Jamestown colonist John Smith described how the Powhatan Indians that he encountered made fire: "by chafing a dry pointed stick in a hole of a little square piece of wood, that firing itself, will so fire moss, leaves, or any such like dry thing, that will quickly burn." This method is surprisingly difficult and requires a lot of arm strength. In order to produce enough heat by friction to fire the tinder material, the upright stick has to be spun rapidly while also being forcibly ground downward into the hole in the wood. If enough attempts are unsuccessful, the fire-maker becomes worn out. This fact is the practical reason behind the Powhatan Indians' custom of keeping fires going inside houses for long periods of time. (Although North American Indian tribes who lived farther south reportedly doused and relit their fires annually, there is no record of Virginia Indians doing so.) The Englishman William Strachey, who lived at Jamestown from 1610 until 1611, reported that "the women have a great care to maintain and keep firelight still within their houses, and if at any time it go out, they take it for an evil sign." Bad omen or not, a dead fire meant hard work to rekindle it.
The Powhatans used fire inside their houses, in a centrally located hearth. A single hearth served smaller houses, with multiple hearths in larger ones. These hearths were kept burning day and night and in all seasons, even the hottest parts of summer. The reason for this was not merely the difficulty of rekindling fire; rather, the smoke was useful. During warm months, it discouraged mosquitoes from biting sleeping family members. During colder months, fire provided warmth. The Powhatan Indians built their beds only a foot and a half from the floor, near the heat but below the cloud of smoke produced by the fire. Finally, during all seasons, the smoke "cured" the reeds in the mats covering the houses, so that they didn't rot as quickly or need replacing as often. Keeping the fire burning, however, required not only the never-ending labor of collecting firewood, it also required someone to stay up all night to feed the fire. Strachey writes that the Indians worked in prearranged shifts.
Fires in Town
With canoes especially, the fire-cutting method is long and laborious, and it carries the risk of burning clear through and making a hole. But when done carefully, with many hands to help keep the work going, a family can hollow out a thirty-foot canoe in two or three weeks while doing all their other jobs. Likewise, a determined man, given the task of clearing a garden plot for his wife to farm, could burn away the bark and cambium—the living part of a tree just under the bark—from a tree's circumference. This process of intentionally killing a tree is called "girdling." Once dead and dried out, the tree then could be brought down and "cut" into pieces by further burning and scraping.
Most evenings held music and dancing in the center of Powhatan towns, and large fires provided both light and something to dance around. People went to these after-dark events carrying torches to light their way. Strachey described them as "candles of the fattest splinters of the pine or fir-tree, which will give a good clear light, and burn strongly, though the matter will soon consume, for which they have many slivers ready cut out a foot long, some shorter, to be ready to light a second as soon as the first goes out."
Fire was also used to punish some criminals. The Powhatans had unwritten laws that were very strict about some things, such as infanticide and stealing from relatives. Smith wrote that some "malefactors" were put to death by being trussed up and thrown onto a bed of hot coals. Other criminals, in addition to captured enemy warriors, were tortured by being slowly flayed alive; body parts were then thrown into a fire.
Fires Away from Town
Even away from town, fire played a major part in Indian life. Twice a year, in spring and fall, most people in town would set out on expeditions to forage for wild foods, and they would have fires each evening in their camps. No colonist recorded whether these campfires were started each evening from scratch or whether Indian women carried fire with them from place to place (which could have been done using a basket lined with earth). On the fall communal hunt, women would bring corn for bread making, which, in addition to roasting, required fire. Fire was also used in a form of hunting called the "fire-drive." Powhatan Indians surrounded a herd of deer in the forest using a circle of small fires, which were set and quenched and set again in an ever-narrowing circumference until, finally, the panicked deer could be shot at close quarters from all directions. Alternatively, a herd of deer on a neck of land could be driven by fires into the water, where they were shot while trying to swim to safety. (Such methods are now illegal in Virginia.)
Fire was used in night fishing in shoal water. According to John Clayton, a late-seventeenth-century Jamestown settler, Anglican minister, and naturalist, a hearth probably lined with fire-proof clay was built and a sizable fire stoked by one fisherman. Another fisherman would strike the gunwales (the top edge) of the canoe to make a noise that would wake up the fish. A third man would paddle in order to keep the canoe moving. Fish would be so attracted by the light that they would actually jump into the canoe. Although this may strike some as implausible, Thomas Glover, another late-seventeenth-century colonist, wrote that the fish attracted to the light would swim within spearing distance of the boat. Glover also specified that the hearth was in the prow of the boat; in a depiction of the practice in the Carolina Sounds in 1585, John White, governor of the 1587 colony at Roanoke and an artist who painted the people and places he encountered, shows it midway between the bow and the stern.
The last potential use for fire, communication by smoke signals, was not recorded at any period in Virginia. The first Englishmen to set foot in the region in 1607 suspected that the fire they found in a grassy meadow near what is now Lynnhaven Inlet had been set to alert more distant people to the English presence and bring them together, fully armed. No attack materialized that day, however, so it is impossible to know whether smoke signals were actually used.
The many uses for fire in and around Indian towns meant that women and children were constantly collecting and bringing home firewood. This meant in turn that they could not be homebodies. Because of the need to fuel their families' fires, let alone the other material collecting and farming they did, they were continually in and out of town. And they were not doing it under men's supervision: the men had jobs to do elsewhere. The English felt sorry for the women, who were not able to stay close to home as English wives did, and they concluded that the men were "lazy."
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First published: July 27, 2010 | Last modified: April 5, 2011