Island is a magical place. As soon as you cross Oregon Inlet and first
glimpse its pristine landscape and the weathered Life-Saving Station
near the beach, you immediately know that you have crossed a time
barrier to a place where the daily pace of life is governed by the wind
and the waves and the tides.
Our island is also a place of mystery, with tales
of a ship under full sail foundering on its shoals with no crew aboard,
unexplained loud booms sometimes called the “Seneca Guns”, and the
perplexing riddle of the fate of the Lost Colonists – our country’s
first English settlers.
Amid this fascinating mixture of fact and
fiction, there is another story that is just beginning to emerge. It is
the story of the Native Americans who inhabited the island before the
initial European contact, and for a short time thereafter before they
all but disappeared. Through historical documents, drawings, maps, and
archaeological explorations, we are starting to understand how these
early inhabitants lived, their customs and practices, and their
interactions with the first white settlers.
Current efforts to unravel the secrets of
Hatteras Island’s first inhabitants are focused in two main directions
– archaeological investigations and historical document research.
Archaeological research has been intermittent
since the late 1930s, with an increase in the number of digs over the
past 25 years.
In the 1990s, noted East Carolina University
archeologist, Dr. David Phelps spearheaded the exploration of sites in
present-day Buxton. This area has most recently been excavated by Mark
Horton, an English archaeologist from the University of Bristol, under
the sponsorship of local resident, Scott Dawson’s Croatoan
Simultaneously, another local resident and
historical researcher, Mel Covey, is conducting very extensive and
in-depth research into the land transfer records of Dare, Hyde, and
Currituck counties in an effort to locate the site of what was known as
“Indian Town” here on the island.
To provide perspective on these projects, a little background may be helpful.
The physical configuration of Hatteras Island
today is not the same as it was at the time the first Englishmen
arrived in 1584. There was an inlet just north of present-day Buxton,
and Hatteras Inlet did not exist until 1846. The island that was
identified as Croatoan on the earliest maps extended from the inlet
north of Buxton to a portion of the north end of Ocracoke Island.
Croatoan was not only the name of the island; it
was also the name of the Indian tribe that lived on the island. This
name is sometimes spelled Croatan, and by the 1700s, the native
population was called the Hatteras Indians. The Croatoans were the only
island kingdom of the Algonkian Indians. They were reportedly a
matriarchal society, led by a queen who just happened to be Manteo’s
mother. Manteo, as you may recall, was the Indian who - together with
Wanchese - returned to England with Amadas and Barlowe after their 1584
voyage to the Outer Banks. Manteo and the Croatoan Indians were always
noted as being friendly and helpful to the English settlers.
Here is where the story of Native American settlements on Hatteras Island starts to get interesting.
Some researchers have estimated that the island
was thinly populated by seasonal hunting and fishing camps, while Dr.
Phelps personally told me that he estimated that there were as many as
4,000 Indians living on the island at the peak of their culture. (As a
footnote, the 2010 census reported that the permanent population of
Hatteras Island was 4,322.)
By the early 1700s, reports indicated that there
were few, if any, Indians remaining. Disease, famine, attacks by
hostile tribes, and intermingling with the settlers had essentially
eliminated the original inhabitants of the island. In a little more
than 100 years, the Croatoans were transformed from an active, vibrant
culture to virtual extinction.
What evidence do we have concerning where the
Native Americans lived? According to a 1994 article in the Coastland
Times newspaper, if Croatoan followed the pattern of other Carolina
Algonkian settlements, there would have been a capital town, smaller
settlements at some distance, then more dispersed farm areas.
Clearly, the middens (trash heaps) of shells and
artifacts uncovered by the archaeologists give us good indications of
where native American populations of some size resided for extended
periods of time. Middens have been located along Cape Creek in Buxton
and elsewhere on the island, but the most extensive by far was on
Brooks Island in Brigands Bay. From the archaeological investigations,
we know that there were a number of sites - at least a dozen - that
were inhabited by the Croatoans throughout the island.
We also have one of the earliest maps of the
island showing three areas with symbols of palisades that suggest the
location of permanent encampments. These symbols were roughly
positioned in the vicinity of Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras Village.
Somewhere around 1723, villages were starting to
appear on Hatteras Island with Indian names like Chicamacomico Banks,
Kinnakeet Banks, and Hatteras Banks. Today, there are local place names
such as Indian Ridge in Buxton, and a subdivision named Indiantown
Shores in Frisco.
Finally, land grant and property transfer
documents have been located that tantalizingly refer to an “Indian
Town.” Here are some examples among a litany of land transfers
extending into the mid-1800s that mention Indian Town or Indian Patent.
• 1712 – Colonel William Reed’s Grant for land “on the soundside adjacent to Cape Hatteras Indiantown”
• 1716 – Henry Davis – “joining on Indian Town.”
• 1759 – William Elks & rest of Hatteras Indians – “200 acres including old Indian Town”
• 1770 – William Elks to Isaac Farrow (Sr.) – “100 acres of Indian Patent – west end”
• 1788 – “Mary Elks, Indian, of
Hatteras Banks to Nathan Midyett” - a tract of land - 200 acres - which
included the site of the old Indian Town. (Hatteras Banks was the area
between Buxton and Hatteras Village.)
Covey has accumulated more than 2,000 records in
his efforts to identify the references to Indian Town which may have
been the capital town and the island’s main Native American population
center. His ultimate goal, once the research is complete, is to be able
to overlay the historic land grants and land transfers onto current
property maps, and pinpoint the exact location of Indian Town. This
will open the door for extended archaeological research and a better
understanding of the Croatoans and their culture.
The land records should also help to fill in gaps
in the histories of local island families with names like Basnett,
Foster, Midyett, O’Neal, Quidley, Scarborough,
Williams, Farrow, Jennett, Miller, Price, Rolinson, and Tolson.
The history of Hatteras Island represents an
evolving collection of research. Each new discovery adds an intriguing
piece to the puzzle of how the island and its people came to be the
paradise that we know and love today.
Tom Hranicka, Avon, NC December 16, 2017