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The Tuscarora War - David La Vere

War not might always be inevitable but according to David La Vere, the Tuscarora War that started in 1711 was pretty close to an accomplished fact.

“Every colony went through one of these big wars between the Indians and this was North Carolina’s turn.”

David La Vere is a UNC-Wilmington professor and the author of “The Tuscarora War: Indians, Settlers and the Fight for the Carolina Colonies.” The first official blow in the war was struck by Indians in September 1711 when they attacked European settlers on the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers, killing at least 140 and destroying hundreds of farms. The match was likely struck weeks before.

“When New Bern is created by Baron de Graffenreid and he brings about 300 or so German and Swiss settlers he plops them down and that’s Tuscarora territory, and so Tuscaroras and their allies are getting crowded out, so all these things together finally just… it was time… they snapped. The spark was when surveyor general John Lawson and de Graffenreid go up the Neuse River scouting for future land for their settlement the Indians see this as provocation and they are captured, put on trial, and finally John Lawson is executed. The Baron was held captive for about 6 weeks and released after he signs a treaty. But after you execute a colonial official, I guess you might as well go all the way and it was right after that that the war starts.”

With the execution of a colonial official and the subsequent attacks on settlers, it at first glance puts blame for the start of the Tuscarora War firmly on the eastern North Carolina Indians. But La Vere says as there were no innocent Indians, there weren’t innocent settlers caught unaware of problems with their native neighbors.

“There were a lot of abuses by settlers. The Indians, if they were caught hunting in the settled area, risked being murdered, or at least being beaten, having their guns taken from them, having their game taken from them. Traders would go out and abuse Indians in their towns. They would rape Indian women, rape Indian daughters, they would beat up Indians, they would get them drunk and take their hides from them, and Indians complained about this.”

The Indians also came up with unique solutions to try to ameliorate problems the European presence imposed on them.

“John Lawson in his 1701 trip across the Piedmont talks about this. He talks about how when you went to these villages you’d be met by young women, good-looking young women, called the Trading Girls, and you could tell them by the cut of their hair, and these were women whose job it was to take these European men who’d come in and symbolically marry them for their time there and they would provide the services a wife would provide… cook for them but also have sex with them and in return these Europeans would provide these families with trade goods. But the trading girls was a recent phenomenon and the Indians brought it about as an adaption to these Europeans because as these Europeans, their idea was that Indian women were hyper-sexualized nymphomaniacs and were free for anything and so these Europeans would come into Indian villages and find a woman that struck their fancy and essentially pull them into the woods and rape them. So you start having respectable wives and respectable daughters being raped by these Europeans who just think all women are lusty. And if you beat up a European or kill one that could bring dangerous repercussions from SC and NC so they created trading girls to syphon off, to redirect this European lust, and so Indians are having to deal with things like Europeans coming in and doing whatever they want to do.”

But the biggest grievance North Carolina Indians had was the Indian slave trade. For decades South Carolina had seized Indians… friend and foe alike… to work in sugar colonies on Barbados. But enslaving friendly Indians caused obvious problems, so La Vere says South Carolina had wars with enemies to fuel their slave trade… wars which could bleed into their northern neighbor.

“African slavery was just then getting started and the first slaves were Indian and South Carolina took Indian slavery to new heights. They would arm their allies like the Catawbas and the Waterees and the Santees and send them out across the American South to take slaves, and from about 1675 to 1715 it was a horrible time to be an Indian in the American south. Who knows when someone is going to attack a peaceful village and kill the men and take the women and children captive then march them to Charleston and send them off to Barbados or keep them in SC or send them off to NY and Pennsylvania and NC. The Tuscaroras complained about this. Why, if we’re allies of English NC, why are the allies of English SC attacking us? Why don’t you do something about that?”

The European presence had changed the view of captives amongst the Native Americans. When wars had been fought before, few captives were taken, and they were often essentially adopted into new tribes. Now with the Europeans having goods the Indians wanted, captives were a trade chip. So with the changes in their lives and the enslavement of their people, war indeed may have been inevitable… and like the other wars fought between other Indians and other colonies, the colonists would ultimately win. But for North Carolina to win, it required outside help.

“NC was probably the poorest colony of the 12 British colonies then. At the time it had no deepwater port so, which really hindered commerce. It was also heavily divided. It was not a united colony and what I mean by that, in the colony there were Quakers who refused to take oaths, who didn’t want to pay taxes to support the Anglican Church. You also had these kind of contrary settlers who came out of Virginia and didn’t want to recognize any kind of authority, don’t want to pay taxes, they just want to be left alone, and then you have this other group of Proprietary men, men who are part of the British empire and want North Carolina seated with that empire.”

Because of this divide, the North Carolina Governor requested assistance from South Carolina. Most battles were a stalemate, but finally in March 1713 Col. James Moore led an expedition against Indians at Neoheroka which led to a crushing defeat for the Tuscaroras, killing about 370 and enslaving nearly 400. Skirmishes continued until 1715 but for the most part the events at Neoheroka near present day Snow Hill brought the war to a close. For South Carolina it brought an immediate financial windfall for its slave trade. For North Carolina it brought a halt to the war and ultimately allowed a westward expansion.

“Up until this time the Tuscaroras were the strongest, most militant Indians in eastern NC and they almost acted as a cork preventing settlement out to the Piedmont but also preventing settlement down into the Cape Fear, and after they’re broken, after Indian power is broken, you quickly have settlement in the Piedmont, settlement in the Cape Fear, and this line of settlement quickly moves out and they start dealing with the Catawbas and then the Cherokees. But this was the big colonial Indian war for NC. The colonists always won and this was… they did win, and it just really broke the back on Indian power in the east.”

David La Vere is a professor of history at UNC-Wilmington and the author of “The Tuscarora War: Indians, Settlers and the Fight for the Carolina Colonies” published by the University of North Carolina Press. I’m George Olsen.

George Olsen is a 1977 Havelock High School graduate. He received his B.A. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of South Carolina in 1982 where he got his first taste of non-commercial radio working for their student station WUSC. After graduation he worked about five years in commercial radio before coming to work at Public Radio East where he has remained since outside of a nearly 3-year stint as jazz and operations coordinator at WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the early 1990s. On his return to eastern North Carolina he hosted classical music for Public Radio East before moving into the Morning Edition host position and now can be heard on All Things Considered. He also hosts and produces The Sound, five hours of Americana, Roots Rock and Contemporary Folk weekday evenings on PRE Public Radio East News & Ideas, and is a news and feature producer for Public Radio East.
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