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Nicki Cagle stands above a path leading to what archaeologists believe may have been the site of the settlement of Adshusheer.
Nicki Cagle stands above a path leading to what archaeologists believe may have been the site of the settlement of Adshusheer. Photo by Chris Hildreth

Retracing Their Steps

Native American settlement Adshusheer, described by an early 18th century explorer, may have been in Duke Forest

Editor’s Note: In DukeMag’s original presentation of this story, some readers may have felt the story sensationalized the archaeologists’ work and implied they were seeking grave sites; they were not. To clarify, archaeologists and others doing research in Duke Forest are interested in historical Indigenous lifeways and would not disturb Indigenous graves encountered during their work. The Forest and the archaeologists cited follow professional guidelines in their work and regularly seek the guidance of representatives of the Indigenous communities mentioned. We hope this updated version of the story, produced with their input, provides a clearer picture of the work being done.”

Sara Childs, director of the Duke Forest, is standing on a trail along the New Hope Creek in the Forest. She and Steve Davis, a professor emeritus of archaeology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are looking at a “Hillsboro (North Carolina) Recorder” newspaper account from 1870 that describes a hanging rock “that juts two-thirds over the creek.” This geologic formation may be the key to locating the remains of an Indigenous village that has yet to be identified archaeologically.  Childs and Davis point to candidate rocky outcrops with various working theories, but so far there are no definitive answers.

Steve Davis and Sara Childs near the site.
Steve Davis and Sara Childs near the site.

Sometimes doing without definitive answers is part of the job for environmental managers like Childs, archaeologists like Davis, and other askers of important questions. Those include Nicholas School professor of soils and forest ecology Dan Richter. He came to the forest along with a few others to learn about the work by Davis and Heather Lapham, associate director of the Research Laboratories of Archeology at UNC-Chapel Hill, to explore the cultural past and attempt to triangulate the possible location of the Native American settlement of Adshusheer. Mentioned in John Lawson’s “A New Voyage to Carolina,” published in 1709, and showing up in no other historical record, Adshusheer has long been a mystery for people interested in Indigenous history in the early colonial era.

And from what the team is finding, it seems Adshusheer may have lain in what is now Duke Forest.

“People have been looking for this site for a long time in order to connect with the past.”

Nicki Cagle

Lawson walked through the forest during the period Davis calls “coalescent.” Tribes had been devastated by the disease, alcohol, dispossession and slavery that came with colonialism, so “seeking refuge and protection in larger groups,” Davis says, they coalesced into new groupings. Adshusheer, named for its own tribe, had incorporated people from the Shakori and Enoe tribes. “It seems to be a very early example of coalescence,” Davis says. Thirty years earlier, explorers in the Carolinas had described those tribes living separately. By Lawson’s time they had come together. They eventually joined the Catawba nation, setting an example eventually followed by the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, finding strength by embracing fragments of other tribes.

The research group hikes along the creek, and Davis stops at a bend in the river across from a large outcropping. “The whole thing I think is referring to this, in terms of the hanging rock,” he says. “The hanging rock hanging over the water, and then the hollow rock right above.” They consult photocopies, elevation maps, old surveys. He follows, pointing away from the creek, “And that’s where we excavated, right over here.”

In his office, months earlier, digging his way through a career’s worth of files in preparation for retirement, Davis uncovered the 1870 newspaper story the team is using. It was originally provided to him by Forest Hazel, historian for the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. Rereading it reminded him of his decades-long hunch that the mysterious settlement had likely lain within the bounds of Duke’s teaching and research forest. So, for the last summer field school with Davis as associate director of the UNC Research Laboratories of Archaeology, the professors and students geared up to track history close to home.

Like Richter, other Duke faculty expressed early interest in UNC’s project. Nicki Cagle, senior lecturer in environmental science and policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment, began researching on her own and found additional supporting news articles. Every historical reference creates new nodes to investigate in a landscape that has changed dramatically since 1709. Successive floods and extractive farming have dispersed soil and cultural objects over a vast area, contributing to the difficulty in locating anything with certainty. The most promising clue, however, is the description of the 1870 flood event in “The People’s Press” of Greensboro, where the overflowing creek “played the deuce with the crops and the bridges, and beside has unearthed a bend of that country on which was once established an Indian town.” The article even mentions European-manufactured glass beads, indicating to the archaeologists that a colonial-era Native American settlement was likely in the vicinity.

Davis and Lapham throughout the digging season showed several groups the shovel test pits and larger excavations their crew had created to seek evidence. And they did find evidence: Native-made pottery sherds of the early colonial era and a piece of a pipe bowl with a distinct design common then. But so far, they have found no glass trade beads that would increase their confidence in connecting the site to Adshusheer.

The cultural history of Duke Forest always interests a broad swath of researchers (a recent Story+ project, “Unearthing Duke Forest,” looked into the human history surrounding a nearby dam). “One of the things that really strikes me is the striving,” says Cagle. “People have been looking for this site for a long time in order to connect with the past,” and now maybe they’ve found it. But following the evidence and stating anything with certitude will take meticulous work from the archaeologists. For now, Cagle admires the history that can be traced in the walls of the larger excavation sites. Revealed in layers the topsoil, gravel, and clay is direct evidence of past flood events, agriculture, and even the surface where Indigenous people once walked. “As an ecologist, I like seeing that the landscape has gone through thousands of years of change at the hands of the people. For me that became very real.”

“[Humans] have been everywhere,” she says. “We are part of nature.”

As for finding Adshusheer with certainty? That mystery will keep Duke and Carolina scientists working together for years.