Sunday, October 21, 2012

An Eyewitness Account of the Powhatan Indian Tribe - Virginia

From the account that I found online I was able to get the first eyewitness account of the Powhatan Indians. Henry Spelman - the man who wrote the account in 1613, was part of the Virginian settlement of Jamestown. He wrote about several things in the account from their homes, clothing, weaponry and pastimes. The quotations themselves are taken direct from his account in 'broken' or 'old' English.

The Buildings -
"Places of Habitation they have but feaw for ye greatest toune have not above 20 or 30 houses in it, Ther Biuldinge are made like an oven with a litell hole to cum in at but more spatius with in havinge a hole in the midest of ye house for smoke to goe out at, The Kinges houses are both broader and longer then ye rest havinge many darke windinges and turnings before any cum wher the Kinge is, But in that time when they goe a huntinge ye weomen goes to a place apoynted before, to build houses for ther husbands to lie in att night carienge matts with them to cover ther houses with all, and as the men goes furthur a huntinge the weomen [goes before] follows to make houses"

This part of the account goes to explain the buildings the Powhatan lived in. Spelman explains how the houses looked like an 'oven with a little hole' in the front of it to come and go from. He also explains how the King's home is broader and longer than the rest of them to show the difference between the ranks. Another thing that is explained is that the buildings are built by the women when the men go to hunt - 'build houses for their husbands to lie in at night', which shows that there was a class system between gender with the Males going out to collect the food and the Females building shelter for the men to come back to. 

Differences between the King and the other Tribesmen - 
"The King is not know by any differenc[e] from other of ye [better] chefe sort in ye cuntry but only when he cums to any of ther howses they present him with copper Beads or Vitall, and shew much reverence to him. The preest[s] are shaven on ye right side of ther head close to the scull only a litle locke leaft at ye eare and sum of thes have beards But ye common people have no beards at all for they pull away ther hares as fast as it growes. And they also cutt ye heares on ye right side of ther heade that it might not hinder them by flappinge about ther bow stringe, when they draw it to shoott, But on ye other side they lett it grow & have a long locke hanginge doune ther shoulder."

This part of the account goes into detail and elaborates the difference between the different ranks of the tribe. Spelman explains that the King is regarded as the same as the rest of the tribe, however when he enters the houses of the other people he is presented with copper beads. This shows that the people of the tribes cared much and obviously worshipped their King. The common folk of the tribe are said to have had no beards and the right side of the head is shaved to prevent the hair from getting in the way when they are using their bows and arrows. The left side however is grown long down to their shoulders. I found that part in this specific part of the article where they shaved their heads on the right side to help with their hunting and offensive skills absolutely brilliant. You could put this into a modern day sense with military personal these days when they have to shave their heads for ease of putting on their protective helmets and to keep their vision clear.

Armour and Weaponry - 
"As for Armoure or dissipline in ware the[y] have not any. The weopons they use for offence are Bowes and Arrowes with a weopon like a hammer and then Tomahaucks for defence which are shields made of the barke of a tree and hanged on ther leaft shoulder to cover that side as they stand forth to shoote. They never fight in open fields but always ether amonge reede or behind trees takinge ther oportunitie to shoot at ther enimies and till they can nocke another arrow they make the trees ther defence"

This part of the account explains how the Powhatan had no armour but they did have weapons. Spelman explains how they had bows and arrows, hammers, tomahawks and some form of shield for defensive manners. He explains that the shields were 'made of the barke of a tree and hanged on ther leaft shoulder to cover that side as they stand forth to shoote'. He accurately explains how the shield works with how they used their offensive attacks and how they use the trees to their advantage. This shows a very high level of intellect in terms of hunting and fighting. Methods like the one Spelman explains would show a significantly greater experience comes from working in the wild and in groups.

Pastimes - 
"When they meet at feasts or otherwise they use sprorts much like to our heare in England as ther daunsinge, which is like our darbysher Hornepipe a man first and then a woman, and so through them all, hanging all in a round, ther is one which stand in the midest with a pipe and a rattell with which when he beginns to make a noyes all the rest Gigetts about wriinge ther neckes and stampinge on ye ground. They use beside football play, which wemen and young boyes doe much play at. The men never they make ther gooles as ours only they never fight nor pull one another doune. The men play with a litel balle lettinge it fall out of ther hand and striketh it with the tope of his foot, and he that can strike the ball furthest winns that they play for."

This is a very interesting account of what the Powhatan did in their spare time for recreational means. He goes onto explain that when they gather to eat feasts they engage in sport much like they do back in England. There is a detailed explanation of the dancing which involves a pipe and stamping on the ground. I believe that this could be ritualistic and maybe even around a fire, which isn't elaborated within the article. Another interesting thing that Spelman explains is a sport that is very similar to football. He explains how the women and children rarely played, which again could relate to a dominance issue where the women took care of the children and the men were able to have fun after hunting and providing food for their feasts. He explains the rules that they have a little ball and they let it fall out of their hand, and whoever kicks the ball the furthest wins.  I think that it is fascinating hearing about these early accounts of sports and how they have developed into what we have today. It just proves that obviously today when we get bored we go on the Internet and play games - but 500 years ago the people of the land only had what they could see around them.

The link to the site that has the account on -

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