Thursday, May 7, 2015

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Original Sources, the Weroance

First, a few factual statements.

Algonquian-speaking tribal groups in the 16th Century ranged from coastal North Carolina to Canada and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.  English explorers/colonizers encountered them at Roanoke in 1584, Jamestown in 1607, and Plymouth in 1620.  Algonquians in North Carolina inhabited land that extended northward from the Pamlico River to the northern shore of Albemarle Sound and westward from the Outer Banks to the banks of the Chowan River.  Farther south and west lived Iroquois tribal groups.

“Tribal boundaries cannot be established beyond doubt. Allied but independent groups were sometimes regarded as single tribes by the European observers. Thus, the Roanoke, Croatoan, and Secotan tribes are frequently referred to as one tribe … Uncertainty about locations of villages makes assignments to tribes difficult. This applies particularly to the Weapemeoc, Chawanoke, and Moratuc, and to the Algonquian boundary with their [hostile] Iroquoian neighbors.There is evidence for precontact hostilities between the Secotans and their allies, and the Neusioks and Pomouiks. The Chawanokes were generally on good terms with Virginia Algonquian but they -- probably like most Algonquian groups of the region--were frequently at war with the [Iroquois] Tuscaroras” (Feest 1).

The Carolina Algonquians called the land and waters they inhabited Ossomocomuck.  Their villages can be found on this map.

Original Sources

Almost all that we know about the coastal North Carolina Algonquian people comes from reports written by five Englishmen.

Arthur Barlowe, the captain of one of two ships Walter Raleigh sent to North America in 1584, wrote this report:
The voyage to Pamlico Sound, the visits to the villages of Pomeiooc, Aquascogooc, and Secotan and the delayed return to Roanoke in 1585 was described by Richard Grenville, commander of the fleet of ships sent by Raleigh to establish a colony.  Grenville’s account may be read here:
Ralph Lane, the governor of the colony begun in 1585 and abandoned in 1586, wrote the following:
Thomas Harriot and John White were members of Captains Arthur Barlowe and Philip Amadas’s contact with Roanoke Algonquians in 1584.  More importantly, they were major players in Raleigh’s attempt to found a colony at Roanoke under Governor’s Lane’s authority (1585-1586).  Most of what we know about the Carolina Algonquians is due to these two men’s efforts.  A young man, perhaps 24 years old in 1584, Harriot would become a leading scientist of his time.  Studying the Algonquian people like an anthropologist, Harriot learned much of their language and much about their culture, behavior, and religious beliefs.  John White was a skilled artist.  His water color paintings provide us invaluable visual representation.  You may read Harriot’s report to Raleigh here:
Governor Ralph Lane and his settlers/soldiers returned to England in 1586 on ships commanded by Sir Walter Drake.  Richard Grenville, assigned to resupply the colony that year, arrived at Roanoke after the colony had left.  Here is what Grenville wrote:
In 1587 Raleigh authorized a second attempt to establish a colony in North America.  He appointed John White to be its governor.  Here is what White wrote about this attempt.

White returned to Roanoke in 1590, hoping to find the people he had been forced to leave in 1587.  He wrote the following:

The Weroance

The leader of Roanoke, Dasemunkepeuc, and possibly Croatoan, Pomeiooc, Aquascogooc, and Secotan and the weroance that Governor Lane eventually killed called himself, initially, Wingina.  He was a man of middle age, which meant – even though Thomas Harriot found the Indian population to be remarkably healthy – that he was probably in his mid to late thirties.  White’s painting shows him to be muscular, with large eyes and full lips.  Not typical of his elite class, he is understated in decoration.

According to the historian Michael Leroy Oberg, Wingina “spent most of his time at the village of Dasemunkepeuc … Here there was access to the great variety of resources in the area, including fertile soil for maize agriculture.  Wingina and his people could have moved easily back and forth from Dasemunkepeuc to the village on the northern shore of Roanoke Island.    It is unlikely that the island’s thin soil could have supported a large population, and the majority of Wingina’s people must have spent most of their time across the sound on the mainland.  Wingina’s followers also interacted closely with Indians” (Oberg 6, 8) from Croatoan suggesting that the three villages were unified under Wingina’s authority.

Oberg explains well the role of a weroance.  “Wingina could not command completely, nor could he rule alone.  English comparisons of the powers of a weroance with those of a king are misleading.    Linguists have interpreted the word to mean ‘he is rich,’ or ‘he is of influence,’ or ‘he is wise.’  Other weroances limited or influenced Wingina’s actions, and he relied as well on the advice of high ranking counselors who had earned their status through display of bravery or heroism.  Priests and ‘conjurors’ also provided counsel that he could not ignore” (Oberg 18).

A weroance was expected to preserve balance and order.  In return, his followers paid him tribute.  Weroances and their advisors were considered an elite class to whom followers were required to show great deference.  According to Thomas Harriot, those who committed offenses against other followers were punished harshly: forfeiture of property, beating, banishment, death.  By inflicting such punishment, a weroance sought to restore peace and balance in the community.  Those who were dissatisfied with a weroance’s performance could always quit the community.

A weroance was expected to protect his followers from belligerent communities not under his authority.  He was expected to lead his followers in battle. 

He was expected to secure trade agreements and allies.  Overseeing the exchange of trading goods, he was “the conduit through which items from outside flowed into and were diffused throughout the community.  The success of the weroance as a leader was predicated at least in part on his ability to secure the objects his people needed and desired.  By establishing and overseeing the system, the weroance created reciprocal bonds connecting his community with others in Ossomocomuck and beyond, a major impediment to conflict” (Oberg 21).

To reiterate, weroances oversaw their followers’ major community concerns: its wars, trade, and diplomacy.  Balance and order was “the critical core of his people’s values.”  He was expected to maintain this balance.  “His followers would stick with him so long as he met the needs of his community and the individuals within it.

“After Ralegh’s colonists arrived, Wingina found it difficult to maintain balance and order within his community.  Consensus became increasingly difficult to find.  A leader whose power rested on the respect of his people and his own ability to persuade, and as well a man curious and honest, he moved cautiously after the newcomers arrived.  He found himself caught between Algonquians who saw the English as potentially useful allies, and others who saw the newcomers as a mortal threat to his people’s way of life” (Oberg 21).

White painted portraits of villagers.

A weroance’s wife and her child, who carries a doll given to her by the English


Work cited:

Feest, Christian F.  North Carolina Algonquians, Part 1.”  1978.  Rootsweb.  Net.      

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