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North Carolina Algonquians

by Christian F. Feest

Part 3


North Carolina Algonquians believed in a plurality of gods and spirits (montoac); the principal one may be classified as a supreme being who first created minor gods to create the world. These gods were thought to be of human shape, and idols representing them (known as kewas) were made by the Indians to be set up in the temples (machicomuck) or to be carried into battle. While the temples, which also served as ossuaries for the dead werowances, were attended by the priests, another group of persons whom the English called "conjurors" acted as seers and probably also as medicine men (Hariot 1588, 1590; Hulton and Quinn 1964). Belief in an afterlife for everyone, with different treatment according to moral conduct in this world, was general. Evil persons were thought to go to a fire pit (popogusso) in the west. Reincarnation was assumed throughout the whole area (Hariot 1588).

Ceremonials included rites connected with burials of werowances and probably a green-corn festival. Individuals made offerings of tobacco by throwing it into the air, into the water, or into the fire, accompanying these deeds with certain gestures and utterances (Hariot 1588; Hulton and Quinn 1964; Feest 1972). If a disease was thought to derive from some sort of pathogenic substance existing in the body of the patient, the curer would try to suck it out. Other treatments were based on the knowledge about the virtues of medical plants and clays (Hariot 1588).

Simple interment in graves about three feet deep was the ordinary method of disposing of the dead; however, members of the upper class were treated differently. Their bodies were skinned, the bones cleaned of the flesh, again covered with the original skin, and stuffed to resemble a corpse. Afterward they were placed on a scaffold within the temple together with the dried flesh wrapped up in mats (Hariot 1588, 1590).

Circular dances (figure 2) (in which both sexes participated) and songs were accompanied by the shaking of gourd rattles filled with pebbles or fruit stones and fastened to a wooden stick. European toy rattles made their appearance among the Indians shortly after the establishment of the Roanoke colony. Circles of posts with carved faces and the kewas idols testify to the development of woodcarving among the North Carolina Algonquians (Hulton and Quinn 1964).

British Museum
Figure 8. "The towne of Pomeiock." Watercolor drawing by John White, 1585.

Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries

As there is little continuity in the sources on North Carolina Algonquians there is not much evidence for continuity in tribal histories. Figure lb shows many new names when compared with figure la. It is not always possible to establish these designations as synonyms for names used before.

Population continued to decline through disease and warfare (table 1). "A great Mortality" that fell upon the Pamlico Indians and their neighbors is reported for 1696 (Salley 1911). During the Tuscarora war, 1711-1713, more Algonquian allies of the Tuscarora were killed than Tuscaroras themselves (Saunders 1886-1890, 1). By 1709 North Carolina Algonquian population was down to some 600, and by the end of the century only a handful were still being regarded as Indians. Decrease in numbers was accompanied by loss of tribal lands. Thus, the Weapemeoc Indians sold their lands on Albemarle Sound in 1660 and 1662 and started to move into the interior, but by 1697 they had to complain against the encroachments of White settlers in their new location (McPherson 1966; M.E. Parker 1971). The reservation on Bennet Creek assigned to the Chawanokes before 1700 was reduced from 12 to 6 square miles by 1707; further land was sold by that tribe in 1713. After the Tuscarora war, the Machapungas were similarly confined to a reservation, while the other groups of Pamlico Sound joined either the Machapungas or the Tuscaroras (Saunders 1886-1890, 1-3).

During the seventeenth century, the Chawanokes were in frequent--partly hostile--contact with their Virginia Algonquian neighbors (Bland 1651). Their traditional hostilities with the Iroquoian Tuscaroras continued during that tribe's war with the Whites, when they were actively engaged in expeditions against the hostiles. The Machapungas and other tribes of Pamlico Sound, however, changed their alliances: before 1700 they were still at war with the Tuscaroras and Corees, but in 1711 they sided with them against the English (Salley 1911). The Hatteras, Weapemeoc, Paspatank, and Poteskeit Indians were at that time the most acculturated groups and remained on the side of the English. The friendly attitude of the Hatteras may be explained by their tradition of having White men among their ancestors (Lawson 1709).

Except for the Tuscarora war, there was little open fighting between North Carolina Algonquians and Whites. Due to small numbers, trade was of little-importance. Sale of strong liquors to the Indians was probably the greatest problem created by White traders around 1700. Alcohol was banned from Indian towns in 1703, but the prohibition was never strictly enforced. Little was done for Indian education, even though native languages were being replaced by English during the eighteenth century. A small number of Indians was baptized by Anglican ministers throughout the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries (Yeardley 1911; Hawks 1857-1858, 2). English names made their appearance shortly after 1700. In the absence of adequate medical care by White physicians, Indian conjurors could earn money by curing White settlers. Indian servitude and slavery were present, but their extent is not fully known (Lawson 1709; M.E. Parker 1971).

Besides hunting and agriculture, the coastal groups still relied much on fishing and shellfish gathering, drying the products for preservation on reed hurdles over an open fire or in the sun. Sturgeon was not used as a food by the Indians along the coast. Cattle raising is documented for the Paspatanks around 1700 (Lawson 1709). The Tuscarora war disturbed the economic balance of many of the Algonquian groups: the fields of the Machapungas and their allies were destroyed by the English, while the Hatteras were prevented from planting by their enemies and in 1714-1715 had to be supplied with food by the colonial authorities (Saunders 1886-1890, 2 and 3).

With growing White presence in eastern Carolina, more products of European origin were introduced to the Indians. Guns were regularly used instead of bows and arrows during the eighteenth century. Iron hatchets had likewise replaced wooden clubs. English clothes were also widely used by the Indians. The Roanoke chief even had an English-style house built for himself in 1654. Yet baskets were still being made by the coastal Indians of rushes and silk grass and decorated with woven-in life motifs (Lawson 1709; Yeardley 1911).

Marriage restrictions that prohibited marrying first cousins made it difficult to find mates within rapidly shrinking communities. Resulting marriages into other tribes certainly strengthened intertribal bonds. The huskenaw rite appears to have been used as an initiation for both boys and girls. It was held around Christmas and lasted for five or six weeks during which the adolescents were separated in a special building outside the village (Lawson 1709). Circumcision was practiced by only two out of 50 families among the Machapungas, but unfortunately no more details are known (Lawson 1709; Klingberg 1956).

Political organization with hereditary chieftainship was obviously still functioning around 1700. Chiefs' corpses were deposited in the temples as before, but the right to be buried there now could also be bought by everyone. Shell beads served as money, for example, in compensating crimes (Lawson 1709).

Twentieth Century

Around 1915, about 100 persons of suspected Indian descent were found living on Roanoke Island, some of the adjacent sand islands, and on the mainland in Dare and Hyde counties. They were identified as remnants of the Machapunga Indians by Speck (1916, 1924). Physically, they exhibited definite signs of Negro and White admixture, with the former obviously increasing. Important economic pursuits included hunting and fishing, with agriculture as a supplementary activity. Leaves of the yaupon bush were gathered, dried, and used for a tea. Large-scale use of White products had replaced almost all native industrial arts. Hickory and oak-splint basketry was only a memory, but nets of different-sized meshes for different species of fish were still being made of the fibers of Asclepix syriaca. In excursions to the outer banks, temporary shelters of palmetto leaves supported by cross poles were used. As twice before in their history, these Indians disappeared from view after Speck's visit. Dunbar (1960:414) suggests that the mixed-bloods seen by Speck "must have joined the Roanoke Island Negro community of 'California', just outside the incorporated limits of the town of Manteo."

Gilbert (1948) also refers to the Laster Tribe, another mixed-blood group living near Hertford in Perquimans County; its relation to former Algonquian tribes is in doubt. Beale (1957) reports no triracial isolates from the coastal region.


Since none of the groups mentioned below has survived and no adequate records exist to settle the question of the etymology and correct pronunciation of tribal names, neither etymologies nor pronunciations will be supplied.

Bay River Indians, 1713 (Saunders 1886-1890, 1:946) or Bear River Indians (Lawson 1709:211), so called from their location on Bay or Bear River.

Chawanoke: Chaonists (Lane 1589:265); Chawan (Bland 1651:13); Chawons (Smith 1612:map); Chawwonoke (Smith 1608:186); Cboanoke (Lane 1589:259); Chowan, 1686 (Hawks 1857-1858, 2:379); Chowanoake (Barlowe 1589:1 10); Chuwon (Lawson 1709:242).

Croatoan: Croatoan (J. White 1585-1586, 1585- 1586a). Probably identical with the eighteenth-century Hatteras (Lawson 1709:201); Hatteress, 1714 (Saunders 1886-1890, 2:129).

Machapunga: Machapunga (Lawson 1709:209); Matchepungoes, 1686 (Hawks 1857-1858, 2:379). Also known after the name of their village: Matamusket, 1712 (Saunders 1886-1890, 1:875); Marmusckits, 1713 (Saunders 1886-1890, 1:933); Maramoskees, 1716 (Klingberg 1956:176); Altamuskeet, 1761 (Saunders 1886-1890, 6:563).

Moratuc: Moratiks (Lane 1589:265); Moratuc (J. White 1585-1586, 1585-1586a); Morotico (Lane 1589:264).

Neusiok: Neiosioke (Barlowe 1589:264); Nesioke (Anonymous 1585); Neus (Lawson 1709:242); Newasiwac (J. White 1585-1586a).

Pamlico: Pampticough (Lawson 1709:226); Pemlicoe, 1707 (Salley 1911:286). Possibly identical with the sixteenth-century Ponouike (Barlowe 1589:113); Panauuaioc, 1590 (Quinn 1955:facing 462); Panawiock (Zaffiga 1608).

Paspatank: Paspatank (Lawson 1709:242); Paspitank (Lawson 1709:200).

Poteskeit: Poteskeit (Lawson 1709:242); Potoskite, 1733 (Cumming 1966:pl. 6).

Roanoke: Rhoanoke (Yeardley 1911:27); Roanoke, 1761 (Saunders 1886-1890, 6:563); Roanoak (Barlowe 1589:106); Rowanoke (Yeardley 1911:28).

Secotan: Secoton (J. White 1585-1586, 1585-1586a); Sequotan (Barlowe 1589:113).

Weapemeoc: Jaupin (Lawson 1709:242); Weapemeoc, 1590 (Quinn 1955:facing 462); Weopomiock (Lane 1589:258); Yausapin, 1660 (McPherson 1966:80); Yawpim, 1696 (M.E. Parker 1971:80); Yeopim, 1662 (Saunders 1886-1890, 1:17).

Table 1. North Carolina Algonquian Population Estimates, 18th Century.


The North Carolina Algonquian tribes were the first group of American Indians to have prolonged contact with English colonists. In a rather short period of time a large amount and variety of information was collected by the members of the first English colony in America. Barlowe's report (1589) on the 1584 voyage is the earliest document to describe North Carolina Algonquians in some detail. Manteo, and Wanchese, two Indians brought back to England, served as linguistic informants and interpreters for the 1585-1586 colonists, who were therefore able to gain a better understanding of the native culture. Thomas Hariot's "Briefe and true report" (1588) contains a most valuable section on the ethnography of coastal North Carolina, which he supplemented in his commentaries on John White's drawings (1590). Unfortunately, Hariot published only a fragment of the ethnographic data he collected. Lane's letters and his discourse on the first colony (1589) add to knowledge of Indian-White relations. All these documents together with other pertinent material relating to the Roanoke voyages may be found in Quinn (1955). Together with Hariot's work, the watercolor drawings by John White and their derivatives provide the best source on North Carolina Algonquian culture. Considering the absence of ethnographic collections and the paucity of archeological finds in the coastal region, these pictures supply the basic information on material culture (Hulton and Quinn 1964). Three manuscript maps (Anonymous 1585; J. White 1585-1586, 1585-1586a) are the earliest sources on the location of tribes and villages. From a corrected version of White's map, now lost, derives the information contained in de Bry's and Velasco's maps and in the Molyneux globe (Quinn 1955).

The seventeenth century is much less well documented. Virginia colonists exploring northern North Carolina and the early settlers of Carolina under the 1663 charter left few records of their dealings with the Indians, let alone ethnographic accounts. Smith (1624) relates briefly some early visits to the southern neighborhood of the Jamestown colony. Bland (1651) only heard about North Carolina Algonquians. Yeardley (1911) paid them a short visit. Comberford's map of 1657 and later important maps are reproduced by Cumming (1966). Surveyor-general John Lawson (1709) was the last author to give vivid details from the life of North Carolina coastal Indians. He explicitly refers several times to Algonquian tribes, and much of other Indian matters related by him may also apply to them rather than to the Tuscaroras or any of the Siouan tribes. Lawson's book was plagiarized by Brickell (1737), who adds little on Algonquian groups. Missionaries sent to America by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (Adams, Rainsford, Newman, Stewart) mention the Indians all too briefly. Their notes and other records relating to the colonial period may be found in Saunders (1886-1890), Hawks (1857-1858, 2), Salley (1911), and M.E. Parker (1968, 1971).

With decreasing numbers interest in the Indians was lost completely during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Speck (1916) tried to locate remnants of North Carolina Algonquians, and his researches provided the last published record on them. His small collection of Machapunga material is in the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Frequently, data on North Carolina Algonquians have been used to illustrate Virginia Algonquian culture, but very little research has been done on the North Carolina Algonquian tribes themselves. Mook (1943c, 1944a), Quinn (1955, 1970), Dunbar (1960), Dillard (1906), Sturtevant (1965), Hoffman (1967), and Feest (1967a, 1972) are among the exceptions. Summarized information is also available in the writings of Swanton (1928, 1946) and Rights (1947).

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

North Carolina Algonquians by Christian F. Feest, in "Handbook of North American Indians" (1978), Vol. 15, 271281; Bruce Trigger, Editor. Smithsonian: Washington, DC.

Copyright 2001
Carolina Algonkian Project