13. The Tuscarora and ‘Charles Town’

Tuscarora playing Lacrosse

Long before Europeans and their ‘great canoes’ started to occupy and trade along the seacoast of Turtle Island, the Tuscarora people had migrated southward from the Great Lakes area. They settled in the piedmont region of what was to be called ‘the Carolinas.’ They were ‘Iroquoian’ speakers, related to the five-nation confederacy living near the Niagara region and the mountains of what is now Pennsylvania. Just to their east, along the coastal bay and outer banks, lived a dozen or so Algonquin-speaking tribes. In the mountains far west of them lived the Cherokee.

Their name is pronounced ‘tuh-skuh-roar-uh’, which is close to their own name, ‘Skarureh.’ It means both ‘the people who gather hemp’ or ‘the hemp-shirt wearers.’ What we now call ‘Indian hemp’ is a beneficial plant that produces strong fibers. The Tuscarora used hemp to make cloth for shirts, rope, and ceremonial objects (some varieties of hemp contain cannabis). The hemp cloth, along with occasionally dying their hair red with bloodroot, made the Tuscarora stand out. Otherwise, they were like many of their neighbors. They lived in matrilineal villages with farms growing the usual ‘three sisters’, maize, beans, and squash. They had strong and skilled warriors but were known to be more peaceful and accommodating than warlike. They loved to play Lacrosse.

For several hundred years, the Tuscarora thrived in their region. Their crops did well, and the wild game was plentiful. They also made dugout canoes to fish the rivers and shallow coastal bays. They were especially fond of crayfish. Their homes were made of bent poles covered with layers of bark, but they tended to be smaller and more rounded than the ‘long houses’ of their cousins to the north. By the end of the 1500s, they were undoubtedly aware of Europeans–the Spanish failures in South Carolina and the failure of the ‘lost colony’ of Roanoke in the northern islets inside the Outer Banks. They would soon become aware of Jamestown and its early struggles.

What they didn’t know was the deal-making going on across the ocean. In 1629, King Charles I handed out a land patent to Robert Heath for all the lands north of Florida and below Virginia, stretching far to the west, at least to the Mississippi, even the Pacific. Naturally, he wanted it named after himself, ‘Carolina.’

Unfortunately or not, the King was beheaded, and Oliver Cromwell ran the country for a decade or so, briefly unconcerned about colonies apart from Ireland. The land grant was moot and put in the trash bin. But in 1660, the monarchy was restored with Charles II in charge. He devised a new deal, a ‘proprietary colony,’ where he would name several ‘lords proprietors’ to take over Carolina, divide it, and run it as they pleased.

“The Lords Proprietors named in the charter,” says Wikipedia, “were Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon; George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle; William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven; John Berkeley, 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton; Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury; Sir George Carteret; Sir William Berkeley (brother of John); and Sir John Colleton.”

So with the stroke of his pen, Charles II had named new chieftains and overlords for the Tuscarora and dozens of other peoples as well. It mattered little whether any high-born Englishmen had ever set foot on Turtle Island. But the Lords Proprietors quickly got to work and in 1670 sent 150 colonists to set up ‘Charles Town’ near the old Spanish fort. Lord Shaftesbury, from London, planned the streets for the town and encouraged settlers from the sugar colony of Barbados to populate it. The same deal was made to William Sales, then governor of Bermuda, to round up a few boatloads of the residents of that colony to be removed to Carolina. In turn, Sales was named the first governor of the province.

The northern edge of Carolina bordered Virginia, and the border was ill-defined. Many Virginians, and people passing through Virginia, including many Quakers, were suffering from the religious intolerance of Governor Berkeley, a High-Church cavalier. People were also feeling the edge of his crackdown on Bacon’s Rebellion. Carolina had no churches to speak of then and had somewhat tolerant policies on religion. In 1672, George Fox, a founder of the Quakers, decided to explore the area himself, found it welcoming, and invited Quakers to move there in sizeable numbers. They did so, making a point of purchasing land from native leaders.

The coming clashes can be readily seen. The settlers from Barbados called themselves ‘planters,’ even though, personally, they never got their hands dirty. They owned and managed sugar plantations worked by slaves, and now on the mainland, they used slaves to grow rice and tobacco. They would buy bondservants and African slaves or have militias capture native peoples, including the Tuscarora, and work them as slaves. If they balked, they would trade the native slaves off to the West Indies in exchange for Africans or simply for money. The Quakers, on the other hand, were developing into an anti-slavery force that tried, as best as they could, to treat native peoples as equals as well. Contradictions were soon to explode. More to come.

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