The recently re-opened Orange County Historical Museum in downtown Hillsborough has a fascinating new exhibit, which provides extensive details into one of the local area’s prominent Native American tribes.
Courtney Smith, exhibits and programs director at the OCHM, provided the Enterprise with a tour of the exhibit, titled ‘Yesah - Journeys of the Occaneechi.’ It provides a glimpse into the nomadic lives of the Occaneechi - a tribe of resourceful and resilient people who overcame many obstacles over the centuries to thrive in the years leading up to the American Revolution.
“The title of the exhibit reflects what conclusions i came up with,” said Smith. “Yesah, it’s a term in the Tutelo Saponi language that means “the people”. And they very much see themselves as one people. So that part represents everything they have in common with all of the other tribes. What’s different - what’s unique about their story is the many journeys they made. They physically, culturally moved around a lot.”
The Occaneechi journey began thousands of years ago, came to historical significance and prominence in the 17th century in what was then Colonial Virginia, and now resides today in the Alamance County community of Pleasant Grove as the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation - one of eight Native American tribes within its borders formally recognized by the State of North Carolina.
“We’re beginning at 10,000 BCE (Before the Current Era) and bringing you up to the present. There’s a lot of story information and the story gets told through the artifacts as well (in the exhibit),” Smith said.
The Occaneechi were located in the center of the Great Trading Path, a key Native American trail in the North Carolina and Virginia countryside in the mid-1600s. As Smith explained, because they had many brave and durable warriors, the Occaneechi for a time had significant economic and military might, and challenged other local tribes for supremacy in their region.
“There was going to be turf were between them and the Iroquois,” Smith indicated. “Trading was going on long before the Europeans arrived. The Europeans entered into a situation that already existed. The Great Trading Path that I-85 kind of follows along went from Virginia to South Carolina.”
“They (the Native American) were going back and forth East and West getting the different goods that they needed and wanted. When the Europeans did arrive, what they brought into it was metal items, wool, guns, hatchets, kettles, glass and unfortunately liquor. All of these are going to have a huge effect on the Occaneechi’s life.”
As it turned out, the Occaneechi had something that the English and other early European colonists very much wanted - something that had become high fashion back home.
“What did the Europeans want? What were the Europeans getting out of this? They were getting buckskins,” Smith explained. “The course of history is changed because Europeans started wearing breeches. If the Europeans hadn’t started wearing pants, they wouldn’t have wanted the buckskins. So it’s all about fashion. Breeches get invented and leather holds up better than wool pants. The deerskins was finer and more flexible than the cow leather so that was in hot, hot demand. So the colonists who came over, we hear about them growing tobacco, making lots of money off of tobacco. You also hear often about the beaver trade. But in this area, the hot item was buckskin.”
Within the Orange County Historical Museum, there are authentic buckskin gloves, pants, and other clothing items worn by the two men widely considered to be in the inspiration for the naming of Orange County.
“We found these buckskin gloves that William III of Orange wore and gave as a gift, and they’ve been preserved all these years,” Smith said. “In a portrait of William V of Orange, you can see he’s all decked out in the buckskins.”
According to Smith, nobody knows definitively when the Occaneechi were in Orange County, though there is evidence that they were in the area in the late 17th century.
“These Yesah tribes were here and there were three earlier (archaeological) digs that have uncovered evidence of Yesah tribes here that weren’t specifically the Occaneechee. They were Eno or other groups. But at this time, up to 1676, there were probably Occaneechi here. (Early maps) do show the Occaneechi living near the Eno, and that looks a lot like the Eno river in Hillsborough there.”
“We do know from accounts that the Occaneechi were living on an island in the middle of the Roanoke River which you can’t see anymore because it’s under the Kerr Lake (in southern Virginia), before they covered it up with water (in the early 1950s). They were the superpower. They were living their best life. In fact, they were so powerful that everyone was speaking their language, because that was the language of trade (during that era), as English became later on.”
Unfortunately for the Occaneechi, their era of dominance as one of the preeminent Southern tribes in the years preceding widespread European influence in the New World came to a shocking and tragic conclusion in 1676, when Englishman Nathaniel Bacon and his band of colonists routed the tribe in a battle.
“In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon and his followers attacked them (the Occaneechi) living in the Roanoke River, living in Virginia, and killed as many as 300 in a massacre. Some stayed there, but a large group moved down to Hillsborough,” Smith explained. “I say large group, but not really, because the village was home to about 50-75 people. There were three separate cemeteries, there so that tells you things aren’t that great.”
“After the massacre, the English are going to be essentially in control of the trade now,” she continued. “The Occaneechit are still profiting very much from it and trade is actually going to peak at this time. And, again, it’s a fashion thing. There’s a cattle disease in continental Europe. So they can’t bring cattle into England because they don’t want to infect their cattle so they’re going to bring in deer skin.”
Also during this period, the Occaneechi found themselves increasingly at odds with the rival Iroquois, who saw an opportunity following the 1676 massacre of the Occaneechi to capitalize on their diminished capacity to fight.
“Also at this time the rivalry, the Iroquois are like, ‘Oh, the Occaneechi are weakened’ so they started coming down (and engaging the Occaneechi),” Smith said, “It wasn’t the glass beads and the trinkets (the Native Americans were trading with the English). That’s not what they were after. They were after the guns. And they needed to protect themselves from Englishmen, the Iroquois, and other tribes.”
In Part II of our story on the rise of the Occaneechi, we will dig deeper into the history of this proud local tribe from our extensive private tour of the new exhibit at the Orange County Historical Museum.