I AM NO EXPERT on Algonquian peoples or languages, but when it comes to Carolina Algonquians, there are a few basic ideas that are important to understand, and which help to explain later migrations between Indian communities.
The first is that Algonquian peoples migrated southward, out of Canada, along the coast. According to the archaeological record, the southernmost extent of Algonquian settlement was around the White Oak River in North Carolina. By the time of John Lawson’s journey in 1709, it had retreated somewhat to an island in the Pamlico River. “Indian Island” still exists.
Lawson also recorded a vocabulary for these “Pampticough” Indians that is similar to the vocabularies recorded for Virginia Algonquians. Some linguists have determined that the Algonquians who lived below the Indian River in Delaware spoke a variety of Algonquian that was more similar to the languages spoken in New England and Canada than it was to Lenape, immediately adjacent to the north. The Lenape represented a later influx of Algonquians from the west, which displaced this original group extending down the coast. However, the coastal people, from Canada to North Carolina, retained the same name for themselves — Wabanaki, Wôpanâak, Weapemeoc — “People of the First Light,” or “People of the Dawn Land.”
As such, the peoples extending south from Canada, through New England and Eastern Long Island, and then continued from northern Virginia and southern Delaware along the coast to the southern extent of modern-day North Carolina, were one group of people with a common name. Different nations, largely based and named by Europeans according to geography, at times comprised confederacies. It is worth mentioning here that the Chowanoke, or “Chawanook,” as they were rendered by the first European map makers, may have been a satellite of the semi-migratory Shawnee people.
In the early 17th century, Shawnee were found not only in the Ohio Valley, but just west of the Delaware River, and as far south as the Savannah River. It seems entirely plausible that the Indians who were living on the Chowan River were another group of migratory Shawnee. The names recorded for the “Chawanook” and “Suwanees” are almost identical. At the same time, it could just be another case of a common Algonquian word for “South” (Chuwon) being applied to disparate groups of people.
Another interesting detail is that according to the Weapemeoc, they gave the Chowanoke the land upon which they settled. The two groups were related. The Durant surname is listed on several of the early Yeopim deeds, while the Robbins name appears of the Chowan Indian deeds. In 1736, an Indian named “Thomas Durin” sued his fellow tribe member “John Robins” for a debt. The names John and Thomas Hoyter are recorded as Chowan Indian leaders in the 18th century. By the end of the century, though, they are found among the Yeopim in Camden and Currituck counties.
The Algonquians relied on a mix of fishing, hunting, gathering, and agriculture to survive, and the extent of their settlement was largely related to the coastal environment they inhabited. They too were semi-migratory and lived in seasonal villages. I am currently looking into the idea that the “Poteskeit” Indians recorded by Lawson as living in Currituck might have been a seasonal village of the “Pochayick” or “Pochick” band of traditional Nansemond, whom he does not name as being in North Carolina at this time. The relationship between these sites may explain why the same families are found in Norfolk and Currituck as are found near the old Nansemond and Meherrin towns in Hertford County. “Poteskeit” could have been one of their seasonal village sites.
The sounds and rivers of the Inner Banks represented a network that connected Algonquian settlements, rather than a barrier that separated different peoples. This is helpful to know when one is considering how Algonquians from the Eastern Shore migrated to the Norfolk-Currituck area. If one considers them to have been a single people, connected by water, then their migration up and down the coast makes sense.
Sometime after the failed Roanoke Colony left behind devastation among the Coastal Algonquians, the Tuscarora gained political control of the region. Hugo Leaming in Hidden Americans (1979) for instance refers to the Yeopim as a nation of the Tuscarora Confederacy. That does not mean that the Tuscarora completely replaced the populations of the towns, but rather the coastal peoples deferred to the will of their stronger neighbor in most political matters. It was not unusual for weaker, coastal Algonquian nations to ally with their stronger Iroquoian neighbors. This may explain why some families from the Norfolk-Currituck area later joined the Tuscarora at Indian Woods.