Primary Source: De Bry's “Their sitting at meate"
“Their sitting at meate,” engraving by Theodor de Bry after a watercolor of John White, 1577-1590. From A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, JS84.11.05.
Standards and Skills
Virginia Standards of Learning: VS.2d, VS.2e, VS.2f, US1.3c, US1.5a
Meets National Standards of Learning for Social Studies
Summary and Significance
This image depicts an Indigenous man and woman eating. Key to the image is the assemblage of items in front of the man and woman, which clue the viewer into important objects in mid-Atlantic coastal life. In the original watercolor version of this image drawn by John White, the items are absent. They were added by the image’s engraver, Theodor de Bry, using descriptions of the Indigenous people in the Americas. They offer insights into the material culture of Algonquian speaking peoples.
Historical Background and Image Analysis
John White was an English gentleman and artist. While exploring what would become Roanoke in 1585-1586, John White created portraits of the Indigenous people he encountered and their towns. Meanwhile, fellow colonist Thomas Harriot wrote about the native inhabitants he encountered in an account titled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. In 1587, White was made the governor of what became the famous Lost Colony of Roanoke, along the coast of today’s North Carolina.
The people and places John White painted were in and near the Outer Banks of modern-day North Carolina. While the Roanoke colony was in modern-day North Carolina, the colony was part of the land Queen Elizabeth I granted to Sir Walter Raleigh, land she called “Virginia.” As mid-Atlantic coastal Indians, the Indigenous people John White painted shared many aspects of culture and language with the Powhatan paramount chiefdom to their north. Therefore, historians use these watercolors to learn about Powhatan culture, even though the watercolors do not specifically depict members of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom.
John White returned to England before the members of the Roanoke colony infamously disappeared. By the time he went back to Roanoke in 1590, he found a deserted colony and was forced to return to England once more.
Theodor de Bry was a goldsmith, engraver and printer. He was born in Belgium, but throughout his life he also lived in France and England until settling in Frankfurt, Germany. In Frankfurt, he set up a publishing house. While in England, de Bry had acquired the text of Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report and John White’s watercolors. In Frankfurt, he created engravings of White’s watercolors. These engravings did not copy White’s paintings exactly. While de Bry had never been to America, he inserted his own preconceived notions about the people and places of the Americas. In 1590, de Bry published Thomas Harriot’s account alongside his engravings of John White’s paintings in a volume together. The images and text were primarily anthropological in nature: they included portraits of Indigenous people, depictions of their culture and way of life and images of their towns. Europeans and their interactions with Indigenous people were absent from the volume.
A Brief and True Report was wildly successful and gave Europeans hungry for information about the Americas a glimpse into a place they would likely never see. However, Europeans did not gain an objective or fully truthful view of Algonquian Indian life. Rather, their view of the Americas was filtered first through John White’s and then through de Bry’s motives and biases.
This image is one of Theodor de Bry’s more fanciful renditions of a John White watercolor. In John White’s original “Theire sitting at meate,” a man and a woman sit on a reed mat eating from a wooden platter of hominy. The scene has no background and is instead suspended in beige space. De Bry added scenery to the background: the reed mat sits on the earth, where rocks and tufts of grass appear. He also included an assortment of items in front of the pair on the reed mat. While these objects were not a part of the original painting, de Bry used descriptions from other parts of Harriot’s text to incorporate items that would have been used in mid-Atlantic coastal Indian cultures.
Harriot’s description included with this image reads:
Their manner of feeding is in this wise. They lay a matt made of bents one the grownde and sett their meate on the mids therof, and then sit downe Rownde, the men vppon one side, and the woemen on the other. Their meate is Mayz sodden, in suche sorte as I described yt in the former treatise of verye good taste, deers flesche, or of some other beaste, and fishe. They are verye sober in their eatinge, and trinkinge, and consequentlye verye longe liued because they doe not oppress nature.
By stating that Indigenous people were “sober in their eating” he meant that they did not overeat. He also claimed that because of this, they lived a long time. Harriot’s descriptions often included elements that praised Indigenous people for their “excellencie of wit.” While Harriot was impressed by the intelligence of the Indigenous people he met, he ultimately believed that English culture and tools were superior, and that Indigenous people would soon realize the same thing and “desire our friendship and love, and have the greater respect for pleasing and obeying us.” Ultimately, he still thought they needed to “bee brought to civilitie.”
A Deeper Look
The image contains materials that were central to mid-Atlantic coastal life and culture, which included the Powhatan paramount chiefdom.
- Gourd: Mid-Atlantic coastal Indians would have used a hollowed out and dried gourd for a variety of uses, such as to carry liquids or use as a dishes, cups, ladles, and even musical instruments like rattles in ceremonies. Gourds also were a source of food.
- Tobacco pouch: Before John Rolfe started growing sweet tobacco in America for export to England, Indigenous people grew another variety of tobacco, which was native to the Americas. In Powhatan culture, tobacco leaves were dried over a fire. The dried leaves were smoked, typically by married men, and used in religious ceremonies and rituals.
- Pipe: Mid-Atlantic coastal Indians used clay pipes to smoke tobacco. They also used clay to make pottery vessels for food and storage.
- Walnut: In the mid-Atlantic coastal region where the Powhatan Indians lived, nuts were abundant. Indigenous women and children would collect nuts, including walnuts, in autumn after the harvest. In addition to eating the nuts, they used the oil from some nuts for medicines and used walnuts to produce “walnut milk,” a Powhatan delicacy.
- Fish: Fish was a main staple of the mid-Atlantic coastal diet. Indigenous men caught fish such as shad and herring and collected shellfish such as oysters and mussels.
- Corn: Corn, or maize, was a main staple of the mid-Atlantic coastal Indian diet. Indigenous women were responsible for growing corn and other plants. Corn was often roasted or also could be dried for winter. Dried corn could be turned into flour that was used for bread.
- Oyster shell: Oyster shells were used as tools by mid-Atlantic coastal Indians, for example, scraping charred wood when making canoes. They also were used as cups and ladles for eating and drinking.
- Hominy: The pair in this image are eating a version of hominy, which is corn soaked in water that is then heated until the kernels puff up. This had a higher nutritional value than eating corn straight from the cob.
- Clothing: Both of the of feathers. people in this image are wearing clothing made from leather. Deer hide was a common source of leather. Indigenous men were responsible for hunting deer. Mid-Atlantic coastal Indians did not only use deer for their hides, but ate their meat for food and used their bones to make tools.
- Feather: While this man’s hair is styled in a mohawk, Powhatan men typically shaved the right side of their head and grew out the left side. They often ornamented their hair with a feather or grouping.
- Necklace: Jewelry was important in mid-Atlantic coastal culture. Bead necklaces were often made of shell, like conch and quahog, which was readily available in the area and could be worn by most people. Items of adornment made from hard to get materials were worn by those with high status or in roles of power. Copper beads are an example of a hard to get material, as it had to be acquired through trade with other Indigenous groups from far away.
1. Have students examine the items. Think about the items they see. What do you think the item is? What do you think it was used for? Why do you think it was important?
2. Use the “Deeper Look” section to learn more about the items in the image. Was your prediction correct?
Related Classroom Resources
- Directory: Teaching with Primary Sources Digital Library
- Essay: Who Were the Powhatan Indians and How Did They Live?
- Lesson Plan: How did the Powhatan Interact with their Environment?
- Primary Source: “The manner of making their boates”
- Primary Source: “Their manner of fishynge in Virginia”
- Primary Source: “The browyllinge of their fishe over the flame”
- Primary Source: “A weroan or great Lorde of Virginia”
- Thomas Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, DocSouth, https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/hariot/hariot.html.
- Kim Sloan, ed., A New World: England’s First View of America (UK: The British Museum Press, 2007).
- Helen Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).