Collection: Powhatan Tribes of Virginia

Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes of Virginia

In the Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes Frank Speck completed the third of a series of monographs dealing with the modern cultural life of communities of descendants tracing their origin from the tribes inhabiting the Chesapeake tidewater area. The future student of American folk-communities of Indian descent will find here new tribes with new trait-complexes to analyze and interpret. These contributions represent some culture aspects of the humble groups who were at the time of writing of this paper, at a climax and turning point in their history. Replete with over 100 photographs and maps, and at least that many surnames, this paper proves its value to both the historic researcher and the genealogist.

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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...

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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.

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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.

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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.” 1Smith’s account of Virginia in Tyler, L. G., Narratives of Early Virginia, New York, 1907, p. 85. The Virginia explorers noted the great...

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Pamunkey Hunting Grounds

Perhaps the most striking feature of all in the natural history of the modern Pamunkey comes before us in the survival of the controlled hunting and trapping rights: the custom by which each hunter in the band controls an assigned and definitely bounded area within which he enjoys the exclusive privilege of setting his traps for fur-bearing animals.

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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...

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Legal Status of the Pamunkey Tribe

The Pamunkey, with a resident population of little more than a hundred, still preserve their national independence under the privileges accorded them by the State of Virginia almost two and a half centuries ago. They enjoy the unique distinction of being in all likelihood the smallest independent nation in the world. Pollard’s synopsis of the political circumstances leaves nothing to be added. 1Pollard, J. G., The Pamunkey Indians of Virginia, Bull. 17, Bur. Amer. Ethnol., Washington, 1894, pp. 15-17. In government the tribe is a true democracy, over which, however, the State of Virginia 2Pollard adds in a footnote: ”The writer has been unable to find any statute or judicial decision fixing the relation of the tribe to the State.” Dr. Jones (corresp. Nov. 21, 1928) calls attention to Acts of Assembly of Virginia, 1893-94 (p. 975), covering tribal laws similar to those on published here. exercises a kindly supervision. The State appoints five trustees to look after the interest of the Indians. No reports of these trustees could be found on file at the office of the governor of Virginia, and their only function that could be ascertained to have been performed was the disapproval of certain sections in the Indian code of laws. Laws thus disapproved are expunged from the statute book. The tribe is not taxed, but they pay an annual tribute to the State by...

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Potomac Tribe

A small group of families, whose names are mostly Newton and Green (figs. 40, 41), represent what may be the Indians who are recorded to Potomac creek, an affluent of about eight miles north of Fredericksburg in Stafford County, Virginia. We have not, however, clear proof that these descendants are actually of Potomac identity, although they now bear the name. They are not organized definitely, nor are their numbers known, except for a rough estimate which would put them at about 150. Like most of the tidewater bands, they are engaged chiefly in fishing. Hunting has been discontinued only...

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