely good or bad — we all contain the capacity for justice and the power to reinforce injustice. HBL’s story teaches us to be aware of how our choices affect others.”
James Bass is the executive director of Givens Performing Arts Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He may be reached at: [email protected]