Cooking in Early Virginia Indian Society


Early Virginia Indians hunted, fished, and collected wild grains and berries, which they prepared in various ways. Meats were roasted, while grains and tubers were pounded into ashcakes and then baked. For many millennia, boiling water was difficult, but by the Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1600), technology had improved among the Powhatan Indians of Virginia such that a large ceramic stew pot became the focus of family eating. Roasted meats, shellfish, and wild berries were all added to the stew, which boiled throughout the day. Rather than prepare set meals, family members who spent the day gathering food or doing chores added to the stew as able and ate from it as necessary. Wild grains and, later, domesticated corn were harvested and baked into bread. The Powhatans generally avoided seasonings, including salt, and likely enjoyed food for its texture rather than its flavor. Although the Indians domesticated beans and squash, they ate more corn (maize) than any other crop, sucking unripe ears for their sweet juice, baking cornbread, or roasting it. They also made cooking wrappers, baskets, and mats out of the husks. What is known of Indian cooking in this period is based on research from paleobotanists and paleozoologists about what wild foods were available, as well as eye-witness accounts from English colonists. Most of these accounts concern the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans, but they likely apply to the speakers of Siouan and Iroquoian languages in Virginia.

Social Context

Oppidum Secota (The Town of Secota)

Each family of Virginia Indians was largely self-sufficient. The men hunted, fished, fought off enemies, made their own equipment, and trained their sons to do the same, while the women farmed, processed animal carcasses, collected wild foods, made household furnishings, cared for small children of both sexes, and trained their daughters to do the same. The year’s activities revolved around securing food in sufficient quantities to support such active lives.

Meat, fish, and shellfish were roasted, and ashcakes made from ground-up grains and tubers could be baked in the hearth. Shellfish, berries, and nuts could be eaten raw. Boiling food into stews was, for a time, more difficult. Before the Late Archaic Period (2500–1200 BC), any boiling had to done by a technique called stone-boiling. A watertight container—a pitch-covered basket or a large animal bladder—was filled with water, and then very hot stones were added to the container, one at a time, and kept moving so that they heated the water without burning through the container. Then in the Late Archaic Period, soapstone began to be carved into large bowls that could stand being used in hearths. During the Early Woodland Period (1200–500 BC), pottery-making was introduced from the south, and the boiling of food—especially meat and dumplings made from wild grains—became common.

In fact, during the Late Woodland Period, a large ceramic stewpot was kept on the boil for much of the day. Rather than sit down for set meals, family members came and went, adding ingredients as they were obtained, and eating from the pot as necessary. One observer, late in the seventeenth century, remarked that the men “are almost always either eating or sleeping unless when they go a Hunting, at all hours of the night whenever they are awake they go to the Hominy-pot.”

The Powhatan Indians used no condiments or flavorings of any kind with their food. They didn’t make salt and could not abide the taste of wild onions.

Arrow Arum Plant

It’s possible that they enjoyed food for its texture rather than for its flavor, a preference documented in other cultures. Accompanying their food was unflavored water collected from freshwater streams in the mountains, piedmont, and inner coastal plain, and from springs in the outer coastal plain, where the river water was brackish or salty.

According to John Smith , some foods enjoyed higher prestige than others. For instance, bread made of cornmeal was preferred over bread made from the flour of wild tubers—what the Powhatans called tuckahoe—perhaps because corn was scarce in some years and therefore more valuable. The paramount chief, Powhatan, was known to demand tribute from his subjects in corn, among other things, probably because one of his obligations as chief was to host large feasts. Virginia Indians prized venison and bear meat over the meat of other land animals probably because of the greater danger involved in procuring them. And at feasts honoring important people, they served a dish called powcohiscora, or “nut-milk,” made with walnuts and other nuts in quantity.

Stew Pot

Crates ligneain quapifces vftulant (The Wooden Frame on Which They Roast Fish)

The Virginia Indians’ staple foods included roasted meats, stews, and baked or boiled breads. They mostly cooked on open-air hearths (usually located outdoors) and in pots with conical-shaped bases propped upright with stones. In order to control the heat, they added firewood to or subtracted it from between the stones. Because the heat source was all around the pots instead of just below them, liquids came to a boil about thirty percent faster than on modern stovetops.

Indian cooks either roasted their meat and fish or cut it up—head, entrails, and all—and added it to the family stew pot. On special occasions, particularly tough venison was roasted and then boiled before being served. Broth from meat stews was drunk with meals, along with spring water. Deer suet was caught or strained off during cooking to be used as a spread for bread or for drying in cakes, which were then used in trade. Indian cooks either boiled or roasted oysters, using the heat to pop open the shells; sometimes they dried the oysters for trade. Elite households, prompted by the obligation to feed guests even during the lean times, preserved meats by smoking, a process the English colonists called “barbecuting.”

In his History and Present State of Virginia, published in 1705, Robert Beverley Jr. remarked that the Indians he knew—from tribes on the coastal plain and perhaps the piedmont—did not eat wild “herbs or leaves,” in spite of the fact that there were hundreds of wild, edible species growing in the region. He wrote that because of their active lifestyles, Virginia Indians instead preferred wild plant foods with more calories in them: fruits, nuts, and starch-producing grains and tubers.

Sumendi cibum modus (Their Way of Eating Food)

Indians ate berries raw or added them to stew. Larger fruits like persimmons and wild plums were treated similarly or else dried to keep. Nuts and acorns were eaten raw or boiled; the oil that was rendered by boiling was saved for medicinal purposes. Indian cooks dried and later grounded the sweeter nuts, removing their shells and stirring in water to make powcohiscora, or “nut-milk,” which was considered a delicacy. Nut-milk is also nutritious. Early in the eighteenth century, in New England, Abenaki Indians—linguistic relatives of Virginia’s Powhatans—captured Elizabeth Hanson with her children. The march back to her captors’ village was so long and grueling her milk dried up. When she arrived, the Indian women saw her emaciated baby, near death, and restored it to health by providing nut-milk cooked with some cornmeal in it. Virginia Indians may have used it similarly.


Various wild grains, including wild rice, which grows in some freshwater streams in Virginia, were harvested in season, dried, and then later pounded into flour for bread-making. Tuckahoe was available year round and in those same freshwater marshes. John Smith described a variety of tuckahoe that is most likely arrow arum, a distant relative of Hawaiian taro and capable of causing an extreme allergic reaction if eaten raw. When slow-baked and dried in an earthen oven or cut into chips and sun-dried before pounding into flour, however, it is a workable if tasteless substitute for cornmeal. In the fall, arrow arum also produces plentiful floating, edible berries, which the Powhatans called ocoughtamnis, but these, too, are full of oxalic acid that before eating must be neutralized by sun-drying. When boiled for several hours, ocoughtamnis resemble chickpeas. Other starch-producing root-plants available to the Indians across the state were duck potato (Sagittaria latifolia), yellow cow lily (Nuphar advena), groundnuts (Apios Americana), and hog peanuts (Amphicarpa bracteata).

Indian Corn

The Indians domesticated beans and squash, boiling them to eat or drying them to keep. Corn, however, was the premier garden crop of the region, consumed in a wide variety of ways and at various stages of ripeness. When the ears were fully formed but still green, cornstalks could be sucked for their sweet juice—one of the only sweets in the Virginia Indians’ diet. They also enjoyed eating the unripe but sweet and juicy green corn kernels, which were either boiled or beaten to mush, rolled tightly in cornhusks, and then boiled. At the end of the harvest, corn that had not yet ripened was gathered and shucked, and the ears were roasted in hot ashes. Later, in the winter, they were boiled with beans in a dish the Powhatans called pausarowmena.

Virginia Indians harvested the bulk of their corn ripe and then shucked and dried it. They kept the cornhusks for cooking wrappers or making baskets and mats, and stored the ears in tight-closed baskets, removing kernels as needed for cooking in the months ahead. Sometimes they turned the kernels into hominy—a Powhatan suffix meaning “crushed with an instrument”—by soaking them overnight in water, beating them, and then simmering them for ten to twelve hours until the kernels were swollen and soft. Otherwise, the kernels were stripped off the ears and beaten into flour in a mortar. No colonial records mention the large grinding stones and pestles that archaeologists have found around the region; these first appear by the Middle Archaic Period (6000-2500 BC).

Corn flour was then mixed with water to make dough, which was cooked in various ways. Appone (Powhatan for “bread,” borrowed into English as “pone”) could be an ashcake, consisting of dough patted into a flat, broad cake, and covered with leaves and then hot ashes; a little water to wash off the ashes dried rapidly and the cake was ready to eat. Alternatively, it could be a dumpling, the dough being formed into a ball and boiled in a pot. Ralph Hamor—a Jamestown colonist and the author of A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia (1615)—remarked that the dumplings served to him in 1614 were particularly large, probably about the size of modern-day tennis balls. Even the grouts, or hard pieces left over from pounding out flour, were used; Indians cleaned them of husk pieces in a sieve and then boiled them several hours into a thickened pottage called ushuccohomen (“pounded corn,” which is the origin of the tribal name Chickahominy). The thriftiest women went even further: they beat dried corncobs into powder (called pungnough by the Powhatans) in order to stretch their cornmeal supply.

Traveling and Feasting


For travel, some Indian families carried dried venison, but most preferred rockahominy: dried parched corn that was beaten into powder and thus easily carried in a bag. A few handfuls of rockahominy, with water scooped out of trailside streams, served as an entire meal. (Europeans would later add sugar to the mix for palatability.) Supper on the road tended to be a bit more elaborate, consisting of roasted game shot during the day. To be prepared to bag the evening’s bird, men carried only their weapons while traveling; women carried everything else.

Both sexes could be called upon at fairly short notice to provide a lavish—aggressively lavish—feast when important dignitaries came to call on their chief. The men and boys immediately began acquiring shellfish, deer, and wild turkeys for cooking, an activity that went on all day every day during the visit. The women and girls, meanwhile, set to work pounding up dried corn into meal and baking it into bread. A fine illustration of all this was the near-continuous meal served at Chief Powhatan’s house in May 1614. Ralph Hamor was the honored guest, and this was his first brush with Indian hospitality and good manners: No sooner were we awake and up in the morning but Powhatan himself came to us and asked us how we fared, and immediately led us to his house, where was provided for our breakfast a great bowl of Indian peas and beans boiled together, and as much bread as might have sufficed a dozen hungry men; about an hour after boiled fresh fish, and not long after that roasted oysters, crevises and crabs, his men in this time being abroad a-hunting some venison, others turkeys and suchlike beasts and fowl as their woods afford; who returned before ten of the clock with three does and a buck (very good and fat venison), and two great cock turkeys, all which were dressed that day; and supper ended, scarce a bone to be seen.

The colonist’s observations show something else: absent refrigeration for leftovers, it was considered proper to eat everything served.

Mixing Indian and English Practices

The European colonists and their African slaves were already familiar with many of the Indians’ cooking methods and adopted some that were new, with the exception of stewing animals’ entrails. The Indians, meanwhile, adopted many European techniques. When the Indians eventually built English-style houses, they copied the English practice of hearthside cooking. This involved cooking in a fireplace set into the wall, with the cook having access only from three sides at the most. Unlike in traditional Indian cooking, the heat could not be reduced by removing part of the fire; instead, the pot was removed. That, in turn, necessitated abandoning the old, efficient conical-bottomed pots in favor of pots with tripod legs and handles. Thus, by late in the seventeenth century, Indian women were making such pots to sell, and by the eighteenth century, when they had moved into English-style houses, they made such pots for themselves. Indian cooking thereafter fully resembled English-style cooking—except for the frequent appearance of venison and fish on the table, as well as the use of “tuckyhoe” (probably duck potatoes) in some dishes.

It therefore has not been the Indians’ cooking techniques so much as their domesticated plants, especially corn, that have contributed enormously to people around the world in the past five centuries. Nutritionists have found that beans (domesticated in many parts of the world) and corn (purely a New World domesticate) contain different and complementary proteins that can make for a healthy diet, even when animal protein (meat, eggs, and dairy products) are unavailable.

  • Banister, John. John Banister and His Natural History of Virginia, 1678–1692. Edited by Joseph and Nesta Ewan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.
  • Hamor, Ralph. A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia. Reprinted from the London ed., 1615, with an introduction by A. L. Rowse. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1957 Also printed with modernized spelling in Haile, Edward W., ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607–1617. Champlain, Va.: RoundHouse, 1998. Pp. 795–856.
  • Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Smith, John. A Map of Virginia. 1612. [Historical section compiled from various texts by William Simmond.] In The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631). Edited by Philip L. Barbour, I:119–190. 3 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Also printed in part with modernized spelling in Haile, Edward W., ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607–1617. Champlain, Va., RoundHouse, 1998. Pp. 205ff, 569ff.
APA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. Cooking in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/cooking-in-early-virginia-indian-society.
MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. "Cooking in Early Virginia Indian Society" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 13 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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