Native American Connections

Surrounded by the Tar River and Great Falls, the land where Rocky Mount Mills was built was first home to Native Americans. Water sources near the future site of the mill provided necessary resources to sustain life on the banks and recent archaeological salvage excavations have uncovered material evidence for native settlement for thousands of years. These excavations have led to the hypothesis of a Tuscarora Indian origin for the periods of most intense occupation. Historians have often stated that after the land changed hands from the Tuscarora to European colonists after the Tuscarora War (1711-1713) the Tuscarora either moved away, died, or were enslaved.[1] However, the Tuscarora presence has persisted after the war and there were even Native American employees at Rocky Mount Mills, though their tribal affiliations are unknown.[2]

Who were the Tuscarora? The answer can be confusing. There is disagreement over whether the Tuscarora (“hemp gatherers”) made up a single nation with multiple villages and smaller settlements or separate nations in a confederacy. There is the Tuscarora Nation, a single tribe close culturally and linguistically to the Iroquois, who were indigenous to North Carolina but migrated to New York and Pennsylvania in the 19th century. This Tuscarora Nation had originally consisted of six towns before Columbus set foot on American soil and included 1200 warriors and 5000-6000 tribal members that lived on the Roanoke, Neuse, Taw (Tar), and Pomlico (Pamlico) Rivers.[3] However, other nations went under the name “Tuscarora.”  The Corees, Mattamuskeets, Notaways, and Bear River Indians were such tribes. Elias Johnson, a Tuscarora chief and the author of the history of the nation, could not recall the other two.[4] Under this confederation, there were 12 “Tuscarora” towns. The Tuscarora were once one of the most powerful eastern North Carolina nations.

The Tuscarora were sedentary farmers, hunters, gatherers, and fishers.[5] They grew staple crops, including corn, squash, and beans in communal gardens.[6] Both men and women cultivated gardens. However, men also hunted game and defended the tribe. Their villages consisted of low, circular dwellings with a central burial ground with nearby platforms or caves where clean bones were placed after decomposition. Administratively, each village had a council of chiefs and was politically autonomous.[7] Predating the textile mills, Tuscaroras turned yarns of softened hemp fibers into wearable garments, which pushes the tradition of spinning at Rocky Mount Mills even farther back in time.

The Tuscarora War had significant lasting effects on today’s Tuscarora. As a result of the war, the Tuscarora lost 90% of their population and 100% of their original land in North Carolina.[8] Additionally, the Tuscarora’s main language now is English and their primary religion is Christianity. Finally, the war compelled the Tuscarora to head north at the invitation of the Oneida. The majority migrated; some stayed. Today, the Tuscarora Nation of New York is federally recognized but the smaller contingent in North Carolina is not. The North Carolina faction gradually blended into the black and white populations of the state and other Native American tribes like the Lumbee. They may not be federally recognized but they have organized into several groups that strive for recognition.[9]

The causes and exact events during the war differ, depending on who is telling the story. The Tuscarora account contrasts with the white colonial account, which has long prevailed in the traditional historical narrative of the war. According to Tuscarora oral tradition, their ancestors had enough of settlers kidnapping, raping, and assaulting women and children; enslaving their people; settling onto their land; and hunting on their land.[10] However, there was disagreement among the Tuscarora over how to proceed and address issues with the settlers. There were three divisions, which were influenced by the towns’ proximity to the Swiss and Palatine settlement at New Bern founded by Baron de Graffenreid. The lower towns wanted to attack; the towns farthest up the Neuse desired a peaceful negotiation; and the middle towns wished to move to avoid present and future conflict.[11]

A drawing of an early conflict between European settlers and the Tuscarora. Image from the State Archives.

A drawing of the Tuscarora with captured white colonists and their slave / Courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives.

Tuscarora sachem (or chief) Elias Johnson’s version of events illustrates how the two different definitions of “Tuscarora” impacts the narrative and influenced white colonist perception of Tuscarora responsibility. He admits that the Tuscarora did kidnap John Lawson, Graffenried, and their two slaves when the gentlemen entered Tuscarora lands while scouting for new settlements. He also admits that they did execute Lawson and one of the slaves. However, the subsequent revenge killing of settlers in September 1711 was not their doing. Rather, they declined participation while the Corees, Mattamuskeets, and Bear River Indians seemed to instigate. Johnson attests that other nations took part in the massacre. He does not dismiss complete Tuscarora Nation involvement; their warriors were warned not the join but some did.[12] Johnson explains that since the other tribal nations involved were considered Tuscarora, the colonists concluded that the Tuscarora Nation was responsible.  Johnson argued that historians have tended to focus on the massacre of settlers instead of the wrongs done to the Tuscarora.

Nevertheless, the massacre was indeed brutal. During the revenge attacks against the settlers, men, women, and children were killed, slaves were killed, livestock were killed. Stakes were driven through women and babies were removed from the womb and about 80 children in total died. The bodies were then placed in insulting and disrespectful positions.[13] It was highly unusual for women and children to be killed since they were not opposing warriors but this high level of violence appeared to be directly proportional to the level of Native American anger towards the colonists and years of accumulated frustration and transgressions.

In retaliation, North Carolina colonial government, with significant assistance from South Carolina, attacked Native towns. The situation was appealing to South Carolina because the war provided an opportunity to acquire Native slaves to work the plantations.[14] These colonial governments also had their own Indian allies who they used to fight since that was a less risky tactic than losing their own men. The colonial response was equally brutal with some Tuscarora and their allies burned alive.[15]

The biggest blow to the Tuscarora and the turning point in the war was the destruction of Fort Neoheroka in March 1713 at the hands of Colonel James Moore. Over 550 Tuscarora and allies died and nearly 400 enslaved.[16] Reports of Indian casualties are inconsistent, however. Moore himself counted 392 prisoners, 192 killed at the fort with accompanying scalps, 200 killed at the fort then burned as the fort burned – 784 total prisoners and casualties.[17] Yet, archaeological excavations have uncovered over 900 skulls. Author and ethnohistorian David La Vere hypothesized that Moore attacked a Tuscarora ossuary and the defending Tuscaroras were actually a burial party.[18] However, the Fort Neoheroka excavation website calls it the “largest Indian massacre burial site in the country.”

Within one year of Fort Neoheroka’s destruction, many of the surviving Tuscarora (less than 2000) made the approximately 500-mile journey north to New York with the help of the Five Nations. They settled on land allocated to them by the Oneida outside of their town Onaquaga on the Susquehanna River. [19] Those that remained in North Carolina dispersed into the woods in the colony and into Virginia, living in small groups. Some died. Some migrated elsewhere. Some joined other Native American nations.

The Tuscarora War paved the way for European settlers to build on the land that was once Tuscarora territory. Unfortunately for the Tuscarora, it forced them from their ancestral lands. In 1722, North Carolina chartered the Bertie County Reservation (“Indian Woods”) as part of a treaty between King Tom Blount, a Tuscarora chief, and the colony. But even this land was leased illegally. Over time, the original 56,000 acres were whittled down as the colonial government sold off tracts and forced land cessions to settlers. Because of this, more Tuscarora moved elsewhere, to New York and to other parts of the North Carolina colony.

Today, the Tuscarora Nation of New York has federal recognition but not the groups in North Carolina, from which the nation originates. The Tuscarora dispersed widely because of the war and its aftermath, creating pockets of isolated communities. For hundreds of years, they were a powerful presence in eastern North Carolina. Now, there is dispute over who they even were. At Rocky Mount Mills, there is no remnant of their presence there apart from what the archaeologists uncovered on the opposite bank. While a cohesive Tuscarora culture may not be as powerfully represented in North Carolina today, it is important to remember that they once dominated the land and that Native American culture persists throughout the state.

Nicole Coscolluela


Johnson, Elias. 2006. Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations, and History of the Tuscarora Indians. Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation.

La Vere, David. 2013. The Tuscarora War: Indians, settlers, and the fight for the Carolina colonies. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

“Tuscarora.” In Atlas of Indian Nations, by Anton Treuer. National Geographic Society, 2014. Accessed July 6, 2018.

“Tuscarora.” In Cassell’s Peoples, Nations and Cultures, edited by John Mackenzie. Cassell, 2005. Accessed July 6, 2018.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 2012. Tuscarora: A History. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Further Reading:

Gery, Michael E.C. “Crushing the Tuscarora.” Carolina Country. March 2013. Accessed July 22, 2018.

NCDNCR. “Beginnings of the Tuscarora War.” North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. September 22, 2013. Accessed August 1, 2018.

[1] “Tuscarora.” In Cassell’s Peoples, Nations and Cultures, edited by John Mackenzie. Cassell, 2005. (accessed July 6, 2018)

[2] Rocky Mount Mills Records, Coll. 05211. Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

[3] Elias Johnson. Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations, and History

of the Tuscarora Indians. Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation. 2006.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cassell.

[6] Anthony F.C. Wallace. 2012. Tuscarora: A history. Albany: State University of New York Press. 64.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Wallace. Xiii.

[9] “Tuscarora.” In Atlas of Indian Nations, by Anton Treuer. National Geographic Society, 2014. (accessed July 6, 2018)

[10] Wallace. 64.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Johnson.

[13] David La Vere. The Tuscarora War : Indians, settlers, and the fight for the Carolina colonies. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 70-72.

[14] Ibid. 99.

[15] Ibid. 108.

[16] Ibid. 169.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. 70-71.

[19] Ibid. 72.