The Indians living in eastern North Carolina were much more advanced than Sir Walter Ralegh's colonists believed. The total number of Algonquians alone probably exceeded 5,000, and may have been as high as 10,000. The region was dotted with towns, most of them small and temporary, but largely self-sufficient and possessing a variety of private dwellings, public buildings, and common areas. The towns in turn made up chiefdoms, empires, confederations, and alliances of various sizes, duration, and degrees of sophistication. Inhabitants of these towns lived not in the portable wigwams of popular lore, but in functional, more or less fixed houses, some reported to have had as many as five rooms. They enjoyed a standard of living that belies the term "savage" invariably applied to them by the colonists.
In 1585, the artist John White, who later returned to Roanoke Island in 1587 as governor of the Cittie of Ralegh, made detailed drawings of two very different Indian towns. Pomeiooc stood near Lake Mattamuskeet in present-day Hyde County, North Carolina. Surrounded by a palisade of stripped, sharpened logs, the town consisted of eighteen buildings arranged around a circular clearing. Outside the palisade lay fields and an artificial water hole. Conversely, Secotan had neither a stockade nor a water hole, covered a much greater area than Pomeiooc, and had a broad main street connected to paths winding among shade trees, cornfields, plots of tobacco and squash, and scattered houses. The town appears on White's maps on the south side of the Pamlico River, in present-day Beaufort County, perhaps on Durham Creek. The half-domed structure which appears in the upper right corner of De Bry's engraving of Secotan is a shelter for watchmen who made "continual cryes and noyse" in order to keep animals away from ripening corn.
The houses in both towns were very similar. Thomas Harriot, a member of the 1585-1586 colony, recorded that they were "made of small poles made fast at the tops" with any of several kinds of animal or vegetable cordage, "in rounde forme after the maner as is used in many arbories in our gardens of England." "In most townes," he added, the houses were "covered with barkes, and in some with...mattes made of long rushes, from the tops of the houses downe to the ground."
Houses covered with bark were less drafty and easier to heat. Since suitable bark was hard to obtain in large quantities for construction and repair, such houses were probably reserved for weroances -- kings and noblemen, and their families.
Individuals of lower rank probably live in the mat-covered houses. Mats could be raised and lowered to let in light and fresh air, but were less-efficient insulators. White drew several of these houses with mats raised or removed in order to show their interiors. Four such houses in the Secotan engraving and two in Pomeiooc have a bench or table, evidently used for storage. Some large houses may also have had a shrine. White does not show this feature, but during the 1584 reconnaissance, Arthur Barlowe observed it in a nobleman's house on Roanoke Island, and John Smith saw it in one of Powhatan's houses at Werowocomico in 1607 or 1608. With few exceptions the houses and other buildings in both engravings are rectangular in plan. Their length, which according to Harriot ranged from 36 to 72 feet, was "commonly double to the breadth."
Many Indian town-dwellers in this region seem to have been weroances and their relatives, retainers, and slaves. Even after death, weroances held a place of honor. Prominent in the foreground of the Secotan drawing is the building where a priest tended their preserved bodies.
Indian towns also provided residences for priests and healers, and central places for feasts and religious ceremonies. The drawing and engraving of Pomeiooc show a temple, "builded rownde, and couered with skynne matts," larger than any other building except the king's house. Those of Secotan show Indians of unknown status eating a meal in the middle of the main street. All four pieces depict exuberant outdoor celebration or worship.
The Indians of the region also traveled to nearby towns in order to conduct business. Some negotiations and deliberations were probably conducted over meals or, as in many towns in the southeastern United States, over black drink-highly caffenated liquid made from scorched yaupon leaves.
Most Indian commoners, it seems, lived outside the towns, closer to the extensive fields, fish weirs, and hunting and foraging grounds needed to support the population. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of scattered houses and farmsteads throughout the region.
During their tenure, the Roanoke colonists described or mentioned many towns in northeastern North Carolina including:
Unfortunately, the only surviving graphic representations of these towns are on maps, which are often inaccurate and sometimes misleading.
On his sketch maps, White marked the locations of towns with red dots — unmistakable, but lacking in detail. On his engraved map of the same region (1590) De Bry not only differed with White on the placement of several towns, but also used a palisade symbol to denote every town, including Secotan which clearly was not palisaded.
Contemporary written accounts hold clues about towns that escaped mapping and drawing, some of which the colonists never saw. For example, the etymology of Wococon, from which modern Ocracoke derives, may indicate a palisaded town abandoned before English contact.
The longevity of every Indian town depended on the fertility of the soil, the bounty of nearby forests and waters, and the stability of internal and external political and military arrangements. When fields played out, game fled, or war threatened, inhabitants of a town simply moved to a more suitable area and built a new town. Small towns like Pomeiooc may have lasted only a generation. The much larger Chowanoke complex seems to have been used continuously until the late seventeenth century, when white settlers drove the inhabitants onto a reservation.
Once abandoned, buildings crumbled, and fields and streets reverted to forest. Inundation, soil-building, erosion, and other natural processes gradually hid or removed the bone, shell, pottery, and stone that the former inhabitants had left behind. Because most written records of the pre-colonial period are vague or contradictory and physical evidence is hard to find without systematic digging or remarkable good luck, valuable Indian sites have undoubtedly been washed away or paved over. Archaeology is slow and expensive; so many suspected sites lie virtually unexamined. Even so, archaeological finds belie the English classification of Algonquian life as "savage." The search goes on.
Text based on "Indian Towns and Buildings in Coastal north Carolina 400 Years Ago," by David Stick;
expanded and edited by lebame houston and Wynne Dough.
Last updated: April 14, 2015