Monday, February 22, 2016

Short Stories: The Pocosin

The year was 1711 and the young, grey-eyed Quin was feeling troubled. His life had been good as he was a highly respected Tuscarora brave, whose mother - a member of the Wolf Clan - had selected well her husband - who, in turn, had become a chief of the Tuscarora. A matriarchal tribe, the Tuscarora tradition was that no one owned the land, but the women were the stewards of it. They grew the food - mainly the “3 Sisters” - maize, beans and squash - while the men hunted and fished. Called ‘The Hemp Gatherers’, this tribe greatly valued the hemp fibers which were used to make thread, string, rope, nets, and cloth. They did not waste the edible seeds, or even the leaves, instead combining them with tobacco to smoke and thereby communicate prayers to the Great Spirit during Festivals and other times of import.

Life in eastern North Carolina was relatively easy, especially compared to the northern climes from which the Tuscarora had come centuries before. Then, they had belonged to the Algonquin tribes, whose traditions and language they continued to use. Eventually, many Tuscarora would rejoin the Five Iroquois Nations, and become recognized as the Sixth Nation.

But, now, their peaceful existence was being severely threatened by the impact of lawless European settlers, who were coming in increasing numbers and were not proving to be very good neighbors. These newcomers were encroaching upon and claiming land the Tuscarora depended upon. In their haste for quick wealth, they indiscriminately over-harvested turpentine, tar and timber to export as naval stores, and cleared forests to plant tobacco and cotton, quickly depleting the soil. They also brought disease for which the Tuscarora had no resistance, and alcohol, soon to be the bane of the indigenous people. Worse, indians were being raped, sold into slavery, tortured and killed by the newcomers. With their traditions and lifestyles under attack, the normally kind and peaceful Tuscarora were being sorely tested, especially Quin.

Just a few years earlier, Quin had readily agreed to accompany and guide John Lawson on a survey of the Eastern Carolinas, after which Lawson published a book that attracted more settlers. Proof of that came quickly, when Lawson brought ‘Baron’ Christoph von Graffenried and 800 new settlers from Germany and Switzerland to establish a new town - New Bern - at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent Rivers, where they form an estuary of Pamlico Sound. That location was an ideal one, but with the major flaw that it was already occupied by the Tuscarora!

For centuries, the tribe had considered the New Bern site and its surrounds as the seat of their homeland, situated as it was close to the rivers along which they lived; the Neuse, Cape Fear, Tar and Roanoke. Their very lifeblood depended upon these streams and their rich, growing, hunting and fishing areas. Both Quin and his father, Chief Hancock, took this latest crass action by land speculators as a direct affront, tantamount to a declaration of war! But, for the moment, they kept quiet and waited until a plan could be conceived and approved by the two councils of elders, male and female, with the latter having the final say.

After all, Lawson, himself, had admitted the Tuscarora were “really better to us than we have been to them, as they always freely give us of their victuals at their quarters, while we let them walk by our doors hungry, and do not often relieve them. We look upon them with disdain and scorn, and think them little better than beasts in human form; while with all our religion and education, we possess more moral deformities and vices than these people do.” 

Quin’s mother, Logan, knew that he could never become the next chief, so she reluctantly approved an important different role for him. First, she met with her peer sisters at the Village of the Clan Mothers, received their wise counsel and then quietly informed her son Quin of what he must do. He was to guide his father, Chief Hancock, to meet with Lawson, then capture him and bring him to a secret place to administer the justice meant to save the tribe from further settler encroachment - and the Tuscarora’s last resort - war!

The place Quin selected was designed to lure Lawson to come willingly, for it was a prime hunting spot in a nearby pocosin; literally, a swamp on a hill. Elliptical in shape and surrounded by a sandy rim, pocosins trapped only rainwater, were acidic and relatively nutrient poor, making them suitable mainly for evergreen plants like loblolly pine, holly, bay, pond pine and briars, plus the venus flytrap. They supported many species of reptiles, amphibians and rodents as well as black bears, bats, white-tail deer, opossums, raccoons, muskrats and bob-white quail, plus insects, including mosquitos. When they dried out, pocosin peat fires could burn for days.

Lawson quickly accepted Quin’s invitation, but decided to bring along two companions, von Graffenried, himself, and a black servant. This was an unexpected complication that Quin - and his concealed father - resolved as soon the party gained access to the pocosin’s interior. First, they subdued their three captives, tied them with hemp rope to facing trees, serving to frighten them severely. Then, as the others watched, Quin retrieved a large hemp net in which he had trapped a giant cotton-mouth moccasin, which had become quite agitated. Slowly, he released the snake on the ground between the terrified Lawson’s legs and watched as the reptile repeatedly struck him with open fangs. Lawson’s death would be certain, but painful and slow, a death befitting someone who had abused the Tuscarora so terribly. Then, Quin left and swiftly made his way north, leaving his captives with his father, Chief Hancock.

Quin would never return, but would open the way for other Tuscarora to follow. He left on August 18, 1711, exactly 124 years after the birth of Virginia Dare, the first white child born in the American Colonies.