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First People: The Early Indians of Virginia 

  Indians A.D. 16001800                                                 Page 1 of 4  

Coastal Plain Indians
When Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the Western Hemisphere, or, more precisely, the West Indies, he believed he had found a new trade route to Asia.  Thinking he had landed in India, he called the native people "Indians."  The coastal groups in Virginia first encountered European explorers in the 1520s.  During this early period, the natives likely traded with the Europeans to give them fresh water, fruit, and meat.

The first English colonists arrived in North America in 1584 at Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina.  The next year, a group of these settlers explored southeastern Virginia.  The Roanoke colony found it difficult to survive and ran out of food and supplies.  In 1590, when the colony's leader, John White, returned from England, he found the settlement deserted.  What happened to the "lost colony" remains a mystery to this day.

The first English colony in North America that managed to survive began at Jamestown in 1607.  Although this settlement also ran out of supplies and nearly perished, it grew as increasing numbers of colonists arrived.

Led by Captain John Smith, the settlers immediately explored the surrounding country, traveling up the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac Rivers as far as the fall line.  They observed and wrote about the many villages and natives they met.  Smith published an accurate map of the Coastal Plain of Virginia, marking the villages the scouting party discovered.  Smith wrote of the Indians, "The men bestowe their times in fishing, hunting, wars and such manlike exercises...The women and children to the rest of the worke.  They make mats, baskets, pots, morters, pound their corne, make their bread, prepare their victuals, plant their corn, gather their corn, beare al kind of burdens and such like." 

About their dress, he wrote, "[The Powhatans are] generally tall and straight, of a comely proportion, and of a colour browne...Their haire is generally black, but few have any beards.  The men weare halfe their heads shaven, the other halfe long...The [Women's hair] are cut in many fashions agreeable to their years, but ever some part remaineth long.  They are very strong, of an able body and full of agilitie, able to endure to lie in the woods under a tree by the fire, in the worst of winter."

Wahunsunacock was the paramount chief, or "Powhatan," of the chiefdom when the colonists first arrived.  His title and the name of the chiefdom were one and the same.  By 1607, many of the villages of the Algonquian-speaking people were brought under one rule by Wahunsunacock and formed the Powhatan paramount chiefdom.  Wahunsunacock ruled more than 32 subchiefdoms in more than 150 villages of various sizes, which he controlled through inheritance and power.  In war, the districts fought for him; in peace, they paid taxes on their produce.  The chief, in return, aided them in times of need. Wahunsunacock died in 1618.

One of Wahunsunacock's daughters from one of his many wives, the famous Pocahontas, was kidnapped by the colonists.  Pocahontas was the first Indian woman to marry an English colonist when she took John Rolfe for her husband in 1614.  Rolfe introduced a mild West Indies strain of tobacco to Jamestown, which soon became the settlers' main crop.

The new settlers brought with them different tools, clothing, lifestyles, and a need for land.  During the first decade, encounters between colonists and Indians were often hostile.  In 1622, Wahunsunacock's brother, Opechancanough, launched the first coordinated attack to expel the settlers, leading to a decade of intermittent warfare.  The Indians tried a second attack in 1644, but by then they were fewer in number and faced 15,000 colonists.  After Opechancanough's death in 1646, the Powhatan chiefdom basically ceased to exist.


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Indians in Virginia at the time of European contact



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The coastal Indians developed a variety of ways to catch fish; night fires in dugout canoes attracted fish to the surface for spearing; fish weirs and nets also served to harvest big catches. (Credit: De Bry's engraving)


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Men shaved the right side of their heads for precision shooting with bow and arrow.  Hair on the left side was often tied and adorned with feathers or tails of animals.  Elaborate body painting was for decoration.  The necklace and bracelets were of pearls or copper beads.  (Credit: De Bry's engraving)



NEXT ...
  Early Hunters
Paleoindians 15,0008,000 B.C.
Early Archaic 8,0006,000 B.C.

Dispersed Foragers
Middle Archaic 6,0002,500 B.C.

Sedentary Foragers
Late Archaic 2,5001,200 B.C.
Early Woodland 1,200500 B.C.
Middle Woodland 500 B.C.A.D. 900

Late Woodland A.D. 9001600

European Contact
Indians A.D. 16001800
Modern Indians A.D. 1800Present

  First People: The Early Indians of VirginiaIntroduction

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