Powhatan Indian House

Houses in Early Virginia Indian Society

Houses in early Virginia Indian society became necessary after the Ice Age, when the Indians began depending less on the hunt for survival. Among the Powhatan Indians, especially, but elsewhere in the region, too, a house, or a yi-hakan in Algonquian, typically had a circular or oval floor plan and was rarely if ever longer than forty feet. (The Powhatans designed special houses for their weroances, or chiefs, and their kwiocosuk, or shamans.) Built by women, Indian houses consisted of long, bent sapling poles that were covered with either woven-reed mats or bark. They had a single door, which also served as the only source of light and ventilation. Construction was labor-intensive and time-consuming, and Englishmen, who often were hosted by the Powhatans, complained that they were dark, smoky, and flea-infested. Within a hundred years of the landing at Jamestown, the Indians had begun to adopt English-style houses, but adapted them to native methods and materials (building, for instance, bark-covered cabins). After another hundred years, Indian houses had become largely indistinguishable from those built by non-Indians. MORE...


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.

Indian towns, and especially those of the Algonquian-speaking Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco, in the Tidewater, tended to be home to two to twenty families. John White's painting of Pomeiooc, an Algonquian village in the Carolina Sounds, shows more than a dozen structures with rounded roofs and rectangular floor plans; however, archaeological evidence suggests that the Powhatans of Virginia built houses with circular or oval floor plans, perhaps in order to better withstand high winds. Weroances, or chiefs, had larger houses than commoners—the paramount chief Powhatan's house was long and rectangular—while the kwiocosuk, or shamans, also had special temple-houses, called quiocosins. On average, houses were not likely to be longer than forty feet—even thirty feet by fifteen feet was considered large—and lasted between five and ten years.

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.

For mat-covered houses, the women harvested dead, dry reeds, or cattails, from the cold marshes during the midwinter to early spring (the Powhatans called this season popanow). Weaving mats then became a year-round project. For bark-covered houses, they waited until early to mid-spring (cattapeuk), shortly after the sap had begun to rise; this was the best time to remove tree bark, especially from poplar, cypress, elm, and chestnut trees. Sweet gum peeled nearly year-round. Although mat-covered houses were of the "meaner sort," according to the Jamestown settler Daniel Gookin, they were probably more common. Mats didn't last as long as bark, and cattails were easier both to collect and to transport. They were carried on hunting expeditions to cover shelters in camp.

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.

English Reactions

Many of the original Jamestown settlers were English gentlemen accustomed to grand homes. Powhatan houses, therefore, struck them as crude and primitive, if livable. One Englishman, John Clayton, wrote that the interiors were kept "sweet and neat," while another colonist, Robert Beverley Jr., claimed they were infested with lice and fleas. In 1614, Ralph Hamor observed that "we had not been half an hour in the house before the fleas began so to torment us that we could not rest there, but went forth, and under a broad oak, upon a mat, reposed ourselves that night."

Of course, seventeenth-century Europeans were hardly strangers to fleas and lice, and it is possible that the Indians purposely lodged their visitors in infested houses as a joke. Still, the Indians made it a habit to graciously provide the English with food and shelter. During the week of Christmas in 1608, the Kecoughtan Indians hosted Captain John Smith and his party for six or seven cold and snowy days while they were traveling to the Powhatan capital of Werowocomoco. "[W]e were never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wildfowl, and good bread," he later wrote, "nor never had better fires in England than in the dry, warm, smoky houses of Kecoughtan."

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.


Further Reading
Densmore, Frances. Chippewa Customs. Smithsonian Institution: Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 86, 1929.
Egloff, Keith and Deborah Woodward. First People: The Early Indians of Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
Nabokov, Peter and Robert Easton. Native American Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
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

Contributed by William Hancock, a former archaeologist and a retired exhibit designer for the Jamestown Settlement.