300 years later, a forgotten Indian massacre gets renewed attention

March 4, 2013 

  • Marking a battle

    Nooherooka 300, an official commemeration of a battle that occurred 300 years ago in eastern North Carolina, will be held March 21-23 at East Carolina University and at Greene County Recreation Park in Snow Hill.

    A monument will be dedicated near Snow Hill at 10 a.m. on March 23 in a ceremony led by chiefs of the Tuscarora Nation. A lunch will follow at the Greene County Farmers Market.

    For more information on the many events planned, see www.neyuheruke.org. Registration and fees are required for some of the events.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com

The name sounds too foreign, too exotic, too dramatic for a Greene County wheat field: Nooherooka, massacre of the Tuscarora War.

Driving down N.C. 58, only 75 miles southeast of Raleigh, you’d never guess that a powerful band of American Indians built a pine-log fort on this flat land outside Snow Hill, steeling themselves for battle with English colonists and their Indian allies, loading their muskets with powder and balls.

There’s nothing left to suggest the cataclysm that followed: 900 Tuscarora men, women and children either burned, shot, scalped or sold into slavery. This Waterloo for the North Carolina natives remains almost wiped from North Carolina’s memory.

But it happened in March 1713 – 300 years ago nearly to the day.

Largely forgotten, unfamiliar even to people who grew up in eastern North Carolina, the fighting at Nooherooka triggered a change in colonial America that would not only scatter and divide the Tuscarora tribe, but help speed a bloody policy of eradication.

The history-book names that followed in the next century – Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee – can be traced back here.

“Nooherooka changed everything,” said Larry Tise, history professor at East Carolina University, “and it’s so unknown. But 300 years is yesterday to the Tuscarora. It’s not three centuries. It’s last week.”

This month, ECU will host a three-day conference to bring Nooherooka – sometimes spelled Neoheroka or Neyuheruke and pronounced Noo-her-oo-kuh – back to life.

A monument will go up a few hundred yards from the fort’s remains, where George Mewborn’s family has farmed since 1909.

A map of the battlefield that has been largely unseen in North Carolina will go on display in the ECU library.

And in the greatest clash of culture and centuries, Tuscarora descendents now living on a reservation in New York will play lacrosse against the ECU Pirates.

“It’s so obvious,” Tise said. “Here we are at ECU’s campus, on Tuscarora land.”

Tensions, then war

In the 2010 census, North Carolina showed a higher percentage of American Indians than any state east of the Mississippi River: 1.5.

With 14,000 members, the Eastern Band of Cherokee is probably the best-known tribe in the Tar Heel state, both for its story of forced migration on the “Trail of Tears” and for its casino in the Blue Ridge Mountains. To date, they are the only tribe in the state with a reservation, the Qualla Boundary.

The Lumbee Tribe is the state’s largest with roughly 55,000 members concentrated around Robeson County. But after more than 100 years of trying, the tribe has yet to gain federal recognition.

More than 4,000 members of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe live mostly in Warren and Halifax counties along the Virginia border, tracing their roots to the 17th century.

That leaves the Tuscarora.

In colonial times, the tribe controlled much of North Carolina east of what is now Interstate 95. They farmed, hunted and fished in the land around the future ECU. They built longhouses throughout the Neuse River basin, much like the Iroquois further north.

Before 1729, when it became a royal colony, North Carolina was largely a scattering of small settlements managed by gentleman adventurers. In some cases, colonists arrived having purchased land they had never seen, not knowing the Tuscarora were already living there.

Around that time, English explorer and naturalist John Lawson navigated parts of the state unknown to European settlers, founding Bath in 1700 as the state’s first town. By most accounts, he respected and admired the Indians he met, making notes on their culture in his diary, surveying land in hopes of attracting investment.

Relations soon worsened. Traders and colonists arrived who did not share Lawson’s open-mindedness. They cheated tribes in the region, forced them off hunting and farming land, shot them and sold them into slavery. Indians felt degraded by whites who plied them with liquor and considered them beasts. Native children were routinely kidnapped and enslaved.

Tensions flared further in 1711, when the Tuscarora captured Lawson as he paddled up the Neuse River in search of a new passage to Virginia. After the tribe set Lawson free, a nearby Coree chief ordered him executed. Some say Lawson died by fire; others by having his throat slit.

But soon after, the Tuscarora War began as roughly 500 Indians attacked colonists along the Neuse and Pamlico rivers, killing roughly 130 them and taking 20 more prisoner.

Retaliation came when troops marched from South Carolina, bringing a few dozen white men and about 1,000 Indians who were hostile to the Tuscarora, including Yamasee and Cherokee. Meanwhile, the Tuscarora massed inside their fort between what is now Goldsboro and Greenville: Nooherooka.

The Tuscarora were well armed with muskets rather than bows and arrows. But the attackers brought 3-pound cannons and an early form of grenades, lighting the fort walls on fire. Hundreds burned inside. Many more were scalped.

Survivors fled, most of them making their way to New York where a reservation now stands near Niagara Falls. Tise has visited with them over the last year, and discovered to his amazement that they still consider North Carolina home after three centuries in exile.

They do not recognize the United States government as anything but a foreign invader, he said. They have no police on the reservation, and no garbage collection.

“They could have a casino,” he said, “but they don’t want one. When they come to North Carolina, it’s like they’re walking on sacred ground. They touch the trees and say, ‘This is what a loblolly pine feels like.’”

Sacred ground

In the 300 years since the battle, only three families have farmed the land where it raged. When George Mewborn’s grandfather bought it in 1909, it was called Nehucky Farm – a derivative of the name for the Tuscarora’s last stand.

Mewborn lives in Snow Hill now and teaches English in nearby Wayne County, but he has known the story of the Tuscarora’s fall since his childhood.

His father plowed the land and routinely turned up beads and lead balls in the soil.

“They actually had a game of bowling they played,” Mewborn said, “and the ball they used was a cannonball.”

In the 1990s, ECU professors dug on the site, turning up the location of the fort’s wall and skeletal remains of the Indians who fell there. Mewborn’s father befriended Chief Kenneth Patterson of the New York Tuscarora, who visited the site.

Now, Mewborn will donate a portion of that land on N.C. 58 for a public easement, making space for the monument that will finally be erected.

“This is sacred ground to the Tuscarora and I hope they will always come to North Carolina,” Mewborn said. “If it were in Massachusetts, this would probably be a national park.”

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It’s hard to know how many Tuscarora remain in North Carolina, said Ramona Moore Big Eagle, a legend keeper in Charlotte. Her own faction, Tuscarora Nation of NC, consists of roughly 700 members who hold an annual powwow in Maxton.

But other factions are scattered around the state.

They will have no formal role in the commemoration at ECU from March 21 to March 23. All of the presentations on Tuscarora life will be given by the New York tribesmen, who are both more numerous and federally recognized.

But in North Carolina, Nooherooka is remembered every year. “Not just big 300,” Big Eagle said.

“I can remember hearing about this in hushed tones as a child,” Big Eagle said. “The minute my mother and father would whisper about things, it made me want to hear more. I would just go and get books, and that’s when I found out the whispered things were true. But if I had to rely on what our teachers told us in school, I wouldn’t know about it, either.”

To Tise, ignorance of the Nooherooka massacre is incredible considering its impact.

After the war with the Tuscarora, North Carolina became a royal colony. Indian tribes no longer appeared on maps of the state. Rather, they became the colony’s official enemies, and under international law of the time, killing enemies of the state was legal and acceptable.

Their disappearance from eastern North Carolina has much to do with the obscurity of their history, Tise said. Even today, he said, he meets residents of Tuscarora heritage who call themselves mostly Indian, mixed with other races, accustomed to being identified as black.

“There’s this long, long subconscious idea that we got rid of the Indians and they’re gone,” Tise said. “But actually, they were subsumed and told, ‘You’re not Indian. You’re colored.’ ”

With the name Nooherooka pulled from the Greene County ground, he hopes, the people who met, fought and fell to white settlers in North Carolina will be as familiar as those who met them further west.

Shaffer: (919) 829-4818

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