On January 26, 1701, an adventurous Englishman named John Lawson left an Indian village along the Catawba River and swung northeast, completing an arc through the Carolina interior that had begun in Charleston a month before and would end on the lower Pamlico River a month hence. At the halfway mark of his journey, Lawson was a seasoned traveler, having already survived cold weather, poor food, wild animals, and an occasional angry native. Yet the thrill of discovery remained as he traversed the North Carolina Piedmont, "Every Step presenting some new Object, which still adds Invitation to the Traveller in these Parts" (Lefler 1967:54). Rich soil, tall trees, abundant wildlife, pleasant streams--Lawson was so taken by the scenery in what he called "this Western World" that he considered settling in the area (Lefler 1967:52).
Fascinated as he was by the landscape, Lawson thought that the native inhabitants he encountered were more interesting still. Between the Catawba River and the Coastal Plain were the Saponi, Tutelo, Keyauwee, Eno, Shakori, and Occaneechi, and the explorer surveyed them as carefully as he did the soil or streams. The Saponi headman had lost an eye while measuring gunpowder; the Tutelo blew a special powder into their eyes to improve their sight; the Keyauwee painted their faces with a lead ore; inside their houses the Occaneechi hung bear meat and dried venison; the Eno loved to play a game they called "Chenco" (Lefler 1967:52, 54, 61, 62). At each village, Lawson found something new and different to remark upon. His observations offer a window onto a lost world.
The English traveler was so struck by the diversity of these Indians that he failed to appreciate that they were probably related (see note 1). Like the Catawba he had just left, the Monacan inhabiting central Virginia, and the Sara then living on the upper Roanoke River, the Occaneechi and their neighbors in the North Carolina upcountry were descended from Siouan-speaking migrants who had come over the mountains several centuries before Columbus arrived in America. As the newcomers fanned out along the rivers slicing through the region, their cultural uniformity slowly dissolved. A "people" became one or a cluster of villages, with its own dialect, its own customs, its own identity. Still, the differences were mere variations on a common theme. All spoke different forms of Siouan, and may have used Occaneechi as "a sort of general Language" to converse across group boundaries (Beverley 1947:191) (see note 2). All dwelt in the lands between the Coastal Plain and the Mountains, what the Europeans labeled "the Upper Country," the "hilly Parts," or "Hill-Country" (Lefler 1967:xxxi, 56, 89; see also Cumming 1958:9-10). All built villages of circular bark houses along the rivers and creeks. All followed a seasonal subsistence routine that balanced farming the bottomlands along the river, fishing the nearby waterways, hunting in the hills or canebrakes, and gathering wild plants at selected sites. Despite the barriers imposed by time, distance, and dialect, a fundamental unity underlay Piedmont life, a unity grounded in a shared cultural heritage and a common physical environment.
These Piedmont peoples also shared a common destiny once Europeans landed on America's shores. Between the 1520s, when explorers first touched the Carolina coast, and the 1740s, when most Indians had left the region, inhabitants of the upcountry went through four different stages of development. The first era, covering roughly the years from 1525 to 1625, was characterized primarily by indirect contacts with the visitors from the Old World. Material goods and lethal bacteria must have been carried into the interior by coastal Indians who had visited Spanish outposts to the south or later English settlements at Roanoke and Jamestown. Any face-to-face encounters that did occur probably were fleeting. During the mid-sixteenth century, Spanish armies commanded by Hernando De Soto and Juan Pardo marched up the Catawba River valley before swinging west toward the mountains (Hudson et al. 1984:72-74, Fig. 1; Depratter et al. 1983). From the east came tentative English probes up the Roanoke and the James (Quinn 1977:332-333, 451-452; Barbour 1964:222-225, 237-239). Some Piedmont Indians may have headed in the opposite direction, drawn to the lowcountry by a desire to see the strange new beings for themselves (Barbour 1969:300-301).
Direct contact became much more frequent in the second stage of historical development, which began in the 1620s with the defeat of the Powhatan Confederacy and a concomitant increase in Virginia's interest in lands beyond the falls of the James. A series of English explorers--some famous, most obscure--ventured inland to search for valuable mines or a westward passage (Cumming 1958:15-41; Alvord and Bidgood 1912:183-205, 209-226; Morrison 1921:217-236). Close on their heels came other men eager to trade with the Indians. While natives welcomed the traders, this expanded contact was not without risk. In the 1650s and again in the 1670s there were bitter clashes between Piedmont warriors and colonial forces, with the Indians generally the losers. Nonetheless, by the time the Virginia rebel Nathaniel Bacon and his followers destroyed the Occaneechis' Roanoke River trading center in 1676, Virginians had penetrated to the far corners of the Southern Piedmont, and natives there had at least occasional encounters with an alien culture (Cumming 1958:16, 22; Washburn 1957:42-46; Wright 1981:87-90; Michel 1916:30).
The destruction of the Occaneechi stronghold ushered in a new age on the Piedmont. With the Occaneechi no longer blocking the principal route into the upcountry, intercultural exchange flourished. The Indians Lawson saw in 1701 were accustomed to regular visits by Virginia traders, who often stayed for months at a time before heading home. Thus colonists had at last become a familiar sight in the upcountry, and the marvelous goods they brought had become a part of everyday life.
This period ended in the early years of the eighteenth century. Soon after Lawson passed through the area, incessant raids by powerful native foes combined with the lure of English trade goods to pull peoples from the interior toward the coast. By 1711, when Carolina began a decade of intercultural conflict with the Tuscarora and Yamasee, the Saponi had joined the Tutelo, Occaneechi, and Monacan under Virginia's protective umbrella. To the south, the Sara, Eno, and Keyauwee had drifted into South Carolina's orbit, later to merge with peoples in the Catawba valley to form the polyglot Catawba Nation. North of that isolated native island--an island that remains to this day--the Piedmont was mostly empty of human settlements until the first European colonists moved into the area during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Before these permanent intruders arrived, the silence was broken only by an occasional hunting party, a band of Iroquois warriors after a Catawba scalp, a colonial pack-horse train bound for Cherokee villages, or an isolated Indian farmstead.
A world that vanished in the space of two centuries is easier to mourn than to study. Few American Indian groups have left as little trace of themselves in the historical record as the peoples of the Carolina-Virginia Piedmont. Distant from initial European settlements, overshadowed by more prominent neighbors like the Powhatan and Cherokee, the upcountry Indian attracted little attention from observers willing and able to put their impressions down on paper for the benefit of posterity. With no chronicler like John Smith or James Adair to tell their tale, these peoples lived and died in obscurity, an obscurity that, for the most part, has continued to this day. Nonetheless, it is possible to shed some light on this shadowy world beyond the skeletal chronology of its demise offered above. Careful digging in the documents, when combined with equally careful digging in the Piedmont soil currently being carried out by the Research Laboratories of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, enables us to piece together a fragmentary sketch of these peoples in historic times. The story that emerges is one of societies that adapted to dramatic change while remaining securely anchored to past ways (see note 3).