At 79, John “Blackfeather” Jeffries has earned the right to tailgate as volunteers rebuild his Native American village along the Eno River.
Wearing a bear-claw necklace, gray hair curling beneath his Marines veteran cap, Jeffries sat on the back of the truck and opened a thick binder, one of three that tell the story of the replica Occaneechi village.
He built the first one almost single-handedly. In 1997, hobbling on bad knees, he cut 396 cedar poles for the palisade wall, four of them with a stone ax.
The village echoed one that his ancestors had built in the late 1600s, after the tribe, which had controlled the deerskin trade along the Roanoke River, fled a colonial militia. The site of that settlement lay a short walk from the replica Jeffries first built 20 years ago behind the Orange County Courthouse in downtown Hillsborough.
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The “living village” was built to scale, with the palisade and some huts laid out like in the actual settlement, said R.P. Stephen Davis, associate director of UNC’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology.
“It’s important to do reconstruction of these kinds,” said Davis, who helped excavate the site in the early 1980s. “I think it did provide a good portrayal of the village,” he added, though no one knows what covered the actual huts or whether saplings were interwoven, wicker-like, between the palisade poles.
But after seven years, the structures in the recreated village had deteriorated, and Jeffries ended up carting all but 25 of the poles to the tribal grounds north of Mebane.
Now the village is rising again, with those 25 poles weathered and gray and lined in formation like ghost soldiers inside the new palisade.
This time Jeffries — “a force,” Davis calls him — has help from the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough, the town of Hillsborough and Orange County, which provided $20,000 for new poles and some paid workers.
“It really has been an honor to be part of this whole thing,” said Sarah DeGennaro, the alliance’s executive director.
“It’s a more authentic portrayal of the history of the area,” she explained. “So much of the history is centered on dead white guys — to really focus on the Native American story ... it speaks volumes for Hillsborough and the organizations in the community that this is a priority.”
On Saturday, volunteers stripped saplings that will frame the future huts and tamped them into the moist ground.
And soon enough, Jeffries got off his truck.
“That pole you got in your hand,” he told a volunteer holding a thickish cedar sapling. “It ain’t gonna bend over right.”
He grabbed a more supple sapling, arcing it over his head to show how the poles will have to meet at the top, to be covered by sheets of poplar bark or maybe cowhide.
Jeffries has long retired from his work as a second-shift dispatcher for Piedmont Electric, the job he held when he built the first village. He’s had both hips and knees replaced and had surgery on his hands for carpal tunnel syndrome.
But he will never retire from his tribal work.
“It’s in the master’s plan,” he said. “It’s what I’m supposed to do.”
In his own words
Here Jeffries tells how faith inspired him to keep working on the the first “living village” after worrying who would finish it if he physically could not. When Jeffries says this village is “in the master’s plan,” he means it. He says God commanded him to finish it.
“As strange as it sounds, I woke up in the middle of the night. It was about 12, 12:15. I woke straight up in bed, and I started thinking about tribal work. And I’ve been involved with native tribal work all the way from Delaware to Florida and Georgia and Tennessee.
“My grandfather was a Baptist minister. He was Occaneechi, and his wife, my grandmother, was Occaneechi. She was illiterate. She couldn’t read. But she knew the Bible. He taught her.
“My grandfather used to say, ‘Early in the morning, when it’s quiet, God will come to you. He’s an angel of death, but God will come to you.’ It stuck with me for a while. I never thought about it. But this time, I thought about it.
“There’s something I say. The first stroke of a clock at 12 midnight. The first stroke of a clock, 12:01, is a new day when everything is peaceful and quiet and things come to you.
“And that’s what happened. It came to me one morning and I just sat and started talking. What in the world is going on with you? You been going crazy. And the voice in my head said, ‘No you’ve got work to do. (He laughs). I’ve got work to do. Your work is the work for me and your people.’
“And I’m not a Bible thumper. Not by a long shot. But some of these passages come to me at night, and I wake up and I talk, just like I’m talking to you. I’m by myself. ... I say I’m by myself, but no, [God says] ‘You’re not by yourself. I’m all the way with you. You’ve got to do work for you and your people. Do something for your people. Love your neighbor.’
“And I’ve gone that route now. Some people say, ‘John is a fanatic,’ which I’m not. (He looks up at the sky.) This my church. This is my church. He told me so. I sit here sometimes when no people are here. The hawks, the vultures come. The vulture’s my bird; the black bird is my land animal. They come down here. Geese on the river. Ducks on the river. King fishers on the river. Turkeys on the river. Deer on the river. All this stuff I see when I come, early in the morning.
“That’s why I’m 79 years old, and I’ve been reconstructed. [God says] I reconstructed you so you can do the work for me and for your people. That’s what I’m doing. That’s how I built this village.”
To volunteer for the next Occanneechi Village work day, call Sara DeGennaro at the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough at 919-732-7741 or stop by the Visitors Center at 150 E. King St. between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. any day of the week.
‘Excavating Occaneechi Town’
The following history comes from “Excavating Occaneechi Town: Archaeology of an Eighteenth-Century Indian Village in North Carolina” by R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr., Patrick Livingood, H. Trawick Ward and Vincas Steponaitis of UNC’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology.
The first European explorers in present-day Virginia and the Carolina Piedmont found small Indian tribes with a similar culture and language, the authors write.
“The Occaneechi controlled much of the deerskin trade ... partly because one of their villages, on an island in the Roanoke River, was astride the Great Trading Path from Virginia to Georgia. ... They seem to have maintained and reinforced their role in the trade network through warfare and intimidation ... which eventually led to an eruption of armed hostilities with Nathaniel Bacon’s militia in 1676.”
“After the battle with Bacon, the Occaneechis were so reduced in numbers that they could no longer defend their island stronghold on the Roanoke,” the authors write. “The survivors abandoned their home territory, retreated southward, and reestablished a village on the Eno River, near present Hillsborough.”
In 1701, surveyor John Lawson visited the Occaneechi, describing “no Indians having greater Plenty of Provisions than these.” By 1722, however, disease, warfare and rum had all but destroyed Indian societies in the Piedmont.
“Remnants ... either huddled together around Fort Christanna in Virginia or moved to join their cousins, the Catawba, in South Carolina. By 1730, except for a few isolated Indian families, the ... Piedmont lay mostly vacant, awaiting the arrival of hordes of colonists from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.”
To read “Excavating Occaneechi Town,” go to www.ibiblio.org/dig.