Indians of Virginia
Smith’s Account of the Numbers
“To the door
The red man slowly drags the enormous bear,
Slain in the chestnut thicket, or flings down
The deer from his strong shoulders.” Bryant.
Virginia, like every other division of the eastern coast of North America, was but thinly inhabited when the white settlements first commenced. As hunting formed the chief means of subsistence to the natives during a considerable portion of the year, it was impracticable for them to live closely congregated. There were computed to be, within sixty miles of the settlement of Jamestown, some five thousand Indians, of whom not quite one-third were men serviceable in war. The lower portion of the Powhatan or James river, below the falls, passed through the country of the great king and tribe who bore the same name: among the mountains at its source dwelt the Monacans. The great nations were subdivided into a number of small er tribes, each subject to its own Werowance, or king.
The stature and general appearance of different races among them presented considerable discrepancy. Of the Sasquesahanocks, Smith says: “Such great and well-proportioned men are seldom seen, for they seemed like giants to the English. For their language, it may well beseem their proportions, sounding from them as a voice in a vault.” One of their chief “Werowances measured three-quarters of a yard about the calf of his leg,” and all the rest of his limbs so answerable to that proportion, that he seemed the goodliest man we ever beheld. His hair, the one side, was long, the other shore close, with a ridge like a cock’s comb.”
These people were dressed in bear and wolf-skins. “some have cassocks made of bears heads and skins, that a man s head goes through the skin s neck, and the ears of the bear fastened to his shoulders, the nose and teeth hanging down his breast, another bear s face split behind him, and at the end of the nose hung a paw. One had the head of a wolf hanging in a chain for a jewel; his tobacco pipe, three quarters of a yard long, prettily carved with a bird, a deer, or some such device, at the great end, sufficient to beat out one’s brains.”
Farther to the South, upon the Rappahanock, and other adjacent rivers, dwelt an inferior people, of small stature. The Monacans, Mannahocks, Sasquesahanocks, and other tribes, which environed the Powhatan country, were so dissimilar in their language that they could only communicate by interpretation.
The clothing of all these Indians consisted principally of skins, dressed with or without the hair, according to the season. Occasionally would be seen a mantle neatly and thickly covered with feathers, so fastened as to appear like a natural growth but many of the savages contented themselves with very simple and primitive habiliments, woven from grass and leaves. Tattooing was common, especially among the women, and the red powdered root of the pocone, mixed with oil to the consistency of paint, served to satisfy their barbaric taste for fancifully coloring the body. He was “the most gallant who was the most monstrous to behold.” Their ears were generally bored, and pendants of copper and other ornaments were attached. “Some of their men wear in those holes a small green and yellow-colored snake, near half a yard in length, which, crawling and lapping herself about his neck, often times would familiarly kiss his lips.”
Their wigwams were much after the usual fashion, warm, but smoky, and stood in the midst of the planting grounds where they raised their beans, corn, and pompions. About the dwellings of some, mulberry-trees were planted, and fine groves of the same grew naturally in various parts of the country. The English made an attempt to raise silk here, “and surely the worms prospered excellent well till the master-workman fell sick. During which time they were eaten with rats.” To affect a clearing, the custom of the natives was to girdle the trees by bruising and burning the bark near the root; and, in the ensuing year, the soil was rudely loosened for the reception of the seed.
During a great part of the year they were obliged to resort to the natural productions of the forest, sea, and rivers for their support; and, as their diet varied with the season, ” even as the deer and wild beasts, they seemed fat and lean, strong and weak.” In the spring they re lied chiefly upon fish and small game; in summer, before the green corn was ready for use, they were obliged to eke out a subsistence with roots, acorns, and shellfish. Some species of acorns, besides being useful as food, furnished an oil with which the natives anointed their heads and joints.
Smith enumerates many of the wild fruits and game, which were sought by the Indians, describing them in quaint and forcible language. It is singular to observe how the original Indian names of plants and animals have been altered and corrupted on their adoption by the English. All will recognize the “putchamin,” whose “fruit is like a medlar; it is first green, then yellow, then red, when it is ripe; if it be not ripe, it will draw a man s mouth awry, with much torment.” Broth or bread made from the “chechinquamin,” (chincopin,) was considered a great dainty.
With a slight change of orthography, the “aroughcun, a beast much like a badger, but which useth to live on trees, as squirrels do,” becomes familiar, as do also the “opassum ” and “mussascus.”
Among the fish, a kind of ray attracted the worthy captain’s special admiration, being “so like the picture of St. George his dragon as possible can be, except his legs and wings.”
The Indians fished with nets, woven with no little skill; with hooks of bone; with the spear; and with arrows attached to lines. For other game, the principal weapon was the bow and arrow. The arrows were generally headed with bone or flint, but sometimes with the spur of a turkey or a bird s bill. It is astonishing how the stone arrow-heads, which are, to this day, found scattered over our whole country, could have been shaped, or attached to the reed with any degree of firmness. Smith says that a small bone was worn constantly at the “bracert” for the purpose of manufacturing them, probably to hold the flint while it was chipped into shape by another stone, and that a strong glue, obtained by boiling deer s horns and sinews, served to fasten them securely. Very soon after intercourse with Europeans commenced, these rude implements were superseded by those of iron.
Deer were hunted with most effect by driving in large companies, dispersed through the woods. When a single hunter undertook the pursuit, it was usual for him to disguise himself in the skin of a deer, thrusting his arm through the neck into the head, which was so stuffed as to resemble that of the living animal. Thus accoutred, he would gradually approach his prey, imitating the motions of a deer as nearly as possible, stopping occasionally, and appearing to be occupied in licking his body, until near enough for a shot.
In war these Indians pursued much the same course as the other eastern nations. On one occasion, at Mattapanient, they entertained Smith and his companions with a sham fight, one division taking the part of Monacans, and the other of Powhatans. After the first discharge of arrows, he says, “they gave such, horrible shouts and screeches as so many infernal hell-hounds could not have made them more terrible.” During the whole performance, “their actions, voices, and gestures, were so strained to the height of their quality and nature, that the strangeness thereof made it seem very delightful.” Their martial music consisted of the discordant sounds produced by rude drums and rattles.