From his seat in a charter bus, Chief Leo Henry looked out the window to a field of fluffy white cotton – land his people controlled three centuries ago, before war with white settlers sent them north.
To the Tuscarora, a federally recognized tribe living on a reservation near Niagara Falls, this stretch of flat, isolated, Bertie County farmland remains sacred – an ancestral home.
So on Indigenous Peoples Day – the holiday officially and controversially named for Christopher Columbus – Henry and two dozen Tuscarora from New York took a tour through Indian Woods, where a 40,000-acre reserve once held the ancestors who stayed behind.
As the bus wound down country roads, pausing at the site of the “Gospel Oak” and the “Indian Gallows,” Henry thought about the distance created by three centuries.
“It’s hard to believe,” said Henry, 86, a Korean War veteran. “I was born up north. It was hard for our people, coming all that way with their families. It took our people years.”
At one point on the tour, several of the Tuscarora insisted the bus be stopped so they could gather bolls of cotton for souvenirs.
Henry watched them from his seat, amused. “They don’t still pick that by hand, do they?” he asked.
In the early 18th century, the Tuscarora controlled most of Eastern North Carolina and parts of Virginia, farming along the Neuse and Tar rivers, collecting seashells on the Outer Banks to use as wampum.
But the tribe went to war in 1711, resenting the Europeans for selling their land, bringing disease and taking women and children into slavery. In 1705, so many Tuscarora had been sold into slavery in Pennsylvania that its legislature passed a law forbidding more traffic.
War dragged on for two years until the battle of Nooherooka, a Tuscarora fort along Contentnea Creek in what is now Greene County – not far from East Carolina University. Colonial forces raided the fort and set it on fire, burning or killing roughly 400 Tuscarora inside. Another 550 were either killed or captured outside the fort.
At war’s end, roughly 1,000 of the Tuscarora were dead, another 1,000 sold into slavery and 3,000 forced off their land. Many fled north and became the sixth nation of the Iroquois. The colonial government set aside Indian Woods for those who stayed, placing the remaining Tuscarora on land just north of the Roanoke River.
This week’s tour marked the second journey south for the New York Tuscarora. In 2013, Henry and other members of the Tuscarora’s Turtle Clan came to Snow Hill to see a monument go up on the battle’s 300th anniversary – events largely organized by ECU history professor Larry Tise. But this week’s trip felt more intimate.
The Tuscarora get scant mention in the state’s history books, and research into their lives in North Carolina, while growing, fills few slots on library shelves. The Cherokee and their forced evacuation from the Smoky Mountains at the hands of President Andrew Jackson is well-covered ground, but Tise noted, “There were many Trails of Tears.”
On the bus tour, the Tuscarora discovered Bertie County natives who speak of the 18th century as if it were last year’s church picnic.
“This is the site of the Indian gallows,” said Arwin Smallwood, chair of the history department at N.C. A&T State University, a native of Indian Woods. “In this V, this row of trees over here, is where the trees used to be, the oaks that grew into each other where the hangings would take place. But it’s grown over now. The trees died. On the left over here is my Great Aunt Rosita’s house. She always lived right across from here and could tell ghost stories and things that happened here. Talk about ‘haints’ and witches and stuff.”
The Indian Woods reservation began getting leased to white farmers in the decades after it was established. At the conference, speakers noted that the land was rarely surveyed, and that farmers usually took far more land than they leased.
On the tours, Smallwoood showed the Tuscarora visitors how the natural forests of Indian Woods had largely been replaced by scrub pines. Much of the land in Bertie County is now owned by Weyerhaeuser and Georgia Pacific, timber and pulp paper companies. As he surveyed the scenery, Henry noted that while the Niagara Falls reservation is small, from the air it appears completely green.
Bertie County is now home to only about 20,000 people, about 8,000 more than its population in 1790. Today, roughly a quarter of Bertie’s population lives in poverty. As they drove, Smallwood pointed out chicken houses that offer some of the only employment, and Henry recalled that he used to farm.
“I would think it would be great,” he said. “We only have one farmer left.”
As the ride wound down, some of the Tuscarora asked about boiled peanuts advertised in the gas stations, never having tried the Southern delicacy. Pressed for time before the long ride back to New York, they asked for a few minutes to gather cotton bolls from a field.
As the bus stopped, they crossed a drainage ditch into a large field grabbed a few handfuls, picking them like flowers, souvenirs from a distant home.