Seventeenth-Century Siouan Communities

Although the Piedmont Siouans were spared the early outbreaks of epidemic diseases during the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century, their luck did not hold. After 1670 epidemics swept through the northern Piedmont, decimating entire villages. Men like John Lawson recorded this devastation as footnotes in their journals and diaries, but the most dramatic and vivid expression of the effect of the new diseases on seventeenth-century native populations can be seen in the archaeological record of the Dan and Eno river drainages.

At the village of Upper Saratown on the Dan River, occupied during the Late Saratown phase (A.D. 1670-1710) by the Siouan-speaking Sara Indians, extensive excavations have uncovered one-fourth of a palisaded village that extends over approximately 1.5 acres (see excavation plan). Within the excavated area, portions of at least 13 houses, 225 pit features, and 111 burials have been recorded. The burials were densely scattered across the site, in and around house structures. They were so concentrated that during the excavations, it was almost impossible to remove the plowzone from a 10´10-ft excavation unit without encountering the tops of burial pits. At the nearby Madison site, occupied during the same time period, a similar-sized excavation revealed 120 graves so closely packed that the amateur archaeologists who excavated the site thought it represented a cemetery (Gravely 1969:11).

A detailed analysis of the burials from Upper Saratown indicates a crude mortality rate of 48 (per 1000) (Hogue 1988:99). This rate yields an estimated population of 231 individuals if the site was occupied for 10 years (Ubelaker 1978:96). A 20-year occupation span would decrease the overall size of the population to 116 individuals. We suspect that the higher figure more accurately reflects the Upper Saratown population (Davis and Ward 1991).

The density of burials at Upper Saratown and the Madison site contrasts markedly with that of the earlier Sara villages of Lower Saratown and Early Upper Saratown, occupied before A.D. 1670. And so does the quantity of European trade goods found at these sites. Whereas Upper Saratown and the Madison site have produced large quantities of glass beads and copper ornaments, Lower Saratown and Early Upper Saratown have yielded only a few glass and copper beads. The paucity of trade materials, in conjunction with the lack of evidence for disease and depopulation, point to limited and probably indirect contacts between natives and Europeans prior to 1670.

Comparing the sixteenth-century Wall site on the Eno River with the seventeenth-century Upper Saratown village on the Dan River provides significant insights into the question of the timing of depopulation on the Piedmont. In both cases large village areas have been uncovered which reveal patterns of houses, palisades, pit features, and burials. The burial density of Upper Saratown is obviously much higher than that of the Wall site, although the overall site sizes are nearly identical. A larger resident population has been suggested for the Dan River village, but the crude mortality rate of 48 is considerably higher than the highest possible estimate of 32 for the Wall site.

That the differences in crude mortality rates are real and a consequence of epidemic diseases during the seventeenth century is further supported by the fact that wall post density and replacement rates at Wall and Upper Saratown are very similar (see Table 49 and Table 50). This correspondence as well as other architectural and stylistic evidence suggest that both sites were occupied for approximately the same length of time. In fact, Upper Saratown appears to have been occupied for a slightly shorter period of time than the Wall site, suggesting an even higher mortality rate than that calculated from the skeletal population.

Because the type of wood used in house construction cannot be determined with certainty (none of the structures were burned at either site), the actual period of occupation based on wall post replacement rates cannot be accurately assessed. However, if readily available hardwoods were used in house construction, the previously suggested occupation spans of between 10 and 20 years would not be out of line with estimates based on wall post density/replacement rates (compare Warrick 1988:Figure 3 with Tables 1 and 2 above).

Disease continued to ravage the Dan River Sara during the last two decades of the seventeenth century. At the William Kluttz site, located just downstream from Upper Saratown and occupied c. A.D. 1690-1700, 30 burial pits were uncovered within an area of only 600 ft2. Most were subadults placed in shallow pits less than 2 ft deep. Two adult burials located some distance away were placed in more traditional, central shaft-and-chamber pits dug to a depth of over 4 ft. The shallow-burial cluster containing mostly children may have resulted from a single disease episode, perhaps one of the smallpox epidemics that struck the Piedmont between 1696 and 1699 (Dobyns 1983:115). The fact that most of the graves were those of children also suggests that by this time adults who had survived the earlier epidemics seen at Upper Saratown may have developed some immunity to the deadly virus.

The smaller tribes within the Eno and Haw river drainages were not exempt from the late seventeenth century epidemics either. The number of sites post-dating 1670 provides the most apparent evidence of the toll taken by smallpox, influenza, measles, and other Euro-African diseases. In 1701, Lawson found only three villages in the area. To date we have located only one, the Occaneechi village near Hillsborough, North Carolina.

The 1983-1986 excavations at Occaneechi Town (also known as the Fredricks site) uncovered a small palisaded compound in its entirety, revealing 11 domestic structures within an area less than one-fourth acre in extent. A cemetery containing 13 graves was placed just outside the palisade (see excavation plan). Evidence of an additional cemetery (with at least four burials) was uncovered during excavations at the nearby Jenrette site in 1989. The original 13 burials indicate a crude mortality rate of 57 (per 1000), even higher than that at Upper Saratown (Hogue 1988:99).

This death rate is admittedly based on a very small and potentially biased skeletal population. However, architectural evidence (i.e., the lack of structural rebuilding), the size of the site, and characteristics of the ceramic sample all point to a very small population (50-75 individuals) living in the village for a short period of time (less than a decade) (Davis and Ward 1991). These estimates support the high mortality figure even though the skeletal population from which it was derived is small.