The Dugout Canoes of Lake Phelps


Sequence of Prehistoric Activity

By the Late Archaic period (5000-3000 B.P.) regional climate changes were approaching modem conditions. Forests not unlike those surrounding the lake today, of bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) along the shores, and a mixed decidous forest on the ridge above the shore, with peat bog growth beyond, hosted the visitors, who now came to stay for longer periods to hunt for game, fish, and benefit from the edible plant growth of the area. That the visitors came to stay longer, perhaps for seasonal food gathering activities, is evidenced by cooking vessels of soapstone. Hunting activities are represented by projectile points, a spear thrower weight, and bifacial blades [Phelps, 6-7]. Of the 19 canoes dated by C-14 dating, three are associated with this period, PHL1808 (4380 70 B.P.), PHL1810 (Page 23) (3230 +/- 100 B.P.), and PHL1819 (3060 +/- 70 B.P.) [Beta Analytic, July 10, 1987], adding further credence to longer occupation, and an increased reliance on fishing for food gathering.

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About 3500 B.P., two types of pottery, associated with the later part of the Savannah River phase, began to replace earlier soapstone containers. Marcey Creek ware, composed of clay with fragments of soapstone, and Croaker Landing ware, which has lumps of dried clay added to the paste, appears on Lake Phelps. Dr. Phelps has noted that both types of wares have affiliations to the north, but that Croaker Landing pottery from the lake "has served to define this ware which was not previously known in the region." The Lake Phelps variant of the Croaker Landing ware has been designated as the Pettigrew Variety, and includes unusual wavy line incisions on the vessel surface, and flat bottom vessels with lug handles on each end. [Phelps, 7]

The Early Woodland period (3000-2300 B.P.) is evidenced by ceramic vessels of the Deep Creek phase. These appear in both net and cord impressed forms. Also present are fabric impressed vessels. The frequency of artifacts of this period recovered from Lake Phelps is approximately equal to the Late Archaic period, suggesting a continuity of settlement types and adaptations from the period, albeit with a new northern influence [Phelps, 8]. Two canoes have been radiocarbon dated to this period, 0001LPH1 (2720 +/- 70 B.P.), and 0001LPH2 (2850 +/- 60 B.P.) [Beta Analytic, July 1, 1987]

The largest number of ceramic vessels and sherd fragments collected from Lake Phelps (including several miniature and boat-shaped vessels) belong to the Mount Pleasant phase of the Middle Woodland period (2300-800 B.P.), the most intensive period of prehistoric usage of the waterway. Cord marked, net impressed and fabric impressed vessels, as well as incised chevron-pattemed vessels are characteristic of this phase. Equally noteworthy is that ninety percent of the vessels recovered retain thick deposits of charred material on the vessel exteriors, indicating their employment as cooking vessels. Polished stone gorgets with holes drilled near their centers, and triangular arrow points typify the period. Collections of Middle Woodland artifacts have centered along the northern and western shores of the lake where family groups undoubtedly visited to establish seasonal camps for fishing, hunting, and plant gathering [Phelps, 9].

Eleven canoes have been determined by C-14 dating to have been fielded during this period. These are as follows: PHL1816 (2090 +/- 60 B.P.); PBL1804 (1980 +/- 70 B.P.); PHL1817 (1840 +/- 60 B.P.); PHL1801 (1790 +/- 70 B.P.); PHL1805 (1760 +/- 60 B.P.); PHL1814 (1740 +/- 60 B.P.); PHL1807 (1720 +/- 60 B.P.); PHL0004 (1610 +/- 60 B.P.); PHL1811 (1580 +/- 50 B.P.); PHL1800 (1530 +/- 60 B.P.); and PHL1802 (1530 +/- 60 B.P.) (Page 25) [Beta Analytic, July 10, 1987]. Phelps has observed that eight of these canoes, dating from 1840 B.P. to 1530 B.P. have radiocarbon dates that range from 20 to 30 years apart. He conjectures the possibility that this periodicity may represent the actual life span of a cypress dugout. "If such is the case," he suggests, "one canoe would serve a family for a generation before becoming waterlogged or decaying" [Phelps, 9] .

The Colington phase of the Late Woodland period (1150-300 B.P.) was an era of reduced visitation or occupation by Native American peoples at Lake Phelps, certainly far less than during the Mount Pleasant phase. Phelps suggests that the peoples of the Colington phase were possibly the ancestral culture of the Carolina Algonkians encountered by Europeans during the Contact period and were members of the Moratoc society whose dominion incorporated a reach from the south side of Alberrnarle Sound from the Scuppernong River to the mouth of the Roanoke River. [Phelps, 11]

The earliest contact with the Moratoc society was by Ralph Lane, who journeyed up the Roanoke (Moratuc) River in 1585 and visited their abandoned village. Rights suggests that the Moratoc were of Iroquoian stock, possibly Nottoway Indians, remnants of which lingered along the North Carolina-Virginia border until as late as 1825. He noted that there is also a possibility that they were affiliated with the Tuscarora. "Strong supporting evidence has been given," he notes," by Maurice A. Mook that the Moratoc were Algonquian stock and this view has been favored by other competent authorities" [Right, 1947, 17, n.2].

The visitation or settlement about the lake, however, may have also been associated, during the Contact period at least, by the natives ensconced at the village of Mequopen (noted in De Bry's map, or alternately noted as Mesquopenung by the Spanish cartographer Alonzo de Velasco) which was apparently situated on the eastern side of the Scuppemong River. Mook places the location of the site, which he refers to as Mecopen, less than a score of miles from Lake Phelps, and possibly on or near the confluence of Riders Creek and the Scuppemong River, in the vicinity of modern Columbia, North Carolina. [Mook, 1944]. Quinn [II, 861, n.39] suggests that this village, together with the village of Tramaskecoc, which was situated at the head of the estuary of the Alligator River, in Tyrell County, belonged to an unnamed tribe occupying the southern shore of Albemarle Sound and the swamp- forests behind. Mook regarded this village to be within the dominion of the Secotan tribe, a position which is challenged by Quinn on numeous counts. [Mook, 215-16; Quinn, II, 861, n.39].

Fewer pottery vessels and lithics from this period are evident in the collections recovered from the lake area than of those from the previous period. Pottery from the (Page 26) Colington phase is typified by tempered fragments of shell mixed in the clay, with either fabric impressed or paddle stamped decoration over the surface. They are similar in form to those pictured by White and De Bry, with conoidal-shaped pots with inverted rims, small bowls, jars with four oppositely opposed castellations or raised areas on the rim, boat-shaped dippers, and miniature vessels. Small triangular arrow points, often of tan jasper, are typical of this phase. [Phelps, 11]


This map engraved by Theodore de Bry, in Harriot, is drawn from the original watercolor by John White and
portrays the locations of the native settlements of Moratua (Morotoc) and Tramaskecoc, the latter of which is
located on the Alligator River. Also depicted, but not shown on the original White map, is Mequopen, situated
on the eastern side of the Scuppernong River, probably in the vicinity of present day Columbia.
Source: Harriot.

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Entitled "A cheiff Ladye of Pomeiooc," this engraving by Theodore de Bry, after John White,
portrays a pottery form prevalent in North Carolina coastal areas during the Contact Period.
The woman pictured is from the village of Pomeiooc, located near a lake called Paquippe, now
known as Mattamuskeet. Source: Harriot.

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The pot in Theodore de Bry's engraving entitled "Their seetheynge of their meate in
earthen pottes" is copied from White, and depicts a large earthenware vessel not unsimilar
to the Contact Period earthenware recovered from Lake Phelps and other regions of the
North Carolina coastal plain. Harriot noted that they cooked fruit, flesh, and fish in such
vessels. Depicted here, corn (still on the cob) and fish can plainly be seen in the concoction
called by the Spanish "olla podrida." Source: Harriot

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The remanent poles of at least four fish weirs, which have decayed to the level of the lake bottom, but which were discovered near Big Point after the 1984 fire, are conjectured to be products of the Colington Phase (Phelps, 11; Lawrence, p.c.; Shearin, p.c.; Trail, p.c.]. The historic record of the brief Contact period has left a substantial corpus of description regarding the construction and use of fish weirs by the Native Americans of the Carolinas. Although Ralph Lane's discourse on the Raleigh colony is, perhaps, the first to mention the sighting of a native weir, at the village of Weapemeoc [Quinn, I, 268], it was John White who left a number of drawings depicting the design and use of the fishing weir. A description by Thomas Harriot of their successful usage, which accompanied De Bry's engravings taken from White's drawings, reports the following:

Harriot notes in A briefe and true report of the newfound land of Virginia that the willow was the material of choice for the construction of weirs [Harriot, 23]. The black willow (Salex nigia and S. longpipes) and Harbison's willow (S. Harbesonii) are conunonly found on the coastal plain and in the swamplands of North Carolina, [Trees of North Carolina, 64-70]. Unfortunately, no samples of the Lake Phelps weirs have been recovered to date for the purpose of C-14 dating or speciation analysis. (Page 30)


Entitled "Their manner of fishynge in Virginia," this engraving by Theodore de Bry, after
White's original, is illustratively rich, as it depicts not only the watercraft and weirs
employed by the Contact Period natives of the North Carolina coastal areas, but their nets,
spears, tools, and paddles, and the marine life they fished for. Source: Harrio

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This engraving by Theodore de Bry, entitled "A younge gentill woeman doughter of
Secota," portrays at least five canoes in the background, one of which is unmanned, as well
as a fishing weir erected across a narrow sound. Source: Harriot.

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Carolina Algonkian Project, All Rights Reserved