Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Revels of the Carolina Indians

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Revels of the Carolina Indians

By John Lawson (1674?–1712)

[Born in Scotland. Captured and burned by Indians in North Carolina, 1712. The History of Carolina. 1714.]

THE KING and war captain invited us to see their masquerade. This feast was held in commemoration of the plentiful harvest of corn they had reaped the summer before, with an united supplication for the like plentiful produce the year ensuing. These revels are carried on in a house made for that purpose, it being done round with white benches of fine canes, joining along the wall; and a place for the door being left, which is so low that a man must stoop very much to enter therein. This edifice resembles a large hayrick, its top being pyramidal, and much bigger than their other dwellings, and at the building whereof, every one assists till it is finished. All their dwelling houses are covered with bark, but this differs very much; for it is very artificially thatched with sedge and rushes. As soon as finished, they place some one of their chiefest men to dwell therein, charging him with the diligent preservation thereof, as a prince commits the charge and government of a fort or castle to some subject he thinks worthy of that trust. In these state houses is transacted all public and private business relating to the affairs of the government, as the audience of foreign ambassadors from other Indian rulers, consultation of waging and making war, proposals of their trade with neighboring Indians, or the English who happen to come amongst them. In this theatre, the most aged and wisest meet, determining what to act, and what may be most convenient to omit….

As soon as we came into it, they placed our Englishmen near the king, it being my fortune to sit next him, having his great general or war captain on my other hand. The house is as dark as a dungeon, and as hot as one of the Dutch stoves in Holland. They had made a circular fire of split canes in the middle of the house; it was one man’s employment to add more split reeds to the one end as it consumed at the other, there being a small vacancy left to supply it with fuel. They brought in great store of loblolly and other medleys, made of Indian grain, stewed peaches, bear, venison, etc., every one bringing some offering to enlarge the banquet, according to his degree and quality. When all the viands were brought in, the first figure began with kicking out the dogs, which are seemingly wolves made tame with starving and beating, they being the worst dog masters in the world; so that it is an infallible cure for sore eyes, ever to see an Indian’s dog fat. They are of quite a contrary disposition to horses; some of their kings having gotten by great chance a jade, stolen by some neighboring Indian, and transported farther into the country and sold, or bought sometimes of a Christian that trades amongst them. These creatures they continually cram and feed with maize, and what the horse will eat, till he is as fat as a hog—never making any further use of him than to fetch a deer home that is killed somewhere near the Indian’s plantation.

After the dogs had fled the room, the company was summoned by beat of drum; the music being made of a dressed deer’s skin, tied hard upon an earthern porridge pot. Presently in came fine men dressed up with feathers, their faces being covered with vizards made of gourds; round their ankles and knees were hung bells of several sorts; having wooden falchions in their hands (such as stage fencers commonly use); in this dress they danced about an hour, showing many strange gestures, and brandishing their wooden weapons as if they were going to fight each other; oftentimes walking very nimbly round the room, without making the least noise with their bells, a thing I much admired at; again turning their bodies, arms and legs into such frightful postures that you would have guessed that they had been quite raving mad: at last they cut two or three high capers and left the room. In their stead came in a parcel of women and girls, to the number of thirty odd, every one taking place according to her degree of stature—the tallest leading the dance and the least of all being placed last; with these they made a circular dance, like a ring representing the shape of the fire they danced about. Many of these had great horse bells about their legs, and small hawk bells about their necks. They had musicians, who were two old men, one of whom beat a drum, while the other rattled with a gourd that had corn in it to make a noise withal. To these instruments they both sung a mournful ditty; the burthen of their song was in remembrance of their former greatness and numbers of their nation, the famous exploits of their renowned ancestors, and all actions of moment that had in former days been performed by their forefathers….

Their way of dancing is nothing but a sort of stamping motion, much like the treading upon founder’s bellows. This female gang held their dance for above six hours, being all of them of a white lather, like a running horse that has just come in from his race. My landlady was the ringleader of the Amazons, who, when in her own house, behaved herself very discreetly and wearily in her domestic affairs; yet custom had so infatuated her as to almost break her heart with dancing amongst such a confused rabble. During this dancing, the spectators do not neglect their business in working the loblolly-pots and the other meat that was brought thither; more or less of them being continually eating, whilst the others were dancing.