Woodland Indians in Virginia

The climate and the environment in Virginia changed at the end of the last ice age. Native Americans responded by changing their technology for hunting, placing smaller points on their spears and hunting smaller game as the large mammals disappeared and deciduous forest expanded to cover Virginia. That shift in Native American culture is defined today by archeologists as the shift from Paleo-Indian to Archaic.

The shift from Archaic to Woodland is also defined by new technology and new patterns of behavior. The Woodland label marks a distinctive evolution in Native American culture that evolved from internal reasons. The cultural change probably was not triggered by a major shift in climate - in contrast to the change between Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods.

Key cultural changes first occurred in southern Georgia and the Ohio River valley. The changes were imported into Virginia either as people migrated directly into Virginia, or as new ideas were transmitted gradually between groups of people living near each other.

Archaeologists distinguish the Woodland period from the preceding Archaic by three key characteristics:

  1. practice of agriculture (ultimately including corn)
  2. construction of burial mounds and other earthworks in the Valley and Ridge physiographic province (and a small part of the Piedmont)
  3. appearance of pottery, in many cases replacing soapstone or sandstone bowls

Generally in Virginia, the post-Archaic, pre-European contact phase from 1200BC to 1600AD is considered to be the Woodland Period. Agriculture gradually replaced more and more of the hunting and gathering practices, and groups of people began to occupy houses in one location for a longer part of the year - presumably between the time crops were planted and harvested.

People on more-sedentary communities began to use pottery, facilitating cooking of food directly in the fire vs. putting hot stones into skin/bark sacks. (Clay pots were far easier to carry and replace than the other option for direct-in-the-fire cooking: soapstone bowls.)

The bow-and-arrow (with smaller stone points that can legitimately be called "arrowheads") replaced the spear and atl-atl, the "throwing sticks" of the Archaic period.

We know little about the earliest Woodland Virginians, since they left no written records. Through archeology, we can discover that they preferred the same locations as later emigrants from Europe - river bottoms where crops could be grown on flat, fertile ground.

Little evidence of their lifestyle has been protected from later disturbance in the fields that were plowed by late-arriving English, Scotch, and German settlers. Even isolated shelters in the mountains have been used by modern day hunters and hikers, disturbing the archeological evidence and contaminating sites with modern charcoal.

Nonetheless, we have enough evidence to describe three separate Virginia Woodland cultures that existed prior to the arrival of the English. These cultures were in different sections of the state, and varied in how they obtained food, created shelters, buried their dead, and made tools. They definitions are based on the professional judgment of modern archeologists, all of whom come from a different culture where concepts of "crime" and "god" and "authority" and "tool" and "food" are at least several thousand years, if not light years, away from the culture being described.

combs carved from antlers, found at Bowman Mound near Linville (Rockingham County)
combs carved from antlers, found at Bowman Mound near Linville (Rockingham County)
Source: National Park Service, Rock Creek Park: Prehistoric Landscapes of the Nation's Capital

We do not have polls, surveys, or demographics for favorite TV shows in the Woodland Period, of course. Those cultural patterns that today separate us into different subcultures, like "soccer moms" and "young urban black professionals," are hard to distinguish for societies that developed 3,000 years ago and largely disappeared within 50 years of European contact. Still, with what we do know we divide Virginia into three Woodland Cultures that existed pre-European contact:

French explorers found massive mounds at Cahokia (les Chateauex runinez - the ruined cities), relics of the Mississippian culture
French explorers found massive mounds at Cahokia (les Chateauex runinez - "the ruined cities"), relics of the Mississippian culture
Source: Library of Congress, Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi (1718)

The Mississippian culture developed along the Mississippi River. Massive mounds were constructed, with temples and housing for the rulers on top. Inside many mounds were graves, presumably a place of honor for people who were considered special in some way.

Some combination of religious zeal and imposed power spurred people to load 40 pounds of soil into baskets and carry them as much as 100 feet uphill. On hot summer days, it would have required exhausting work to zig-zag up narrow steps carved into the sides of the growing artificial mountain, dump a basket where directed by a prehistoric engineer, and return for another load.

At the top of the mound was a unique and powerful vista enjoyed by just a few people. At the bottom of the mound was a hierarchically structured society that reflected strong control by an elite, who benefited from the labor of many others. Most of the mound builders spent their lives scraping and hauling dirt, building palisades, growing food, and processing meals for the workers, and keeping the construction site sanitary.

construction of mounds required an organized society, with a labor force motivated by some reason to carry 40-pound baskets of dirt uphill in a monotonous routine
construction of mounds required an organized society, with a labor force motivated by some reason to carry 40-pound baskets of dirt uphill in a monotonous routine
Source: National Park Service, Ancient Architects of the Mississippi

The city of Cahokia developed across the river from modern St. Louis between 700AD to 1400AD. There were 120 mounds, so it was a permanent construction site. In 1250AD, Cahokia had more residents than London. It was:1

the largest prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico... with a population of between ten and twenty thousand at its peak around 1100.

The Mississippian culture edged up the Tennessee drainage into Southwest Virginia. It first arrived about 2,000 years ago, long before the creation of Cahokia.

In such a culture, religion evidently served to enhance the power of a chief who held office permanently, in contrast to centuries earlier when leadership or economic wealth was not strong enough to manufacture the distinctive mounds of the Mississippian culture. Southwest Virginia was at the edge of the Mississippian culture, however, and interpretation of the Virginia mounds is not definitive.

For example, limestone fissures were used rather than the mounds to bury some of the dead; over 50 mortuary caves in Virginia have been identified. Farley's Cave in Lee County, Elk Garden Cave in Russell County, and Higgenbothan Cave in Tazewell County each may have included the remains of 100 or more people. Modern visitors and vandals have disturbed almost every cave burial site. Our ability to interpret lifestyles 1,000 years ago is limited; imagination is essential to "get a feel" for lifestyles of that time.2

Equally challenging is the interpretation of the symbols in a limestone cave, where someone about 1,000 years ago drew figures on the wall with their fingers. We know the charred remains of wood on the cave floor is 1,000 years ago, so we can date that site - but we understand less about those symbols that we do about the glyph chosen for the singer formerly known as Prince. One of the two examples of pictographs, paintings on rock walls drawn with iron oxide pigment, is Paintlick in Tazewell County.

Ely Mound is one of three mounds in Lee County that may have formed a city complex. It was excavated in the 1870's. At that time the mound still had the rotting cedar posts of what may have been a building used by tribal leaders of that area. Ely Mound is about as close to Monticello or Mount Vernon as you can get, for that now-vanished culture.

Around the time Columbus set out to find trading opportunities in Asia and ended up proving the earth was round, the residents of what would become Tazewell County build a palisade around the town at Crab Orchard. The palisade was a series of tall poles stuck in the ground, one next to the other, to either keep enemies out or animals in. Inside the palisade were houses made on saplings and covered with bark and/or skins, storage pits for food, and burial pits. A gate house would sometimes be built to guard the entrance through the palisade.

Crab Orchard (Tazewell County)
Crab Orchard (Tazewell County)
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Crab Orchard 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2011)

The Earthen Mound Burial Culture was located in a different region, the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont. Tools were made from local materials - quartz in the Piedmont, chert/jasper in the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge. The distinctive burial mounds, now largely removed through plowing and floods, held the remains of hundreds of Virginians, including the bones of many that were ritually reburied there. The mounds grew larger over time, as more and more people were buried in them, comparable to the Hopewell culture burial mounds.

One of these mounds was excavated by Thomas Jefferson in 1784, along the Rivanna River. This was after he had retired as Governor of Virginia, the Revolutionary War was over (Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown in 1781), and he was living the life of a country gentleman and being "scientific." Jefferson claimed he actually saw some Indians in Albemarle County walk directly to a similar mound, pause to express sorrow, and then move on to their next destination. As he described the mound:3

It was situated on the low grounds of the Rivanna, about two miles above its principal fork, and opposite to some hills, on which had been an Indian town. It was of a spheroidical form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base, and had been of about twelve feet altitude, though now reduced by the plough to seven and a half, having been under cultivation about a dozen years. Before this it was covered with trees of twelve inches diameter, and round the base was an excavation of five feet depth and width, from whence the earth had been taken of which the hillock was formed. I first dug superficially in several parts of it, and came to collections of human bones, at different depths, from six inches to three feet below the surface.

forks of the Rivanna River today (Albemarle County)
forks of the Rivanna River today (Albemarle County)
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Charlottesville East 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2011)

He dug perpendicular into the "barrow" and found bones on the bottom. It was covered by a layer of stones brought from a cliff a quarter-mile away, covered by more earth, more bones, etc. in three separate strata. He estimated 1,000 skeletons were in that one mound. At the same time, he estimated the population of living Indians in Virginia, indicating how he thought the Virginia tribes were losing their distinctive character through demographic change:4

There remain of the Mattaponies three or four men only, and they have more negro than Indian blood in them. They have lost their language, have reduced themselves, by voluntary sales, to about fifty acres of land, which lie on the river of their own name, and have, from time to time, been joining the Pamunkies, from whom they are distant but 10 miles. The Pamunkies are reduced to about 10 or 12 men, tolerably pure from mixture with other colours. The older ones among them preserve their language in a small degree, which are the last vestiges on earth, as far as we know, of the Powhatan language. They have about 300 acres of very fertile land, on Pamunkey river, so encompassed by water that a gate shuts in the whole.

The earliest English settlers may have met two tribes that represented this Earthen Mound Burial Culture - the Manahoacs at the Falls of the Rappahannock, and the Monacans at the Falls of the James. They spoke languages based on a Siouan rootstock, rather than the Iroquoian languages south of the James River or the Algonquian languages of the coastal tribes.

John Smith identified tribes beyond the Fall Line
John Smith identified tribes beyond the Fall Line
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith

By the time the English settlers moved inland across the Fall Line, into the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley, the impact of disease and/or attacks by the Iroquois from the north and Cherokee from the south had dramatically reduced the population of tribes living on the Virginia Piedmont. With the exception of Jefferson's report, and negative assessments by the settlers crossing into their territory and planting their own crops in the openings in the woods created by the Indians, there is little about their lifestyles in the historical record.

In contrast, we have many reports about the natives who greeted the English in Tidewater. The Coastal Plain Culture was characterized by saltwater food resources, in contrast to the Indians above the Fall Line and in far Southwest Virginia. Shellfish like oysters, anadromous fish like the sturgeon and shad and striped bass, plus crabs provided reliable food resources and enabled towns to develop all along Tidewater rivers and creeks. Instead of burial mounds, the Coastal Plain culture created middens of oyster shells.

The lack of stone along the coast caused the Coastal Plain culture to rely more heavily upon tools made from bone, shells, and wood. However, trading patterns throughout North America brought copper all the way from the Great Lakes area, as well as corn, squash, and beans up from Mexico. Coastal tribes could trade for stone tools with groups living on the Fall Line or Piedmont, where Native Americans could quarry outcrops for stone. in addition, chert cobbles and other forms of quartz washing downstream provided raw material would not have been a challenge for the earliest Virginians.

Politics and cultural patterns of the coastal plain Indians are known best, including some reports from the Spanish adventurers who sailed to Virginia in 1525, long before the English. Apparently the Europeans arrived about the time a political shift occurred. Unlike the Indians further inland, along the Coastal Plain a hierarchy of political and military power developed. Small, militarily weak tribes had to submit to dominant tribes, paying heavy tribute in exchange for peace and a measure of independence.

The towns of the Coastal Plain Culture were drawn by early European artists, so we have more than archeological stains in the dirt to deal with. The lodges were oval, covered with bark, and wouldn't pass today as even minimum quality housing. No running water, no indoor toilets, no phones, no cable TV - it was a different environment, and even the modern recreations are hard to get exactly right because the maintenance of the raw materials is time-consuming. Some were fortified towns surrounded by wooden palisades. They were built for protection, just as the English built a wooden wall around the first settlement at Jamestown.

Native Americans built wooden palisades where towns were threatened by rival groups
Native Americans built wooden palisades where towns were threatened by rival groups
Source: University of North Carlina, Theodore De Bry Maps, Native American Village of Pomeiooc

The burial rituals of the natives were quite different than those we use in Virginia today. Sometimes they were buried in pits, but in other cases the dead were first left on high platforms where the flesh decomposed, or was eaten by birds and other animals. Then the bones were buried in pits (rather than mounds to the west). The bodies of the chiefs were treated differently. They were mummified and kept in lodges known as "quioccasans."

Today, in the suburban sprawl west of Richmond in Henrico County, is a road called Quioccasin. On the Colonial golf course in Williamsburg, there is other evidence of prehistoric Virginia that was preserved when the golf course was built:5

Because of the historical relevance of the area, during construction the state required a number of architectural surveys to be done. It was during one of these surveys that an Indian burial ground was found. To protect the historical heritage of the area, you’ll have to negotiate your golf ball over a large mound in the middle of the seventh fairway.

interpreter explaining canoe construction with fire and scraping, at Jamestown Settlement
interpreter explaining Native American canoe construction
with fire and scraping, at Jamestown Settlement

Pottery developed initially in the southeast, between northern Florida-North Carolina (perhaps initially near Stallings Island on the Savannah River), before it appeared in Virginia. The earliest forms of pottery in Virginia showed a transition from the older soapstone bowls. The Bushnell Ware and Marcey Creek Ware forms of pottery, dating back to 1000BC, included ground-up bits of soapstone in the clay as a "temper" to minimize the cracking of pottery as clay was heated in a fire. Later forms of pottery used ground-up mussel/oyster shells or sand as a temper, eliminating reliance upon access to soapstone quarries.6


bark-covered dwelling structure, recreated to represent Siouan-speaking Totero in Valley and Ridge (recreated at Explore Park, Roanoke County)
bark-covered dwelling structure, recreated to represent Siouan-speaking Totero in Valley and Ridge
(Explore Park, Roanoke County)

reed-covered dwelling structure, recreated to represent Siouan-speaking Monacan in Valley and Ridge (recreated at Natural Bridge, Rockbridge County)
reed-covered dwelling structure, recreated to represent Siouan-speaking Monacan in Valley and Ridge
(Natural Bridge, Rockbridge County)

reed-covered dwelling structure recreated to represent Algonquian-speaking Appomattoc in CoastalPlain (recreated at Henricus Park, Chesterfield County)
reed-covered dwelling structure recreated to represent Algonquian-speaking Appomattoc in CoastalPlain
(Henricus Park, Chesterfield County)


1. "Cahokia Mounds," Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, http://www.illinois.gov/ihpa/Experience/Sites/Southwest/Pages/Cahokia-Mounds.aspx; "Explore Cahokia Mounds," Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, http://cahokiamounds.org/explore/ (last checked December 1, 2015)
2. C. Clifford Boyd, Jr., Donna C. Boyd, Michael B. Barber, David A. Hubbard, Jr., Michael R. Barber, "Southwest Virginia's Burial Caves: Skeletal Biology, Mortuary Behavior, and Legal Issues," Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Fall, 2001), p.223, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20708160 (last checked March 8, 2014)
3. Thomas Jefferson, "QUERY XI A description of the Indians established in that state?" in Notes on the State of Virginia, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/jefferson/ch11.html (last checked September 23, 2012)
4. Thomas Jefferson, "QUERY XI A description of the Indians established in that state?"
5. Smolens, Peter, "Colonial Wonder," Washinton Golf Monthly, April, 1999, http://www.thewgm.com/playing/crcolonial.htm (last checked October 6, 2003)
6. "Woodland Period," Southeastern Prehistory, National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/seac/outline/04-woodland/index.htm; Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, "Virginia Ceramic Studies, A Brief Overview," Appendix E in A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century, National Park Service, December 2005, http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/jame1/moretti-langholtz/appendixe.htm (last checked June 4, 2012)

Native Americans in Virginia, unlike their counterparts on the Great Plains, did not live in teepees made of animal skins
Native Americans in Virginia, unlike their counterparts on the Great Plains, did not live in teepees made of animal skins
Source: Smithsonian Institution, Comanche Village, Women Dressing Robes and Drying Meat (by George Catlin)

From Paleo-Indian to Woodland Cultures: Virginia's Early Native Americans
The Real First Families of Virginia
Virginia Places