Ocracoke's history & its people

Beach discovery is a prehistoric portal in time

Arrowhead found on the Ocracoke Beach by Ed Norvell

Arrowhead found on the Ocracoke Beach by Ed Norvell

Editor’s note: Spellings of Croatan and Croatoan appear in this story. Neither is definitive.

May 2015
By Pat Garber

Standing on the shore of Ocracoke Island and looking eastward across the Atlantic, one is amazed by the immensity of the ocean, extending to the horizon and beyond.

As you gaze at that seemingly endless body of water, it’s hard to believe that 10,000 years ago one would have been looking at islands or even solid land, where now-extinct great mammoths and giant sloths roamed the landscape, pursued by a group of people, known today as Paleo-Indians, long since vanished.

Yet that is the story suggested by an unusual object Ed Norvell, a part-time islander, picked up on the Ocracoke beach in July 2007. It is a piece of fine jasper, about 3½ inches long, worked by human hands to form a pointed weapon. Known to archaeologists as a lithic point, it is more commonly known as an arrowhead, or spearhead.

Where did it come from? Who made it, and when? These questions led Ed to consult with several experts, who had ideas but could give no definitive answers. Stone cannot be dated with the methods used on other artifacts. So archaeologists must make determinations based on shape, style and materials.

Because the point was somewhat worn by wave action, its origins were unclear. One archaeologist placed it in the Late Woodland phase, meaning it would have been shaped between 300 and 1,200 years ago.

Scott Dawson, author of the book “Croatan: Birthplace of America,” thought it looked like a Cumberland point, dating back about 9,000 years, which had previously been found on Hatteras Island (reputed to have been Croatoan Island). Renowned geologist Orrin Pilkey of Duke University pointed out similarities to points made by the Clovis Culture at least 10,000 years ago.

Once connected, Ocracoke and Hatteras islands have been home to native people for thousands of years. According to Dawson, there are Paleo-Indian sites on Hatteras Island where a mammoth tooth, walrus tusks, and a bison skull have been found.

David Phelps, an archaeologist from East Carolina University, notes in his book “The Prehistory of North Carolina” that Paleo-Indians had used coastal jasper for hunting points, and “even in the Late Woodland period the Carolina Algonkians were ‘mining’ jasper from the old channels beneath the Outer Banks.”

When Europeans arrived in North Carolina in the late 16th century they met Algonkian speaking people of the Woodland period. John White, an artist with Richard Grenville’s expedition, made sketches of the natives, depicting their long houses, garb, and their fishing, hunting and farming methods. Thomas Harriott described their use of corn, potatoes, and tobacco in his records. Those who lived on Ocracoke and Hatteras were known as the Croatan, or Hatteras, Indians.

Their main village was believed to be at Buxton, where archeologists have unearthed house posts, fire pits and garbage middens.

Archaeological studies revealed ossuary burials found on Hatteras Island, from the Colington phase, which ended about 1650. These mass interments contained more than 38 individuals–newborns to elderly–women and men.

The chiefs Manteo and Wanchese were probably Croatan Indians, and there is evidence that the famous lost colony of Roanoke Island may have fled to the Croatan village in Buxton.

What happened to the native people Sir Walter Raleigh and Richard Grenville met on their expeditions?

The 1650 Hatteras site worked by Dr. David Phelps indicated that there was trade going on with Jamestown, but most culture was still native. A 1730s site shows a European homestead next to a native site.

According to historic records, the Croatan Indians had for the most part disappeared by 1690. This was in part dueto an outbreak of smallpox that swept through native villages in the 1600s.

In his book, “The American Indian in North America,” Doulas Rights wrote that by 1750 the two cultures had intermarried and most native people’s culture had disappeared as they moved into European style homes and adopted European ways.

A 1759 land deed shows a General Dobbs buying 200 acres from the Hatteras, or Croatan, tribe. That is the last known reference to the Croatans as a tribe.

There are still people in eastern North Carolina with Algonkian roots, and the nonprofit organization Algonquian Indians of North Carolina Inc. is dedicated to preserving their culture.

The organization comprises people who are “genealogically descended from the original Croatan Indians,” including the Hatteras, Roanoke and Mattamuskeet tribes. Their website is www.ncalgonquians.com, and they are seeking tribal recognition by the state of North Carolina.

Ed Norvell’s stone presents more questions than answers. Regardless of when this particular point was made, or by whom, it reminds us that there have been human cultures along the Outer Banks for thousands of years, arriving, changing and disappearing.

Editor’s note: for archeological information about Hatteras Island, visit www.cashatteras.com.

Pat Garber 2014-10-04 12.42.44

Pat Garber is the author of Ocracoke Wild (Down Home Press, 1995) and Ocracoke Odyssey (Down Home Press, 1999) both collections of nature essays, and the children’s book Little Sea Horse and The Story of the Ocracoke Ponies (Ocracoke Preservation Museum, 2006). She has a background in anthropology, history and education, with a master’s degree from Northern Arizona University in Cultural Anthropology.  She was born and raised near Richmond, Virginia.