Regulorum aut Principum in Virginia typus (An example of the Rulers or Chiefs in Virginia)

Personal Hygiene Among Early Virginia Indians

Early Virginia Indians practiced personal hygiene that included daily baths in all seasons and all weather. They also engaged in occasional sweat baths in sweat lodges, which likely were presided over by a priest and which they believed to be healthy and invigorating. Despite a lack of soap, elite Powhatan Indians washed their hands before eating, according to Jamestown colonists and other European observers, whose writings don't comment on the practices of common people. At least one late seventeenth century European traveler remarked on Virginia Indians who never washed their clothes, a practice that probably originated when they dressed in tough deerskin but which became less seemly after switching to European-style garb. Regardless, by modern standards, Virginia Indians were far more sanitary than the Europeans who arrived in 1607. MORE...

 

People bathed in the streams that ran by their towns, whether these waterways were salty or fresh. Each morning before dawn, people of both sexes and all ages—even babies—washed themselves until the sun came up, after which they went ashore and made an offering of tobacco to the spirit of the sun. Only then did they return home to eat breakfast. The Jamestown colonist John Smith wrote that the Powhatan Indians he observed followed this regimen in all seasons and all weather, leading Smith to assume that they valued hardiness. In fact, they probably also valued cleanliness, which was a luxury Smith knew less about. Familiarity with moving about in the water probably aided young Indians, especially boys who dived for shellfish, in learning to swim. Taken captive in 1571 after a raid led by Paquiquineo (Don Luís), the Spaniard Alonso de los Olmos watched them and reported later that they were good swimmers.

Another method of bathing was the sweat bath, widely practiced in North America. Each village had a sweat lodge located near the waterfront. The lodge itself was low, conical, and closely covered with mats or skins. Inside was a central hearth and room for about eight people to sit on the ground. A "doctor," most likely a priest, was in charge, and it was his responsibility to keep the people in the lodge from fainting or otherwise suffering adverse effects. The hearth was first lined with the pulverized inner bark of the white oak, after which three or four large, very hot stones were laid on the bark. As the lodge began to heat up, the people entered. No colonial writer recorded whether sweat baths were taken by both sexes separately, or in a mixed group, or by men only; however, the people entered the lodge naked and the Powhatans are known to have been modest about members of the opposite sex seeing their uncovered loins, so certain proprieties were probably observed. The doctor then went inside and closed the door. He sprinkled water on the hot stones to make steam, and, as needed, he sprinkled the people as well, to keep them conscious. Everyone stayed in the intense heat for as long as they could stand it, and then they burst out the door and ran into the waterway nearby. The "cure" was said to be very invigorating, though initially the shock to the system made people feel feeble.

Important people, at least, washed their hands before eating: the paramount chief Powhatan is known to have doused his hands in water before and after eating, after which he dried his hands on a bunch of feathers. However, Powhatan Indian culture contained no equivalent of soaps or disinfectants, as far as the records show, so that infections in wounds were a constant danger.

In his History and Present State of Virginia, published in 1705, Robert Beverley Jr. wrote that the Virginia Indians still bathed daily; however, a contemporary of his, the Huguenot traveler Durand de Dauphine, remarked that in the matter of clothing bought from Europeans, the Indians were not as clean—"they never wash anything"—and they wore the garments until they became mere rags. It is possible that the Virginia Indians were continuing a custom they had used for their tougher deerskin clothing; no writer at any period mentioned anything about washing that. Eventually the surviving Indian communities adopted the practices of the Europeans who surrounded them, and daily bathing became a thing of the past until fairly recent times, when hot-water heaters became standard in the houses of most people, Indian and non-Indian alike.

Further Reading
Banister, John. John Banister and His Natural History of Virginia, 1678–1692. Joseph and Nesta Ewan, eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970. See pp. 45–46 for sweat bathing.
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Smith, John. "A Map of Virginia." [Historical section compiled from various texts by William Simmond] In The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631). Philip L. Barbour, ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986 [1612]. 3 vols. I: 119–190. Also printed in part, with modernized spelling, in Edward W. Haile, ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607–1617. Champlain, Virginia, RoundHouse, 1998. Pp. 205ff, 569ff.
White, William. Fragment published in 1614. Printed, with authorship assigned to George Percy, in The Jamestown Voyages Under the First Charter. Philip L. Barbour, ed. Cambridge, England: The Hakluyt Society, 1969 [1608?]. Series 2, Vol. 136, pp. 146–147. Reprinted, with modernized spelling and authorship assigned to White, in Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607–1617. Edward W. Haile, ed. Champlain, Virginia: RoundHouse. P. 141.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Rountree, H. C. Personal Hygiene Among Early Virginia Indians. (2013, October 23). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Hygiene_During_the_Pre-Colonial_Era_Personal.

  • MLA Citation:

    Rountree, Helen C. "Personal Hygiene Among Early Virginia Indians." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 23 Oct. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: July 27, 2010 | Last modified: October 23, 2013


Contributed by Helen C. Rountree, professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University and author of Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries (1990) and Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005).