Neoheroka Fort (31GR4) is located in the Contentnea Creek watershed in Greene County. It is one of at least four fortifications constructed by the Lower Tuscaroras during the Tuscarora War. From a combination of historical and archaeological evidence, the fort was probably constructed in the fall or winter of 1712. The final battle for Neoheroka Fort in 1713 was effectively the end of resistance by the Lower Tuscaroras and their coastal Algonkian allies.
History of Excavations
Neoheroka Fort was excavated by David S. Phelps and John E. Byrd of Eastern Carolina University through field schools run from 1990 through 1997. The fort itself was looted and razed to the ground in March of 1713. Over the years, the area became forest, which was later clear-cut and used as agricultural fields. Plowing occurred for over 80 years, which more recently included deep, mechanized plowing that not only turned over large amounts of soil but contributed to surface erosion. Until the deep plowing was stopped in the early 1990s, it is estimated that between 1713 and the early 1990s, about a meter of soil was lost from the surface of the site.
How Do We Understand the Design of Neoheroka Fort?
Neoheroka Fort was built in an area that was centrally accessible for community members and easy to defend as a result of natural terrain features. Its close proximity to Fort Run, a tributary stream of the Contentnea Creek, allowed the Tuscarora to include a trench at the rear of the palisade that provided access to water during sieges. The adjacent stream and swampy floodplain also created a rear defense for the fortification, providing a natural kill-zone where any attacking troops attempting a rear attack would become bogged down.
Based on the archaeology, it appears that the fort was about 46 x 46 meters in size, with squarish bastions on the corners. The fort itself was asymmetrical, with a number of irregular defensive projections and entryways that were built along a curved, front curtain wall. Construction of the fort would have been done with a ditch-set or trench method. This was very different from prehistoric palisade construction, which involved widely spaced, individually set posts. The posts at Neoheroka Fort were made from pine, stripped of branches and likely of their bark as well. The tops of the posts would have been sharpened at the top. At some points along the palisade line there were also deep, individual postmolds, indicating placement of posts at key points along the long sections of walls.
One of the most interesting aspects of Neoheroka Fort is its design. It seems to represent both a prehistoric cultural understanding, as well as adaptation to the hostility of European contact. The fort was constructed with Cashi I phase (A.D. 800-1650) palisade architecture, with defense elements added that drew from colonial European fortifications that Tuscarora hunters and traders saw during their treks through eastern Virginia and the Carolinas. Additional elements included semi-subteranean house-bunkers likely used as defensive shelters during times of siege and battle. They were probably added to the fort in response to Colonel Barnwells use of artillery and explosive grenade against the Catchna Fort in 1712. Each bunker has its own shape, so it appears that individual household groups constructed each bunker to their own specifications, with the size varying by the number of people in each household. At least four bunkers were connected by underground trenches, although it is not clear if this was another defense mechanism, or if it is related to people’s kin connections.
Most of the bunkers were accessed by ramps, although three do not have any archaeological evidence for ramps and may have been accessed by ladders from the roofs. At least two bunkers had hearths and the archaeologists think it likely that all of the bunkers had at least rudimentary hearths, based on accounts of a severe snowstorm during early March of 1713. The bunkers also incorporated storage pits, filled with foods like maize, beans, and peaches. Those bunkers that did not have storage pits still had plenty of stocks that were kept on the floor. Most of the bunker-houses had roofs that rested directly on the original ground surface, with beams that were covered with at least one layer of reed matting and a deposit of pine bark. With that done, the roof was then covered with sandy clay that had been dug out during construction of the bunkers. During the excavations, balls and shot were found smashed and embedded in the walls and floors of the houses, indicating the original orientation of the entryways. The people who retreated down into the bunkers were killed by Colonel Moore’s men with grenades and musket balls. These unique bunkers built by the Tuscarora at Neoheroka Fort not only recorded the lives of the people living at the fort, but represent the last stand of the Lower Tuscarora.
Heath, Charles L. and David S. Phelps
1998 • Architecture of a Tuscarora Fortress: The Neoheroka Fort and the Tuscarora War (1711-1715). Paper presented at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), Seattle, Washington.
Ward, Trawick H., and R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr.
1998 • Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.