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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Indian Wars in North Carolina

E. Lawrence Lee

The Carolina Charter
Tercentenary Commission
Raleigh, 1963

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p3  Chapter II

The Indians of North Carolina

When Europeans first arrived in North Carolina there were only three important tribes, or nations, in the region. In the order of their size they were the Cherokee of the western mountains, the largest; the Catawba Nation of the Piedmont Plateau and the Tuscarora of the Coastal Plain. The Cherokee and Tuscarora were members of the Iroquoian language group while the Catawba were Siouan. As settlers moved westward from the coast they came into contact with these tribes at different times and, because of their location, the Coastal Plain Indians were the first to attract attention. In addition to the Tuscarora, the natives of this region included several small tribes that were important only because they existed at a time when the white settlers were also few.

About 1660, the Coastal Plain Indians numbered approximately 30,000. About a half century later, rum, small‑pox and intertribal warfare had reduced them to no more than 5,000, which was about the same as the white population of the time. From John Lawson and other sources we learn something of the distribution of the Indian population about 1710. The largest tribe, the Tuscarora, numbered about 4,000 persons, including between 1,200 and 1,400 warriors. At some unknown time in the past, they had separated from their kinsmen, the Iroquoian Five Nations Confederation in the north, and at Lawson's time they occupied an extensive inland area stretching from the upper Neuse northward to the Roanoke River. They also hunted as far south as Cape Fear. A few miles to the south of the Tuscarora the Woccon, a Siouan tribe of about 350 persons, lived, and to the northward there were about 150 Meherrin Indians, an Iroquoian  p4 tribe living along the Meherrin River. Eastward, and extending southward from the Virginia border to the Neuse River there were several Algonquian tribes, members of a separate language group with a total population of perhaps 500 persons. The Chowanoc, Pasquotank, Poteskeet and Yeopim, about 200 in all, lived above the Albemarle Sound. The remaining 300, members of the Pamlico, Hatteras, Matchapunga and Bay, or Bear, River tribes were located below the Sound. The Neusioc and Coree, Iroquoian tribes located on the Neuse River and Core Sound, had a combined population of about 125 people. Farther to the southward the Cape Fears, a Siouan tribe of about 200 members, lived along the lower Cape Fear, but were considered South Carolina Indians.

[image ALT: A map of Indian tribes in North Carolina in the eighteenth century.]

Location of principal Indian tribes in North Carolina from 1663‑1763

[A larger, fully readable version opens here (356 KB).]

In addition to the Indians who lived on the Coastal Plain there were also outside tribes which came in from time to time to make war on the local natives. Of these invaders, the most feared were warriors of the Five Nations Confederation of New York, usually identified as the Seneca, the name of a member tribe. The Shawnee of the north and west were also frequent and destructive visitors.

In the beginning, the Indians usually welcomed the Europeans as friends with whom they could share the land. Too late to save themselves, they realized the whites did not wish to share but to possess alone. The Lords Proprietors repeatedly urged the colonists to cultivate friendly relations with the natives, but the colonists refused to follow the advice. Strange to say, they can to look upon the natives as intruders even though, as John Lawson wrote, "We have abandoned our own Native Soil, to drive them out, and possess theirs." The whites also looked upon the Indians "with Scorn and Disdain, and think them little better than Beasts in Human Shape." Far from being "Beasts in Human  p5 MAP  p6 Shape," the natives were fine specimens of humanity who were described by their friend, Lawson, in the following words:

The Indians of North-Carolina are a well-shaped clean-made People, of different Statures, as the Europeans are, yet chiefly inclined to be tall. They are a very straight People, and never bend forwards or stoop in the Shoulders, unless much overpowered by old Age. Their limbs are exceeding well shaped. Their Bodies are a little flat, which is occasioned by being laced down to a Board in their Infancy . . . Their Eyes are black, or of a dark Hazel; The White is marbled with red Streaks, which is ever common to these People . . . Their [skin] Colour is of a tawny, which would not be so dark if they did not dawb themselves with Bear's Oil, and a Colour like burnt Cork. This is begun in their Infancy and continued for a long time, which fills the Pores and enables them better to endure the Extremity of the Weather. They are never bald on their Heads, although never so old, which I believe, proceeds from their Heads being always uncovered, and the greasing their Hair, so often as they do, with Bear's Fat, which is a great Nourisher of the Hair, and causes it to grow very fast. Amongst the Bear's Oil (when they intend to be fine) they mix a certain red Powder, that comes from a Scarlet Root . . . With this and Bear's Grease they anoint their Heads and Temples, which is esteemed as ornamental . . . Their eyes are commonly full and manly, and their Gateº sedate and majestic . . . They are dexterous and steady, but as to their Hands and Feet, to Admiration. They will walk over deep Brooks and Creeks on the smallest Poles, and without any Fear or Concern . . . In Running, Leaping or any such other Exercise, their Legs seldom miscarry and give them a Fall; and as for letting anything fall out of their Hands, I never yet knew one Example. I never saw a Dwarf amongst them, nor but one that was Hump-backed. Their teeth are yellow with Smoaking Tobacco, which both  p7 Men and Women are much addicted to . . . They have no Hairs on their Faces, (except some few) and those but little . . . They are continually plucking it away from their Faces by the Roots . . . As there are found very few, or scarce any, Deformed or Cripples amongst them, so neither did I ever see but one blind Man; and then they would give me no account how his Blindness came . . . No People have better eyes, or see better in the Night or Day than the Indians. Some alledge that the Smoke of the Pitch-Pine which they chiefly burn, does both preserve and strengthen the Eyes . . . They let their Nails grow very long, which they reckon, is the Use Nails are designed for, and laugh at the Europeans for paring theirs, which, they say disarms them of that which Nature designed them for. They are not of so robust and strong Bodies as to lift great Burdens, and endure Labour and Slavish Work, as the Europeans are; yet some that are Slaves, prove very good and laborious; But of themselves, they never work as the English do, taking care for no farther than what is absolutely necessary to support Life. In Traveling and Hunting, they are very indefatigable, because that carries a Pleasure along with the Profit. I have known some of them very strong; and as for Running and Leaping, they are extraordinary Fellows, and will dance for several Nights together with the greatest Briskness imaginable, their Wind never failing them.

Other writers generally agreed with Lawson as to the physical characteristics of the Indians though some described their skin as reddish-brown or copper. The description of the Cherokee complexion as olive might have been due to an illusion created by their practice of pricking gunpowder into their skins to produce decorative patterns. The Cherokee, like certain other tribes, also had a distinctive hair style to identify their tribal connection. The Cherokee men plucked or shaved all the hair from their heads except for a tuft on the back which was decorated with beads and  p8 feathers and such. These variations, however, were differences in detail only, and one early writer who was familiar with the various tribes said of them, "there is but little diversity with respect to complexion, manners, or customs."

The Indians of North Carolina were agricultural people who also depended on hunting and fishing. To follow these pursuits, each tribe occupied as much land as it needed or could hold. The tribal land, or "nation," was the common property of all the members with specific areas allocated to the various towns in which the people lived. They were located on the banks of streams which were useful for travel, fishing and other purposes. These towns varied in size from a few to 200 or more houses and each had a state, or town house for religious and other ceremonial uses. The larger towns sometimes extended over an area of several miles with the buildings scattered among fields and orchards. The cultivation of the fields was the responsibility of the tribe, and the work and the harvest was shared. Corn was the principal crop but various types of vegetables were also grown. In addition to the common fields, each family had its own small plot, or garden, upon which its dwelling stood. Among the eastern Indians the dwellings were frames of poles covered with bark. Those of the Cherokee in the more rigorous climate of the western mountains were covered with clay.

While the cultivation of the fields was the main occupation during the warm months, hunting was the principal activity during the winter months. Hunting was sometimes done individually or in small parties, but it was often carried on in the nature of a large expedition. The most expert young men were chosen for the actual hunting while the less capable young men and the young women went along to serve the hunters. The old people were left behind to care for the town. In the autumn of the year, as soon as the leaves had  p9 fallen and the woods were dry, the hunting parties went out and sometimes stayed for many days. At a chosen place the woods were set afire and the deer and other game were driven into a restricted area and killed with ease. The use of fire in this manner was destructive to the woods and endangered property when carried on near the settlements. Consequently, it was a source of friction between the Indians and the whites. Nevertheless, hunting provided additional food for the people and the surplus meat, along with grain, vegetables and fruits were dried and placed in the town storehouses for future use. Clearly, these Indian towns were not temporary camps of a people wandering about in a wilderness world. They were small communities in which the people in times of peace lived a reasonably stable existence.

The degree of orderliness that the Indians achieved in their life was due largely to their government. Each town had its own headman, or chief, who the English usually called "king." In some cases this title was hereditary but usually, and particularly in later years, the position was elective. The king was assisted by lesser war captains and councillors, who were also elected on the basis of ability, and all important decisions were made by the leaders meeting in council. Each town was independent of the other and while they ordinarily acted in unison, they did not always do so. The degree of conformity differed among various groups. The government of the Iroquoian tribes seems to have been less forceful than that among the Siouan and Algonquian tribes.

The life of the Indians before the coming of the whites was a simple one in which they supplied their own needs through nature, and with their own hands and crude instruments. After the coming of the whites, their existence became  p10 complicated by the use of European products. Machine-made textiles came to be used for clothing in place of skins and furs which were traded to the whites for their goods. Ancient crafts were abandoned and often forgotten in favor of the use of manufactured tools. The bow and arrow was put aside in favor of the more destructive gun. In becoming dependent upon things they could not produce themselves, the Indians became dependent on the whites who could and did produce them. This dependence increased the longer the association continued. By the time the natives realized their self-reliance, it was too late to turn back. At any point they might have resumed the old ways of peacetime, but their life was not always one of peace. And in war, they had no choice. Faced with enemies, both white and red, who used guns, self-preservation required the use of the same destructive weapons. Guns, in turn, required a constant supply of ammunition and this became the most vital need of the Indians and their greatest weakness. Without it they were helpless, even in peace. Furs and skins were the price of ammunition, and ammunition was used to provide the furs and skins. Forced to trade with the whites for guns and ammunition, the natives continued to accept their dependence for other needs. As a consequence, the Indians were in bondage to the whites long before they were defeated on the field of battle.

In their struggle to survive in the wilderness world in which they lived, the Indians were faced with many enemies and warfare had become a tradition with them. The coming of the whites only increased its intensity. Until they developed a desire for European goods, the Indians seldom fought for material gain. Instead, war was usually a means of gaining glory or vengeance. The natives were a very revengeful people and seldom forgot a wrong until they had obtained satisfaction. This desire was perhaps the weakest  p11 aspect of their character. Regardless of the causes, though, war to them was a serious matter and was entered into only after solemn deliberation. Once a decision for war was made, a stick painted red was sent around to the other towns of the tribe, and even to other friendly tribes as an invitation to join in the coming struggle. Some tribes used pipes for this purpose. Others used tomahawks, or hatchets, and would "bury the hatchet" with the coming of peace.

Military duty was not required, but desire for glory and the fear of disapproval were enough to encourage most men to serve. Even women went to war and sometimes achieved distinction. In preparing for battle the Indians discarded all unnecessary clothing and equipment and ordinarily carried with them only their weapons and food in the form of parched corn and dried meat. Some went on the warpath afoot. Others, like the Cherokee, used horses. Either way they were fearsome sights as a result of painting their faces and other parts of their bodies with red and black colors which made them resemble "devils coming out of Hell." These colors had symbolic meanings; red for the blood of war and black for the death which the enemy might expect. The colors not only served to create terror but also to disguise the individual warrior. On the other hand, some mark or other evidence was usually left behind after every attack to identify the tribe that had struck the blow.

Indians usually fought only in small groups. Even when large numbers went out to war, they generally divided into small parties and their scalping knives and tomahawks, which were also manufactured in Europe, were almost as important as their guns. They also rarely fought in open battle and looked upon the English practice of doing so as foolish. Instead, they struck from behind cover and faded back into the forest, if necessary, so they might strike again. This  p12 practice was not due to lack of courage. It was simply the most sensible method of forest fighting. Too, the Indian custom of attacking at dawn was not because of superstitious fear of spirits that might wander in the dark. Dawn was ordinarily the best time to surprise the enemy. These and other fighting tactics had been developed over a period of many years. They were used against native enemies and they were also used against the whites.

In warfare nothing influenced the Indians more than religion. All groups did not agree in every detail, but there was much similarity in their beliefs. Some believed in one supreme God, the maker of all things, who rewarded the good and punished the bad. Others believed that all good came from the Good Spirit and all bad from the Evil Spirit. The Cherokee, it was said, "adored the sun and the moon, but really worshipped the God who made all."

It was also a Cherokee chief who said that the Indians had "as good an idea of a future state as any white man." This was a belief that was shared by the Indians of the coastal area. The Hell of these people was a land of cold and hunger and ugly women. Their Heaven was a land of abundance and contentment; of eternal youth and good hunting where "every Month is May" and "the women are bright as Stars, and never scold." With the prospect of such a future life, the Indians usually faced death with resignation. This was especially true when it was inflicted by the enemy. In fact, this idea of the life hereafter explains, at least in part, the treatment of their victims in time of war.

In battle the enemy was usually killed but captives were sometimes taken. Some were kept as slaves and some were sold as such. Some were held for vengeance. Punishment could not be inflicted by the European practice of imprisonment. Even if the Indians had been inclined to follow the  p13 practice, their buildings were not suitable for it. Consequently, the fate of the victims was death. But to the Indians a quick death was less punishment than it was a painless passage to the happy life after death. Vengeance demanded pain before death. To gain this revenge, the Indians usually tortured their captives and sometimes in indescribable fashion. The methods were left to the women of the tribe to satisfy their grief for the loss of their men. Regardless of how just the natives might have thought it, this practice, more than any other, caused the whites to look upon the Indians as a brutal and savage race.

Page updated: 9 Jun 13