What’s in a Name? – The Tuscarora in Transition

As we know, most of the Tuscarora tribe went north to join the Iroquois Confederation, the last of them leaving Bertie County, North Carolina in 1804 in an exodus that took almost a century to complete. 

At the close of the Tuscarora War in 1713, many of the Tuscarora began to migrate northward and settle among the 5 Nations, becoming the 6th Nation.  They are the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga and Tuscarora.  The Tuscarora were distantly related to the Iroquois tribe and were accepted back into the Confederation.

While the NC group signed a treaty in 1718 which resulted in the Indian Woods Reservation being laid out for them in 1722 in Bertie County, others moved northward.  In 1722 the 5 Nations accepted the Tuscarora as the 6th Nation.  The Bertie County group began to dwindle.  In 1722 there were 300 fighting men in Bertie County, meaning about 1500 people, assuming each fighting man represents 5 people in total.  In 1731, 200 fighting men, with about 1000 people.  In 1755 100 fighting men with a total recorded population of 301 people, so by this time, each fighting man only represented 3 people.  We don’t know if they counted children. 

In 1752 Moravian missionaries visited the reservation and they noted that “many had gone north to live on the Susquehanna” and that “others are scattered as the wind scatters smoke.”

In 1755, 104 people were left, and more continued to leave in the 1760s.  A series of deeds selling their land were signed as the last large group left in 1766 after selling the majority of their land in North Carolina. 

In 1802 the Tuscarora negotiated a treaty with the State of NC in which their lands would be held for them for 150 years and leased.  The treaty was never ratified. In 1804, the Northern Tuscarora returned for the rest of the Tuscarora remaining in North Carolina, leaving behind only “10 to 20 old families.”  Finally, in 1831, from New York, the Tuscarora Chiefs transferred what was left of the Indian Woods land to the State of North Carolina.

Most of the Tuscarora tribe relocated to New York.  Some stayed, and some assimilated, losing their separate cultural identity. 

We can track the tribe in New York through a series of documents.

The Tuscarora along with the rest of the Iroquoian tribal members served in the War of 1812.  They were in the midst of the battles, many of which occurred in their homelands. 

The War of 1812 roster, of sorts, is available at this link for the 3 Seneca Nations reservations, the Onondaga Nation, the Oneida and the Tuscarora.


These lists, aside from holding a great deal of genealogical information shows us something else very exciting.

This is a snapshot of a group of Native people whose surnames are in a state of transition from Native names to Europeanized names.

Of these groups, we find the following information:

Tribe/Reservation Total Unique Surnames Native Names English Names Transitional Names
Seneca – Allegheny 84 58 20 (34%) 27 (47%) 11 (20%)
Seneca – Cattaraugus 215 112 10 (9%) 44 (39%) 58 (52%)
Seneca – Cornplanter’s 112 103 10 (10%) 50 (45%) 43 (42)
Onondaga 83 52 1 (2%) 21 (40%) 30 (58%)
Oneida 11 7 0 4 (57%) 3 (43%)
Tuscarora 17 14 0 9 (64%) 5 (36%)

In the native tribes, every person had a unique name given to them in special ceremonies.  They did not have the problem of eleven men named John living in the tribe or the village, so they didn’t have a need for surnames to differentiate between people.

However, as they came into contact increasingly with Europeans and had to deal with and eventually live within the European legal and social systems, they adopted or were given Anglicized names.  How that happened is a fascinating process.  Today, with DNA testing, it’s very likely that tribal members with different surnames would match each other, indicating that they share a common ancestor.  Conversely, people with the same surname may not match.  In this case, that might not represent an undocumented adoption, but matrilineal naming practices or simply that two families adopted or otherwise obtained the same surname.

Surnames were often, but not always, adopted from white families or men with whom the Native people had established a relationship.  Some relationship were familial, but others were simply that of business or trade relationships, or that of neighbors and friends.  Other tribes who perhaps experienced less assimilation pressure may have intermingled with the Europeans less, and therefore adopted surnames in other ways.  We see some evidence of this on these lists of War of 1812 veterans.  Each of these men were born in the 1700s, probably between about 1762 and 1792.  These people spoke their Native language and lived on reservations among their own tribal members.  It is certain that they would have all had a Native name and it’s also clear that some of them had English names as well.  In some instances, it appears that their Native name, or perhaps the Native name of one of their family members or ancestors has been translated literally to English.

In the table above, Native names mean names like Ga-nih-sa-wak-koh which is unquestionably Native and in the Native language.  English names are those like Jacob Blacksmith.  Without knowing this person was Native, you’d have no clue from the name.  Transitional names are those like Old Crow where Crow is very likely becoming a surname. 

These names are often very interesting.  On the Allegheny reservation, we have Captain Bone, Bucktooth, Old Crow, Dodge Fatty (yes, really), Green Coat, Old Hutchinson, Long John, Daniel Killbuck, Sky Pierce, Amos and Brooks Red Eye, Old Sunfish, Chaw Tobacco, Young Logan and Two Canoes.  The genesis of some of these is obvious, such as Green Coat and Two Canoes, although I have to wonder why Two Canoes and not Three Canoes, etc.  But others are open to speculation. I think my favorite is Dodge Fatty.  This name probably did not have the context then that it has now, but it’s surely amusing to ponder. 

On the Cattaraugus Reservation, they had about twice as many veterans as Cornplanter’s Reservation and three times as many as Allegheny, yet they had many fewer people file claims with strictly native names. 

Their transitional names are interesting as well.  There were some that I had trouble determining whether were Native or on the way to becoming a surname.  They were not written with the traditional hyphenation of Native names, such as Wa-na-das.  These were Artoah, Canasawah, Harnyawns and Secoit.  See Cod may be the same as Secoit.  Transitional names included Thomas Beaver, Big Chief, George Big Deer, Little Billy, Blue Eyes and John Blue Eyes.  This may be an example of a surname taking shape.  Blue Eyes may be the original person with a Native name, translated literally into English, with John being his son or perhaps a sister’s son through matrilineal naming. 

Skye and Blue Sky were very common as well.  Then we have John Bone, John Bucktooth, perhaps related to Bucktooth on the Allegheny Reservation, and Young Chicken.  Clumpfoot causes me to wonder if this was a person with a club foot.  We have James Cornplanter, and on Cornplanter’s Reservation, we find Cornplanter himself.  Chief Delaware is also listed, along with Old Dennis and Destroytown.  I do wonder how that name came to be.  I see visions of a glorious warrior who destroyed an enemy’s town.  However, it could also have been that he got drunk and destroyed his own town.  That certainly would never be forgotten.

We have Captain Fishhook, Little Fool, Tom Foot, Green Blankett, three Halftown men and two Halfwhite men.  The Halfwhite surname is probably obvious, but Halftown?  Joe Hemlock may have been named for the Hemlock plant, which causes me to wonder if this is a very subtle way of saying this is the person you go to when it’s time to pass to the other side.  The first name of “Old,” which is clearly a description and may be a comparative name, as opposed to “Young,” which is also in evidence.  Old Hutchinson, Old Jacobs, William Jackett, Little Joe, Big John and Saucy John.  Saucy John just makes me laugh.  I just have to wonder how he obtained that name.  We also have Tall John and Little Johnson, Young King, Big Kittle, John Mohawk and Tall Neezer.  Try as I might, I can’t figure out what Neezer might be or mean.  It doesn’t appear to be English or French and it’s a word that I don’t recognize.  Old Fashion is unique as is Red Jackett.  Thomas Runner was probably a runner.  The name Salt and Water is obviously a very literal translation of an Indian name.  I wonder if this surname ever evolved into something Anglicized or if it was simply replaced in later generations with a different surname.  We have John Seneca, Tall Smith and John Snow along with Straight-Back and Captain Strong with Big Tall Chief.  We could have a comic book crew with some of these names and a darned good story line too.  John Turkey is on the list, along with Twenty Canoes, Two Guns and Chief Warrior, several Wheelbarrow men, Seneca White, John Whiteboy, White Chief, Yellow Blanket and Young Chief.  Was Twenty Canoes compared to Two Canoes?  Was this a statement of ownership and pride, or was it maybe about captured or saved canoes?  Did this person make canoes?  Wouldn’t we love to know.  And John Whiteboy, I’d love to see his paternal DNA results.  I’m betting that Blue Eyes is admixed too as are the Halfwhite men.

On Cornplanter’s Reservation, we also find few traditional native names, but some that are uncertain such as Caisuado, Elleck, Hanisahe, Onishunda, Sinajowa and Tayanakoh.  Transitional names include Young Baird, Beaver, Bigbag and David Bigbag along with Bigfire and John and Taylor Bigfire.  Both of these surnames may be in the act of becoming surnames as opposed to a given name.  I surely do wonder about Bigbag though.  We also have Big Kettle, Clack Chief and Black Face.  Black Chief maybe a reference to a type of chieftainship, not a physical reference, but then again, perhaps not.  The history of the Seneca might be forthcoming with information about their types of chieftainships.  Many tribes had both war and peace chiefs.  We find Bluesky, John Bull and one of my favorite, Sky Carrier.  What a beautiful, lyrical name and I have to wonder how this name was given to this person.  Captain Cobb is on the list, with Old Fish, John Fox, Little George, John Green, Old Hiram and Captain Jack.  The title, Captain, is given to warriors in wartime and in this case, has become equivalent to a first name.  Also present are Small John, Yankee John, which makes me wonder about how he obtained that name, Thomas Kettle, Captain Key, John Little Beard and Long Hair.  Native people had little body hair, so I wonder if this reference was to the fact that he could grow a little beard or perhaps that he always wore one.  Muskrat is a typical native name, translated, of course.  We have English Peter, Powderhorn and my all time favorite, Devils Ramrod.  Yes indeed.  That is his name and I do so want to know how he got it.  Another curiosity is Sharp Leg. We find Black Squirrel, but then we also find a Hannah Black Squirrel as an estate executor, so in that case, Black is not the first name, but Black Squirrel is the last name.  Again, possibly another surname in transition.  John Steeprock and Straight Back are on the list.  I wonder if this Straight Back is related to Straight-Back on the Cattaraugus Reservation. We have John Strong, Tall Chief, Henry Whiteman, Yellow Blanket and either Taylor Two Guns or Two Guns Taylor.  In this case, I can’t tell which is the first and last names.

The Onondaga have only one traditional Native name, but like the Cattaraugus and Cornplanter’s Reservations, lots of transitional names.  Names that could be transitions between Native and surnames are Antinahe and possibly Curlock, used without a first name.  John Antianger could also have a transitional last name.  We find Anthony Big Knife, Captain Commissary, Cornplanter, Captain Famer, Young Farmer, Fisher, Captain Frost, Old George, Jonas Green, John Hawket and several members of the Hill family which could be either English or a location.  We find Captain Isaac, Onondage Jacob, Captain John, Tall John, Captain Jones, Captain Joseph, Old Joseph, Thomas Kick and Jinks Mistaker.  That name is quite interesting and I wonder if it was translated from a native name of some sort.  Muskrat is obvious, followed by Captain Peter, Old Peter, Silverkick, Silversmith, John Smoke, Captain Thomas and John Tall Chief.  There have been several other men on the other reservations by the Silversmith name, but they have all had English first names, so I did not include them in the transitional names group. 

The Oneida Nation is much smaller.  The have no men with Native names and only three suggestive of transition. We find Jack and Old Jack Antoine.  Antoine is one of two names suggestive of a French influence in this entire 1812 veterans list, the other one being La Fort.  Peter Harnyos could have a transitional surname.  There are 3 men listed by the surname Skanandoah, although one is spelled with a final b instead of h.  One of the men has a first name of Dolly.  The Onondaga include a Thomas Shenandoah that I did not include as transitional.  However, looking at the executors for the 3 Skanandoah men have names like David Scanado and Elizabeth Canada, suggesting strongly that this surname too is in transition and could be found as either of these variants, or perhaps yet another name in future generations.

And finally, we return to the Tuscarora, the Nation where we began our article. They have no Native surnames, which isn’t really surprising when recalling that in the 1760s, they had already begun their transition to English surnames when signing their deeds in Bertie County.  Transitional names include John Beach, John Fox, Isaac Green, Peter Sky and Peter Blacknose.  However, when looking at the Peter Blacknose account, the executor of his estate was John Peter, leading me to wonder if his name wasn’t really Blacknose Peter.  Regardless, it’s clearly a transitional name and I’m left wondering how he obtained the Blacknose portion of his name.  It’s also interesting that for the Tuscarora, none of the transitional surnames were listed as Tuscarora surnames in North Carolina.  What follows is the entire list of surnames mentioned in Tuscarora deeds signed between 1766 and 1777 in Bertie County.

James Allen, Sarah Basket, Thomas Basket, William Basket, Betty Blount, Billy Blount, Sr., Billy Blount, Jr., Edward Blount, George Blount, Sarah Blount, Thomas Blount, Bille Blunt, Jr, Samuel Bridgers, William Cain, John Cain, Molly Cain, Wineoak Charles, Jr., Wineoak Charles, Sr., Bille Cornelius, Charles Cornelius, Isaac Cornelius, Billy Denis, Sarah Dennis, Billy George, Snipnose George, Watt Gibson, James Hicks, John Hicks, Sarah Hicks, Senicar Thomas Howell, Tom Jack, Capt. Joe, John Litewood, Isaac Miller, James Mitchell, Bille Mitchell, Bille Netof, Bille Owens, John Owens, Nane Owens, William Pugh, John Randel, Billy Roberts, Tom Roberts, Jr., John Rogers, Harry Samuel, John Senicar, Thomas Senicar, Ben Smith, John Smith, Molly Smith, Thomas Smith, Bille Sockey, William Taylor, Bridgers Thomas, Tom Thomas, Lewis Tuffdick, West Whitmel Tufdick, Whitmel Tuffdick, Isaac Whealer, James Wiggians, John Wiggins, Molly Wineoak and Bette Yollone [DB L-2:56; M:314-9].

Of these surnames, only two, Allen and Miller are represented on the list of War of 1812 Veterans.

In summary, this has been a very interesting exercise in viewing Native nations in transition as their names and naming patterns evolve.


About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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13 Responses to What’s in a Name? – The Tuscarora in Transition

  1. Mavis says:

    This is a delightful and fun post…..Thought I would share some of our “transitional” family names.I guess one must take these names in the contex of of a transitional time period as well.All are from eastern NC from late 1600s to early 1800..Susannah Flowers,Sally Standback,Worry Kilpatrick,Elizabeth Freeman,Comfort Franklin,William Goodman,Argent Brown,Spicey Joyner,Sukey Scarborogh,Sukey Grey,Mary Pleasant,Tobias Long,Sudie Hill,Sally Butter,Ephrim Shipp,Swan Peterson,Fleet Cooper,Sialey Sisley,Jamima Fort,Richard Stone,Temperance Gale,Rice Price,Mary Cashwell…the list goes on.Not all of these individuals would have nessecarily been Native but It is interesting to note that the parents of people that bear these names are very often untraceable and lost in “transition” Thanks again for this great post!

  2. Linda Dail says:

    As always Roberta has enlightened us. I am really curious about the transferred deeds because so many of the “English” Tuscarora names are in my family in SC just over the state border near the Lumbee. Allen, Rogers and Smith are all intermarried with my BERRY line. My Berry line is known to be part Tuscarora and were in the Lumbee tribe area in the early 1750’s. Some of the interesting Berry given names are Bright, Close, Fama, Slaughter and Tight. Not the usual “English” names. It is especially interesting to me that I lived 3 miles from the Seneca reservation in Western NY and visited there often before I knew of my heritage.

    • Thanks Linda. I need original copies of just a few more deeds before I finish the article that includes every deed and legislative petition that includes NC Tuscarora names. We’re almost these. I have someone who can hopefully go to the courthouse for me this week.

  3. Warlock Asylum says:

    Thanks for posting this! Many blessings to you!

  4. Pingback: Tuscarora Baby Names | baby - baby girl names

  5. Thomas Robbins says:

    “Most Tuscarora went north” is very erroneous. Recent studies has led universities to state that the Tuscarora population in NC in the early 1700’s were in excess of 8,000 people. If most had gone north within that 100 year period into the 1800’s, the Six Nations census taken around 1827 would have been in excess of over 10,000 or so instead of the combined total of around 500 for Canada and New York. It would be a correct statement to say most of us stayed in NC.

  6. Talib Cornelius says:

    I was wondering Billie, Charles, and Isaac Cornelius I cannot find them on the reservation list nor there family members. I woould I trace if they went to Cananda, New York or went back to North Carolina.
    Or is this one of those submit the pedigee someone knows situtations?

  7. Dave cornelius says:

    I know of a Charles and Isaac Cornelius from NY and PA

    • Talib Cornelius says:

      Interesting, Billie Cornelius and Charles were last documented early 1800’s in North Carolina. Isaac not after the treaty that relinquished northern Tuscurora lands on lease for 100 years.
      Are the two you speak of either of them? Acording to FTDNA our family is not biologically Cornelius. We did match several in the Tuscarora project.
      I have documents that say NC and Tennessee as origins of my gggreat grand father Cyrus Cornelius but have zero actual proof. Billie, Charles, and Isaac are hopefully going to open some new information.

      • Dave cornelius says:

        I will look at my family tree again soon. I have been told of American Indian heritage. I am thinking without looking that Isaac was Charles father or grandfather who married a woman with last name Green.

      • Dave cornelius says:

        By the way… one family member was in the war of 1812.

  8. John Rudmin says:

    I wonder if Destroytown is named aftet George Washington, whose nickname (named after his great-grandfather’s nickname applied by the Susquehannocks) was “Town Destroyer”.

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