Courtship and Marriage Ceremony
Women became eligible for marriage once they reached puberty and were able to
fulfill their obligation to bear children. Men became eligible once they had
completed the huskanaw, a ritual that initiated them into manhood. Only then were they considered
able to fulfill their obligation to hunt, fish, and fight.
The man then returned to his parents' town (if indeed the bride and groom did live in different towns) and prepared a house and furnishings, both of which were probably made for him by his female relatives. The two families then met for a formal marriage ceremony, apparently at the bride's home. After the groom delivered the bridewealth, the bride's father or some other elder joined the couple's hands together and broke a long chain of shell beads over their heads. After another feast, the couple took up residence in their new house.
William Strachey, a Virginia Company of London
secretary and author of The Historie of travaile into Virginia
Britannia (1612), wrote that "According to the order and custome of
sensuall heathenisme," Powhatan may have had "many more then one hundred" wives
who lived in various houses and took turns keeping him company: "when he lyeth on
his bedd, one sittith at his head and another at his feet; but when he sitteth at
meat, or in presenting himself to any straungers, one sitteth on his right hand,
and another on his leaft … ." Strachey continued that, of Powhatan's many wives,
According to Henry Spelman, an English boy who became fluent in the Powhatans' Algonquian dialect, Powhatan chose his wives based on their beauty. But a wife's family background probably mattered, too. Chiefs like Powhatan had to be canny politicians, and they likely married wives from different towns in order to create in-laws who might serve as allies. By keeping his wives only until they bore a child, Powhatan was able to continue accumulating wives and to forge useful family connections through their children. Strachey also emphasized the importance of children, writing that many wives produced "manie children, who maie, if chaunce be, fight for them [their parents] when they are old, as also then feed and mayntein them." Powhatan's former wives, meanwhile, were free to remarry sometime after bearing their children—probably once the child was old enough to rejoin Powhatan's household (about eight years old). In this way Powhatan could assume that each mother paid attention only to his child during that child's formative years.
If the first marriage was for life, Strachey wrote, then all others were temporary. They were negotiated for a specified time, such as a year, "after which they [the spouses] may putt them awaye," or decide not to renew the contract. But "if they keepe them longer then the tyme appointed, they must ever keepe them, how deformed, deceased, or unaccompaniable soever they may prove." These kinds of marriages, in a society whose men regularly went to war, would have been particularly advantageous to the older widows.
Wives were allowed to engage in sexual relationships outside of their marriage, so long as these arrangements were sanctioned by their husbands. Strachey, perhaps reflecting a monogamous English society, was scandalized by this practice. He described the Powhatans as "most voluptious," and suggested that wives, given permission, turned into "Virgill's scrantiae," scrantiae being an old Roman epithet for unchaste women. (It was actually the ancient Roman playwright Plautus who coined the word.) According to Strachey, such women "may embrase the acquaintance of any straunger for nothing, and it is accompted no offence," a circumstance that left them "full of their countrye desease (the pox) very young." In fact, however, Powhatan women probably behaved less according to their sexual whims than to the dictates of custom: husbands often loaned their wives to visitors as a form of hospitality.
Unsanctioned affairs, on the other hand, resulted in sometimes-severe punishments. If caught in the act, the male offender could be executed. Women may have been punished in other ways. In his Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), Captain John Smith wrote that Powhatan "made a woman for playing the whore, 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." Such treatment may be why, according to Strachey, women were "very carefull not to be suspected of dishonesty." Another colonist, Gabriel Archer, suggested that the wives of chiefs did not enjoy the freedom to carry on extramarital affairs.
After English Contact
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Marriage in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Marriage_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen C. "Marriage in Early Virginia Indian Society." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 25, 2011 | 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).