When Captain John Smith and his fellow Englishmen arrived in 1607, more than 50,000 Indians have been estimated to be living around the Chesapeake Bay. They had occupied these lands for thousands of years and had developed languages, governing systems, social practices, agriculture, trade networks, spiritual beliefs, codes of behaviors and other indicators of a complex society. They did not however, have a written language understood by Europeans. Consequently what we know about the native peoples of the 16th and 17th century comes from the writings of European explorers and colonists. This is complemented by archaeology, cultural anthropological studies, and cultural comparisons of other American Indian groups from the Eastern Woodlands.
Fortunately, Smith and his predecessor by two decades, John White made an effort to document the Indian settlements that they saw or learned about from the natives themselves. The English spelled the names of tribes and places phonetically, resulting in many variations in spellings.
There are large areas on the maps of Smith and White that do not indicate any Indian inhabitants. That simply means Smith and White did not encounter any. Later archaeological evidence has shown the existence of Indian settlements throughout the region. Although there are omissions and likely errors, it is amazing how much information the early explorers and colonists did manage to record, despite the challenges of just surviving.
Location, Location, Location
Smith recorded the locations and names of about 20 towns, and distinguished between "leader" and "commoner" towns. From information in the maps and journals and from archaeology, scholars draw this conclusion: Location was critical to Native American homebuilders, just as it is for real estate today.
Native towns were almost always located along waterways, especially where several conditions existed: a place to launch canoes, marshes for a supply of reeds for mats and plants for food, fresh water and farmable land nearby. Seasonal hunting camps were located at good fishing spots or in the forests of the uplands, but the main settlements were built whwere the natives could access the waterways that were their highways for transportation and trade.
Last updated: December 13, 2017