The Question of the Maternal Clan

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It is evident that in Virginia there was some form of social grouping determined on the mother’s side, otherwise defined as a type of maternal clan. Yet the only evidence upon which this rests is a statement by John Smith attributed to Powhatan, as follows:

His kingdome descendeth not to his sonnes nor children: but first to his brethren, wherof he hath 3 namely Opitchapan, Opechancanough, and Catataugh, and after their decease to his sisters. First to the eldest sister, then to the rest: and after them to the heires male and female of the eldest sister, but never to the heires of the males.1

In another place Smith repeats as follows:

Powhatan hath three brethren, and two sisters, each of his brethren succeeded other. For the Crowne, their heyres inherite not, but the first heyres of the Sisters, and so successively the weomens heires. For the Kings have as many weomen as they will, his Subjects two, and most but one.2

We may use these remarks as far as reasonable speculation will permit. Swanton3 thinks that they have probability in their favor as bearing upon the maternal social organization in Virginia. It would have been unusual if the Powhatan tribes had not acquired such a grouping in some form through contact with the peoples on all sides of them having a maternal determination. Their near relatives, the Piscataway, and the Delawares, in the seventeenth century after the period of contact with the Iroquois,4 the southeastern or Gulf culture area in general, and the Iroquoian companies, are characterized by matrilineality. The whole question of matrilineal descent among the eastern Algonquians has still to be considered from an unbiased sociological viewpoint, it seems.


  1. Smith’s account of Virginia in Tyler, L. G., Narratives of Early Virginia, New York, 1907, p. 115. 

  2. Smith’s account of Virginia in Tyler, L. G., Narratives of Early Virginia, New York, 1907, p. 52. 

  3. Swanton, J. R., Social Organization of American Tribes, Amer. Anthr., vol. vii, 1905, p. 666. 

  4. MacLeod, W. C. The Family Hunting Territory and Lenape Political Organization, Amer. Anthr., vol. xxiv, no. 4, 1922. 

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. Web. 30 January 2015. - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2014

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