Development and Differences
During the Paleo-Indian (15,000–8000 BC), Early Archaic (8500–6500 BC), and Middle Archaic (6500–2500 BC) periods, Virginia Indians were nomads who hunted in the large forests that dominated the landscape; as such, they had little need for houses. Where available, they used caves and rock overhangs as shelters and campsites. Examples of these remains are preserved at the Daugherty's Cave Archaeological Site in Russell County and the Thunderbird Archaeological Site in Warren County. By the Late Archaic (2500–1200 BC) and into the Early Woodland (1000–400 BC) periods, the climate changed, many of the largest animals became extinct, and the Indians developed more sedentary lifestyles that involved gardening and foraging in addition to hunting. More substantial shelters became necessary.
Archaeologists have discovered round houses within stockaded villages in southwestern Virginia and small, squarish houses near the Nottoway River, where Iroquoian-speaking tribes lived. Despite these relatively small differences, most houses were basically the same: they were constructed of bent wood covered with bark or mat and had a single door. William Byrd II, who visited a Nottoway Indian town in 1728, wrote that "these cabins are no other but close arbors made of saplings arched at the top and covered so well with bark as to be proof against all weather. The fire is made in the middle according to the Hibernian fashion, the smoke finds no other vent but at the door." Another colonist, William Strachey, who lived at Jamestown from 1610 until 1611, observed that he "who knoweth one [Indian house] knoweth them all."
Materials and Construction
Women built houses, and they spent a good deal of time and effort gathering materials prior to construction. From wild plant fiber they made at least a mile of twine per house, using it to lash together the poles, of which they needed at least fifty, each at least eighteen feet long. These were peeled in order to ward off insects, and used while still fresh and pliable. Hickory, walnut, locust, and hornbeam appeared to work best in this regard.
Construction was highly labor intensive. Sapling poles were cut with a stone axe—iron axes became available through trade only after the English arrived in 1607—and transported to the village, presumably by men. The women then dug or punched holes by hand, set upright poles in them, and back-filled. The poles were then bent inward toward each other and lashed together with twine, roots, or strips of bark (hickory, walnut, basswood, and mulberry worked well). Next, horizontal split-pole batten were tied across the upright members, creating a barrel-vaulted, three-dimensional grid of sorts, strong enough to support several builders. The frame was then covered with sheets of bark or with mats stitched together so that they shed water.
Over time, Virginia Indians began to copy English house construction using their own traditional methods and materials. Bark-covered cabins with gabled ends, raftered roofs, and straight walls became common; only sometimes did they have windows. In 1716, after visiting a Saponi Indian town located in present-day Brunswick County, John Fontaine wrote: "The walls of their houses are large pieces of timber which are squared and being sharpened at the lower end, they are put about two feet in the ground and about 7 feet above the ground, laid close one to the other." Fontaine went on to describe a raftered roof covered with oak or hickory bark, and noted that there was no light except for the door and smoke-hole, in keeping with Indian building tradition. By the nineteenth century, many Indian families lived in log cabins or English-style framed houses.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Hancock, W. Houses in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Houses_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society.
- MLA Citation:
Hancock, William. "Houses in Early Virginia Indian Society." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 22, 2013 | Last modified: May 30, 2014