Characteristics of Pamunkey Indians

No member of the Pamunkey tribe is of full Indian blood. While the copper- colored skin and the straight, coarse hair of the aboriginal American show decidedly in some individuals, there are others whose Indian origin would not be detected by the ordinary observer. There has been considerable intermixture of white blood in the tribe, and not a little of that of the Negro, though the laws of the tribe now strictly prohibit marriage to persons of African descent.

No one who visits the Pamunkey could fail to notice their race pride. Though they would probably acknowledge the whites as their equals, they consider the blacks far beneath their social level. Their feeling toward the Negro is well illustrated by their recent indignant refusal to accept a colored teacher, who was sent them by the superintendent of public instruction to conduct the free school which the State furnishes them. They are exceedingly anxious to keep their blood free from further intermixture with that of other races, and how to accomplish this purpose is a serious problem with them, as there are few members of the tribe who are not closely related to every other person on the reservation. To obviate this difficulty the chief and councilmen have been attempting to devise a plan by which they can induce immigration from the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina. The Indian blood in the Pamunkey tribe is estimated at from one-fifth to three-fourths.

The Pamunkey, as a tribe, are neither handsome nor homely, long nor short, stout nor slim; in fact, they differ among themselves in these respects to the same degree found among the members of a white community of the same size. They are not particularly strong and robust, and their average longevity is lower than that of their neighbors. These facts are perhaps in a measure attributable to the frequent marriages between near relatives.

The average intelligence of these Indians is higher than that of the Virginia Negro. With a few exceptions the adults among them can read and write. In view of their limited advantages they are strikingly well informed. A copy of one of their State papers will serve to give an idea of the maximum intelligence of the tribe. It reads as follows:

Pamunkey Indian Reservation
King William County, Virginia,
June 26, 1893.

We, the last descendants of the Powhatan tribe of Indians, now situated on a small reservation on the Pamunkey River, 24 miles from Richmond, Virginia, and one mile east of the historic White House, where Gen. George Washington was married to his lovely bride in the St. Peter s Church. We are now known as the Pamunkey tribe of Indians, following the customs of our forefathers, hunting and fishing, partly with our dugout canoes.

We hereby authorize Terrill Bradby to visit the Indian Bureau in Washington and in all other Departments and Indian tribes, and also to visit the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

We, the undersigned, request that whenever this petition is presented, the holder may meet with the favorable approbation of the public generally.

C. S. Bradby, Chief
J. T. Dennis
W. G. Sweat
R. L. Sampson
T. Bradby
Town Clerk
R. W. Miles
Jas. H. Johnson
W. T. Neat
B. Richards M. D.
Members of the Tribe
E. R. Allmond
A. J. Page
G. M. Cook
W. A. Bradby
T. T. Dennis

The Pamunkey Indians are temperate moral and peaceable. Ill feeling between the tribe and their neighbors is almost unknown. They are exceeding proud of their lineage and love to tell how bravely and stubbornly their forefathers resisted the encroachment of the whites. Opechancanough is their hero. They take special delight in relating the familiar story of how this noted chief when old and infirm was carried on a litter to battle that his presence might inspire his men to deeds of bravery.

It may not be amiss to give here a tradition concerning this tribe which is related as explanatory of the name of a certain ferry that crosses Pamunkey river about ten miles above the reservation. The name of the ferry is Pipe-in-tree now spelled Piping-tree. The tradition runs thus: On one occasion the Pamunkey braves met a committee of white settlers at this place and negotiated a treaty. When all the terms had been agreed to the consummation of the treaty was solemnized in usual Indian fashion by handing around the same pipe to the representatives of both nations each taking a puff as indicative of friendship and good faith. The pipe was then deposited in a hollow tree nearby and ever afterward when the colonists disregarded their agreement the poor Indians would remind them of u pipe-in-tree.”

Aside from their mode of subsistence there is nothing peculiar in the manners and customs of these people except perhaps an inclination to the excessive use of gaudy colors in their attire. Their homes are comfortable and well kept. The houses are weather boarded and are as a rule one-story-and-a-half high and consist of from one to four rooms. The best structure on the reservation is their church building where services are held every Sabbath. The church receives the hearty support of the whole tribe the membership of the church and that of the tribe being almost coextensive. As to their creed they are all of one mind in adhering to the tenets of the Baptist denomination.


Pollard, Jno. Garland. Pamunkey Indians of Virginia. Bureau of Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1894.

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