Sauratown One Shoulder Elk Hide Dress Project

Sheila in her soon to be completed Sauratown Dress
Meet Sheila B., my Amateur Archaeological and Anthropological Sleuth Partner for several years researching what Native Women Actually Wore Pre Contact.

We met at an Historic Event over five years ago and she began picking my brain about the "Woman Named Sara Project"  for the N.C. Office of State Archaeology's Sauratown Woman Project That recently recreated a Native American Woman named "Sara".

It seems that several very impressively educated people gathered and put out their best effort in recreating what was found in a gravesite on the Lower Saura Town site in North Carolina.

The primary information for this re creation are contained in a book authored by the artist who rendered the sketches for the garments, one Laura Baum who titled her article aptly, "The Sauratown Woman". Published in the Tar Heel Junior Historian (NoCar F 251 T3x), Spring 1994, Vol. 33 Issue 2, p5-10, por, il.

I quote THIS reference matter, which seems quite accurate:  

Saura Town Woman
This seventeenth-century Native American woman was a member of the Saura tribe, who lived along the banks of the Dan River in Piedmont North Carolina and Virginia. The Sauratown Woman was forensically reconstructed from archaeological remains found at the village of Upper Sauratown in present-day Stokes County, North Carolina. Anthropological analysis indicated that the Sauratown Woman was approximately 18 to 21 years old, stood five feet 2 and a half inches tall, and weighed approximately 120 pounds. Historical and scientific research indicated a costume comprised of a hood, dress, and possibly moccasins, made of brain-tanned deerskin, sewn with sinew, and embellished with multicolored glass trade beads, wampum, and brass hawk bells, triangles, cones and beads. Burial jewelry included two columella shell bead necklaces, one with a brass gorget, and a columellashell bead bracelet. Based on the nature and abundance of artifacts buried with the Sauratown Woman, researchers concluded that she occupied a position of high status within her matrilineal society.

Sheila made a pilgrimage to the museum in question and was awed by what she found, but had questions regarding the regional accuracy of the admittedly lovely garment she found. What bothered Sheila about the re creation is that it didn't seem to match the representations we currently have about the Natives of the South East.

Presumably they spoke an ancient dialect of the Siouan language, but the reference to the Great Plains Tribe ends there. In most cases the Siouan connection is one that predates the Plains Sioux as we know them, forensic examination points to the modern Sioux haven arisen from the Saura and not the other way around. Nothing in the burial mounds, grave sites or village structure in any way resembles that of their distant plains cousins.

They had the tools, mannerisms, and customs that reflect those currently living around them, (bark covered dome homes, large agricultural parcels, permanent dwellings, palisade fences, pottery and weaving), as opposed to the later descended Plains Sioux, (characterized by their mobility, teepees, hunter/gathering lifestyle).

Plains Sioux legend has it that they at one time lived in a static condition in the East, but when their numbers increased during the Woodland Period, they split with the majority of their members moving towards the West to become the Plains People of Legend and Yore. Perhaps this is how things happened, it fits their own oral history and is somewhat accepted by historians at this time. It is the "Chicken or the Egg" theory at best at this time.

The dress created by the group at the museum was of an obvious Later Great Plains type, complete with fold over yoke and tail representation. This does not fit with what we know about Early Southeastern Tribes Women, who most likely wore one shoulder below knee length dresses of deer hide.

Even after contact, Eastern Siouan Women are depicted to retain the one shoulder garment and probably never adopted the Plains style dress of the West, (which, it is theorized, came about from contact with Far Western Tribes such as the Arikara and Blackfeet).

We found that the headdress was especially puzzling in that it does not resemble any headdress we had ever seen on any Native Peoples. Either these folks had found a completely new style of headdress, or it was, at best, somewhat lacking in accuracy in what would have been worn. It neither fits the aforementioned Plains Sioux, Eastern Siouan nor other peoples.

Click on the photo for a better view.
First we gained pictures of one of the the burials in question, this told us a few things were already wrong about the headdress created. The crown bead patterns do not match and the beads to not drape the same way as seen in the grave pictures.

Most likely, when one looks at headdresses of this kind, it was made of a single fawn hide, deer head to forehead and back legs draping down the back. The beads are then sewn tightly to the brow band and loosely strung around the sides of the head and down over the shoulders.

Also, several grave contents clearly spell out that the woman in question was also wearing a leather girdle of some size that was elaborately beaded with small beads, marginella shells, and brass triangular drops.

Girdle of Dona Meledez
Spanish explorers and others note in all their descriptions that Native Women of the South East, when fully dressed, wore just such girdles, (belt), and some examples are shown in paintings such a Dona Maria Melendez shown on the right. 

This drawing probably approximates most closely what was worn by the Saura Town Woman in general at the time she was laid to rest.

It may have been an honest mistake on their part since this grave was looted before they got to it, but several other burials in the area of women contain examples of such leather girdles, (or belts).

I theorize they chose, instead, to use the beads found in the pelvic area as a band of beads on the dress itself, instead of the Girdle, (belt) more commonly in use at this time.

After all this research and documenting over five years, Sheila and I decided to re create the Sauratown Woman as we envisioned her.

We then started to comb the archives for what was represented to have been seen by early explorers on meeting Southeastern Tribes.

An excerpt from "The American Anthropologist" reads:

Granted, these are New England Natives, but you begin to see a pattern here that does not in any way resemble Plains Tribes.

The fact that only one arm needed to be covered by fur or hide allowed us the thought that in most cases, the left arm was covered by the hide fold over at the shoulder area, especially in Powhatan Elders as shown in the drawing below
Powhatan Natives One Shouldered Elder Dress

The Powhatan People were the Sauratown's closest relatives to the North and their dress reflects the style that predominated from Florida to the Northeastern Coast, that of the one shoulder hide dress.

Again, we did some more looking and found ample examples of Eastern and Southeastern dress at time of contact. They all show one shoulder dress on both men and women.

Huskanaw Tribe Elder Priest in mantel cape
The depicted use of a shawl to drape the exposed shoulder and accompanied text found here:

 The habit of the Indian priest is a cloak made in the form of a woman's petticoat; but instead of tying it about their middle, they fasten the gatherings about their neck and tie it upon the right shoulder, always keeping one arm out to use upon occasion. This cloak hangs even at the bottom, but reaches no lower than the middle of the thigh; but what is most particular in it is, that it is constantly made of a skin dressed soft, with the pelt or for on the outside, and reversed; insomuch, that when the cloak has been a little worn the hair falls down in flakes, and looks very shagged and frightful.

Specifically to get information on the Saura People themselves, several documents were studied, the following being most helpful, I quote from THIS SOURCE:

THE SAURA (SUALA, SARA, SAWRO, SARRAW, CHERAW) INDIAN NATION The Saura Indians lived in villages on the Dan River and its tributaries, the Smith and Mayo Rivers, from around A.D. 1450 to 1710. They were preceded in the area by the Dan River Culture, A.D. 1000 to 1450. Their neighbors were the Monacan and the Tutelo in the north. To the east were the Sapony and the Occoneechee. The tribes to the south were the Eno, the Saxapahaw, the Keyauwee, and the Catawba. Their western neighbors were the Cherokee and the Shawnee. For protection, a palisade usually surrounded the Saura towns. Two types of circular houses were built. One type of house was built with wall posts and covered with wattle and daub (plaster). A thatched domed-shaped roof was added. Circular bark houses were also constructed. These were framed out of hickory, cedar, or pine and covered with elm, chestnut, or cedar bark. The houses had a diameter of about 25 feet. Split river cane was used to make mats and baskets. The smooth, sand tempered, burnished pottery that was made by the Saura Indians is identical to the vessels being made today by the Catawba Indians of South Carolina. This is called Oldtown Pottery. Hunting and fishing, the gathering of roots, acorns, nuts, and berries, and farming provided for an ample food supply. The Saura Indians planted corn, beans, squash (the three sisters), gourds, and sunflowers. By the 1600’s, the Indians were also growing peaches and watermelons with the seeds being obtained from the Spanish or English traders. Food was often placed in storage pits for safe keeping. At death, the Saura Indians were buried near their houses. Most burials were oriented towards the rising sun in the east and contained grave goods. Large earthen ovens located at the burial sites would suggest that a death feast was given for departed loved ones.

This helped us make a few decisions. The Eastern Siouan People lived as other Eastern Tribes around them and therefore wore the type of clothing most conducive to their area's lifestyle. We decided on a Pre Contact type garment, since we had come across a wealth of information regarding what materials and decorations were used and would more accurately represent what aboriginal peoples wore without European influence.

We chose  deer hide for our foundation and shells, bones and copper for decoration. Our dress will be for a Tribal Matron Elder and will include full left sleeve, matching shoulder cape for the right, leather girdle and matching headdress shell beaded after the fashion of the pattern shown in the burial photo above. Footwear will consist of either a fiber woven shoe, Eastern dress moccasin or barefoot, as shown in depictions. We can find absolutely no evidence of Eastern Women wearing leggings, so they will not be made.

All stages of creation will be shown through this site and we welcome any information that anyone may have to contribute to help us in our journey.

We in no way want to discredit or downplay the important research and depiction of the Sauratown Woman displayed by the people involved in the N.C. Office of State Archaeology's Sauratown Woman Project, but simply wish to add our voice in the discussion in hopes of finding another version as to what was actually worn.

Wampanoag Dress
If not for the Sauratown Project research, Sheila and I never would have made our own journey and we will be ever grateful for them bringing this subject to light to teach generations in the future what our past involved. We do not feel it is a matter of right or wrong, we just want to creatively express our opinion, as the Sauratown Project people have. we hope we all get something new out of it for everyone!

There are no actual surviving garments on which we can place our hopes so we must do the best we can and hopefully open up a beneficial conversation that leads us even further upon our research trail.

The closest modern representations of Eastern Women's Garments are the Wampanoag Natives Dress worn by The Plimouth Plantation Wampamoag Village.

The following linked articles will show what we re created and what conclusions we made on our five year journey of discovery.I am currently working on them and will update the links as I complete them.
Thanks for your patience, it took thousands of years to make history, so it will take a while to document it also!

Initial draping of headdress
Initial Draping of Deer Hide


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi... I keep trying to post a picture of the one arm "Shell Dress" that our women wear today. It is influenced by our Coastal Carolina ancestors. ..and I wanted to share that with you... It is more contemporary...but quite beautiful along with our shell crown. I wish I knew how to post an image here. But thanks for the visuals...and the research. I sure would love to help in the future...



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