Inner Banks: 7,000 Year History of Native Americans

Bill Hitchcock

indianThe Inner Banks of North Carolina and surrounding coastal areas may not be what first comes to mind when you think of Native American Indians. But the following article shows just how rich in history our area is.

Native Americans have long history in area
Drew C. Wilson
Freedom ENC

HAVELOCK — Long before early American colonists in New England sat down with the natives to share a Thanksgiving feast in 1621, tribes of American Indians were enjoying their own feasts on river shores in Eastern North Carolina.

“When you think of Thanksgiving and the Europeans, the Native American people were here a lot longer than that,” said Carmen Lombardo, natural resources and cultural resources manager at Cherry Point. “There were Native Americans in our area for a really long time.”

Material found at Cherry Point, including pottery shards and charcoal from fire pits, have been carbon-dated back 7,000 years.

At the Croatan National Forest, carbonized wood from fire pits has been radio carbon-dated to 10,000 years, according to Joel Hardison, zone archaeologist with the Uwharrie National Forest and Croatan National Forest.

That dates back to the early Archaic Period of American Indian history, from 10,000 to 3,000 years ago, and runs through the Woodland Period, from 3,000 to 1,000 years ago.

According to Rick Richardson, base archaeologist and cultural resources program manager at Camp Lejeune, the primary distinction between the two periods is that there wasn’t much pottery being produced until the late Archaic Period. Pottery became widespread in the Woodland Period.

“The Archaic folks were primarily hunters and gatherers, but primarily hunting,” Richardson said. The evidence of that lifestyle is in the artifacts.

“You find much more in the way of stone axes during the Archaic Period,” he said.

Back then, the atlatl was the American Indian hunter’s main means of catching prey.

“It was basically a way of propelling a short spear,” Richardson said. “The points were typically shorter than what you’d think of the throwing spear.

“You also find what we refer to as banner stones or atlatl stones that were attached to the spear-thrower to give it weight. It was kind of a composite tool, with a stick that would go through the stone. And at the end there would be a hook. You would put the spear in the hook and propel it.

“The bow and arrow was not invented on the continent until the Woodland Period. You don’t find the small arrow points through the Archaic Period.”

Artifacts from Cherry Point and Croatan National Forest sites show that American Indians lived in this area through both the Archaic and Woodland Periods.

At Cherry Point, small spear points, arrow tips and crushing tools have been found as has pottery shards, quartz and chert flake. Also found were hammering tools used for crushing nuts, grains and shells.

“The entire shoreline of Cherry Point has signs of potential occupation,” Lombardo said, adding almost all of the sites are within 100 feet of the water.

Layers of material, called midden, are mostly oyster shells and clam shells with the bones of mammals including deer, bear, rabbits and squirrels mixed in.

“Whatever was in the bowl that evening,” Lombardo said. “The diet itself was predominated by shellfish. Mammals were secondary to their diets.”

Lombardo said a 1985 survey found a two-acre “super site” of artifacts that indicate a long-term occupation by American Indians. The exact location is kept secret to protect the site, he said.

In 2001 and 2002, the site was excavated. Artifacts and reports were sent to the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.

“All of the material was termed significant as it relates to Native Americans in this area,” Lombardo said. An application has been submitted to have the site included on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Generally, on the Croatan, the majority of sites deal with the Woodland time when they were dealing with pottery that’s tempered with rock, shell, or even broken pieces of old pottery,” Hardison said.

Natives would use fabric to impress designs on the unfired pots. Sometimes corncobs were rolled on the soft clay to make a pattern, he said.

Evidence of post holes and footers for homes has been found, Hardison said. He said natives would dig small holes and place saplings into them around in a circle. They would then bend the sapling tips together to frame their homes. For the roof, they would use sheets of birch bark, cattail mats and hides.

“They would build several of these inside palisade walls,” Hardison said. “The major villages are located on the major rivers.

“There were times when the crops failed and they would break out in smaller groups until the time was better in the major village.”

The American Indians most closely associated with the Havelock-Cherry Point area are the Neusiok, but they are of more recent history. For several hundred years, the Neusiok hunted and fished on both sides of the Neuse River but had a major settlement on a peninsula at the mouth of Slocum Creek, Lombardo said.

The place had good visibility, resources, and shelter from the wind.

“Resources just abound at the mouth of that creek,” Lombardo said.

The group all but disappeared in 1711. A band of Indians, frustrated with the taking of their land and other injustices, attacked 150 colonists. The event sparked a deadly response from the settlers who sought out what natives could be found and killed them.

“The fact that the tribes are no longer here is an artifact of our colonization,” Lombardo said.

Richardson said a lot remains unknown about the Neusioks.

“Was it a tribe or a group of people?” he said. “I think most archaeologists would go with a name place rather than a people.”

Richardson said the Neusiok would likely have been part of the larger linguistic group of people referred to as Algonquin, who ranged all around Eastern North Carolina and were the same group that met the first English colonists at Roanoke Island in 1584.

But before that, where had the Native Americans come from?

According to Richardson, paleontologists once thought that one mass migration occurred from Asia across an ice bridge at the Bering Strait 12,500 years ago. But new artifacts have pushed that date to perhaps 15,000 or 16,000 years ago.

“Some of the early people could have come across from Europe, ice-hopping across Canada and down the coast,” Richardson said.

These would have been the descendants of early native North Carolinians.

“There were multiple groups migrating over many thousands of years, which is why you have many different language groups,” Richardson said. “They were not all descended from one people.”

The picture of the earliest inhabitants is ever evolving as new sites are found. Such places are all over Cherry Point for Lombardo to explore.

“In some ways, it’s kind of eerie walking into somebody’s kitchen and not knowing it,” Lombardo said. “A quick look around and you see shell material. People were here for thousands and thousands of years.

“It puts it into context. We’re not the be all and end all of the human race. Life was tough back then, but you didn’t have to dodge cars and trucks.”


Author’s Yougler Profile is at  Bill Hitchcock.

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