Powhatan Indians of Virginia; Their Traditional Culture

Overview

Among the aspects of Powhatan life that Helen Rountree describes in vivid detail are hunting and agriculture, territorial claims, warfare and treatment of prisoners, physical appearance and dress, construction of houses and towns, education of youths, initiation rites, family and social structure and customs, the nature of rulers, medicine, religion, and even village games, music, and dance.

Rountree’s is the first book-length treatment of this fascinating culture, which ...

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The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture

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Overview

Among the aspects of Powhatan life that Helen Rountree describes in vivid detail are hunting and agriculture, territorial claims, warfare and treatment of prisoners, physical appearance and dress, construction of houses and towns, education of youths, initiation rites, family and social structure and customs, the nature of rulers, medicine, religion, and even village games, music, and dance.

Rountree’s is the first book-length treatment of this fascinating culture, which included one of the most complex political organizations in native North American and which figured prominently in early American history.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806124551
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/1992
  • Series: Civilization of the American Indian Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 232
  • Sales rank: 395,582
  • Product dimensions: 5.45 (w) x 8.49 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Helen C. Rountree is an ethno-historian with degrees from the College of William and Mary, the University of Utah, and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her research and fieldwork for two decades have been among North American Indians in both Virginia and Nevada; she has worked both with historical documents and with living Indians and has written numerous journal articles. She is professor emeritus of anthropology in Old Dominion University.

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Read an Excerpt

The Powhatan Indians of Virginia

Their Traditional Culture


By Helen C. Rountree

UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS

Copyright © 1989 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-2455-1



CHAPTER 1

The Land and Its Resources


THE POWHATAN PEOPLE occupied the coastal plain of Virginia, located roughly between 36°30' and 38°40' north latitude and 75°35' and 77°25' west longitude. It includes the area east of the fall line, plus the southern half of the Delmarva Peninsula (known locally as the Eastern shore). All of these territories had at least been claimed by the man Powhatan in 1607. Because of the region's latitude, its climate, plants, and animal life are transitional between those of the "northern" and "southern" Atlantic coasts, terms that modern scholars would use but native Virginians would not.

Eastern Virginia's climate is relatively mild. The ocean ameliorates the seasonal extremes, causing cooler summers and warmer winters. The average annual rainfall is forty to fifty inches, usually distributed throughout the year; however, droughts sometimes occur during the summer. Long, mild springs and falls are the rule, the former occasionally punctuated by severe "northeasters" and the latter by hurricanes. Summers are humid, with temperatures in the upper seventies to lower nineties Fahrenheit, while winters, which normally begin after Christmas, are humid and moderately cold. It is rare for the smaller waterways to be frozen solid, and only once in living memory (1918) has the harbor of Hampton Roads frozen over so solidly that people could walk on it.

Virginia's climate is not now exactly as it was when the English arrived. In 1607 the Northern Hemisphere was in a slightly cooler period known as the "Little Ice Age." In that period, from about 1430 to 1850, annual temperatures averaged about 3-1/2 degrees lower than at present, and West European records indicate that the difference was manifested mainly in more severe winters. Early English settlers' accounts of Virginia winters report more ice in the waterways than is now the norm. There would also have been fewer than today's average of 180 frost-free days per year in which to cultivate crops.

Eastern Virginia tilts downward toward the ocean. At Norfolk the land is fifteen feet or less above sea level, whereas at Richmond, ninety miles to the northwest, the elevation is nearly two hundred feet. The underlying bedrock tilts even more sharply: at the edge of the continental shelf, sixty miles east of Norfolk, it is estimated to be twelve thousand feet down; at Norfolk it is about twenty-two hundred feet down; and from Richmond (and Fredericksburg and Washington) westward it reaches the surface in outcrops. These outcrops create falls in the rivers, hence the term "fall line" for their eastern edge. The fall line marks the natural end of navigation in the rivers, necessitating the depots which eventually grew into modern cities. The soil of the piedmont, west of the fall line, consists of windblown and runoff-carried deposits; the soil of the coastal plain consists of all of that plus thick marine deposits laid down by the Atlantic during the many periods of higher sea level.

In geological terms, Virginia's is a "flooded coastline." Chesapeake Bay is in reality the ocean-flooded valley of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, with the separate James River valley added in the south. The "rivers" and "creeks" of the coastal plain are therefore tidal estuaries (see, for example, the "creek" in fig. 2), and the tidal pulse can be felt nearly up to the fall line. The larger rivers' previous history during periods of different sea level can be seen today both in floodplains and meander scars (see fig. 3), representing higher seas, and in straight stretches with steep, clifflike banks (see fig. 4), representing cutting during times of lower seas. Straight stretches with high banks reach closer to the bay in the more northerly rivers. There are four major rivers in all, the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James, none of them more than twenty miles from another, flowing in parallel courses from northwest to southeast.

The Potomac, the most northerly as well as the largest and longest of the rivers, rises in West Virginia, crosses the fall line at Washington, D.C., and is joined only by minor tributaries as it flows toward the sea. Its width ranges from less than half a mile at Washington to seven miles at its mouth, and its depth in its lower course is about eighty feet.

The Rappahannock River rises at the foot of the Blue Ridge and crosses the fall line at Fredericksburg. It has only minor tributaries, a width on the coastal plain ranging between five hundred feet and three miles, and a moderately deep channel.

The land between the Potomac and the Rappahannock is colloquially known as the Northern Neck, while the land between the Rappahannock and the York is called the Middle Peninsula. Both of these fingers of land are pierced from the east by moderately large tidal estuaries: the Great Wicomico River cuts into high, rolling ground of the Northern Neck, while the Piankatank River and its headwaters, Dragon Swamp, slash deeply into the Middle Peninsula.

The York River has several heads, which rise in the piedmont and merge into two major heads: the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi. Neither river is big enough near the fall line to have been important for English navigation, so that no cities have developed between Fredericksburg and Richmond. The land between the two rivers is known as Pamunkey Neck. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi meander, but the York is nearly straight, with high banks and a channel nearly seventy feet deep; its width varies between one and two miles.

The James River, Virginia's second largest, rises in the Appalachians and crosses the fall line at Richmond. On the coastal plain it is joined by the Appomattox, Chickahominy, Nansemond, and Elizabeth rivers, three of which are still used in local shipping. The channel of the James varies from twenty feet deep near the fall line to seventy feet near its mouth. The river is less than a quarter of a mile wide at the falls and about a mile wide at Jamestown Island, after which it expands considerably. The mouth of the James is four miles wide, and because of its northeastward curve just as it joins the Chesapeake, it forms the world's largest natural harbor, Hampton Roads. The finger of land between the James and York rivers, which was the first area of Virginia settled by the English, is still known simply either as The Peninsula or the Lower Peninsula. The region south of the James is colloquially called Southside Virginia.

The Delmarva Peninsula, or Eastern Shore, is, in its Virginia extent, low and flat. Its eastern edge is bounded by barrier islands such as Chincoteague near the northern state line and by a several-mile-wide marsh as one moves south. The western edge of the peninsula is somewhat higher and is indented with numerous tidal "creeks," which still bear the names of the Indians who once lived on them.

Coastal Virginia is unique in the world for the combined size, number, and proximity of its major estuaries. Within fifty miles of the Virginia Capes, as the crow flies, there are entrances to four big "rivers," three of them capable of carrying large European craft—not to mention large Indian canoes—more than a hundred miles northwestward into the interior. Considering richness of marine food sources and the ease of communication by water, it is not surprising to find that among the chiefdoms formed by various Algonquian-speaking Indians along the Atlantic coast, the Powhatan "empire" of eastern Virginia was by far the largest.

Each "river" on the coastal plain has "creeks" or smaller "rivers" tributary to it, and these tributaries have their origin in swamps and marshes, which are freshwater or brackish, depending on their elevation and distance from the Chesapeake Bay (see fig. 5). Tributaries of the rivers usually cut into higher, rolling land away from the rivers; only to the south and east of the bay is the land flat. There are also flat areas bordering interior stretches of the major rivers; these are unflooded parts of old floodplains and contain the richest soil in eastern Virginia. These rich areas were the first to be taken by the English, which explains why the first "hundreds" on the James River (1610s) and the first land patents on the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers (1640s) were for lands well upstream, though farther by water from Jamestown. The flood plains are sometimes separated from the rolling country inland, which is colloquially called "the ridge," by a well-defined scarp. U.S. Route 17 crosses such a scarp near Camden, east of Port Royal on the Rappahannock River.

The predominant direction of storm winds carrying salt spray is from the northeast. Therefore the bay itself is bordered on its westerly and southerly rims by either beaches or large saltwater marshes (analogous to the eastern fringe of the Eastern Shore). Neither kind of environment was preferred for occupation by Indian farmers, and that is why only the Great Wicomico and Piankatank rivers had major towns located near them. (The Chesa-peakes had had a major town near the bay's southern rim, on Lynhaven Bay, but their capital town in the early 1600s was on the Elizabeth River, a richer and more protected site.)

Eastern Virginia's configuration of land and water provides a very wide spectrum of slightly different environments for plants, animals, and people. These environments can be classified, by the plants native to them, as follows: beach, dunes, dune forest, salt marsh, freshwater marsh, pine barrens, mixed forest, oak flats, "juniper" swamp, and "cypress" swamp.

The beach zone consists of sand and salt tides and tough grasses above the high-water line. The dune zone is somewhat richer in plant life, for among the scattered live oaks, loblolly pines, Spanish oaks, and American holly trees grow persimmon trees and two species of grapes. The beach and dune zones were little used by the Powhatan Indians, as far as the records show, except when people camped there temporarily while fishing or gathering shellfish.

The dune forest is found only among the inner, higher dunes of Virginia Beach, where again Indian habitations were sparse. The predominant tree there is the loblolly pine, with yellow pine intruding in some places, and there are also laurel oaks, live oaks, Spanish oaks, black locust, and pignut hickory, the last of which produced gatherable nuts. There are also persimmons, sand blackberries, and chickasaw plums available. In the swampy area among the high dunes are cypress trees hung with Spanish moss.

The saltwater marsh zone can occur anywhere that land is covered intermittently by salt water. Various species of rushes and grasses grow there, some of which could have been used by the Powhatans in making textiles. Where the covering water is either brackish or fresh, either because of distance from the bay or because of regular, concentrated runoff of rain, cattails are common. Some Indian tribes (not necessarily the Powhatans) used the leaves of cattails for mats, ate the young shoots in the spring, and ate the rootstock either raw or dried, pounded, and made into bread. Saltwater marshes were extremely valuable to the Indians because of the animal life that existed there: periwinkles (an emergency food); sand fiddlers (small land crabs); oysters, which grew along the shores as well as on shallow bars in the streams; and two kinds of clams. Hard clams (or quahogs) live on sandy bottoms, whereas the others, called maninose, or soft-shelled claims, live on either sandy or muddy bottoms. The saltwater marshes, together with the streams and the bay itself, are also the habitat of blue crabs and many varieties of fish and migratory ducks.

The freshwater marsh zone occurs where very shallow fresh or slightly brackish water covers the land intermittently. In Virginia's coastal plain, the rivers become fresh in their upper reaches near the fall line, so that the shores and the heads of some streams in those areas have such marshes. The rushes and grasses in them differ from those of saltwater marshes, and in addition there are edible root plants such as cattails, arrow arum, broad-leaved arrowhead, and golden club. Animal life includes freshwater mussels and various fish, including great runs of anadromous fish (shad and herring) in the spring, and migratory ducks.

The pine barrens are a zone found all along the coastal plain of the southeastern United States, wherever the land is low and relatively flat. In Virginia, the zone occurs mainly along a very narrow margin of the bay's rim, but it becomes wider and more common to the south. Some of the wide, flat region south of the James is in the pine barrens zone.

The predominant trees of the pine barrens are loblolly, pond, and yellow pines in the lower elevations and longleaf pines in the higher inland elevations. North of the Rappahannock River, the pine barrens are dominated by the pitch pine. The pines, which also colonize cleared areas in the region before being replaced by mixed forest, make up an "upper story" of the woods that is between seventy and one hundred feet high. A "lower story" consists of shrub oak and red cedar, and below that, if the shrubs are not too thick, are broom grasses and a variety of herbaceous plants. The Powhatan Indians considered the pine barrens to be foraging territory, and not the best foraging territory at that. Neither people nor animals nor shrubs can make a good living on land coated with pine straw; there are not enough grasses for many herbivorous animals, and the pine straw does not decompose fast enough to make rich farmland. There is no record of any Powhatan village existing in the pine barrens zone.

The mixed forest is the most extensive zone in eastern Virginia and, with the oak flats zone, the richest in animals and edible plants. The mixed forest zone spreads over eastern Virginia from the fall line down to lowlands with an elevation of four feet or more above mean sea level; thus it reaches right down to the rivers' edges in most parts of the region. The vegetation of the zone includes an upper story, reaching up to one hundred feet, of pines (usually loblolly), sweet gum, southern red oak, white oak, cow oak, Spanish oak, and willow oak. In less well-drained areas, the forest also includes red maple, mockernut, and tulip trees. There is an under story of up to thirty feet consisting of American holly, persimmon, black gum, flowering dogwood, hackberry, pignut hickory, black walnut, red cedar, red mulberry, American elm, chinquapin, sassafras, black cherry, and a host of oaks. Depending on the nature of the soil, there may also be wax myrtle, high-bush blueberry, horse sugar, inkberry, and even mountain laurel. Underneath the shrub cover may grow blueberries, dewberries, and deerberries.

Areas of immature mixed forest and the pine barrens often look like jungle because of the many vines and briers climbing the trees. Also found there are a myriad of flowering plants used by various Indian tribes, probably including the Powhatans. Edible roots were produced by the bugle-weed (Lycopus virginicus), the tooth wort (Dentaria dipbylla), the downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens), the trout lily (Erythronium americanum), and the Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana), among others. The berries or leaves of the checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens), the trout lily, and the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) could be eaten. Dyes could be made from goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis; yellow) and wild indigo (Baptisia tinctora; blue), as well as the bloodroot or puccoon, which we know the Powhatan used (see chap. 3).

Many plants could have had medicinal uses among the Powhatans, though the following were not actually observed in use: foxglove (Penstemon digitalis) for a laxative and antidote to snakebite; white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) for snakebite, diarrhea, and childbirth difficulties; mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) as a laxative and a treatment for syphilis; partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) for speeding childbirth (hence its nickname, "squawberry"); Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) for liver disease, chronic coughs, and dysentery; white avens (Geum canadense) for digestive disorders; Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) for eye problems; Bowman's root (Gillenia trifoliata) as an emetic; wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) for eye problems and gonorrhea; trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) for sore throat, coughs, and asthma; trout lily leaves for swellings, ulcers, and vomiting; spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) for poison ivy and fungus-caused skin disorders; and Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) for burns. The Powhatans used several other plants, according to the English records, and these will be dealt with in chapter 8.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Powhatan Indians of Virginia by Helen C. Rountree. Copyright © 1989 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Preface,
Prologue. English Observers and the Indian Groups They Saw,
Chapter 1. The Land and Its Resources,
Chapter 2. Subsistence,
Chapter 3. Towns and Their Inhabitants,
Chapter 4. Manliness,
Chapter 5. Sex Roles and Family Life,
Chapter 6. Social Distinctions,
Chapter 7. Law, Politics, and War,
Chapter 8. Medicine and Religion,
Epilogue. The Powhatans as a Chiefdom of Coastal Algonquians,
Notes,
Bibliography,
Index,

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