Who were the Powhatan Indians and how did they live?

The Powhatan Indians were a group of Eastern Woodland Indians who occupied the coastal plain of Virginia. They were sometimes referred to as Algonquians because of the Algonquian language they spoke and because of their common culture. Some words we use today, such as moccasin and tomahawk, came from this language. At the time the English arrived in 1607, ancestors of the Powhatans had been living in eastern Virginia for thousands of years. The paramount chief of the Powhatans was Wahunsonacock, who ruled over a loose chiefdom of approximately 32 tribes. The English called him “Powhatan” and the people he ruled the “Powhatans.” The tribes had their own chiefs called werowances (male) and werowansquas (female), who lived in separate villages but shared many things in common, such as religious beliefs and cultural traditions. Everyone paid tribute taxes, such as deerskins, shell beads, copper, or corn, to the local ruler; the local chiefs paid tribute to Powhatan. In return, they received Powahatan’s protection. Succession of political positions was matrilineal, with kinship and inheritance passing through the mother or female line. This was how Powhatan came to his position as paramount chief.

Powhatan villages were located along the banks of larger rivers or major tributaries. A Powhatan house was called a yehakin (not a wigwam) and was made from natural materials found in the surrounding environment. Its framework was made from saplings of native trees such as red maples, locusts and red cedar. The framework was then covered with either bark or mats made from marsh reeds. Houses were located near the planting fields, which was important because the Powhatans likely had to move whenever their fields were no longer fertile due to weeds, insects or leaching. The Powhatan lifestyle was heavily dependent upon a seasonal cycle. Their planting, hunting, fishing and gathering followed the rhythm of the seasons. They raised vegetables, such as corn, beans and squash, with corn being the most important. They ground corn and made it into flat cakes or boiled it in stews with beans, squash and wild game or fish. The Powhatan ate fresh vegetables in the summer and fall and fish, berries and stored nuts in the spring. Fishing was a spring and summer activity. When other food resources became low, they could gather oysters and clams. Food was most scarce during late winter through early summer when the stores of corn from fall were gone and berries had not yet ripened. During the winter season when brush cover was sparse, the Powhatans hunted and ate game. There was a lot of game in the area: raccoon, deer, opossum, turkey, squirrel and rabbit, among others. Some of these, such as the opossum and raccoon, were strange and unfamiliar to the English, so they adopted the Powhatan names for them. Of all the game hunted, deer was the most important because it was used for food, clothing and tools.

Although all of the Powhatan Indians used basic tools, it generally was the men who hunted, fished, made tools and, most likely, cleared the land for gardens, as this was very arduous work. The women typically did the farming, gathered firewood, made clothing, and prepared and served meals. The children helped their parents. Girls weeded gardens and boys learned to fish and hunt. They played games, such as running games. Since there were no horses in this part of America yet, fast runners were important to the tribes. Young children may also have been placed in small houses in the middle of fields to act as ‘scarecrows’ to keep the crows and other animals from eating the corn crop. Everything they used came from their environment. Both men and women painted their bodies, using paints from oils, bloodroot and animal fats. They rubbed themselves with bear fat to repel mosquitoes and to keep them warm during the cold months. Women pierced their skin to make tattoos of various animal and floral designs. As a mark of wealth and status, the Powhatans wore necklaces and ear ornaments made from materials such as shells, copper and freshwater pearls. In the winter, they wore deerskin with the fur toward their skin. Often, depending upon the season, they wore only deerskin or woven grass garments around their waists. Powhatan children did not typically wear clothing prior to adolescence. The Powhatans probably appeared rather scantily clad to the Englishmen who appeared on their shores in 1607.