Art of the Pamunkey Indians

In 1891 the writer was sent by the Smithsonian Institution to visit the Pamunkey Indians and make a collection of specimens of their arts. Few articles could be found which were distinctively Indian productions. Of their aboriginal arts none are now retained by them except that of making earthenware and “dug-out” canoes.

Until recent years they engaged quite extensively in the making- of pottery which they sold to their white neighbors but since earthen ware has become so cheap they have abandoned its manufacture so that now only the oldest of the tribe retain the art and even these cannot be said to be skillful. The clay used is of a dirty white color and is found about 6 feet beneath the surface. It is taken from the Potomac formation of the geologic series which yields valuable pottery clays at different localities in Virginia and Maryland and particularly in New Jersey. Mr. Terrill Bradby one of the best informed members of the tribe furnished in substance the following account of the processes followed and the materials used in the manufacture of this pottery.

In former times the opening of a clay mine was a great feast day with the Pamunkey. The whole tribe men women and children were present and each family took home a share of the clay. The first steps in preparing the clay are to dry it beat it up pass it through a sieve and pound it in a mortar. Fresh-water mussels flesh as well as shell having been burnt and ground up are mixed with the clay prepared as above and the wo are then saturated with water and kneaded together. This substance is then shaped with a mussel shell to the form of the article: desired and placed in the sun and dried; then shaped with a mussel shell and rubbed with a stone for the pur pose of producing a gloss. The dishes bowls jars etc. as the case may be are then placed in a circle and tempered with a slow fire; then placed in the kiln and covered with dry pine bark and burnt until the smoke comes out in a clear volume. This is taken as an indication that the ware has been burnt sufficiently. It is then taken out and is ready for use. The reasons for the successive steps in this process even the Indians are unable to explain satisfactorily.

The collection above referred to as having been made for the Smithsonian Institution was put on exhibition at the World s Columbian Exposition. It consists almost altogether of earthenware. Besides the various articles for table and kitchen use there are in the collection:

(1) a “sora horse” made of clay and already described under the head of mode of subsistence

(2) a “pipe-for-joy” also made of clay. In the bowl of this pipe are five holes made for the insertion of five stems one for the chief and one each for the four council men. Before the days of peace these leaders used to celebrate their victories by arranging themselves in a circle and together smoking the “pipe-for-joy.” The collection comprised also a u dugout” canoe made of a log of wood hollowed out with metal tools of white man s manufacture. Such canoes were formerly dug out by burning and chopping with a stone axe.

A mortar used in pounding dry clay as above referred to could not be obtained for the collection. They are however made of short gum logs in one end of which the basin of the mortar is burnt out. The pestle accompanying it is made of stone.

Of the arts of the white man the Pamunkey Indians have not been ready imitators. There is hardly a skilled artisan among them.


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

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