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Uses of Games by Early Virginia Indians

Early Virginia Indians played a variety of games, with some of these games reserved especially for men and others for women, girls, and boys. The men and boys had wrestling, footraces, and a game that resembled modern-day football, but the rules were never described in detail by the Jamestown colonists and later English settlers who observed them played among the Powhatan Indians. Gambling among Indian men, along with alcohol consumption, seems to have increased as a form of escapism with the arrival of the Europeans and was made worse by the availability of European trade goods. That behavior seems to have waned over time, however, and was not observed in the twentieth- or twenty-first-century Virginia Indian communities. MORE...


Virginia Indians competed in wrestling matches, although nobody recorded who participated or what the moves were. They also ran footraces, the winner being the first to reach a tree from which some undescribed prize was hung. In addition, there were two versions of a ball game that in some respects resembled modern-day football or soccer, one for men and the other for women, boys, and probably girls. The men's version was a gambling game, played with a small leather ball. Men took turns drop-kicking the ball with the tops of their feet; he who kicked it the farthest won. There is no mention of what the prizes were. The other version—reserved for people who had not undergone or never would undergo the huskanaw, in which boys ritually became men—resembled lacrosse, and was played with a hair-stuffed leather ball and crooked sticks. Teams tried to drive the ball between a goal, consisting of two trees, while the opposition tried to prevent them from doing it. There may have been two variations: one allowing kicking only, the other allowing kicking and striking with the sticks. In any case, no tackling or tripping of opponents was allowed, unlike the English version, called "bandy" (an early form of hockey).

A gambling game using rushes was somewhat better described, though the play in it went so fast that English observers were never sure what its rules were. (Even late in the seventeenth century, when many Indian people spoke English, they seem to have been reluctant to reveal the rules to the English.) There were 81 small reeds, like the sticks in the English game of pick-up sticks. One player would gather them up, spread them into a fan in his hand, close the fan, then cast them down and quickly pick up some of them. His opponent had to guess how many he had picked up, probably immediately, without counting the sticks not picked up. The Englishman William Strachey, who lived at Jamestown from 1610 until 1611, wrote that this game was a favorite with Indian men, who enjoyed not only the mental challenge but also the risk: "They will play at this [game] for their bows and arrows, their copper beads [i.e., jewelry], and their leather coats [buckskin mantles, their only winter clothing]."

As the Virginia Indians were increasingly surrounded by Europeans, they seem to have indulged more in escapist behavior. One form of it was drinking alcohol; another form was compulsive gambling. Several accounts from late in the seventeenth century give a clear picture of desperation combined with a supply of European trade goods perfect for use as gambling prizes, especially for the game played with rushes. This is how one anonymous English writer described it: They sit sometimes whole days and nights at this game, and have an Indian by them to light their pipes, or to fetch them water to drink. They play away sometimes all they have, only [i.e., except that] what they lose in money, if it be paid in [buck]skins or mats or English goods, the winner allows double the value more for it than if he were to buy it. Sometimes they play away their wives and children who become slaves to the winner, sometimes they play away themselves to be slaves, which they do thus: first they play away their feet, then their legs, and so forward until they come to their head: before they lose that, they may redeem the other parts, with less than when they have wholly lost themselves, and played away their whole body; for then they must be slaves, unless they can procure from their friends some more considerable sum for the ransom. They used to pawn their arms and legs, etc., for some certain sum.

Still, later records of the tribes do not mention alcohol or gambling problems, and twentieth-century observers found nothing like the grievous problems that plagued Indian reservations in the western United States. It seems that Virginia Indian men's need for escapism waned, possibly assisted by their communities' ability to survive and adapt to English culture.


Further Reading
Beverley, Robert. The History and Present State of Virginia. 1705. Edited by Louis B. Wright. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947.
Pargellis, Stanley, ed. "The Indians of Virginia." [1688; author possibly John Clayton.] William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., vol. 16 (1959): 228–253.
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Spelman, Henry. "Relation of Virginea." [1613?]. In The Travels and Works of Captain John Smith. Edited by Edward Arber and A. G. Bradley, ci–cxiv. New York: Burt Franklin, 1910. Also published verbatim but with modernized spelling in Haile, Edward W., ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607–1617. Champlain, Va.: RoundHouse, 1998. Pp. 481–495.
Strachey, William. The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania. 1612. Edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund, series 2, vol. 103. Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, 1953. First book also published verbatim but with modernized spelling in Haile, Edward W., ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607–1617. Champlain, Va.: RoundHouse, 1998. Pp. 569–689.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Uses of Games by Early Virginia Indians. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

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

First published: November 3, 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).