Historians have long recognized the pivotal role played by the Occaneechi tribe in the Virginia deerskin trade during the latter half of the seventeenth century. This role is rather clearly portrayed in the contemporary writings of Abraham Wood, William Byrd, John Lederer, and others. Clarence Alvord and Lee Bidgood (1912), and more recently James Merrell (1989), both have suggested that the Occaneechi were one of several influential tribes along the colonial frontier who profited as middlemen and affected the flow of European goods--and Europeans--into the Virginia and Carolina Piedmont. With the Occaneechis' well-documented reputation as middlemen and bullies on the frontier, and their strategic position astride the Virginia trading path at its Roanoke River crossing, the question of how this role is reflected in the archaeological record naturally arises.
In this section, we consider the ethnohistoric evidence for the Occaneechi as shapers of frontier economy and politics. Then, we examine the trade artifact assemblages from late seventeenth-century village sites occupied by the Occaneechis and their neighbors in order to determine the extent of Occaneechi influence upon the trade. By doing so, we hope to add depth and detail to the picture sketched by the written documents, and show that the Occaneechis were indeed a potent force that their neighbors and the Virginia traders had to deal with.
We propose that the Occaneechis acted as a filter on the Virginia trade and sorted out arms, armaments, and possibly other items for their own use, while allowing mostly non-utilitarian goods to pass through to their neighbors. Their monopoly, which apparently emerged shortly after 1650 and persisted unchecked until Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, not only allowed them access to the most desirable goods and the most profit, but more importantly it provided the Occaneechis with the means to maintain political as well as economic dominance over larger, more populous tribes to the west and south.