Through an understanding of maps, regions, land, water, climate, vegetation, economy, and resources comes the ability to understand how the Virginia Indian culture developed as a result of the environment
Note: The following information is from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and used with permission.
Maps & Regions
Maps of Virginia Indians
- Department of Historic Resources map
- John Smith's Voyages
- John Smith map 1608
- John Smith map 1608 modified
- Virginia Historical map J Smith
Regions of Virginia's First People
Virginia's first people lived throughout what is today the eastern United States in thousands of large villages. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people resided in each village, which was organized around a complex economic, social, and political structure. The people depended on intensive gardening for most of their food. Before the Middle Woodland era, tribes scattered throughout Virginia differed little. By Middle to Late Woodland, however, they developed strong identities as each adapted to its local setting. In Southwest Virginia, the transplanted Mississippian and local cultures thrived; in the Shenandoah Valley, the Earthen Mound Burial culture grew; and to the east, the Coastal Plain Indians prospered.
When Europeans first made contact with the early inhabitants of Virginia, there were three distinct language groups. These language groups were the Algonquian, Siouan, and Iroquoian. There was a distinct spatial pattern to their settlement.
Algonquian-speaking peoples occupied the Coastal Plain north of the Chowan drainage basin. Algonquian was spoken primarily in the Tidewater region. This was the most densely populated region of Virginia at this time. People depended upon agriculture (maize, beans, and squash) and lived in some 161 permanent or semi-permanent villages located on the banks of the major streams. Each village had from two to 50 houses. Some of these villages were palisaded.
Siouan-speaking peoples inhabited primarily the Piedmont Plateau of Virginia. Also agricultural people, they are less well known than the Algonquians of the Coastal Plain. They had little direct contact with early English settlers who could have left a written record of their villages and way of life before they were altered and destroyed. They may have had less permanent settlements than the coastal plain American Indians (First Americans) and thus may have resulted in less of archaeological record. One group of Siouan people who achieved some significance during the Colonial Period was the Occaneechi, who lived on islands in the Roanoke River near the modern Virginia-North Carolina line. They became middlemen in trade between the English settlements around the Chesapeake Bay and the American Indians (First Americans) in the Carolinas. Today Occaneechi State Park marks the location of their villages.
Iroquoian-speaking peoples lived in two widely separated parts of Virginia at the time of Contact. The Nottoway and Meherrin were among the tribes living in the Chowan Drainage Basin and major tributaries to the Chowan bear their name today. Indications are that these people lived much as the Algonkians of the Coastal Plain. Like many Iroquoian groups, they had a reputation as fierce warriors, one thing that allowed them to hold onto their lands longer than their neighbors to the north.
The other Iroquoian-speaking peoples in Virginia were the Cherokee. Their villages and agricultural lands were in the vicinity of the Great Smoky Mountains in today's North Carolina and Tennessee. However, southwestern Virginia was part of their hunting territory, and others recognized their claim to that land.
Climate & Vegetation
People throughout eastern North America lived in thousands of large villages. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people resided in each village, organized around a complex economic, social, and political structure. The people increased their reliance on intensive gardening for most of their food. Although the developments were not as elaborate in Virginia, Late Woodland people developed strong identities as each adapted to its local setting. In southwestern Virginia, the transplanted Mississippian and local cultures thrived; in the Shenandoah Valley, the Earthen Mound Burial culture grew; and to the east, the Coastal Plain Indians prospered.
The people of the Eastern forest started to produce in large quantities chipped stone axes around 4,000 B.C. The axes were made from tough resilient stone, such as basalt and quartzite. With large axes, the Middle Archaic people could more easily cut wood to build houses and make fires. The resulting forest clearings altered the environment in a radical way. Clearings encouraged the growth of plants and trees that were beneficial to the people, such as berry bushes and fruit and nut trees. Deer, bear, turkey, and other animals came to the clearing to browse on the tender leaves of low-lying shrubs and to eat berries and nuts. The people had made changes to the environment, which brought them direct benefits.
In farming, beans arrived from the southwestern lands about A.D.1000 to join corn and squash as the three major crops. Tobacco came by way of Mexico. Animals, especially deer and turkey, were heavily hunted, as well as turtles and sometimes bear and elk. A wide array of natural plants, nuts, and berries were gathered.
Since the preservation of artifacts from the Late Woodland period is outstanding and the cultures are rich and dynamic, archaeologists have been able to collect much information about group variation across Virginia. Although many of the pieces are missing, we know certain things about a few of the more prominent groups.
Local cultures developed in the mountains and valleys of western Virginia. Southwestern Virginia is said to be a crossroads of Native American culture. Mississippian people entered the region along the Tennessee River system. Ohio Valley groups came in by way of the New River, and Piedmont cultures advanced up the Roanoke River.
The people of southwestern Virginia formed tribal cultures very similar to the groups in the southern Piedmont of Virginia. They made a wide array of pottery tempered with sand, limestone, or shell, and impressed with cord and net. Their homes, about 15 to 20 feet in diameter, were constructed of multiple poles anchored deep into the ground. The tops of the poles were bent over and tied to form a dome-shaped house. The houses were covered with either thatch or bark and clustered around a plaza in the center of a walled village. Daily life was based on intensive gardening, supplemented with gathering wild plants and hunting animals.
The Coastal Plain offered a unique environment of saltwater and freshwater rivers, bays, and marshes. People adapted to it by relying on fishing, particularly for the shad and sturgeon that spawn upriver. From the shallow salty waters, they gathered oysters. Tests on great heaps of discarded shells, called shell middens, show they gathered oysters in the late spring. Oysters provided food while the people waited for the wild and cultivated plants to grow, and were dried, stored, and used later in the year.
By A.D.1300, the Coastal Plain tribes had grown to form sedentary villages supported by small, short-term hunting and gathering camps. Relying more and more on horticulture, the people favored the floodplain and low-lying necklands of rich sandy soil for village sites. Coastal Plain people built their villages creating many long, oval houses either spaced close together and surrounded by a palisade, or dispersed, separated by fields for gardening. Through most of the Late Woodland period, the numerous villages of the coastal groups formed independent tribal societies, but by the 16th century, chiefdoms developed.
By this time, the people were learning to nurture native plant species, including sunflowers, gourds, sumpweed/marsh elder, maygrass, lambsquarter/goosefoot, and amaranth. These were plants that appeared in the clearings created by humans with the axe invented in the Middle Archaic period. People in the Eastern United States also started to raise varieties of squash that were brought from what is now Mexico where squash was first developed.
The subsistence of the Powhatan and surrounding groups was based on horticulture supplemented by hunting and gathering. It is estimated that over 50 percent of the food consumed was maize (Potter 1993: 40). Other crops were beans, squash, pumpkins, gourds, sunflowers and tobacco. Deer hunting was done mainly in the winter in upland regions. Deer were scarce in the heavily populated rivers and estuarine regions. But shellfish and other marine resources were an important part of the diet.
Virginia's climate is not now exactly as it was when the English arrived. In 1607 the Northern Hemisphere was in a slightly cooler period known as the "Little Ice Age." In that period, from about 1403 to 1850, annual temperatures averaged about 3 ½ degrees lower than at present, and West European records indicate that the difference was manifested mainly in more severe winters. Early English settlers' accounts of Virginia winters report more ice in the waterways than is now the norm. There would also have been fewer than today's average of 180 frost-free days per year in which to cultivate crops.
The climate of the regions inhabited by Virginia's first people had seasonal weather patterns. Eastern Virginia's climate is relatively mild. The ocean moderates the seasonal extremes, causing cooler summers and warmer winters. Long, mild springs and falls are the rule, the former occasionally punctuated by severe northeasters and the latter by hurricanes. Summers are humid, with temperatures in the upper seventies to lower nineties Fahrenheit, while winters, which normally begin after Christmas, are humid and moderately cold. It is rare for the smaller waterways to be frozen solid, and only once in living memory (1918) has the harbor of Hampton Roads frozen over so solidly that people could walk on it.
Economy & Resources
Regarding the nature of exchange, there is little discussion in the published literature. We know that some luxury goods and corn were accumulated as tribute by paramount chiefs and that gifts were given in order to secure military alliances among chiefdoms. There is little discussion of the existence of standardized media of exchange (money), and yet shell beads and copper were used to purchase goods. Apparently most of the disk-shaped shell bead strings used in trade, called "roanoke," were manufactured at Cuscarawaoke, a village on the Eastern Shore that was outside of the Powhatan realm (Turner 1993:83). Roanoke was taken on trade missions and used to purchase other goods. But was it a standardized medium such that rates of exchange (prices) were known and important features of trade? Davidson says, "Smith and other early English visitors to the Chesapeake region considered roanoke and peak to be types of Indian 'money,' and these beads were commonly used as currency by both the Indians and the English later in the seventeenth century."
The constant infusion of trade goods into Indian society by the end of the 17th century had a profound effect on an individual chief's ability to acquire more trade items, thereby increasing his wealth and social status and legitimatizing his power. At the same time, the geographic dispersal of colonists limited a chief's ability to control people under his influence. Indians now could encounter colonists and trade with them on their own.
The extent of this uncontrolled trade was dependent upon a number of factors. One of these was an individual Indian's proximity to an English settlement or homestead. Native Americans were more likely to establish independent trade relations with individual European settlers and traders who lived nearby. For those Indian groups, however, that were further away from English settlements but still well within the range of chiefly power and control, compliance with what Grumet calls the "persuasion of power" was enhanced as trade goods made their way to the periphery and hunters sought more furs.
As mentioned above, this growth in deer skin production was done not only to increase the numbers of trade objects that a hunter, his family, or his village would receive, but also to comply with greater production demands made by chiefs as they became more enmeshed in colonial trade and relied more heavily upon the products of that trade to reinforce their status and power.
Demand for deerskins is reflected in the historical records documenting export figures. Prior to 1699, accurate figures are not available on an annual basis. For 1699 and after, large numbers of skins were exported every year. Indeed, many researchers assert that these numbers are extremely low, estimating that for some years, skins were exported in the millions. Export figures did not routinely account for skins that were of poor quality, which rotted in transit, that were small, or that were acquired and transported outside of the major traders. The pressure on hunters to kill that many deer and process that many skins must have been intense, especially in times of rapid change as disease and conflict decimated some tribes and as expanding European settlements displaced others.
In Virginia, this network of relationships began to fall apart at the end of the 17th century/beginning of the 18th century for a number of reasons. One reason for the collapse of trade networks incorporating Virginian Indians is that Indian groups in the Carolinas were very successfully competing for control of the fur and skin trade. As can be seen in the chart, the Carolinas consistently exported more deerskins than did Virginia. By 1707, they had an almost tenfold advantage. Virginia did export more beaver than the Carolinas. This could be due to environmental differences affecting beaver population size. It could also be that the beaver trade became more marginal for the Indians in the Carolinas because they focused so much on the deerskin trade while the beaver fur trade was so well developed to the north.
Sophisticated craftsmanship created a wide range of pottery forms, stone artifacts, and bone tools such as awls, fishhooks, needles, beamers, and turtle shell cups. Accoutrements for the rich, such as beads and pendants, were made from imported shell and copper. Ceremonial and symbolic objects of stone, copper, and shell were also manufactured.
The economy of the Chesapeake Bay region has always been tied to the accessibility of convenient transportation for goods and people. The region's fertile soil, plentiful supplies of fresh water, and situation on the Bay make this an ideal location for agriculture and transportation.
Starting in the Middle Woodland and continuing into the Historic Period, people lavished their artistic ability on their tobacco pipes. Tobacco pipes in the Early Woodland Period resembled large, straight cigars. Later pipes were fashioned into exquisite effigy carvings of birds and animals. Most of the Late Woodland pipes were a short-stemmed elbow type into which wood or reed stems were inserted. Tobacco introduced during the Late Woodland Period and considered a gift from the gods, was reserved for reverent use in medicinal and spiritual supplications. In later times, particularly after contact with the Europeans, smoking for pleasure developed among the Indians, and pipes became commonplace.
Although the gardens were an important food source, the Powhatans' diet was far more extensive. John Smith remarked that for the bulk of the year, Powhatans relied on other sources of food. The waterways afforded a rich diet of fish and shellfish and the woods yielded nuts, fruits and berries. Since the dog was the only animal domesticated by the Powhatans, hunting was an important way to supplement the diet, and was a task relegated to the men of the tribe. At a very young age, a boy was taught the use of the bow. Rather than a recreational activity for the wealthy, as hunting was perceived by the English, Powhatans considered it a very serious business, an important way of securing food and clothing.