Waccamaw Siouan Indians are one of eight state-recognized Native American tribal nations in North Carolina. Formerly Siouan-speaking, they are located predominantly in the southeastern North Carolina counties of Bladen and Columbus. They adopted this name in 1948. Their communities are St. James, Buckhead, and Council, with the Waccamaw Siouan tribal homeland situated on the edge of Green Swamp about 37 miles from Wilmington, North Carolina, seven miles from Lake Waccamaw, and four miles north of Bolton, North Carolina.
The ancient Waccamaw were river dwellers who lived along the Waccamaw River from present-day North Carolina’s Lumber River to Lake Waccamaw to Winyah Bay near Georgetown, South Carolina.
While the Waccamaw were never populous, they incurred devastating population loss and dispersal with the incursion of colonial settlers and their diseases during the eighteenth century.
According to the ethnographer, John R. Swanton, the Waccamaw may have been one of the first mainland groups of Natives visited by the Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Within the second decade of the 16th century, Francisco Gordillo and Pedro de Quexos captured and enslaved several Native Americans, and transported them back to Hispaniola. Most died within two years, although they were supposed to be returned to the mainland. One of the men whom the Spanish captured was baptized and learned Spanish. Known as Francisco de Chicora, he worked for Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, who took him to Spain on a trip. Chicora told the court chronicler Peter Martyr about more than twenty indigenous peoples who lived in present-day South Carolina, among which he mentioned the “Chicora” and the “Duhare” — these were tribal territories that comprised the northernmost regions. The early 20th century ethnographer John R. Swanton believed that these nations were the Waccamaw and the Cape Fear Indians, respectively.
In 1521 the Spanish expedition led by Francisco Girebillo came across the Waccamaw village which he describes as semi-nomadic river basin inhabitants. Girebillo expedition arrived there by traveling inland form the Carolina coast and along the Waccamaw and Pee Dee River. Girebillo wrote that Siouan river peoples relied on hunting and gathering, and to some extent, a limited agriculture. Nearly 150 years later, William Hilton encountered the Waccamaw Siouan and in 1670, the German surveyor and physician, John Ledere, mentioned them in his discoveries. By the beginning of the 17th century the Woccon or Waccamaw along with a number of Pee Dee River tribes, had been pushed north by a combination of Spanish and Cusabo forces. Settling around the confluence of the Waccamaw and Pee Dee River, this amalgon of tribes had already fragmented by 1705 to form a group of Woccon who moved farther north to the Lower Neuse River and Contentnea Creek.
The first written mention of the Waccamaw Siouan appeared in historical records of 1712 when a special effort was made to persuade the tribe along with the Cape Fears to join James Moore’s expedition against the Tuscarora. It is believed that the Waccon Indian, the Siouan tribe which Lawson placed a few miles to the south of the lower or hostile Tuscarora, ceased to exist by the name Waccon but that they moved southward as a group and became the Waccamaw Indians. Tribal names were often changed or altered, especially by the whites in their spellings, and the Waccamaw appeared first in historical records at about the same time the Waccons disappeared. The Waccamaw, then known as the Waccommassus, were located one hundred miles northeast of Charleston, South Carolina.
The earliest Europeans in the Carolinas were astounded by the linguistic diversity of what is now the Southeastern United States. Within the region now known as North Carolina, three language families were represented, as distinct from one another as Indo-European languages are from Uralic languages:
• The Hatteras, Chowan, Moratok, Pamlico, Secotan, Machapunga, and the Weapemeoc of the coastal plain spoke a variety of Algonquian languages.
• The Cherokee, Tuscarora, Coree, and Meherrin, who inhabited homelands from the coastal plain to the Appalachian Mountains, spoke a variety of Iroquoian languages.
• The Catawba, Cheraw, Cape Fear, Eno, Keyauwee, Occaneechi, Tutelo, Saponi, Shakori, Sissipahaw, Sugeree, Wateree, Waxhaw, and Waccamaw of the Cape Fear River and Piedmont regions, were related Siouan-speaking peoples.
The ancestral Siouan Woccon language of the Waccamaw Siouan Indians of North Carolina was lost due to devastating population losses and social disruption of the 18th and 19th centuries, and survives in only a handful of vocabulary items that were recorded in the early 1700s.
European contact nearly wiped out the Waccamaw. Having no natural immunity to endemic Eurasian infectious diseases, such as smallpox and measles, the Waccamaw, like many southeastern Native peoples, died by the hundreds. By the early eighteenth century, the Cheraw, a related Siouan people of the Southeastern Piedmont, tried to recruit the Waccamaw to support the Yamasee and other tribes against the English during the Yamasee War in 1715. The Waccamaw engaged in a brief war against the South Carolina colony in 1720 to stem the tide of English incursions into the Piedmont. Colonial accounts state that the English killed, or took captive numerous Waccamaw men, women and children.
The English Colonials recorded first mention the Waccamaw or Woccon Indians in 1712. During this period the South Carolina Colony attempted to persuade the Waccamaw, along with the Cape Fear Indians, to join the son of the former British colonial governor of South Carolina, Mr. James Moore, in his expedition against the Tuscarora in the Tuscarora War. In 1670 John Lederer and some thirty years later John Lawson referred to the Waccamaw in their travel narratives as an Eastern Siouan peoples. The Siouan remain, neither man visited the wetlands to which some of the Waccamaw were beginning to seek refuge from colonial incursions. The Siouan tribe or Woccon Indians that John Lawson had placed a few miles to the south of the Tuscarora in his “New Voyage to Carolina”, written in 1700. As the Woccon Indians continue to move southward they were later identified as Waccamaw in colonial records. Since differing colonial powers could only approximate the sound of the names of numerous southeastern indigenous polities, tribal names were often arbitrarily changed or altered in their spelling. In historical records at the same time Woccon disappeared Waccamaw appeared.
The region along the Waccamaw and Pee Dee River was continued to be inhabited by the Waccamaw Indians until 1718, when they relocated to the Weenee, or Black River area. In 1720, the tribe joined with fleeing families of Tuscarora, Cheraw, Keyauwee, and Hatteras Indians along Drowning Creek, now known as the Lumber River. Until 1733, families of Waccamaw Indians continued to live in the area of Drowing Creek, and some families moved and sought refuge along Lake Waccamaw and Green Swamp located in present day Columbus and Bladen counties.
By 1749 many Waccamaw, also known as the Waccommassus, were located one hundred miles northeast of Charleston, South Carolina. After the 1749, war between the Waccamaw and South Carolina Colony it was 29 years later in May 1778, provisions were made by the Council of South Carolina to render the Waccamaw protection, however; the colony didn’t keep their promise. Therefore, the Waccamaw sought refuge in the wetland region situated on the edge of Green Swamp, near Lake Waccamaw. The tribe eventually settled four miles north of Bolton, North Carolina at what is still known as the “Old Indian Trail.”
Caught in the middle of the accelerating deerskin and slave trades, the Waccamaw were forced into slavery. While George II of Great Britain ordered all plantation owners to free their Native American slaves in 1752, some slaveholders refused to do so without compensation. Slave owners simply insisted that they did not own any Native American slaves and proclaimed their Native American slaves to be Negro.
State land deeds and other colonial records substantiate the oral traditions of the Waccamaw Siouan Indians and their claim to the Green Swamp region. Given their three-century-long historical experience of European contact, the Waccamaw Siouan Indians had become highly acculturated. They depended on European-style agriculture and established claims to land through individual farmsteads.
The oral tradition of the Waccamaw Siouan Indians and their claim to the Green Swamp region has been proven to be correct thru North Carolina state land deeds and colonial records. Three century long historical experience of European contact, the Waccamaw Siouan Indians had become highly acculturated. The tribe depended on European style agriculture and established claims to land through individualized farmsteads.
In 1835, following Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, North Carolina passed laws restricting the rights and movements of free blacks. Because Native Americans were classified equally as “Free people of color,” the Waccamaw Siouan Indians and others were stripped of their political and civil rights. They could no longer vote, bear arms, or serve in the state militia. Local whites intensified harassment of the Waccamaw Siouan Indians after the ratification of North Carolina’s discriminatory state constitution.
Through much of the 19th century, Waccamaw Siouan children received no public school education. None existed in the South before the American Civil War. During Reconstruction, Republican-dominated legislatures established public schools, but legislators had to agree to racially segregated facilities to get them passed by the multi-racial coalitions. Having been free before the war, Waccamaw Siouan parents decided they did not want to enroll their children in school with the children of freedmen. The public schools had only two classifications: white and all other (black and mixed-race or “people of color”).
Late in the 19th century, the Croatan (now called Lumbee) managed to secure state recognition as Indians in North Carolina and establish a separate school. The Coharie tribes managed to build their own schools and later still, develop their own school system. The Waccamaw Siouans followed suit with the Doe Head School in 1885. The school, situated in the Buckhead Indian community, was open only sporadically. It closed in 1921, when the state sent a black teacher to the school, and the community asked the teacher to leave
The first county-supported Indian school open to Waccamaw Siouans was called the “Wide Awake School.” The school was built in 1930’s in the Buckhead community in Bladen County. Classes were taught by a Lumbee teacher, Welton Lowry. Waccamaw Siouan students who wished to attend high school among self-identified Indians went to the Coharie Indian community’s East Carolina High School in Clinton, North Carolina; the Lumbee Fairmont High School in Fairmont, Robeson County; or the Catawba Indian School in South Carolina.
The Waccamaw Siouan Indians received state recognition in 1971. They are working on documentation to gain federal recognition. Like most North Carolina Indian groups, the Waccamaw Siouan Indians have a long tradition of affiliation with other tribal nations. Kinship practices first observed in the colonial era continue through intermarriage with other tribes.
During the 20th century the Waccamaw Siouan Indians have maintained a long tradition of affiliation with other tribal nations. The Waccamaw Siouan also continues to intermarry with other tribes. Surnames found among the Waccamaw Siouan are Jacob, Young, Webb, Campbell, Freeman, Patrick, Graham, Hammond, Blanks, Hunt, Locklear, Moore, Mitchell and Strickland; and are common among the Lumbee, Coharie, and Pee Dee River as well.