Abraham Wood’s letter to John Richards, written from Fort Henry, Virginia on August 22, 1674, recounts the travels of Gabriel Arthur and James Needham in 1673 and 1674. The letter is unique in its thorough documentation of the ways of life of Native American tribes and peoples of western North Carolina in the mid-1600s, including information about their food acquisition, storage, and consumption. Needham and Arthur’s expeditions through the piedmont sought to establish trade, primarily of furs, with the Cherokee (referred to as Tomahittans in text.)1 While the details of the travelers’ expeditions are intricate and at times confusing, Wood’s inclusion of information on the travelers’ food provisions, and the food of the peoples they encountered, provides a rare road map of the food culture of what eventually became Orange County, with references to present-day Eno and Yadkin (referred to in text as Aeno and Yattkin, respectively.)2
Wood describes a Tomahittan town on the edge of an unspecified river in which the locals have a “store of fish… stockfish cured after that manner.”3 Another, unnamed settlement of white people down the river have “oysters and many other shellfish, many swine, and cattle”4 which suggests that the different peoples who lived along the river depended on and had specific methods of fishing, harvesting, and preserving food from the river, as well as raising livestock.
A third, also unidentified group of people who lived near the Monetons (who presumably shared the Siouan-Catawban language with other peoples in the area) captured Arthur and, upon realizing he was white, sent him back on the path to the Tomahittans, giving him rockahomony—a type of parched corn—for provisions on his travels.5 Reunited with the Tomahittans, Arthur “killed many swine, sturgeon, and beavers and barbecued them”6 suggesting that the peoples of the area had many ways to prepare and consume game as well as livestock. Arthur eventually found himself running from the Occhonechees, a hostile people, subsisting on huckleberries, “which the woods were full of at the time,”7 sometime at the end of May or beginning of June.
While Wood’s secondhand account of Arthur and Needham’s travels includes mentions of food as an afterthought, its snapshot details of the natives’ food procuring, preparation, and consumption can be used to establish a rudimentary history of the lives of pre-colonial and early colonial North Carolinians and the strong influence of trade as a cause for interconnectedness.
– Patty Matos
1. Wood, Abraham. 1674. “The Journeys of James Needham and Gabriel Arthur in 1673 and 1674 Through the Piedmont and Mountains of North Carolina to Establish Trade With the Cherokee.” Edited by R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr. Research Laboratories of Archaeology. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2001. http://rla.unc.edu/Archives/accounts/Needham/NeedhamEdited.pdf.
2. Wood, 5.
3. Wood, 3.
5. Wood, 8.
6. Wood, 9.
7. Wood, 10.