Divorce Among Common People
Divorce among older Indians seems to have been less emotional, at least as described by Strachey. Couples often made contracts to marry and live together for a stated period, usually a year. At the end of the year they were free not to renew the contract, which constituted a divorce. Strachey added that if the partners let the deadline pass without formally reviewing the contract, then the union became permanent, no matter "how deformed, diseased, or uncompanionable … they may prove [to be]."
Divorce by Capture
Another, less-formal kind of divorce existed among the Powhatans and, probably, the other tribes native to Virginia: divorce by capture. Guerrilla warfare was a fact of life before the Europeans came. The Jamestown colonist John Smith wrote that raiding parties among Virginia Indians were designed to capture women and children, who would then be gradually incorporated into the captors' families. Adult males were occasionally taken, as well, and most such adult captives were married. If they neither escaped nor were rescued, but instead remained with their captors for years afterward, their marriages were considered null. Even though people lived in extended families, with many hands assisting in the work needed to survive, no adult could thrive without a partner of the sort provided by marriage. As a result, widowed people and even those who divorced were expected to remarry.
The other case of divorce by capture (or, in this instance, abandonment) involves Powhatan's brother, Opechancanough, who is most famous for leading the first strike in the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632) against the English. Sometime before the English established Jamestown, one of Opechancanough's favorite wives was seduced and talked into leaving him by another chief. Strachey, the source for this particular story, did not record her name, but he did meet her in person on one occasion because her seducer, Pepiscunimah (shortened by the English to "Pipsco"), ruled the Quiyoughcohannock Indians, who lived across the James River from Jamestown. Strachey reported that being a favorite wife first of Powhatan's brother and then of Powhatan's subject chief had gone to the woman's head. Strachey did not find her especially pretty, but wrote that she compensated for her lack of looks with queenly manners. For instance, she is the only Powhatan Indian to have been observed by the English refusing to climb into a canoe under her own power; she insisted others carry her.
Divorce Among Chiefs
It sometimes happened, though, that Powhatan became deeply attached to a wife and refused to part with her. This happened in 1610 with his wife Winganuske, whose brother was William Strachey's interpreter. The young woman had borne Powhatan a daughter, but the chief insisted on keeping her in his household. This was an extraordinary enough circumstance that Strachey heard about and recorded it.
Virginia Indian children, meanwhile, continued to be reared by one or both of their parents after a divorce as parents took primary responsibility for educating their own children, with men teaching boys and women teaching girls. John Banister wrote in the 1680s that when a husband divorced a wife, the children went with her, as did her "dower" goods; the latter were returned to the husband if she married another man. That may have reflected the practice of Siouan-speaking Indians. Robert Beverley knew the Algonquian-speakers of Pamunkey Neck, and he wrote in 1705 that the children went with the parent to whom they were emotionally closest; if the parents disagreed about custody, they divided the children equally, the father being given first choice.
The ease by which Virginia Indians divorced one another, compared to the extreme difficulty of the process in England, misled many English colonists into characterizing Indian people as "voluptuous" (Strachey's term), an impression that Robert Beverley tried to correct a century later. Ironically, in the following century many of the Indians' customs changed, including those concerning marriage and divorce. One record of Pamunkey marriage in the 1780s suggests a merging of old Powhatan practices with those learned from the English colonists. It is possible that at the same time divorce customs were aligning with the practices of the developing Anglo-American culture, which meant divorces would only become more difficult to obtain.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Divorce in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2012, January 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Divorce_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen C. "Divorce in Early Virginia Indian Society." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Jan. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 5, 2011 | Last modified: January 19, 2012
Contributed by Helen C. Rountree, professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University and author of Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries (1990) and Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005).