Marriage in Early Virginia Indian Society


What is known of marriage in early Virginia Indian society is limited to the observations of Jamestown colonists, visiting English observers, and later American historians, and is mostly applicable to the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans of Tsenacomoco, a paramount chiefdom of twenty-eight to thirty-two groups living in Tidewater Virginia. Marriage was crucial for survival in Indian society, because men and women needed to work as partners in order to accomplish their many daily and seasonal tasks. The man initiated courtship and looked for a woman who would perform her assigned tasks well. The woman could decline a marriage offer, but if she did choose to accept it, her parents also needed to approve the offer. The groom’s parents, meanwhile, paid a bridewealth, or marriage payment, to the bride’s parents to compensate them for her lost labor. Men were allowed to have additional wives, so long as the husband could afford to provide for them; for chiefs especially, these wives served as symbols of wealth. It is estimated that the paramount chief Powhatan (Wahunsonacock) had as many as one hundred wives during his lifetime. While a man’s first marriage was expected to last for life, additional marriages were likely negotiated for shorter terms. Unless a woman was married to a chief, she was allowed to conduct extramarital affairs, provided she had her husband’s permission (which was usually given). Punishment for dishonesty on this score could be severe, however. Virginia Indians held onto their marriage traditions long after contact with the English, and marriage between Indians and the English was rare.

Courtship and Marriage Ceremony

Fictiliuvaforu in quibus cibucoquunt (The Beauty of the Earthenware Vessels in Which They Cook Food)

The Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco expected men and women to perform specific and very different roles. In addition to bearing children, women farmed, collected fuel for their fires, butchered animal carcasses, cooked, made household implements, foraged, and supervised young children. For their part, men hunted, fished, cleared fields, waged war, and participated in political and military councils. Because it was impossible to survive by accomplishing just one of these sets of tasks, and because no one person could do everything, Indian men and women depended on partners of the opposite sex for their survival. For that reason, marriage was generally an economic, not a romantic, arrangement. According to written records by English colonists, only weroances, or chiefs, considered physical beauty to be an important attribute in choosing a wife.

Women became eligible for marriage once they reached puberty and were able to fulfill their obligation to bear children. Men became eligible once they had completed the huskanaw, a ritual that initiated them into manhood. Only then were they considered able to fulfill their obligation to hunt, fish, and fight. The man initiated courtship by presenting his potential bride with gifts of food, thus demonstrating his ability to provide. She was free to decline the proposal, but if she did not, the suitor negotiated a bridewealth with her parents. The opposite of a dowry, the bridewealth was an amount of wealth paid by the groom (or his parents) to the bride’s parents, presumably to compensate them for her lost labor once she left to live with her husband. A feast would be held to celebrate a successful negotiation.

The man then returned to his parents’ town (if indeed the bride and groom did live in different towns) and prepared a house and furnishings, both of which were probably made for him by his female relatives. The two families then met for a formal marriage ceremony, apparently at the bride’s home. After the groom delivered the bridewealth, the bride’s father or some other elder joined the couple’s hands together and broke a long chain of shell beads over their heads. After another feast, the couple took up residence in their new house.

Multiple Marriages


The Powhatans assumed that first marriages would last for life unless a spouse was captured in war. In that case, the remaining spouse was free to find another partner. But even without divorce, additional marriages were permitted. For instance, a married man could court and marry additional wives if he proved himself able to provide for them. Because wives were expensive, they became status symbols. Chiefs, especially the paramount chief, or mamanatowick, would take many wives. English observers did not record whether weroansquas, or female chiefs, ever took multiple husbands. It also is not clear whether there was a hierarchy of wives, how the household work was divided among the wives, and what their sleeping arrangements might have been. The paramount chief Powhatan kept a wife until she bore him a child, after which she would return home.

William Strachey, a Virginia Company of London secretary and author of The Historie of travaile into Virginia Britannia (1612), wrote that “According to the order and custome of sensuall heathenisme,” Powhatan may have had “many more then one hundred” wives who lived in various houses and took turns keeping him company: “when he lyeth on his bedd, one sittith at his head and another at his feet; but when he sitteth at meat, or in presenting himself to any straungers, one sitteth on his right hand, and another on his leaft … .” Strachey continued that, of Powhatan’s many wives, he favored about a dozen, “in whose company he takes more delight then the rest, being for the most parte very young women … .” The Englishman may not have realized that all of these women were working wives, raising corn, cooking, and otherwise tending the mamanatowick, who, like all chiefs, was expected to entertain lavishly. Some of the wives were also expected to wear valuable furs, jewelry, and face paint, to impress visitors.

Vt Matronae Dafamonquepeuc liberos geftant (How the Married Women of Dasamonquepeuc Carry Their Children)

According to Henry Spelman, an English boy who became fluent in the Powhatans’ Algonquian dialect, Powhatan chose his wives based on their beauty. But a wife’s family background probably mattered, too. Chiefs like Powhatan had to be canny politicians, and they likely married wives from different towns in order to create in-laws who might serve as allies. By keeping his wives only until they bore a child, Powhatan was able to continue accumulating wives and to forge useful family connections through their children. Strachey also emphasized the importance of children, writing that many wives produced “manie children, who maie, if chaunce be, fight for them [their parents] when they are old, as also then feed and mayntein them.” Powhatan’s former wives, meanwhile, were free to remarry sometime after bearing their children—probably once the child was old enough to rejoin Powhatan’s household (about eight years old). In this way Powhatan could assume that each mother paid attention only to his child during that child’s formative years.

If the first marriage was for life, Strachey wrote, then all others were temporary. They were negotiated for a specified time, such as a year, “after which they [the spouses] may putt them awaye,” or decide not to renew the contract. But “if they keepe them longer then the tyme appointed, they must ever keepe them, how deformed, deceased, or unaccompaniable soever they may prove.” These kinds of marriages, in a society whose men regularly went to war, would have been particularly advantageous to the older widows.

Sexual Freedom

Wives were allowed to engage in sexual relationships outside of their marriage, so long as these arrangements were sanctioned by their husbands. Strachey, perhaps reflecting a monogamous English society, was scandalized by this practice. He described the Powhatans as “most voluptious,” and suggested that wives, given permission, turned into “Virgill’s scrantiae,” scrantiae being an old Roman epithet for unchaste women. (It was actually the ancient Roman playwright Plautus who coined the word.) According to Strachey, such women “may embrase the acquaintance of any straunger for nothing, and it is accompted no offence,” a circumstance that left them “full of their countrye desease (the pox) very young.” In fact, however, Powhatan women probably behaved less according to their sexual whims than to the dictates of custom: husbands often loaned their wives to visitors as a form of hospitality.

The Generall Historie of Virginia

Unsanctioned affairs, on the other hand, resulted in sometimes-severe punishments. If caught in the act, the male offender could be executed. Women may have been punished in other ways. In his Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), Captain John Smith wrote that Powhatan “made a woman for playing the whore, sit upon a great stone, on her bare breech twenty foure houres, onely with corne and water, every three dayes, till nine dayes were past, yet he loved her exceedingly.” Such treatment may be why, according to Strachey, women were “very carefull not to be suspected of dishonesty.” Another colonist, Gabriel Archer, suggested that the wives of chiefs did not enjoy the freedom to carry on extramarital affairs.

After English Contact

Marriage of Pocahontas & Rolfe Puzzle

The English colonists who founded Jamestown in 1607 tended to disapprove of customs other than their own, and they saw the Powhatans’ marriage customs and sexual practices as particular proof of their need to be converted to Christianity. The Indians were reluctant to change, especially since, according to the colonist Robert Beverley Jr., the English were reluctant to accept Indian women in marriage. (Only three Anglo-Powhatan marriages are recorded in seventeenth-century Virginia, one of which is the famous union between Pocahontas and John Rolfe in 1614.) As a result, the Powhatans maintained their marriage traditions longer than some other customs. Over time, however, the Indian population decreased—Thomas Jefferson guessed that in 1787 the Pamunkey Indians had been “reduced to about 10 or 12 men”—limiting the number of potential marriage partners and making cross-cultural unions necessary. Marriages also combined religious traditions. In 1786 two Pamunkey Indians, Elizabeth and Robert Mush (sometimes Mursh), married in a ceremony that combined Episcopal, Baptist, and Pamunkey traditions; they lived on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in King William County. Shortly after 1800, Mush and his family moved to the Catawba Reservation in South Carolina, and in February 1806 the family joined the Baptist Church there. When Mush became a Baptist preacher himself, he and Elizabeth were remarried in a Christian ceremony.

  • Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
  • Rountree, Helen C. “Powhatan Indian Women: The People Captain John Smith Barely Saw.” Ethnohistory 45, no. 1 (Winter 1998): 1–29.
APA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. Marriage in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/marriage-in-early-virginia-indian-society.
MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen. "Marriage in Early Virginia Indian Society" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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