The Tuscarora believed that after death the immortal soul traveled to a western paradise. There were a number of planting and harvest festivals. The "tribe" was a collection of autonomous villages, each with its own chief, or headman, and council. The office of chief may or may not have been hereditary. Women served in some political capacity. Ultimate political authority was vested in the people and the council. The Tuscarora were at first represented by the Oneida in the Iroquois League's annual council.
There were eight matrilineal clans in New York. Women nominated the clan chiefs. For five or six weeks, once in their lives, older children were secluded in a cabin and tortured with hunger and emetic plants. The people may have played a mathematical reed game, in which high-stakes gambling figured prominently. A great deal of ceremony was associated with the burial of men, the degree of ritual and expense being related to a person's social standing.
Curing methods included shaking gourd rattles, sucking blood and fluids, and using snakes. Curers also used many herbal and plant medicines. The cures were often quite effective, and early non-Native observers noted that these Natives were generally much healthier than were the colonists and other Europeans.
Some villages were palisaded, at least in the early historical period. A village might have hundreds of houses; the average early 18th-century village population was around 400. A village consisted of several hamlets, or cabins near an open ceremonial area surrounded by fields. People who lived in "the country" had more distant neighbors.
Corn was the staple food, north and south. People also grew beans and squash. Women gathered wild fruits, nuts, berries, and roots. Men hunted game, including deer, bear, beaver, otter, rabbit, cougar, opossum, raccoon, partridge, pheasant, geese, and ducks. Seafood also played an important dietary role. Bows were carved from black locust wood whenever possible. Animal bones were used as hoes. Men made bowls, dishes, spoons, and utensils from tulip, gum, and other wood. Women made pottery and wove baskets of bark and hemp as well as mats of rush and cane.
Men wore hand-tanned breechclouts; women wore a wraparound skirt and a tunic. Both were made from Spanish moss or softened tree bark. Outerwear consisted of turkey feather, fur, or deerskin mantles. Men, especially among the wealthy, wore copper bracelets and other ornaments. Both men and women painted their bodies extensively. The Tuscarora were very active traders, at least in the early to mid-17th century. Their arts included carved wooden items, woven mats and baskets, and pottery. The people navigated rivers and marshes in cypress log canoes.
The Tuscarora people came originally from the north, perhaps around the Saint Lawrence Valley–Great Lakes region. They may have moved southward as late as around 1400. In the 16th century, and for some time thereafter, they were the dominant tribe in eastern North Carolina, despite losing upward of 80% of their population to European diseases during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Their somewhat inland location kept them from extensive contact with non-Native settlers until the mid-17th century.
The Tuscarora were traditionally friendly to the British settlers, even to the point of helping them fight other Native groups. Active involvement in the deer-skin, rum, and slave trade led to a growing factionalism within the tribe, which was the most intense in villages closest to trade centers. Involvement with rum also contributed significantly to a general decline of the people. Throughout the 17th and into the 18th centuries, non-Natives regularly took advantage of Native generosity, taking their best lands, cheating them in trade, and stealing their children for slaves.
War between the two groups broke out in 1711. It was largely a reaction to years of British abuse and to continuing population loss due to disease. Led by Chief Hancock, the Tuscarora raided settlements and killed perhaps 200 British, who took their revenge as they could. Some Tuscarora villages remained neutral because of especially pro-British contact and sympathies; the "neutral" and "hostile" camps each had their Native allies from other tribes. Freed African Americans played a significant role in the construction of European-style forts among the Natives.
The conflict soon became a general war, with some tribes, such as the Coree and Pamlico, fighting with the Tuscarora and others, mainly Algonquin, fighting with the Carolina militias. In 1713, as a result of a betrayal by Tuscarora leader Tom Blount, Carolina soldiers killed or captured almost 1,000 Tuscarora. Many of the captives were sold into slavery. Most survivors migrated to New York to live among their Iroquoian-speaking relatives. Those who did not join the initial exodus lived for some additional years on the Susquehannah and Juniata Rivers, and some neutrals continued to live for a time in North Carolina. Virtually all Tuscarora had left by 1802.
In 1722 or 1723, under the sponsorship of the Oneida, the Tuscarora were formally admitted into the Iroquois League, although their chiefs were not made official sachem chiefs. The former southerners soon adopted much of northern Iroquois culture. With the Oneida, most Tuscarora remained neutral or sided with the colonists in the American Revolution, although the rest of the league supported the British. The Seneca and a non-Native land company donated land to the Tuscarora consisting of three square miles near Niagara Falls. The tribe purchased over 4,000 acres in 1804. It also received over $3,000 from the North Carolina legislature from the sale of Tuscarora land in that state.
Most Tuscarora had become farmers and Christians by the end of the 19th century. Meanwhile, those loyal to Britain in the war settled in Oshweken, Ontario, on the Six Nations Reserve. The Tuscarora rejected the Indian Reorganization Act in the 1930s. In the 1950s, the government proposed that a massive reservoir be built on their land. The Natives' refusal to sell led to many protests and a court battle. Although they ultimately lost, and the reservoir was constructed, the process contributed significantly to their own, as well as other tribes', sense of empowerment and national identity.
Barry M. Pritzker
Debo, Angie. A History of the Indians of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970; Iverson, Peter. "We Are Still Here": American Indians in the Twentieth Century. Arlington Heights, IL: Davidson, 1998; Power, Susan C. Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents and Winged Beings. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004; Rawls, James. Chief Red Fox is Dead: A History of Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishing, 1996.