The Tuscarora Tribe Endured Violence and Upheaval, But Some Have Survived to Tell Their Story
The Tuscarora tribe numbered an estimated 25,000 in some 24 villages, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia and North Carolina to the Shenandoah River and the Appalachian Mountains. Their numbers and territory were greatly reduced after contact with British colonists.
Eventually the Tuscarora tribe went north and became part of the Iroquois Confederacy. Many Tuscarora people now live on a reservation in New York State. Today they number about 7,500 and live in New York, Ontario, and a few in North Carolina, says the website Native Heritage Project.
At the time of contact:
“They had as many as 24 large towns and could muster 6,000 warriors. Lawson wrote that in 1708 the Tuscarora had 15 towns and about 1,200 warriors. Perhaps a minimum estimate of the true number of their fighting men would be 1,200 persons and 6 towns.”
Tuscarora Adoption Ceremony. (western-artist.com)
Reduced to 5,000 Tuscarora People
After 1700, the Tuscarora people numbered about 5,000. So their population has climbed a bit since the wars and other violence of the 18th and 19th centuries. Years of hardships, including kidnappings, rapes, beatings, murder, smallpox, and enslavement, reduced their numbers and hurt them culturally, the website says. It was not violence only that they endured. The colonists also encroached on their fishing and hunting grounds. And the Tuscarora lost land when treaties were broken.
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Finally, the Tuscarora leaders and warriors had had enough, and they started the Tuscarora War. Numerous people among both the natives and colonists succumbed to the conflicts and violence.
The last straw came when the colonists enslaved Tuscarora children. Also, one John Lawson deeded the Tuscarora village Chattokka to Baron Christoph DeGraffenreid in exchange for the town of New Bern. “[This] caused the powder keg that had been simmering to explode, beginning the Tuscarora War[s]” of 1708 to 1713, sources say.
A statue of Chief Clinton Rickard of the Tuscarora Indians in Niagara Falls State Park, New York. The chief founded the Indian Defense League and promoted Native American Sovereignty. (Dchrist76/CC BY SA 4.0)
A Telling Quote About the Goodness of Tuscarora Culture
The website Access Genealogy, which quotes from the Handbook of the American Indians North of Mexico, has a telling quote from a colonist, Gen. John Lawson, who lived among the Tuscarora in this time:
“Of the Tuscarora they were ‘really better to us than we have been to them, as they always freely give us of their victuals at their quarters, while we let them walk by our doors hungry, and do not often relieve them. We look upon them with disdain and scorn, and think them little better than beasts in human form; while with all our religion and education, we possess more moral deformities and vices than these people do.’”
The colonists’ treatment of the natives caused all this trouble, according to the Handbook. The Tuscarora tribe was said to be peaceful, kind, mild, intelligent and hardworking. The colonists are said to have “speedily brutalized” them. Some of the Tuscarora were sold into slavery. All this along with the rapes, beatings and murders, prompted the Tuscarora to hold some hatred for the interloping people who were stealing their lands without any compensation at all.
Tuscarora Cornhusk Doll at the storage site in Maryland for the National Museum of Natural History. (Sarah Stierch/CC BY 2.0)
“The colonists of North Carolina, like their Puritan brethren of New England, did not recognize in the Indian any right to the soil, hence the lands of the Tuscarora and of their Indian neighbors and allies were appropriated without thought of purchase,” the book sates. The Handbook also said when the British made war on the Tuscarora, some other native tribes allied with the British and joined in the attacks.
The Tuscarora too made war. The site North Carolina Humanities said that at dawn on September 22, 1711, the Tuscarora and allied native tribes attacked sleeping settlers along the Pamlico and Neuse rivers of North Carolina. For a few days they destroyed farms and killed about 140 people, including slaves, and capture 40 people. The allied tribes included the Core, Neuse, Machapung, Bear River and Weetock Indians were involved in the raids—500 native raiders in all. That article says the Tuscarora War lasted until February 1715.
Some Tuscarora went north to New York later in the 1730s and later joined the Iroquois League or Kanonsionni in the Tuscarora language. Kanonsionni means “league of clans.” The other Native nations were the Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Seneca. This league still exists and is now called Haudenosaunee, for “people of the longhouse.” They are also known as the Six Nations.
Tuscarora Language and Food
Some elderly people are preserving the Tuscarora culture and language, though most speak English. Some youngsters are learning their ancestors’ tongue too.
Chief Peters of the Tuscarora tribe in a traditional headdress that differs from the more elaborate Sioux tribes’ headdresses. (Public Domain)
Before the genocide, the Tuscarora were farmers, hunters and gatherers. They planted corn, beans, and squash and harvested wild herbs, berries, and roots. The website Big Orrin says Tuscarora women cooked and the men hunted deer and rabbits and fished in the numerous rivers in their region. They cooked soup, stew, and corn bread on stone hearths.
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The Supreme Beings Sky Woman and Sky Holder in Tuscarora Religion
The Tuscarora gods included Sky Woman, the mother goddess, says the site Native Languages of the Americas. Sky Holder is the beneficent God the Father, upholding the heavens and acting as a caretaker and teacher of the Tuscarora people. The link to the Native Languages site contains a more complete list of the interesting beings and lords and ladies of the Tuscarora tribe.
A 19th century Tuscarora mother with her baby in a papoose. (Public Domain)
The site The Native Heritage Project, mentioned and linked to above, has a sad, detailed timeline of the Tuscarora’s fortunes after they encountered the British in the Tuscarora homeland. The site Access Genealogy, also mentioned above, has a lengthy excerpt from the book Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico: Tuscarora Tribe.
Top image: Tuscarora tribe Heroes Monument. Source: CC0
By Mark Miller