How did the Powhatan acquire food?

Their Manner of Fishing, John White

“Their Manner of Catching Fish in Virginia,” hand-colored copperplate engraving by Theodor de Bry, after a watercolor by John White, circa 1590.

The local environment provided the Powhatan people with their every need. They obtained about half of their food through farming, which was done in the summer months. Using a system of small mounds, women and children planted corn and bean crops, placing squash and gourds in-between. Corn, the most important crop, as well as beans and squash, were dried and preserved for later use throughout the year. Dried gourds could be used as musical instruments or for bowls, cups, and scoops. To supplement their field crops, particularly in late winter and spring, they gathered fruit, nuts, grain, tubers, and roots.

Alone or in small groups, hunting was the chief occupation of Powhatan men. They used bows and arrows to kill large game like the white-tailed deer and captured small animals such as the beaver with traps or snares. These animals provided the people with many needed resources and materials like clothing, food, and tools. It is likely that most hunting was done in the winter months when brush was sparse. Fishing was done mostly in the spring and early summer; the men caught freshwater fish, ocean fish, and shellfish. They used canoes made from hollowed-out cypress logs or waded in shallow water to fish. Large numbers of fish were trapped in weirs stretched across waterways.

The broiling of their fish, Theodor de Bry, 1590

“Their Broiling of Their Fish Over the Flame,” Theodor de Bry, circa 1590.

Powhatan men and women were highly skilled at fashioning the tools they needed. Men made tools and weapons from wood, bone, shell, and stone. Using a process of grinding and polishing stone, they made axes, mortars, and pestles. Arrow points and tools used for cutting and scraping were shaped by knapping or flaking stone. This process involved striking one stone with another harder stone in an effort to reduce the softer stone bit-by-bit. Men crafted fish nets and fish traps from plant fibers and hollowed out large trees to make canoes. With local clays, Powhatan women made pottery vessels for cooking and storage. They also produced clothing from deer hides and wove mats out of reeds to cover houses.

Their manner of making boats, Theodor de Bry, 1590

“The manner in Which They Make Their Boats,” Theodor de Bry, circa 1590.

The Powhatan Indians participated in an extensive trading network featuring luxury goods. Controlled by the elite, this exclusive type of trading was used as a means to increase social status. Indians who lived upriver traded freshwater pearls for ornaments made from large marine shells collected by eastern people. Metals were scarce in Tidewater Virginia, so the Powhatans also traded for copper from groups outside the chiefdom, some of which came from as far as the Great Lakes. To the south of the chiefdom, they traded for puccoon, a red dye used to make a highly valued paint. The arrival of the English expanded trade opportunities for the Powhatan Indians—in 1611 Sir Thomas Dale related that he hoped to establish “a trade of furs, to be obtained with the savages in the northern rivers.”