In this special guest post, anthropologist Martin Gallivan tells us about a kayaking adventure with his son that inspired him to write a new book about the history and archaeology of Virginia’s Powhatan Indians. Using archaeology to look beneath English colonial narratives, his book explores what was happening in Native Chesapeake communities before the time of Pocahontas and the arrival of the English. We are proud to be publishing Gallivan’s book, The Powhatan Landscape: An Archaeological History of the Algonquian Chesapeake, this week.
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I was halfway across the York River in Virginia when I began to understand how I should write my latest book.
My ten-year old son Liam and I were paddling our kayaks toward Werowocomoco (WAYR-uh-wah-KOH-muh-koh). Werowocomoco is the town where the chief of the Powhatan Indians lived when English colonists first arrived. Working with other archaeologists and the Virginia Indian community, I had been excavating at Werowocomoco for several seasons.
I wanted to show Liam where his dad worked. We live on the opposite side of the river. Looking across the river on that clear day, it seemed like an easy paddle. If I had checked the map, I’d have realized that the trip measures more than three miles each way. If I had checked the tides, I’d have realized that we would be fighting the current on the trip out. If I had checked the weather, I’d have realized that we would be facing a stiff wind on the way back. Three-foot swells washed over the bow of my boat. I lashed Liam’s kayak to mine and began to paddle harder. I was out of my comfort zone in a place I didn’t fully comprehend.
The Chesapeake landscape with its shoreline communities, expansive wetlands, tidal currents, and dynamic weather framed our experience that day. Clearly, the original residents of Werowocomoco knew this setting better than I did. We know that they traveled frequently along the region’s rivers and named the places they found along the waterways.
I realized that landscape—the spaces where we dwell, the places we recognize, and the pathways in between—offered a way to tie the Werowocomoco excavations to this deep history.
Most stories about the Powhatan past don’t emphasize landscape. Instead, Powhatan history generally starts with Pocahontas. Daughter of Powhatan, convert to Christianity, wife of tobacco planter John Rolfe, and (above all) savior of John Smith, Pocahontas has become an icon of the English colony at Jamestown. In fact, many students first learn about the Powhatan Indians through the events of 1607 when the English arrived. These stories often emphasize John Smith’s rescue and a narrative centered on Jamestown.
There are, of course, other ways of understanding this history. Much like today’s preoccupation with celebrities, the focus on Pocahontas and Captain Smith can distract us from profound social changes, economic trends, and political movements that were happening at the time. When I set out to write this book, I wanted to find a way to explore these kinds of developments as they took shape before 1607 within the Native societies of Tidewater, Virginia.
Algonquian communities in the Chesapeake region had their own eventful histories before the colonial era. This history begins sometime around A.D. 200 as Algonquian speakers migrated from the north. Over the course of centuries, the ancestors of the Powhatan arrived in the region, established fishing villages, adopted agriculture, founded large towns, and constructed ceremonial spaces.
These hunter-fishers sponsored gatherings which brought together people from different communities to feast on roasted oysters and stewed fish. During this period, groups living along the Chickahominy River began to inter the dead in communal burial grounds, ceremonial events which brought together families from up and down the river. Later still, the residents at Werowocomoco constructed a series of ditches to set apart an area in the town which was separate from everyday activities. The unusual materials found within this area—exotic ceramics, smoking pipes, and copper scraps—hint at ceremonial events and diplomatic exchanges. It was within this earthwork enclosure that the chief of the Powhatan Indians resided when the English arrived in 1607.
Across the Powhatan landscape, seasonal gatherings took place in towns located along the major rivers. These places and the riverine pathways between them affected how Virginia Algonquians lived in Tidewater, first around oyster reefs and fishing grounds, and later within farming towns they occupied for much of the year. Ceremonial spaces like burial grounds and trench enclosures gathered people for events that anchored the annual cycle and allowed communities to thrive for centuries. Even today, the region’s rivers are vitally important to Powhatan descendants, many of whom still live in riverside communities and often return to these meaningful places that have such deep histories.
It was on that breezy day paddling across the York that I realized the importance and the power of this riverine landscape. It is my hope that the reinterpreted landscape described in my book gives readers a new way to rethink the Native Powhatan past.