Manners and Politeness in Early Virginia Indian Society


Manners and politeness, as dictated by custom, were an important aspect of early Virginia Indian society. What is known about the subject is limited to the observations of Jamestown colonists, visiting English observers, and later American historians, and is mostly applicable to the Algonquian-speaking Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco, a paramount chiefdom of twenty-eight to thirty-two groups in Tidewater Virginia. Although regulation among the Virginia Indians tended to be informal, the line between good and bad manners was nevertheless clear and the consequences for crossing it were severe. The Powhatans did not tolerate interruptions in formal situations, and tended to refrain from speaking until the appropriate moment. In instances of minor personal conflict, they chose either to withdraw from the situation or to bear any imposition without complaint. Powhatan society had various outlets for aggression and frustration, but in the end, self-control, even under torture, was most valued.

The History and Present State of Virginia

The Powhatan Indians were governed by customs that regulated their behavior and defined good manners versus bad. These customs must have been widely understood and were likely fairly strict. Despite the lack of written laws or a police force, the Indians “seldom or never brawl,” according to Edward Maria Wingfield, the first president of the Virginia Council. In his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), Robert Beverley Jr. wrote, “They are very severe in punishing ill breeding, of which every Weroance [chief] is undisputed Judge, who never fails to lay a rigorous penalty upon it.”

An example of strictly enforced decorum can be found in the proceedings of the council that advised the mamanatowick, or paramount chief. According to the Reverend John Clayton, writing in 1687, “The Junior [councillor] begins first & delivers his sentiment without interruption.” Each councillor speaks in his turn, “thus orderly they every one declare their judgemts, & advice,” only after which the paramount chief speaks. When a chief met with a foreign dignitary, his entourage sat in respectful silence. Beverley wrote of an occasion where a weroance was speaking formally to an English delegation in New Kent County: “and during the time of his speech, one of his attendants presumed to interrupt him, which he resented as the most unpardonable affront that could be offered him.” The chief responded to this affront by immediately killing the man, then continuing “on again with his speech where he left off.”

Pipe Stem Found at Werowocomoco

Custom dictated how people, even relatives, met after spending some time apart. Travelers encountered along the trail and newcomers arriving in Indian towns were treated the same: they were seated in silence, offered a shared tobacco pipe, and perhaps fed. Only then did they speak, stating their business or exchanging news. The same decorum prevailed when a family member returned after a long trip. Even if everyone was anxious to hear what his or her relative had seen and learned, the group nevertheless allowed the returnee to sit, relax, and perhaps eat before sharing his or her story. Such customs left John Clayton with the impression that the Indians were “sluggish and slow of speech.” But in fact, haste in any of these instances would have amounted to disrespect. It might also have caused misunderstanding and, with it, flared tempers.

A Festive Dance

Minor conflict was a regular feature of Indian life, especially in towns where people lived in close quarters and without much privacy. The proper response to such incidents was to withdraw (a tactic much used in war, as well), but if that was not possible, then the Powhatans preferred to remain stoic. Self-control—whether it be in not interrupting, in not prematurely demanding a person to speak, or in not losing one’s temper—was an important ethic, and Powhatan society was equipped with various means of controlling, appropriately venting, or sidestepping aggression. Married couples who did not get along could obtain a divorce, for instance. And dissatisfied wives could conduct extramarital affairs so long as they were sanctioned by their husbands. Dancing was an important outlet for aggression and frustration. In the evening, after finishing work and eating a meal, Powhatans regularly played music and danced around a fire, activities that helped them get past the problems of the day.

For deeper grievances, though, there was the practice of taking enemies captive in battle and, if they were male, torturing them to death. (Although never the subjects of torture, women nevertheless participated in torturing others.) The victim was expected to be utterly stoic while this was done. In fact, when captured Englishmen cried out under torture, they were mocked by the Indians, whose traditions taught them that such outbursts demonstrated weakness.

  • Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.
APA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. Manners and Politeness in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/manners-and-politeness-in-early-virginia-indian-society.
MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. "Manners and Politeness in Early Virginia Indian Society" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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