Native American Settlement of NC (2023)

by Stephen R. Claggett
Reprinted with permission from the Tar Heel Junior Historian. Spring 1995.
Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, NC Museum of History

See also:
American Indians Part II - Before European Contact
American Indians at European Contact

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Native American Settlement of NC (2)Over four hundred years ago, English colonists trying to settle on Roanoke Island encountered many Native Americans along the coast. At that time more than thirty Native American tribes were living in present-day North Carolina. They spoke languages derived from three language groups, the Siouan, Iroquoian, and Algonquian.

(Video) The Story of North Carolina--American Indians in our state

None of the prehistoric Native Americans who lived in North America had developed any sort of written language. They relied instead on oral traditions, such as storytelling, to keep records of their origins, myths, and histories. Our present knowledge of prehistoric inhabitants of this state depends on rare early historical accounts and, especially, on information gained through archaeology.

Prehistoric Native Americans

Archaeologists can trace the ancestry of Native Americans to at least twelve thousand years ago, to the time of the last Ice Age in the Pleistocene epoch. During the Ice Age, ocean levels dropped and revealed land that had previously been under the Bering Sea. Native American ancestors walked on that land from present-day Siberia to Alaska. Evidence suggests that their population grew rapidly and that they settled throughout Canada, the Great Plains, and the Eastern Woodlands, which included the North Carolina area.

The climate on the eastern seaboard was wetter and cooler twelve thousand years ago. Many species of animals roamed the forests and grasslands of our area, including now extinct examples of elephants (mastodons), wild horses, ground sloths, and giant bison. Other animals, now absent from the Southeast, included moose, caribou, elk, and porcupines.

Paleo-Indians, as archaeologists call those first people, hunted for these animals in groups using spears. They used the animals’ meat, skins, and remaining parts for food, clothing, and other needs. They also spent considerable time gathering wild plant foods and may have caught shellfish and fish. These first inhabitants of North Carolina were nomads, which means they moved frequently across the land in search of food and other resources.

Archaic people, like their ancestors, were nomads. They traveled widely on foot to gather food, to obtain raw materials for making tools or shelters, and to visit and trade with neighbors. Some Archaic people may have used watercraft, particularly canoes made by digging out the centers of trees.

These Archaic Indians did not have three things that are commonly associated with prehistoric Indians—bows and arrows, pottery, or an agricultural economy. In fact, the gradual introduction of these items and activities into North Carolina’s Archaic cultures marks the transition to the Woodland culture, which began around 2000 B.C.

Woodland Indians followed most of the subsistence practices of their Archaic ancestors. They hunted and fished and gathered food when deer, turkeys, shad, and acorns were plentiful. But they also began farming to make sure they had enough food for the winter and early spring months, when natural food sources were not available. They cleared fields and planted and harvested crops like sunflowers, squash, gourds, beans, and maize.

(Video) First Native Americans of North Carolina

The Woodland Indians also developed bow-and-arrow technology. With a bow and arrow, Indians could hunt more efficiently, using single hunters instead of groups of hunters.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Woodland Indians were much more committed to settled village life than their ancestors had been. Though remains of their settlements can be found throughout North Carolina, these Indians tended to live in semi permanent villages in stream valleys.

Evidence also suggests that some Native Americans adopted religious and political ideas from a fourth major prehistoric culture, called Mississippian. Ancestral Cherokee Indian groups in the Mountains adopted some of the Mississippian ways. In prehistoric times, the so-called Pee Dee Indians were Mississippian Indians. The Pee Dee built a major regional center at Town Creek in present-day Montgomery County.

Mississippian Indians were more common in other parts of the Southeast and Midwest. They had a hierarchical society, with status determined by heredity or exploits in war. They were militarily aggressive and fought battles to gain and defend group prestige, territories, and favored trade and tribute networks. The surviving, often flamboyant artifacts from Mississippian Indian sites reflect the need that those individuals felt to show their status and glorify themselves.

Native American Settlement of NC (3)Measuring the involvement of historic North Carolina Indians with those large, powerful Mississippian groups is very difficult. Some minor elements of Mississippian culture can be found in various parts of our state, particularly in pottery types or religious or political ornaments. The Algonquian-speaking Indians met by the Roanoke Island colonists reflected some Mississippian influence, as did the later Cherokee.

Historic Native Americans

Most of the Indian groups met by early European explorers were practicing economic and settlement patterns of the Woodland culture. They grew crops of maize, tobacco, beans, and squash, spent considerable time hunting and fishing, and lived in small villages. In 1550, before the arrival of the first permanent European settlers, more than one hundred thousand Native Americans were living in present-day North Carolina. By 1800 that number had fallen to about twenty thousand.

What happened to the Native Americans? Unlike Europeans, Native Americans had no resistance, or immunity, to diseases that the Europeans brought with them. These diseases, such as smallpox, measles, and influenza, killed thousands of natives throughout the state.

(Video) Cherokee Tribe History

Settlement by European Americans also pushed many Native Americans off their land. Some made treaties with the Whites, giving up land and moving farther west. Others fought back in battle but lost and were forced to give up their lands. These battles, as well as war with other Native American tribes, also killed many.

The fates of the three largest Native American tribes—the Tuscarora, the Catawba, and the Cherokee—are examples of the fates of the other tribes in North Carolina.


In the Coastal Plain Region, most of the smaller Algonquian-speaking tribes moved westward in the face of growing numbers of white settlers. But the Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora stayed, living in villages along the Pamlico and Neuse Rivers.

Tensions between White settlers and the Tuscarora increased as White settlements in the Coastal Plain grew. European settlers would not let the Tuscarora hunt near their farms, which reduced the Tuscarora’s hunting lands. Some White traders cheated the Tuscarora. Some settlers even captured and sold Tuscarora into slavery.

The settlement of New Bern in 1710 took up even more of the Tuscarora land and may have provoked the Tuscarora Indian War (1711–1714). In 1711 the Tuscarora attacked White settlements along the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers. They were defeated in 1712 by an army led by Colonel John Barnwell of South Carolina. Later in 1712 the Tuscarora agreed to a peace treaty. According to terms in that treaty they were to move out of the area between the Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers.

After this peace, the North Carolina Assembly refused to reward Barnwell and his South Carolina troops. The Assembly felt the army had not completely destroyed the Tuscarora’s power. As a result, while returning to South Carolina, Barnwell’s troops killed some Tuscarora, captured about two hundred Tuscarora women and children, and sold them into slavery for the money. The Tuscarora retaliated by attacking more towns. The Tuscarora were defeated in a 1713 battle at Fort Noherooka (in present-day Greene County). Up to one thousand four hundred Tuscarora had been killed in the war. Another one thousand had been captured and sold into slavery. Many of the surviving Tuscarora left North Carolina and settled in New York and Canada.


In the Piedmont Region, the Siouan-speaking Catawba Indians were friendly to the settlers. But disease, especially smallpox, killed many. War with neighboring tribes also reduced their number. Of the five thousand Catawba estimated to have been living in the Carolinas in the early 1600s, fewer than three hundred remained in 1784.

(Video) Native Americans of Northeastern North Carolina: A Brief History


In the Mountain Region lived the Cherokee. At the start of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), they joined the British and the colonists in fighting the French. But when some Cherokee were killed by Virginia settlers, the Cherokee began attacking White settlements along the Yadkin and Catawba Rivers. They were defeated and made peace in 1761.

In return for this peace, the British promised that no White settlements would be allowed west of the Appalachian Mountains. But land-hungry Whites ignored this promise and continued to settle on Cherokee land.

Native American Settlement of NC (4)During the American Revolution (1775–1783), the Cherokee sided with the British. They thought that if the British won, the British government would protect their land from further settlement. They also hoped to gain back some of the lands they had lost to the Whites. During the war, Cherokee and Creek Indians attacked White settlements. Colonists sent troops that defeated the Indians. In a 1777 treaty, the Cherokee gave up all lands east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Conflicts continued into the 1790s. A 1792 treaty created a boundary between Cherokee and White settlers. The United States government promised to protect the Cherokee land from further settlement. But as White settlement continued, the federal government began thinking about removing the Cherokee and other Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River. In 1838 President Martin Van Buren acted on a policy established earlier by Andrew Jackson and sent federal troops to forcibly remove the Cherokee to the newly established Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. About twenty thousand Cherokee were forced to leave. The path they took has been called the Trail of Tears because so many died on this journey west.

Some Cherokee avoided the troops and stayed behind in North Carolina. They joined the Oconaluftee Cherokee Indians, who, because of an 1819 treaty, were allowed to stay in North Carolina. Together, their descendants make up the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and now live in the Qualla Boundary, a reservation in five different counties in western North Carolina. Several other modern Native American groups, such as the Lumbee, the Haliwa-Saponi, and the Coharie, live in North Carolina. They are direct descendants of prehistoric and early historic inhabitants.

1 January 1995 | Claggett, Stephen R.


What Indian tribe settled in North Carolina? ›

These include the Chowanoke, Croatoan, Hatteras, Moratoc, Secotan, Weapemeoc, Machapunga, Pamlico, Coree, Neuse River, Tuscarora, Meherrin, Cherokee, Cape Fear, Catawba, Shakori, Sissipahaw, Sugeree, Waccamaw, Waxhaw, Woccon, Cheraw, Eno, Keyauwee, Occaneechi, Saponi, and Tutelo Indians.

How did the first Native American tribes in NC live? ›

The oldest Native American cultural period in North Carolina is the Paleoindian Period. The Paleoindian Period occurred around 10,000 BCE during the Ice Age. Native Americans were nomadic, so they had limited possessions and their access to temporary shelter made travel easy.

How did Native Americans settle in North America? ›

According to the most generally accepted theory of the settlement of the Americas, migrations of humans from Eurasia to the Americas took place via Beringia, a land bridge which connected the two continents across what is now the Bering Strait.

What was Andrew Jackson trying to gain in his message to Congress on Indian Removal? ›

Jackson declared that removal would "incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier." Clearing Alabama and Mississippi of their Indian populations, he said, would "enable those states to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power."

Who first settled in North Carolina? ›

The first settlers were French Protestants from Virginia. Among early inhabitants were John Lawson, surveyor general of the colony and author of the first history of Carolina (1709), and Christopher Gale, first chief justice of the colony. By 1708, Bath consisted of 12 houses and about 50 people.

Who originally settled North Carolina? ›

North Carolina was first settled in 1587. 121 settlers led by John White landed on present-day Roanoke Island on July 22, 1587. It was the first English settlement in the New World. On August 18, 1587, White's daughter gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.

Why did people settle in North Carolina? ›

After the failed Roanoke colonies in the 1580s, the English focused on colonizing present-day Virginia. But in the mid-1600s, Virginians began exploring and acquiring land in the Albemarle area. Why did they begin settling there? Most hoped to find better farmland and to make money by trading with the Native Americans.

When did Native Americans come to North Carolina? ›

Archaeologists trace the chronicle of Native Americans to at least 12,000 years ago. The earliest aboriginal groups reached North Carolina not long after people first crossed into the New World from Siberia during the final stages of the last Ice Age, or Pleistocene era.

Which tribe was the largest tribe in North Carolina? ›

The Lumbee Tribe is the largest tribe in North Carolina, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River and the ninth largest in the nation. The Lumbee take their name from the Lumber River originally known as the Lumbee, which winds its way through Robeson County.

Where did the first people to settle North America come from? ›

In the 1970s, college students in archaeology such as myself learned that the first human beings to arrive in North America had come over a land bridge from Asia and Siberia approximately 13,000 to 13,500 years ago. These people, the first North Americans, were known collectively as Clovis people.

When did indigenous people settle North America? ›

According to several studies conducted over the past decade on the geographical distribution of genetic diversity in modern indigenous Americans, the earliest of these migrants started colonizing the New World between 18,000 and 15,000 years ago—a date that fits well with emerging archaeological evidence of pre-Clovis ...

Where did most Native Americans settle? ›

The Western part of the country is home to the highest concentration of Native Americans in the U.S., according to an analysis by USAFacts. Native Americans account for more than 10% of the population in Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico and South Dakota.

Who benefited from the Indian Removal Act? ›

The Removal Act would benefit white settlement and allow the country's citizens to inhabit up and down the eastern coast. This included certain southern states such as Georgia and Florida, which was recently acquired from the Spanish.

Who opposed the Indian Removal Act? ›

The Cherokee Nation, led by Principal Chief John Ross, resisted the Indian Removal Act, even in the face of assaults on its sovereign rights by the state of Georgia and violence against Cherokee people.

Why was the Indian Removal Act unjust? ›

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Dawes Act of 1887 ordered AI/AN people from the lands they had been living on. This removal by force contributed to the loss of entire tribes, their culture, traditions, and languages.

What was the North Carolina colony relationship with the natives? ›

As a general rule, which had but few interruptions, the relations existing between the settlers and natives were friendly and peaceful up to the year 1711.

What was North Carolina first colony? ›

Roanoke colony was founded by governor Ralph Lane in 1585 on Roanoke Island in what is now Dare County, North Carolina, United States.

When was North Carolina settled? ›

What are 3 interesting facts about North Carolina colony? ›

North Carolina History Facts

It has since become known as “The Lost Colony” of Roanoke. 2) North Carolina is one of the United States' original 13 colonies. North Carolina was founded in 1653, and remained an English colony until 1776. It then rebelled against Britain and joined the American war of independence.

Who mostly settled Carolina colony? ›

Settlers from Virginia seeking more land, while settlers in the Southern part of the colony were coming from the West Indies and Europe mostly settled Northern Carolinas. Settlers in the northern part grew tobacco, while the settler in the Southern part of the colony grew rice.

Where did the first settlers of Carolina come from? ›

The colony, named Carolina after King Charles I, was divided in 1710 into South Carolina and North Carolina. Settlers from the British Isles, France, and other parts of Europe built plantations throughout the coastal lowcountry, growing profitable crops of rice and indigo.

What were the 4 main North Carolina tribes? ›

Lumbee (Robeson and surrounding counties) Haliwa-Saponi (Halifax and Warren counties) Sappony (Person County) Meherrin (Hertford and surrounding counties)

What was the largest Native American tribe in North Carolina? ›

The Lumbee Tribe is the largest tribe in North Carolina, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River and the ninth largest in the nation. The Lumbee take their name from the Lumber River originally known as the Lumbee, which winds its way through Robeson County.

Who was the most powerful tribe in North Carolina? ›

Tuscarora Indians occupied much of the North Carolina inner Coastal Plain at the time of the Roanoke Island colonies in the 1580s. They were considered the most powerful and highly developed tribe in what is now eastern North Carolina and were thought to possess mines of precious metal.

Who lived in North Carolina before the Cherokee? ›

The Coastal Algonquian

At the time of the first contact of Europeans with the Indians, the Algonquian tribes occupied the tidewater areas of the Atlantic Coast extending from Canada to as far south as the Neuse River in North Carolina.

Who were the first Native Americans in NC? ›

The Native Americans whom de Soto met included Siouan, Iroquoian and Muskogean speakers, whose descendants are now recognized as the historic tribes of the Catawba, Cherokee and Creek Indians.

What are the 3 main Indian tribes? ›

Californian - Tribes living in the area that is today the state of California such as the Mohave and the Miwok. Great Basin - This is a dry area and was one of the last to have contact with Europeans. The Great Basin tribes include the Washo, Ute, and Shoshone.

What is the oldest Indian tribe? ›

The Hopi Indians are the oldest Native American tribe in the World.


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