Estimates vary, but it is likely that 50,000 or more people called the Chesapeake region home before the English arrived. Their ancestors had lived here for 40,000 generations—at least 10,000 years—so the ways of life of the native people were highly adapted to the geographic environment. Their economic, cultural, social, political, and spiritual systems were well established and sophisticated.
There were many cultural differences among the various Indian tribes living around the Chesapeake Bay, but they also had much in common. They all had a close relationship with nature and made ingenious use of the Bay’s resources.
Through their cultural traditions and values, American Indians retain knowledge of ways of life prior to the arrival of Europeans. By combining this knowledge with research by archeologists, scientists, and historians, it has been possible to reconstruct an image of the Chesapeake region before the arrival of English settlers, known as “pre-contact.”
There were many different tribes and cultures of Chesapeake Bay Indians. Before contact, there were at least three different language families (Algonquian, Siouan, and Iroquoian) and multiple dialects and cultural identities. The situation could be compared to Europe—everyone was European, but the French and the Germans were not the same.
Different tribes were connected by political alliances, but life was not always peaceful. Inter-tribal conflict and raids were common. Tribal conflicts and raids were primarily either ritualistic or retaliatory in nature.
The dominant American Indian group in the Chesapeake region were Algonquian speakers known collectively as the Powhatan tribes. Their paramount chief, Powhatan, whose familiar or personal name was Wahunsenacawh, had inherited leadership of a number of tribes, including the Powhatan, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Arrohateck, Appomatuck, and Youghtanund. He gained leadership of additional tribes, either by conquest or threat of conquest. The tribes of this paramount chiefdom provided military support and paid tribute of food, animal pelts, copper, or other gifts. Powhatan’s leadership extended from the Rappahannock River, west to the fall line of Virginia, and south to just below the James River.
The Indians of the Chesapeake Bay lived in towns situated along the rivers and waterways where they could get fresh drinking water. Towns ranged in size from about 50 to more than 200 inhabitants and contained homes, storehouses, gathering places, ceremonial and religious structures, and garden plots. Wooden fences, known as palisades, surrounded some communities to protect them from military action and wild animals.
The Indians moved their housing sites and sometimes entire towns periodically to avoid depleting the soil and natural resources.
Two types of homes were common: wigwams and longhouses. Both were built of wooden frames covered by bark or reed mats. The sapling-and-mat houses were remarkably strong and could withstand hurricanes and heavy snows. Learn more about Indian Houses.
Indian women and men worked side by side to feed their families. Women were responsible for farming and foraging; men took the lead hunting and fishing. Foods changed with the seasons. The varied diet of pre-contact American Indians was probably healthier than that of Europeans at the time.
The natural abundance of the Chesapeake region meant that its Indian tribes could find nearly everything they needed for daily life close at hand. They obtained luxury goods, such as copper, by trading with distant tribes. A sophisticated trade network connected the Indians of the Chesapeake with other native peoples across the continent.
The Indians of the Chesapeake lived lightly on the land for at least 10,000 years. Their communities were small and dispersed and they moved frequently so they did not strain the resources in any one location. They had minimal possessions, harvested only the resources they needed, and adapted to the seasons.
In the Indian worldview, human beings were connected to and part of nature. This bond with the land infused every aspect of pre-contact Indian life.
Learn More about the Native People before the English Arrived