Native Americans on Colington Islands


The Coastal Villagers

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 what's generally called the Tidewater. The term Algonkian isn't a tribal name; it refers, rather, to the language family coastal tribes shared who lived in the broad stretch from Canada to Carolina. Iroquoian speakers--the Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottaway tribes--lived more inland, on the Interior Coastal Plain. Generally, the Tuscarora's boundaries began just south of the Neuse River and extended north to where the Virginia border is today. The Meherrin and Nottoway stayed between the Roanoke and Chowan Rivers.

Through 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," accenting the last syllable). 

Cashie Indians

Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway tribes were the Colington Algonkians' neighbors after AD 800. The Tuscarora lived in the Interior 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 drainages.

Archaeologists label the pottery these Iroquoians made as Cashie, and, hence, give an umbrella name for their culture and lifeway between AD 800 and 1750.

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

What's left of one Cashie village sits along the margin of the Roanoke River at a site called Jordan's Landing. The village is small, sitting on the confluence of a small stream and the Roanoke. Long ridges of fertile sandy loam sit behind it. A lush oak-hickory forest covers the bank's ridge. Clearly, people picked the village 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.

Cashie agriculture was not tied to floodplains, as it was in the Piedmont, Mountains, or Tidewater. The Interior Coastal Plain still contains the most productive agricultural soils in North Carolina, located in the loamy uplands along streams. The Iroquoians certainly observed this. They settled their villages on or near those uplands, regardless of how close or how big nearby floodplains were. 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.

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. A ditch bounded the village on its north and west sides, which people gradually filled in with trash. Whether the ditch was formed by natural erosion or whether it resulted from people using its soil to bank the base of the stockade is not clear. Nor can archaeologists make out from the pattern of the few postmolds they found anything about the size and shapes of the village houses. The people's cooking hearths are still visible, and so are some pits they may have used for storage.

Excavations also showed the Cashie at Jordan's Landing buried their dead on the village's southeastern side. Like the Colington Algonkians, the Cashie Iroquoians typically buried people in ossuaries.

But the Cashie practice had some differences. 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 like bone awls and jewelry like shell beads in the graves. Some had so many offerings, 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. 

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