Still, the Englishmen were prevented from fully understanding what they observed because they had little knowledge of the Powhatans' language and culture, and had no interpreters for the first year and a half, and few after that. In addition, the English settlers were mostly young men whose understanding even of English law was limited, and their instructions from the Virginia Company of London involved replacing Indian law rather than working within its confines. Under those circumstances, they had little motivation to record any specifics of the Powhatan legal system.
Crime and Punishment
Fourteen-year-old Henry Spelman began living first with the mamanatowick Powhatan in 1609 and then later with the Patawomeck Indians on the Potomac River, becoming fluent in the Powhatans' language and serving as an interpreter. In his Relation of Virginia, 1609 (written in 1611 and published in London in 1872), Spelman recorded the following actions as meriting a punishment of death: committing or abetting infanticide, stealing from a fellow Indian, and having an unsanctioned affair. This last crime applied to wives only, and affairs with a husband's consent were permissible. Captain John Smith described a woman accused of "playing the whore" who was made to "sit upon a great stone, on her bare breech twenty foure houres, onely with corne and water, every three dayes, till nine dayes were past, yet he loved her exceedingly."
Spelman wrote that he thought the Indians were "lawless" until he witnessed a series of five executions. The condemned were brought before the chief's house, where his guards "did bind them hand and foote, which being dunn a great fier was made." Then, the condemned's hair, worn long on the left side, was cut with a shell and hung before the chief's house. After this, they were "Beaten with staves till ther bonns weare broken and beinge alive weare flounge into the fier." A man accused not of murder but of robbery was, according to Spelman, "knockt on ye heade and beinge deade his bodye was burnt."
Disrespect of a chief also warranted death. In The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), Robert Beverley Jr. describes a scene in New Kent County around the time of Bacon's Rebellion (1676). A weroance was giving a speech in the presence of Englishmen when "one of his attendants presumed to interrupt him." Taking this to be a "most unpardonable affront," the chief "instantly took his tomahawk from his girdle and split the fellow's head for his presumption. The poor fellow dying immediately upon the spot, he commanded some of his men to carry him out, and went on again with his speech where he left off, as unconcerned as if nothing had happened." Stealing from foreigners while they were the guests of a chief brought a beating, although presumably it was acceptable to steal from them at other times.
Henry Spelman describes one extraordinary instance where physical abuse, although spontaneous and informal, provided a sanctioned release for the wronged person's feelings. Spelman was living with Iopassus (Japazaws), the weroance of Passapantazy in Patawomeck territory, and he considered himself a guest. However, one of the chief's wives, Paupauwiske, considered him a servant and ordered him to carry her baby along when she traveled a long day's journey to visit her family. When Spelman refused, "she strook me 3 or 4 blows, but I beinge loith to bear much hot to hir and puld hir doune giving hir sum blows agayne." At this point, Paupauwiske's co-wife jumped in, "beating me so as I thought they had lamd me." When Iopassus returned home, Spelman confronted him with his version of events, and the chief immediately "tooke up a couwascohocan, which is a kind of paring Iron, and strook at one of them [the wives] with such violenc[e], as he feld her to the ground in manor deade." Fearing for his own safety, Spelman fled to a nearby house, but when the wife regained consciousness she apologized. Spelman's position was not challenged again.
Indian Law and the English
Perhaps ironically, the English colonists borrowed this Indian practice of extending the bounds of revenge to even nonfamily members of the group. In 1641, the General Assembly passed a law "Concerninge Injuries Rec'ed Fr' ye Indians." It stipulated that when an Indian wronged an Englishman and eluded capture, then another Indian of the same group, chiefdom, or tribe was to be detained as a hostage until the culprit was turned in to face English justice. By the end of the century, the English settlers had successfully imposed their legal system on the Indians. Today the two surviving Indian reservations in Virginia have adopted the Code of Virginia, as well as local bylaws that, except in the case of land ownership, closely resemble those of other localities in the state.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Law and Justice in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2012, June 13). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Law_and_Justice_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen C. "Law and Justice in Early Virginia Indian Society." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 13 Jun. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: June 10, 2011 | Last modified: June 13, 2012
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).