North Carolina Algonquians

by Christian F. Feest

Part 2

British Museum
Figure 3. "The manner of their fishing."
Watercolor drawing by John White. 1585.

Weirs and fish traps made of reeds were set up in rivers and estuaries (figure 3). Another method was to spear the fish either from the canoe or while wading through shallow water. The use of fire to lure fish by night to the boat's side was also known and practiced by the Indians. Dip nets, were needed to take the catch out of the water. Fishing and shellfishing were of prime importance in the spring, before corn could be harvested (Hariot 1588, 1590; Hulton and Quinn 1964; Lane 1589).

Little is known about hunting methods, although hunting must have contributed substantially to the diet. Birds and mammals were hunted with bow and arrow, and bears were chased up into trees to be shot down easily. Different roots, nuts, and berries were gathered by the North Carolina Algonquians during the fall of the year; small animals, such as turtles or snakes, were similarly gathered for use as food. Dogs were kept as pets; it is not known whether they were used in hunting, but they were possibly sometimes eaten by the Indians (Hariot 1588; Lane 1589).

Trade with the interior furnished the coastal tribes with stones and copper, and probably with other items not otherwise available to them. Incipient European trade greatly diversified the supply of such items and consequently tended to lessen the importance of intertribal exchange.

Fish, meat, and corn were roasted or boiled separately in a single pot. Corn, beans, seeds of the sunflower, and chestnuts were also used to make broths or were ground for flour of which bread was made. Bread was likewise made of acorns, chinquapin nuts, and hazelnuts. Pumpkins were eaten either raw or boiled, as were groundnuts and other roots. The roots and berries of the arrow arum had to be leached before being eaten. Walnuts were pounded in mortars and mixed with water, and wild rice was boiled. Seeds of chenopodium or amaranthus were used to make pottages, while the stalks of these plants were burned to serve as a substitute for salt. As a drink, water was used either pure or seasoned with various herbs. Preservation of food obviously took place to some extent, but nothing is known about methods of storage (Hariot 1588, 1590).

Material Culture

Due to the lack of suitable raw materials, stone was rarely used by the coastal tribes, being largely replaced by shell, bone, or wood. Trees were felled by well-controlled burning of their base; then they were further worked with fire and scraping tools of shell or stone axes. Wood was hardened probably also by the use of fire. Skins were oil tanned, with or without the fur left standing. The women made globular pots with hemispherical to conical bases of coils of clay tempered with crushed shell, sand, or clay-grit. Pots were placed on heaps of earth to keep them in an upright position in spite of their pointed bottoms (figure 4). Fabric impressions or simple stampings were among the common forms of decoration. Baskets and mats were made of rushes and probably also of other vegetable fibrous material (Hariot 1588, 1590; Hulton and Quinn 1964; Haag 1958).

Ft. Raleigh National Historic Site: 68-74-76.
Figure 4. Shell-tempered clay pot with overlapping stamped impressions. It was excavated
near the campfire at Ft. Raleigh, Roanoke Island. Diameter at rim about 25.0 cm.

Tools included shell scrapers and knives, wooden hoes and pickaxes, and hafted stone celts. Saber-shaped clubs of wood were about a yard long and sometimes further armed with antler points. Simple curved bows (figure 5) of maple or witch hazel were used with arrows of reed, perhaps with a wooden foreshaft, headed with points of shell, the "tooth of a fish," or possibly stone, and were fletched with two radial feathers. Arrowpoints could also be poisoned. Spears used for fishing consisted of reed or wooden shafts with a sharpened fore-end or a hafted king crab tail for a point. There is only insufficient evidence for the use of multipronged fish spears among the Algonquians of coastal North Carolina and Virginia. Fish weirs were made of reeds that were kept parallel by twining; they were frequently combined with fish traps (Barlowe 1589; Hariot 1588, 1590; Hulton and Quinn 1964).

Household utensils documented for the sixteenth century include hammerstones for cracking nuts, mortars of unknown shape, wooden and shell spoons, wooden barbecue frames, fish-broiling sticks, and perhaps forks, and a variety of plates and vessels. Liquids were kept or carried in pottery or gourd (figure 6) containers, and food was eaten from round wooden platters (figure 7) (Hariot 1588, 1590; Hulton and Quinn 1964).

Villages were made up of about 10 to 30 houses, which were either grouped around a central plaza and surrounded by wooden palisades (figure 8) or scattered among the corn fields (figure 2). Usually they were located near the waterside, although sometimes ponds had to be dug to serve as a source of water. The houses were rectangular (some possibly oval) with barrel roofs of bent poles lashed together at the top, connected by horizontal crossbars, and covered with bark, rush mats, or boughs of trees. This cover could be partly removed to let in light; smoke holes are not recorded. Most houses were between 36 and 48 feet long and had only one room, but some houses were up to 72 feet in length, and at least the house of the Roanoke chief's brother was partitioned into five rooms (Barlowe 1589). Raised platforms along the walls were used for sleeping. Chiefs' houses and temples generally resembled ordinary houses in shape and construction, though they were usually bigger and the temple of Pomeiooc (figure 8) is shown with an exceptional type of roof. The field watcher's hut (figure 2) in summer served to shelter a man whose duty it was to chase birds and other beasts away from the fields. This structure, as were the large platforms within the temples, was built on piles (Hariot 1590; Hulton and Quinn 1964).

British Museum 
Figure 5. Man with body paint. Watercolor
drawing by John White, 1585.

British Museum
Figure 6. Woman and girl of Pomeiooc.
The doll is English. Watercolor drawing
by John White, 1585.

As among the Virginia Algonquians, dress styles and ornaments differed according to social rank rather than sex. While occasionally no clothing was worn at all, usually at least a belted breechclout or a single or double apron skirt of deerskin was used. Another garment shared by men and women was a deerskin or rabbitskin cloak fastened over one or both shoulders (figure 7) and sometimes belted, the fur being worn next to the body. Moccasins of a simple pattern were likewise made of deerskin. Dresses were frequently fringed and with upper-class Indians also beaded or painted. Little girls had their genitals covered with a pad of moss or milkweed bark (figure 6). Priests wore distinctive capes of twined rabbitskin strips. Specialized forms of dress included the bowman's bracer (also present in Virginia), wicker armor, and wooden breastplates for the warrior, who also used bark shields (Hariot 1590; Hulton and Quinn 1964). The women wore their hair fringed in front and either knotted at the nape or hanging loose at shoulder length; headbands were sometimes used. Men's hairstyles were mostly roached, either with a knot at the nape or with a forehead crest (priests only). While men frequently painted themselves (figure 5), women usually tattooed their bodies and faces (figure 6). Necklaces and ear pendants of bone or shell were used by both sexes; feathers and copper or shell head ornaments that served to distinguish rank are documented only for men. Young men removed facial hair, but older persons occasionally grew thin beards (Hariot 1590; Barlowe 1589; Hulton and Quinn 1964).

Dugout canoes (figure 3) could transport up to 20 people and were propelled either by shouldered paddles or by poles. There were special pack baskets with tumplines across the chest and quivers made of rushes (figure 5). Children were carried by the hip-straddling method.

Ft. Raleigh Natl. historic Site: 98.
Figure 9. Tubular tobacco pipe of reddish-brown clay.
Excavated at Ft. Raleigh, Roanoke Is. Length 9.1 cm.

Clay tobacco pipes of the obtuse-angle type (figure 9) frequently exhibited punctured or incised designs (Hulton and Quinn 1964).

Social Organization

No data have been preserved on kinship, form of family, marriage, descent, residence, and kin groups among sixteenth-century North Carolina Algonquians. Household size must have ranged around a mean of 10 persons. There was possibly a kind of group (whose exact nature is not clearly understood) below or independent of the level of village and tribal organization. Its outward sign consisted of painted or tattooed markings on the backs of men. Another possible interpretation is to consider these marks as indications of individual rank (Hariot 1590; Hulton and Quinn 1964). Every tribe consisted of from one to 18 villages. No formal organization extended beyond the tribal level, although confederacies appear to have been common (Hariot 1588; Lane 1589).

As among Virginia Algonquian tribes, social stratification was pronounced in coastal North Carolina. The upper class included the chief, his family and relatives, his advisers, and possibly also the priests, all of whom enjoyed certain privileges (such as trade monopolies) and consequently greater wealth than the common people. They were visibly distinguished by wearing special ornaments. Political decision-making was reserved to the council composed of upper-class members, who also administrated the law and were generally feared and obeyed by their tribesmen. The term werowance was understood by the English colonists to refer either to the tribal chief or other persons of high social ranking. No other term applied to the members of the upper class has been recorded (Barlowe 1589; Lane 1589; Hariot 1588).

War was waged for revenge; fighting generally took place at dawn or in moonlight, with ambushing as a main tactical precaution. Formal military organization was probably only weakly developed. As a rule, women and children were spared, while men were killed (Hariot 1588; Barlowe 1589).

British Museum
Figure 7. "Theire sitting at meate."
Watercolor drawing by John White, 1585.

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