North Carolina's First Colonists: 12,000 Years Before Roanoke
Stephen R. Claggett
Office of State Archaeology
North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office
Four hundred years ago the English Roanoke colonists met numerous
native inhabitants along the coast of what would become the state
of North Carolina. Even earlier, during the 1540s, Spanish explorers
under the leadership of Hernando de Soto "discovered"
several Indian groups occupying the interior regions of the Carolinas.
Today we know that the coastal Indians were part of a larger group
occupying the entire mid-Atlantic coastal area, identifiable by
a shared language and culture called Algonkian. The Native Americans
whom de Soto met included Siouan, Iroquoian and Muskogean speakers,
whose descendants are now recognized as the historic tribes of
the Catawba, Cherokee and Creek Indians. Within a very short period
of time--some 50 years--after those first contacts, the early
European explorers of North Carolina had met, interacted with,
and begun the process of significant cultural displacement of
all the major native groups in the state.
What can we learn about those Indian groups from accounts of the
earliest European explorers? Surviving chronicles from de Soto
and the Roanoke colonists include many details of the land and
its potential or imagined wealth. But with the notable exceptions
of the John White paintings and Thomas Hariot's writings, we possess
surprisingly little knowledge about the early historic Indians
who lived in our state. Tantalizing bits of information can be
gleaned from the early series of exploration accounts, but when
the actual diversity and complexities of "Indian" culture
are considered, we must conclude that their description by explorers
was incidental to those for geography, searches for treasure,
or daily hardships of the first European explorers.
The later colonial period of North Carolina history likewise exhibits
an unfortunate lack of interest on the part of white Americans
for details of Indian life. Although colonial government records
included brief descriptions of military expeditions and political
affairs involving Indian populations, detailed pictures of Indian
culture elude modern researchers. Despite crucial involvement
of the Carolina Indians in colonial economic ventures, as suppliers
of skins for the enormously profitable deerskin trade, as military
allies or, too frequently, as slaves, most knowledge we do have
comes from unofficial sources. Only the observations of a few
men like John Lederer, William Bartram and John Lawson give us
even an incomplete view of declining Indian cultures, one roughly
comparable to the purposely detailed accounts of White and Hariot.
Indeed, it would not be inaccurate to say that the writings of
Lawson and Hariot, supplemented by White's paintings, constitute
the best history of American Indians in North Carolina until the
nineteenth century, by which time much of Indians' culture was
gone forever. Population estimates, locations and accurate names
for various tribal groups, and clear descriptions of Indian political
and social life unfortunately cannot be gained from historical
And what about the ancestors of those historic period Indians?
Where did they come from, and how do we know anything at all about
their cultures? None of the native cultures in North Carolina
had any sort of written language. They relied instead on oral
traditions for their origins, myths and histories. Most of our
knowledge of North Carolina's prehistoric inhabitants comes from
the scant early historical accounts and, especially, the types
of information that can be gained through archaeology.
Archaeology is the discipline which provides extensive time depth
to studies of change in human societies, population distributions,
and cultural adaptations in response to long-term environmental
changes. Archaeology is the science (some would say an art) which
provides us with answers to questions about the very first "colonists"
in North Carolina. In the most general sense, archaeology is the
study of human societies for which no or few written records exist,
through the careful recovery and analysis of the material remains--the
"artifacts"--of these extinct cultures. Archaeology
is a branch of anthropology, which involves other types of humanistic
and scientific studies of human cultures.
Archaeology is also a discipline with its own set of capabilities
and limitations. Trained in methods of excavation, analysis and
report writing, archaeologists devote considerable time to adapting
the skills of many other disciplines to their own advantage. Application
of scholarly techniques from zoology, chemistry, physics, botany,
mathematics and computer studies enables archaeologists to explore
the immense complexity of environments and cultures which surrounded
Archaeologists trace the chronicle of Native Americans to at least
12,000 years ago. The earliest aboriginal groups reached North
Carolina not long after people first crossed into the New World
from Siberia during the final stages of the last Ice Age, or Pleistocene
era. The distinctive fluted projectile points used by the earliest
Indian groups show remarkable similarities across the American
continents. The distributions of such artifacts suggest rapid
population growth and movement of the initial colonizing bands
of people through Canada and the Great Plains, and into the eastern
woodlands of which North Carolina is a part.
PaleoIndians, as archaeologists call those first people,
were well adapted, technologically and socially, to climates,
vegetation and animal populations very different from those of
today. The late Pleistocene era saw wetter, cooler weather conditions
as a general rule for areas like the Eastern Seaboard, which was
some distance from the southern reaches of the glacial ice. Now-extinct
elephants (mastodons and mammoths), wild horses, ground sloths,
camels and giant bison roamed the forests and grasslands of our
area. Animals not extinct, but now absent from the Southeast,
included moose, caribou, elk and porcupine. PaleoIndians preyed
on these animals, using their meat, skins and other parts for
food, clothing, tools and other needs. They also devoted considerable
time to gathering wild plant foods and likely fished and gathered
shellfish in coastal and riverine environments.
Native groups who followed the PaleoIndians are called Archaic
cultures by archaeologists. Those people occupied eastern North
America during a long time period from about 9000 to 2000 B.C.,
and were the direct descendants of the PaleoIndians. Archaic Indians
improved techniques of fishing, gathering and hunting for post-glacial
(Holocene) environments, which differed from the Pleistocene.
Forest types in the Southeast gradually became more like those
of today, as weather patterns changed and the vast glacial ice
sheets retreated from the margins of North America.
Archaeologists see Archaic cultures as very successful adaptations
to the new forest communities and animal populations of those
times. Archaic people made a wide variety of stone, wood, basketry
and other tools, that reflect the varied subsistence patterns
of generalized fishing, gathering and hunting of the many different
species of plants and animals that shared their post-glacial environments.
Archaic people possessed great knowledge of their environments
and the potential food and raw material sources that surrounded
them. Their camps and villages occur as archaeological sites throughout
North Carolina, on high mountain ridges, along river banks, and
across the Piedmont hills..
Archaic people did lack three things, however, that most people
associate with prehistoric Indians. These cultural elements are:
bows and arrows, pottery and plant agriculture. In fact, the acceptance
of these elements into North Carolina's Archaic cultures marks
the transition to the next cultural stage called Woodland.
No overnight change from a pre-ceramic, non-agricultural Archaic
stage to Woodland times is recognizable in the archaeological
record. Instead, there was very gradual and piecemeal adoption
of these new traits into local groups' cultural patterns. For
example, there probably were several "beginnings" of
pottery manufacture by North Carolina Indians. Agriculture likewise
underwent a long period of acceptance. Woodland Indians continued
to follow most of the subsistence practices of their Archaic forebears,
hunting, fishing, and gathering during periods of seasonal abundance
of deer, turkeys, shad and acorns. Labor was committed to tasks
of clearing fields, planting and harvesting crops like sunflowers,
squash, gourds, beans and maize only when it was certain that
those efforts could assure surpluses needed for winter and early
spring months when natural food sources were sparse.
Bow and arrow equipment was also an innovation of the Woodland
stage, although the ultimate origin of that hunting technology
is unknown. Small triangular and stemmed projectile points, suitable
in terms of size and weight for attachment to arrow shafts, are
recovered for the first time on Woodland period sites. Prior to
then, the hafted stone tools of Archaic and PaleoIndians were
used for spears, knives and dart points (used with spear throwers,
or atlatls). Use of bows and arrows probably led to shifts
in hunting patterns among Woodland Indians, since the primary
game animals like white tail deer could now be harvested efficiently
by single, stalking hunters.
Despite the introduction of these new elements into prehistoric
Indian lifeways, much remained the same. Woodland Indians continued
patterns of seasonal exploitation of many game and plant resources.
Archaeological sites from the period, which began some time around
2000 B.C., are found on all portions of the landscape, although
there was a tendency to settle in larger, semi-permanent villages
along stream valleys, where soils were suitable for Woodland farming
practices utilizing hoes and digging sticks.
The house patterns, defensive walls (or palisades), and substantial
storage facilities at some sites also demonstrate that Woodland
Indians were more committed to settled village life than their
Archaic predecessors. Distributions of ceramic (pottery) styles
and other artifacts suggest to archaeologists that Woodland Indians
began to recognize territorial boundaries. The more obvious boundaries
may reflect early language groups of the Siouan, Iroquoian and
Algonkian Indians later met by the Europeans. Intangible cultural
elements cannot be recovered from archaeological deposits at any
site, of course, so related questions about tribal affiliations,
language or religious practices will remain unanswered forever.
Woodland cultures dominated most of North Carolina well into the
historic period. Most Indian groups met by early European explorers
followed Woodland economic and settlement patterns, occupying
small villages and growing crops of maize, tobacco, beans and
squash, while still devoting considerable effort to obtaining
natural foods like deer, turkey, nuts and fish. A few cultural
elements, however, suggest that some Indians had adopted religious
and political ideas from a fourth major prehistoric tradition,
called Mississippian. Archaeologists recognize certain
patterns of artifacts, settlement plans and economics that distinguish
Mississippian Indian culture from earlier or perhaps contemporary
Mississippian culture can be described neatly as an intensification
of Woodland practices of pottery-making, village life and agriculture.
But much more was involved in the distinction, especially in terms
of political and religious organization and associated militarism.
Mississippian culture had few representatives in prehistoric North
Carolina. Exceptions are the so-called Pee Dee Indians, who constructed
and occupied the major regional center at Town Creek (Montgomery
County), and ancestral mountain Cherokee groups. Mississippian-type
town centers are more common to the south and west of North Carolina.
Centers typically included one or more flat-topped, earthen "temple"
mounds, public areas and buildings ("council houses")
used for religious and political assemblies. Wooden palisades,
earthen moats or embattlements were placed around many villages
for defensive purposes.
Mississippian societies described by early French and Spanish
explorers were organized along strict lines of social hierarchies
determined by heredity or exploits in war. Military aggressiveness
was an important part of Mississippian culture, serving to gain
and defend territories, group prestige and favored trade and tribute
networks. The surviving, and often flamboyant, artifact inventories
from Mississippian sites reflect needs for personal status identification
and perpetuation of favored lineages. Pottery vessels were made
in new and elaborate shapes, often as animal and human effigy
forms; other artifacts of exotic copper, shell, wood and feathers
mirror the emblematic needs of the noble classes to confirm their
status. Far-reaching trade and tribute networks were maintained
at great expense to provide necessary items to the ruling classes
of Mississippian Indian groups throughout the Southeast and Midwest.
The direct involvement of North Carolina Indians with those large,
powerful Mississippian groups is difficult for archaeologists
to measure. Minor elements of Mississippian culture may be found
in various parts of our state, at least in the forms of pottery
designs or ornaments connected with religious or political symbolism.
Algonkian Indians met by the Roanoke colonists exhibited some
religious ties with Mississippian practices more common in the
far South. Cherokee religion and certain traits of pottery manufacture
likewise may hint at more "elaborate" parallels in Georgia,
Alabama, Tennessee, and elsewhere in the heart of Mississippian
territory. Ancestral ties of language or other cultural elements
probably always linked North Carolina's Indians more closely with
northern and western traditions, however, and such associations
may have prevented the total acceptance of Mississippian cultural
traits so pervasive in other Southeastern regions.
Through the 18th and 19th centuries, Native Americans in the eastern
and central portions of North Carolina were largely displaced
as the colony's and state's frontiers were populated by Euro-American
and African-American colonists, farmers, slaves and townspeople.
Some Indian "tribes" in the coastal and piedmont regions
voluntarily relocated in advance of colonial frontier expansion.
Painfully direct results of armed conflicts like the Tuscarora
and Yemassee Wars included forced removals of native populations
onto a few small reservations. More commonly, native populations
were forced to join allied tribes in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New
York and elsewhere.
Native Americans who avoided direct involvement in such situations
nevertheless participated in larger systems of colonial politics,
settlement and trade that produced far-reaching disruptions of
their traditional cultural patterns. The historical effects of
disease on native populations may never be precisely defined,
for instance, but the aggregate effects included major population
displacements, or splitting up and reconsolidation of populations
(especially across the Piedmont).
The fracturing of social ties, group identities, and loss of native
languages and other cultural elements during the 18th and 19th
centuries persisted into the 20th. Some of these problems have
been addressed through Federal and state government recognition
of modern Indian tribes and communities, which began, for a variety
of legal and social purposes, in the early 19th century and which
There are at present several modern Native American groups in
North Carolina--direct descendants of prehistoric and early historic
ancestors recognized in archaeological and historical records.
Groups include: Indians of Person County; Haliwa-Saponi; Coharie;
Cumberland County Association of Indian People; Lumbee; Waccamaw-Siouan;
Guilford Native American Association; Metrolina Native American
Association; and, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Some 70,000
Native Americans now reside in North Carolina and are represented
by those tribal governments or corporate structures and through
the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs.
Archaeological information is imperfect; archaeologists are limited
in what they can explain by vagaries of preservation, modern destruction
of sites, and the simple fact that many cultural elements leave
no direct traces in the ground. But archaeology exists as the
only science with the techniques, theories and evaluative frameworks
for providing any information on the 12,000 or more years of human
occupation which occurred before the "discovery" of
the New World only 500 or so years ago. The inherent curiosity
that we possess about things that are old, mysterious or simply
unfamiliar expands quite naturally into a desire to truly understand
how prehistoric North Carolinians lived, adapted and thrived.
Archaeology provides us the means to achieve that goal.