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Who are the first Cape Fear residents?

Ben Steelman

The Cape Fear Indians were in Southeastern North Carolina by the arrival of Giovanni de Verrazano in 1524 and by the arrival of William Hilton from Barbados in 1661 and 1663.

Hilton reportedly met with Wat-Coosa, identified as a “king” or chief of the Cape Fears, on Crane Island (now Campbell Island, or Big Island) in the Cape Fear River about 13 miles from modern Wilmington. There, Hilton claimed, the Indians sold him the rights to the river, and the right to settle on contiguous lands. Wat-Coosa — whose name is some spelled Wattcoosa or Watcoosa — also supplied Hilton with a large quantity of shad, mullets and other fish, and also two Indian women, to make up for an earlier incident in which an Indian shot at their boat.

Relations with the local Indians remained cordial until 1664, when settlers seized some Indian children, apparently to sell them into slavery. At this point, war broke out, and the Barbados settlers, already hit by malaria, abandoned the region to try again elsewhere — in the vicinity of modern Charleston, S.C.

Little is known about the Cape Fear Indians, including the name they called themselves. They probably were associated with the eastern Siouan tribes of the state, possibly the Waccamaws, but no words of their language have been recorded. (Hilton said the Indians greeted him by exclaiming what sounded like “Bonny! Bonny!” Some scholars, however, take this as a sign of Spanish contact; perhaps the Indians were trying to say “Bueno! Bueno!”)

Given their range and the resources available to them, the Cape Fears probably had a population of about 1,000 at the time of European contact. They had one large settlement, which Hilton identified as Necoes, about 20 miles from the mouth of the Cape Fear, probably somewhere in Brunswick County. The Indians grew enough corn to have a surplus, which they offered to sell to Hilton and his men.

Archaeological digs at Cedar Island (near Masonboro Sound) and Stoney Creek (near Howes Creek and Middle Sound) have revealed large middens of oyster shells, along with the remains of clams, white-tailed deer, turtles and fish, along with caches of hickory nuts. Because of acidic soils and high water tables, few artifacts have survived other than projectile points, but it seems likely the Cape Fear Indians used seine nets in coastal waters. It seems likely they enjoyed a migratory life, living and eating near the coast in spring and summer, migrating inland in the summer to avoid mosquitoes and grow crops.

The Cape Fear Indians did not long survive first contact, or competition with other Indian groups. As early as 1695, they were petitioning Gov. John Archdale for protection. In 1712, a few Cape Fear scouts joined John Barnwell in the Tuscarora War. By 1715, the Cape Fears were driven from the region by Maurice Moore, now allied with the Tuscaroras, in the Yamassee War. In 1725, Roger Moore attacked a Cape Fear settlement on the Sugar Loaf sand dune (in modern Carolina Beach State Park), in retaliation for an alleged raid on Orton Plantation.

A 1715 count found a total of 206 Cape Fear Indians — 76 men, 130 women in children — living in five villages. By 1731, the Welshman Hugh Meredith, on visiting the Lower Cape Fear, reported “there is not an Indian to be seen in this place … the small remains of them abise among the thickest of the South Carolina inhabitants.”

The last of the tribe seems to have gone off to join the Pee Dees of South Carolina, and by 1800 no Indians were found along the Cape Fear.

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