Archaeologists believe the Algonquians migrated from northern regions into northeastern North Carolina around 10,000 years ago and established small settlements in the coastal plain centered around the Albemarle Sound and Pamlico River. They were a farming people who navigated the sounds and rivers in fire-hollowed canoes. At the time of the first contact of Europeans with the Indians, the Algonquian tribes occupied the tidewater areas of the Atlantic Coast extending from Canada to as far south as the Neuse River in North Carolina.
By 1584, the estimated
7,000 Algonquians living in North Carolina were relative newcomers to the
Southeast. To some extent, they retained cultural elements from their Northeastern Algonquian traditions, but there was also a great deal of cultural borrowing from their southern neighbors as they adapted to the geographical and climatic conditions of the area.
The Algonquian tribes lived in villages of about ten to thirty houses. Some villages were palisaded, and some were clusters of houses surrounded by open fields. The houses were rectangular, between 36 and 48 feet long, with barrel roofs, which early explorers likened to English arbor. The basic frame was formed by saplings lashed together and covered by bark or reeds.
Corn was their primary crop, although they also grew pumpkin, beans, and, of course, tobacco. Fishing and shell fishing were of major importance, and remnants of their fishings camps can still be discerned from huge piles of oyster shells. Hunting with bow and arrow was also a major source of food for the Algonquians. Their religion was based on a large number of spirits and gods, many of them found in the forces of nature. They erected anthromorphic idols to represent their gods and believed in an afterlife for all.
In a massive Iroquois migration from what is now New York around 1100, the Tuscarora forced their way into the region occupied by the Algonquian tribes and established control of the southern and western reaches of the Historic Albemarle region, forcing the Algonquian tribes closer to the coast. Although relations between the fierce Tuscarora and their Algonquian neighbors were contentious, the tribes generally managed to co-exist peacefully, establishing cultures and settlements that were flourishing when the first Europeans arrived in 1584.