History of the Indians of Halifax County, Virginia

Written by Tom Stevens of South Boston, Virginia
Originally published in the News & Record, about 1972.

The Paleoindian Period
(ca. 13,000 B.C.to 7,900 B.C.)

      In spite of many years of research, archeologists still don't know a great deal about the first people to inhabit the Americas. Nor can they agree as to the date those ancient travelers first arrived. Two things are known though - the first Americans were hunters, and they arrived a long, long time ago. When the archeological study of the United States was in its infant stage, many so-called "experts" said that man's arrival in the New World was a relatively recent event that had occurred about two thousand years ago. However when spearpoints were found in close association with the bones of an extinct type of bison, archeologists had to reconsider their stand, and they then admitted that man must have been an occupant of North America for at least 12,000 years.

      Discoveries of ancient campsites, along with the advent of carbon dating techniques, opened new chapters in the study of early man in America. Now it is scientifically acceptable to say that man may have first come to this continent as long ago as 18,000-20,000 B.C. Some archeologists contend that new discoveries and more reliable dating techniques will reveal that man has lived in this hemisphere for as long as 40,000 years! Archeologists call these earliest arrivals Paleo-Indians from the Greek word "palai", meaning ancient. Similarly, the period during which these people lived is called the Paleo-Indian Period, or sometimes the Big-Game Hunting Period.

University of WashingtonWeb Site       Most archeologists agree that man first came to America from Asia, and that he accomplished this crossing a land or ice "bridge" that existed in prehistoric times. We know that the first arrivals were hunters because we find in the excavations of their campsites the bones of mammoths, bison, and other long extinct big-game animals.

One of the trademarks of the early hunts is the very distinctive style of spearpoint that archeologists often find buried with the bones. There are many people who argue that these spearpoints, though deniably ancient, did not belong to the first arrivals in our land. These scientists contend that the very first arrivals had only crudely flaked stone knives, choppers, and axes for weapons, and that the skillfully flaked points of the Paleo-indians are evidence of several thousand years of progress in the big-game hunting tradition in the New World.

Whatever tools and skills the early hunters possessed, they obviously found America to their liking, and they spread across the continent and down into Central and South America.

Through the use of carbon-14 dating techniques, researchers are able to tell with a high degree of accuracy the age of various Indian relics, or artifacts as they are commonly called. All living things have in them certain constant amounts of carbon and its radioactive isotopes. Carbon-14 is the isotope that scientists use to calculate age. When a living thing dies, constant levels of carbon-14 is disrupted and the isotope begins to fade slowly away. This fading process, unique to radio-active elements, is unusual in that one half the remaining amount decays at regular intervals. By precisely measuring the remaining amount of carbon-14 in a specimen , such as a bone or charcoal, and by comparing it to the known normal amount in a living body, scientist's can calculate the age of the item in question. Any artifacts found in irrefutable association with the tested item can then be said to be of the same age.

In the 1920s,archeologists found imbedded in the bones of an extinct species of bison a highly specialized version of the paleo-hunter's spearpoint. Subsequent tests with carbon-14 dating revealed that this type of point had been made over 8,000 years ago. For many years this point, called the Folsom point because it was first found near Folsom, N.M., and a similar, though older point (12,000 years), called the Clovis point, after Clovis, N.M. were considered to be exclusively western forms. In fact, many archeologists of that time said that the early hunters of America never spread into the eastern portion of our country. Since that time however, the East has produced as many if not more of the classic paleo-points than the West. Significantly, a number of workshops and campsites of early man have been discovered east of the Mississippi River, several of them in Virginia.

Early man lived and hunted in the Halifax County area too, as evidenced by the finding of Clovis type points here. These nomadic hunters apparently found good hunting near the confluence of Dan and Staunton rivers in the southeastern part of the county, because archeologists have recorded several of their workshop/campsites there.

Even though the hills and marshes near our rivers must have been abundant with game, the paleo-huntsers probably led what can be described as a meager existence at best. They had little in the way of conveniences. They knew of fire, but had no pottery in which to cook. They had no houses, only crude shelters. Theirs was a wandering life, and to have built a house would have been a waste of time and energy.

Also they knew nothing of agriculture. What they failed to get in the hunt, they did without. Perhaps nuts and berries served to fill in the diet when they were available.

For their defense and for hunting, the paleo-people had stone spears, knives, axes, scrapers, and choppers.

The hunt itself was unlike hunting today. A favorite tactic of the paleo-Indiar hunter was to stampede a herd of giant animals into a deep gully. Then the hunters would rush in, stabbing, hacking, and piercing those animals that were hopelessly trapped or maimed in the crush. At other times the hunters would lie in wait near a marsh or watering hole. When the large animals entered to drink, the spearsmen would again rush in close for the kill, taking advantage of the animals' temporary immobility. The hunters would carry away only what they needed for several days of food. The carcasses and often the weapons used in the kill were left behind, and after centuries of the processes of nature, only the stone spearpoints were left to bear testimony of early man's presence in the area.

The classic Clovis spearpoint is a thing of beauty to those who admire and collect Indian artifacts. The points are generally slender, geometrically pleasing, and very skillfully fashioned. In most cases, as a point was being completed, a long slender flake was removed from the base toward the tip on both sides of the point. This thinning process aided in shafting the point to the shaft. Some say the flute that was left as a result of the thinning aided in getting deeper penetration in the game animals and served to increase the flow of blood from a wounded animal. Also the edges of the Clovis point were ground smooth near the base so that the bindings would not be easily cut during the hunt.

In the Folsom point, the basal flaking or fluting was refined to a remarkable degree. In these points the flute scar often extended the entire length of the point. Such a process demanded the ultimate in stoneknapping skill. When a resident of Halifax County finds one of these paleo-points he can be sure that he has found a true antique with quite a history to tell.

The Archaic Period

Almost daily we have the opportunity to observe changes in our way of life. Changes also occurred during the Indian occupation of our area, but at a far slower pace.The paleo-hunters roamed over this region for about 5,000 years, but in the last years of the mammoths and bison became increasingly scarce. Men were forced to seek new game animals and new ways in which to kill them. What took place was a gradual change from the big-game hunting tradition to the tradition of hunting and gathering. Many archeologists prefer to call this period the Archaic Period, after the Greek word for beginning.

These spear and dart points are artifacts of the Archaic period. Commonly called arrowheads, they are the relics most commonly found in Halifax County. The bow and arrow were not in use when most of these pieces were made.

The paleo-hunter depended on getting in close to his quarry and piercing a vulnerable spot for the kill. With the disappearance of the lumbering beasts, the archaic hunter found that he needed to stalk his prey and hurl his spears from a greater distance. This was still several thousand years before the invention of the bow and arrow; so spears or darts were maintained as the chief weapons. The spears were different though. Now they were no longer primarily lanceolate, but were somewhat triangular with stemmed or notched bases. They were still propelled by muscle power, but over the years, the Indians of the Archaic Period developed the atl-atl, a spear throwing device that gave extra thrust and distance to their shots.

From the Royal BC Museum Web Site

The atl-atl was a medium length stick with a hook at one end. It was held in the hand and a spear was placed along the stick with the end of the spearshaft resting against the hooked part of the atl-atl. A stone weight for balance and thrust was attached to the spearthrower. This device served, in affect, as an extension of-the arm of the huntsman. Thus far greater force could be exerted in hurling the spear. Just as change led from Paleo to the Archaic Period, so too did change occur within the Archaic Period. In general, the projectile points tended to become smaller and more refined, though there were exceptions.

There were also changes in areas other than weaponry. If the archaic hunter of the Halifax County area did not fare well in the hunt he did nor to go hungry. He had increased his dependence on gathering activities an often maintained a supply of nuts, berries, barks, and roots. He also learned that shellfish of our streams provided a tasty supplement to his diet. He learned to make pots of soapstone, and he could now cook a filling meal, even if it had no meat. Now that he depended less on hunting alone as a means of survival, the hunter and gatherer did less wandering than his paleo-ancestors, though by no means was he a settled man.

Arrow2.jpg - 27430 Bytes
Also from the Archiac Period are these artifacts.
The grooved, polished axe head was found in Southhampton County, but is typical.
Surrounding it are three Alt-Alt (or spear thrower weights). Note the cleanly drilled hole.

True village life was several thousand years away, but its beginnings were evident, Through 7,000 years life in the Archaic Period continued with no major changes. There were refinements of tools, weapons, and the lifestyle, but archaic life of 1,000 B.C. was not much different than life of 8,000 B.C.

Today in Halifax County many people find and save relics left here by Indians over thousands of years. A very large part of these relics are those of the Archaic Period. Many people refer to the archaic projectile points of the county as arrowheads, but in truth, they are spearpoints, dartpoints, or knives; the bow and arrow was not in use when most of these artifacts were made.

A commonly found item in the county is the grooved polished axe. This was an archaic refinement of the crudely flaked axes of the Paleo-Period. Also found in the county, but somewhat rarer, are the tubular stone pipes and various types of beads and pendants. Sometimes collectors in our area come across well polished oval or semi-circular objects of stone, each having a hole drilled cleanly through the middle. This too was an archaic item, and it represents a refinement of the spearthrower weight.

Sometime during the last few hundred years of the Archaic Period changes began to occur which would set the stage for the next major archeological period of our region. In this transitional phase, men began to use pottery made of clay tempered with fabric, sand, or stone, and fire hardened. The Indians also developed the use of the bow and arrow which quickly proved its superiority over the spearthrower. The Indians discovered the advantages of an agricultural existence and the habit of community living. The Woodland Period was beginning.

The Woodland Period

Archeologists cannot point to a certain date and say that without a doubt one period ended then and another began. Rather, they recognize the transitional nature of progress from period to period. New ideas appear and are mixed with the old; some are accepted outright; and some are rejected in lieu of older ideas that time has shown to be worthy. Thus it was with the change from the Archaic to the Woodland Period.

Archeologists in this area generally agree that 1000 B.C. marks the time by which most of the changes had been made or at least introduced. The spearthrower was on the way out and the bow and arrow on the way in. Agriculture and village living were becoming the established ways among the Indians living along the banks of the Banister, Dan, Hyco, and Staunton Rivers. Clay pottery was being rapidly introduced. By about 500 B.C. the Woodland Period was firmly entrenched in our region.

The Indians here were well into the Woodland Period when the first Europeans arrived. Through the records kept by the English and through our own investigations, we have learned a great deal about them. We find that when the bow and arrow replaced the spear as the main weapon, it was impractical to use the large spearpoints on the slender arrow shafts, so smaller versions of the spearpoint were introduced. The Indians then discovered that the stemmed and notched bases weren't really necessary to hold the point on the shaft, so the simple triangular points were developed.

Triangular Points - These points were in use during both the Woodland and Historic Periods.
The four small points at the lower right were the type in use in Virginia when the colonists arrived.
They are a refinement of the longer, generally older points.

At first these points were fairly large, but the Indians soon began to make them smaller until they were most often less than an inch in length and very thin. Many local people refer to these as "bird points" in the belief that something so small must have been used to hunt birds. The truth is that these points were the standard points of the day, and that they were as deadly to men as to birds, as many Englishmen were to discover.

We know too that the axe underwent even more refinement, and that it was now highly polished and tapered with no grooves for binding. It was simply set into a hole in the end of a wooden club and driven more securely into the club with continued use. This version of the axe is called a celt.

The Woodland Period Indians developed artistic skills too. Their stone pipes were beautifully carved and in many instances consisted of a lipped bowl resting on a flat stem, all made from one piece of stone. These are referred to as platform pipes. They often made pipes in the shapes of animals, and these pipes, called effigy pipes, attest to the skill of the woodland sculptor.

The Woodlan Period produced all these relics.
Highly prized is the polished platform pipe carved from a single piece of soapstone.
Such pipes were passed from generation to generation. The small cup is of pottery.
The polished axe heads are also known as celts.

The Indians during this period also made a great many clay pipes, some of which were decoratively incised. The stone beads and pendants of this period showed the Indians' feel for geometrically pleasing forms, and the pottery reflects their appreciation of graceful lines.

The Indians that lived along our river systems had a wide variety of tools and utensils. They used several types of stone and bone items in the manufacture of arrow points, and they used bone awls, needles, and fishhooks in their everyday activities. They also had stone drills, knives, scrapers, and adzes for use in woodworking, skinning, and other chores. There were nets of plant fibers for catching fish and large stone mortars for grinding corn and nuts.

We can surmise that the Indians here had a fairly decent life. From excavations of their villages we discover that their diets included deer, bear, elk, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, fish, shellfish, turtles, turkeys, and other assorted animals. We also find hulls of corn, beans, and nuts and seeds of squash, pumpkins, and other plants.

As for creature comforts, the Woodland Indians had homes of a stick framework covered with bark or animal skins. Sometimes they provided for their protection by building palisades around their homes.

The Indians also had clothing and shoes of dressed animal skins, and they had fabrics woven from plant fibers and from feathers or animal hair. Some of these fabrics were intricately woven, and the English often marvelled at their skill. Sometimes the Indians decorated their pottery with this fabric by pressing the fabric into the pots while the clay was still damp. When the pottery was fired, the imprint of the fabric was preserved for us to see.

The Indians of the Woodland Period apparently enjoyed smoking, either for ceremony or for relaxation. They had games for relaxation and for proving their athletic skills. One game reported by the English as being a game of the piedmont area was similar to lacrosse except that in this game the goals were several miles apart. Another game resembled hockey in some respects. This game involved the use of an animal skin ball stuffed with deer hair. Teams played the game by hurling the ball at a target post with the aid of sticks. This was a rugged game that often resulted in serious injury to the players.

Ceremony, religion, and superstition played a big part in the lives of the Woodland Indians. Worshipping the forces of nature, the Indians had ceremonies for changes of seasons and for the harvest. Many normal activities began or ended with a ceremony. And of course there were ceremonies for the burial of the dead.

From excavations in our area, we learn that the people here employed the use of three types of burial practices. One involved burying the body much as we do today in an extended position. In another type of burial, the body was flexed first, so that the knees were drawn up next to the chin. This allowed for burial in a smaller space. Still another type involved allowing the body to decompose before the bones were scraped clean and bundled up for burial. This is referred to as the bundle burial. Sometimes more than one body was put into a grave.

In some cases the Indians had special parts of the Village for burials, and in other cases the dead were interred under the floor of a house. In instances where people occupied the same site for many years, burials of a later generation often intruded into the burials of an earlier one. Some but by no means all of the woodland people included grave offerings with their burials. Among some of the offerings that have been found are beads, arrows, celts, pendants, pottery, and ornaments of copper.

The Woodland Indians were an industrious widespread group. Much has been learned about them through research, but far more remains to be discovered through careful archeological investigation.

The Historic Period

Many historians say that a new period in the history of the American Indian began with the arrival of the white man in this country. Even though such woodland practices as stoneworking, hunting, fishing, and farming continued as usual for many years, the Indians of the eastern part of the country and Virginia in particular were to undergo severe stresses that would in the span of about 100 years reduce their influence in the area to practically zero.

This new period in Indian history is called the Historic Period, or occasionally the Post-Contact Period.

The Indians of the late Archaic Period and even earlier groups may have had tribal names or considered themselves as some sort of unit, but in the absence of records by the Indians themselves, we can only guess about this.

If the Europeans did nothing else good for the Indians, at least they recorded many facts about them. A fair part of the contact between Indians and settlers occurred here in south-central Virginia, and we have a number of documents and accounts that reveal the identities of some of the tribes in our area.

The first name that we can associate with an Indian tribe in the vicinity was supplied by an Indian guide to the English explorer John Lederer in 1670. The guide said that the Indians who were then living in this part of the state were not the original inhabitants, but rather had come here over 400 years earlier after being driven from their northern home. They settled among the group already living here called the Tacci.

The Tacei (also called the Dogi) were a barbarous group of holdovers from the Archaic Period who subsisted mainly on raw meat, fish, and nuts and berries until the newcomers taught them about agriculture .

Other occupants of our general area to be recognized by early explorers included the Monacans, who were first reported by Jamestown's Captain Newport in 1608. They were then living to the northwest of us along the headwaters of the James River. Then in 1609 Captain John Smith reported Monacans and Manahoacs living to the northeast of us near the central portions of the James and Rappahannock Rivers.

Later, in 1650, while he was exploring the lower portion of the Roanoke River,an Englishman named Edward Bland was told by his Appamatuck Indian guide that three days farther up the river was a broad branch of the stream with a large island on which lived some of the Occaneechans. Many local historians have taken this to be the same island in the Roanoke (Staunton) River near Clarksville that has borne the name Occaneechi (or sometimes Occoneechee) Island since the 1700's. This has never been proven however.

In 1670, John Lederer visited the Occaneechis on their fortified island home. He stayed overnight, but probably slept very little as he feared for his life. In the early part of his visit he had seen the treacherous Occaneechi slay six visiting Indians who were pleading for sanctuary. At his first opportunity, Lederer escaped the island.

Another Englishman named John Locke had this to say about the Occaneechis: "Ye iland where ye Ochenechees are seated strongly fortified by nature and makes them soe insolent for they are but and handful of people, besides what vagabounds repaire to them it being a recptackle for rogues." Lockes account places the Occaneschis on an island that straddled an important Indian trading path near the Virginia-North Carolina line. This ideal location,plus their hostile nature, made them a rich and powerful group.

Very old accounts reveal to us that in 1676 a group of Susquehanna Indians,driven from their home in Maryland and northern Virginia by a combined force of settlers and Iroquois Indians, arrived in the vicinity of the Dan and Staunton Rivers where they joined the Occaneechis. They lived together for a while but the greedy Susquehanna tried to push the Occaneschis out. They failed in this and were themselves driven out.

In the meantime, Nathaniel Bacon and his followers decided to eliminate the pesky Susquehanna who were causing the colonists a lot of trouble with their raiding and plundering. The settlers, joined by the Occaneechi, met the Susquhanna in battle on the island home of the Occaneechis. It was not much of a contest as the Susquehanna were decisively beaten and forced to flee the area. Bacon and his men showed the Occaneschis how much they appreciated their help by turning on them after the battle. The English wanted to take the rich supply of furs held by the Indians. This battle resulted in a draw however, as the Occaneechis were defensively well situated in their palisaded village.

Shortly after this the Occaneechis were joined by groups of Saponi, Tutelo, and Nahyssan Indians, but this new confederation was a weak one. It was not long before the Iroquois on the march from the north, and the settlers, ever pressing from the east, forced the Occaneechis into North Carolina, where they were last recognized as a major tribe by John Lawson in 1701.

In looking back over the old accounts, we got the picture that the Indians of our area were caught up in a widespread cultural disruption, over which they had little control. This disruption was marked by frequent uprooting and relocation of tribal homes. In the space of less than 100 years for example, the Occaneechis were reported to occupy major villages at four different sites in Virginia and North Carolina. Also the early records indicate that as many as seven different tribes, including the Occaneechis, the Saponis, the Susquehannas, and the Tutelo lived in our area for varying lengths of time.

The coming of the Europeans to America spelled doom for the Indians, and after their removal, a great chapter of history came to an end. Halifax County is fortunate in that it was the setting for much of this history for a period of at least 12,000 years.

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