Ethnohistoric Evidence

The unique position of the Occaneechi and their efforts to maintain power through intimidation is perhaps best portrayed in the writings of John Lederer and Abraham Wood. Lederer, who visited the Occaneechi (then located on Occaneechi Island near Clarksville, Virginia) and their neighbors in the summer of 1670, provides two observations that are of particular importance. The first account was of an incident that he witnessed while in the Occaneechis' village. The day following his arrival, a Rickohockan ambassador and five attending Indians visited the Occaneechis, presumably to establish trade relations but possibly on their way toward the Virginia traders at Fort Henry (now Petersburg, Virginia). According to Lederer (1672:14), during evening festivities held in their honor "the Room was suddenly darkned, and for what cause I know not, the Rickohockan and his retinue [were] barbarously murthered" (Lederer 1672:14). Given that other interior tribes such as the Cherokee were attempting to establish direct trading contacts with Virginia during this period, it is quite possible that this turn of events was brought about by the discovery of the Rickohockan ambassador's true intentions.

Equally telling of Occaneechi control in the trade is Lederer's advise to would-be traders. For trading with frontier Indians such as the Occaneechis, Lederer (1672:26-27) recommends

a sort of course Trading Cloth . . . Axes, Hoes, Knives, Sizars, and all sorts of edg'd tools. Guns, Powder and Shot, etc. are Commodities they will greedily barter for: but to supply the Indians with Arms and Ammunition, is prohibited by all English Governments. . . . To the remoter Indians you must carry other kinde of Truck, as small Looking-glasses, Pictures, Beads, and Bracelets of Glass, Knives, Sizars, and all manner of gaudy toys and knacks for children.

Lederer's observations here probably are more a reflection of the status quo imposed by the Occaneechi than the unsophisticated desires of their southern and western neighbors. And, while guns were contraband, this prohibition clearly had little impact on the Occaneechis themselves (Merrell 1982:91). As will be seen shortly, this dichotomy in trade goods conforms closely to the archaeological evidence available for these groups.

A similar portrayal of Occaneechi trade influence and control is evidenced in Abraham Wood's account of the James Needham and Gabriel Arthur expedition in 1673-1674 (Alvord and Bidgood 1912:209-226). This expedition was undertaken to establish direct trade with the Tomahitans (possibly the Overhill Cherokees). On their first trip westward from Fort Henry, Needham and Arthur were met by the Occaneechis and forced to turn back. Their second attempt was more successful, and beyond Occaneechi they met up with a large contingent of Tomahitans who were on their way to the Occaneechis. Despite Occaneechi attempts to breed ill will between the Tomahitans and the Virginians, nine Tomahitans proceeded eastward to Wood's plantation while Needham, Arthur, and the remaining Tomahitans headed west toward the mountains.

Following a lengthy journey across the Carolina Piedmont and mountains, the party finally reached the Tomahitans' village, possibly located on the Little Tennessee River in eastern Tennessee. After a brief stay, Needham and 12 Tomahitans returned to Wood's plantation in Virginia while Gabriel Arthur stayed behind to learn the language. Once business with Wood was completed, James Needham and his Tomahitan companions again set out for the Tomahitan settlements to retrieve Gabriel Arthur.

In the events that followed, the Occaneechis demonstrated how far they were willing to go to maintain their hegemony. Apparently they were not keen on the idea of the Tomahitans establishing direct trade ties with the English. Such an arrangement not only would have subverted their role as middlemen with the Tomahitans but, perhaps more importantly, it also would have sent a clear message to neighboring Siouan tribes like the Sara that they no longer needed their services. Such a direct connection with the English also meant that the Occaneechis' neighbors could supply themselves with firearms and ammunition.

At Occaneechi Island, James Needham was joined by several Occaneechis including a trader named Indian John or Hasecoll. The party then journeyed to Aeno, and westward to Sarrah and the Yadkin Trading Ford where Hasecoll murdered Needham. After mutilating Needham's body and pronouncing his distaste for the English, Indian John instructed the Tomahitans to return home and kill Gabriel Arthur. Although Arthur's life was spared, his return trip to Virginia was fraught with danger from the now-hostile Occaneechis. When Arthur and 20 accompanying Tomahitans finally reached Sarrah on their return trip the next year, they were confronted by four Occaneechis. Though small in number, these four frightened and intimidated the Tomahitans to the point of abandoning all the goods they had brought to trade with the English. Gabriel Arthur himself only narrowly escaped death.

On the surface, it is difficult to understand how such a small group of Occaneechis could cause so much trouble for the more numerous Tomahitans. However, it is important to remember the words of Abraham Wood, who noted that the Occaneechis are "strongly fortified by nature and that makes them so insolent for they are but a handfull of people besides what Vagabonds repaire to them it being a receptakle for rogues" (Alvord and Bidgood 1912:225). Furthermore, the Occaneechis' supply of arms and ammunition made them "the Mart for all the Indians for att least 500 miles" (Wood, quoted in Merrell 1982:91). No doubt the four Occaneechis at Sarrah were well armed not only with guns and shot but also with a violent and pugnacious reputation.