From: An America's Four Hundredth Anniversary
Slide and Narrative Presentation

by David S. Phelps, Ph.D.


This color slide and narrative presentation summarizes the culture of the Carolina Algonkians, the Native Americans who inhabited coastal North Carolina during the time of the Roanoke Voyages (1584-1587). The form of Carolina Algonkian culture observed by the 16th century English explorers and colonists had begun around A.D. 800 and endured until permanent colonization began around A.D. 1650, and is known to archaeologists as the Colington phase.

The sources of information used in preparing this summary and other works on the subject are listed below for those audiences who desire to pursue the subject in more depth. A summary of recent archaeological research on Colington phase culture (phelps 1983) provides the background for understanding the documentary sources (Quinn and Quinn 1982) and their interpretations (Quinn 1955), the descriptions of Algonkian lifeways (Harriot 1590; Smith 1624), and the watercolor paintings and maps of John White (Hulton and Quinn 1964) from the period of the Roanoke Voyages. A summary of Carolina Algonkian ethnohistory (Feest 1978) and a discussion of relationships between the English and the Algonkians (Kupperman 1980) provide modern interpretations, and other works (Mauldin, Frankenberg and Bazzolo 1979) relate these and the archaeological sources to the secondary school applications.

In addition to this slide/narrative presentation, a portable exhibit of "Artifacts of the Carolina Algonkians" and brochures illustrating Carolina Algonkian lifeways are (were) also available from the America's Four Hundredth Anniversary Committee office.

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(Page 1) (3) In July, 1584, two English. ships under the command of Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe anchored near an island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Thus began the Roanoke voyages, a period of discovery and initial colonization of North Carolina. (4) Barlowe described his first meeting with the native people of the new land (5) and soon afterward traveled to Roanoke Island where (6) he was entertained in a palisaded village containing nine longhouses, (7) the typical residences of the people, much like those shown in White's painting of Pomeioc. (8) In 1585 Ralph Lane established his colony on the north end of Roanoke Island (9) and built the fort known today as Fort Raleigh. The final colony, the famed "Lost Colony" of 1587, completed this first attempt by Englishmen at colonization of what is now North Carolina.

(10) From that period we have the records left by Arthur Barlowe, Ralph Lane, and Thomas Harriot, the naturalist, describing the land and its resources, people, and places. (11) John White, governor of the final colony, produced a unique set of maps (12) and water color paintings of the geography and environment, (13) the people (14) and their customs. These paintings and documents are our heritage from the Roanoke voyages, and one of our (Page 2) sources of knowledge of the Native Americans who lived here in the late sixteenth century.

(15) The people are known as the Carolina Algonkians, the name "Algonkian" taken from their language group. They were the southern-most speakers of the eastern Algonkian language, distributed from the Neuse River in North Carolina to the maritime provinces of Canada. It was Algonkian-speaking people who took the brunt of English exploration and colonization beginning at Roanoke in 1584, continuing at Jamestown in 1607, Plymouth in 1620, and all succeeding colonies along the Middle Atlantic and Northeastern coasts of North America.

(16) The Carolina Algonkians lived in the tidewater zone of North Carolina from the Neuse River northward as shown on John White's 1586 map. (17) Today we can define their territory more precisely, as shown by the yellow area on this phelps Map map extending from the Neuse River to Chesapeake Bay. To the north the Carolina Algonkians were bordered by the Virginia Algonkians under Powatan, and on the west by the Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottaway. (18) Recent archaeological research has suggested that the Chesepioc and other peoples living south of Hampton Roads probably belonged to the Carolina rather than the Virginia Algonkians.

(19) Over the years, Americans have tended to think of all native North American as hunters and warriors leading a rather simple nomadic life, but many, including the Carolina Algonkians, had very complex societies. (20) The culture of the Carolina Algonkian was based on a class-stratified society led by a ruler, quite rightfully called a "king" by the English, shown here in White's painting with the copper badge of office. The ruler, (Page 3) or "werowance", was chosen from a royal lineage in matrilineal succession; (21) below the ruling group was a class of nobles (22) and below that a class of commoners. (23) Each Carolina Algonkian ruler apparently had his own symbol which was worn by his subjects to show their affiliation. Theodore DeBry's engraving shows several of the symbols that were tattooed on the shoulders of people from various Carolina Algonkian political units. (24) The use of these symbols continued even after permanent colonization began, and on the first land deed recorded in North Carolina in 1662, (25) Kilcocanen, ruler of the Weapemeoc, signed with his symbol.

(26) Carolina Algonkian societies included the Chowanoke on the Chowan River, the Weapemeac on the north shore of the Albemarle Sound, the Poteskeet, whose name we know from eighteenth century records, in Currituck County, the Moratoc on the south shore of the Albemarle, the Roanoke on Roanoke Island and the Dare mainland, Secotan probably on the north shore of the Pamlico, Pomuik In Pamlico County, Neusiok along the Neuse estuary, and Croatan, the island kingdom, which included parts of what are now Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. (27) In the territory of each society there was a capital town, smaller towns, and dispersed farmsteads located to take advantage of communication and trade along rivers and streams, and where good farm land was available. The settlement pattern was that of an agricultural society not unlike eastern North Carolina today. (28) Two town plans are known from the John White paintings, the open plan of Secotan (29) and the palisaded, structured plan of towns such as Pomeioc, shown here in DeBry's engraving of White's water color. (30) Thomas Harriot's description with this engraving tells us that Pomeioc contained only temples or public buildings, (31) and the houses of the nobility and the ruler of that territory. (Page 4) (32) In the open plan of Secotan, it is probable that the houses of the nobility and the ruler cluster along the main street that connects the public and ceremonial areas and buildings. The commoners' residences or farmsteads were dispersed around the country-side outside the palisade or central core, depending upon the type of town plan.

(33) The Carolina Algonkians depended on agriculture as their primary food source. DeBry's engraving of Secotan shows the location of fields and gardens, and the plants upon which the agricultural system was based. (34) These were corn, (35) or maize, the original American grain and the mainstay of the agricultural system, (36) various types of melons, pumpkins, squash, bean and domestic sunflower. Dependency on agriculture was reflected in a particular type of naturalistic religion that worshipped those supernatural powers responsible for providing sun, rain and fertility for the crops. (37) John White, perhaps unknowingly, painted the most important seasonal ritual of this religious system, the green corn ceremony, which celebrated the first harvest in the summer. (38) Since there were no domestic animals except the dog, food from the agricultural system was supplemented by hunting animals such as deer, bear and smaller mammals. The bones of theme animals as well as turkey, duck, turtles, and alligator are found by archaeologists in the refuse areas of the sites. (39) Various species of marine and fresh water fish were an important element of the diet, as were shellfish. (40) Oysters, clams and scallops were collected on the coast, (41) and fresh water mussels in the rivers. (42) Hickory nuts and other wild plant foods were eaten in season or stored for later use.

(43) Domestic tobacco was not grown as a money crop as it is today. The plant was used in religious ceremonies and as an offering, rather than (Page 5) as a standard social practice. (44) The species of tobacco was Nicotiana rustica, much smaller than modern varieties with shorter leaves and higher nicotine content. (45) Too harsh for European tastes, this tobacco was replaced in Colonial times by the type we know today as "bright leaf". (46) The ceramic smoking pipes made by the Carolina Algonkians became the models for those of European manufacture and we still retain similar shapes today.

(47) The territory of each society differed slightly in its natural environment, but since they were all dependent upon agriculture (48) it was the fertile sandy soils along the mainland shores of the sounds and rivers that supported the capital towns, villages, and farmsteads. (49) On the north end of Roanoke Island, the thin top soil permitted farming only for relatively brief periods of time, after which the fields were probably abandoned to rejuvenate themselves naturally.

(50) Other sites, such as a fishing community near Wanchese (51) that archaeologists have excavated, were occupied only seasonally, when families camp to collect oysters and to fish in the Spring and Fall. (52) Similar, but smaller, sites are found on Colington and other islands where family fishing camps were located. (53) Most of the narrow Outer Banks were unoccupied except for brief periods of time for various hunting, collecting and fishing activities. (54) Only on the broader maritime-forest-covered expanses of Hatteras Island were there permanent villages, (55) where land and soils were sufficient to support small populations with a shifting, or field rotation, agricultural system.

(56) The land and environment on the mainland could support larger populations than other areas, and in Lane's expedition up the Chowan River to the capital town of Chowanoke in March, 1586, (57) he described this town on the western bluffs of the river as being able to "put 700 fighting men (Page 6) into the field". (58) Whether or not this figure, which implies a total town population of at least 2100 people, is correct, the archaeological remains of Chowmoke stretch for a mile along the river. Thomas Harriot described Chowanoke as having thirty loughouses, and these may have been located in a central core of the town near the south end. The rest of the bluffs between the Wiccacon River and Swains Hill Creek were occupied by residences and agricultural fields probably belonging to the commoners. (59) Archaeological work at Chowanoke in some of these residential areas (60) has revealed patterns of post stains from house structures, (61) and cooking, storage and refuse pits have (62) produced artifacts typical of the Carolina Algonkian culture. A range of radiocarbon dates from A.D. 825 to 1640 confirm that the town was occupied for over eight hundred years.

(63) From sites such as Chowanoke and others in the 6000-square mile Carolina Algonkian territory, the artifacts typical of the culture have been excavated and serve to identify its final prehistoric form, known to archaeologists as the Colington phase. Included in the inventory are ceramic vessels identified by crushed shell mixed with the clay, (64) with typical decoration and shapes; (65) objects made of clay for which no function is currently known; (66) one pins, sewing needles or awls, shell beads and ladles; (67) the sandstone abraders upon which they were ground and polished; (68) and shell hoes for agricultural use. (69) In addition to the fishing techniques illustrated by John White, (70) archaeological research has shown there were shell weights for cast nets (71) and fish hooks used to catch smaller fish in the fresh water streams. (72) Stone artifacts such as the polished ax (73) and arrow points of triangular shape are all typical of the Colington phase between A.D. 800 and 1650. (74) The archaeological evidence also points out discrepancies in the English observations and records, such as Thomas Harriot's statement (Page 7) that "since there was no stone in the coastal area, arrow points were made from bones and shell". All of the arrow points found in the Colington phase c`oastal sites were made of stone, and a majority of those from Dare and Currituck counties were made of red, tan and gray jasper, picked up as pebbles and cobbles where ancient river channels are exposed along the Outer Banks beaches. With the tools are found the stone flakes left over from the production process, (75) and the pitted hammerstones used to make them. (76) Charred fragments of mats made from marsh grass have been found in the sites. (77) These were used to cover Algonkian longhouses (78) and as sleeping, eating, and sitting mats. The artifacts recovered from the archaeological sites permit a relatively accurate reconstruction of the culture, but other items are not usually found because they are seldom preserved in the North Carolina climate. (79) Among these are dugout canoes, (80) the figures of gods, and (81) dishes representative of the elaborate wood carving tradition of the Carolina Algonkians.

(82) From sites in the interior, we find the items sent inland in trade by the Carolina Algonkian to people such as the Tuscarora. Particularly popular were marginella shell beads, a medium of exchange, and the barrel and disc-shaped beads called "peake" and "roanoke" in the Colonial period trading system. Even diamond-backed terrapin shells for use in religious ceremonies were shipped inland from the coast. (83) In exchange, copper, various types of stone and other items came from the inland to the coastal area. (84) Archaeology also provides a humanistic glimpse of brief moments of life and sorrow. In John White's painting of Pomeioc we see a boy and his dog and (85) we can imagine a similar boy's sorrow upon burying his pet dog at Chowanoke, as revealed in the recent archaeological excavations at that site.

(86) Among the Carolina Algonkian nobility were priests, leaders of the formal religious system, who also kept a constant vigil over the stored (Page 8) remains of the deceased political and religious leaders. (87) White's painting of a mortuary temple shows the skeletons of the leaders laid upon the floor and covered with skins, watched over by the statue of a god called "kewas'. (88) In DeBry's engraving of this painting we see that the mortuary temple itself was housed within a larger structure and the priest in attendance at an eternal fire in front of the shrine. Although White, Harriot and other English chroniclers described the storage of the dead leaders they did not observe the burial of these individuals. (89) From archaeology, we know that the temples were emptied periodically, and the collected dead were deposited in a mass grave known as an ossuary. (90) In both the capital and smaller towns, ossuaries such as these cluster in cemetery areas, often near the edges of the town. (91) The burials contain from thirty to sixty individuals ranging in age from new-born to old age, and both males and females, so these ossuaries were not exclusively the graves of the religious and political leaders. Since the dead were honored during the period of storage before burial, there are very few artifacts in the burials that might indicate rank or status. (92) Items such as this bracelet of marginella shell and copper beads, (93) a panther muzzle which was probably once attached to its skin (94) similar to one worn around the belt of this shaman, or medicine man, and (95) bone pins appear to be sentimental inclusions with individuals rather than indications of rank or status. For some time, scholars have considered the mass burials or ossuaries to represent the periodic burial of an entire cross section of the population, but if Thomas Harriot's observation that only the noble class lived in the towns is correct, then these burials contain a cross-section of the nobility, rather than the whole population. (96) Evidence from the ossuaries at the Baum site, a presumed capital town in Currituck County, such as this cranium with red stains, may indicate a status difference. (97) The red stains were (Page 9) caused from storage of the skeleton in a red-painnted reed chest such as those shown in the back of the mortuary temple, and probably represents the remains of a political or religious leader of the society. A number of these red-stained crania have been found in each of the ossuaries, suggesting that the remains of the leaders from the mortuary temple were deposited with those of the nobility.

(98) The kewas, or guardian of the dead, shown in White's painting and (99) in DeBry's engraving has a bent-knee stance and, as Harriot describes for us, (100) a hair style not like the Carolina Algonkian but like the Florida Indians. The kewas was in fact an ancestral god, and was part of the religious system common to class stratified societies throughout the Southeastern United States, by which the noble Class was perpetuated into eternity. (101) This figure from a burial mound in Florida dated to A.D. 800 shows the continuity of the tradition through time and attests to the Southeastern traits adopted by the Carolina Algonkians.

(102) The shape and size of the burial pits vary in each of the Carolina Algonkian societies, and this rectangular type in a small Chowanoke town in Chowan County contains (103) nine separate clusters of skeletons. Since this site was not a capital, the nine clusters may represent the periodic dead from nine families or lineages that inhabited the town.

(104) From the records of the later Jamestown colony in Virginia we know that there were two different types of treatment of the dead. John Smith mentioned the elaborate mortuary temples for the rulers, but specifically stated that commoners were simply buried in the ground in single graves soon after death. From the seasonal site at Wanchese on Roanoke Island there is evidence of such a commoner's burial and the archaeological record begins to confirm the class stratification of Carolina Algonkian society, even in death.

(Page 10) (105) After permanent colonization of North Carolina began in 1650 it took less than one hundred years for the disappearance of the Carolina Algonkian societies as recogniziable social and political units. The Chowanoke were the first to be placed on a reservation on Bennetts Creek in Gates County in 1677, as shown on the 1733 Moseley map. (106) Other societies would follow, the Mattamuskeet were given a reservation in Hyde County in 1715. Their numbers reduced by European-introduced diseases and starvation, some simply disappeared or merged with local Colonial populations. (107) This happened to the Weapemeaoc, who in Colonial times were known as the "Yeopim" and ended their history in Camden County, (108) to the Poteskeet in Currituck County, (109) and to the Croatan who were known in 1733 as the "Hatteras Indians". By 1750 there was no further mention in the Colonial records of this complex society that gave us the basis of our modern agricultural and economic system, our settlement patterns and many of our place names, words and foods. (110) They contributed to our heritage, and it is fitting on this four hundredth anniversary of English colonization that we, as modern North Carolinaians, remember the Carolina Algonkians who were first on this land.

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Harriot, Thomas 1590 A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. Reprint C1972) by Dover Publications, Inc. New York.

Hulton, Paul and David B. Quinn 1964 The American Drawings of John White (2 vols.). Trustees of the British Museum. London and Chapel Hill.

Kupperman, Karen 0. 1980 Settling with the Indians. Rowman and Littlefield. Totowa.

Mauldin, Lundie, D. Frankenberg and J. Bazzolo (editors) 1979 North Carolina Marine Education Manual Unit Four: Coastal Beginnings. UNC Sea Grant Publication UNC-SG-74-14-E. Raleigh.

phelps, David S. 1983 Archaeology of the North Carolina Coast and Coastal Plain: Problems and Hypothesis. In The Prehistory of North Carolina, pp. 1-52. N. C. Division of Archives and History. Raleigh.

Quinn, David B. 1955 The Roanoke Voyages (2 vols.). The Hakluyt Society. London.

Quinn, David B. and Alison M. Quinn, editors 1982 The First Colonists. N. C. Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History. Raleigh.

Smith, John 1624 The Generall Historie of Virginia New England and the Summer Isles. Reprint by Johnson Publishing Company. Murfreesboro.

Permission to Reprint Courtesy of Dr. David S. Phelps


Copyright 2001
Coastal Algonkian Project