Location and Population
Most of the towns and all of the principal towns, or capitals, Smith recorded on his map were located along these waterways. Streams were central to Indian towns, serving as sources of food and drinking water as well as avenues of transportation. In addition, the low, flat terraces of alluvial soils at the waterfronts were more fertile and better for growing corn than the soils in the forest. Comparing the locations of the towns on Smith's map against soil surveys by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals that Indian women, who were responsible for farming, had already discovered the best locations for growing food.
Another explanation for the warrior counts, supported by the writings of other English settlers, is simply that Indian towns were not densely populated by English standards. Gabriel Archer said of the James River area below the falls that most towns had a population of between forty and fifty people, while English interpreter Henry Spelman wrote that "ye greatest toune have not above 20 or 30 houses in it."
Virginia Indian town layouts took two forms: one is what anthropologists call a dispersed settlement pattern, the other, a nucleated settlement pattern. In the dispersed settlement town layout the houses were, as Smith put it, "in the midst of their fields or gardens which are small plots of ground … but a little separated by groves of trees." The English colonist and writer William Strachey added that the houses stood "dissite [sited or lying apart] and scattered, without forme of a street, far and wyde asunder." This type of layout was a result of the Indian practice of building houses near their fields. And because Indian farmers practiced shifting cultivation (the system of working land and then abandoning it when the soil loses fertility), Indian residences and towns moved, amoebalike, along the banks of the waterways to wherever there was good farmland. The Indians moved their houses or built new ones near new fields, abandoning their previous residences and land.
Quality of Life
Living in small towns is not always easy. For Virginia Indians, this was exacerbated by the dearth of visual and sonic privacy afforded by their sapling-and-mat houses and by the tremendous societal pressure for each community member to stay within a prescribed role. The Indians worked within a network of kinsfolk; everyone was brought up to know where he or she fit in, and the survival of the community depended on each member, regardless of sex or age, playing his or her part. The network could be wondrously supportive at times—and irritatingly constricting at others. Because there was no government safety net, maintaining good relationships with relatives and fellow townspeople was vital.
Yet another factor enjoining cooperation in the towns was the threat of attack from enemy tribes. Sharing a common enemy binds people together, even those who have been at odds a short time before. The residents of Indian towns had an us-versus-them attitude born of firsthand experience. Long-term feuds with enemy tribes, fueled by the desire of Indian men to excel in battle, would have been another frequent topic of conversation in Indian towns.
Virginia Indians developed ways to minimize conflict among community members. First, their society placed great importance on manners and politeness. Stoicism was a large part of this: people kept their thoughts to themselves. And they took their belongings outside of town altogether—Strachey observed, "Their Corne and (indeed) their Copper, [iron] hatchets, [iron] Howes, beades, perle and most things with them of value according to their owne estimation, they hide one from the knowledge of another in the grownd within the woods, and so keep them all the year, or untill they have fitt use for them … and when they take them forth they scarse make their women privie to the storehowse." Powhatan's multiple storehouses, in 1610, were located three miles from his then-capital Orapax.
Altogether, Indian town life was intensely social, which had benefits and drawbacks: residents were aware of the supportive network, but also of the limitations on acceptable behavior. As long as they met societal expectations—not giving rein to negative feelings in public, or doing anything to incur censure—town life could be pleasant, and far less constricted by a class system and insistence on religious orthodoxy than in contemporary European societies.
Town Life After English Settlement
Some Indian towns survived into the 1700s and beyond, usually on sites or creeks or roads the English dubbed "Indian Town." Two "Indian towns" survive today—the Pamunkey Reservation and the Mattaponi Reservation. In the traditional Algonquian dispersed settlement pattern, though the houses face toward the paved roads, the structures are never exactly opposite to one another: a regimentation common in Anglo-Virginian communities but still alien to the Indians.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Towns and Town Life in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Towns_and_Town_Life_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen C. "Towns and Town Life in Early Virginia Indian Society." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 16, 2013 | 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).