The Many Journeys of the Occaneechi on display at local museum

In the new exhibit at the Orange County Historical Museum, visitors can see firsthand the life and the stories of the Occaneechi in the exhibit ‘Yesah - The Many Journeys of the Occaneechi.’ The exhibit describes in detail the history of the Occaneechi, who thrived in the century leading up to the American Revolution, and still continue to thrive as the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation in the northern Alamance community of Pleasant Grove. 

In the new exhibit at the Orange County Historical Museum, visitors can see firsthand the life and the stories of the Occaneechi in the exhibit ‘Yesah - The Many Journeys of the Occaneechi.’ The exhibit describes in detail the history of the Occaneechi, who thrived in the century leading up to the American Revolution, and still continue to thrive as the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation in the northern Alamance community of Pleasant Grove. 

The Occaneechi were chronicled for history by a pair of men - John Lawson, an English naturalist and writer who briefly described them in his 1709 book, A New Voyage to Carolina - and John Fontaine, who around 1715-1716 documented the Occaneechi life at Fort Christanna, where many of them settled following the 1676 Nathaniel Bacon-led massacre. 

“A lot of people have heard of John Lawson, because he came into Hillsborough and visited with the Occaneechi. But he wrote like one paragraph on them,” explains Courtney Smith, the exhibits and programs director at the Orange County Historical Museum. “John Fontaine visited with the Occaneechi two years after the main contingency left the area - who knows whether all of them left. So they were living very much the same way. He (Fontaine) describes them in detail. Their clothing. Their food. How they take care of their babies.” 

Although the Occaneechi had significant contact with the Europeans leading up to the early 1700s, their life remained very traditional. Archaealogists  who have performed digs at the sites of known Occaneechi territory in Virginia and North Carolina who have looked into their diet and tools they used indicate that there diet changed little over the centuries, though they did introduce watermelon and peaches during this time. 

In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, the Occaneechi were dispersing, with some making their way back to their native Virginia area, and others heading west before settling in places like Ohio and Indiana. They were taken advantage of by English colonial traders, who saw that they struggled to hold their liquor, and seized their property via drink. 

“Their numbers were dwindling,” Smith said of the Occaneechi of the early 18th century. “There were a couple of major reasons for it. One was the European diseases, which they didn’t have immunity for. Fighting with the other tribes. Alcoholism has already become a problem. And then unscrupulous Colonial traders. What would happen was the traders saw the native people did not have good tolerance for alcohol. So they would get them drunk and take advantage of them in trade negotiations and in other ways. The next morning they would wake up and say ‘You cheated me,’ and they were going to retaliate.” 

The Tuscarora War was fought in North Carolina between early English settlers and the Tuscarora, who were established around the Roanoke and Pamlico Rivers in the eastern part of the state. The Tuscarora, angered at the unfair treatment by the English, engaged in a series of attacks and skirmishes with the colonists that lasted four years. It was in this war in 1711 in which early Occaneechi documenter John Lawson was ambushed and killed.

“In Virginia, Governor Alexander Spotswood said that we don’t want this happening in our Colony,” Smith explained. “For two reasons. There was the loss of blood and life, and also the loss of money. Things are going really well for us financially - don’t mess it up. Everything old is new again.” 

“Governor Spotswood was really different from his contemporaries, because he didn’t believe in hereditary heathenism - once a heathen, always a heathen. He thought they (the Native Americans) could be Christianized, civilized as they saw it. He also realized that the Indians weren’t going to attack without provocation. And if there was fighting, it was the colonists’ fault, because they were taking advantage of the Indians.”

In an effort to assist the Native Americans struggling against the colonists, as well as competing Iroquois and warring Tuscarora during this tumultuous period, Fort Christanna was established in 1714 in what would become Brunswick County in southern Virginia. This pentagon-shaped fort would ultimately become the landing spot for many of the displaced Occaneechi, as John Fontaine documented for posterity.  

“Governor Spotswood realized they needed to get all of the friendly Indians together and put them on a reservation. And in the middle of the reservation, we’ll built a fort. This way, the friendly Indians can serve as a buffer - we’ll let them fight the unfriendly Indians,” Smith said. “The purpose of the Fort (Christanna) was to protect the friendly Indians from the Colonists. So if you wanted to trade, the only place you were allowed to trade was inside the fort, with soldiers watching to make sure you weren’t doing anything untoward. 

In addition to a trading post, Fort Christanna served as a sentry for the Native Americans, who used the five points to establish lookout positions. There was also a school within its walls, which eventually became associated with one of the oldest colleges in the country. 

“If you’ve ever wondered why the Pentagon (in Washington D.C.) is a pentagon, because the early forts were pentagons. If you have five sides, it’s better than four in terms of sights. There were towers that you could shoot out of,” Smith explained. “They had to get tax money to pay for it. They set up a school.” 

The first teacher was Charles Griffin, who is attributed to being the first teacher in the state colony of North Carolina. Before there was any trade money coming in to help sustain Fort Christanna, Governor Spotswood paid Griffin personally.

“The school (at Fort Christanna) was associated with William and Mary,” Smith indicated. “They also set up religious education for the kids. That was part of the treaty that Spotswood signed with all these tribes, was that they would be Christianized.” 

When the Occaneechi signed the treaties with the Virginia Governor, there were approximately 12 local tribes who had also made agreements. It was at this point that the Occaneechi began to lose some of its unique elements. 

“They said we’re all going to call you the Saponi. Pretty much from this point forward, the name Occaneechi gets lost. People then start assuming that the Occaneechi are extinct, like the Eno or some of the other tribes. This is sort of the beginning of the loss of identity for the Occaneechi.” 

Not too long after Fort Christanna got up and running, William Byrd, a private merchant who had inherited his father’s lucrative trading venture, began to decry the fort’s monopoly on local trade. The Virginia Indian Company, as it came to be known, made Fort Christanna the center of all trading activity in the region. Byrd, determined to break up the Virginia Indian Company, eventually succeeded in closing Fort Christanna. 

“Byrd was a nasty piece of work,” Smith explained. “And if you read - even his contemporaries thought he was cruel to his slaves. He was cruel to his children. He called Indians lazy. One night he gets put in charge of an expedition to map the dividing line between North Carolina and Virginia. One night they got a Saponi woman drunk and gang-raped her. He was a nasty piece of work. And he wants to be Governor. So what do you do? You’ve got to discredit your political rival. What was his weakest link? Fort Christiana. So Byrd goes after Fort Christiana. He goes after Spotswood and says, ‘Look what he’s done. He’s created this company, and it’s a public monopoly. And you’re putting private enterprise out of business.’” 

“The other thing that (Byrd) says - which is kind of interesting for the history of North Carolina - is he says Spotswood isn’t using the money for school and a church. He’s using public money for private use. But that’s exactly what the Regulators said fifty years later (leading up to the Regulator Rebellion of 1765-1771). The Fort gets closed. Byrd uses his charisma and connections to get the Fort closed.”

Following the closure of Fort Christanna in 1717, the remaining Occaneechi - now known as Saponi - spread out throughout the burgeoning colonies, which eventually became the fledgling United States of America.  

“For a while, they kind of go back and forth, north and south. It’s a period of flux,” Smith said. “Then the American Revolution happens. A group who are loyalists go up to the Iroquois, because the Iroquois actually fight with the British. Those who were Patriots stayed in this area. There were some who were documented to have fought in the colonial regiment. The ones who stayed here (in North Carolina) were all on the American side.” 

In the years immediately following the Revolutionary War in the 1780s, about 60 to 90 Occaneechi families come to Northern Orange County, which later becomes Alamance County, and settled into what is now the Pleasant Grove township area. 

“They were related families (who came to Pleasant Grove). Some of the Occaneechi at this point go west and live in Ohio and Indians with the Quakers. The British offered the native people a lot more protection than the Americans were willing to give them,” Smith explained. “They settled here (in Pleasant Grove), and that is when the assimilation and cultural changes - this is more of the cultural journey that happens in this 100 years. Becoming more westernized, Europeanized, whatever the proper term is, and more of a loss of identity. Originally, they were adapting. Then they were managing the land. Now they are changing the environment. Growing tobacco like all of their neighbors.” 

The Pleasant Grove of the 19th and early 20th centuries was not unlike many rural communities of the era in North Carolina. The area depended on tobacco, and many of the local families owned sizable land and personal holdings. 

There was one difference, however. The area got a unique nickname due to the resemblance of its inhabitants to those in another southern state. 

“Looking in at Pleasant Grove, they were living like everybody else in North Carolina at this time,” Smith said. “Almost all of them owned land. Some of them had substantial holdings. There were 122 farms with 6,400 acres. Tobacco becomes the primary crop. Church and school becomes the center of the community. There was also a Masonic Lodge in the center of town.” 

“People looking in did notice that there was something a little bit different about them. So they started calling the area “Texas,” because they said they look like those people down in Texas. Also, the area was sort of known for lawlessness.” 

Between the late 1700s and mid-1900s, there was a general loss of identity for the Occaneechi people. But eventually the descendants of those early Occaneechi came together and reestablished themselves as a unique people. 

“Government records - they were never written down as Occaneechi,” Smith explained. “They were never written down as Indian. In fact, on the Census, the Census didn’t even have a place to put you were Indian until 1850, and that was only for Indians who were on a reservation. Other than that, they looked at you and said you’re white, you’re black, you’re mulatto. Because of racism, anybody who could pass for white would pass for white. So the parents would tell them not to say anything, and pass if you can.” 

“There were lots of court cases in Ohio and Indiana of Occaneechi sticking up for themselves,” she continued. “They actually got recorded down as Indian, and saying you’re Indian-white, therefore you can vote. Or you can carry a gun. You don’t lose all your rights.” 

“Things got swept the rug. Not lost, but swept under the rug. And a guy named Forest Hazel started doing some digging. His friends, he wondered what tribe they belonged to. His initial work got everybody really excited. They started looking into their history, their heritage. They set up an association, which is later going to be called the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation.” 

The first thing the new Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation did was start holding Pow-Wows. Then they applied for official recognition. 

“They wanted recognition that they hadn’t died out,” Smith said. “One of the problems with getting state recognition - it wasn’t white people looking out on the outside. It was other Indian tribes in this state. They said you (the Occaneechi) are extinct, and you had to prove it (that you’re not extinct). One of the things leveled against them was you’ve adopted so many things from other native tribes. They countered back (by saying that) no culture is static. Everybody in this culture is dynamic. In America, we eat pizza and salsa, right?”

The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation finally did receive official recognition from the state, and in 1991 a highway marker honoring the Occaneechi was dedicated in Hillsborough. 

The Orange Historical Museum features many unique artifacts pertaining to the Occaneechi, including hunting weapons such as clubs, which were used for short-distance objects, and “rabbit sticks,” which were used to reach objects farther away. 

“Unlike a gun, or a knife, the level of ferocity, anger that you have to have to brain somebody (with a club) is amazing,” Smith said with a laugh. “Sometimes they would put metal spikes in them. That gives you some idea of what was going on between the Occaneechi and the Iroquois.”  

“Rabbit sticks are like boomerangs that don’t come back,” she continued. “They’re thought to be one of the earliest prehistoric hunting weapons. It’s a skill that has to get passed down from generation to generation. This idea that the culture was lost, they’ve gone extinct - and it wasn’t. It was always there just below the surface, just under the rug. (Former Saponi Nation Chief) John Blackfeather Jeffries, who when most people think of the Occaneechi, they think of him, he loaned a lot of the artifacts here - he told me those were his fathers.” 

“During the Great Depression, when you needed to hunt to put meat on the table - and bullets cost money - that they dug out the rabbit sticks, and that’s how they were eating. Just resorting back to some of those things you did when you were managing the environment versus changing the environment. Because you can’t wipe out the entire rabbit population with those. But to actually be able to throw one of those, hit a rabbit and kill it, that’s pretty good.” 

In Raleigh in the 1970s, a teenager was walking around and found an indigenous person’s grave. They dug it up, and the deceased still had clothing, which is so rare after all these years. Those items, which are in the state history museum in Raleigh, were the inspiration for an authentic Occaneechi wedding dress that is now on display at the Orange exhibit. 

“When they were designing her dress they based it on it (the one found in the grave in Raleigh),” Smith said. “But of course, there’s a lot more fringe. The women who made the regalia said you’re getting married. You need to be a princess.” 

“We had several tribal members donate all kinds of things to us, from wedding dresses on down,” Smith concluded. “Things that resonate - Dreamcatchers and tribute blankets, even if they weren’t necessarily Occaneechi to begin with, have now become Occaneechi.”

The Occaneechi were chronicled for history by a pair of men - John Lawson, an English naturalist and writer who briefly described them in his 1709 book, A New Voyage to Carolina - and John Fontaine, who around 1715-1716 documented the Occaneechi life at Fort Christanna, where many of them settled following the 1676 Nathaniel Bacon-led massacre. 

“A lot of people have heard of John Lawson, because he came into Hillsborough and visited with the Occaneechi. But he wrote like one paragraph on them,” explains Courtney Smith, the exhibits and programs director at the Orange County Historical Museum. “John Fontaine visited with the Occaneechi two years after the main contingency left the area - who knows whether all of them left. So they were living very much the same way. He (Fontaine) describes them in detail. Their clothing. Their food. How they take care of their babies.” 

Although the Occaneechi had significant contact with the Europeans leading up to the early 1700s, their life remained very traditional. Archaealogists  who have performed digs at the sites of known Occaneechi territory in Virginia and North Carolina who have looked into their diet and tools they used indicate that there diet changed little over the centuries, though they did introduce watermelon and peaches during this time. 

In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, the Occaneechi were dispersing, with some making their way back to their native Virginia area, and others heading west before settling in places like Ohio and Indiana. They were taken advantage of by English colonial traders, who saw that they struggled to hold their liquor, and seized their property via drink. 

“Their numbers were dwindling,” Smith said of the Occaneechi of the early 18th century. “There were a couple of major reasons for it. One was the European diseases, which they didn’t have immunity for. Fighting with the other tribes. Alcoholism has already become a problem. And then unscrupulous Colonial traders. What would happen was the traders saw the native people did not have good tolerance for alcohol. So they would get them drunk and take advantage of them in trade negotiations and in other ways. The next morning they would wake up and say ‘You cheated me,’ and they were going to retaliate.” 

The Tuscarora War was fought in North Carolina between early English settlers and the Tuscarora, who were established around the Roanoke and Pamlico Rivers in the eastern part of the state. The Tuscarora, angered at the unfair treatment by the English, engaged in a series of attacks and skirmishes with the colonists that lasted four years. It was in this war in 1711 in which early Occaneechi documenter John Lawson was ambushed and killed.

“In Virginia, Governor Alexander Spotswood said that we don’t want this happening in our Colony,” Smith explained. “For two reasons. There was the loss of blood and life, and also the loss of money. Things are going really well for us financially - don’t mess it up. Everything old is new again.” 

“Governor Spotswood was really different from his contemporaries, because he didn’t believe in hereditary heathenism - once a heathen, always a heathen. He thought they (the Native Americans) could be Christianized, civilized as they saw it. He also realized that the Indians weren’t going to attack without provocation. And if there was fighting, it was the colonists’ fault, because they were taking advantage of the Indians.”

In an effort to assist the Native Americans struggling against the colonists, as well as competing Iroquois and warring Tuscarora during this tumultuous period, Fort Christanna was established in 1714 in what would become Brunswick County in southern Virginia. This pentagon-shaped fort would ultimately become the landing spot for many of the displaced Occaneechi, as John Fontaine documented for posterity.  

“Governor Spotswood realized they needed to get all of the friendly Indians together and put them on a reservation. And in the middle of the reservation, we’ll built a fort. This way, the friendly Indians can serve as a buffer - we’ll let them fight the unfriendly Indians,” Smith said. “The purpose of the Fort (Christanna) was to protect the friendly Indians from the Colonists. So if you wanted to trade, the only place you were allowed to trade was inside the fort, with soldiers watching to make sure you weren’t doing anything untoward. 

In addition to a trading post, Fort Christanna served as a sentry for the Native Americans, who used the five points to establish lookout positions. There was also a school within its walls, which eventually became associated with one of the oldest colleges in the country. 

“If you’ve ever wondered why the Pentagon (in Washington D.C.) is a pentagon, because the early forts were pentagons. If you have five sides, it’s better than four in terms of sights. There were towers that you could shoot out of,” Smith explained. “They had to get tax money to pay for it. They set up a school.” 

The first teacher was Charles Griffin, who is attributed to being the first teacher in the state colony of North Carolina. Before there was any trade money coming in to help sustain Fort Christanna, Governor Spotswood paid Griffin personally.

“The school (at Fort Christanna) was associated with William and Mary,” Smith indicated. “They also set up religious education for the kids. That was part of the treaty that Spotswood signed with all these tribes, was that they would be Christianized.” 

When the Occaneechi signed the treaties with the Virginia Governor, there were approximately 12 local tribes who had also made agreements. It was at this point that the Occaneechi began to lose some of its unique elements. 

“They said we’re all going to call you the Saponi. Pretty much from this point forward, the name Occaneechi gets lost. People then start assuming that the Occaneechi are extinct, like the Eno or some of the other tribes. This is sort of the beginning of the loss of identity for the Occaneechi.” 

Not too long after Fort Christanna got up and running, William Byrd, a private merchant who had inherited his father’s lucrative trading venture, began to decry the fort’s monopoly on local trade. The Virginia Indian Company, as it came to be known, made Fort Christanna the center of all trading activity in the region. Byrd, determined to break up the Virginia Indian Company, eventually succeeded in closing Fort Christanna. 

“Byrd was a nasty piece of work,” Smith explained. “And if you read - even his contemporaries thought he was cruel to his slaves. He was cruel to his children. He called Indians lazy. One night he gets put in charge of an expedition to map the dividing line between North Carolina and Virginia. One night they got a Saponi woman drunk and gang-raped her. He was a nasty piece of work. And he wants to be Governor. So what do you do? You’ve got to discredit your political rival. What was his weakest link? Fort Christiana. So Byrd goes after Fort Christiana. He goes after Spotswood and says, ‘Look what he’s done. He’s created this company, and it’s a public monopoly. And you’re putting private enterprise out of business.’” 

“The other thing that (Byrd) says - which is kind of interesting for the history of North Carolina - is he says Spotswood isn’t using the money for school and a church. He’s using public money for private use. But that’s exactly what the Regulators said fifty years later (leading up to the Regulator Rebellion of 1765-1771). The Fort gets closed. Byrd uses his charisma and connections to get the Fort closed.”

Following the closure of Fort Christanna in 1717, the remaining Occaneechi - now known as Saponi - spread out throughout the burgeoning colonies, which eventually became the fledgling United States of America.  

“For a while, they kind of go back and forth, north and south. It’s a period of flux,” Smith said. “Then the American Revolution happens. A group who are loyalists go up to the Iroquois, because the Iroquois actually fight with the British. Those who were Patriots stayed in this area. There were some who were documented to have fought in the colonial regiment. The ones who stayed here (in North Carolina) were all on the American side.” 

In the years immediately following the Revolutionary War in the 1780s, about 60 to 90 Occaneechi families come to Northern Orange County, which later becomes Alamance County, and settled into what is now the Pleasant Grove township area. 

“They were related families (who came to Pleasant Grove). Some of the Occaneechi at this point go west and live in Ohio and Indians with the Quakers. The British offered the native people a lot more protection than the Americans were willing to give them,” Smith explained. “They settled here (in Pleasant Grove), and that is when the assimilation and cultural changes - this is more of the cultural journey that happens in this 100 years. Becoming more westernized, Europeanized, whatever the proper term is, and more of a loss of identity. Originally, they were adapting. Then they were managing the land. Now they are changing the environment. Growing tobacco like all of their neighbors.” 

The Pleasant Grove of the 19th and early 20th centuries was not unlike many rural communities of the era in North Carolina. The area depended on tobacco, and many of the local families owned sizable land and personal holdings. 

There was one difference, however. The area got a unique nickname due to the resemblance of its inhabitants to those in another southern state. 

“Looking in at Pleasant Grove, they were living like everybody else in North Carolina at this time,” Smith said. “Almost all of them owned land. Some of them had substantial holdings. There were 122 farms with 6,400 acres. Tobacco becomes the primary crop. Church and school becomes the center of the community. There was also a Masonic Lodge in the center of town.” 

“People looking in did notice that there was something a little bit different about them. So they started calling the area “Texas,” because they said they look like those people down in Texas. Also, the area was sort of known for lawlessness.” 

Between the late 1700s and mid-1900s, there was a general loss of identity for the Occaneechi people. But eventually the descendants of those early Occaneechi came together and reestablished themselves as a unique people. 

“Government records - they were never written down as Occaneechi,” Smith explained. “They were never written down as Indian. In fact, on the Census, the Census didn’t even have a place to put you were Indian until 1850, and that was only for Indians who were on a reservation. Other than that, they looked at you and said you’re white, you’re black, you’re mulatto. Because of racism, anybody who could pass for white would pass for white. So the parents would tell them not to say anything, and pass if you can.” 

“There were lots of court cases in Ohio and Indiana of Occaneechi sticking up for themselves,” she continued. “They actually got recorded down as Indian, and saying you’re Indian-white, therefore you can vote. Or you can carry a gun. You don’t lose all your rights.” 

“Things got swept the rug. Not lost, but swept under the rug. And a guy named Forest Hazel started doing some digging. His friends, he wondered what tribe they belonged to. His initial work got everybody really excited. They started looking into their history, their heritage. They set up an association, which is later going to be called the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation.” 

The first thing the new Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation did was start holding Pow-Wows. Then they applied for official recognition. 

“They wanted recognition that they hadn’t died out,” Smith said. “One of the problems with getting state recognition - it wasn’t white people looking out on the outside. It was other Indian tribes in this state. They said you (the Occaneechi) are extinct, and you had to prove it (that you’re not extinct). One of the things leveled against them was you’ve adopted so many things from other native tribes. They countered back (by saying that) no culture is static. Everybody in this culture is dynamic. In America, we eat pizza and salsa, right?”

The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation finally did receive official recognition from the state, and in 1991 a highway marker honoring the Occaneechi was dedicated in Hillsborough. 

The Orange Historical Museum features many unique artifacts pertaining to the Occaneechi, including hunting weapons such as clubs, which were used for short-distance objects, and “rabbit sticks,” which were used to reach objects farther away. 

“Unlike a gun, or a knife, the level of ferocity, anger that you have to have to brain somebody (with a club) is amazing,” Smith said with a laugh. “Sometimes they would put metal spikes in them. That gives you some idea of what was going on between the Occaneechi and the Iroquois.”  

“Rabbit sticks are like boomerangs that don’t come back,” she continued. “They’re thought to be one of the earliest prehistoric hunting weapons. It’s a skill that has to get passed down from generation to generation. This idea that the culture was lost, they’ve gone extinct - and it wasn’t. It was always there just below the surface, just under the rug. (Former Saponi Nation Chief) John Blackfeather Jeffries, who when most people think of the Occaneechi, they think of him, he loaned a lot of the artifacts here - he told me those were his fathers.” 

“During the Great Depression, when you needed to hunt to put meat on the table - and bullets cost money - that they dug out the rabbit sticks, and that’s how they were eating. Just resorting back to some of those things you did when you were managing the environment versus changing the environment. Because you can’t wipe out the entire rabbit population with those. But to actually be able to throw one of those, hit a rabbit and kill it, that’s pretty good.” 

In Raleigh in the 1970s, a teenager was walking around and found an indigenous person’s grave. They dug it up, and the deceased still had clothing, which is so rare after all these years. Those items, which are in the state history museum in Raleigh, were the inspiration for an authentic Occaneechi wedding dress that is now on display at the Orange exhibit. 

“When they were designing her dress they based it on it (the one found in the grave in Raleigh),” Smith said. “But of course, there’s a lot more fringe. The women who made the regalia said you’re getting married. You need to be a princess.” 

“We had several tribal members donate all kinds of things to us, from wedding dresses on down,” Smith concluded. “Things that resonate - Dreamcatchers and tribute blankets, even if they weren’t necessarily Occaneechi to begin with, have now become Occaneechi.”