IN REVISITING the 1901 word list of William Weaver, I came to the same conclusion that many scholars have before me. The Algonquian vocabulary of the indigenous people living between the James River in Virginia and North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound is similar to Cree and Atikamekw, First Nations languages from Canada.
These people migrated south out of what we now call Canada along the coast. They farmed and fished along inlets, rivers, and sounds, and their way of life was dependent on maritime subsistence. Because of that, they did not expand west from the coast line. The indigenous people living this far south probably retained the language of their origin while the languages of those living in between perhaps evolved over time.
This is not unusual. In Europe, we find linguistic minorities like this all over, where the descendants of early waves of migration retain the archaic manner of speech. One might look to Iceland, where the people can still read the old Norse sagas, while the languages of the Swedes and Norwegians diverged greatly from Old Norse. Or the Albanian villages of Sicily and Calabria, where they retain the archaic language spoken by the Albanians in the Middle Ages. One might wager that the languages of the people of Virginia and North Carolina were similar.
They were also neighbors to a significantly large population of Iroquoian speakers to their immediate west. The Tuscarora people were many times greater than the coastal Algonquian communities, and by the time of the European arrival had political control over the region. Due to trade and no doubt familial links, the coastal Algonquians were probably well versed in Tuscarora language and culture. They might have related to the Iroquoians as those Albanians related to neighboring Italian villages, or coastal Swedes related to the Finns surrounding them on the Baltic coasts.
Especially after the English established a base at Jamestown, the Algonquians in these areas must have become heavily dependent on their western neighbors. While culturally and linguistically they had a different origin, they were surrounded by this larger political entity called the Tuscarora. When Fisher, a Poteskeet Indian, was sent to negotiate with the Core Indians on the Outer Banks during the Tuscarora War, he probably spoke to them in Tuscarora. It was the language of local politics and business.
This perhaps explains the fate of the Algonquian communities on the coast following colonization and perhaps even before. While closely related to each other in Algonquian language and customs, they were also part of a greater Iroquoian world that included Tuscarora and even Seneca influence. They were the furthest point south of Algonquian settlement and represented in a way a cultural isolate, like the Breton fishermen of northwest France, who still spoke the old Celtic language, while being versed in French.
Some more thoughts
The fact that an old man was able to provide a few words in a language similar to Cree as late as 1901, however, discredits two other theories though. The first is that Algonquian culture, and language with it, was shattered by colonization. Paul Heinegg writes in his introduction to Free African Americans that, “Free Indians blended into the free African American communities. They did not form their own separate communities.”
However, in viewing the evidence, it seems more accurate to say that in some cases, Europeans, Africans, East Indians and others blended into free Indian communities. These communities were sustained by a land base and a custom of matrilineal descent. Because of this, the focus on surnames, often passed on from father to children, misses part of the story. It is true, though, that authorities used their mixed ancestry to discredit their land claims. One can look to the Chowanoke and Pamunkey cases as evidence.
The second is one posited by some that following contact, the coastal Algonquians underwent a civilizational collapse and were replaced in part by the Iroquoian Tuscarora. Leaming, in his widely quoted Hidden Americans, refers to the Yeopim as a “client nation” of the Tuscarora, for instance. And yet in the 1700s, Lawson collected a vocabulary from Pampticough living at Indian Island in the Pamlico River that showed the people there spoke a language similar to the languages spoken immediately north. Algonquian culture and language were therefore not completely overthrown.
Population loss created a power vacuum that elevated Tuscarora political control. But political deference and cultural and linguistic affinity are two different things.