The weathered, cedar poles are all that remain of the replica Indian village along the banks of the Eno River behind the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough.
The few huts encircled by a palisade wall was a reminder of the Occaneechi people who lived nearby, after being driven from Virginia’s Roanoke River by Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1600s.
For about seven years, the village told the story of a people who once controlled the deerskin trade along the Great Trading Path from modern Virginia to Georgia.
In 2004, after falling into disrepair, the village was packed up, its parts moved to Alamance County, where the Occaneechi were starting a tribal center on 25 acres.
The replica was gone, but for a few, now-gray, cedar poles left behind.
But people remembered.
“Everybody missed the site,” said Sarah DeGennaro, the executive director at The Alliance for Historic Hillsborough. “It was a major tourist attraction. They call, still, and ask, ‘Is the village there?’”
This spring it will be.
On a cold Saturday afternoon, John “Blackfeather” Jeffries blew smoke in the four compass directions as about 125 people gathered to rededicate the site where the Occaneechi, town and county plan to rebuild.
Labor of love
In September 1997, Jeffries, then a second-shift dispatcher for Piedmont Electric, began cutting the cedar poles for the first village wall, burning the tops into points as his ancestors without metal tool would have done three centuries earlier.
There were 396 poles in the palisade, and it would take him three months.
“I cut 360 of them, with two bad knees and two bad hips,” Jeffries said, adding “all of them have been replaced now.”
The village was a labor of love for her cousin, said Vickie Jeffries, the tribal administrator.
“This is his dream,” she said Saturday.
“He would actually come and sit and do arrows and people would come by and sit with him,” she said. “It means a lot to him, and believe me he will be out here every single day.”
In 2002 the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation became North Carolina’s eighth official Indian tribe.
But Jeffries said the people who once fished, hunted and farmed along the river bank have been largely forgotten.
“It wasn’t for me,” he said of the first village. “It was for our people to come.”
People like his father.
“My dad, he was 98, (when) he came down to the village,” Jeffries said. “He sat in his wheelchair and said, ‘I didn’t know how my people lived, but since you’ve built this you’ve taught me.’”
This time, Jeffries will have help to sustain the village.
First, the site is now part of the town’s River Park, with a nearby farmers market and public trails inviting visitors to keep a watchful eye.
Second, the project is a collaboration among the Occaneechi, Alliance for Historic Hillsborough, the town of Hillsborough and Orange County, which is providing $20,000 to purchase the new cedar poles and hire someone to work with Jeffries, who thinks the project can happen by March or April.
The town and county and will follow through with interpretive signs and Living History Days and re-enactors like those that already share the town’s Revolutionary-era past.
My dad, he was 98, he came down to the village and said, ‘I didn’t know how my people lived.’
John ‘Blackfeather’ Jeffries
Rich Shaw, the county’s land conservation manager, is excited.
As he stood on the site Saturday, he looked up at the bridge that carries visitors across the Eno into the historic part of town.
“People just crossing over the bridge will see it,” he said. “You’ll look over and say, ‘What is that?’ That’s what I remember (about the old village). It was so unusual.”
Saturday’s ceremony closed with Jason “Crazy Bear” Keck, 44, and his son Geronimo, 12, singing the “Four Directions Song” in one of the Siouan dialects the Occaneechi and related tribes spoke.
People bundled against the December chill, then tossed dried tobacco into the fire.
Jeffries noted the crowd, some of whom signed up to volunteer.
“I didn’t have this much interest when I started putting in the poles,” the first time, he said.
He looks forward to sharing his story with visitors again.
“You build it, they’ll come,” he said. “It’s been proven.”