Languages and Interpreters in Early Virginia Indian Society


Early Virginia Indians spoke dialects of Algic, Iroquoian, or Siouan, three large linguistic families that include many of the more than eight hundred indigenous languages in North America. Among Virginia’s Algic-speakers were the Powhatan Indians, who lived in the Tidewater and encountered the Jamestown settlers in 1607. Little is known of their language—a form of Algic known as Virginia Algonquian—although Captain John Smith and William Strachey both composed influential vocabulary lists. The Nottoways and the Meherrins lived south of the James near the fall line and spoke Iroquoian. Although the Meherrin language was never recorded, it has been identified as Iroquoian based on geography. In 1820, John Wood interviewed the elderly Nottoway “queen” Edie Turner and created a word list that eventually was recognized as Iroquoian. Virginia’s Siouan-speakers, meanwhile, largely lived west of the fall line and included the Monacans, the Mannahoacs, and the Saponis. Many Virginia Indians, encouraged by the requirements of trade, diplomacy, and warfare, spoke multiple languages, and when the English arrived, they and the Powhatans eagerly exchanged boys to learn each other’s language and serve as interpreters. By the twentieth century, most if not all Virginia Indian languages had become extinct, meaning that no native speakers survived. In 2005, the Terrence Malick film The New World presented a form of Algonquian based on the Smith and Strachey lists and the work of the linguist Blair Rudes.


Most early Virginia Indians spoke some form of Algic, Iroquoian, or Siouan. Although each is a distinctly different language—as different from one another as Turkish is from English—they are nevertheless related. The eight hundred or so indigenous languages in North America are classified by linguists in a tree-like system of family relationships. Within the large Amerind family are the Almosan and Keresiouan language groups. Within the Almosan group is the Algic language family, and within the Keresiouan group are the Siouan and Iroquoian families.

Algic includes two language groups: Algonquian and Ritwan. Most Algonquian speakers lived east of the Mississippi River, and at some point a portion of them moved east from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic seaboard, where they developed about fifteen Eastern Algonquian languages and dialects. These ranged geographically from present-day Labrador, Canada, to North Carolina, and included Tidewater Virginia. Ritwan, meanwhile, is a grouping of two Indian languages—Wiyot and Yurok—found in northern California.

Susquehannock Indian

The Iroquoian language family is divided between the northern languages and Cherokee in the south. Among the northern languages are Susquehannock, Tuscarora-Nottoway, and Huron. The Siouan language family, which takes its name from the Sioux Indians of the northern Plains, includes the subfamilies of Catawba and Siouan Proper. The Catawbas, who at the beginning of the twenty-first century still live on a small reservation in York County, South Carolina, were for many years a powerful refuge community; as such, they were later joined by linguistic relatives from North Carolina and, eventually, Virginia. The Siouan Proper–speakers included Sitting Bull’s Lakota Indians in present-day North and South Dakota, as well as the Virginia Siouans, who lived west of the fall line and spoke dialects of the Tutelo language.


Map of Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom

Algonquian languages and dialects were spoken by the Indians of Ossomocomuck, including the Roanokes, Cowanocs, Croatoans, and Pamlicos, all of whom, in 1584, first encountered English soldiers in the Carolina Sounds. Farther to the north, Algonquian also was spoken by the Indians of Tsenacomoco, a paramount chiefdom of twenty-eight to thirty-two groups living in Tidewater Virginia. Linguists refer to this particular cluster of languages and dialects as either Virginia Algonquian or Powhatan, after Tsenacomoco’s paramount chief, Powhatan (Wahunsonacock). The Chickahominy, Accomac, and Patawomeck Indians, whose relationship with Tsenacomoco was less clear, also spoke Algonquian dialects.

Linguists have long argued that the more contact people speaking the same language have with one another, the more similar their dialects will become over time. In Virginia, contact, usually in the form of trade and warfare, happened via river travel. That meant that groups living in towns and villages along the same river likely spoke similar languages or dialects. For instance, the inhabitants of two towns at opposite ends of the York River drainage (Chiskiack and Matchut) apparently spoke languages more closely related than those who lived in towns relatively close together but on adjacent rivers (Chiskiack on the York and Paspahegh on the James River).

Americae pars

Little is known about the Virginia and Carolina Algonquian dialects. After a 1584 trip to Roanoke, English explorers returned home with two Indians, Manteo and Wanchese, who may have taught some of their form of Algonquian to Thomas Hariot. In 1585, Hariot sailed to Roanoke, and there compiled an Algonquian word list that has since been lost. Many of the words he learned, however, appeared in his account A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588). In 1612, Captain John Smith published A Map of Virginia, with a Description of the Country, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion, which included his own list: “Because many doe desire to know the manner of their [the Virginia Indians’] Language, I have inserted these few words.” There were forty-six in all, some of which have cognates in Hariot’s work. Among the words Smith recorded were a few that later were absorbed into English: “Mockasins. Shooes.” “Tomahacks. Axes.” Smith, unlike Hariot, also transcribed sentences, including one about Pocahontas: “Kekaten pokahontas patiaquagh niugh tanks manotyens neer mowchick rawrenock audowgh. Bid Pokahontas bring hither two little Baskets, and I wil give her white beads to make her a chaine.” The linguist Ives Goddard has noted that rather than Algonquian proper, Smith likely was recording a pidgin, or greatly simplified, form of the language used for trading.

William Strachey, a survivor of the Sea Venture wreck and an Englishman with literary pretensions, arrived in Virginia in May 1610 and soon after became the colony’s secretary. Assigned to report on the state of the colony, he traveled with an Indian interpreter named Machumps, and worked closely with two young Englishmen who had lived with the Indians and learned their language: Thomas Savage and Henry Spelman. In 1612, Strachey completed The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia. His account included “A Dictionarie of the Indian Language, for the Better Enabling of Such Who Shalbe Thither Ymployed,” a collection of more than 400 words, a few of which also could be found in Smith and Hariot. Better educated than Smith if not better traveled—both had lived briefly in Turkey, Smith as a slave, Strachey as a diplomat’s secretary—Strachey was in an excellent position to record the language. But he had difficulty understanding the alien sounds of Algonquian, and some of the words he wrote down are better understood as sentences. In addition, the handwriting in his manuscripts is difficult to decipher and the spelling, per the fashion of the day, is inconsistent. Consequently, out of the hundreds of words on Strachey’s list, the linguist Frank T. Siebert Jr. identified only 263 as Powhatan rather than gibberish.

Captain Gabriel Archer, in his brief account of a James River exploration in 1607, also included a short list of Powhatan words. And Robert Beverley Jr., in his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), recorded even more of the Algonquian language, including the Powhatan word for their religious temples: “The Indians have posts fixed round their Quioccassan, which have men’s faces carved upon them, and are painted.”

Iroquoian and Siouan

The Nottoway and Meherrin Indians spoke Iroquoian languages and lived along the fall line of the rivers of those names in the southwestern Tidewater and far southeastern Piedmont. Their linguistic relatives included the Tuscaroras, who lived in the Carolina Piedmont and were encountered by the colonists at Roanoke, and the Cherokees, who lived in the Carolina mountains. The Susquehannocks of present-day Pennsylvania and the Five Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) farther north spoke less similar forms of Iroquois.

The Meherrin language was never recorded; its identification as Iroquoian comes mainly from its position between the Tuscaroras and the Nottoways. Tuscarora is relatively well known thanks to anthropological work done by still-fluent descendants of the families that joined the Five Nations after 1715. Its position as Iroquoian is secure. The Nottoway language, on the other hand, went unrecorded until 1820, at which point the tribe claimed only about twenty-seven people living in Southampton County. A visitor to the reservation there, in 1820, described sixty-year-old Edie Turner, a woman “styled their Queen” who, although illiterate, was “extremely intelligent.” The visitor, probably John Wood, noted that “the antient Nottoway or Powhatan language is only known to the Queen and two other old Indians.” After misidentifying the language as being “evidently of Celtic origin,” the visitor went on to write that it “appears equally harmonious and expressive, as either the Erse, Irish, or Welsh.”

Thomas Jefferson's Report on Virginia Indians

On March 4, 1820, Wood, a mathematics professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, compiled a list of a little more than 250 words based on his conversations with Turner. He passed his findings on to former United States president Thomas Jefferson, who was an avid collector of Indian languages. Jefferson himself had once compiled about fifty vocabularies that he was readying for publication when he lost them in 1809 on the way home to Monticello from Washington, D.C. In a letter written at the time, Jefferson explained that on the James River a thief had stolen the trunk that contained the papers, but “being disappointed on opening it, threw into the river all it’s [sic] contents of which he thought he could make no use. [A]mong these were the whole of the vocabularies. [S]ome leaves floated ashore & were found in the mud …”

Eleven years later, Jefferson mailed John Wood’s new vocabulary to Peter Stephen DuPonceau. The French-born linguist corrected Jefferson’s mistaken impression that Nottoway was an Algonquian language, instead identifying it as Iroquoian. Sometime later, James Trezvant, a lawyer in Jerusalem, Southampton County, and a member of Congress (1825–1831), also visited the Nottoways, creating a word list of his own that included what he said was the tribe’s name for itself: Cherohakah. One of the words that appeared on the Wood-Trezvant lists was “hokeh,” meaning “yes.” It appears to be a cognate of the Choctaw word “okeh,” or “it is,” which has traditionally, but likely incorrectly, been considered a source for the English word “okay.”

The Virginia Siouan-speakers’ affiliation is based on a single word list published late in the nineteenth century. The language is Tutelo, whose speakers apparently were allied in the mid-seventeenth century with the Monacans and Mannahoacs mentioned by John Smith, as well as the Saponis and others who appear in Virginia records from about 1670 onward. The words in the list are cognate with those of Catawba, but appear to be more closely cognate with Biloxi and Lakota.


Many early Virginia Indians spoke more than one language or more than one dialect of the same language. Besides being encouraged by the proximity of languages, this multilingualism was necessary for trade and diplomacy with neighboring tribes and chiefdoms. In war, the Powhatans customarily only killed adult men, taking women and children captive and assimilating them into Powhatan society. The women likely helped their children retain their original language while at the same time learning their captors’ language. As a result, bilingual children were fairly common among Virginia Indians.


The paramount chief Powhatan probably understood long before the English arrived at Jamestown that children absorbed new languages faster than their elders. For this reason, in February 1608, he sent a boy named Namontack to live among the colonists. John Smith and Captain Christopher Newport reciprocated by handing over to Powhatan, in Smith’s words, “a Boy of thirteen yeares old, called Thomas Salvage.” (Because Smith had led the chief to think that Savage was Newport’s son, thus increasing the symbolic value of the exchange, Powhatan called him Thomas Newport.) The purpose behind these exchanges was to immerse children in the new language, either English or Powhatan, such that they might then serve as interpreters. Both sides assumed that these boys also acted as spies, but the benefits of their bicultural fluency outweighed whatever mischief they might cause.

Namontack, like the Roanoke Indians Manteo and Wanchese before him, set sail for England, leaving with Newport on April 10, 1608, and likely returning with the next resupply in the fall. His time in London must have struck both Powhatan and the Virginia Company of London as useful, because in December another Indian, Powhatan’s brother-in-law Machumps, made the journey. Machumps possibly met William Strachey in London, and the two set off for the colony together in June 1609. Although it’s unclear whether Machumps, like Strachey, was aboard the Sea Venture, which wrecked near Bermuda, he eventually made it back to Virginia.

While Machumps served in Virginia as an intermediary for Strachey, the English delivered fourteen-year-old Henry Spelman to Powhatan’s son Parahunt in the summer of 1609. The Indian Kainta, captured by the English, was sent to England sometime around July 1610. And two men, likely Paspahegh Indians, named Kemps and Tassore, were captured by the English and lived at Jamestown. Strachey wrote that after almost a year Kemps “could speake a pretty deale of our English.”

These cultural and linguistic exchanges caused tension but also paid important dividends. When Spelman was given to Parahunt, he mistakenly, and bitterly, believed he was being sold to the chief for the town called Powhatan. Late in 1609, the paramount chief used young Spelman to lure the colonists into an ambush, after which the boy fled to the Patawomeck Indians on the Potomac River. There his language and diplomatic skills would prove crucial in arranging for the capture of Pocahontas in the spring of 1613 and bringing an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614).

Death and Survival

C: Smith taketh the King of Pamaunkee prisoner

Indians like Kemps, who, Strachey wrote, “came orderly to church every day to prayers,” and Englishmen like Henry Spelman, who later just escaped execution on the charge of bad-mouthing the English to the chief Opechancanough, represented a brief time when the boundaries between Europeans and Virginia Indians were blurred. Eventually, however, English culture and language won out. English became the language of commerce in Virginia, and by the eighteenth century the Powhatans began to adopt English technology and cultural practices to the extent that their own languages became redundant in day-to-day business. When some Nanzatico Indian men were tried for murder in 1705, a court interpreter (a woman) was present, but testimony showed that the younger Indian men involved no longer understood their elders when they spoke to them in the Indian language. On March 4, 1727, the Virginia colony discharged its government-paid Powhatan interpreters from service because the language was no longer widely enough spoken to support their use. Nottoway interpreters were discharged on August 22, 1734.

The fading away of these Virginia languages was not government-driven, as it would be in the nineteenth century, especially in the western United States. There, children were taken from their parents, enrolled in government-funded boarding schools, and forbidden to speak their native languages. In Virginia, language loss happened much as it did in Ireland: without either coercion or efforts to keep the languages alive artificially. By contrast, the Massachusett Indians in Massachusetts conducted church services and maintained church records in their dialect of Algonquian, deliberately prolonging its use for another century. Their effort ultimately failed, and the Massachusett language, like the Virginia Indian languages, became extinct.

The term “extinct,” controversial among some modern-day Indian tribes who recognize how much cultural legacy is contained in a language, is defined by linguists to mean that there are no native speakers left. When Edie Turner died in 1838, she took the Nottoway language with her. In 1844, the Reverend Edwin Dalrymple of St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent County, interviewed the elderly Molly Holt and Rhoda Allmond on the Pamunkey Reservation; they were able to recall a counting-out rhyme in the old Algonquian language, but not much more.

The New World Movie Poster

During the making of his film The New World (2005), about John Smith and Pocahontas, the director Terrence Malick hired the linguist Blair Rudes to reconstruct the Algonquian language spoken by the Powhatans of Tsenacomoco. As a starting point, Rudes used the vocabulary lists compiled by Smith and Strachey before turning to other, better-known Eastern Algonquian languages—such as Passamaquoddy, still fluently spoken in what is modern-day Maine—for additional vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. What resulted is not Powhatan exactly, but as close an approximation as is possible under the circumstances. And apparently it was not too difficult to teach to the film’s actors. “The Algonquian are among the easier [Indian languages] in terms of pronunciation for a European,” Rudes told National Geographic in 2006. “They tend to be somewhat like Spanish, for example, in terms of having a consonant-vowel-consonant structure. This is one of the reasons why the English borrowed quite a number of words from the Algonquian language that we still have today, like ‘pecan,’ ‘opossum,’ and ‘moccasins.'”

Under the tutelage of Manteo and Wanchese, Thomas Hariot begins learning and transcribing the Algonquian language of the Virginia Indians.
February 1608
Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, exchanges a boy named Namontack for the English boy Thomas Savage. The boys will learn the other's language in order to eventually serve as interpreters.
July 1610
The Indian Kainta, captured by the English in Virginia, is sent to England.
During the murder trial of some Nanzatico Indian men, testimony shows that the younger Indian men involved no longer understand their elders when spoken to in the Indian language.
March 4, 1727
The Virginia colony discharges its government-paid Powhatan interpreters from service because the Algonquian language is no longer widely enough spoken to support their use.
August 22, 1734
The Virginia colony discharges its government-paid Nottoway interpreters because, according to the General Assembly, the Iroquoian language is no longer widely enough spoken to support their use.
September 21, 1809
Former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson writes a letter to Benjamin Smith Barton informing him of the loss of Jefferson's collection of Indian vocabularies. The papers were destroyed on Jefferson's way home from Washington, D.C.
March 4, 1820
John Wood, a mathematics professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, compiles a list of a little more than 250 words of the Nottoway language based on his conversations with one of its last native speakers, Edie Turner.
The last native speaker of the Nottoway language, Edie Turner, dies on a reservation in Southampton County.
The Reverend Edwin Dalrymple interviews the elderly Molly Holt and Rhoda Allmond on the Pamunkey Reservation. They are able to recall a counting-out rhyme in the old Algonquian language, but not much more.
  • Barbour, Philip L. “The Earliest Reconnaissance of the Chesapeake Bay Area: Captain John Smith’s Map and Indian Vocabulary.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 80, no.1 (January 1972): 21–51.
  • Binford, Lewis R. “An Ethnohistory of the Nottoway, Meherrin and Weanock Indians of Southeastern Virginia.” Ethnohistory 14, nos. 3–4 (Summer–Autumn 1967): 103–218.
  • Fausz, J. Frederick. “Middlemen in Peace and War: Virginia’s Earliest Indian Interpreters.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 95, no. 1 (January 1987): 41–64.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. The Jamestown Project. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.
  • Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Rudes, Blair. “A Sketch of the Nottoway Language from a Historical-Comparative Perspective.” International Journal of American Linguistics 47, no. 1 (January 1981): 27–49.
APA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. Languages and Interpreters in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/languages-and-interpreters-in-early-virginia-indian-society.
MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. "Languages and Interpreters in Early Virginia Indian Society" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2023, April 26
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