The Chowanoke, also spelled Chowanoc, are an Algonquian-language American Indian tribe who historically inhabited the coastal area of the Upper South of the United States. At the time of the first English contacts in 1585/6, they were the largest and most powerful Algonquian tribe in present-day North Carolina, occupying most or all of the coastal banks of the Chowan River in the northeastern part of the state. Their peoples had occupied their main town since 825 CE. Earlier indigenous cultures occupied the area from 4500 BC.
After warfare, in 1677 English colonists set aside a reservation for the tribe near Bennett's Creek. The Chowanoke suffered high mortality due to infectious disease, including a smallpox epidemic in 1696. Descendants with Chowanoke ancestry survived but merged with other groups, and they lost the last of their communal land in 1821. Chowanoke descendants still live in the state, particularly in Gates and Chowan counties. Through the centuries some families have maintained their Chowanoke identity; others intermarried and gradually identified with other ethnic groups.
In the early 21st century, some descendants have reorganized as a group, known as the Chowanoke Indian Nation. In 2014 they acquired a 146-acre tract of their former reservation land (originally 11,360 acres in 1677) and plan to develop it for a tribal cultural center to aid their revitalization efforts.
The Algonquian peoples who developed in what is now known as North Carolina likely migrated from northern coastal areas, and developed a culture modified by local conditions. The numerous tribes occupied an approximately 6,000-square-mile (16,000 km2) area of Carolina Algonqkian territory in northeastern North Carolina, from the Neuse River to the Chesapeake Bay. Tribes included the Chowanoke, Weapemeoc, Poteskeet, Moratoc, Roanoke, Secotan (Secoughtan), Pomuik, Neusiok, Croatan and possibly the Chesepiooc.
According to the 16th-century English explorer Ralph Lane, the Chowanoke (Chowanoc, Chawonoc) had 19 villages, with the capital being the town of Chowanoke. Present-day Harrellsville in Hertford County developed near this historic site. The Chowanoke were the most numerous and most powerful of the Algonquian tribes in North Carolina. Lane described this town as being large enough to muster 700-800 warriors, which meant the capital's population was likely more than 2100. A later account by Thomas Harriot estimated that all the villages could muster 800 warriors. Lane's account was quite accurate in terms of his description of the town, its location and structures, which was confirmed by later archeological excavations there. The population estimates may have accurately been between his (which might have been 4,000 for all the people, and Harriot's, about 2100 overall).
Archeological excavation in the 1980s at the site of Chowanoke confirmed Lane's report of its location and elements of his description. The town had been occupied by humans for nearly 1000 years, with radiocarbon dating establishing 825 AD as the earliest date of culture related to the Chowanoke people. The town was a mile long, including large agricultural fields for cultivated crops. It was home to several hundred Chowanoke people and possibly as many as 2100. Near the north end of what the archeologists called Area B, they found a precinct for the ruler and nobility of elite residences, public buildings, temples and burials. This may have been the 30-longhouse cluster observed by Harriot. Evidence of other residences was found in areas that have been eroded at the edges of the peninsula, as the site has been reduced by the river.
Other parts of the site showed older habitation: occupation in the Middle Archaic Morrow Mountain phase (ca. 3500-4500 B.C.); and again in the Deep Creek (8000-300 B.C.) and Mount Pleasant (300 B.C.-A.D. 800) phases of the Woodland period. This is typical of other sites of indigenous habitation, in which different groups lived in certain areas and abandoned them for a time, and other groups later migrated to occupy the area again.
It is probable that infectious diseases transmitted by the first English contact, such as measles and smallpox, caused high fatalities and considerably weakened the Chowanoke, as took place with other coastal Carolina Algonquian peoples. None had natural immunity to such new diseases, which had been endemic among Europeans for centuries. The neighboring Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora, who had inhabited areas to the inland, moved in and expelled the remaining Chowanoke from the territory along the river.
In 1607 an English expedition, in the area on orders from Captain John Smith of Jamestown, found that hardly any Chowanoke people were left along the Chowan River. They had been reduced to one settlement across the river in Gates County on Bennett's Creek.
Several decades later, in 1644 and 1675–77, the Chowanoke had regained sufficient strength to wage two wars against English settlers. They met defeat each time. After these wars, in 1677 the English designated the Chowanoke settlement on Bennett's Creek as the first Indian reservation in the territory of the present-day United States of America. It consisted of 11,360 acres. The Chowanoke through the 18th century gradually lost land through sales and other actions. Men's names were recorded on tribal land conveyance documents. In 1821 they lost the last 30 acres of communal land.
Once they were landless and because of intermarriage with European Americans and African Americans, the Chowanoke were often no longer considered Native Americans. The European Americans tended to classify everyone as either black (even free people of color) or white, not taking into account Native American acculturation of children from mixed marriages. Like other Algonquian peoples, the Chowanoke had a traditional matrilineal kinship system, in which children were considered born into the mother's family and clan.
Native American descendants such as the Chowanoke were often classified among the free people of color on census documents, especially those of mixed race. They no longer functioned as a tribe and disappeared from historical accounts. But descendants merged and intermarried with other groups, and some families carried an oral history of Native American identity and cultural practices. In the 20th century, more disruption of tribal identity occurred under racial segregation laws passed in all the southern states. In Virginia, for instance, many Native Americans who had maintained their culture were reclassified as black rather than recorded in vital records as Indian.
In the early 21st century, Chowanoke descendants in the Bennett's Creek area organized as the Chowanoke Indian Nation. Delois Chavis has been a leader in this effort; she grew up in Winton and said her parents and grandparents gave her a strong sense of Native American identity. As part of efforts to renew their people, she and other Chowanoke bought 146 acres of their former reservation land in Gates County, in an area known as Indian Neck. They plan to build a cultural center here to aid in revitalization of their culture.Parker D. Robbins, elected state legislator from Bertie County during Reconstruction.