Captain John Smith's Chesapeake Voyages: Native Peoples of the Chesapeake
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network

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The English did not find an empty landscape when they sailed into Chesapeake waters. Like much of the rest of North America, the Bay region was home to a diverse assortment of Native groups. Although the Indian population along the Bay and its rivers probably totaled fewer than 15,000, John Smith's 1608 map notes scores of towns and villages. Today historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and living descendants of the people Smith encountered are helping to build our understanding of the lives and cultures of the Chesapeake's first peoples.

Native Ways of Life

The various Indian peoples of the Chesapeake region spoke different dialects and languages, made different styles of pottery, and in general differed from one another in many aspects of life. Yet because they lived in similar environments, in some general ways their lives were similar.

Bay Natives sustained themselves by hunting, gathering plant foods, and farming crops such as corn and squashes. As a result, they lived in a variety of settlements, ranging from towns and villages to small seasonal hunting camps. The camps were located at good fishing spots along waterways and in the forests. Most towns and villages also were built along rivers at sites carefully selected to provide convenient water access for their dugout canoes. Other desirable features were an ample supply of wild food plants, large nearby stands of reeds for making mats, and land suitable for agriculture.

Indian women cultivated several fields each year, staggering the planting across a three-month period so that crops also could harvested over many weeks. Men did the work of clearing new fields, and when the fields became far enough away from the existing village, the women and children who cultivated them would abandon the old family houses and build new houses nearby. Thus neither Native houses nor towns were permanent. When we look at John Smith's famous map of 1608, it is important to recognize that the map is only a snapshot of where native settlements were in that year.

Even though Native houses were not intended to last for more than two or three years, they were rather labor-intensive to build. A bent-wood framework was lashed together with at least a mile of hand-twisted twine before being covered with woven mats or bark. Preparing this twine was another task allotted to women.

Fortified Towns

In most Native towns in the Chesapeake region, the houses were not set in close proximity. In some, however—probably including chiefs' towns, and others where fear of enemy raids ran high—the people built their houses close together and erected a pole-and-bark palisade around the perimeter. Historical accounts mention these palisaded towns, and archaeological excavations have turned up remnants of several of them.

  The Legend and Lore of Pocahontas

Many details of popular stories about Pocahontas are based on the legend that grew up long after she died. There are few period accounts of her life and the places in Virginia where she is known to have lived or visited. Scholars estimate that she was probably born in 1596, the first daughter of Powhatan and an unidentified mother. As a young child she may have lived in her mother's hometown, although that, too, is speculation. Later in her childhood she joined her father and his household, which by that time was probably at Werowocomoco on the York River. Historical records indicate that Pocahontas visited the Jamestown fort several times, probably in the spring of 1608, after Powhatan had captured and released John Smith but before new hostilities had broken out between her father and the English.

In 1609, Powhatan moved his capital, and Pocahontas with it, to a new site called Orapax at headwaters of the Chickahominy River. By 1614 the capital was at Matchut, on the upper Pamunkey River near today's U.S. 360 bridge. By then, when Pocahontas would have been about eighteen, she was married to an Indian man named Kocoum. Pocahontas was captured on the Potomac River in early April 1613 by an Englishman named Samuel Argall. Exactly what she was doing there remains a mystery, although one account of the time mentions that she was visiting “friends” and there is no mention of Kocoum. Argall took her to Jamestown, where she remained for nearly a year while the English hoped to use her in a bartering exchange (for English prisoners and corn) with Powhatan. During that time, she and the English planter John Rolfe fell in love and she converted to English culture and religion. In March 1614 she accompanied the Jamestown governor to a meeting with Powhatan and it was there that she and Rolfe revealed their desire to marry. With Powhatan's consent, the marriage took place in Jamestown in early April.

Tradition holds that the Rolfes married and settled at Varina, several miles down the James from modern Richmond, but there is no documentary proof of these events. It is more likely that the Rolfes set up household on Rolfe's land across the river from Jamestown (now called Smith's Fort), on a creek then called Rolfe's Creek and now called Grays Creek. In due course the couple's only child, Thomas Rolfe, was born.

Shortly thereafter Pocahontas was among a group of Algonquian Indians who sailed to England on a tour arranged by the Virginia Company of London, who touted Pocahontas's conversion to Christianity and English ways as part of a fund-raising effort. She died there in the spring of 1617 at the age of 22, possibly from tuberculosis or pneumonia. Her widower returned to Virginia, leaving his young son to grow up among the Rolfes as an Englishman and then follow him to Virginia nearly twenty years later.

Diet and Work

With dogs the only domesticated animals, much of the Native diet consisted of wild foods and was procured by both men and women. Like their animal-hide clothing, tools, and houses, it nearly always came from sources immediately around them.

Assisted by children, women gathered wild plants and cultivated corn, beans and squash. Native peoples also raised tobacco, a crop that would become a vital part of the colonial economy. Men may have tended tobacco plots, and they were responsible for hunting and fishing, as well as for warfare and defense. In addition to their farming tasks, women collected firewood and prepared meals, including pounding corn into cornmeal at the end of a workday. Children grew up doing what their same-sex parent did.

Chiefs and Chiefdoms

Most Native people of the Chesapeake lived in chiefdoms, presided over either by local chiefs or by paramount chiefs who ruled local chiefs. There were four paramount chiefdoms:

At least some paramount chiefs, including Powhatan who took John Smith prisoner shortly after the English arrived in Virginia , inherited their positions through the mother's line. This meant that when a chief died, the position was inherited by the chief's brothers, with sisters and sisters' children respectively next in line. Contrary to some popular accounts, this system of passing power meant that Powhatan's legendary daughter Pocahontas was not a “princess” in the sense that Europeans understood.

Chiefs governed with the assistance of priests and councilors, who were either lesser chiefs or else proven war captains. Their duties were primarily in military, diplomatic, and religious matters, in all of which they acted as official representatives of their people.

Native Languages

The Indians of coastal Virginia and Maryland spoke languages that belonged to the Algonquian language family, a large group named for the Algonquin tribe of what is now Quebec in eastern Canada. Algonquian speakers lived along the East Coast from Canada 's Maritime Provinces to North Carolina, as well as westward through the Great Lakes and even out onto the Great Plains. Ojibwa, Cheyenne and Arapaho people are only some of the distant groups who were linguistic cousins of the Bay's Native peoples.

Warfare was a constant throughout the greater Chesapeake region. Boys were trained as warriors and prepared to die stoically under the torture that was often meted out to male captives. Long-distance raids were a fact of life, and prisoners included women and children who were adopted into their captors' tribes. As a result of these and other contacts, people in one area would know individuals from elsewhere and might also speak some of their languages. John Smith used the services of multilingual native interpreters on both his exploratory voyages around the Bay. He also described encounters with raiding Massawomecks, a group from the Appalachians to the northeast who were deeply feared by Bay tribes of the day.


Peoples of the Chesapeake region participated in far-flung trade networks. Major trade items included luxury goods such as copper (available by long-distance connections with the Great Lakes), jewelry made from seashells gathered by tribes living on the Atlantic shore and southern reaches of the Bay, and freshwater pearls. The root puccoon, which came from peoples to west and south, was a coveted source of red dye. Items such as copper bangles and shell jewelry often became the property of chiefs, who wore them on special occasions to impress visitors with their wealth and power.

Spiritual Life

The Chesapeake region's Indian peoples appear to have led an intensely spiritual life. Historical accounts indicate that the Powhatans said prayers and made offerings each morning after they bathed in the rivers and gave thanks before meals. Towns would organize religious ceremonies to celebrate harvests and war victories, or to implore deities during times of famine or the impending threat of an enemy raid.

Learning More about Native Peoples of the Chesapeake

Captain John Smith's own writings and maps from 400 years ago survive as vital documentation of the native cultures that existed before Europeans colonized the Chesapeake region. For the most definitive current scholarship on the thriving native cultures encountered by Smith, see John Smith's Chesapeake Voyages 1607-1609 .

The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, designated on December 19, 2006, will advance awareness and knowledge of Chesapeake Native American history. The trail will identify the approximate location of the many native Indian villages that existed in the 17th century and provide a new focus for learning more about the vibrant native cultures of the time and the consequences of European colonization.

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