Monday, June 27, 2016

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- The Lake That Had Been a Fire
Three months ago (March 2016) I decided that my novel needed a hostile confrontation between hunters of the central Pamlico Sound Algonquian mamanatowick Wingina and those of the upstart weroance of Pomeiooc village, Piemacum, that would worsen relations between the two feuding leaders.  In the novel I have had Wingina the master of these central North Carolina coastal villages -- Roanoke, Dasemunkepeuc, Croatoan, Pomeiooc, Aquascogooc, and Secotan – since 1579  (See map:  This confrontation is to take place in February 1584.  Food is scarce; villagers subsist now almost entirely on fish and what can be shot with bow and arrow. A large-scale hunt must be conducted in areas not regularly visited, areas where game has not been overhunted.
Wingina had chosen to split the hunters of the two villages into two groups.
The Dasemunkepeuc group would paddle into the Great Waters [Albemarle Sound], pass through the narrow entrance [south of Haulover Point] into the Large Lake [East Lake], travel beyond where they had hunted during the First Cohonk Moon, and select one of the marshy peninsulas bordering the Twisted Waters’s [South Lake’s] six prongs.
The Roanoke group, eschewing Dasemunkepeuc’s two nearby lengthy creeks [Spencer and Callaghan Creeks] – would  travel a half day (south) along the marshy coastline to the farthest place where Dasemunkepeuc and Roanoke braves hunted, a  mostly fresh water lake a short distance inland from a narrow shoreline of sawgrass, giant cordgrass, and infrequent red cedar. Tales passed down many generations told of a great fire here [Stumpy Point Bay] that had burned below the ground for two moons before the gods of fire and water had intervened and filled the exposed, smoldering hole with underground water.
Deer and bear were plentiful; but hunting them here would be risky; the Pomeiooc hunted here also.  The Lake That Had Been a Fire was somewhat closer in distance to Dasemunkepeuc than to Pomeiooc.  Not until Piemacum’s recent assertion of power had mutual use of the lake been a difficulty. 
I needed to do two months of research to determine the location of this necessary, conflict-generating confrontation for two reasons.
First, the location had to be in disputed territory somewhere between Pomeiooc and Dasemunkepeuc.  Most of the Pamlico Sound mainland is impenetrable swamp and pocosin wetland.  Fresh water for deer is plentiful enough in the interior but reaching it and, more especially, removing slain deer to canoes left at the Pamlico Sound shoreline  would have been extremely difficult.  I needed to find navigable streams originating far enough in the interior where water would be fresh.  Searching a coastal map, I found no such streams emptying into Pamlico Sound until I reached Pomeiooc-controlled territory. 
Second, I found no freshwater ponds or lakes near the salt or brackish marsh coastline.  Here is a picture of a salt marsh.  (  And here a brackish marsh.  ( 
To stage a confrontation somewhere along this coastline, I realized that I needed to learn much more about these marshes than I knew. 

For instance: the lower the marsh, the longer the surface is immersed in tidal waters. Low marshes in North Carolina are dominated by smooth cord grass (Spartina alteriflora). These plants form a monoculture in the areas of the marsh that are regularly flooded by salt water. They have salt glands on their stems that excrete salt. Areas slightly higher in the marsh are dominated by the species black needle rush (Juncus roemarianus).  Here is a picture containing both smooth cord grass and the black needle rush.  ( 

Note that the salt marsh cord grass in the picture is close to the water both in the foreground and background. The black needle rush does not appear in the foreground at all, but occupies a zone landward of the cord grass in the marsh in the background. As is probably obvious, the landward portion of the marsh surface is flooded less regularly than the creekside portion. The creek floods out of its banks with each high tide, but it floods deeply enough to immerse the black needle rush zone only a few times each month.

These plants have a very high tolerance for salinity variation. In the high marsh, the salt content of the soil goes up when freshwater evaporates on hot, dry days. As a result, the soil salinity may be more than double that of nearby estuarine water. When it rains, the soil salinity drops rapidly, sometimes to levels near fresh water.

Black needle rush can cover large areas in coastal salt and brackish tidal marshes, and is easily recognizable by its characteristic grayish-green to blackish hues. Its "stem tips" are very sharp pointed and stout. "Stems" in this species are actually leaves that are rounded so tightly that they appear to be very sharp-pointed stems.   Another picture:

Picture of a brackish marsh:

During my research, hoping to find a freshwater source close to the shoreline of Pamlico Sound somewhere between the Algonquian villages Dasemunkepeuc and Pomeiooc, I came upon an article about a once coastal lake formed, possibly, by a forest fire or set deliberately by natives years before 1584, the lake eventually becoming a part of Stumpy Point Bay.  The lake existed as late as the 1700s.  Here is Stumpy Point Bay on a map.  ( 

According to Harold Lee Wise in his book History of Stumpy Point, “John White’s maps of circa 1585 show no indications of Native American settlements there. Still, there is no doubt that Indians, perhaps in their fishing endeavors, were the first to discover the place now called Stumpy Point. The land was part of the Chiefdom of Secotan when Englishmen came to the area in the late 1500s.  At the time, Stumpy Point Bay was not a bay; rather, it was a lake. On a 1733 map drawn by Edward Moseley, an enclosed body of water labeled Stumpy Point Lake appears. The same name is on another map drawn in 1770; however, by that time, there is a small inlet connecting the lake with the sound, creating a bay.  Here is the 1733 map.  (,+nc,+map&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwip9LOMpr_NAhVB2WMKHVdMDOoQ7AkIOQ&biw=1024&bih=694#imgrc=lB8DU6zvX-5lTM%3A)

“A legend arose about the creation of the bay involving the Indians. Lucy Best, a Hyde County native who moved to Stumpy Point in 1903, remembered an old tale passed down to her from previous generations.  … ‘Now all this happened before I ever came to Stumpy Point but they told me that the Indians ... burned out the lake and it took thirteen moons. I don’t guess they knew what dates there was so they counted moons. I don’t know whether it was new moons, full moons or what. But that was the way the lake got burned out. They said it took thirteen moons to burn it out.’

“It may never be known if there is any truth to this old story. Most likely, it is a Native American legend dating far back in their folklore. Indians told a similar ‘burning out’ story about Mattamuskeet Lake. There is a chance it could be based on fact. Because the soil around the area contains peat, lingering ground fires are a big problem for firefighters whenever the forest burns. It is not hard to imagine peat-filled ground smoldering for months and eventually burning completely away enough that water covers the ground enough to create a lake.”

Eventually, the lake became part of Stumpy Point Bay.

In May 2012, a huge fire consumed thousands of acres of mainland vegetation south of Stumpy Point Bay, precisely what Mr. Wise imagined.  Here is a picture and a map of the area of destruction.  (

Salt and brackish marshlands eventually become estuarine shrub/scrub land, which can be defined as any shrub/scrub-dominated community subject to occasional flooding by tides, including wind tides.  Wax myrtle and eastern red cedar predominate.  Downy serviceberry is also present.

(  Here you see black needle rush along the water’s edge along with a new plant, the freshwater sawgrass (cladium jamaicense) growing landward of it. In the background, you see red cedars growing naturally between the freshwater marsh and the pine forest in the background. In this area the water contains salt only on unusually high tides or when strong onshore winds blow up the estuary. The water here is still affected by the tides. On rising tides river and stream water gets deeper, although most of the time it remains fresh.
Fresh water marshes are found farther inland.  They are grassy areas flooded for extended periods during the growing season.  Included are marshes associated with lakes, managed impoundments, some Carolina Bays, and other non-tidal marshes.  Vegetation consists of sedges, millets, rushes, grasses, giant cane, cattail, arrowhead, pickerelweed, arrow arum, and smartweed.  Picture:
In Alsoomse and Wanchese I have made the eastern shore of the “lake that had been a fire” (not yet a part of Stumpy Point Bay) a salt marsh.  The western shoreline of the lake shares the characteristics of a brackish marsh, a shrub/scrub semi-marsh, and a fresh water marsh.  Here are some excerpts that utilize marsh information.
It was mid-afternoon when the occupants of the three canoes, rounding the inward-curving mainland, took their first look at their desired landfall. Wanchese, in the third canoe, scanned the shoreline of tall cordgrass and black needle rush, which they would have to enter, and saw no indication of human activity.  Intent upon the vegetation, he did not see immediately, as Taraquine did, the irregular column of gray smoke rising lazily from somewhere behind the hidden lake.
Taraquine’s curse enlarged his vision.
Pomeiooc women were cooking. That meant their men had already killed game. How many sleeps had they been hunting? How much longer would they remain?
They had pushed their way through thick cordgrass to feel beneath their feet mucky ground.  Fairly quickly, at the corner of the lake, far enough away from the ocean water, the salt marsh became wet clay with needle rush and then saturated, peaty soil, hosting sedges, pickerelweed, and arrow arum interspersed with serviceberry, red cedar, and wax myrtle.  A bit farther ashore, where fresh water from underground sources fed into the lake, they had come upon the same brushwood and depressions filled with tall cattails. 
To approach their site, the Pomeiooc would have to travel the ocean facing side of the lake’s shoreline through cordgrass and needle rush or choose the easier way, the mainland side, circumventing more conveniently the flesh-slicing needle rush and colonies of sawgrass.  The women, the two boys, and Huritt’s party were now searching for fuel for the fire. Tanaquincy had gathered the remaining men about him.  Who would wade across the lake to try to locate in the ocean-facing cordgrass the Pomeiooc canoes?
The fire, begun during the night, had burned in daylight long enough, in Tanaquincy’s judgment, to alert the Pomeiooc across the lake. Tanaquincy’s group, Huritt’s group, and Taraquine and Tihkoosue from Wanchese’s group had retired into the serviceberry and wax myrtle – the women farther removed – to wait. Wanchese and Machk had kept expanding the breadth of the raft that Tanaquincy, Cossine, Mingan, Wanchese, Machk, and Taraquine had constructed during much of the night.  … Machk and he had laid another relatively straight red cedar limb next to the branches that had already been tied together. Both he and Machk heard simultaneously the sound of wax myrtle branches pushed against and snapped back. They rose instantly from their crouch.
            A voice beyond the wax myrtle reached them. “There are three of us. We come to talk. May we approach?”
Pictures: (a maritime shrub swamp dominated by wax myrtle (Morella cerifera ) and saltmeadow cordgrass (Spartina patens)
Downy Serviceberry:
Arrow Arum: