Collection: Powhatan Tribes of Virginia

Group of Pamunkey of a generation ago in dance costume.

Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes of Virginia

In the Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes Frank Speck completed the third of a series of monographs dealing with the modern cultural life of communities of descendants tracing their origin from the tribes inhabiting the Chesapeake tidewater area. The future student of American folk-communities of Indian descent will find here new tribes with new trait-complexes to analyze and interpret. These contributions represent some culture aspects of the humble groups who were at the time of writing of this paper, at a climax and turning point in their history. Replete with over 100 photographs and maps, and at least that many surnames, this paper proves its value to both the historic researcher and the genealogist.

Chief William Terrill Bradby, Pamunkey

Powhatan Featherwork

We now come to what is perhaps the most interesting topic in the material life of the southern tribes, the woven feather technique. An art so ancient and so elaborate can hardly be expected to have persisted from colonial times down to the present day where the process of deculturation among the conquered tribes has gone so far. But surprising as it is, the Virginia Indians have not entirely forgotten, nor even lost, the art of weaving feathers into the foundation of textile fabrics. The antiquity of the woven-feather technique is attested by virtually all the authors of the old

Recent Pamunkey pipes.

Powhatan Pottery

First let us look over the material from the Virginia tidewater area. Everywhere here from the southern boundary of Virginia by actual observation, north-ward even through the Delaware valley, the pot-sherds are almost identical in material, decoration and color. Holmes has appropriately called the ceramics of the tidewater “the Algonquian type.” On the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Rappahannock, James, and Chickahominy rivers it is all the same, the rims, decorations, and ingredients being practically uniform within a certain range of variation.

Chickahominy children cracking walnuts with stone mortar and pounder

Powhatan Agriculture

A review of some agricultural practices of the Powhatan shows but a few traces of aboriginal Indian survival by the 1920’s.

Dugout canoe of the Pamunkey in course of construction.

Powhatan Canoes

The means provided by the Powhatan tribes for transporting themselves about in their marshy wastes was the dugout canoe. This article describes these canoes, their method of manufacture, and provides pictures of them and their paddles.

Pamunkey fishermen returning from their nets.

Powhatan Fishing Customs

The Powhatan tribes still adhere to some fishing practices worth mentioning. Until not long ago fish fences were employed. These were chiefly for sturgeon, but now this splendid fish is so scarce that whereas thirty years ago from three to six a day during July and August would be taken, now the record is three a season by six boats fishing the same period. Captain John Smith mentions 52 and 68 being taken ”at a draught.” 1Smith’s account of Virginia in Tyler, L. G., Narratives of Early Virginia, New York, 1907, p. 85. The Virginia explorers noted the great abundance

Pamunkey hunter demonstrating method of calling wild turkey with a wing-bone call

A Pamunkey Turkey Hunt

A scene from the work of a day of one of the hunters (Paul Miles) will convey a picture of life at Pamunkey and help to give a background for an understanding of living conditions.

Big bend in Pamunkey River; Uttamussak in the distance.

Pamunkey Hunting Grounds

Perhaps the most striking feature of all in the natural history of the modern Pamunkey comes before us in the survival of the controlled hunting and trapping rights: the custom by which each hunter in the band controls an assigned and definitely bounded area within which he enjoys the exclusive privilege of setting his traps for fur-bearing animals.

Chickahominy boy with "sora horses" of iron

Powhatan Hunting Customs

The marsh and swamp area of tidewater Virginia is extensive. For many miles both banks of the rivers are bordered by lowlands, which are inundated by the tides. In nearly all the rivers this occurs as far as 60 to 70 miles from Chesapeake Bay. Some of these tracts are marshy flats covered with a growth of dock, rushes, and cattails. Others are overgrown with virgin forests of cypress, swamp oak, swamp gum, maple, and red birch. In the picturesque vernacular of the region such are called “low grounds.” In some places the swamps extend continuously from one to three

Legal Status of the Pamunkey Tribe

The Pamunkey, with a resident population of little more than a hundred, still preserve their national independence under the privileges accorded them by the State of Virginia almost two and a half centuries ago. They enjoy the unique distinction of being in all likelihood the smallest independent nation in the world. Pollard’s synopsis of the political circumstances leaves nothing to be added. 1Pollard, J. G., The Pamunkey Indians of Virginia, Bull. 17, Bur. Amer. Ethnol., Washington, 1894, pp. 15-17. In government the tribe is a true democracy, over which, however, the State of Virginia 2Pollard adds in a footnote: ”The