American Indians

The name by which the American Indians that lived in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina called themselves is lost to Anglo-American history, but colonial settlers called them Cape Fear Indians. The Cape Fear Indians were considered natives of South Carolina because of Carolina colonial land disputes, which made the land south of the Cape Fear River part of South Carolina.1

William Hilton made the first attempt at English settlement in the Cape Fear in 1662, at the behest of a group from New England. At the time, Hilton noticed few American Indians in the area, but described them as “very poor and silly Creatures [many] of [them] are very aged; but they are not numerous: for in all our various travels for 3 weeks and more, we saw not 100 in all, they were very courteous to us, and afraid of us, but they are very [thievish].”2 The New England settlement arrived, only to leave suddenly. The reason for this quick departure is unknown, but the suspected culprit was Indian hostilities in the area.3

With the New England settlement effectively out of the picture, Hilton purchased more Cape Fear land, this time at the behest of a group from Barbados in 1663. The settlers arrived the next year and called the area Clarendon County.4 Unfortunately, the settlers were neglected by their home country of Barbados, leaving them in short supply of the necessary goods and materials for the colony. The colonists exacerbated their problems by making enemies with the area’s Indian population. Apparently the colonists had begun the harmful practice of capturing Indian children and either sent them away to be educated in the Christian faith or sold them as slaves. Cape Fear historian E. Lawrence Lee suspected the latter to be the more likely cause of discontent.5

The Clarendon County War followed these abuses in 1666. Though the colonists had the advantage of better weaponry, the natives had a strong passion to remove the white settlers from their land. The Indians’ continued defense of their land by harassment of the settlers led them to abandon the colony in 1667, when it once again became Indian territory for many years thereafter.6 However, the Cape Fear Indians still held bitter resentments against the white settlers for their previous mistreatment, and, as a result, the native population began to attack victims of shipwrecks in the Cape Fear region. This treatment continued until the Cape Fear Indians appealed to the Carolina colonial government for aid in repelling attacks upon their population from other Carolina Indian nations in the 1690s. This agreement ensured the friendly relations between the Cape Fear Indians and white settlers once again.7

These friendly relations were evident in the early 1700s, when the Cape Fear Indians agreed to fight alongside the English colonists under Col. John Barnwell during the early battles of the Tuscarora War (1711-1715).8 Following the first peace settlement between the colonists and the Tuscarora nation after the latter’s surrender, the Tuscarora forfeited hunting and fishing rights to the region of the North Carolina coast between the Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers. This area was left to the South Carolina Indians, among them the Cape Fear Indians, for their personal use.9

However, this peace brokered by Barnwell did not last. Lee related that the South Carolina Indians were “hungry, and disappointed at the few scalps and slaves they had taken . . . [and]soon ravaging through the enemy country. According to [Baron Christoph] von Graffenried [leader of Swiss/German settlers in New Bern, NC], Barnwell and his Indians enticed a number of the local natives into Fort Barnwell under pretense of peace. They were then seized and taken to South Carolina to be sold as slaves. This so embittered the rest of the [natives] they ‘no longer trusted the Christians.’ Their later behavior seems to bear out the truth of this observation.”10

This “later behavior” is in reference to the Yamassee War (1715-1716), during which a number of Carolina tribes, including the Cape Fear Indians, turned against the white settlers. Their reasons for doing so concerned the encroachment of whites on Indian land and unfair trading practices between the two groups.11 Indian war parties attacked a number of South Carolina towns and plantations, causing the settlers so much grief that they called upon the North Carolina colonists for aid. Col. Maurice Moore, who remained in North Carolina after his success in the Tuscarora War, began to march south along with some troops and Indian allies to help the South Carolinians. On the way, Colonel Moore learned that the Cape Fear and Waccamaw tribes in the Lower Cape Fear region were planning an ambush upon the colonial party as it made its way to South Carolina. Using this advance knowledge to his advantage, Moore seized the arms and ammunition of the Indians and took a number of them as prisoner.12

The Yamassee War effectively ended when Colonel Moore successfully convinced the powerful Cherokee nation to ally themselves with the English settlers rather than with the equally powerful Creek Nation of the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. In so doing, Moore ensured the salvation of the South Carolina colony and, according to Lee, the whole of English America.13The Catawba and Siouan tribes, the Cape Fear Indians among them, were quick to follow the Cherokee’s example and once again make peace with the colonists.14

The decline of coastal Indian populations began following the end of the Yamassee War. The Carolina colonies recovered after the end of Indian warfare. This was aided by the fact that, according to Lee, “The Cape Fears, already tributary Indians of South Carolina, were moved to that colony following the Yamassee War, or within a few years thereafter. Their power already broken by Colonel Maurice Moore in 1715, they were soon facing extinction by Seneca warriors.”15 This was reinforced by Hugh Meredith, who visited the Lower Cape Fear in 1730 and wrote that “There is not an Indian to be seen in this place; the Senecas . . . with their tributaries the Susquehannah and Tuscarora Indians having almost destroyed those called Cape Fear Indians, and the small remains of them abide among the thickest of the South Carolina inhabitants, not daring to appear near the out settlements, for the very name of a Seneca is terrible to them, as indeed it is to most of these southern Indians.”16 At that point, the English settlers had effectively won the region and began building up colonial towns along the Lower Cape Fear, beginning with Brunswick Town in 1726.


1. E. Lawrence Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 1663-1763 (Raleigh, NC: The Carolina Charter Tercentenary Commission, 1963), 4.
2. William Hilton, et al., “Ye Relacon of ye Discovery made in Florida . . . dated aboard ye ship Adventure ye 6 Nov. 1662,” in E. Lawrence Lee, The Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 70.
3. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 14.
4. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 15.
5. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 15.
6. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 15.
7. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 16.
8. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 27.
9. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 30.
10. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 31.
11. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 39.
12. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 41.
13. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 42.
14. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 42.
15. Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 47.
16. Hugh Meredith, An Account of the Cape Fear Country, 1731, in E. Lawrence Lee, The Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 83

Further Reading

Lee, E. Lawrence. Indian Wars in North Carolina, 1663-1763. Raleigh, NC: The Carolina Charter Tercentenary Commission, 1963.

Lee, E. Lawrence. The Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.

South, Stanley A. Indians in North Carolina. Raleigh, NC: State Department of Archives and History, 1972.

Sprunt, James. The Chronicles of the Cape Fear River, 1660-1916. Wilmington, NC: Raleigh, Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1916.

Sprunt, James. Tales and Traditions of the Lower Cape Fear, 1661-1896. Wilmington, NC: LeGwin Brothers Printers, 1896.