Native Americans of the Cape Fear still intrigue scholars

by Sam Wilson
Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Supplied photo courtesy Newland Communities

A Cape Fear River site planned for development was the location of an archeological dig that occured September through December 2007. During the excavation, more than 25,000 pottery shards, projectile points, tools and other artifacts were uncovered.

On Nov. 28, U.S. citizens will celebrate Thanksgiving Day, taking time to reflect on the relationship between the European settlers and the Native Americans, several groups of whom made their homes in the Cape Fear region.

Dr. David La Vere, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, in 2013 published his latest book,  “The Tuscarora War: Indians, Settlers and the Fight for the Carolina Colonies.” 

In a Nov. 21 interview, he explained that a number of historical texts and documents have made reference to a group of Native Americans known as the Cape Fear Indians. But compared with other local tribes, he said little is known about them.

“We know in the 1660s, when you had the first attempts at [N.C.] settlements, the settlers meet up with a few Indians here, but there’s never a lot,” La Vere said. “They just called them the Cape Fear Indians, but they don’t know their real names.”

La Vere said historians are uncertain about the true identity of what settlers came to call the Cape Fear Indians, but several tribes had been known to occupy southeast N.C., many of whom spoke Siouan, a language often associated with the tribes that roamed the northern Great Plains of the United States. Places still bear their names, such as the Catawba, the Waccamaw and the Pedee, or Pee Dee.

However, Mark Wilde-Ramsing, an archeologist with the N.C. Division of Cultural Resources, said in a 2008 interview with Lumina News managing editor Marimar McNaughton, that mass grave sites known as ossuaries have been found at Echo Farms in Wilmington, and seem to offer evidence that nomadic Algonquian-speaking tribes occupied the area for a period as well.

“Ossuaries are very much associated with the Algonquian groups, the coastal groups — mass burials further up in Albemarle Sound and up in Chesapeake,” Wilde-Ramsing said. “The Siouan were more [associated with] burial mounds.”

Native American history can be traced thousands of years into the past, Wilde-Ramsing said, with groups beginning to settle down and engage in early cultivation practices around 2,000 B.C., as the Archaic Period gave way to the Woodland Period. He added population pressures from larger Algonquian and Siouan groups to the north and south, respectively, appear to have resulted in a diminishing local population toward the end of the Woodland Period, around 1,000 A.D.

“Also in the late Woodland, you see fortifications,” Wilde-Ramsing added. “So now you’re getting enough pressure that you’re seeing these groups, some of which are very sedentary, so they’re prone to being attacked.”

Dr. Patricia Lerch, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, also published a book about local Native Americans earlier in 2013, titled, “From Princess to Chief: Life with the Waccamaw Siouan Indians of North Carolina.” 

She said in a Nov. 25 interview the record of Native Americans in and around the Cape Fear River is spotty, and that Wilmington, incorporated in 1739, would not likely have seen much interaction with regional Native American tribes to the extent that earlier settlements did.

In her 2004 book “Waccamaw Legacy: Contemporary Indians Fight for Survival,” she writes that the Cape Fear Indians had allied with the nearby Waccamaw, seeking protection both from the settlers and other tribes in the region. At one point, the Cape Fear Indians were attempting to return home to the Cape Fear region, when Roger Moore, founder of Brunswick Town and neighboring Orton Plantation, allegedly attacked the tribe in the Battle of Sugarloaf, named for the sand dune overlooking the Cape Fear River from present-day Carolina Beach State Park. Moore was thought to be retaliating from an Indian attack in which the original house at Orton Plantation, across the river, had been burned by what he believed to be the Cape Fear Indians.

Battles such as this were common, La Vere said, as the settlers frequently raided Indian villages, capturing men and women to use as slaves.

“There was a big Indian slave trade; that was one of the big things that started the Tuscarora War, with South Carolina dealing in Indian slaves,” La Vere said. “They’d march them back to Charleston, and most of them were sold off to Barbados, though a few were sold in South Carolina and other colonies. Indians were the first slaves before you started having African slaves.”

He added the Indians were also caught in the racial tensions through the 19th and 20th centuries, with parts of North Carolina having a three-tiered school system prior to desegregation that separated whites, blacks and Indians.

Ultimately, he said the history of Native Americans in Eastern N.C. was atypical of the path that many throughout other states and parts of the country were forced to march. As white settlers pushed further west, the original inhabitants of the coastal plain disappeared from colonial records, lying low in the swamps as other tribes faced persecution that many modern historians have classified as genocide.

“You don’t hear much about them after around 1715,” La Vere said. “But that doesn’t mean that they died out; they probably just went underground. … These swamps became havens for Indian people, where the survivors of these shattered nations slowly took on the characteristics of the culture around them.”


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