Written By Shane Williams

The first historical reference to the Occaneechi was in 1650, when an English explorer learned that “Occonacheans” lived on a small island in the Roanoke River and farmed cornfields on the north bank of the river. The Tutelo and Saponi settled on neighboring islands. The Occaneechi participated significantly in the fur trade between Virginians and various Piedmont tribes during the 1660s and 1670s. The Occaneechi language has is no longer spoken, but scholars believe the tribe spoke an eastern Siouan dialect similar to those of the Saponi and Tutelo.

Virginia explorer Abraham Wood visited the tribe in the late 1600s and described the tribes’ influence on the deerskin trade. Their location along the Great Trading Path was prime and connected the tribe not only with the Virginia colony but also with the Catawba and Cherokee tribes. In 1676 the Occaneechi were ambushed and driven out by colonist Nathanial Bacon and English settlers. The tribe migrated south from Roanoke to the Eno River in modern-day Orange County.

Between 1983 and 1986 archaeologists from UNC Chapel Hill excavated the Occaneechi village in present day Hillsborough. The research manifested a small village of about twelve wigwam houses surrounded by a central square and sweat lodge. The small tepees were protected by a defensive fortification, and a cemetery was located outside of the community. The many graves suggest various battles with the Iroquois as well as European diseases from the 1700s. Numerous artifacts were found during the excavation, including clay pottery, stone tools, and European objects from trade such as beads and axes. Additionally, items such as animal bones and pant remains suggested a diet of corn, beans squash and deer. The tribe had five seasons which included budding, ripening, mid-summer harvest, and winter. Two chiefs presided over the tribe, one in charge of warfare and the other agriculture and hunting.

By the early 1700s, the Occaneechi had transferred north to the Meherrin River to garner protection from colonists at Fort Christanna in Virginia. Tribes, including the Saponi, Tutelo, and Meipontsky, also sought protection from the Virginia government. These tribes were descended from larger Siouan tribes that lived in North Carolina and Virginia during prehistoric times. According to William Byrd II, the various tribes united into a single community under the name Saponis; the Occaneechi distinction was quickly lost.

Starting in the 1820s many Occaneechi moved to Ohio and other midwestern states to join relatives. In the late-twentieth century, the tribe organized under the name Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, and in 2002 the state of North Carolina formally recognized the tribe. Today, Occaneechi live primarily in Alamance and Orange counties.