December 20, 2017

Discovering Hatteras Island’s Earliest Settlements


Hatteras 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 Through historical documents, drawings, maps, and archaeological explorations, we are starting to understand how these early inhabitants lived, their customs and practices, and their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secrets of Hatteras Island’s first inhabitants are focused in two main directions – archaeological investigations and historical document research.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 Archaeological Society.  

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 

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