Eiakintomino in Saint James Park, one of two Powhatan Indian figures on an 1615-16 lottery broadside. (© The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture, Helen C. Rountree, University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.)© Kathy Spaar
Chances are that sometime this fall every PATC member will hear the mountains beckon. A good number of you will actually get up and answer the call, heading to the Blue Ridge to hike familiar trails, explore new sights and soak in the special beauty of the season.
This is nothing new. People have been drawn to these ancient mountains long before the National Park, the Skyline Drive or the Appalachian Trail were created. Centuries ago European explorers and pioneers found their way into the mountains, often with the help of Indian guides or trails. Some settled the sides of the mountains, clearing forests for homes and farms and dramatically changing the landscape. Reaching back further in time there is evidence that these mountains were visited regularly by nomadic groups and later by tribes more settled into village and farming communities. The fall season drew large numbers of hunters and gatherers to these mountain forests and streams to harvest nuts, roots and berries, to select wood and stone for tool-making and to hunt the deer, turkey, elk and bear fattened by abundant food supplies. Unlike the Europeans that came later, these people left little trace of their presence and left the great expanses of forests relatively undisturbed.
What little we do know about these first people of Virginia comes from archeologists, written accounts of European explorers and stories passed down through generations of Virginia Indians. Archeological evidence suggests that no permanent settlements were ever made in the mountains. Only temporary encampments have been found, but some of these date back as far as the late Ice Age period 9500 - 8000 BC As the climate warmed and nomadic groups became more settled, more permanent sites were established to the east of the Blue Ridge in the Piedmont and in parts of the Shenandoah Valley to the west. Among the better known tribes in the Piedmont were the Monacans and the Manahoacs. These were the people that German explorer John Lederer encountered on his trip to the Blue Ridge in 1669. Lederer is credited with being the first white man to climb the Blue Ridge with the help of native guides. Most likely the guides came from one or both of these Piedmont groups. Captain John Smith had encountered a large group of Manahoacs earlier in 1608 at the falls of the Rappahannock River and he learned from a Powhatan informant about the existence of five Monacan settlements along the James River. The Manahoacs, he found, were friends of the Monacans and enemies of the Powhatans, the name commonly given to the coastal tribes in the Jamestown area. These Piedmont tribes probably did what they could to prevent the Powhatans from venturing west into the mountains, especially during the crucial autumn harvest.
Much more is known about the Powhatan tribes thanks to the reports and drawings of colonists at Jamestown Settlement established in 1607 as well as earlier explorers to the area. These early years of contact provide the least-disturbed picture of what life might have been like for these native people before English occupation. Of course these reports contain considerable misinformation and bias but they are central to any study of these people and their lifeways.
Powhatan, from a 1607 John Smith map showing a rendering of Powhatan's court. (© The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture, Helen C. Rountree, University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.)
The name "Powhatan" refers to the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Virginia tidewater or coastal plain. By 1607 many of the villages in this area were brought under one rule by the powerful "werowance" or chief, Wahunsunacock, to form the Powhatan empire. This paramount chief came from the town of Powhatan, near the falls of the James River and he used his hometown name to refer to himself and his chiefdom. At the time of English contact the native Tidewater population numbered around 14,000. There were hundreds of settled towns and satellite villages built near the Chesapeake Bay or in the inlets and rivers which flow into it. These towns and villages were placed along points or other sites that allowed a commanding view of the water and the people, especially enemies, traveling on it. Waterways were the central avenues of transportation and a major source of food. Because of the abundant source of fish, oysters, clams and waterfowl, the Powhatans did not have to move around as much as tribes further inland. Over the centuries they settled into agricultural communities, growing corn and other vegetables to supplement the fishing, hunting and foraging of plants for food and medicines.
In his diary, John Smith gives a description of these Indians. "The men bestowe their times in fishing, hunting, wars and such manlike exercises . . . The women and children do the rest of the worke. They make mats, baskets, pots, morters, pound their corne, make their bread, prepare their victuals, plant their corn, gather their corn, beare al kind of burdens and such like." This traditional Woodland Indian practice of women as farmers was perceived by the English as proof of the Indian male's laziness, even though the men kept busy with year-round hunting and fishing, making traps, stone tools and canoes. Another practice which surprised the English was the role of women as house builders. Women built homes made of bent saplings covered with woven mats or bark slabs if the family was of higher status. For larger families or families of high status, the houses were constructed in a long, tunnel-like fashion to which the English gave the name "long houses". These houses seemed primitive and flimsy to the colonists but clearly they were better suited than the English ones to the hot Virginia summers and the cold winters. The central fire in each home was kept smoldering in summer to make it mosquito-free and the woven mats provided partial ventilation. In winter extra mats or bark and a roaring fire made it quite warm and dry. These homes were also places to keep food stores dry and safe from predators.
The Powhatans, like other coastal Algonquian tribes, did not use fertilizer on their fields, so after a few years each family would move both the fields and their homes to a newly-cleared site nearby. Gradually, over a couple of decades, a whole town or village would be relocated. The abandoned fields could be used again later by anyone who wanted them, but there was an understanding that this land remained in the stewardship of the tribe. This concept that unused and open land was a source of food and materials for all to share (at least among non-enemies) was quite different than the European idea of land ownership. The English assumed that any tract of unoccupied land was available to be claimed which they did quite readily. They then railed against the Powhatans for "trespassing on private property".
Relations between the Powhatans and the English grew less friendly as the settlers moved to expand the colony. Settlers began to attack Indian villages, in some cases burning homes and fields. In one instance, they not only destroyed the whole town of Paspahegh, but also killed every Indian including women and children. This broke the most basic rule of warfare for the Powhatans and their attacks on the English became more severe. The situation continued to worsen until a colonist captured Pocahontas, a favored daughter of the chief Powhatan, in April 1613. She was taken to Jamestown where she remained a hostage for about a year, learning English and marrying her tutor, John Rolfe. Their marriage helped to secure a peace agreement between the two cultures for a while. This period of peaceful relations came to an end after the death of Pocahontas in England and the return of John Rolfe and other colonial leaders in May 1617. Disease, poor harvests and the growing demand for tobacco lands caused hostilities to resume. The paramount chief Powhatan died soon after in 1618 and the mantle of power passed officially to his brother Opitchapam, but it was a second brother Opechancanough who held the real authority. Opechancanough led a major raid on English settlements in March 1622, assuming that the English would react to such a brutal attack in Indian fashion and withdraw from the area altogether. Instead the colonists sent for reinforcements and counter-attacked.
After a decade of intermittent warfare the English colony had grown to about 8,000 while the Powhatan population had fallen to 5,000. In addition to the killing there were devastating diseases and displacement of tribes as the English pushed further inland seeking more land for the cash crop tobacco. Opechancanough launched another fierce raid in April 1644. His warriors killed hundreds of settlers, but the English were so numerous by then they were able to retaliate quickly. After two years of brutal raids, the Powhatans were unable to hold the English off and Opechancanough was captured and taken to Jamestown. A proud old man of eighty, he refused to admit defeat and sign a treaty. While still a prisoner, he was shot in the back by an English guard. With his death the Powhatan chiefdom came to an end.
From that time on, the Powhatans and other coastal tribes steadily lost control of their lands and traditional ways of life. The colonial government allowed many tribes to keep certain areas of land, but none of these "reservations" were large enough to sustain the traditional ways of hunting and gathering. Because of this, Indians were unable to sustain their independence by farming only and many were forced to work for the English as servants, guides or even as slaves. Settlers continued to encroach on Indian lands, thus shrinking reservations until the Indians were forced off the land altogether. Many tribes disintegrated or merged with other tribes. Some Indians chose to assimilate into white society and others joined free black communities. By the end of the 18th century only two tribes, the Pamunkey and the Accomac, still had land and were officially recognized as Indians. In 1787 Thomas Jefferson observed in his book Notes on the State of Virginia that "the Pamunkies are reduced to about 10 or 12 men ... The older ones among them preserve their language in a small degree, which are the last vestiges on earth, as far as we know, of the Powhatan language."
The language may have disappeared but the descendants of these proud people did not. Even though they seemed invisible to most Virginians, Powhatan tribes have kept their identity and ties with each other. The Pamunkeys succeeded in maintaining some of their ancestral lands, though it was divided in two parts in the 18th century. Those living along the Mattaponi River formed a separate tribe called the Mattaponis and they were later recognized by the state as such. In 1901 a tribe called the Chickahominy formed from Indians living off reservations and in 1925 a splinter group, the Eastern Chickahominy, was organized. Three other tribes - the Nansemond, the Rappahonnock and the Upper Mattaponi - came into being, but none of these non-landed tribes were officially recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia until the 1980's. Inspired by the success of the Powhatan tribes, an ancient enemy, the Monacans of the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge, gained official status as a tribe in 1989. Most of its 700 members live in Amherst County and the Lynchburg area.
For further reading on the history and culture of Virginia Indians, a list of recommended books is included here. The Jamestown Settlement and the historic Jamestown site are excellent places to learn more about the Powhatans and the English colony. There is much recent excitement at Jamestown over the unearthing of the original fort and the discovery of skeletal remains. Both the Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservations, located east of Richmond, welcome visitors with some advance notice. The Pamunkeys are known for their pottery and some of their work is available for sale.
Heatwole, Henry, Guide to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, Shenandoah Natural History Association, Luray, Va., 1995.
Egloff, Keith and Woodward, Deborah, First People, The Early Indians of Virgina, The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Richmond, Va., 1992.
McDaniel, Melissa, The Powhatan Indians, The Junior Library of American Indians, Chelsea House Publishers, Mexico, 1996. Potter, Stephen R., Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs: The Development of Algonquian Culture in the Potomac Valley, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993.
Rountree, Helen C., Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1990.
Rountree, Helen C., The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1989.
Rountree, Helen C., Young Pocahontas in the Indian World, J&R Graphic Services, Inc., Yorktown, Va., 1995.