Getting Here and Getting Around - Native American Transportation in Virginia

Bering Strait
Bering Strait (Source: NOAA)

The Vikings got to the North American continent much earlier than Columbus made it to the Caribbean islands in 1492, but both found the New World had already been settled by prior immigrants. The Spaniards called the people they discovered "Indians," but Columbus never made it to India or China.

The first humans to reach Virginia arrived when sea levels were much lower, perhaps 15,000 years ago - more than 10,000 years before the Chesapeake Bay reached its current shape.

The gap between Russia and Alaska is covered with water now, the Bering Strait. During the Ice Ages, however, sea level was hundreds of feet lower because so much water was trapped in glaciers, and there was a land bridge connecting the two continents. The traditional scientific consensus is that Asians crossed to North America and the genetic stock that settled Virginia originally was derived from the hunting groups that moved across that land bridge. By that theory, the first Virginians were hikers carrying camping and hunting gear, wandering south and east until reaching the Atlantic Ocean.1

Virginia may have been populated from the western side of North America - but another theory is that they came by boat, from Europe, during the Ice Ages. Paddlers could have entered Virginia from the east, hunting seals and catching fish as they traveled through a biologically-rich corridor along edge of the frozen Atlantic Ocean ice. Humans traveled across water to reach Australia 40,000 years ago, and the Paleocoastal peoples who settled on the West Coast 11,000-12,000 years ago paddled to the Channel Islands off the California coast.2

Settlement from Europe might explain how the Clovis points found in Virginia most closely resemble stone tools that were developed near Solutré in southern France, rather than technology found in Siberian archeologic sites. Initial settlement from the east could also explain why Clovis points are more numerous in the Southeast. Also, geological sources of the stone found in stockpiled caches with Clovis points suggest the population was migrating north and west, rather than from the Pacific Ocean to the east.3

However, there are serious doubts about the 5,000-year gap between the dates of the Solutrean and Clovis cultures, the capacity for long distance boat travel at the end of the Ice Age, and the suitability of the ice-edge corridor for migration. A solid edge to the ice shelf may have existed only briefly each year, and the shelf could have generated more icebergs than seals.4

We know that global warming and global cooling have caused the shape of the continents to vary. The Atlantic Continental Shelf east of the Coastal Plain was exposed 18,000 years ago when the ice sheets covered Canada and parts of the United States south to Pennsylvania. When the glaciers and ice caps locked up vast amounts of water at the maximum extent of the Wisconsin glaciation, Virginia extended much further to the east.

Atlantic Continental Shelf (between the green uplands and the dark blue deep ocean)
Atlantic Continental Shelf, on which the first Virginians may have hunted and camped
(look for light blue zone between the brown Blue Ridge, green Piedmont/Coastal Plain, and the dark blue deep ocean Abyssal Plain)
Source: NOAA

The first Native Americans in Virginia arrived before the Ice Age ended. As the ice slowly melted and sea levels rose, Virginia's Atlantic Ocean shoreline shifted to the west. In the Paleo and Archaic periods, foragers in Virginia had to cope with changing habitats and shorelines as climate shifted, river valleys on the Continental Shelf flooded, and the Chesapeake Bay formed.

Sea levels are still rising today. The land along Virginia's coast may also be sinking, due to geotectonic causes that are not fully understood. As a result, the Chesapeake Bay will expand and more of the Coastal Plain will gradually be covered with water. Barrier islands are migrating westward. If that pattern continues over the next few centuries, Tangier Island will be completely inundated and low-lying cities such as Norfolk will have to build massive flood walls... or people will have to migrate inland. If the Atlantic Ocean rises and "trangresses" onto the Coastal Plain, it won't be the first time that changing sea levels have altered settlement patterns in Virginia.

However and whenever they arrived, the Native Americans in Virginia were a low-tech culture compared to modern-day Virginians. If the Paleo-Indians walked to Virginia, then thier ability to go further was blocked by the ocean (located then at the edge of the modern Atlantic Continental Shelf). If the first Virginians arrived in boats along the edge of the ice pack (the Solutrean hypothesis), then whatever capability those migrants had to navigate in the open ocean and fish/hunt offshore was lost.

The American Indians in Virginia got around the state for perhaps 15,000 years by walking. They created a network of paths, where they travelled regularly from their towns to good territories for hunting and fishing and gathering of wild foods. Paths also connected their towns, located near good drinking water and agricultural land - and the easy fords across the rivers.

Most likely, the first Virginians explored all the gaps for crossing over mountain ranges, and climbed all the mountain peaks. Even if later Europeans did not document the existence of marked Native American trails going to the tops of Virginia's mountain peaks, there were no "first ascents" in Virginia by anyone who arrived after 1607.

Technology for land transportation at the time of European contact had not improved in 15,000 years. The Native Americans who greeted the Jamestown settlers (or the Spanish who arrived 37 years earlier...) were still walking to get from Point A to Point B, on land. No Native American in Virginia used a wheel for transportation, or traveled on a horse, before the Europeans arrived.

Modern horses were introduced to North America by the Spanish and other Europeans who colonized the New World after 1492. There were no horses in Virginia between the time humans settled here and the Europeans brought horses. (Like starlings and honeybees, modern horses are a European species that reached America only after Columbus. The wild horses on the barrier islands - described to many young readers in Misty of Chincoteague - may have been survivors from Spanish shipwrecks in the 1500's, but are probably horses that escaped from (or were abandoned by) early English settlers.

wild horses on Assateague Island - a species brought to North America by explorers and colonists starting in 1500's
wild horses on Assateague Island - a species brought to North America by explorers and colonists starting in 1500's

Native Americans canoeing, as depicted on a 1600's Dutch map
Native Americans canoeing, as depicted on a 1600's Dutch map
Source: Library of Congress, Nicolaes Visscher, Novi Belgii Novĉque Angliĉ : nec non partis Virginiĉ tabula multis in locis emendata

The Native Americans in Virginia never developed sailing ships, but they were using canoes routinely when the Europeans like John Cabot sailed along the North American shoreline at the end of the 15th Century. By 1607, Powhatan's power extended across the Chesapeake Bay to the tribes on the Eastern Shore.

Powhatan's capital was on the north bank of the York River at Werowocomoco, but he still controlled the Eastern Shore
Powhatan's capital was on the north bank of the York River at Werowocomoco, but he still controlled the Eastern Shore
Mpa Source: Color Landform Atlas of the United States)

It was physically possible to walk from "Powhatan's flu" northward, around the tip of the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore, and down to what the English labelled Cape Charles in 1607 - but Powhatan did not control much land north of the Rappahannock River.

To get from Werowocomoco to the Eastern Shore part of Tsenacommacah, Powhatan's people used canoes to cross the Chesapeake Bay. Paddling a canoe 20 miles, loaded with people and corn, may have been tiresome and risky when storms blew up on the bay, but it must have been a common activity in the early 1600's.

The Algonquians built those canoes with stone and bone tools, plus fire. Cutting a large standing tree with just fire and stone axes is possible theoretically, and would have allowed the Indians to select the most desirable tree trunks - but the investment in labor would have been immense.

making canoes with stone and fire
making canoes with stone and fire
Source: Theodore De Bry Copper Plate Engravings, The Manner of Making Their Boats

Whenever a Native American leader determined a fire should be set at the base of a tree standing on a shoreline in order to start construction of a new canoe, surely some of the workers assigned to the task must have mumured "there is a more reasonable way to find a suitable log for shaping into a canoe..."

On occasion, floods brought a supply of trees to the boatmakers. Already available, in-the-water flood debris could be sorted for tree trunks that could be shaped into a new canoe. The floods eliminated the hard work of cutting big trees in the forest with fire and stone/bone tools. However, dragging giant trunks up from a waterway onto dry land, for carving/burning into the shape of a canoe, would have required great effort.

Whenever a Native American leader determined that a tree trunk tangled in flood debris should be used to start construction of a new canoe, surely some of the workers assigned to the task must have mumured "there is a more reasonable way to find a suitable log for shaping into a canoe..."

Once a tree trunk was selected and burned/cut to the correct length, Native Americans used fire plus stone tools to make a canoe. Making a canoe in Virginia before the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English arrived would have required several weeks, and perhaps a month or more of work. Those boats were manufactured with Stone Age tools, until the Europeans arrived and brought iron and steel. The Powhatans made canoes from trees, burning and scraping away charred wood with sharp stones/shells until the trunk had been hollowed out.

hand-carved canoe at Jamestown, made by burning the wood in the center and scraping the charred wood with bone and stone tools

How do you burn a tree so it ends up as a canoe? Coals would be placed on the section of tree to be removed, charring the wood and making it easier to scrape away. But how did the canoe makers avoid burning sections of tree trunk that were not to be removed? Mud, good ol' Virginia mud. Mud was plastered on the edges of the trunk, ensuring that only the sections intended to be removed would burn. A thick layer would be slathered carefully on the edge of the tree trunk, and it would stop the fire from weakening the portion of wood that was being retained.

prehistoric stone ax, with a blade too dull to cut a tree without constant resharpening
prehistoric stone ax, with a blade too dull to cut a tree without constant resharpening
Source: Smithsonian Institution, An Archeological Survey of Southwest Virginia (p.187)

Whether the Native Americans selected the best trunks from the intermittent flood logjams, or used a standing tree on land, there was a great deal of work required to convert tree trunks into canoes. In 1608, returning from his second exploration of the Chesapeake Bay, John Smith discovered that threats to destroy canoes (cutting them into "peeces") caused Nansemond warriors to capitulate to his demands for food:5

...we began to cut in peeces their Canowes, and they presently to lay downe their bowes, making signes of peace: peace we told them we would accept, would they bring us their Kings bowes and arrowes, with a chayne of pearle; and when we came againe give us foure hundred baskets full of Corne, otherwise we would breake all their boats, and burne their houses, and corne, and all they had. To performe all this they alledged onely the want of a Canow; so we put one a drift & bad them swim to fetch her: and till they performed their promise, wee would but onely breake their Canowes.

They cryed to us to doe no more, all should be as we would: which presently they performed, away went their bowes and arrowes, and tagge and ragge came with their baskets: so much as we could carry we tooke, and so departing good friends, we returned to James Towne...,/dd>

hand-carved canoe at Jamestown, made by burning the wood in the center and scraping the charred wood with bone and stone tools
hand-carved canoe at Jamestown, made by burning the wood
in the center and scraping the charred wood with bone and stone tools
(protecting the edges with mud, so they did not burn)

Native Americans in Virginia never developed sailing technology, so they could not get across the Atlantic Ocean to "discover" Bermuda or Europe. The Eastern Shore was accessible by canoe, but Native Americans from Virginia reached points further east only when transported there in European sailing ships.

The first Virginians lacked access to horses until Spanish and English ships brought them to North America. There are iconic images painted in the 1800's of Native Americans hunting buffalo while riding horses, reflecting the quick adoption of horse culture on the Great Plains after Spanish mustangs began to reproduce widely west of the Mississippi River - but that sort of hunt never occurred in Virginia.

After arriving in Jamestown in 1607, English colonists displaced Algonquian-speaking and Siouian-speaking groups before horses became common in Virginia. The Susquehannock, Iroquois, Cherokee, Shawnee, and other groups traveled by foot when they crossed the Piedmont and the valleys west of the Blue Ridge to raid each other and colonial farms.

no Native American in Virginia used a horse to hunt a buffalo, unlike the Plains Indians on the Upper Missouri in the 1800's
no Native American in Virginia used a horse to hunt a buffalo, unlike the Plains Indians on the Upper Missouri in the 1800's
Source: Smithsonian Institution, Buffalo Chase, a Single Death (by George Catlin)

Links

Native Americans in Virginia, unlike their counterparts on the Great Plains, did not take advantage of horses to hunt or defend lands against American settlement
Native Americans in Virginia, unlike their counterparts on the Great Plains, did not take advantage of horses to hunt or defend lands against American settlement
Source: Smithsonian Institution, Comanche Feats of Horsemanship (by George Catlin)

References

1. "On the Trail of the First Americans," Scientific American, October 18, 2011, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=pringle-first-americans-trail-interactive (last checked July 5, 2012)
2. "11,000-Year-Old Seafaring Indian Sites Discovered on California Island," Western Digs, January 6, 2014, http://westerndigs.org/11000-year-old-seafaring-indian-sites-discovered-on-california-island/ (last checked January 10,2014)
3. Dennis J. Stanford, Bruce A. Bradley, Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America's Clovis Culture, University of California Press, 2012, p.40
4. Kieran Westley, Justin Dix, "The Solutrean Atlantic Hypothesis: A View from the Ocean," Journal of the North Atlantic, Vol. 1 (2008), p.89, http://dx.doi.org/10.3721/J080527 (last checked July 5, 2012)
5. John Smith, The generall historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles, together with The true travels, adventures and observations, and A sea grammar - Volume 1, Chap. VI. The Government surrendred to Master Scrivener., p.136, online at Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gdc/lhbcb.0262a (last checked October 6, 2012)


Transportation in Virginia
"Indians" of Virginia - The Real First Families of Virginia
Virginia Places