Sunday, March 29, 2015

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Geography


To begin to develop an understanding of the Algonquian people that inhabited North Carolina’s Outer Banks and coastal shores of Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds and the lower portion of the Chowan River in the 1580s, you must start with a map.  Not a modern map but one that attempts to identify tribal groups and villages.  This map is the best that I can provide.


Print this out, if you would, for reference as you read this and future posts.

The Outer Banks, which are narrow extensions of sandy terrain, extend about 175 miles from the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina to below Cape Lookout (not revealed on your map). The Banks are separated from the mainland of North Carolina by broad, shallow sounds at the most thirty miles in breadth. Here and there shallow, narrow inlets cut through the banks, allowing river water to escape into the Atlantic Ocean. These inlets are in a constant process of change.

At Cape Hatteras (see #5 village Croatoan), the banks jut far out into the ocean.  Gulf Stream currents flow close by, creating a warm atmosphere that permits tropical fruits and plants to thrive. North of the Cape, the Gulf Stream swerves away from the coastline and meets cold water coming down from the Labrador Current, resulting in much turbulence and a serious threat to shipping.

The raw sand of the Banks contains mineral content necessary to stimulate the growth of abundant vegetation. Frequent rainfall has forced the salt content of the sand downward and to the sides of the Banks, and a shallow water table of fresh water exists between the salt water table level and the surface of the Banks. Shallow wells are able to draw fresh water upward from almost any location on the Banks.

Pamlico Sound dominates that area of water between the Banks and the mainland of North Carolina. It is the hub of an extensive network of smaller sounds as well as bays, rivers, creeks, lakes, and ponds. Into Albemarle Sound, to the northwest, flow the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers. Roanoke Island marks the most northern extent of Pamlico Sound.

Inlets to the sounds are filled primarily by southbound ocean currents. New openings are created by the force of fresh water seeking access to the sea. Autumn, more specifically September, is when inlets are usually opened or enlarged.

As the eye of a hurricane approaches the Banks from the Caribbean, winds from the east blow great quantities of ocean water through the existing inlets and push this water as well as much of the water in the sounds well up into the many bays and estuaries of the mainland. When the eye of the hurricane moves north of the Banks, the winds’ direction reverses. Water is pushed across the shallow sounds against the Banks. Old inlets are reopened; new ones are formed.

The number of inlets has varied considerably over the years. At times there have been as many as eleven small inlets that release an average of fifteen billion gallons of water each day into the Atlantic. At other times three fairly large inlets have done so. Since the Banks became a part of recorded history, twenty-five different inlets remained open long enough to receive names and appear on maps. The inlet named Port Ferdinando is the inlet that Captains Amadas and Barlowe used to enter Pamlico Sound just south of Roanoke Island in 1584.  It closed sometime before 1657.   It was the main entry point of men and supplies for the 1585-1586 Roanoke colony.  Oregon Inlet, about a mile south of where Port Ferdinando had existed, was created by a violent hurricane in 1846. During the storm, a ship, the Oregon, was caught on Pamlico Sound.  Its crew witnessed the sudden formation of the new inlet and reported it upon reaching safety.  Oregon Inlet exists today.

Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds are very shallow.  Albemarle Sound’s average depth is 12 to 13 feet.  It lies east/west, with prevailing winds from the southwest and west.  Any winds over 15 knots can produce steep, uncomfortable seas.  The rivers and streams that empty into the Sound’s waters are clear but tea-colored, from tannic acid created by decomposing vegetation along their banks.  Here are links to several pictures.





The Chowan River is nearly two miles wide as it empties into Albemarle Sound near present-day Edenton (town #26 Warawtan on your map).   The river begins at the North Carolina-Virginia border where the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers meet.  Flowing some 65 miles, it is fed by numerous swampy creeks and streams.  Along with the Roanoke River, it supplies most of the fresh water of Albemarle Sound.  Surrounded by one of the most extensive swamp forests in the state, the Chowan River supports black bears, river otters, warblers and bald eagles.  Lined by bald cypress trees, the river, running mostly north to south, hosts some 18 different species of fish: largemouth and striped bass, white perch, sunfish, catfish, black crappie and more. The lower Chowan River is at its most scenic during the winter months and rarely freezes over. It is home to an abundance of migratory waterfowl in the winter.  Here are links to several pictures.





The Roanoke River stretches for 137 miles across North Carolina's coastal plain.  Its headwaters are in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia.  The river flows generally east-southeast across the Piedmont of southern Virginia and enters northeastern North Carolina near the Roanoke Rapids’ fall line. The river then zigzags southeast across the coastal plain and then turns north to enter the western end of Albemarle Sound (see Indian village #24, Tandaquomuc).  “The river’s floodplain contains the largest intact and least-disturbed bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem remaining in the mid-Atlantic region. The middle section of the Roanoke River is characterized by alluvial forests and large backswamps, while the lower section contains vast tracts of bald cypress and water tupelo swamp forests. The Roanoke River provides a haven for a host of plants and animals, including more than 200 bird species” (Roanoke River Region 1).  Because the river originates in the mountains, unlike the Chowan River, its current is strong.  Native American inhabitants, experiencing deadly spring floods, called it the "River of Death."  Here are links to pictures.





Pamlico Sound, 80 miles long, is no more than 30 feet deep in places and very wide, up to 30 miles.  It has an average depth of about 5 to 6 feet, even well offshore.  A person cannot see the mainland from the Outer Banks because he cannot see low-lying land within 20 miles due to the curvature of the Earth.  The coastal plains of Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds are flat and very swampy.  There is little increase in elevation on the mainland for at least 100 miles, where a traveler might reach a height of 500 feet.   Considered an estuary itself, Pamlico Sound hosts a number of small estuaries along its west coastline.

An estuary “is any place where freshwater joins and mixes with saltwater. But more typically, an estuary is defined as a partially enclosed coastal body of water, having an open connection with the ocean (for example, via a river), where freshwater from inland is mixed with saltwater from the sea. Estuaries typically occupy coastal areas where effects from the ocean are reduced but still influential.    Estuaries contain salt water and fresh water in different proportions over the length of the estuary and over the course of the day, with more salt water during high tide and less at low tide. Because they are shallow …, sunlight penetrates the water, allowing plants to grow. The rivers that feed the estuaries deposit sediments rich in nutrients, which settle onto the sand and mud of the estuary floor. These conditions create unique habitats for both plants and animals, and provide an environment for biological diversity in species (of fish, shrimp, crabs, clams and oysters) that are able to adapt to the brackish conditions. Estuaries are also good nurseries as they provide a place for these species to hatch and grow before they migrate to the sea to live out their adult lives.   

“Sand bars buffer the impact of waves, while plants and shellfish beds anchor the shore against tides. Swamps and marshes take the initial impact of high winds moving in from the ocean, soak up heavy rain and storm surges, and release the extra water gradually into rivers and groundwater supplies. 


“Swamps and marshes along the edges of the coast provide feeding grounds and shelter for many adult fish and shellfish. Cypress, tupelo, and swamp maple trees grow in swamp forests, whereas grasses such as black needlerush and cordgrasses predominate in salt marshes. Freshwater marshes support cattails, bullrushes, and reeds. River herring spawn in the swamps, while adult river herring, Atlantic menhaden, and bluefish live in the open water” (Harrell 1).

Here are links to pictures of estuaries and marshes in Pamlico Sound.





Here are links to pictures of trees frequently found in swamps.






The Algonquian natives of Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds were water people well adapted to their environment.  They utilized large canoes hollowed out of tulip trees and white cedar.  In deciding the locations of their villages, they “tended to favor the northern shores of the region’s sounds and rivers.  In summer, the prevailing breezes come out of the south, blowing the northern shores free of mosquitoes.  Winter storms originated in the Northeast, with the southern shores lying much more exposed” (Oberg 12).

Historians use tribal names to differentiate Native American populations.  A North Carolina Algonquian “tribe” was usually a loose confederation of two or more villages whose inhabitants accepted the authority of one leader -- called a weroance – who made decisions to preserve intra- and inter-village harmony and achieve and maintain peaceful relations with rival tribes.  On your map, take notice of these “tribes’: Chawanoke, Weapemeoc, Roanoke, and Secotan.  The weroance of the Roanoke tribe in 1584 was Wingina.  When the English made contact with the Roanokes that year, Wingina’s main settlement was Dasemunkapeuc (#6 on your map).  The island of Roanoke (#20) was under the province of his brother Granganimeo.  Croatoan (#5), allied with the Roanokes, was semi-independent.  Some historians believe that Wingina also had dominion over Pomeiooc (#17), Aquascogoc (#1), and Secoton (#23) and that he moved annually from village to village taking up temporary residences.

The Weapemeoc villages were all located along the northern bank of Albemarle Sound.  Their head weroance in 1584 was Okisko.  He had installed his highest subordinates over “the towns of Pasquenoke [#16], Chepanoc [#4], Rickahokinge [not on the map], and Masioming [#8] … Still, Okisko could not control all the inhabitants in these villages” (Oberg 17) …  The Weapemeocs were not particularly friendly with the Roanokes.

The Chowanokes were the most powerful and influential confederation of the coastal North Carolina Algonquians.  Their weroance, Menatonon, was a frail old man when the English encountered him in 1586.  Nevertheless, he had under his authority hundreds of warriors.  Villages located on both sides of the Chowan River comprised his confederation.  Okisko, the weroance of the Weapemeoc, had sworn obedience to him.  “The Choanoacs’ power rested on their access to trading routes in the interior that linked peoples across the Carolinas and Virginia together in an elaborate network of exchange.  Occupying this position meant conflict, and the Choanoacs [many Algonquian villages have alternate spellings] fought with the powerful Powhatans [of Jamestown fame] on occasion.    Menatonon also remained an important rival of Wingina, who like him sought opportunities for his people to engage in surprisingly widespread networks of exchange that linked communities across the interior of the continent” (Oberg 17).

The Moratuc are believed not to have been Algonquian.  Tribes west of Algonquian settlements – Mandoag, Eno-Shaikori, and Tuscarora – were either Iroquois or Siouans.  Aggressive traders, they were the Algonquians’ worst enemies. The Pomouik, probably not Algonquian, were hostile to the southern Pamlico Sound Algonquians.  Several years before the English made their first appearance on Pamlico Sound, they had killed in a singular act of treachery many Secoton (#23) villagers.

These are the villages and the sounds, rivers, waterways,”swamps, swamp forests, bare sandy deserts and fertile oases” (Quinn 44) that will appear in my historical novel “Alsoomse and Wanchese.”  What historians know about these Algonquians and the events that transpired after Englishmen first encountered Wingina’s people and what they speculate may have happened thereafter offer people who write stories about the past rich material.     

Sources Cited:

Harrell, Waverly and Godwin-Myer, Jennifer.  “Estuaries in North Carolina: A Primer.”  Learn NC: K-12 Teaching and Learning from the UNC School of Education.  http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/544.  Net

Oberg, Michael Leroy.  The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand.  University of Pensylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2008.  Print.


Quinn, David Beers.  Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606.  The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1985.  Print.