Tuscarora of North Carolina

views updated

Tuscarora of North Carolina

ETHNONYMS: Croatan, Barbarous Indians


Identification and Location. The Tuscarora are one of the original Six Nations of the Iroquois. Their name comes from the native term skaru:re, which means "the People of the Shirt" or "the Hemp Gatherers." The Tuscarora League in North Carolina consisted of at least three constituent groups: the Katenuaka, or Kau Ta Noah, which translates as "People of the Submerged Pine trees"; the Akawaentcaka; and the Skuaren or Skah-roh-reh (Tuscarora). The Tuscarora live in Robeson County in the southeastern part of North Carolina. The major river in Robeson County, the Lumber River (originally Drowning Creek), flows northwest to southeast, feeding into various swamps, including the Big Marsh, Big Raft, Richland, Burnt, and Back swamps.

Demography. The bands keep tribal rolls confidential, and therefore exact population figures are unavailable. Estimates place the population between 1,500 and 3,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tuscarora is part of the Iroquoian linguistic family group, which also includes Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. Cherokee also is in this group, although the Cherokee are not members of the Six Nations. Those who belong to the Confederacy refer to themselves as Haudenosaunee or Hotinonshonni, which means "People of the Longhouse."

History and Cultural Relations

One of the first Europeans to make contact with the Tuscarora was John Lawson, who was hired in 1701 by the king of England to explore the interior of what was then called Carolina. Lawson traveled up the Neuse River and mentioned meeting the Tuscarora in his report. At that time the Tuscarora numbered around five thousand and occupied the entire Carolina piedmont, extending from southern Virginia into the northern part of South Carolina. Also in 1701, Nathaniel Batts entered the region to trade, bringing with him metal pots, steel traps, knives, metal axes, guns, and, soon thereafter, liquor. In 1707 a smallpox epidemic devastated the Tuscarora. Overall, epidemic diseases would claim more lives than would warfare.

Traveling regularly between western New York and North Carolina to trade, some Tuscarora settled in Pennsylvania after receiving the governor's permission. However, European colonists began to encroach on their land and kidnap and sell the Tuscarora into slavery. In 1710 the Tuscarora petitioned the colonial governor of Pennsylvania to protest the taking of their lands and the enslavement of their people. The governor ignored the request, and in 1711 war broke out. Certain villages tried to prevent the war, but a leader known as King Hancock sent out warriors to attack the colonists.

The Tuscarora had formed a confederacy with various small tribes throughout the coastal part of North Carolina, and at first they were too powerful for the colonists. They attacked and massacred over two hundred Swiss colonists who had settled on Tuscarora land between the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound. In early 1712 Colonel John Barnwell arrived from South Carolina at the head of thirty white militiamen and some Yamasee, Cheraw, and Cherokee warriors. They attacked the Tuscarora's main village of Fort Narhantes and slaughtered all its inhabitants, who at the time consisted only of women, children, and elderly people. Joined by 250 North Carolina militiamen, Barnwell continued on to the village known as Fort Hancock on Catechna Creek, where they faced a formidable force of Tuscarora warriors. The battle lasted ten days, and 1,400 Tuscarora were killed and 1,000 were enslaved. To this day Catechna Creek has great significance for the Tuscarora. Although a treaty was signed, war broke out again the next year and the Tuscarora lost a thousand people during the three-day battle at Fort Neoheroka.

In 1715 another treaty was signed, and the remaining Tuscarora were placed on a reservation along the Pamlico River in Hyde County near Lake Mattamuskeet. Other survivors slowly migrated north, eventually joining the Seneca and Mohawk nations and becoming one of the little brothers of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. In 1717 King Tom Blount and his people, who had not gone to war, were granted land on the Roanoke River in Bertie County.

The North Carolina colonial government failed to protect land rights on the Tuscarora Reservation, and much of the land eventually ended up in the hands of white leaser's, forcing the Tuscarora to join the small groups that were migrating north. The migration occurred over a ninety-year period between 1713 and 1803. Some of the Tuscarora settled among the Oneida in villages along the Unadilla and Susquehanna rivers and among the Seneca along the Genesee River. According to the archaeologist David Phelps of East Carolina University, 645 families and five chiefs moved into the area of Hoke County and later into Robeson County, North Carolina. Many of them took Christian surnames that were common around the area of the reservation, such as Locklear, Jacobs, Oxendine, Chavis, Maynor, Lowrie, and Cumbo.

In 1732 Henry Berry and James Lowrie received land grants from King George II of England on Lowrie/Back Swamp, east of the Lumber River. For a hundred years the Tuscarora lived quietly in the area of Robeson County. During that period the ancestors of the Tuscarora of Robeson County lived by small farming. Because of their limited education, few Tuscarora had proper title to their land. However, some did own title to their land, voted, held office in the county government, and fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

In 1835 the North Carolina state constitutional convention was called on to address the question of disenfranchisement for persons of color (this term was applied to anyone who was not white, including Indians). Once disenfranchisement went into effect, it caused many people in the area of Robeson County to lose their land. In 1868 the state gave the Indians rights to their land in the state constitution.

In 1885 the state gave the Indians the name Croatan, and two years later it established the Croatan Indian Normal School (today the University of North Carolina at Pembroke). From 1888 until the 1930s the Indians of Robeson County petitioned the government for control of and funds for their schools. In the 1930s a group of Indians from Robeson County voiced their opposition to the name Croatan. Those people felt that the name denied them their true cultural identity and instead wanted to be recognized as Siouan. Some families among the Tuscarora of North Carolina were descended from a Siouan-speaking people, the Saponi, who were part of the colonial-era Tuscarora Confederacy. At the same time another group favored the name Cheraw, a group that gave birth to the people who today are known as the Lumbee.

In 1935 John Pearmain from Washington, DC, conducted a survey of Robeson County Indians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) sent Doctor Carl Seltzer to conduct a study known as the "Recognize 22." Seltzer's study determined that 22 of the 220 people tested were full- or half-blooded Indians. Today all the Tuscarora trace their genealogy to one or more of the Recognize 22. Although this set in motion the process leading to tribal recognition and sovereignty, it would be decades before that was achieved.

The Tuscarora fought against the idea that they and the Lumbee were the same people. This issue came to a head during the late 1960s and early 1970s as the Indian schools of Robeson County were being forced to integrate. The Tuscarora clearly wanted to be separated from the Lumbee and began to study the Siouan history of North Carolina more closely. It was then that they discovered that the Siouan once had belonged to a confederacy of smaller tribes ruled by the Tuscarora Tribe of North Carolina. When families begin to go deeper into their genealogies and the migrations of their families, they discovered that many of them could trace their lineages back to the traditional homelands of the Tuscarora.

In 1956 Congress enacted the Lumbee Bill, recognizing the Cheraw tribe as Lumbee but denying them tribal sovereignty. The Tuscarora continued to press for their own autonomy and cultural identity. On 26 May 1961, a meeting was called to adopt "Barbarous" as a tribal name and to organize all the tribes of eastern North Carolina, which would be known as the Barbarous Indians. The name came from Indian records that identified the people of the southeast as "Barbarous Indians." In spite of the wide interest in tribal sovereignty, the effort died because of a lack of leadership.

In October 1972 the American Indian Movement (AIM) came to Robeson County as part of the "Trail of Tears" cross-country caravan to Washington, DC, seeking justice for Indian concerns. Many of the North Carolina Tuscarora joined the caravan and were present at the BIA takeover. AIM helped organize the Tuscarora into a more effective political group and movement.


The Tuscarora live in western Robeson County, North Carolina. Their two major communities are Prospect and Union Chapel.


Subsistence. In the past, all the Tuscarora farmed. Only 30 to 40 percent of households farm in the early twenty-first century, although most families still maintain gardensfor some a matter of prideto grow food for household consumption.

Commercial Activities. Farmers grew corn, cotton, and tobacco to sell. Tobacco historically was a profitable crop that helped improve the tribe's standard of living. Some contemporary Tuscarora run their own businesses in automobile maintenance and construction.

Industrial Arts. The Tuscarora are renowned carpenters, and many are also involved in heavy and light construction, such as tying steel and drywall work.

Trade. In the precontact period, the Tuscarora were well known as traders and had an extensive trade system with other tribes up and down the east coast from upstate New York into the southern states. Before colonial contact trade items consisted of corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, and bear and deer hides. Among trade items, one of the most valued was the seashells used to make wampum.

Division of Labor. The Tuscarora were originally swidden cultivators and hunters and gatherers. In Robeson County in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they became farmers. Today the Tuscarora work in farming, small businesses, factories, and professional occupations.

Land Tenure. The Tuscarora history of land tenure is one of dispossession, beginning with the loss of their original territory, then their reservation land, and finally their privately held land after disenfranchisement in the 1830s. However, the 1868 North Carolina constitution restored their land rights. As of 2002 70 percent of the Tuscarora own their land, while 30 percent rent or sharecrop. Land is seldom sold to outsiders.


Kin Groups and Descent. The people of the Six Nations are a matrilineal society divided into clans that are represented by various animals. The seven clans of the Tuscarora are the Bear, Turtle, Wolf, Beaver, Sand Turtle (or Eel), Deer, and Snipe. People born into the same clan are considered relatives and are forbidden to marry one another. Children are born into the mother's clan. This system ensures that a child is born with an identity.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms are based on the matrilineal clan system, in which all the members of the same generation refer to each other as brother or sister and those in different generations call each other father, mother, son, and daughter, or grandmother, grandfather, grandson, and granddaughter. Implicit in the use of these terms was the social responsibility normally associated with those family roles.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the Tuscarora marriage ceremony the couple pledge their love to each other, their nation, their clan, the immediate family, and their creator. The spouses exchange a basket of food, which is both a spiritual and a physical symbol of nourishing each other. The parents of the couple must state that they believe the spouses are ready to commit themselves to the marriage.

Domestic Unit. The longhouse is both a ceremonial and a spiritual gathering place for the Tuscarora. It is built of wood with a wooden floor and contains two fireplaces toward the center with a space between them. Benches line the walls. Women enter from the western door, and men enter from the eastern door. Clans have specific areas in which they sit. Clan mothers and clan chiefs sit in the place of honor. A thanksgiving address is often given before each ceremony, dance, or political gathering. The thanksgiving address acknowledges the creator, the ancestors, women, men, children, plant life, the animal kingdom, water, and the sky. After the thanksgiving address the purpose of the gathering is announced, usually by a clan mother or a spokesperson for her. The longhouse also has a symbolic meaning that the people should take with them the teachings of the longhouse wherever they go.

Socialization. Traditionally, wintertime was a period for telling legends and moral tales to the young. In the 1800s Native Americans set up their own school system separate from those of Americans of African and European descent. Those schools started in the churches and later were partially subsidized by the state. When the federal government enforced integration in the 1960s and 1970s, the state recognized the autonomy of the local school system for Native Americans only.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Local Indian identity was strictly maintained. A "blood committee" of elders verified each person's tribal affiliation. Strangers were ostracized until their full background was known. Children were not allowed to play with children they did not know. The two main community institutions were the church and the school. Membership in both depended on the elders' acknowledgment of a person's authentic bloodline.

The "Red Man's Lodge" was a secret society that governed the Siouan Indians. The Mohawk came down in the 1930s and 1940s to help the Siouan set up their longhouses, which among the Iroquois served as ceremonial and governmental centers.

Political Organization. Clans are governed by a clan mother, who is often the oldest living female. Two sachems (councilmen) represent a clan at the Tribal Council. Clan mothers' nominate candidates to be sachems, who are then elected by the clan members. A sachem can be replaced if the clan mother feels he is not upholding the customary law known as the "Great Law of Peace" (Kaianerekowa) and is neglecting his responsibilities to the people. He is given two warnings; upon the third and final warning he is "dehorned," deer horns being a symbol of authority.

The major bands of Tuscarora in North Carolina are the Tuscarora Tribe of North Carolina, the Tuscarora Nation of North Carolina, the Eastern Carolina Tuscarora, and the Kau-Ta-Noah Tuscarora. The Tuscarora of North Carolina are members of the National Congress of American Indians. The 1980s saw the beginning of a movement to form a confederacy with the Tuscarora of New York and the Six Nations, which has yet to be realized.

Social Control. The "Great Law of Peace" contains over a hundred articles (kowa) that regulate social conduct, including funeral ceremonies; the treatment of unruly persons; the raising of children; behavior toward one's spouse, mother-in-law, and other kin; and the responsibilities of leaders. If anyone feels that the Great Law of Peace is being violated or threatened, he or she can sound an alarm by stating his or her concern at a council meeting.

Conflict. In the course of their history the Tuscarora have had conflicts with colonists, plantation owners, Lumbee Indians, and the state government. The Tuscarora Wars (1711-1715) were fierce and devastating for the Tuscarora, who fled north to find refuge among the Iroquois Confederacy and south to the marshes of southeastern North Carolina. During the Civil War, Henry Berry Lowrie became a folk hero as he and his gang raided plantations in the region until his disappearance in 1872. On March 23, 1973, Sachem/Chief Howard Brooks held a public meeting without paying Lumbee officials the required fee. A standoff developed, and Brooks was arrested for incitement to riot. A total of fifty-eight Tuscarora were arrested, and Brooks was given a one-year sentence. Most of the other cases were thrown out of court. In February 1988 two young men entered The Robesonian (the Robeson County newspaper office) and padlocked the doors. Those young men wanted to draw attention to the drug and murder problems in Robeson County, including thirteen unsolved murders. The young men demanded that the governor look into the possible connection between the Robeson County Sheriff Department and the murders. The governor agreed, and the two men surrendered to the authorities. They were convicted and eventually served time in jail.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Like many Native American nations, the Tuscarora have no word for religion. They consider all aspects of life as being religious in nature. To the native peoples one's spiritual life should be so closely connected to one's daily routine that there is no separation between daily activities and spiritual affairs. Therefore, everything becomes a spiritual act.

The two major Christian denominations among the Tuscarora are the Native American United Methodist Association (NUMA) and the Burnt Swamp Baptist Association. Both denominations were founded locally. The Prospect Church is the largest NUMA congregation in the country. NUMA is part of a regional association, the Southeast Jurisdiction of Native American United Methodists.

Religious Practitioners. Sachems lead the longhouse ceremonies. The churches have their own Native American pastors.

Ceremonies. The Green Corn Ceremony celebrates with song, dance, and food the corn harvest. The ceremony is an acknowledgment of the Great Creator and offers thanks for being allowed to live until another season of celebration.

In the Midwinter Ceremony, also known as the stirring of ashes, the fire in the longhouse is allowed to go out. The ashes are considered to be a medicine and have healing powers. When the new fire is made, it is a symbol of the rekindling of a person's spirits and traditions. It is also a tine for interpreting dreams, holding healing ceremonies, settling disputes, and coming together as one in the longhouse.

The Strawberry Festival is a celebration of the harvest of wild strawberries. It is a rite of spiritual cleansing and physical purging. A drink made of strawberries is offered to all the people to spiritually clean them. Invitations are often sent to other members of the Six Nations to attend the celebration in the longhouse. The ceremonies and the Great Law bind the people of the Six Nations together. To be part of the Six Nations entails more than being a member of a confederacy; it is a spiritual pledge to be one people. Even though the Tuscarora of North Carolina have not been officially adopted into the Six Nations, they take part in their ceremonies.

For the original article on Tuscarora, see Volume 1, North America.


Barton, Gary Lewis (1979). The Life and Times of Henry Berry Lowry. Lumberton, NC: Lumbee Publishing Company.

Blu, Karen I. (1980). The Lumbee Problem: The Making of an American Indian People. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dial, Adolph (1992). The Lumbee. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers.

Evans, William McKee (1971). To Die Game: The Story of the Lowry Band, Indian Guerrillas of Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Hewitt, J. N. B. Report on the Tuscarora of North Carolina. Washington, DC: Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Norment, Mary C. (1909). The Lowrie History. Lumberton, NC: Lumbee Publishing Company.

Oxendine, Carol S. (1984). Genealogy Research for the family of Derek Lowry. North Carolina: Lumber River Legal Services, Research Project.

Rights, Douglas L. (1947). The American Indian in North Carolina. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rudes, Blair A. (1987). The Tuscarora Legacy of ]. N. B. Hewitt: Materials for the Study of the Tuscarora Language and Culture. Ottawa, Canada: National Museums of Canada.

Shimony, Annemarie Anrod (1994). Conservatism among the Iroquois at the Six Nations Reserve. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Sider, Gerald M (1986). Lumbee Indian Histories. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Swanton, John (1977). The Indians of the Southeastern United States. St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press.


About this article

Tuscarora of North Carolina

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article