Uses of Bridges by Early Virginia Indians

Early Virginia Indians built bridges in various places in eastern Virginia, although perhaps not very many. This was in part due to the fact that Indians used stone tools and did not domesticate draft animals to assist with their work. The bridges connected arterial roads that crossed waterways, parts of villages separated by water, and adjacent, heavily used points along important waterways, and were constructed according to the resources, technology, and needs of the native people. The limitations on building technology were especially apparent in an account written by the early Jamestown settler John Smith, who was led across a bridge into Chief Powhatan's capital at Werowocomoco. As his guides well knew, the bridge was not made for people wearing boots, and he was forced to submit to an embarrassing rescue by canoe. In this case, the bridge was a convenient diplomatic tool. The English saw the Indian technology as crude and unsophisticated, and the Indians could manipulate those impressions to gain the upper hand in formal encounters. MORE...


Location and Construction

Evidence for Native American bridges comes from the English colonists' mid-seventeenth-century land records; mentions of them are few in number, however, possibly because Indian people did not build very many bridges. Construction of this kind was difficult because the Indian world contained no draft animals (horses and oxen were European domesticates) or wheeled vehicles; heavy loads were transported in canoes instead. Indian builders also were slowed down by stone tools that kept an edge poorly, which did not promote working with large timbers.

Some of the recorded bridges were located along major arterial paths, or roads, where a long detour around a stream's headwaters would be too onerous. An example of this was the "Indian bridge" that crossed one of the headwaters of the Corotoman River in Lancaster County in 1664. Meanwhile, other bridges connected adjacent parts of towns separated by water, like the bridge across the head of Occohannock Creek in Accomack County in 1650. The Occohannock Indians' main town was located far upstream and apparently built on both sides of the creek, necessitating a lot of coming and going. In such an instance, a bridge made sense.

Bridges also connected adjacent points along major waterways, especially if both points were in heavy use for living and farming. That was the case at Werowocomoco, the capital of Powhatan's dominions (Captain John Smith described the town in various written accounts of his experiences among the Indians). Located on a wide, shallow bay along the north bank of the York River, Werowocomoco was centered on a neck formed by two small creeks flowing into the bay. The town's bridge crossed Leigh Creek—its Indian name was never recorded—and connected it with an adjacent neck. On one side was the main town, including Powhatan's compound. On the other side likely were fields but few if any houses, judging by archaeological survey. Still, the continual coming and going of townspeople necessitated the bridge, which crossed the creek and also a considerable expanse of marshland. Although rather long, it was not substantial by English standards, much less modern ones.

Smith's description of the bridge is terse: "grained stakes and rails." This means that trees with distinct forks ("grains") were laboriously cut, trimmed, brought to the site, and rammed upright into the mud, probably requiring a massive community effort. Poles ("rails") were then laid between pairs of forks. Their length and diameter are unknowable; if they were long and not thick enough to withstand a certain weight, they would have sagged considerably in the middle when trodden on. There is no indication in Smith's account of any kind of handrail, and the tops of poles were not leveled off. Such finishing would have required metal planing tools the Indians did not possess. As a result, crossing the bridge required good balance, and was much more easily done barefoot or in moccasins than in the thick-soled boots worn by Europeans.

Smith's 'Dreadful Bridge'

In one memorable episode, John Smith described crossing a bridge in what appears to be an attempt by his Indian hosts to embarrass him. Two months earlier, Smith had stayed in Werowocomoco as a captive. Now, in February 1608, he was returning as a foreign dignitary. His superior, Captain Christopher Newport, had brought him in a ship armed with cannon, at a time when all firearms were a fearsome novelty to the native people. Adding to what the Indians perceived to be an aggressive posture was Newport's decision to remain aboard ship rather than coming ashore to meet Powhatan immediately as an equal. The best retaliation was to humiliate the English commander's emissary and his men, even if Powhatan's people had nothing much—at that early date—against Smith himself.

When Newport and Smith's ship arrived at the bay on the York River near Werowocomoco, Indian guides, according to protocol, accompanied them in a large rowboat the rest of the way to the capital. However, the town was difficult to see from the water. Unlike English settlements, Indian settlements were not easily spotted clusters of waterside houses but a mixture of trees, gardens, and houses covered in bark or reed mats that were hard to distinguish from bare trees in the wintertime. Perhaps because of this—or perhaps because the Indians wished to play a joke at Smith's expense—the rowboat went to the wrong neck of land: a reception party that included a son of Powhatan directed Smith and his twenty-man landing party to the side of Leigh Creek that contained the fields, not the side with the houses and Powhatan's compound. To their chagrin, Smith and his men soon found that they were expected to cross Leigh Creek by bridge.

Smith interspersed half of his men amongst the Indian escort and ordered the other half (with their firearms) to remain behind until the first contingent had reached dry land again in safety. As the procession started across, a substantial proportion of the town's population likely watched in fascination from the other side of the creek. Clad in their heavy winter clothing and soldiers' boots, Smith's men found their footing precarious and their weight dangerous. The "dreadful bridge," as Smith called it, sagged so low that Powhatan's people took pity on them and removed them into a canoe.

It is no surprise, then, that the English were unimpressed with Indian bridges, as they were with much of Indian technology. They ignored the fact that the Indians did not have access to metal tools or large domesticated animals in harness for building elaborate works of wood or stone. The English came from a world that judged people and whole societies according to the size and elaborateness of the structures they built, the richness of their clothes, and so on. Indian bridges, therefore, contributed to the Englishmen's impression that Indians were "inferior" people in need of instruction in the "proper" ways to do things.


Further Reading
Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Smith, John. "A True Relation." In The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631). Philip L. Barbour, ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. 3 vols. I: 63, 65, 73. Also printed, 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. 166, 170.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Uses of Bridges by Early Virginia Indians. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

MLA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. "Uses of Bridges by Early Virginia Indians." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: July 27, 2010 | Last modified: May 30, 2014

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).