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528 pp., 8 x 10, 259 illus., 23 maps, bibl.,append., index

$34.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2814-9

$24.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5487-5

Published: Fall 2003

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The Way We Lived in North Carolina

Edited by Joe A. Mobley

Copyright (c) 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Part I. Natives and Newcomers: North Carolina before 1770
Elizabeth A. Fenn and Peter H. Wood

1. The First Carolinians

For almost 500 years, people of European and African descent have inhabited a land now called North Carolina. Richly varied, it extends from the eastern edges of the Mississippi River basin in the Appalachian Mountains to the remarkable barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. Mount Mitchell, near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Pisgah National Forest, is the highest elevation in the eastern United States. Here northern hardwoods mingle on the steep slopes with a bewildering variety of southern flowers and shrubs. Less than 500 miles east, at Cape Hatteras, a venerable lighthouse surveys the flat but treacherous coastline. Here the warm waters of the powerful Gulf Stream bring mild, and occasionally stormy, weather to the low-lying coast. Between the rugged Blue Ridge and the broad Coastal Plain, stretching roughly from modern-day Morganton to Raleigh, lie the rolling foothills that colonial settlers called the Carolina Piedmont.

Thousands of years before settlers from Europe and Africa set foot on Carolina soil, another people inhabited the land. Termed "Indians" by Christopher Columbus, they were in fact the first Carolinians. Their history encompasses migrations the length and breadth of an immense continent, shattering invasions, and technological transformation. By the time non-Indians reached North Carolina, sound agricultural methods were well in place. Even metalworking was not unknown.

Perhaps the best way to begin the study of North Carolina Indian history is by listening to the Indians themselves. North American Indians had no written languages. They could not store their history in dusty volumes on the shelves of ancient libraries. Instead, they recorded their history orally, in the stories and legends they passed from generation to generation. It is this tradition that kept the Indian past alive.

One such story comes from the Tuscarora Indians, who lived in the vicinity of the Neuse River. The legend records a long, icy migration from a land far to the west. It was told to a modern Tuscarora man by his great-grandmother.

In the old world, the legend says, there was a long famine. Nothing would grow, and people were starving. Finally the people held a council meeting. The council decided that the people had to leave their homeland for a new place, where they could find food.

After walking some distance, the people realized they were walking on ice. For days they walked on ice. One group got tired and decided not to go on. The other group decided to keep walking—to "where the sun rises"—until they found food. They walked during the day and at night they rested.

At last they stopped. Ahead of them was a black streak, which they thought might be a huge snake. For safety, they spread apart within hearing distance of one another. When the persons in front reached the streak, they learned it was not a snake, but a lush forest with abundant food. The message was relayed to the end of the line, and the group gathered at the forest. They found so much food that they decided to send for the others. But when they returned to the west, they discovered that the ice had melted. At the place where they had crossed, they saw only water. They had no way to reach their friends.

Another North Carolina tribe, the Cherokees, tell a similar story. Like the Tuscarora tale, it includes a long, eastward migration prompted by starvation. It even describes life in the north, wearing snowshoes and enduring the long darkness of subarctic winters.

Modern archeologists also think the ancestors of the North Carolina Indians may have migrated from the west. Although their theories vary considerably, most scholars agree on one fact: the predecessors of the American Indians at some time crossed a land bridge between Asia and America. Some say the first crossing, toward "where the sun rises," took place more than 30,000 years ago. Indeed, it could have occurred as much as 70,000 years ago, when the growing glaciers of the last ice age lowered the sea level enough to expose dry land at the Bering Strait. At the peak of the ice age's final phase, about 18,000 years ago, the land bridge from Asia to present-day Alaska may have been 1,000 miles wide. It clearly would have been possible for inhabitants of Asia to reach North America.

From the Bering Strait, the first Americans probably migrated eastward several thousand miles, crossing the northernmost extension of what we now know as the Rocky Mountains. On the eastern side of the Rockies, they found a long, narrow corridor of ice-free land. Only fifty to a hundred miles wide in places, this corridor stretched far to the south alongside the mountains. The earliest Americans followed this route, finally emerging from the ice-covered north near present-day Montana.

The first North Carolinians arrived over 10,000 years ago. Unfortunately, little evidence of these people survives. The environment they encountered was very different from what we know today. Glacial ice still lay over much of North America. Although too far south to be ice-covered, the North Carolina region was nevertheless quite cold and wet. Even the animal population differed. Huge animals, such as the mastodon, roamed the land alongside more familiar game, such as deer.

These earliest North Carolinians are known as "Paleo-Indians." They lived in bands of no more than fifty people, staying in one place while they could and moving to find better food resources when necessary. With stone points bound to long wooden shafts, the Paleo-Indians hunted the large animals of the region. While Paleo-Indian hunters may have thrown their spears at animals from a distance, some scholars speculate that the hunters preferred to attack at extremely close range, where there was little chance of missing.

Not all large game hunting was done with spears. A favorite technique was to stampede a herd of animals over a cliff or other precipice, thus killing many at one time. Although these animals provided one source of food, a large part of the Paleo-Indian diet may have consisted of vegetables and small game.

The migrations of these ancient North Carolinians were not aimless. They followed herds of large animals and returned to specific sites regularly. While some areas provided seasonal food resources, other locations, like Morrow Mountain in present-day Stanly County, supplied ideal stone for projectile points. At the top of Morrow Mountain, in Morrow Mountain State Park, visitors can still see the large rhyolite outcrops where North Carolina dwellers gathered point material for over 10,000 years. Morrow Mountain and all the Uwharrie Mountains are unique for their numerous exposed deposits of rhyolite. At one time the Uwharries were volcanic mountains in a huge inland sea. The rhyolite outcrops were formed from fast-cooling lava.

As the ice age entered its last stages, North Carolina's climate warmed. By about 8000 b.c., the environment was much as it is today. In the meantime, North Carolinians had developed new ways of using the land's resources. A new tradition, called "Archaic" by archeologists, began to emerge. The people of the Archaic tradition may have been more sedentary than the Paleo-Indians. Because they relied increasingly on plant foods and small game, they did not have to follow the migrations of large animals so closely. They gathered seeds and nuts from the forest floor and developed fishing and trapping skills.

When they did hunt deer and other large animals, the Archaic people used a spear-throwing device called an "atlatl." By giving the hunter added leverage, the atlatl greatly increased the force with which the spear could be thrown. Weights of polished stone, shaped like butterflies or half-moons, were attached to the atlatl's shaft.

A great variety of projectile points and stone tools were made during the Archaic period. Many of these points had basal stems, which could be more easily bound to a shaft. Stone flakes became sharp scraping tools. Flakes and discarded points, once rechipped, served as drills. Archaic artisans carved vessels out of soapstone and ground other stones for axe heads and atlatl weights. Even without fired clay pots, they managed to boil water by placing hot rocks inside a stone or skin vessel.

Though these descendants of the first Carolinians appear to have adjusted admirably to life in southeastern North America, their culture was bound to change. New ideas and perhaps even contact with different people resulted in cultural developments. Although the changes were undoubtedly gradual, archeologists recognize the year 500 b.c. as the approximate end of the Archaic tradition. A new tradition, called "Woodland," had taken its place.

Because of the relative abundance of material remains, we know far more about the Woodland tradition than we do about its precursors. Unlike the people of the Archaic tradition, the Woodland people knew how to make pottery of clay collected from local river and stream beds. To make their clay more workable, these early potters used crushed clay grit as a tempering material. They learned to roughen the exterior of their pots with fabric-covered wooden paddles.

As ceramic techniques developed further, more vessels were made, and artisans began tempering their clay with sand. New materials adorned the paddles with which they finished their vessels. Even smoking pipes were formed from clay. Evidence suggests that prehistoric North Carolinians smoked tobacco in their clay pipes, and they may have smoked other plants as well.

Hunting efficiency increased dramatically in the Woodland tradition as the bow and arrow replaced the atlatl. Although hunting and gathering still provided a large part of the Woodland people's dietary needs, rudimentary forms of agriculture supplemented this fare. Native plants such as the sunflower were among the earliest domesticated crops. Tobacco also may have been grown with some regularity before the time of Christ.

By a.d. 1200 North Carolinians were wholeheartedly committed to an agricultural economy. However, the serious pursuit of agriculture meant a changed way of life. Cultivated corn, beans, and squash required almost constant care during the growing season. Consumption of meat declined, and seasonal wandering dwindled. North Carolinians began to settle in permanent dwellings. The dwellings were grouped in small villages along riverbanks. A latticework of intertwined saplings covered by skins, bark, or other material formed the basic structure.

By excavating skeletal remains in ancient burial grounds, archeologists have determined that the people of the late Woodland period were the ancestors of tribes, such as the Catawba, who lived in North Carolina at the time of European contact. By this time, early in the sixteenth century, the Woodland tradition had yielded to the more modern traditions of the "Historic" period. Although they shared a common Woodland background and spoke related languages, each of the various groups across the North Carolina Piedmont had developed distinctive cultural traits. Scholars have found a great variety of linguistic traditions among North American Indians. While the Piedmont tribes spoke Siouan languages, other North Carolina tribes had Iroquoian and Algonquian linguistic heritages.

Even before the Siouan tribes of the Carolina Piedmont faced the main thrust of the European invasion, they had had to contend with another invading threat. From the region of present-day Alabama and Georgia came a group of Indians from a culture later called "Creek." Although the precise reason for their northward migration remains a mystery, it is possible that famine or other troubles had disrupted life in their home country. The Creek contingent reached North Carolina sometime near 1450. In the southern part of the state—present-day Richmond, Anson, and Montgomery Counties—they uprooted local Siouan tribes and settled in the lush Pee Dee River Valley. In this rich agricultural basin, they built dwellings, planted crops, and raised children for a hundred years. Then, just as suddenly as they had arrived, they were gone. Even before the English attempted to settle at Roanoke, the Creek invaders had been driven from North Carolina. The Siouan tribes of the Piedmont had reclaimed their homeland.

At Town Creek Indian Mound near Mount Gilead, North Carolina, visitors can view reconstructed remains of the Pee Dee Creek culture. The Creeks chose this high bluff overlooking the Little River for the site of their regional ceremonial center. Basketload by basketload, they hauled earth from nearby fields and a swampy area to the west. Finally, they completed an earthen ceremonial lodge and surrounded it with a palisade of upright logs. After much use, the earthen lodge collapsed. Once again the people of the Pee Dee collected earth, this time to cover the lodge's remains. The mound they created in covering the lodge became the foundation for their next construction: a ceremonial temple. But this building, like the first, was ill-fated. When it burned to the ground, the Creeks covered the remains as they had previously and built a third temple atop the growing earth mound.

This third and final structure is the one visitors can see reconstructed at the site today. Priests kept a sacred fire smoldering in the temple year-round. Once a year, the Creek people held their vital green corn, or "busk," celebration at the Town Creek center. The celebration, which lasted about a week, was one of renewal and purification for the year to come. Held at the first harvest of corn, the busk celebration involved fasting, ceremonial baths, and imbibing the "Black Drink," a beverage made by toasting and then boiling the leaves of various hollies, including Ilex vomitoria, an emitic. All the village fires and the sacred temple fire, polluted by a year's sins, were extinguished. After four days, the priests kindled a new fire. A great feast was held. Runners carried embers from the new fire to villages up and down the Pee Dee, and the Creeks reignited local fires. It was because of this ceremony that the Creeks called themselves "people of one fire."

The busk ceremony occurred only once a year. For the remainder of the year, the Town Creek Indians lived as settled farmers. Only the high priest lived within the ceremonial center's palisade. The rest of the people clustered their dwellings in small villages throughout the river valley. The women, directed by overseers, cultivated corn, tobacco, beans, squash, and pumpkins in communal fields. Children played nearby, and infants spent their earliest days bound to cradleboards, a practice that produced a unique flattening of the back of the skull among Creek and other Indians. Men practiced crafts such as woodworking.

Throughout the time they lived along the Pee Dee, the Creek Indians fought the Siouan tribes they had displaced. Intervillage rivalries and feuds, however, were settled through another sort of contest. Called "the little brother of war," Indian stickball, or lacrosse, took on a seriousness we only rarely associate with sports today. Players often suffered traumatic injuries. Broken limbs were not uncommon. Beside the temple at Town Creek, still within the palisade, the ancient playing field used for lacrosse and other games is visible. A tall goalpost topped by a bear skull stands in front of the temple.

In the eighteenth century, naturalist William Bartram watched an Indian ceremony before a lacrosse game. "The people being assembled and seated in order," he observed, "and the musicians having taken their station, the ball opens, first with a long harangue or oration spoken by an aged chief in commendation of the manly exercise of the ball-play, recounting the many and brilliant victories which the town of Cowe had gained over the other towns in the nation, not forgetting or neglecting to recite his own exploits, together with those of other aged men now present, coadjutors in the performance of these athletic games in their youthful days."

By 1550 the Town Creek people were gone. The Siouan tribes of the Piedmont had returned to their homelands of old. To the east, where the powerful Powhatan confederacy of Virginia would soon be pushing its way south, European sailors had made contact with local Algonquian Indians. To the west, Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer, had journeyed through the North Carolina mountains and contacted the Iroquoian-speaking Cherokee Indians. Before long the Tuscaroras, an Iroquoian tribe from the Neuse River region, would be carrying European trade goods to the Indians of the Piedmont, where Town Creek once stood.


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