Henry Berry Lowrie or “Lowry” (c. 1845 – February 20, 1872?) led a gang in North Carolina during and after the American Civil War. He is sometimes viewed as a Robin Hood type figure, especially by the Lumbee people, who consider him a Native American ancestor and a pioneer in the fight for civil rights and tribal self-determination. Lowrie was described by George Alfred Townsend, a correspondent for the New York Herald in the late 19th century, as “[o]ne of those remarkable executive spirits that arises now and then in a raw community without advantages other than those given by nature.”
Lowrie was born c.1845 to Allen and Mary (Cumbo) Lowrie in the Hopewell Community, in Robeson County, North Carolina. His father owned a successful 350-acre (1.4 km2) mixed-use farm in the county. Henry Lowrie was one of 12 children, described as multi-racial or free people of color. In 1872, the journalist George Alfred Townsend wrote of him:
“The color of his skin is of a whitish yellow sort, with an admixture of copper—such a skin as, for the nature of its components, is in color indescribable, there being no negro [African] blood in it except that of a far remote generation of mulatto, and the Indian still apparent.
Early in the Civil War, the North Carolina military turned to forced labor to construct defenses. Several Lowrie cousins, excluded from military service because they were free men of color (also called free blacks), had been conscripted to help build Fort Fisher, near Wilmington. Other non-whites resorted to “lying out” or hiding in the region’s swamps to avoid being rounded up by the Home Guard (Confederacy) and forced to work for low wages.
On December 21, 1864, James P. Barnes, a neighbor of Allen Lowrie, accused him of stealing hogs. Lowrie’s son Henry killed Barnes. In January 1865, Henry Lowrie also killed James Brantley Harris, a conscription officer, for allegedly mistreating the women of the Lowrie family. In March 1865, the Home Guard searched his father Allen Lowrie’s home and found firearms, which free people of color had been forbidden to own since after 1831 and Nat Turner’s rebellion. The Home Guard convened a kangaroo court, convicted Allen Lowrie and his son William, and executed them. Henry Lowrie reportedly was watching from the bushes.
Henry Lowrie led a gang in committing a series of robberies and murders against the upper class, continuing until 1872. The attempts to capture the gang members became known as the Lowry War. The Lowrie gang consisted of Henry Lowrie, his brothers Stephen and Thomas, two cousins (Calvin and Henderson Oxendine), two of his brothers-in-law, two escaped slaves, a white man, and two other men of unknown relation.
Lowrie’s gang continued its actions into Reconstruction. Republican governor William Woods Holden outlawed Lowrie and his men in 1869, and offered a $12,000 reward for their capture: dead or alive. Lowrie responded with more revenge killings.
On December 7, 1865, he married Rhoda Strong. Arrested at his wedding, Lowrie escaped from jail by filing his way through the jail’s bars.
Lowrie’s band opposed the postwar conservative Democratic power structure, which worked to reassert its political dominance and white supremacy. The Lowrie gang robbed and killed numerous people of the establishment. Because of this, they gained the sympathy of the non-white population of Robeson County. The authorities were unable to stop the Lowrie gang, largely because of this support.
In February 1872, shortly after a raid in which he robbed the local sheriff’s safe of more than $28,000, Henry Berry Lowrie disappeared. It is claimed he accidentally shot himself while cleaning his double-barrel shotgun. As with many folk heroes, the death of Lowrie was disputed. He was reportedly seen at a funeral several years later. Without his leadership, every member of the gang except two were subsequently captured or killed.
Representation in other media
Starting in 1976, Lowrie’s legend has been presented each summer in an outdoor drama called Strike at the Wind!. Set during the Civil War and Reconstruction years, the play portrays Lowrie as a Native American culture hero who flouts the white power structure by fighting for his people and defending the county’s downtrodden citizens.
Through Native Eyes: The Henry Berry Lowrie Story (1999) is a documentary by North Carolina director Van Coleman.