The Dan River tribe was never the same after its first contact with settlers from Europe.

--------

>--------

For the Saura Indians, 1670 was the beginning of the end.That's when the tribe, which had lived along the Dan River for perhaps hundreds of years, first had direct contact with European settlers.

The impact was devastating.

But it wasn't the settlers' war machine that laid the Indians low. It was disease.

``The Indians had no natural resistance to the diseases that the Europeans brought here,' said Richard Seybert, a Reidsville archaeologist. ``It quickly decimated them.'

Evidence of that decimation lies in the soil along the Dan's banks in Rockingham and Stokes counties. Excavations over the past 20 years have unearthed stunning proof of the effects of contact with Europeans.

At one of those digs near Eden in 1988, archaeologists found a Lower Sauratown village dating to 1630.

This fall, archaeologists at UNC-Chapel Hill will publish findings from that and other Siouan Project sites in an extensive study designed to calculate the effects of European contact on the Sauras and other Siouan-speaking Piedmont tribes.

``Post-1670s, every (Saura) village has an incredibly large number of burials for that village,' Seybert said. ``So it appears that once they came into contact with these people (settlers), they were dying off in huge numbers.'

Despite the ravages of disease, the Sauras, a tribe of farmers and seasonal hunters, attempted to carry on as usual. For three more decades they continued building tight villages inside protective palisades, and they continued placing graves randomly in their villages, often inside their huts.

By 1700, though, their numbers had dwindled from several thousand to several hundred. Survivors from various autonomous villages moved in together at Upper Sauratown near Walnut Cove where they abandoned traditional construction patterns.

Huts were scattered over a large area and archaeologists found no evidence of a palisade. Deaths continued, and burials were grouped in shallow graves in a cemetery.

``It looks like they were in a hurry,' Seybert said. ``They were upset. They were just trying to get the people in the ground.'

At the Upper Sauratown site, known as the Kluttz site, archaeologists found a pit with an enormous amount of pottery, apparently dumped hurriedly as the Indians prepared to leave.

By 1710, the Sauras had left the Dan River valley - once the Indians' most populous Piedmont river valley. They joined the Keyauwee Indians in Randolph County, then moved to Cheraw, S.C., where they settled with the Peedee Indians and others.

A 1715 census counted 510 Indians in the merged group. Of that, the Saurans probably made up only a couple hundred, Seybert estimated.

By the 1770s, the Indians had sold their land at Cheraw to encroaching settlers and moved to the Catawba Indian reservation near Rock Hill, S.C.

The Sauras ceased being an identifiable tribe at that point, closing the book on a once-proud band whose ancestors can be traced back perhaps 20,000 years to Asia and may have encountered a 1540s Spanish exploration led by DeSoto.

Archaeologists believe ancestors of the Sauras and other American Indians crossed from Asia to Alaska over a broad land bridge at the end of the last Ice Age. Some made their way to the Ohio Valley, then crossed the Appalachians into the Piedmont about the time of Christ.

Exactly where the Piedmont Indians settled is unclear. A reference to Indians encountered by DeSoto and another Spanish group 20 years later led some historians to believe the Sauras occupied what is now northern South Carolina and southern North Carolina.

Others believe the Sauras had settled along the Dan River centuries before.

Archaeologists may return in several years for further excavations on the Dan, said UNC-CH archaeologist Stephen Davis. They want to determine the relationship between a tribe that lived there before 1450 and the Sauras who appeared about that time.

Archaeologists believe the pre-1450 group was the Sauras' ancestors. But, Davis said, ``the Saura could represent an intrusion into that area.'

Along the Dan, the Sauras led a simple agrarian existance far from the well traveled trading route which roughly followed present-day Interstate 85.

When that isolation ended, so did the Sauras.

___________________________________________________________________________\ WHERE TO SEE IT

A Saura Indian exhibit will be on display through Sept. 11 at the Virginia Museum of Natural History on Douglas Avenue in Martinsville, Va. Focus of the exhibit is a full-scale typical indian village with life-sized figures on one side of a divider, and a present-day archaeological excavation of that village on the other side. The exhibit is open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1-5 p.m. The museum, located at the intersection of U.S. 220 and business U.S. 58, is closed to the public on Mondays. Admission is free.

___________________________________________________________________________

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily morning newsletter.

Load comments