Was Secotan village in Bath?|Editor’s note: This article concludes a two-part series.

Published 12:04 pm Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Staff Writer

When the English gentleman-painter John White sailed to the New World as part of a 1585 attempt at colonization, it’s unlikely he had a clue what or whom he would end up painting — or how famous his paintings would become.
Historians have noted the English voyagers with whom White sailed, lined up by Sir Walter Raleigh and commanded by Ralph Lane, had little idea what they would find once they began exploring the coastal regions of what would later be designated North Carolina.
As it turned out, the expedition of which White was a part made contact with a highly sophisticated and self-sufficient tribe of Indians, whose ways were pretty strange to the English despite strains of familiarity in the daily rituals of survival.
With his brushes, White, a skilled watercolorist, documented the inhabitants of a village known as Secotan, which was populated by the mostly coastal-dwelling Algonquian Indians.
“White was an enigma,” said Beaufort County economic developer Tom Thompson, who has studied the artist and Secotan.
“He was both a so-called gentleman (and) an artist,” Thompson said. “Most gentlemen didn’t work or do anything, and most artists were not gentlemen. So nobody knows how he got to be both.”
Long story short, according to Thompson, White’s paintings ignited huge interest in the New World, helping spur the English imagination and igniting a fervor for the colonization of North America, with its vast resources waiting to be exploited for the good of Queen Elizabeth I and her subjects.
Today, White’s iconic images are recognized the world over, and copies of his pictorial documents have places of honor in museums from England to America and beyond.
“Nothing like this was painted for almost 200 years,” Thompson said.
Celebrated as facets of the American past, some experts believe White’s paintings could hold the key to Beaufort County’s economic future.
In fact, a growing number of local officials, historians and archaeologists contend the Secotan village was located in the Bath area, perhaps on the plot of land known today as Beasley Point, on Bath Creek.
The land is owned by PotashCorp, which has a phosphate-mining operation across the Pamlico River near Aurora.
Among the credulous is Kevin Duffus, an author, filmmaker and historian who was pivotal in prying the uprooted remains of Edward Salter from the state with an eye toward bringing those remains back to rest in Beaufort County.
Salter, a wealthy merchant who was thought to have been a member of the pirate Blackbeard’s crew, owned a plantation along the point, and the earth there is still being tilled for agricultural purposes hundreds of years after Secotan vanished.
“The various diaries … that were kept during the 1585 expedition described the visit to the village in mid-July and described the distance that they traveled — I think it was on four small sailing vessels — to reach Secotan,” Duffus said of the explorers White had joined.
The Bath Creek area fits the distance fairly closely, he added, noting that other factors point to Beasley Point for the best possible placement of Secotan.
“This site is very important because it could be connected to a series of watercolors that depict Indian life before Europeans arrived,” Duffus said. “That’s a distinction that can’t be claimed by Jamestown (Va.) or Plymouth, Mass., or anywhere else that I know of.”
According to Duffus, two people drew maps of Secotan on the 1585 expedition. One of those cartographers was the aforementioned Ralph Lane, a soldier and courtier; the other was White.
White noted the presence of two Indian villages: one on the south side of the Pamlico River and the other on the north side in the vicinity of Bath Creek.
Some archaeologists have suggested the villagers wintered at one camp and spent the summer fishing and farming at the other, Duffus related.
A sketch map in the British archives seems to place Secotan on the north side of the Pamlico at Beasley Point, probably the Indians’ summer camp, Duffus said.
Charles Ewen, an anthropology professor at East Carolina University, walked around the Beasley Point site for about an hour around four years ago.
Ewen said his interest was “chiefly in the colonial component of the site,” and that he wasn’t aware the point was a Secotan candidate.
Ewen said “a fair amount of work will need to be done to make a connection with a specific historic village.”
“It is not the only recorded late prehistoric site in the area and the John White map only gives a rough idea of where the village may be,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Daily News. “Also, our sense of what the village might look like is largely based on White’s paintings, which may be problematic (i.e. Was he painting a portrait of a village or trying to convey in a small space all the elements that he had observed?).”
Duffus acknowledges his observations are speculative.
“No one’s going to dig up a street sign that says this was Secotan,” he said.
But he also points to the fact that over the past 50 years numerous archaeologists have investigated the area looking for Secotan.
Duffus supplied a lineage of these investigations dating to 1954. This time line suggests that a number of other candidate sites in the region have been eliminated by previous study and investigation, because of an absence of artifacts or encroachment by the river.
“Almost all of them have concluded that it was somewhere on Bath Creek,” Duffus said of the investigators. “It’s the prodigious amount of artifacts that that one site (Beasley Point) has produced that suggests that this could have been a major native American village.”
State weighs in
The concentration of artifacts at Beasley Point was referred to in a March 1987 archeological survey prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by MAAR Associates of Newark, Del.
The report was part of a government clearance process preceding the issuance of permits to bulkhead the land, preventing further encroachment by the creek.
It’s believed that some artifacts washed out with the tide before the bulkhead was installed, and Thompson said part of the village that was at the point might be at the bottom of the creek.
The survey documents were “prepared under the supervision” of Ronald Thomas, principal investigator, and Ted Payne and Bruce Dahlin, research associates.
Attempts to locate Thomas were not immediately successful last week.
The report refers to a “sizable team” that did field work documenting artifacts uncovered at the point.
“These efforts have concluded that the material culture resources due to both prehistoric Late Woodland occupation and 18th and early 19th century historic period occupation are valuable sources of information, not to be hastily compromised,” reads the report’s foreward.
In a summary, the report’s authors wrote that their investigation “resulted in the conclusion that the cultural resources of this site are culturally significant and that the site has the potential to be declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The recommendation of significance and nomination potential applies to both the prehistoric (Indian) and historic components.”
In a June 22 letter to William Doyle, president and CEO of PotashCorp, and Tom Regan, president of PCS Phosphate and PCS Nitrogen, Thompson hints the site could be eligible for recognition by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The land could become one of a relative handful of places to be granted UNESCO World Heritage designation in the United States, Thompson wrote.
Asked whether there is evidence the site in question could be Secotan, State Archaeologist Steve Claggett offered a careful assessment.
“Some,” he said of the evidence.
Claggett added, “This one site is a candidate, but it’s not the only one.”
The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources has a limited collection of materials taken from the Beasley Point area, he said. The materials were gathered for the state by a contractor working with the Army Corps of Engineers, according to Claggett.
The artifacts may range from tiny bits of pottery to brick fragments, he said.
“We have not fully inventoried or actually reinventoried all the materials that were collected by that contractor,” he said.
Nothing on hand eliminates the site as a contender for Secotan, “but there’s not much evidence either way,” Claggett said.
Claggett contends it isn’t unusual to find a large concentration of artifacts at one spot, and added he wouldn’t be surprised to see tens of thousands of items if the place were excavated extensively.
“Three thousand artifacts sounds like a lot,” he said. “It’s not. There hasn’t been a lot of excavation on that site.”
Further excavation could clear up some questions about the land, he agreed.
“It all has to be done very carefully, of course,” Claggett said.
What should happen?
The Beaufort County Economic Development Commission and its partners are awaiting PotashCorp’s response to letters from Thompson and Jerry Langley, chairman of the Beaufort County commissioners.
In essence, the letters ask for the company’s cooperation for further investigation of the Beasley Point site.
As for the corporation, “They’re being very cooperative in giving the request fair consideration,” said Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill.
For Thompson, who has been struggling to rebuild the local economy, answers can’t come soon enough.
These days, archaeology equates with tourism, he said, adding the would-be Secotan site could be a boon without equal.
“We’ve done about everything we can do,” Thompson said. “We’re not going to get Dell computers here.”
Given that reality, tourism could be the most powerful weapon left in the county’s arsenal as it fights the further encroachment of joblessness.
“This is a huge resource for Beaufort County,” Thompson concluded.