An Algonquian tribe that thrived in the northeastern section of North Carolina by the end of the middle-sixteenth century, the Chowanoac were once the most prominent Algonquians in the area when Europeans explored what they called the New World. The Chowanoac, Algonquian for “people at the south,” lived and settled around the Chowan River and their dominion encompassed the Bertie, Chowan, Gates, and Hertford Counties.
The Chowanoac lived near swamps, rivers, and other tributaries throughout North Carolina. With a focus on fishing and hunting, William S. Powell discusses the importance of communal “hunting quarters.” These lands, near the present North Carolina-Virginia border, were shared and used by the Meherrin, Weapemeoc, Tuscarora, and Chowanoac tribes.
One of the first instances of European and Chowanoac interaction occurred in the year 1586. Ralph Lane, John White, and Thomas Harriot led an expedition from the Roanoke Colony into mainland North Carolina. The group sought gold and Indian goods, and the expedition eventually arrived at a Chowanoac village. Lane met the leader of the village, Chief Menatonon, describing him as a “man of great understanding and reputation.”
After the expedition and other Chowan River scouting excursions, settlers moved into the Chowanoac’s land. Violence erupted and in 1666, the Chowanoac tribe attacked European settlements. Several warriors and settlers were killed, but peace was later reestablished. Conflict returned almost ten years later when the tribe was associated with Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676.
A year after war had broken out in 1676, the Chowanoac were quelled by the onslaught of European settlers, and they were moved to a reservation in present-day Gates County. Some historians claim that the Chowanoac tract was the first Native American reservation in North Carolina. According to Phillip W. Evans, the Chowanoac, like other coastal tribes, “began to live among the English” and “they continued to suffer from the encroachment of the colonials.”
The Chowanoac tribe dwindled into obscurity by the middle of the 1700s. At the time of the Tuscarora War, the once mighty tribe only sent fifteen warriors with the English to fight against their Iroquoian rivals. Chief John Hoyter attempted to gain English protection but the reservation was reduced to a mere six square miles, and by 1734, there were not enough Chowanoac to maintain the land. By 1751, the Chowanoac sold most of their land to colonists. Despite the extinction of the tribe, the Chowanoac were once the most powerful Algonquian tribe in northeastern North Carolina.
“Chowanoac Indians.” Phillip W. Evans. William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
“Choanoac.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. (accessed March 21, 2012).
“History Highlights – North Carolina American Indian History.” North Carolina Museum of History website. http://ncmuseumofhistory.org/nchh/amerindian.html, (accessed March 21, 2012).