Fishing and Shellfishing by Early Virginia Indians


Virginia Indians living around the Chesapeake Bay and other people living along the bays and rivers of the Chesapeake region have long relied on harvesting fish and shellfish. Lacking long-handled tongs, Indian boys encountered by the Jamestown colonists dived for oysters in the Chesapeake, in addition to gathering clams and mussels and turning the byproducts of consumption into jewelry. Hard clamshells were crafted into cylinders and beaded, and by the seventeenth century this so-called wampum was being used as money. Indians fished using rods, line, and bone crafted into fishhooks; in shallow water, they speared fish with javelins. Spying Atlantic sturgeon asleep on the water’s surface, Indians sometimes noosed the giant fish, requiring them to hold on, at risk to life and limb, as the sturgeon darted and dived in an attempt to escape. Powhatan Indians also used small fires, set in hearths aboard canoes, to throw bright lights and attract fish close enough to the surface and to the boat to be speared. Weirs and V-shaped rock dams also trapped fish. Ill-equipped to feed themselves, the English colonists generally expressed surprise and admiration at the Virginia Indians’ expertise in fishing, eventually hiring Indian men to do the job for them.


The most-plentiful evidence of Indian use of fish or shellfish that archaeologists have found is the large middens of oyster shells in the brackish-water reaches of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers. Indian technology did not include long-handled oyster tongs, so the combined depth limit (25 feet, for oysters) and amount of the take depended on the strength and endurance of the Indian boys who dived for them. When Christopher Newport and his exploring party went up the James River in May 1607, one of the foods they were served was freshly boiled mussels, some boys having been sent to dive for them on the visitors’ arrival. The oyster shells in the middens show that for many millennia the Indian practice was to harvest the same locality for several years. The oysters would therefore start off very large—more than a foot long sometimes—because they had been allowed to grow undisturbed for a number of years. But as the harvesting went on year after year, the replacement oysters would be ever younger, decreasing in size until they were not worth bothering with. The people would then go elsewhere—and there were many places they could go in those days of much smaller human populations in the Chesapeake region.

Indian people also took clams and mussels, eating the meat and making the byproducts into jewelry. Certain species of freshwater mussels, especially the pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera), produce irregularly shaped pearls that are considered semiprecious by jewelers today. (Oyster pearls are much rarer and seem not to have been worn by Virginia Indians.) These mussel pearls, however, did not please the finicky English: there were burned patches on them because they were a byproduct of cooking the mussels, and the Powhatan Indians lacked fine metal drills, so that the holes made for stringing them were rather large. The shells of the hard clam were made—very laboriously with stone tools—into the stringable short cylinders called peak (or wampumpeak by more northerly tribes). At the time Jamestown was founded, wampum was used only for jewelry; its use as money came later in the seventeenth century. The early Virginia colonists also saw mainly white wampum (which they called “coral”) being used by the Powhatan Indians. The dark blue or purple kind, made from the outer edge of the shell, was far less common and much more valuable. The English turned this fact to their advantage by trading cheap blue beads to the Indians for valuable commodities.

Fishing Methods

Indian people caught fish by several methods, one of which was angling. They made thread from plant fibers for the line and used a forked stick as a rod. The fishhook, tied onto the line a little way from the end, could be either a bone grated into a fishhook’s shape, or else a splinter of bone tied onto a small cleft stick. The bait was then tied on with the remainder of the line, below the hook. Another method, practiced by children of both sexes according to Robert Beverley Jr. in his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), was spearing fish with a javelin in shallow water. John Smith and his crew saw that method being used by adult men on the Eastern Shore at the beginning of Smith’s first exploration up the Chesapeake Bay, whose waters in 1608 teemed with fish in the early summer. Still another fishing method was with nets, probably miniature hand-thrown purse seines.

A far more adventurous catching method was used on the huge Atlantic sturgeon that surged up the rivers to spawn early in the summer. These fish, when juveniles, are six feet long, and the adults can weigh more than 800 pounds. The reports of snaring sturgeon are all from late in the seventeenth century and seem to apply to many of the tribes in Virginia. The most vivid account comes early in the eighteenth century from William Byrd II, the Virginia planter and writer who saw the spectacle at firsthand: [Sturgeon Creek,] so called from the dexterity an Occaneechi Indian showed there in catching one of those royal fish, which was performed after the following manner: in the summertime ’tis no unusual thing for sturgeons to sleep on the surface of the water, and one of them, having wandered up into this creek in the spring, was floating in that drowsy condition. The Indian above-mentioned ran up to the neck into the creek a little below the place where he discovered the fish, expecting the stream would soon bring his game down to him. He judged the matter right, and as so[o]n as it came within his reach, he whipped a running noose over his jowl. This waked the sturgeon, which, being strong in its own element, darted immediately under water and dragged the Indian after him. The man made it a point of honor to keep his hold, which he did to the apparent danger of being drowned. Sometimes both the Indian and the fish disappeared for a quarter of a minute and then rose at some distance from where they dived. At this rate they continued flouncing about, sometimes above and sometimes under water, for a considerable time, till at last the hero suffocated his adversary and haled his body ashore in triumph.

Another method of fishing was fire-fishing which was done at night. A log canoe was fitted out with a hearth, probably lined with clay to prevent the fire burning a hole in the canoe. Accounts differ about where in the canoe the hearth was placed, but the probability is that it was amidships, as shown in a 1585 painting, set in the Carolina Sounds, by John White. He was the governor of the 1587 colony at Roanoke and an artist who painted the people and places he encountered.

Beverley added that the hearth there was raised until it was within two inches of gunwale height, so that at night the light from the fire would be easily seen underwater. Accounts also differ about how many men manned the canoe or what they did, but one kept the fire burning brightly while at least one other man paddled or poled the craft through the water. Beverley may have it right: they did the poling with javelins, which they could use in a flash to spear the curious fish that rose to the surface, attracted by the light. A great many fish could be caught that way, although the method is now illegal in Virginia.

Last but not least is the fish weir, which worked to feed a family all day, every day, at least during the warmer months. The kind used in shallow estuaries was invented by coastal Algonquian-speaking Indians at least 3,000 years ago (remains of a weir were found at an archaeological site in Boston, Massachusetts) and rediscovered by non-Indian watermen in the nineteenth century. A different kind of weir was used by inland peoples who dealt with rivers that ran fast over rocky beds. Both kinds, however, relied on the tendency of fish to head into deeper water whenever they encounter an obstacle as they swim along a shoreline.

In an inland river, the obstacle put into the way of fish was a rock dam in a V-shape, with the sides converging downstream. The remains of one can be seen at low water off Belle Isle in Richmond, at the Falls of the James River. The actual point of convergence was plugged with a long, conical-shaped reed trap: Robert Beverley wrote that it was about ten feet long and three feet in diameter at the open end. This is the kind of trap beloved of museums, because even a ten-foot-trap can be included somehow in a limited-space exhibition.

In truly wide estuaries, bays, and sounds another, much bigger kind of trap was used. A fence (nowadays called a “hedging” and running up to 1,000 feet long) was built perpendicular to the shore, so that fish swimming parallel to the shore would encounter it and head into deeper water. There, waiting for them, was the trap, consisting of a series of paired “bays” (two in the lower Chesapeake, two or three in the upper Chesapeake nowadays), their bottoms scrolled up to make a funnel-shaped entrance next to the hedging that fish are willing to enter but not exit through. At the head of the “bays” and their funnels is the trap proper. A 1590 engraving by Theodore de Bry, the European engraver, goldsmith, and editor, shows it on one side of the central fence, which may not be accurate: that weir would catch fish coming from only one direction alongshore. Modern weirs have the trap at the very end and can catch fish swimming in either direction alongshore. In either system, the fisherman comes along and dips out the fish with a net on a pole.

Modern fish pounds use poles up to 45 feet long, an option not available to Virginia Indians, who lacked metal cutting tools and draft animals. The Englishman William Strachey, who lived at Jamestown from 1610 until 1611, wrote in 1612 that the weirs he saw were built from the high-water mark onshore out to six feet of water; in 1705 Beverley wrote that they were built out to eight to ten feet, possibly reflecting some adoption of European tools. No writer described how a weir could be built only of “reeds,” but an archaeological find in Delaware may give us the answer. Each fence there had posts stuck in the mud in a sort of zigzag pattern, to make two lines of alternating posts. Reed bundles could have been laid horizontally between the two lines; if the reeds were long enough, as giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea) is, then a bundle could go past two lined-up posts and be held in place in the center by a post in the other line. And that kind of reed is indicated by Beverley’s account: only that species produces reeds the “thickness of a man’s finger,” as Beverley put it.

A variation on the V-shaped dam method seems to have been used on that small, narrow estuary in Delaware: the post fences (the only part of the weir to be preserved) ran running slantwise down toward the center of the creek, perhaps indicating several converging Vs. There may have been a reed trap of some kind downstream. There would not, however, have been much current to encourage the fish to go down there; more likely, some people upstream hit the water with paddles to frighten the fish (a method still used by some modern watermen).

Beverley added a small-estuary version of the inland V-shaped fish dam: poles would be set across a small tidal creek, as they had been in that creek in Delaware, mentioned above. At high tide, a hedging, presumably made of either reed bundles or cedar branches, would be laid between the poles (actually, lines of poles). A temporary fence like that would not need anything more elaborate to hold the hedging in place for a few hours. Any fish then in the estuary would be trapped there, and at low tide they would concentrate in the channel, where they could be captured fairly easily.

No eyewitness account of fish-poisoning has come down to us, though colonist John Clayton wrote about a “fishing root”—not identified—that would attract fish.

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

The English colonists were impressed by the native people’s expertise in harvesting seafood, especially since the English were often ill-equipped to feed themselves. (The silliest example is John Smith’s explorers trying to catch fish in a frying pan!) Building fish pounds in the estuaries, however, proved to be harder than they realized: according to modern watermen, the “bays” have to be laid in just so, in order to maximize the catch. So by the mid-seventeenth century, there were records of Englishmen hiring Indians to build weirs for them (documented in Accomack and Norfolk counties). For men who were losing their hunting territory to invading settlers, the wage work was probably welcome. Eventually, though, the technique died out, and it was not until late in the nineteenth century that it was reinvented. Nowadays the reinvention is on the wane as well, because of failing fish populations in the Chesapeake region. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, pounds were still being built in the upper Chesapeake and around Lynnhaven Inlet in southeastern Virginia.

Meanwhile, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Indian Reservation people are running modern fish hatcheries to keep up populations of adult shad that they harvest and sell every spring. Thanks to their treaty rights—specifically from the Treaty of Middle Plantation, dated 1677—they can harvest shad even when there is a moratorium on taking the fish; but with the hatcheries they make sure that they themselves do not deplete the shad population.

  • 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., Wayne E. Clark, and Kent Mountford. John Smith’s Chesapeake Voyages, 1607–1609. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
  • 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. Fishing and Shellfishing by Early Virginia Indians. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/fishing-and-shellfishing-by-early-virginia-indians.
MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. "Fishing and Shellfishing by Early Virginia Indians" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 15 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, February 25
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