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When Europeans arrived in the late 1500s, North Carolina’s northern Coastal Plain was home to two different cultures. Algonkians lived closest to the Atlantic edge, in the Outer Coastal Plain or Tidewater. The term Algonkian isn’t a tribal name; it refers, rather, to the family of languages spoken by tribes who lived from Canada to Carolina. Iroquoian speakers — the Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway tribes — lived more inland, on the Inner Coastal Plain. The Tuscarora generally lived from just south of the Neuse River to where the Virginia border is today. The Meherrin and Nottoway stayed between the Roanoke and Chowan Rivers.

Through their research so far, archaeologists have sorted out the political and social boundaries of the various groups who lived in the north coastal region. Hints of their lives prior to European contact survive in their old villages and camps. Based on the distinctive items each group left, archaeologists call the Algonkian speakers Colington and the Iroquoian speakers Cashie (pronounced ca-shy).

Colington peoples

Colington cooking pot.

Colington cooking pot.

Archaeologists rely on artifacts they find in the soil for their understanding of the past. Fragments of pottery often survive, and so archaeologists categorize pottery-making Indian cultures by how they made and decorated pottery. By 800, North Carolina’s coastal Algonkians, whom archaeologists refer to as Colington peoples, were making pots tempered with crushed shells and decorated with fabric impressions. Carved lines and geometric patterns added flair to the rims. The pots included small, simple bowls; large, hemispherical bowls, looking much like today’s wide-mouthed mixing bowls; and medium-sized, cone-shaped bowls, whose bottoms stuck securely in hearth ash or sand.

The other Colington artifacts aren’t much different than those used by other contemporary groups in the state. They molded clay into pipes. They fashioned stone into triangular arrow points, blades, tools for woodworking, and milling stones. They turned bone and shell into hoes, picks, ladles, fish hooks, sewing awls, and punches. They also carved bone and shell into jewelry, such as tubular beads and gorgets. Sometimes, people used altogether different materials, such as freshwater pearls and copper, for adornment. A panther mask archaeologists found may have been used for ceremony.

The Colington were the people Europeans first met and wrote about in North Carolina. They had lived in the same general territory since about 800 CE, a territory that spanned the Tidewater from southeastern Virginia into the northern half of North Carolina, as far south as present-day Onslow County.

Colington society and village life

Colington society — like that of most eastern Algonkians — revolved around chiefdoms, formal religion, and a priesthood. Chiefdoms claimed distinct chunks of the Tidewater, and their various territories scattered across the region. Politically similar to the Appalachians’ Qualla people, Colington chiefs apparently ruled democratically rather than autocratically. While their power was nothing to trifle with and they could sway decisions with persuasion, they generally governed by consensus. That is, they listened to and did what a council of representatives from the chiefdom’s villages decided was best. The chief’s village, which archaeologists call the capital village, was usually bigger than others in the chiefdom, and it tended to be centrally located
within the claimed area.

Spotted Turtle

The diet of the Colington Algonkians included turtles. Image source. About the photograph

The Colington Algonkians used several types of settlements, ranging from capital villages, common villages, and seasonal villages and camps for specialized activities. Capital villages were centers of political and religious activities. Smaller than capital villages, common villages were those bound to and loyal to the chief. Apparently, most were seats of farming with at least some people always there. Some were stockaded, but others were not. The seasonal village, as its name implies, was occupied at certain seasons. On Colington Island, for example, archaeologists found a place where people spent summers fishing and collecting shellfish.

Archaeologists believe that each Colington chiefdom stretched over a territory that could support the agriculture, hunting, gathering, and fishing needed to support a large population. Most capital and common villages sat along sounds and estuaries, or on high banks and ridges next to major rivers and their tributaries where sandy loam good for agriculture existed. The water bodies, depending on what they were, also provided shellfish, turtles and even alligators. The upland oak and hickory forests were sources of nuts, game, and other resources.

Colington life was, in many ways, similar to other Indian groups across living across North Carolina after 1000 CE. They had permanent, sometimes stockaded villages; they had agriculture, but never stopped relying on wild foods. They fashioned distinctive pottery. They traded and formed alliances. They had priests and chiefs, but they made important decisions by consensus.

Burial practices

Color illustration of an American Indian charnel house, a tall building with nine corpses lying side by side on an elevated platform.

This engraving, based on a painting made by John White in the 1580s, shows an Algonkian ossuary. Illustration by Theodor de Bry. About the illustration

The Colington people did, however, have a form of burial quite different from most other North Carolina people living then. They, along with their Iroquoian neighbors, used ossuaries, or communal burials, where the bones of many were placed in a large grave at one time. Some ossuaries, such as ones along the Chowan River in Currituck County or at Gloucester in Carteret County, had as many as 58 persons buried together — old and young, male and female.

Apparently, the tradition of mass burials was part of a strong northern tradition that made its way south to the Carolina coast. It brought with it not just a way to bury the dead, but ways to prepare the dead for burial.

Colington communities had mortuary temples tended by priests. In the temples, deceased people were kept until it was time for burial. It’s still unclear how often ceremonies for mass burials occurred. It’s also unclear whether there were different temples for political and religious leaders and for common people. And it’s not clear where the ossuaries were in relation to the villages. It seems, but archaeologists aren’t sure yet, that the ossuaries were placed in cemetery areas on a village’s northern edge. Sometimes offerings, such as shell beads or bone pins, accompanied the burials.

European contact

By 1650, European expansion brought Colington life to an end. Many Algonkians died from European diseases to which they had no immunity. In 1675, the remaining members of the once-powerful Chowanoke tribe were put on a Gates County reservation. After the middle of the eighteenth century, there is no more mention of these people in colonial records.

Cashie

Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway tribes were the Colington Algonkians’ neighbors after 800 CE. The Tuscarora lived in the Inner Coastal Plain, forming a confederation of three tribes. Together, the Tuscarora tribes claimed the area from the Roanoke to the Neuse rivers and the western estuarine border (or where the tide meets river currents) to the fall line. The Meherrin and Nottoway lived farther north, occupying the Meherrin and Nottoway river basins.

Archaeologists label the pottery these Iroquoians made as Cashie, and so this has become the name for their culture and lifeway between 800 and 1750.

Cashie village life

Photograph of a conch shell on a sandy beach.

Conch shells were important trade items for the Cashie and the Colington. Image source. About the photograph

Archaeologists find many similarities in how the Colington and Cashie people lived. The Cashie used the same kinds of tools and jewelry as the Colington. They located their villages, farmsteads, and hunting or collecting camps in places to take best advantage of what the territory offered. Some villages had stockades, while others were open. The Cashie traded with the Colington for pottery, conch shells, and shell-bead jewelry.

Because the soil of the Inner Coastal Plain is the most productive in the state, Cashie agriculture was not tied to floodplains, as it was in the Piedmont, Mountains, or Tidewater. The Iroquoians settled on loamy uplands along streams, where the best soils were located. The early European explorer John Lawson wrote descriptions of young men working hard in fields of corn as well as hunting to provide food for their families. This practice of men working fields was not just true of Iroquoian tribes, but of Tidewater and Piedmont groups Lawson observed.

What’s left of one small Cashie village sits by the Roanoke River at a site called Jordan’s Landing. Although the Cashie village at Jordan’s Landing has not been completely excavated, archaeologists can tell that it was stockaded, and its shape was oval. Near the village are long ridges of fertile sandy loam, and a lush oak-hickory forest covers the ridge above the river. Clearly, people chose this site with an eye to the nearby variety of wild foods and arable land for agriculture. Food remains recovered at Jordan’s Landing show the Cashie grew corn and beans. They ate hickory nuts and several kinds of animals: deer, bear, raccoon, possum, and rabbit. Fish, turtle and terrapin, mussel, and turkey were also eaten.

Political life and rank

Like the Colington Algonkians, the Cashie Iroquoians typically buried people in ossuaries. But apparently, Cashie ossuaries were family rather than community burials. Most have only two to five people placed in them. Also, where Algonkian ossuaries tend to have few if any grave offerings, the Cashie generally put tools such as bone awls and jewelry such as shell beads in the graves. Some had so many offerings that archaeologists wonder if they suggest social status or rank for the family buried there.

Besides this ceremonial difference, the Cashie organized their political life differently than the Colington. Unlike the Algonkian’s Tidewater chiefdoms with its capital villages and allegiances, each Iroquoian village was autonomous. European accounts tell of a Tuscarora Confederacy composed of three tribes, but each seemed to retain political independence.

Oak Island

While the Algonkians and Iroquoians dominated most of North Carolina’s coast, small tribes of Siouan-speaking people wedged in the southern corner below the Cape Fear River. Two of them were the Waccamaw and Cape Fear tribes. Archaeologists draw them under the cultural label Oak Island.

Oak Island — as a culture and way of life — is still a puzzle because little archaeological work has been written up or done. Presumably, Oak Island Siouans were more affected by goings-on in South Carolina than in North Carolina. Archaeologists think this because the styles and techniques of their pottery were more like those to the south than those to the north.

Yet Oak Island people, too, sometimes used ossuaries, especially in areas closest to the borders with their Iroquoian and Algonkian neighbors. Presumably, they ate the same foods, lived in the same kinds and sizes of villages, and used the same kinds of everyday tools and jewelry that other coastal groups did.