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Regions with significant populations
North Carolina
English, Algonquian (historical)
Tribal religion (historical)
Related ethnic groups
Coree, Machapunga

The Chowanoke, also spelled Chowanoc, are an Algonquian-language American Indian tribe. 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 for 800 years, and earlier indigenous cultures in the area have been dated to 4500 BC.

The tribe was largely extinct by the late 17th century; with many deaths likely due to infectious disease, including a smallpox epidemic in 1696. However, there are descendants with Chowanoke ancestry, particularly in Gates County and Chowan County. These descendants have recently reconstituted the group as the Chowanoke Indian Nation, and in 2014 acquired a 146-acre tract of their original reservation land for tribal and cultural activities.


The Algonquian peoples in North Carolina likely migrated from northern 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.[1]

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 the historic site. They 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 their total 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, but 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. The town had been occupied by humans for more than 800 years, with radiocarbon dating establishing 825 AD as the earliest date of culture related to the Chowanoke people. Including large agricultural fields, the town was a mile long and was home to several hundred Chowanoke people and possibly as many as 2100. It contained a precinct for the ruler and nobility or elite residences, public buildings, temples and burials near the north end of what the archeologists called Area B. This may have been the 30-longhouse cluster observed by Harriot. Evidence of other residences was found in areas of erosion on the edges of the peninsula.

Other parts of the site showed older habitation: 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 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 they did other coastal Carolina Algonquian peoples. None had natural immunity to such new diseases. The neighboring Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora, who had inhabited areas to the inland, 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 strengthened enough to wage two wars against English settlers. They met defeat each time. After these wars, the English designated the Chowanoke settlement on Bennett's Creek as the first Indian reservation in the present-day USA.[citation needed]

Notable Chowanoke[edit]


  1. ^ Jack MacGowan, "Carolina Algonkians", Carolina Algonkian Project, 2001-2005 (last update), accessed 22 Apr 2010

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