Many different Indian tribes lived in the Chesapeake region, and their social, cultural, and political identities were extremely varied and complex. They spoke different languages, had distinct cultures, and organized themselves in a range of political structures and alliances.
The Indians who lived around the Chesapeake Bay spoke three totally different languages as well as multiple dialects. Most of the tribes spoke Algonquian languages, but others spoke Siouan and Iroquoian languages. These languages could not be mutually understood, although Captain John Smith was helped by native translators who could speak more than one of these languages.
The majority of the Chesapeake tribes spoke Algonquian languages—a family of languages widespread among native peoples from northern Canada to the Carolinas. Among the Algonquian speakers were the Powhatan tribes, the Chickahominy, the Piscataway, the Nanticoke, and the Asseateague.
Siouan is a language family spoken mainly by tribes in the Midwest. Around the Chesapeake, the Monacan, Mannahoac, Saponi, and Occaneechi spoke variations of this language.
Iroquoian languages are spoken primarily in the northeastern United States and southern Canada. The Susquehannock tribe at the northern reach of the Chesapeake Bay spoke an Iroquoian language, as did the Massawomeck, raiders from the north who attacked Captain John Smith.
The political and government systems of the Chesapeake natives were complex, and they varied from tribe to tribe.
Most tribes had a chief, called a werowance or werowansqua in the Algonquian languages. A chief’s duties were primarily in military, diplomatic, and religious matters, and they governed with the assistance of priests and councilors. Some tribes were led a by a council.
In some cases, tribal chiefs paid tribute and allegiance to a paramount chief. Tribute often took the form of food and goods in return for leadership, protection, and support in times of difficulty.
For example, at the time of Captain John Smith’s Chesapeake voyages, Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom included as many as 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes (not all of the Algonquian-speaking tribes in the region.) It is quite possible that Powhatan perceived Captain John Smith as the chief of the “English tribe” and wanted to bring him into the paramount chiefdom.
The power of a paramount chief was not absolute and had to be earned. Powhatan acquired his position partly through inheritance but also through his own leadership, personal charm, force, and spiritual reputation.
Captain John Smith called Powhatan and other paramount chiefs “kings” or “emperors”. While this is not a perfect metaphor, it gives an idea of how the English perceived the high status of paramount chiefs.
Major paramount chiefdoms, chiefdoms, and tribes of the Chesapeake at the time of Captain John Smith’s explorations included:
No two Indian tribes had exactly the same culture. However, some of the interesting features common among Chesapeake Indian tribes in the early 1600s included:
Conflict was common. Raids—especially between different language groups—were carried out regularly, and men trained to be warriors. In raids, women and children were often taken and adopted, but male captives were frequently tortured, which was considered an honor. Some Indian towns were surrounded by palisades for protection from attacks.
Learn More about the Tribes and Cultures of Indians of the Chesapeake: