The Contact Period

location of different language groups in Virginia, 400 years ago at the time of European contact
location of different language groups in Virginia, 400 years ago at the time of European contact
Source: Virginia Geographic Alliance, An Atlas of Virginia

Though our knowledge of the lifestyle of the first Virginians is primarily based on archeology, it's a safe bet that the Native Americans did not live in a constant state of peace and perpetual harmony sharing food, fuel, and shelter.

When humans first settled Virginia, the primary considerations of where to live were the availability of food and access to shelter from the bitter winds whipping off the ice sheet to the north. In the course of perhaps 20,000 years of settlement, family groups expanded and formed macro-bands of allied, related families. Different macro-bands of hunter-gatherers must have experienced numerous disputes over which groups would harvest animals and plant food from distinct areas. Later, macro-bands consolidated into tribes, with groups of unrelated people sharing the same leadership and asserting control over different territories.

Through competition and cooperation, different tribes established separate identities. One obvious social or religious difference demonstrated by archeological evidence: the mound building culture of the Southwest/Shenandoah Valley/western Piedmont did not extend across the Fall Line into Tidewater. Archeologists studying the shape of points/tools and styles of pottery can distinguish other boundaries, after identifying the patterns associated with excavated artifacts with distinct characteristics.

By the time of European arrival, Native Americans in Virginia had split into three main linguistic groups.

different tribes controlled different areas at the time of European contact
different tribes controlled different areas at the time of European contact
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the Indian tribes of North America, about 1600 A.D. along the Atlantic, & about 1800 A.D. westwardly (American Antiquarian Society, 1836)

The Algonquian-speaking tribes were in Tidewater. All of the tribes controlled by Powhatan spoke some form of Algonquian language, but so did other tribes who were beyond his control. The Dogue (known also as the Taux or Moyumpse) who lived at the mouth of the Occoquan River owed no allegiance to Powhatan. The Dogue were associated with the tayac (leader) of the Piscataways, another Algonquian-speaking tribe who lived across the Potomac River in what is now Maryland.1

John Smith mapped far more Native American towns on the north bank of the Rappahannock River (blue line), suggesting the river served as a border defining the limits of Powhatan's control when the English arrived in 1607 (NOTE: north is to the right, not towards the top of the map)
John Smith mapped far more Native American towns on the north bank of the Rappahannock River (blue line), suggesting the river served as a border defining the limits of Powhatan's control when the English arrived in 1607
(NOTE: north is to the right, not towards the "top" of the map)
Source: Library of Congress, Map of Virginia/ discovered and discribed by Captain John Smith 1606

The Siouan-speaking tribes were located west of the Fall Line. The Manahoacs and Monacans in the James and Rappahannock river valleys plus the Tutelo/Totero near modern-day Roanoke, spoke Siouan languages.

The Iroquoian-speaking tribes included the Nottoway and Meherrin near the Fall Line in southeastern Virginia, as did the Tuscarora living further south on the Coastal Plain of Carolina. The Cherokee in southwestern Virginia also spoke and Iroquoian language. The fragmented pattern of

different tribes could understand each other well enough to trade, but the variations in language groups (Algonquian, Siouan, and Iroquoian) provide a clue regarding territorial control and cultural allegiances at the time of European contact
different tribes could understand each other well enough to trade, but the variations in language groups (Algonquian, Siouan, and Iroquoian) provide a clue regarding territorial control and cultural allegiances at the time of European contact
Source: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail (p.14)

The short time for human evolution in North America (just 15,000-20,000 years) was not enough to establish physically-distinct species, as occurred in Africa/Asia/Europe as humans migrated out of Africa over the last 2 million years. Still, the separate languages are an excellent clue that Virginia was not a homogenous community when the strangers from England sailed in from the east.

Changes in styles of stone tools and pottery illuminate the different cultures that developed in Virginia since Native Americans first arrived at the end of the last ice age. In contrast to the Olmec, Maya, and others living in Central America, the prehistoric inhabitants of Virginia did not develop writing, and the transmission of oral histories was disrupted after the European colonists arrived. Archeological research has revealed changing life patterns over time, but the best-documented Native Americans in Virginia are the tribes led by Powhatan that interacted with the English after 1607.

reconstruction of Native American dwelling at Henricus Historical Park
reconstruction of Native American dwelling at Henricus Historical Park

reconstruction of Godspeed, one of three English ships that sailed up the James River in 1607 The English were not the first Europeans to trade with the Indians in Virginia. Long before the English explored north from their colonial beginnings at Roanoke, the Native Americans had already acquired metal and glass objects from Spanish and other ships.

The contact period lasted perhaps a century, from the earliest explorations in the 1520's along the Virginia coastline until after Jamestown was settled. We can date archeological excavations through such objects, but some villages were probably affected by European diseases even before they acquired European artifacts.

After three ships sailed upstream and unloaded colonists in 1607, Powhatan sought to control the English primarily through diplomacy. He did not try to expel the colonists by force. Powhatan's strategy of using diplomacy and trade sanctions ultimately failed. His younger brother Opechancanough then tried force, with two uprisings in 1622 and 1644.

The military response by Opechancanough was equally unsuccessful in re-establishing Native American dominance. After each uprising, the English responded with violence and expanded their control over territory, expelling the Native Americans from their towns and hunting grounds.

As the Europeans then settled Tidewater and the Piedmont, the various tribes in Virginia struggled to maintain their land and cultural integrity. However, within 50 years of Jamestown, the English population reached 14,000 (including 500 blacks imported from the Caribbean islands or Africa). The immigrants displaced the Native American societies in Tidewater through land seizures and military action, while disease apparently reduced substantially the number of Native American further inland.1

After Opechancanough's second attack in 1644, the Powhatans were restricted to the territory between the York and the Rappahannock rivers. This was just the start of the westward march of the English and the retreat of the Native Americans. In some cases, official negotiations led to clarification of "property rights" through various treaties - though the two cultures viewed the negotiations through very different perspectives.

In 1686, a French traveler noted that the Native Americans still maintained much of their original lifestyle (and the traveler showed his cultural biases as well):2

These savages have rather pretty houses, the walls as well as the roofs ornamented with trees, & so securely fastened together with deer thongs that neither rain nor wind causes them inconvenvience. These people are darker than the Egyptians we see in Europe. They brand their faces with scars in the shape of snail-shells, into which they put powder & so are marked for life. The women, in the house wear only a deer skin to cover the less mentionable parts In winter they wear the fur against their skin, & in the summer the skin against their skin.

They build their fire in the center of the house, their beds are made all around. They interweave a kind of strong, coarse grass that grows along the river to make a sort of mat, held up by four little forks. They use these as seats. The men of the village wear only a shabby shirt of blue or white linen, & from the time they put it on they do not remove it until it falls in rags, for they never wash anything. Except for this fur, the women have the rest of their bodies nude. The little children are always entirely naked, however cold it may be.

The men do nothing but hunt, & fish, while the women plant Indian corn. The crop belongs to the community, each taking what he needs. The women also make pots, earthen vases, & smoking pipes... They all smoke, as do the men, but as they grow no tobacco, they give game or fish in exchange for it.

The conflicts between English settlers and Native Americans continued long after the Powhatan paramount chiefdom was disrupted after the 1644 uprising. In 1704, local English settlers usurped land of the Nanzatico, a group of Native Americans that included remnants of earlier tribes in the area.

After complaints to colonial officials produced no results, the Nanzatico killed one Englishman that they viewed as a trespasser, plus his family. In response, the colonial militia captured all of the Nanzatico. After a trial, the colony hung 7 Nanzatico men, sold all the others over the age of 12 into slavery in the West Indies, and forced the children to work as servants for colonial officials.3

Portobago Bay
Portobago Bay, on the Rappahannock River downstream of Fredericksburg - former home of the Nanzatico community
Source: US Geological Survey National Map

John Smith and Virginia

The First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609-13)

Treaties Defining the Boundaries Separating English and Native American Territories

Links

References

1. Collier, Christopher and Collier, James Lincoln, the Paradox of Jamestown, 1585-1700, Marshall Cavendish, New York, 1998, p.76
2. Durand de Dauphine, A Huguenot Exile in Virginia, or Voyages of a Frenchman exiled for his Religion with a description of Virginia and Maryland, (Gilbert Chinard, editor), The Press of the Pioneers, New York, 1934, p.152-3
3. Message from Edward Ragan on VA-HIST listserver, June 20 2007, listlva.lib.va.us/cgi-bin/wa.exe?A2=ind0706&L=VA-HIST&P=R25162&D=0&H=0&O=T&T=0

the 1728 survey of the Virginia-Carolina border resulted in a map documenting the presence of a Nansemond town near the confluence of the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers
the 1728 survey of the Virginia-Carolina border resulted in a map documenting the presence of a Nansemond town near the confluence of the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers
Source: East Carolina University, New and Correct Map of the Province of North Carolina by Edward Moseley (1733)


The Real First Families of Virginia
Virginia Places