Powhatan Confederacy Burial Customs

It is to be regretted that more is not known concerning the burial customs of the Algonquian tribes of Virginia, those who constituted the Powhatan confederacy, people with whom the Jamestown Colonists came in contact during the spring of 1607. Several accounts are preserved, but unfortunately all are lacking in detail. Capt. Smith included burial customs under the general caption of their Religion, and in 1612 wrote: ” But their chiefe God they worship is the Divell. Him they call Oke and serve him more of feare than love.. They say they have conference with him, and fashion themselves as neare to his shape as they can imagine. In their Temples, they have his image evill favouredly carved, and then painted and adorned with chaines, copper, and beads; and covered with a skin, in such manner as the deformity may well suit with such a God. By him is commonly the sepulcher of their kings. Their bodies are first bowelled, then dryed upon hurdles till they bee verie dry, and so about the most of their jointer and necke they hang bracelets or chaines of copper, pearle, and such like, as they use to weare : their inwards they stuffe with copper beads and cover with a skin, hatchets, and such trash. Then lappe they them very carefully in white skins, and so rowle them in mats for their winding sheetes. And in the Tombe, which is an arch made of mats, they lay them orderly. What remaineth of this kinde of wealth their kings have., they set at their feet in baskets. These Temples and bodies are kept by their Priests. . . . .In every Territory of a werowance is a Temple and a Priest or 2 or 3 more. Their principall Temple or place of superstition is at V ttamussack at Pamaunke, neare unto which is a house Temple or place of Powhatans. Upon the top of certaine redde sandy hills in the woods, there are 3 great houses filled with images of their kings and Divels and Tombes of their Predecessors. Those houses are neare 60 foot in length, built arbor wise, after their building. This place they count so holy as that none but the Priestes and kings dare come into them: nor the Savages dare not go up the river in boats by it, but that they solemnly cast some peece of copper, white beads, or Pocones, into the river, for feare their Oke should be offended and revenged of them.” Strachey’s account of the burial customs does not differ greatly from the preceding; both writers referred to the same time and generation, and few of the natives then living had ever seen a white man until the coming of the Jamestown colonists in 1607. A temple or tomb similar to those described by Smith was encountered by the English on the coast of North Carolina during the summer of 1585, at which time it was sketched by the artist John White, a member of the second expedition sent out by Sir Walter Raleigh. The original drawing, together with many others made at the same time, is preserved in the British Museum, London. The legend on the sketch reads: ” The Tombe of their Cherounes or chiefe personages their flesh clene taken of from the bones save the skynn and heare of theire heads, wch flesh is dried and enfolded in matts laide at theire feete, their bones also being made dry ar covered with deare skynns not altering their forme or proportion. With theire Kywash, which is an Image of woode keeping the deade.” This drawing was engraved and used by De Bry as plate 22 in Hariot’s Narrative, published in 1591. But in the engraving the tomb, as drawn by White, is represented as placed within an enclosure, evidently the “temple,” and this would conform with the legend near one of the buildings shown standing at the village of Secotan. In White’s view of this ancient town the structure in the lower left corner bears this description: ” The house wherin the Tombe of their werowans standeth.” This is copied in plate 3, a, being a detail from the large sketch of Secotan. It is evident from the early drawing that the so-called “tomb” was an elevated platform erected within a structure of ordinary form, and the whole must have resembled rather closely the ” temples” or ” bone-houses of certain Muskhogean tribes of the south, as will be shown later. But unfortunately nothing is told by the old writers of the final disposition of the human remains which were first placed in the “temples,” as at Secotan. Later they may have been collected and deposited in graves, or they may have become scattered and lost, but this is doubtful.

The temple tombs, as already described, appear to have stood near, or rather belonged to, the larger, more permanent settlements, and so became the resting places of the more important dead of the community. However, it is quite evident the remains of the chief men were not placed in ordinary graves, even though a “temple” was not available.. This is of great interest and is revealed in a deposition made by one Francis Tomes, relating to the Wyanoak or Weanoc, in the year 1661, after they had removed southward from the banks of the James. The deposition reads in part: ” Then came in sight of the Wyanoak Indian Town which was on the South Side of Wyanoak River where they forded over to the town wherein stood an English built house, in which the King had been shott & an apple Orchard. From thence they went about two or three miles to the Westward where in an elbow of a swamp stood a Fort near which in the swamp the murdered King was laid on a scaffold & covered with Skins & matts which I saw.” But a simpler form of burial existed among the native inhabitants of tidewater Virginia, and probably the great majority found their final resting places in graves prepared near the villages. Smith wrote ” For their ordinary burials, they digge a deep hole in the earth with sharpe stakes; and the corpses being lapped in skins and mats with their jewels, they lay them upon sticks in the ground, and so cover them with earth. The buriall ended, the women being painted all their faces with black Cole and oile, doe sit 24 howers in the houses mourning and lamenting by turnes, with such yelling and howling as may express their great passions.” Very few ancient burial places have been discovered within the region described by Smith, or probably it would be more correct to say few records of such discoveries, if made, have been preserved, therefore it is gratifying to find a single reference which tends to verify Smith’s account of “their ordinary burials.” This refers to discoveries made about the year 1835 on the right bank of the Chickahominy, in Charles City County, Virginia, on the land of Col. J. S. Stubblefield. It mentioned a large shell heap which extended for some 150 yards along the bank of the strewn and had a width of from 30 to 40 yards, and continued by saying: “In this deposite of shells are found a number of human bones of all sizes, from the smallest infant to the full-grown man, interred in pits of various size, and circular form; and in each pit are found intermingled, human bones of every size. Standing in one place I counted fifty of these hollows, from each of which had been taken the remains of human beings who inhabited this country before the present race of whites.” This site does not appear to have been known to Capt. Smith, as no town is shown by him as standing on the right bank of the river, in what would probably have been included in the present Charles City County. The burials discovered in 1835 may have been made before the days of the colony.

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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