Frank Speck’s Remnants of the Machapunga Indians

Frank Speck, an anthropologist, visited Eastern North Carolina in 1916, hoping to discover some cultural remnant of the Indian tribes that once inhabited the entire coastal area.  He was to be disappointed.  He found no remnants of languages and little in the way of oral history.

He discovered one family with an oral history of Native ancestry, the Israel Pierce and Smith Pugh family, which we researched further in the January 2011 issue in the “Pierce Family of Tyrrell County” and the “Smith Pugh” articles. 

Given his disappointment at the lack of remnant culture, he did share with readers his findings and research, which I am extracting here and adding some commentary of my own.

His records begin with John White’s drawings which provides a few place names and identifies the tribes in this area as Secotan.  These people through their relationship to the Weapemeoc and Pamlico bands, for whom John Lawson left a vocabulary, we know the entire group to be Algonquian or at least Algonquian speakers.  Speck suggests they were the southward drifting bands of the Powhatan of Virginia.

Lawson specifically names and gives locations for the Hatteras of Hatteras Island and the Machapunga who lived nearly Lake Mattamuskeet.  Both of these tribes would fall within the Secotan geography.  Speck says that after the expulsion of the Tuscarora from North Carolina, the final chapter of which occurred in 1805, the eastern coastal tribes fade from history.  He is uncertain whether the remnants of these tribes joined the Tuscarora and Siouian tribes and moved north or whether they scattered and merged with the blacks and whites.

Speck also mentions that the Chowan were neighbors of the Machapunga, and that the Machapunga name is represented by the Pungo River.

While Speck laments that the descendants living in 1916 don’t even know the name of their tribe, don’t speak “one word” of any Indian language, nor had they preserved any of the Native cultural activities, such as basket making, he does state that they have preserved an activity that is historically associated with Native life – fishing.  Lawson reported in 1713 that the Machapunga were “expert watermen”.  We know from the Raleigh expeditions that the Indians made extensive use of fish weirs.  Fishing was the only traditional Native activity that Speck observed that had survived into the 20th century. 

Speck also mentions that basketmaking was the last cultural activity to be lost, other than fishing, and that the baskets had been made with hickory and oak splints in the fashion of the Iroquoian and Algonkian bands of the east. 

While Frank Speck did not find any evidence of hunting and other primarily male cultural activities, perhaps he did not look in the right places.  Today, traditional venison smoking is still taught by the remnants of the Tuscarora near the North Carolina border with South Carolina by descendants who did not move northward, but simply blended in as best they could to survive.

Little is known about the Machapunga tribe.  In 1701 Lawson states that they have one town, Maramuskeet (probably Mattamuskeet) containing 30 fighting men.  Based on other populations, it has been determined that a family ratio of 5 to 1 would adequately represent a total population extrapolated from the number of “fighting men”.  Therefore from Lawson’s informal census, we know that there were about 150 individuals living in their town. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing he told us was a bit more personal.  Lawson divulges that two of the Indian families practice circumcision.  Lawson references it as a Jewish tradition, so even then, it was well known to be Jewish and not a gentile custom.  Lawson says that the balance of the Indians do not practice this custom, nor has he met any other Indians that practice circumcision.  When asked why they do so, they answered him “I will not tell you.”

In another entry, Lawson tells us of an event where the Machapunga visit the Coranine with whom they had long been at war.  Later the Coranine allied with the Machapunga who allied with the Tuscarora.  However, when the Machapunga concluded a peace with the Coranine, they were invited to the Coranine village to celebrate, at which time the Machapunga turned upon the Coranine and slew many of them.  There was no date for this, but it had to be before Lawson’s death during the Tuscarora War in 1711. 

During that war, the “Marmusckits” and the Corree partook in plunder and robbery with part of the Tuscarora Nation.  In 1713 they killed and kidnapped about 20 people on Roanoke Island and Croatan.  Then about 50 Mattamuskeet, Catechnee and Coree warriors attacked the residents on the Alligator River.  The Mattamukeet and their allies would attack and then disappear into the Dismal Swamp and the swamp between the Alligator River and Lake Mattamuskeet.  The English stood no prayer of finding or pursuing the Indians in those swamps so they had to depend on the Tuscarora under King Blount who were friendly towards the English to rout the Mattamuskeet/Machapungo and their allies.  Unable to control or eliminate the swamp inhabiting Indians, finally, in 1715, the “Coree and other enemy Indians” were allowed to settle at Lake Mattamuskeet.  The Tuscarora were sent to join them until they were later awarded their own reservation at Indian Woods in Bertie County. 

By 1731, the “Maremuskeets” were among the tribes that did not number more than 20 families and by 1753 it was reported that the “Mattamuskeets and other Indians on the Islands or ‘Banks’ number some 15 or 20”. 

Speck concludes that the Machapunga and the Mattamuskeet Indians are one and the same.  He also adds that this group, plus the Pamlico, Neuse and Chowan are likely a branch of the Powhatan group.  Their range extended as far south until they bumped up against the Siouian/Iroquoian speaking groups with who they appeared to be initially unfriendly.  Based on this migration and linguistic pattern, Speck feel they were relatively recent intruders into the region and represent the southern-most tentacle of the Algonquian speaking group/migration.  The larger Algonquian group is represented by the Micmac, Ojibwa and Naskapi. 

You can see Frank Speck’s article in full at

About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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5 Responses to Frank Speck’s Remnants of the Machapunga Indians

  1. David Eshaghpour says:

    So what’s your take on the circumcision? Exposure to Jewish members of Columbus early voyages?

  2. David Eshaghpour says:

    I would love to know….

  3. Dana DiLorenzo says:

    My father’s people came out of the Pungo swamp according to people who since passed. Some of my older relatives would get upset if you asked if they were indian. Basically they hid in plain site. They married whites and would not claim Indian anymore. They were waterfront people from eastern tribes. Absorbed.

  4. I grew up in the very edge of the Dismal Swamp in Pungo, NC. Notable place names include Rose Bay.

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