April 28, 2022

Ruffin Johnson's insatiable curiosity
led him to collecting Indian artifacts

INTERVIEW BY GARY RIDOUT for the Smithfield Weekly Sun

Ruffin Johnson was born in Johnston County in 1934. His full name is Theron Ruffin Johnson Jr. His father was Theron Ruffin Johnson Sr. and was born in Johnston County in 1908. Ruffin said his father always believed he was born at a special time. Ruffin agrees with his father. 

What made Ruffin’s life so special? Three things:

First, the aftermath of the Civil War and World War II.

RUFFIN: "I grew up loving history. As I was growing up, many people would tell stories of the Civil War. One of my close childhood friends was Doris Parrish. Her mother, Betty Jones, shared many stories about the Civil War. I always enjoyed listening to the stories and thinking about the challenges that people had to overcome in those past times.

"I started working with Rogers Construction Company when I was 14 in 1948. First, I worked with the carpenters. After about a month, the man who was mixing mortar for the brick masons asked the foreman if I could help him because he could not keep up with the demand for mortar for the brick masons. Soon, I was alone making mortar for the brick masons. There were 11 brick masons that worked for the company at that time. Ten of them were World War II veterans. Some of them had been in very bad combat situations in Europe and the South Pacific. Sometimes a loud noise or verbal exchange would trigger a flashback and you would have to get out of their way or you might get hurt. They call it PTSD now (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). At times they would open up and tell me about something bad that had happened in World War II. Later, when some of them passed away, I would mention the stories to the family and they would say ‘he never mentioned anything about that to us.’ They kept a lot of painful things inside.”

Second, a love for the outdoors.

RUFFIN: "I grew up near the Neuse River in Smithfield. When I was around 10 years old, I would get up early, take some hot dogs for lunch, and go to the river to explore the woods and fish. Being by myself was never a problem. I loved the solitude and quiet. For lunch, I would build a campfire and roast the hot dogs. It was great.

"People would ask 'how do you spend all this time alone?' My answer was I always liked me! My mother would say 'you’re gonna freeze to death!' or 'lightning is going to strike you!'

When I was 11 years old, my mother had a leather jacket. It was worn out so she threw it away. I got that jacket out of the trash can, cut it up, and made a loin cloth. I hid the loin cloth in a hollow tree near the graveyard in Smithfield. That way I could wear it when I was camping or fishing in the woods.”

Ruffin's collection of hides from animals he has trapped over the years includes gray fox, red fox, bobcat, coyote, and martin (related to otter) but the large buffalo hide on the wall behind the others wasn't his doing!

Third, a love for Native Americans.

RUFFIN: "As I sat in the forest and enjoyed the serenity and quiet, my thoughts went to how the Indians lived. I admired Native Americans because they did not overplant or overkill. They worked in partnership with nature. When a tribe left an area, they tried to leave it as close to natural as they could. The white man came in and took all the trees down, burned up everything, and turned the soil so much it sometimes became useless.

"I started working on farms in 1942 when I was eight years old. I worked in fields cropping tobacco. At that time, during World War II, gas was rationed, so farmers used mules instead of mechanized equipment. The mules were very important in my love for Native Americans.

"My father always had a lot of respect for Native Americans. When I was very young, my father and I would go out in fields that had been plowed and look for Indian artifacts. I learned very quickly how to identify arrowheads and other stone utensils used by the Indians. I used a broom handle that had a headless nail in the end of it. This tool would help me retrieve artifacts that were partially covered by the soil. As tractors became more commonplace on the farm, we learned that tractor plowing went deeper and would turn up more artifacts. The only downside of tractors is that because they were so large and heavy, they would sometimes damage stone arrowheads or utensils.

"Pete Johnson was a good friend of mine when I was growing up. He lived on Brogden Road. The Brogden area was full of arrowheads. We would go to a field and find many artifacts. I have always admired Pete because he accomplished so much in his life. His father was a hard-working tenant farmer who stopped going to school after the fifth grade. Pete’s mother was from Goldsboro and finished the 11th grade. After high school, Pete went to work with the Bright Leaf and Burley Tobacco Company and did very well. That company became K.R. Edwards Tobacco Company and Pete was one of their top executives.

"After graduating from Wake Forest in 1956, I enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma from 1956 to 1958. It was a great experience. I learned a lot and never got shot at! One weekend during my time at Fort Sill, the University of Oklahoma played the University of North Carolina in football. At the half, the score was Oklahoma 38, UNC 0. It wasn’t much of a game.

"The thing I loved about Fort Sill was that there were so many Indian reservations nearby. Many times on the weekends, I would go and visit the reservations. There were many tribes such as the Shawnee, Cherokee, Arapaho, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Potawatomi. They would look at you kind of funny when you walked into the reservation, but if you showed that you were genuinely interested they would usually accept you and talk to you. On several occasions, some of the Indians would show me how they chipped the rock to make arrowheads.

"On my visits, the Native Americans would go into great detail about how they made arrows. They showed me how they attached an arrowhead to a wooden stalk by slicing the stalk, sliding the arrowhead into the crevice, and then wrapping it with a rawhide material. Hickory was a preferred wood for the arrow shaft. Bows were generally made out of walnut.

"Over the years, I have learned about the major Indian tribe in Johnston County: the Tuscarora. They occupied much of the North Carolina inner Coastal Plain at the time of the Roanoke Island colonies in the 1580s. They were considered the most powerful and highly developed tribe in what is now Eastern North Carolina and were thought to possess mines of precious metal.

"A considerable fur trade with the Tuscarora began to develop in Virginia perhaps as early as the 1650s, and the Tuscarora became for a time a formidable presence in Virginia affairs. About 1701 Virginia began tolerating white encroachment on Indian lands west of the Blackwater River, and the Chowan frontier immediately dissolved. Whites began pushing into lands of the Meherrin tribe, probably also Iroquoian and understood to be clients of the Tuscarora. The Tuscarora chief in the upper North Carolina Coastal Plain was Tom Blount. The southern Coastal Plain chief (for the lower Neuse River and the Catechna, now Contentnea, Creek region) was named Hancock.

"In September 1711, two explorers, – Christoph von Graffenried and John Lawson – went into Tuscarora territory and were taken hostage by the Tuscarora. Lawson was put to death (von Graffenried was freed). The swift English response developed into the full-scale Tuscarora War of 1712 and 1713. (Sketch from the late 1700s of Lawson's capture.)

"In late December 1711, Col. John (Jack) Barnwell, with 366 Indians and 30 white militia, marched over 300 miles from South Carolina to the aid of the North Carolinians fighting the Tuscarora. In January 1712 his command besieged and captured Fort Narhantes, 20 miles from New Bern, killing or taking prisoner nearly 400 Indians. Barnwell, with the aid of approximately 150 North Carolina militia, then moved against the larger and better-prepared Fort Hancock on Catechna Creek.

"In the early 1800s,Tuscaroras who had opposed the settlers removed to Niagara County, New York to join the Six Nations. After several legal exchanges, the Tuscarora executed a deed in 1831 extinguishing their title, right, and interest in the North Carolina land. Some 645 families or clans of Tuscaroras remained in the South, however, migrating to other parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

"Their descendants eventually came together and reformed into four communities in and around Robeson County: the Tuscarora Nation East of the Mountain, the Tuscarora Tribe of North Carolina, the Southern Band Tuscarora Indian Tribe, and the Tuscarora Nation of North Carolina – none of which, as of the early 2000s, was officially recognized by the state of North Carolina."

Ruffin's collection of Native American artifacts includes this sampling:

Rock found in Johnston County used to grind corn or other food items. The sides were dyed red, and there's a small symbol of a bird on the right-hand side.

Stone found in Johnston County that would have been inserted into a split piece of wood to make a sledge hammer or an ax.

Different sizes of arrowheads and spearheads, most found in Johnston County with a few coming from Ruffin's quail hunts elsewhere in Eastern North Carolina.