North Carolina landscape features

Native American History in North Carolina

For thousands of years, the land that would become North Carolina was home to a thriving population of native peoples. Tribes like the Cherokee, Catawba, and Tuscarora lived off the bountiful lands.

North Carolina landscape features - mountains, rivers, forests
The lush mountain landscape of North Carolina prior to European colonization

Mighty rivers like the Catawba and Yadkin provided passage to new hunting grounds teeming with game. And in village clearings, Catawba women tended crops of maize, beans and squash, singing songs passed down from their mothers and grandmothers.

Cherokee men returned from the hunt with furs and meat to feed their families.

Life followed the rhythms of the seasons. Winters could be lean, but still the people persevered until the return of spring.

For the Cherokee, Catawba, Tuscarora, and many more, this land of forest and river was home. Its smells, its sounds, its changing seasons connected them to the spirits of their ancestors. They became part of its rhythms over generations.

Yet unseen over the horizon, momentous change was on the winds. Soon tall ships with billowing sails would arrive bearing strangers from distant shores.

Disease and musket shot would precede them, and for the native inhabitants, nothing would ever be the same. Their ancient cycle would be interrupted, their way of life forever altered by the newcomers who claimed these lands for their own.

But that time had not yet come. For now, they lived as their forebears had lived, from river to forest and back again.

Early Contact

In 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto led an expedition that became the first Europeans to encounter native tribes in North Carolina’s interior. Later, small colonies sprang up along the coastline, like the under-prepared and ill-fated 1585 settlement at Roanoke Island.

Relations between natives like the Secotan and these interlopers began cordially enough. Chiefs like Wingina greeted the colonists, and natives like Manteo and Wanchese even crossed the sea to visit England.

Tobacco’s Deadly Allure

The European settlers quickly became enthralled by tobacco, this curious leaf of the New World. Back home, tobacco fetched exorbitant prices, lining the pockets of merchant investors.

settlers harvesting tobacco plants
Tobacco plant harvest

The colonists claimed ever more native lands for tobacco plantations. Forests fell before their axes as they expanded inland along the river banks. Hawks and squirrels fled the rolling fields of tobacco.

The natives looked on bemused as the newcomers poisoned themselves with the bitter leaves. But the tobacco trade’s grim legacy for them would be displacement and death.

Blood Begets Blood

As tobacco profits grew, so too did the colonists’ boldness. Plantation gangs raided Indian villages, killing men and capturing women and children as slaves.

Outraged natives retaliated in kind. Homesteads were burned, settlers slain and mutilated. Neither side showed quarter in this spasm of vengeance and counter-vengeance.

“For each drop of our blood, we shall take ten of theirs,” vowed a grizzled Powhatan warrior. And so the rivers ran red as the grim cycle of violence spun faster, neither side blameless.

An Uneasy Peace

Gradually the official violence subsided into an uneasy truce. Treaties were struck, boundaries drawn. Indian children were taken as wards to be educated and converted.

Yet mistrust lingered beneath the surface, ready to be stirred up by ambition or anger. The two peoples lived separate, regarding the other with suspicion from across a gulf centuries wide.

“Though our chiefs clasp hands, their young men scorn ours, and ours theirs,” remarked a native diplomat. “I fear the ember of hatred still smolders.”

Blood and Retribution

In 1711, the Tuscarora had enough. That September they attacked settlements in Bath County, killing over 130. Colonists defeated the Tuscarora in battle, but new hostilities kept erupting.

By 1715, the defeated Tuscarora had dwindled to a few hundred who fled north. The colonists’ hunger for land was never sated. Yamasee, Cherokee, Catawba – all were pushed inexorably inland by musket and axe.

Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears

For years, American settlers cast envious eyes upon the fertile valleys and mountains held by Eastern tribes like the Cherokee. Lusting after gold and land, they pressed ever deeper into Indian territory.

President Andrew Jackson
President Andrew Jackson championed Indian removal

Chief Justice Marshall defended the Cherokee’s sovereignty, but President Jackson vowed their removal. When gold was found within the north Georgia homeland of Cherokee Nation, the people’s fate was sealed.

In 1830, Congress sealed the fate of Eastern tribes with the Indian Removal Act. Jackson soon sent troops to force the Indians from their lands east of the Mississippi. Land in what is now called Oklahoma, barren and unfamiliar, was set aside for those to be tossed from their ancestral homes.

The decade to follow saw a series of tribal removals throughout the Southeast. And near the end, a sham treaty forced upon the Cherokee was the final straw.

Some hundred Cherokee fled into the mountains, evading capture. Today their descendants, the Eastern Band, reside on the Qualla Boundary reservation in beautiful Appalachia. They carry on the heritage of their forebears who walked this land centuries before.

Soldiers rounded up the remainder at bayonet point—17,000 souls forced to abandon their Smoky Mountain homelands. They left in the fall, too late to survive winter out West.

On that long, bitter march, some four thousand Cherokee perished from illness, starvation and bitter cold. In Indian Territory, the survivors struggled to rebuild amidst disease and poverty.

The Cherokee and other exiled tribes clung to their identity through those dark years. Though torn from their homeland, their spirits could not be broken. Their legacy lived on in their children’s hearts, awaiting the day when their voices would be heard again.

Against long odds, Native Americans persevered in North Carolina. Though robbed of land and liberty, their will was never broken. Tribes like the Catawba, Lumbee and Haliwa-Saponi slowly regained portions of their identity and sovereignty.

Junaluska’s Choice

Cherokee warrior Junaluska

The year was 1814. A young Cherokee warrior named Junaluska earned renown fighting alongside General Andrew Jackson to defeat the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

“As long as the sun shines and the grass grows there shall be friendship between us,” Jackson told him afterwards. Junaluska never forgot those words.

But years later, when gold was found on Cherokee lands, President Jackson decreed their removal westward. Junaluska watched in dismay as his people were driven from their valley homes at bayonet point.

“If I had known Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him at the Horseshoe,” Junaluska reflected bitterly. The great chief regretted his loyalty to this false friend to the end of his days.

“I will fight no more forever,” mourned Chief John Ross as cherished homelands were relinquished for barren plains out West. Driven by greed, the wheels of removal now turned, crushing all in their path. But the people’s spirit would not be extinguished.

“I remember walking that trail, so long, so many dying along the way,” said an elderly Cherokee man, tears in his eyes. “We thought the grief would never end.”

The Vanishing Continues

Even after removal, the Native American remnants in North Carolina found no respite. Their reservation lands withered before an onslaught of legal and extralegal maneuverings.

Politicians whittled down reservations again and again through legal chicanery and outright theft. Diseases further withered their numbers. Many thought the “Indian problem” would resolve itself through total assimilation or extinction.

“Will no treaty halt their advance?” lamented a Catawba elder as white settlers claimed their lands acre by acre.

Slivers of Light

Lumbee resistance leader Lowrie
Lumbee resistance leader Lowrie

Against steep odds, a few warriors persevered. Henry Berry Lowry, a Lumbee hero, led bold bands that resisted the white power structure into the 1870s.

Chiefs like James Kegg defended their people’s treaty rights in court. Mothers secretly passed on native languages and rituals under threat of punishment.

Though robbed of land and liberty, their will was never broken. They kept their identity alive through the long, bitter decades.

The Long Road Back

In the 1880s, what is believe by many to be a remnant of the coastal Croatan Indians gained the state’s official recognition as the Lumbee tribe. Their children could attend new Indian schools at last. But racist “one drop” laws barred most from voting or public facilities into the 20th century.

Still they persevered, slowly regaining portions of their stolen identity and sovereignty, fighting for state recognition of the Haliwa-Saponi, Coharie and others. The old rituals continued under the Carolina stars, awaiting the day their voices would be heard again.

Hard-Won Victories

The winds of change blew strong in the 1970s as activists pressed for reforms. In 1971, the state recognized the Coharie and Waccamaw-Siouan tribes after years of advocacy. New tribal colleges like Pembroke State (now part of the University of North Carolina system) educated the next generation of Native leaders.

Legal victories followed, as Lumbee like Horace Locklear became North Carolina’s first Indian attorney in 1972. Henry Oxendine broke barriers as the first American Indian state legislator. They chipped away steadily at the entrenched discrimination limiting their people.

“Though the road is long, we take each step with joy,” Oxendine remarked. Brick by brick, decade by decade, their efforts built greater sovereignty and overturned the prejudices of the past era.

The Journey Forward

Today the drum beats on at tribal powwows across North Carolina, as young and old celebrate their heritage. Children learn ancient Catawba dances and the Cherokee language in new cultural programs. College students proudly sport turquoise graduation stoles embroidered with beaded wolf clan symbols.

At last, their voices are being heard and their rights acknowledged after so many bitter decades. Though the journey continues, they walk with hearts uplifted toward a new era of understanding and hope.

And despite decades of lobbying, the Lumbee have not yet crossed the finish line for full federal recognition as a nation. There are strong voices for their case, and loud opposition, each set against a murky backdrop of tangled ancestral roots.

It’s a stalemate at this point. By sheer numbers, the ninth-largest tribal enrollment in the United States has never been awarded the complete sovereignty they seek.

“Will they honor the treaties and promises this time?” asked a Catawba elder hopefully. “We have learned from the past and look now to a better future, in harmony and mutual respect.”