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Powhatan Featherwork

We now come to what is perhaps the most interesting topic in the material life of the southern tribes, the woven feather technique. An art so ancient and so elaborate can hardly be expected to have persisted from colonial times down to the present day where the process of deculturation among the conquered tribes has gone so far. But surprising as it is, the Virginia Indians have not entirely forgotten, nor even lost, the art of weaving feathers into the foundation of textile fabrics. The antiquity of the woven-feather technique is attested by virtually all the authors of the old colonial descriptions of Indian life, while its beauty and high esthetic quality have made it the supreme textile achievement in a number of ethnic centers on the Pacific coast, in California, Mexico, and Ecuador, as well as in Polynesia. In the Gulf area the feather technique was also widely distributed. Fortunately we have a number of references to it and some details of description are recorded. After presenting the Pamunkey facts, I shall revert to the distribution of this art in the Southeast and upward along the Atlantic coast to southern New England, giving reasons for the inference that this admirable art was one of the complexes emanating from some center of dispersion in the south and drifting north along the coast. The feather art is reported in early times from most of the lower Mississippi and Gulf tribes and as far north as the Delawares of Pennsylvania and the Narragansett of Rhode Island. The facts pertaining to the Virginia survival of this much discussed art and technique are...

Powhatan Pottery

First let us look over the material from the Virginia tidewater area. Everywhere here from the southern boundary of Virginia by actual observation, north-ward even through the Delaware valley, the pot-sherds are almost identical in material, decoration and color. Holmes has appropriately called the ceramics of the tidewater “the Algonquian type.” On the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Rappahannock, James, and Chickahominy rivers it is all the same, the rims, decorations, and ingredients being practically uniform within a certain range of variation.

Powhatan Canoes

The means provided by the Powhatan tribes for transporting themselves about in their marshy wastes was the dugout canoe. This article describes these canoes, their method of manufacture, and provides pictures of them and their paddles.

Powhatan Fishing Customs

The Powhatan tribes still adhere to some fishing practices worth mentioning. Until not long ago fish fences were employed. These were chiefly for sturgeon, but now this splendid fish is so scarce that whereas thirty years ago from three to six a day during July and August would be taken, now the record is three a season by six boats fishing the same period. Captain John Smith mentions 52 and 68 being taken ”at a draught.”1 The Virginia explorers noted the great abundance of sturgeon, and we may imagine that the fish contributed largely to the abundance of food of the early Indians. The method employed in the construction of the fish-pond or “bush-net” is described by several of the men at Pamunkey and Mattaponi. At the entrance of the smaller creeks, or guts, branching off from the main streams there was built a barrier of poles several feet apart driven upright into the ever-present mud at low tide when the water is out of the place. The “bush-nets” or “hedges” are well remembered by John Langston as having been worked by his father some seventy-five years ago. They were known and described among the neighboring Delawares and Nanticoke in early colonial times. The “hedges” were made low enough in some instances so that the fish could pass over their tops at high tide. Then, as the water went out on the ebb, they would be barred from returning to the river (fig. 65). In the enclosures where the water might be from six to eight feet deep the hunters could shoot the impounded fish with arrows or spear...

Powhatan Hunting Customs

The marsh and swamp area of tidewater Virginia is extensive. For many miles both banks of the rivers are bordered by lowlands, which are inundated by the tides. In nearly all the rivers this occurs as far as 60 to 70 miles from Chesapeake Bay. Some of these tracts are marshy flats covered with a growth of dock, rushes, and cattails. Others are overgrown with virgin forests of cypress, swamp oak, swamp gum, maple, and red birch. In the picturesque vernacular of the region such are called “low grounds.” In some places the swamps extend continuously from one to three or four miles following the windings of the river, and reach from a quarter of a mile to a mile and a half back toward the higher ground. The swamps provide cover for consider-able game, and it is in these fastnesses that the Pamunkey of today, as they did of old, pass much of the time in gaining a livelihood. The marsh flats provide feeding and roosting grounds for hosts of wild fowl which engage the attention of the Indians during the migration periods. The Virginia deer have survived as the last of the big game on the Pamunkey river, and some old deer-hunting practices have continued to the present time. The passing of the bear and beaver, however, dates back earlier than the memory of the living generations. Yet the bear lingers with surprising persistence in the Great Dismal Swamp on the line dividing Virginia from North Carolina. This imposing wilderness, however, is too far from the haunts of the Pamunkey for them to know much about it...

Opechancanough and Don Luis

Jamestown was founded in 1607 on land recently conquered by the Powhatan Confederacy. Movies about Pocahontas have given the impression that the “Powhatan Indians” were concentrated on the Chesapeake Bay.  They were not. The villages on the coastline of the Chesapeake were the vassals of the Pamunkey Indians, who forged the confederacy.1 The capital of the confederacy, Werowocomoco, was originally on the north side of the York River, not near Jamestown. Note that the town’s name ends with “moko” which is very similar to the Itza Maya title for king, mako, which was also used as a suffix by Itsate Creek Indians in Georgia and western North Carolina to signify a capital. Wahunsenacawh, (also known as Powhatan) the Weroance  (commander) of the Powhatan is consistently portrayed as a illiterate, simple-minded “chief” of a primitive society.  In fact, he was a highly intelligent leader of a dynamic indigenous society and the father of Pocahontas, who was known for her intelligence. Opechancanough, the brother of Wahunsenacawh, could understand several European languages, plus was very familiar with European culture.2 Pamunkey Indians told the Jamestown colonists that he had come to them as a noble of a land far to the southwest.3 This is strong evidence that he was one and the same person as “Don Luis”, a son of a Virginia Indian chief, who was captured by the Spanish ship crew in 1561.4 The ship then sailed to Spain. He spent five years in Spain, receiving a thorough education by the priests. He observed Spanish life and customs.  He learned from the Jesuits and Franciscans how to write and also how to plan future...

The Rickohockens’ Role in Native American Slavery

During the Third Powhatan War (1644-1646) warriors of the Rickohocken tribe, living near the headwaters of the James River, formed an alliance with Powhatan. They massacred all whites that they encountered as they marched down the James Valley. Over 500 white settlers were killed by the Native alliance. The Rickohockens probably would have destroyed the capital in Jamestown had not they run out of arrows. The colonists counter-attacked with firearms and steel weapons. The Rickohockens sued for peace. In order to keep the Rickohockens from attacking the English colonists again, Royal Governor William Berkeley, began making trade contracts with them that included the purchase of Native American slaves and the sales of firearms. The Rickohockens initially raided Shawnee villages in what is now West Virginia to obtain slaves. Their territory steadily spread southwestward into northeastern Tennessee. French maps of the late 1600s and early 1700s document the movement of Muskogean and Yuchi villages southwestward along the Tennessee River in response to repeated Rickohocken attacks. The Rickohockens’ location near the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley meant that tribes living in the Valley were highly vulnerable to these raids. Unfortunately, there are no corresponding British maps that document ethnic changes in western Virginia. What is documented, though, is that the Native population outside the Rickohocken domain began to drop starkly. Around 1658, when Charles Stuart, the son of the decapitated King Charles I was still in exile, he granted a massive tract land to the Culpepper family in return for their financial and political assistance in regaining the throne of England. No one knew the exact size of the feudal...

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