Imagining Duke’s Campus in 1000 AD

John “Blackfeather” Jeffries blesses 25-acres of new land acquired by the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. Photograph used with permission by Ted Richardson, TEDRICHARDSONMEDIA.COM

This post is part of a series intended to introduce first-year students to the diverse history of Duke and Durham. These posts are brief introductions, but include more detailed resources for further reading and exploration.

Many formal gatherings in the Americas begin with acknowledgement and prayer for the indigenous people of the past, and to honor those among us now.   Other examples of respect are the Duke Forest Land Acknowledgement Statement  and the Eno River Association’s Land Acknowledgement which bow  to the  Yésah, “the people”,  the collection of tribes who have lived on the North Carolina and Virginia Piedmonts.   As you find your way to class, you may wonder who was walking over Duke’s campus 1200 years ago.  Where are their descendants?

North Carolina has the highest number of Native Americans east of the Mississippi. A map reconstructing ancient languages of the Southeast identifies three clusters:  Iroquois, Siouan, and Muskhogean.  Two range across the state. To the west are the Iroquois linguistic family, the present-day Eastern Band of Cherokee.    In the Piedmont, southern, and the eastern parts of the State are the remaining tribes of the Siouan (Tutelo) linguistic family: Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, Sappony, Waccamaw, Meherrin, Lumbee, and Occaneechi.

How far back can we go in order to imagine the people who lived here? Much of what we know draws on archaeological evidence from the Haw River Drainage area, Yadkin River, and Roanoke Rapids. The Research Laboratories of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina includes a list of contextual excavations going back to 10,000 BC in the Piedmont—where you are now–  with descriptions of culture and life for every age, starting with the Clovis culture of the Pleistocene.  The Ancient North Carolinians website includes a pre-Colonial section for the Central Piedmont.

More recent accounts, summarized in NCPedia, describe the Occaneechi and Sappony nations as documented by Europeans starting in the 17th century.  There are also accounts of the more ancient Shakori and Eno tribes of the Piedmont, and the Tuscarora  towards the east.  Two centuries later, Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 began the forced removal of the Cherokee from Georgia in the Trail of Tears.  A band of 300-400 escaped to the mountains in western North Carolina, and eventually bought what is now the Qualla reservation.  It  is from there that Duke’s first Native American students arrived in 1881 to attend Trinity College and the Cherokee Industrial School.

Contemporary native communities closest to Duke include the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, in Orange and Alamance Counties to the west of Durham, and the Sappony to the north in Person County.   The website for UNC’s Native American Center provides contact information for each nation, pointing to newspapers, councils and leaders,  as well as a map of the 8 tribal nations recognized by the State of North Carolina.  There are four urban Indian organizations, including the Triangle Native American Association.  Closer to home is the Duke University Native American Student Alliance chartered in 1992.

This isn’t enough to understand what’s beneath your feet, or to recognize who might be walking beside you. In the mixture of oral traditions, documentation, and historical interpretations, what are the real stories?  You can visit the excavations closest to Duke in Hillsborough, with evidence from the late Woodland Period from 1000 to 1600 AD.   They include a reconstruction of an Occaneechi Village from 300 years ago. Watch the calendar for Pow Wows in North Carolina,  find out what to expect and become familiar with the appropriate etiquette if it’s your first one.  There are many ways to honor and celebrate Native Americans at Duke.

Tribal Seals of the 8 North Carolina Tribes
Seals of the 8 North Carolina Tribes

To get a start on learning more:

 Adams, David W. 2020.  Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas

Chaffin, Nora Campbell. 1950. Trinity College, 1839-1892: the beginnings of Duke University. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Coe, Joffre Lanning. 2006. The formative cultures of the Carolina Piedmont. Raleigh, N.C.: Office of Archives and History, North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources.

Gillispie, Valerie. 2018. “Retro: Native Americans at Trinity in the Nineteenth Century,” Duke Magazine (February  7).

Ingram, Jill Elizabeth. 2008.  Man in the middle : the boarding school education of Will West Long. MA Thesis, Western Carolina University.

Lawson, John. 1709. A new voyage to Carolina London: [s.n.].   You can also request to see the first edition  in the David M. Rubenstein Library.

Ward, H. Trawick, and R. P. Stephen Davis. 1999. Time before history: the archaeology of North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

10 thoughts on “Imagining Duke’s Campus in 1000 AD”

  1. Thank you for the article on the library website. I just want to comment that the title and text is tacitly communicating that the rightful ownership of this land has always been that of Duke. It reads as if the land was Duke’s campus even way back in 1000 AD, before any colonial theft of this land and genocide had even begun.

    1. That’s a good point, and I’m now trying to think of another title.

      To take a few steps back: this series of blog posts is focused on our first-year students. In this case, it’s intended to invite them, as they situate themselves in physical spaces on Duke’s campus now, to conjure the indigenous people who may have traveled those spaces in the past; to discover who shares them in the present; and to imagine everyone who may inhabit them in future.

      In libraries, activism usually starts with recommended information resources and readings, but this list of links and titles is only a beginning. The series’ objective is to encourage students, as well as other community members, to learn more actively about Duke’s diverse community, past and present, so they can consider their own engagement and help plan collaborative responses.

      There can never be enough written or said about the historical events you describe. Duke’s Native American Student Alliance has called the university to account, in this guest column in the Chronicle:

      Duke NASA. 2021. The Urgency of Now: Duke must take action to support Native American students. The Chronicle, August 29.

      1. Was this exhibition constructed with the knowledge, support, or collaboration of NASA?

        1. To be clear, the purpose of the Duke-Durham diversity blog for first year students, the collections spotlights on books and films at Lilly Library, and the related exhibits, are all in support of library and archival research methods and resources at Duke University Libraries. The archivist I worked with most closely would be delighted to have NASA and other students come to see the materials in the Duke University Archives. You’ve looked at the exhibit, and if you and other members of NASA have recommendations for other research materials, the library would absolutely love to hear and accommodate them. Other Duke-Durham projects are about history of the local Chinese and African American communities, and the next one will be ready in March.
          My own research project started last summer! The exhibit’s smaller section about Native American students at Duke displays facsimiles from the Duke University and West Carolina University archives which are publicly available. I did reach out to one of the authors of the August 2021 Chronicle article “The Urgency of Now” and the subsequent article in September, “Duke must act now to support Indigenous Students” for advice. I also consulted Duke faculty, as well as many other scholars and community members across the State.
          Duke University libraries are very excited about a planned collections assessment for Native American Studies to evaluate our holdings and identify materials we need to add to them. The project librarian recently contacted NASA as well as faculty in the recent cluster hire for their advice.

  2. As a member of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation (OBSN) and a Duke employee, I thank you for this wonderful article! Many people do not know about my specific tribe and it makes me feel proud when I come across articles that shares our history and information. We would love for you join us for one of our Pow Wows. You may even get to experience the Living Village where we reenact daily village life.

    1. Ms. Gary: I’m honored that you like the article, and would love to join a Pow Wow and to see the Living Village. Many thanks for your comment! GGB

  3. In response to an off line query about language classification:

    Goddard, Ives. 2005. The indigenous languages of the southeast. Anthropological Linguistics 47, (1) (04): 1-60,

    Hopkins, Nicholas. n.d. “Native Languages of the Southeastern United States.”

    Pauls, Elizabeth Prine, and Fogelson, Raymond D. 2021. “Southeast Indian.” Encyclopedia Britannica,

  4. I am humbled that we can document people lived on this land as much as 16,000 years ago. Talk about it being *their* land!
    Sometimes I don’t comprehend issues fully until numbers are involved. Thank you for bringing this realization that much closer to home.

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