From Paleo-Indian to Woodland Cultures: Virginia's Early Native Americans

The first Virginians hunted elk, moose, deer, bear, bison (buffalo), wolves, perhaps even some mastodons and mammoths. Over the last 15,000 or so years, they developed or imported new tools, such as the atl-atl throwing stick and ultimately the bow-and-arrow, to accompany their earlier stone scrapers and points. They adapted to dramatic climate change, learned to domesticate plants (and dogs), and fired clay to make pottery. They made canoes, floated the Virginia rivers, and even paddled across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore.

mud protecting edge of canoe as fire carves center
mud protecting edge of canoe as fire carves center
final canoe, from Henricus Historical Park
final canoe, from Henricus Historical Park

The cultural patterns of the first Virginians evolved substantially over time; technological change started long before the modern challenges of new computers and social media. The original small (perhaps just family-based) bands coalesced into organized groups capable of building large ceremonial burial mounds west of the Blue Ridge and in the upper Rivanna/Rappahannock river valleys. At the time of European arrival, one group of tribes centered along the York River was organized into what approximated a political state, with a paramount chief named Powhatan who exercised control over multiple tributary tribes.

The structure of Powhatan's organization was based on more than kinship ties, but it is a stretch to call Powhatan's government an "empire" comparable to the political units in Europe that sponsored voyages of discovery. Tribes paid taxes (tribute) to Powhatan; he was superior in authority over people not related to him. Powhatan had to consider the opinions of religious leaders and chiefs of subordinate tribes, but those tribes were ultimately controlled by one leader. Further north, the Piscataway tayac governed multiple tribes, including the Dogues and Patowomecks at times. Therefore, in 1607 there was no Algonquian "confederacy" in Virginia with authority shared equally between multiple leaders. The Virginia Council of Indians advises:1

Powhatan's tributaries (the tribes that paid tribute to him) are best referred to as a "paramount chiefdom" or "paramountcy."

Evidence is clear that "Indians" were living in Virginia at least 12,000 years ago (BPE or Before the Present Era, equivalent to 10,000 B.C.), and perhaps as much as 15-20,000 years ago. There must be far more archeological resources than we have discovered, but four centuries of plowing farmland, and more recently the dramatic urban/suburban development across Virginia, has disturbed almost all of the pre-colonial surface on the land.

The Chesapeake Bay is only several thousand years old, and for 18,000 years a rising ocean has been drowning the ocean shoreline of Virginia. Near the bay, artifacts of the first hunting/gathering camps of the Paleo-Indians and the initial sites of the Archaic Period may be buried under sediments deposited over the last 6,000 or so years. Further offshore, on what is now the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), even older sediments could bury evidence of the first hunting bands to set up camp in what is now Virginia.

The level of the Atlantic Ocean was lower at the end of the Ice Age, with fresh water locked up in the ice sheets of that era. The Virginia shoreline was far to the east, and much of the modern continental shelf was exposed above water.

One day, when underwater archeology is much easier, we may discover a great deal of information about the first Virginians - under the Chesapeake Bay, and as much as 30 miles offshore from Virginia Beach on the Outer Continental Shelf. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources is quite conscious of the potential for underwater archeology east of the Delmarva Peninsula:2

If humans lived in the region over the past 22,000 years, over 50 percent of the former upland environment available for human occupation and settlement currently lies submerged beneath the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay.

The Native Americans in the Archaic Period saw global warming occur, with major effects on the landscape, as the last Ice Age ended. The earliest Virginians would have seen the valley of the Susquehanna River drown, and watched the Chesapeake Bay form as water levels of the the Atlantic Ocean rose. Those early immigrants to what we now call Virginia would have seen the spruce-fir forests retreat to the north, as Virginia's environment shifted towards an oak-hickory-pine forest.

The number of Native Americans in Virginia has grown from the original "first Virginian" who migrated into the state long ago. Today, there are 200 people/square mile in the entire state of Virginia. When Jamestown was founded, population density on the Coastal Plain was only 2 people/square mile, but that was up significantly from the population in the state at the start of the Archaic Period:3

Late Paleo-Indian Period (initial settlement - 8000 BC) - 725 to 1,450 people in all of Virginia
Early Archaic Period (8000 BC to 5000 BC) - slightly over 1,000 to slightly over 3,000 persons living on Coastal Plain
Middle Archaic Period (5000 BC to 3000 BC) - slightly over 3,000 to about 5,000 persons living on Coastal Plain
Late Archaic Period (3000 BC to 1000 BC) - about 5,000 to about 8,000 persons living on Coastal Plain
Woodland Period (1000 BC to 1600 AD) - about 8,000 to about 13,000 persons living on Coastal Plain

By 900 AD, the Native Americans in the Woodland Period had adopted agriculture and were growing corn. In the Coastal Plain, villages moved to floodplains where soils were richer. On the Eastern Shore, however, fish and shellfish were readily available, and corn farming appears to have been less significant there.4

While 2 people/square mile may appear to be low-density today, it was large enough to generate conflicts over territory. Some Europeans such as Jean Jacques Rousseau viewed the American Indians as noble savages, but the original residents of what is now Virginia were not all conscientious objectors. At times, large sections of the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley may have been used only for hunting and as a buffer zone between groups, with few permanent villages.

Perhaps the surplus of food after adoption of corn triggered disputes over control of the storehouses and distribution of the supply. Long before the English settled at Jamestown in 1607, different groups restricted access to land and water by their rivals.

Theodore DeBry's engravings of fortified village of Pomeiooc near the Roanoke Colony, 1587
Theodore DeBry's engravings of fortified village of Pomeiooc near the Roanoke Colony, 1587
Source: National Park Service, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

The original Virginians did not live in peace and harmony, where everyone just "got along" with everyone else until the Europeans brought discord to America. European settlers arriving in the 1500's discovered that Native American towns were protected by wooden walls, which would have required back-breaking labor to construct when the only tools were made of stone, bone and shell.

In 1607, John Smith discovered that the Algonquian-speaking tribes under Powhatan's control blocked access to the protein-rich estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay from Siouan-speaking tribes further inland. The Siouan-speaking Manahoac and Monacan tribes west of the Fall Line could not collect shellfish from Tidewater Virginia, controlled by Powhatan's Algonquian-speaking tribes.

Indian Point, named after Patowomeck village where Pocahontas was captured in 1613
Indian Point, named after Patowomeck village where Pocahontas was captured in 1613
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Passapatanzy 7.5x7.5 topographic map (2011)

Controlling food resources did not come without a fight. The Algonquian-speaking Patowomeck tribe built a log palisade to enclose their town at the mouth of Potomac Creek. The palisade may have been for protection from the Algonquian-speaking tribes under Powhatan (to the south) and the Piscataways (to the north), as much as from the Siouan-speaking Manahoacs (to the west).

Such fortifications were not unique to Tidewater. A similar barricade was also built by those who lived along Wolf Creek in Southwestern Virginia, in a village of about 100 people that was occupied for about 5 years around 1500 AD. Over 200 saplings 3-4" thick were placed in 15" deep holes, creating a 10' tall barrier surrounding a village with 11 houses. The saplings were spaced one foot apart, so vines and branches may have been woven between the posts to block entry:5

This would have made the palisade look like a wicker basket, but it would have stopped an arrow. It would also have prevented the undetected entry of an enemy seeking to penetrate the village to attack sleeping inhabitants...

The irregularity of the palisade indicates the work was done piece-meal by various people building only to general guidelines and not to a marked-out circle on the ground. It is probable that each family was assigned the section of wall next to the family house as a project... One family wanting more work-space adjacent to the house might bow the palisade a few feet out from the house, and another seeking short-cuts might flatten the palisade line closer to the house.

reconstructed palisade at Wolf Creek, with woven vines/branches between poles (Bland County)
reconstructed palisade at Wolf Creek, with woven vines/branches between poles
(Bland County)

reconstruction of Native American pallisade (protective barrier) at Monacan village in Natural Bridge
reconstruction of Native American palisade (protective barrier) at Monacan village in Natural Bridge

how a Native American palisade may have looked, if poles were placed close together without woven vines/branches (reconstructed at Henricus Historical Park in Chesterfield County)
how a Native American palisade may have looked, if poles were placed close together without woven vines/branches
(reconstructed at Henricus Historical Park in Chesterfield County)

Paleo-Indians in Virginia

Archaic Indians in Virginia

Woodland Indians in Virginia

Native Americans - The First Geologists in Virginia

Native American Agriculture

location of Wolf Creek archeologic site in 1895, long before I-77 was built
location of Wolf Creek archeologic site in 1895, long before I-77 was built
Source: US Geological Survey, Pocahontas 30X30 topograpgic quad (1895)



1. Virginia Council on Indians, A Guide to Writing about Virginia Indians and Virginia Indian History, September 19, 2006 (last updated June 2010), (last checked June 22, 2012)
2. Darrin Lowery, "The Challenge of Conducting Prehistoric Underwater Archaeology," Notes on Virginia 2009-2010, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Number 53 (2009-2010), p.50, (last checked June 22, 2012)
3. E. Randolph Turner III,, "PaleoIndian Settlement Patterns and Population Distribution in Virginia," in Paleoindian Research in Virginia: A Synthesis, J. Mark Wittkofski, Theodore R. Reinhart (ed.), Special Publication No. 19 of the Archeological Society of Virginia, 1989, p.86; E. Randolph Turner III, "Population Distribution In The Virginia Coastal Plain, 8000 B.C. To A.D. 1600," Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 6 (Summer 1978), p.67,; "QuickFacts - Virginia," Bureau of Census, (last checked July 2, 2012)
4. R. Michael Stewart, "The Status Of Woodland Prehistory In The Middle Atlantic Region," Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 23 (Fall 1995), p.193, (last checked July 2, 2012)
5. Howard MacCord, Sr., "Wolf Creek Indian Village," reprint of "The Brown Johnston Site: Bland County, Virginia" from the Archeology Society of Virginia June 1971 Quarterly Bulletin, p.8

"Indians" of Virginia - The Real First Families of Virginia
Virginia Places