North Carolina History Digital Textbook Project

Excavating Occaneechi Town: An archaeology primer

From the UNC Research Laboratories of Archaeology


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Map of the sites of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology's Occaneechi excavation sites, near Hillsborough, N.C.

Map of the sites of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology's Occaneechi excavations, near Hillsborough, N.C. (Map courtesy of Research Laboratories of Archaeology. More about the map)

The Occaneechi in the Piedmont

When European explorers first entered the Virginia and Carolina Piedmont, they found it occupied by several small Indian tribes who shared a common culture and a similar language. These Siouan tribes also shared a mixed subsistence of hunting, gathering, and agriculture, and a social system regulated by ties of kinship and reciprocity.

As the colonial frontier was pushed into the Piedmont and as Indian and European interaction was intensified, the Occaneechi tribe became prominent among the Siouan groups. The Occaneechi controlled much of the deerskin trade, and their language became the lingua franca of the Piedmont. Their pivotal role in the fur trade came about partly because one of their villages, on an island in the Roanoke River, was astride the Great Trading Path from Virginia to Georgia.

The island village of the Occaneechi was visited by John Lederer in 1670.1 After the Occaneechis “barbarously murthered” six Cherokees who were attempting to establish trade relations with the Virginia colonists, Lederer, fearing for his life, cut short his visit. James Needham and Gabriel Arthur, who traveled through the same territory in 1673, observed that the Occaneechis controlled the colonial trade, which endowed them with an importance that far exceeded their numbers.2 They seem to have maintained and reinforced their role in the trade network through warfare and intimidation. Thus, the Occaneechi tribe earned a fierce and pugnacious reputation, which eventually led to an eruption of armed hostilities with Nathaniel Bacon’s militia in 1676.

After pursuing a group of Susquehannock Indians into Occaneechi territory, Bacon convinced some “Manakins” and “Annalectins,” who had also joined the Occaneechi, to aid his forces in defeating the Susquehannocks. After that victory was accomplished, Bacon then attacked the Occaneechis.3

After the battle with Bacon, the Occaneechis were so reduced in numbers that they could no longer defend their island stronghold on the Roanoke. The survivors abandoned their home territory, retreated southward, and reestablished a village on the Eno River, near present Hillsborough, North Carolina. In 1701, English surveyor John Lawson visited the relocated Occaneechi Town where he observed that there were “no Indians having greater Plenty of Provisions than these.” (Lawson)

After Lawson’s visit, conditions worsened for the Occaneechi, as well as for the other Siouan tribes, and by 1722, disease, warfare, and rum had virtually destroyed Indian societies in the Piedmont. Remnants of once autonomous groups either huddled together around Fort Christanna in Virginia or moved to join their cousins, the Catawba, in South Carolina. By 1730, except for a few isolated Indian families, the North Carolina Piedmont lay mostly vacant, awaiting the arrival of hordes of colonists from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Occaneechi Town discovered

In the spring of 1983, archaeologists discovered a village site — which they called the Fredricks site — near Hillsborough, N.C. After finding several European artifacts and Indian-made pottery fragments on the surface, they dug test pits in search of archaeological deposits. Three excavated pits contained human skeletal remains accompanied by European- and Indian-made grave goods — items that had been buried in the graves. Most of these artifacts dated to the late 1600s or very early 1700s, the appropriate period for Occaneechi Town.

From 1983 to 1986 and again in 1995, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology conducted archaeological investigations at the site, confirming that the village was, in fact, historic Occaneechi Town.

The photographs and movies that follow show the methods used by the archaeologists to conduct their investigations.