Southeastern Algonkian


by Frank G. Speck


Part 1

The Algonkian culture area of the coast of eastern and southeastern Virginia and eastern North Carolina, which may be designated as the old Virginia tidewater area, was among the first to be invaded and described by English-speaking explorers in North America. Thomas Hariot, in a book of 1588-90, wrote the descriptions accompanying a series of sketches of native life, villages, and social customs drawn with remarkable accuracy by the artist, White, who accompanied Raleigh's expedition for the founding of the English colony on Roanoke Island. The region was then occupied by the most southerly extended Algonkian-speaking tribes, forming a group whose divisions lay in a contiguous territory from the Neuse river in North Carolina as far north as what is now the Virginia state line. Northward of this imaginary border, through the Chesapeake Bay region to Maryland, we have evidence of the same dialect spoken, but of a slightly altered economic and social framework. Gradually the entire area has come to be known as the southeastern Algonkian linguistic and culture group. The upper or Cheasapeake portion, which was inhabited by tribes forming a confederacy under Powhatan, has acquired, among ethnologists, the appropriate designation of the Powhatan culture area. The southern division may be conveniently called the Carolina Algonkian area. Since it has become generally shown in America that linguistic and culture boundaries do not coincide either in time or space, it is impossible to refer to the southeastern Angonkian culture type as having limits within the territory where Algonkian dialects have been located. For instance, on the southern and western borders of the area were tribes speaking Siouan languages but determining whether they shared ethnic traits with the Southeastern Algonkian or not. The same is true when we consider the Iroquoian-speaking Meherrin, Mangoac, Nottaway and Tuscarora who resided also on the southwestern fringe of the Algonkian strip. Were we to rely solely upon archaeological evidence, the widespread similarity of form, material, and function shown in stone and ceramic remains would indicate a culture unit over the area occupied by all the peoples just mentioned, and even further south and west. We might then simply treat the tribes of the area under present discussion as an ethnic group without attempting to assign definite boundaries to it.

While the name and dialectic boundaries of this area have been well recognized, little has actually been done toward the classification of its cultural features and almost nothing along lines of comparison with related neighboring groups. This is especially true in respect to the determination of what influence may have been exerted upon it from the outside and on the other hand what effect its presence, had upon neighboring groups. Toward this end an attempt may now be made, since a pressing need has come for brief culture summaries, like that of Kroeber's in a recent number of the American Anthropologist, covering the less known areas in order that they may be employed in comparative studies. Something in this direction has already been carefully attempted by Willoughby (l) and more sketchily by Mooney. (2) A more detailed study of the existing bands and a reconstruction of some topics of Powhatan ethnology has been completed by myself, which, combined with the essays just mentioned and the numerous older sources, have serve as a basis for the resume which follows. The real source contributions, however, to the ethnology of the southeastern Algonkian have come from the pens of the immortal Capt. John Smith, Wm. Strachey, and Robert Beverley, whose words, though written during colonial times, afford us not only a wealth of information concerning the country and people but specimens of the kind of interest in scientific description which throw credit upon the keenness and accuracy of early English authors who dealt with the new world.

The southeastern Algonkian constituted a single dialectic group so far as the meager existing lexical material permits us to conclude. The archaeological remains from the region also indicate unity. Documentary economic, social, and religious ceremonial descriptions likewise show uniform development in those departments of culture, allowing, of course, for certain points of difference between the two subdivisions mentioned.

In respect to native government the sway of the life-long hereditary dynasty of Powhatan seems to have leveled what slight differences in local forms there might have existed before European contact. Our knowledge of the entire region then in almost every particular indicates a culture area which was extended from Albemarle Sound to the Potomac River between, the Piedmont zone and salt water. Only a more specific consideration of some topics of social and religious life warrants the subdivision into the Powhatan and North Carolina sub-groups, previously referred to. This statement bounds the ethnic horizon sufficiently for one to proceed to a first attempt at a summary of the tribes and characteristics of the southeastern Algonkian group.

Smith, Strachey, Beverley and some others whose accounts agree in most particulars, state that there were in the neighborhood of twenty-six to thirty-two smaller tribes in the confederacy which developed under Powhatan in the early 17th century. From the various authorities of the time, but based chiefly upon John Smith's narrative, Mr. Mooney and myself planned the chart (Figure 10) which pretends to assign the general location of these units to something like their proper places. In view of the fullness of the descriptions left us it was not so difficult to do, so it seemed more advantageous to provide in charted form an outline of the location of the tribes, than to refrain wholly from the undertaking on account of some doubtful elements of information.

The tribal subdivisions of the are were numerous. In the following list we may follow the enumeration of Smith for the bands of the northern or Powhatan group. The bands of the southern or Carolina group are best known from Hariot and Lawson from whose pages Mooney and Swanton have assigned their locations.


Tribes (3) Location and Chief Towns
Tauxenent About Gen. Washington, i.e., Mt. Vernon, Va.
Patowomeke (Potomac) Potomac Creek
Cuttatawoman About Lamb Creek on Rappahannock River
Pissasec Above Leedstown on Rappahannock River
Onaumanient (Onawmanient) Nomony River
Rappahanock Rappahannock River, Richmond Co.
Moraughtacund Moratico River
Secacaonie (Secacawoni) Coan River
Wighcocomico (Wicomoco) Wococomico River
Cuttatawoman Cowtoman River
Nantaughtacund Port Tobacco on Rappahannock River
Mattapoment (Mattaponi) Mattaponi River
Pamunkie (Pamunkey) Romunock, King William Co.
Werowocomico About Roscow’s (?), Gloucester
about opposite mouth of Queen Creek
Payankatonk (Payankatank) Turk’s Ferry, Piankatank River
Youghtanund Pamunkey River
Chickahominie (Chickahominy) Orapaks, Chickahominy River
Powatan Powhatan, James Falls at Richmond
Arrohatoc Arrohatocs, Henrico Co.
Kecoughtan Roscows, Elizabeth City Co.
Appamatoc Bermuda Hundred, Chesterfield Co.
Quiocohanoc About Upper Chipoak Creek, Surry Co.
Warrasqueak (Warrasqueoc) Warrasqueak, Isle of Wight Co.
Nansamond About Chuckatuck, Nansemond Co.
Chesapeak About Lynnhaven River, Princess Anne Co.
Accomack (Accomac) About Cheriton (Cherrystone Inlet), Northampton Co.


Tribes Location and Chief Towns
Weapemeoc (Yeopim) North of Albemarle Sound, west to Edenton
Chowan (Chowanoc) Eastern bank of Chowan River
Secotan Between Albemarle Sound and Pamlico River
Mattamuskeet (Machapunga, Hatteras (?)) Island back of Hatteras
Pamlico (Pamticough) Pamlico River and estuary of Neuse River
Pomouik (Pamawaioc) Bear River. (Possibly identical with Pamlico)
Neuse (Neusiok) South of Neuse estuary
Pasquotank .
Poteskeet North of Albemarle Sound. Probably

divisions of the Weapemeoc

Perquiman .

A word as to population. Mooney after a careful survey of records estimated the Powhatan group to have contained about 8500 souls or about one inhabitant to the square mile of habitat. For the Carolina group we have only one attempt at estimation and then practically no basis for its correction. An author, of unknown identity, (5) writing in London 1850, estimated the Virginia territory south of Cape Henry to contain 30,000 natives, which would of course be something of an overestimate for even so fertile and populous a region. A survey of the present Indian descendants of the whole southeastern Algonkian group still shows the persistence of the native population to the approximate number of something over 2000. (6)

Roughly outlined, the culture area, from the point of view of archaeology and recorded ethnology, embraced that portion of eastern Virginia south of the Potomac river through North Carolina to the Neuse River; all the territory lying east of the Piedmont, or the fall line, running irregularly from Washington through Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg and so southward. Approximately speaking, on each of the great tidal rivers this western girdle of the area was only a little above the tide line. The southeastern Algonkian definitely possessed culture adapted to the tidal stretches of the coastal pain. They exhibit well an illustration of Dr. Wissler's theory of altitudinal habitat having of all the Algonkian peoples the most extensively unelevated habitat. The determining factor was their aptitude for, fishing. The same culture no doubt marked the tribes of the North Carolina coast below Pamlico Sound, though this will have to be more definitely ascertained by ethnologists because south of the Neuse river the Algonlian sequence is continued by Siouan groups about whom very little is known at present. On the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay along the Accomac peninsula dwelt the Accomac and Accohanoc, included also under Powhatan rule, as far north as the Maryland line. Yet the Powhatan culture circle cannot accurately be said as yet to have extended over them although John Smith left us the definite statement that the Accomac spoke the language of Powhatan and acknowledged his dominion. If subsequent. archaeological research establishes a relationship here closer to the Powhatan than to the Nanticoke above them, it may mean that the Accohanoc or Accomac did not migrate into the lower peninsula from its northern base, but that they crossed Chesapeake Bay moving eastward, tracing their expansion directly from the Powhatan units with whom they remained in touch.

Up to this point we have considered the boundary features of the culture group which became so well known as Virginia or Powhatan Confederacy. Evidently the surmises of ethnology that the Powhatan group bore close resemblance to the Conoy and Nanticoke, are reasonable. And going even further the culture connection is extendable in larger terms to the Delaware. (7) Among the earmarks of unity over the whole territory just noted, were the practices of cleaning the bones of the bodies of chiefs, and preserving their bodies or bones in houses consecrated to the purpose, (8) the burial ossuaries, the cranial deformation, idol ceremonies directed to supernatural beings called okee, the new fire rite, the scratching rite and the emetic at harvest time in southern Virginia and North Carolina, a priesthood-shaman order, the members called quiocos, and the quasi-monarchical form of government; also many technical and industrial traits, showing forth in architecture, ceramics, basketry, clay pipes, the feather work, and prominently in the elements and utensils of maize, tobacco, and bean cultivation. Relationship confronts us as a likelihood in other fields of activity such as warfare, fishing and hunting.

For instance, the relative shortness of the hunting season, in contrast with intensity of agriculture, the deer-drive and the practice of using fire in driving game, the communal village hunt, in general all savor of the Gulf culture area. Certain fishing practices do also; the use of the basket trap , killing fish by poisoning the streams with vegetable juices, and shooting fish with an arrow tied to a line, all being customs attributed to the Virginia tribes in the past, as well as to the Creek and the Siouan populations of the Carolinas.

To the foregoing summary of Powhatan culture traits may be added some more whose far southern affinities are suggestively shown forth. These, to be sure, cannot be classified dogmatically until tests have been carried farther. A very useful resume of Virginia ethnology, based upon seventeenth century sources, is given by Willoughby in the article previously mentioned, in which he considered a number of Virginia religious institutions to have been "adopted from the southern Indians." (9) We may add that a similar inference may be drawn from the occurrence of such characteristics in Virginia as the pot-drum used in dances; that is a drum consisting of an earthen pot containing some water and covered with a piece of stretched hide, the hair "roached" hair fashion affected men, the dressing of the hair among priests by shaving off all in front except a visor-like ridge across the forehead, the use of body decoration in the form of feathers stuck onto the skin after it had been- coated with a sticky oil, wearing on the person the dried head of an enemy, the weaving of feather mantles, one-piece garments of the "poncho" type, the absence of tailored garments, the moccasin of one piece of leather gathered together in one long seam reaching from the toe up the instep, the "reed" or bamboo knife, the cone-shaped metal arrowhead of historic times, the "sword" or club with small pieces of stone set like teeth along both edges, all remind the ethnologist of certain well-known far southern culture traits. (10)

Agriculture was certainly fundamental, four varieties of corn, tobacco, beans, squashes gourds, potatoes, which latter may indeed have been correctly artichokes, grass nuts, and possibly yucca filamentosa, being the crops. The associated arts of a sedentary life, pottery, clay pipes, splint and grass basketry, as has been previously shown, were well developed.

At this point it may be noted how few things there are of an older northern Algonkian pattern to be found in the early descriptions of Virginia. But the knife with blades of beaver teeth, woven rabbit-skin robes, the use of the head of the deer as a decoy in stalking, and the subdivided individual hunting territories may be of this derivation, though most of them are wide-spread in America and therefore possibly old and general properties of the continent. The absence of the conical pointed wigwam of the northern Algonkian and Great Plains area points also to southern architectural influence in Virginia.

Such correspondences, with the south, would seem to provide reason for making a conclusion, in fact the main one arrived at after going over the contents of the Powhatan culture area, namely that we have a migrant Algonkian group transformed extensively by contact with the Gulf or Southeastern area.


(1) C.C. Willoughy, The Virginia Indians in the 17th Century, American Anthropologist, N. S. vol. 9, 1907.

(2) J. Mooney, The Powhatan Confederacy Past and Present, ibid., vol. 9 no. 1, 1907

(3) Mooney information, 1920. He retained the English plural (s) in his original notes, but this I have omitted for philological reasons.

(4) Regarding the identity of some of these there is doubt. For example Mooney in the Handbook of the American Indians entered the Neuse as probably in Iroquoian tribe, but subsequently followed Swanton in accepting an Algoakian conviction. That the Chowan may have been a branch of the wide-spread Shawnee seems to have been overlooked by ethnologists yet it is possible on the basis of name and location.

(5) Peter Force Tracts, Vol. III, No. XI, London, 1650, signed by E. W.

(6) From manuscript prepared on this topic it appears that the following mixed tribal groups exist in the same general locations where their ancestors lived. These places are indicated on the chart by triangles--enclosed in circles; Pamunkey 300+, Mattaponi 75, Upper Mattaponi 75, Chickahominy 400+, Rappahannock 500, Nansamund 200+, Wicomoco (?) 300 (?), Potomac 150, Hanover Co. (Powhatan) 15+ (?), Werowocomoco 100+, total 2115+. In North Carolina there are a number of uninvestigated remnant bands of mixed Indians. For example the Machapunga are represented by about 100 survivors on Roanoke Island. Some of these bands are organized with incorporated charters, others are still tribal Indians on state reservations; the Pamunkey and.Mattaponi. The Rappahannock, Chickahominy, Nansamund, Nanticoke and Upper Mattaponi succeeded in reorganizing the "Powhatan Confederacy" in 1923, in an attempt to hold together the various bands in the region as a body. The idea of racial segregation and reconstruction is growing among them and will probably develop into an advantageous local social movement.

(7) M. R. Harrington's summary of Delaware ethnology has been used in this connection, Amencan Anthropologist, vol. xv, no.-2, (1913) and Religion and Ceremonies of the Lenape, Indian Notes and Monographs, Museum of the American Indian, N.Y. (1921).

(8) The custom of bone cleaning and the bone-house burial--the latter even under the same name as in Virginia (Nanticoke, awacason, chiocason; Virginia quiyoughcosughes,)--recorded of the Nanticoke of Choptank River (D.G. Brinton, A Vocabulary of the Nanticoke Dialect, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. Xxxi, 1893, p. 327) was gradually working its way northward and was adopted in historical times by the Delaware of the "Wolf Clan" and recognized by them as of Nanticoke derivation (M.R. Harrington, Religion and Ceremonies of the Lenape, Museum of the American Indian, Indian Notes and Monographs, p. 183, 1921).

(9) Willoughby, op. cit., p. 63.

(10) These articles of industry are mentioned in the article by Willoughby previously referred to in which he fully cites references in Smith, Strachey, and Beverley, to the early documents describing them. His article is indispensable as a summary, so it hardly seems necessary to document the above mentioned facts. I might add a few additional references to Willoughby's citations. For the body decorations of feathers Beverley (History of Virginia 1722, p. 149) says "to make themselves appear yet more ugly and frightful they strew feathers, down, or the hair of beasts upon the paint while it is still moist and capable of making these light substances stick fast on." The knives of cane are described by Smith (Tyler edition N.Y. (1907), p. 102) and the stone-edged "swords" by Smith (op. cit. p. 102), and Lord Percy (Narratives of Early Virginia, Tyler Edition, ibid, p. 14). The one-piece moccasin of the southeastern type was seen by Beverley (op. cit. p. 128), "the skin being drawn together like a purse, on top of the foot and tied around the ankle." The stone-edged (microlith (?) )club has been found by Clarence B. Moore in Florida and something similar is also known in Eskimo ethnology. Its relationship in Virginia is, however, more probably with the southern article.

Courtesy of American Anthropologist

Speck, Frank G., The Ethnic Position of the Southeastern Algonquian. American Anthropologist 26; 1924: 184-200.

Copyright 2001
Carolina Algonkian Project