The Hemp Gatherers

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A map of the North Carolina coast by John Lawson. Courtesy the NC State Archives.

As Europeans began to colonize what would become North Carolina, Native American populations were in decline. Contact with European traders brought rampant disease that decimated groups like the Hatteras (Croatan), Chowanoc, Occaneechi, Pee Dee, Waxhaw, Catawba, Cherokee, and the Tuscarora.

The Tuscarora, which means “Hemp Gatherers,” had villages near Bath and New Bern and up the Neuse and Pamlico rivers into the North Carolina Piedmont. While Europeans tended to establish their settlements near old “Indian Towns,” the area which would become Raleigh was a thickly wooded and wild hunting ground for the Tuscarora.

It is believed that the first white person to visit the area that would become Raleigh was English surveyor John Lawson, in February, 1701. Lawson was the official Surveyor General to the Lords Proprietors, who were granted enormous tracts of land by King Charles II along the East Coast and ordered to settle it.

Lawson and his surveying party were traveling north through the North Carolina wilderness from Charles Town, when he encountered two Occaneechi men near the Neuse River. Eno-Will, the chief of Adshusheer (near present-day Durham), entertained Lawson and his men as guests, and helped them cross the Neuse into Tuscarora hunting grounds (in present-day Wake County) at the falls.

While camping near the falls, which the Occaneechi called “Wee quo whom”, Lawson shared his prayer book with his curious guide. While Eno-Will was not willing to convert to Christianity at Lawson’s invitation, the Occaneechi chief offered his young son to learn to “make paper speak”, or write.

John Lawson kept extensive journals of his travels in North Carolina and his very popular book of Native American life and customs A New Voyage to Carolina, focused largely on the Tuscarora. The Tuscarora for their part often served as guides and trading partners and kept friendly relations with Lawson, but they were extremely suspicious of the surveyor.

By the time John Lawson began surveying North Carolina in the early eighteenth century, the Tuscarora were well established between the Neuse and Pamlico rivers. Villages were located along the river banks near what is now Smithfield, Wilson, Rocky Mount, Goldsboro, Tarboro, Greenville and Kinston.


An artist's rendering of the capture of John Lawson. Courtesy of the NC State Archives

Before the Europeans arrived, the Tuscarora were settled largely on the coast near New Bern (Chattoka to the Tuscarora), and would send winter hunting parties of hundreds of men into the Piedmont to cull deer, bear, fox, elk, and buffalo for meat and skins. As pressure mounted to trade and compete with European fur trappers, the Tuscarora established permanent settlements in the interior.

It seemed to the Tuscarora living on the coast that every time John Lawson set off from his new home in Bath into the interior to survey, more and more English settlers arrived to set up plantations. These English neighbors did not like the Tuscarora hunting on their new lands, and the Tuscarora rarely received compensation for the land that was once theirs. Furthermore, the European traders were rough and often cheated the Tuscarora, and the worst of them sold Indians off to Charles Town as slaves, where they were then taken to plantations in the West Indies.

The breaking point for the Tuscarora came in 1710, when they petitioned the Pennsylvania governor to be allowed to relocate there. Five years earlier, Pennsylvania passed a law outlawing the further import of Indian slaves from the Carolinas. The governor of the Quaker State had one reservation, and asked the North Carolina governor to provide a statement of the Tuscarora’s “good behavior”, which Governor Hyde refused.


John Lawson awaiting his death at the Tuscarora camp. Photo courtesy NC State Archive.

Any further attempt at “good behavior” was out the window, and for the Tuscarora, no safe haven in Pennsylvania or North Carolina meant war. They ambushed John Lawson and New Bern founder Christoph von Graffenried on an expedition near Snow Hill (Catechna), put the two on trial but let them go the following day. Lawson, however, had words with the local chief Core Tom, and was retried and sentenced to death.

Von Graffenried was ransomed, and Lawson was stuck through with splinters and burned to death. In the following weeks, the Tuscarora would attack European settlements throughout their former lands along the Neuse and Pamlico rivers. The North Carolina colony responded with their own attacks, raising militias and hiring help from Viriginia and South Carolina.

These skirmishes lasted into 1715, and became known as the Tuscarora War. It nearly bankrupted North Carolina, and depleted the colony of supplies, arms, and people. Under effective leadership of Royal Governors Pollock and Eden, the colony was able to rebound quickly. The Tuscarora, however, would never recover.


A map of the Tuscarora camp. Image courtesy the NC State Archive.

Before the Tuscarora War, the Hemp Gatherers had a population of eight to ten thousand individuals. Fourteen hundred Tuscarora were killed over four years of fighting, with another thousand were enslaved and exported. The English colonists lost around two hundred people.

Over the next fifty years, the Tuscarora migrated north to join fellow Iroquois tribes in the Northeast, as many other Native Americans in North Carolina met similar fates from disease, warfare, and enslavement. The Piedmont was opened for white settlement, with numerous abandoned Indian settlements denoting the best agricultural lands. With old trading paths crossing near the cardinal boundaries of what would become Wake County, the future state capitol remained wooded, largely uninhabited, and thick with wildlife.

Kim Cumber with the North Carolina State Archives helped find the images for this column.