Divorce in Early Virginia Indian Society


Divorce was permitted, if not common, in early Virginia Indian society. What is known of the practice is limited to the observations of Jamestown colonists, visiting English observers, and later American historians, and applicable mostly to the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans and possibly speakers from other language families. A divorce among common married people could be obtained in cases of mere “disagreement.” Because daily labor was divided between the sexes and every adult needed at least one opposite-sex partner to get all the work done, marriage was encouraged among the Indians as a means of survival. If a married person divorced or was widowed or abandoned, remarriage was therefore expected. If a spouse was captured and did not return, a divorce was assumed in order to encourage remarriage. The paramount chief Powhatan divorced each of his wives as soon as she gave him a child, sending her either to one of his under chiefs or back to her home, but eventually taking the child into his household. Among nonchiefs, the children were raised by one of the parents; accounts differ as to how custody was settled. English colonists reacted to the relative ease by which Virginia Indians obtained a divorce by characterizing them as sexually promiscuous. In the centuries following the settlement of Jamestown in 1607, however, divorce among the Indians came into line with English and new American practices, becoming much more difficult.

Divorce Among Common People

If a first marriage between young people did not work out, divorce seems to have been available. The Englishman William Strachey, who lived at Jamestown from 1610 until 1611, implied in his writing that only men could initiate the process, but that may have been an assumption guided by English practices. In his History and Present State of Virginia, published in 1705, Robert Beverley Jr. wrote that the Powhatan Indians, and perhaps speakers from other language families of the Piedmont region, “allow both the man and wife to part upon disagreement.” He added, however, that divorce rarely happened because both parties’ reputations for constancy and generosity would have been tarnished by such a split.

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.

English colonists recorded at least two cases of divorce by capture, both of them involving famous Virginia Indians. When the English captured Pocahontas and held her for ransom in the spring of 1613, she had been married for about three years to a man named Kocoum, about whom little else is known. Pocahontas’s captivity stretched to nearly a year, during which she formed a new attachment with the English gentleman John Rolfe. The negotiations that led to her marrying him instead of returning to her people may have included an agreement that the marriage to Kocoum was to be ended. (The English took little interest in this matter; they were far more concerned with getting her father, the paramount chief Powhatan, to make peace.)

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

Both marriage and divorce differed between chiefs and common people. Information on the subject is limited to observations of the Powhatans, but apparently a system of checks and balances existed: the chief’s great power was counterbalanced by his being required to divorce his wives. This dispersed the power, influence, and money of the paramount chief by connecting many people to his bloodline, but also forced him, perhaps, to support many women and children financially. Although the two surviving accounts from English colonists do not coincide precisely, it is believed that when a wife bore a child by Powhatan, she and her baby left his household. According to John Smith, Powhatan presented the wife to one of his underlings, whose wife she was thereafter. Henry Spelman, who arrived at Jamestown in 1609 and lived among the Indians for a short period, reported that the wife actually returned to her family, where she lived for several years and where Powhatan sent valuables intended to finance other men to hunt on her behalf. Eventually she was declared officially divorced and free to remarry. In either case, she reared her child in its early years, after which the child was transferred to Powhatan’s large and busy household. There, he or she joined the household’s workforce, helping the paramount chief, for instance, prepare his many feasts.

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.

  • Beverley, Robert. The History and Present State of Virginia. 1705. Edited by Louis B. Wright. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947.
  • Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Rountree, Helen C., and E. Randolph Turner, III. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia’s Powhatans and Their Predecessors. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2002.
  • Spelman, Henry. “Relation of Virginea.” [1613?]. In The Travels and Works of Captain John Smith. Edited by Edward Arber and A. G. Bradley, ci–cxiv. New York: Burt Franklin, 1910. Also published verbatim but 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. 481–495.
  • Strachey, William. The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania. 1612. Edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund, series 2, vol. 103. Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, 1953. First book also published verbatim but 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. 569–689.
APA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. Divorce in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/divorce-in-early-virginia-indian-society.
MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. "Divorce in Early Virginia Indian Society" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 16 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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