Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes of Virginia

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Amid the extensive gum swamps and pine barrens of eastern Virginia there existed formerly an Indian culture area of considerable complexity and of great importance. The reason for its importance lies in the bearing it had on the absorbing problem of Algonkian (Algonquian) distribution. The Virginia Algonkians (Algonquians) were geographically situated near the southeastern terminus of the great linguistic family: their culture was therefore marginal to the stock. And yet the group, on account of its advancement and complexity, appeared as a peak of culture a concretion sufficient to deserve rank as a distinct sub-center, in short, a marginal sub-center. The complexities, however, are by no means baffling, inasmuch as the main source of influence from the outside may be distinctly traced to the southeastern or Gulf area, without specifying whether it arose from Muskogee or possibly an older eastern Siouan, or even an Iroquoian culture. The Virginia tidewater Algonkians (Algonquians), indeed, appear to have been less Algonkian (Algonquian) in culture than they were in speech. A similar change of culture has been noted in the history of the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, whose Algonkian (Algonquian) affinities stand forth only through the link of language. The parental Algonkian (Algonquian) linguistic characteristics of the Virginia branch of the stock were retained with remarkably little modification. Yet in respect to material and social life the Powhatan tribes had become converted by southern influences to such an extent that their culture status, had we no information concerning language to guide us, would trend more toward classification with the Gulf area than with the Algonkian (Algonquian) of the north. As to the physical characteristics of the original Virginia tribes, at present we know practically nothing. A study of the modern mixed communities has, however, been begun.

Group of Pamunkey of a generation ago in dance costume.
Group of Pamunkey of a few generations ago in dance costume.

A second feature of importance in an attempt at the interpretation of culture movements in this area is the part played by these intermediate Algonkians (Algonquians) in conveying to the tribes through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and even as far as southern New England, a collection of southern ethnic traits. Thus there was created a northeasterly culture migration, affecting, by the introduction of agriculture and its arts, the industrial and social life of Algonkian (Algonquian) groups far into the northern hunting area. We may see how the Algonkians (Algonquians) of the Middle Atlantic and southern New England states got their corn, bean, and tobacco culture, and most of the artifacts concerned with those non-nomadic activities, their splint basketry, woven fiber fabrics, especially the remarkable feather technique, their mat and bark covered rectangular wigwams, and many other details of economic life. The custom of cleaning the bones of the dead for burial was also working northward. In surveying the social and religious aspects of eastern Algonkian (Algonquian) life one has a strong suspicion that from the southern portion of the continent, brought along by Iroquoian migration, also came such traits as the matri-lineal reckoning of descent, with animal totemic associations. With the foregoing also came the development of autocratic power vested in the hands of the hereditary chief, the weakening of the old Algonkian (Algonquian) institution of the hunting territory as the nomadic hunting life gave way to agriculture, and finally the corn festival, to which may be added fortified stockades, ceramic influences, fish nets, shell beads, the water drum, the two stick ball game, methods of hair dressing, the single seam one piece moccasin, shamanistic societies, mound erection, and group burial. After considering the circumstance of language in Virginia one might assume a southeastward migration of Algonkian (Algonquian) speaking peoples to have taken place, who gradually acquired the superior economic and social properties of the south and later served in the northern spread of the resulting culture complex. There is evidence in this direction, both archeological and historical, pointing out that the Powhatan people were not resident in the tidewater region for a very long period. Strachey, the most explicit author on Virginia ethnology, estimated in 1616, from what he had been told by the Powhatan, that the Indians had not been Inhabitants below the falls of the James (the site of Richmond) for much more than three hundred years.1 In a paper2 published several years ago on one of the southeastern Algonkian (Algonquian) remnants, the Machapunga, I presented an impression of the regency of the southward Algonkian (Algonquian) migration into Virginia, and the conclusions reached now, after reviewing the whole field in more detail, support this view.

As a preface to the ensuing chapters on special topics of ethnology in early Virginia, the foregoing remarks appearing at the beginning of my report will serve to direct attention to what is evidently the key to an understanding of the relationship and distribution problems set before us by the peculiar developments which characterize the little-known tribes from Pennsylvania southward to the North Carolina line.

Map Of Eastern Virginia Showing Distribution Of Tribal Groups
Map Of Eastern Virginia Showing Distribution Of Tribal Groups

In preparing the treatment of the independent topics of ethnology based on practices and folk-knowledge surviving among the existing descendants, I have chosen to deal first with the so called Powhatan confederacy and the subject of government, then with the theme of the individual hunting territories, ever present among the Algonkians (Algonquians) who tenaciously cherish their hunting traditions, and to follow this by a description of economic properties, ceramics, and feather work, the memory of which time has not been effaced among these antiquity-loving Virginians.

Whereas the bulk of the culture traits enumerated above stand on the records only by mention, the few of them for which description and discussion are permitted by their survival down to later times some even within reach today have been chosen for treatment here. There are various ways of regarding records like these as they come to our hands for perusal, but it should be obvious to one looking over these pages that their contribution is intended to deepen the existing knowledge of ethnic properties of a people early transformed from their original native estate by ruinous association with Europeans; also to place their culture group on the map of ethnological comparisons in the East nothing more. In days to come, when living sources open for investigation are absolutely closed, the real intensive study of this area, once rich in development, will be made.

With the preceding suggestions in mind, let us turn to the account of protracted investigations among the Virginia tribes during the last ten years.

The task of trying to reconstruct Powhatan ethnology has indeed been like conjuring. There seems to be little on the surface, yet shadows of remote customs and modified survivals of old economic life persist. Then we are aided by some archeological examinations that are far from complete. Chiefly, however, we have to thank the early Virginia chronicles for much information covering not only native industrial life, but ceremonies as well. As to the present field, no one can say that it is exhausted. Many pleasant weeks have been passed consorting with the much-diluted Indian remnants of the tidewater country, yet each season creates a deeper feeling of respect for their loyal tenacity to their Indian traditions. This is responsible for the survival of many desirable facts hidden away in memory’s closets. For the rest it has been inevitable that a people who have held their own territory for three centuries through three wars with Europeans covering at least thirty-two almost continuous years of that period, then subdued but not obliterated, should have something concerning their old life to offer to the interested and sympathetic investigator, provided he have patience enough to bear the slowness of the process.

The Powhatan culture area is one thing, the political area is another. Roughly speaking, the culture area, from the point of view of archeology and recorded ethnology, included that portion of eastern Virginia south of the Potomac River to about the frontier of North Carolina, all the territory lying east of the Piedmont, or the fall-line, extending irregularly from Washington through Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg. Approximately on each of the great tidal rivers this western girdle of the Powhatan area was only a little above the tide-line. The Powhatan tribes, therefore, may be considered definitely as possessing a culture adapted to the tidal stretches of the coastal plain. They exhibit an illustration of Wissler’s theory of altitudinal habitat, having of all the Algonkians (Algonquians) the most extensively un-elevated homeland. The same culture boundary included, from testimony given by Hariot and DeBry, the Algonkians (Algonquians) of the North Carolina coast as far as Pamlico Sound. On the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, along the Accomac peninsula, dwelt the Accomac and Accohanoc, included under Powhatan rule as far north as the Maryland line. If subsequent archeological research establishes for this region a relationship closer to the Powhatan than to the Nanticoke northward, it may mean that the Accohanoc or Accomac did not mi-grate into the lower peninsula from its northern base, but that they crossed Chesapeake bay near the Virginia capes, tracing their expansion directly from the Powhatan units with which they remained in touch. Up to this point we have considered the boundary features of the culture group which became so well known as the Virginia or Powhatan confederacy.

It is evident that the surmises of ethnology are reasonable: that the Powhatan group bore close resemblance to the Conoy and the Nanticoke. And further, the culture connection is extendible in larger terms to the Delawares. Among the hall-marks of unity over the whole territory just noted were the practices of cleaning the bones of the bodies of chiefs and preserving their bodies or bones in houses consecrated to the purpose, the burial ossuaries, the cranial deformation, idol ceremonies directed to supernatural beings called okee, the new fire rite, scratching rite, and the emetic at harvest time in southern Virginia and in North Carolina, a priesthood shaman order, and the monarchical form of government. Many technical and industrial traits showing forth in architecture, ceramics, basketry, clay pipes, the feather work, the elements and utensils of maize, tobacco, and bean cultivation, indicate the southern environment. Relationship confronts us as likelihood in other fields of activity, such as warfare, fishing, and hunting. Harrington records indications of Nanticoke influence upon Delaware religion.

For instance, the relative shortness of the hunting season, in contrast with intensity of agriculture, the deer-drive and the practice of using fire in driving game, the communal village hunt, in general all savor of the southeast. Certain fishing practices do also: the use of the basket trap, killing fish by poisoning the streams with vegetal juices, and shooting fish with an arrow tied to a line, all being customs attributed to the Virginia tribes in the past. To the foregoing summary of Powhatan culture traits may be added some whose southern affinities are suggestively shown forth. These, to be sure, cannot be classified dogmatically until tests have been carried further. A very useful resume of Virginia ethnology, based on seventeenth century sources, is given by Willoughby,3 in which he considered a number of Virginia religious institutions to have been “adopted from the southern Indians.”4 We may add that a similar inference may be drawn from the occurrence of such characteristics in Virginia as the pot-drum used in dances: that is, a drum consisting of an earthen pot containing some water and covered with a piece of stretched hide, the “roached” hair fashion affected by men, the dressing of the hair among priests by shaving oft* all in front except a visor-like ridge across the forehead, the use of body decoration in the form of feathers stuck on the skin which has been coated with a sticky oil, wearing the dried head of an enemy, the weaving of feather mantles, garments of the “poncho” type, the absence of tailored garments, the moccasin of one piece of leather gathered in one long seam reaching from the toe to the instep, the “reed,” the conical metal arrowhead of historic times, the “sword” or club with small pieces of stone set like teeth along both edges, all remind the ethnologist of certain well known far-southern culture traits. Such correspondences with the south would seem to provide reason for making a conclusion, in fact the main one arrived at, after going over the contents of the Powhatan culture area, namely, that we have a fairly recent migrant Algonkian (Algonquian) group transformed extensively by association with a southeastern group.

Powhatan Tribe Today

In the tidewater region of eastern Virginia there are at the present time some two thousand descendants of the tribes originally constituting the so-called Powhatan confederacy. Very little attention has been paid to them by writers, whether ethnologists, historians, or folklorists. Some indeed have even assumed to deny their existence under the implication of there being no longer pure-blood Indians among them. Elimination, however, on this ground would involve a maze of controversy, for it would mean that many existing Indian groups all over North, Central, and South America, maintaining active tribal tradition, even government, would be consigned to the anomaly of classification as “whites” or “colored people.” Nevertheless the Powhatan descendants persist within the confines of their ancient territory despite the efforts to crush them that began in 1608, and which, after reaching a climax during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, have continued to menace them, though with declining force, until the present time.

For the purpose of presenting certain facts to those who are interested in American folk-life and Indian survivals, I have prepared the following notes re-introducing the seven or eight “tribes” of descendants that now survive out of some thirty local groups originally forming Powhatan’s “kingdom.” Some of the groups have been already investigated by the writer for the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, but for the whole region there is need of actual exploration of their industrial, social, and folkloristic properties. It will reveal much that will elucidate the principles of race and culture blending among American folk-communities.

Powhatan Tribes of Virginia

  1. Pamunkey Tribe History
  2. Mattaponi Tribe History
  3. Adamstown or Upper Mattaponi Band
  4. Chickahominy Tribe History
  5. Nansemond Tribe History
  6. Rappahannock Tribe History
  7. Potomac Tribe History
  8. The Powhatan Confederacy

Powhatan Culture

Footnotes

  1. Strachey, William, The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia, 1616, London, 1849, p. 33. 

  2. Remnants of the Machapunga Indians of North Carolina, American Anthropologist, N.S., vol. xviii, no. 2, pp. 275-276, 1916, and The Ethnic Position of the Southeastern Algonkian (Algonquian), ibid., vol. xxvi, no. 2, 1924. 

  3. Willoughby, C. C, The Virginia Indians in the Seventeenth Century, American Anthropologist, N. S., vol. ix, no. 1, 1907. 

  4. Willoughby, C. C, The Virginia Indians in the Seventeenth Century, American Anthropologist, N. S., vol. ix, no. 1, p. 63, 1907. 



MLA Source Citation:

Speck, Frank Gouldsmith. Chapters on the ethnology of the Powhatan tribes of Virginia. Indian Notes and Monographs, vol. 1, num. 5, pp. 225-455. Editor: Hodge, F. W. Heye Foundation, Museum of the American Indian. 1928. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 19 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/ethnology-powhatan-tribes-virginia.htm - Last updated on Feb 11th, 2014


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