The Nansemond were a tribe of Native Americans under the influence of Powhatan when John Smith and the rest of the Virginia Company landed at Jamestown. All the tribes in Pohatan’s chiefdom were in a state of transition from being solely hunter-gatherers to having a class-based society, based on their beginning to have some agricultural capabilities.

                    Local Native Americans


                         Eastern Virginia


Joseph L. Bass, EdD




Have you wondered what it was like to live in Eastern Virginia before John Smith and the other members of the Virginia Company arrived to establish Jamestown?  How did the people live? How did they feed themselves? What was their culture like? Were they like us now living in the same place or were they very different?


The Noble Savage Myth – Because of the “Noble Savage” myth developed in Europe and the influences of Hollywood fiction few Americans will be able to answer these questions accurately. This presentation will cover the realities of a people who had only recently transitioned from being solely hunter-gatherers to a people with some agricultural skills.


The noble savage myth was originally developed by European scholars during the late 17th century. It proposed the idea that humans are naturally “good” and become “bad” through negative influences of civilization. Hollywood fiction and many works of literature are clouded by this false thinking. This sometimes the case in what are supposed to be serious academic research findings and writings.


The Myth and the Reality – An example of the myth is found in the Dances with Wolves movie. An example of the reality is found in Empire of the Summer Moon, a non-fiction book. The basis of both involves the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a small girl captured by Comanche and raised as their own.


In Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner, in the person of Lieutenant Dunbar, states he has never seen a more loving people. That is probably true within most social groups. But people are not loving of individuals of different groups.


The Empire of the Summer Moon documents Comanche hideously torturing people different from themselves.  At one time General Sheridan, of “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” fame, was near a Comanche attack that resulted in a man being strung between two wagons and burned alive.


Would you expect the local Native Americans to be more like those in Dances with Wolves or the ones in Empire of the Summer Moon?


Our Objectives at ABetterSociety.Info, Inc. – Our objective is is to provide information and insight into how we can go about improving world society. It is clear we have advanced knowledge and practical application of technologies, but we are far behind in understanding cultures. Consider the condition of the world today in terms of advancing peace and prosperity for all people.


Information Sources – Information included in this presentation is meant to advance citizens’ knowledge of cultures. The greater our understanding of cultures the closer we will come to having peace on earth. The information and conclusions resulted from academic university courses and years of reading about and observing different cultures. Unfortunately, most academic cultural studies involve identification of social patterns unique within isolated groups. Our objective is to identify common patterns among all cultural groups. Greater understanding of these common patterns can help us apply approaches that will successfully improve world society.


The People: A General Overview – The native people living here are known as Powhatan named for their leader when the English arrived. These Algonquin-speaking people controlled the land from the North Carolina border to the Great Falls on the Potomac River northwest of Arlington, Virginia, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Fall Line. The fall line marks the location where boat navigation is no longer possible up the James, York, Rappahannock, and the Potomac rivers. These peoples’ name is often pronounced “Pow a tan” but the native pronouniation is “Po hot un.”


Algonquin Language – Algonquin is the name of a language shared by many tribes. There was not an Algonquin tribe. Commonly known tribes that speak an Algonquian-based language include the local Powhatans, Arapahos, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crees, Gros Ventre, Illini, Kickapoo, Mohicans, Sac and Fox, Miamis, Potawatomis, Ojibwas, Shawnee, and a number of lesser known tribes.


Algonquin speaking tribes were the first contacted by the English. As a result, many of their words have become a part of American English. Some include caribou, caucus, chipmunk, Eskimo, hickory, hominy, husky, mackinaw, moccasin, moose, muskrat, opossum, papoose, pecan, pemmican, persimmon, pokeweed, powwow, Quonset hut, raccoon, skunk, squash, squaw, succotash, terrapin, toboggan, tomahawk, totem, wampum, wapiti, wickiup, and woodchuck. Many North American place names come from Algonquin including, Mississippi, Michigan, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Nantucket, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Chicago, and Illinois.


Hunter-Gatherers vs. Agriculture – It is thought that the Powhatan had started to develop agricultural capabilities only a few hundred years before the English arrived. They mainly raised what are known as the “three sisters.” Three crops were planted in the same field: corn, squash, and peas. The corn grew tall, the peas climbed up the corn stocks, and the squash grew along the ground. Even with this much agriculture a great deal of their survival still depended on hunting and gathering from nature. 


Governmental System – The governmental system practiced by the Powhatan is known as a chiefdom. This is a transitional system between the consensus based decision-making process common among hunter-gatherers and a monarchy. The man Powhatan was able to bring under his control nearly all of the

tribal groups in the eastern region of Virginia. It was not a confederation as is often stated. In a confederation the ruler of each tribe would come from that tribe. Powhatan is known to place some of his brothers and even a sister as the ruler of tribes not of his own tribal group.

Us vs. the Enemy - As in all hunter-gatherer societies people’s survival depended on controlling land and resources. Losing land to their enemies would result in death for everyone either through starvation or being killed by their conquerors.


A variety of cultural traits relating to clothing, housing, weapons, body markings (like tattoos), hair style, etc. marked each group so that members could immediately identify friend or foe.


In order to maintain control of their land and resources all hunter-gatherers are militaristic. Young boys were taught from an early age to be willing to die for group safety and security. They were also taught to slowly torture to death any captured enemy. If one group conquered another all those captured would be killed, including men, women, and children.


Scarce Resources – It is difficult for us to understand the scarcity of resources and the desperation experienced among Native Americans and other hunter-gatherer people. In our time we have developed knowledge and resources to feed millions of people on the same land the Powhatan occupied. In the geographic area under their control they supported less than 15,000 individuals.


Survival of the Fittest – As is the case with all hunter-gatherer societies only the fittest were able to survive. There was not enough food to support individuals unable to work and produce products. Babies considered unhealthy or defective were killed. In some societies suicide was expected of old people. Young boys experienced a harsh initiation ordeal into manhood that resulted in the death of the weak. The Powhatan initiation ceremony for boys into the warrior society was known as the huskanaw.


The Huskanaw Ordeal – This horrendous ordeal took place in an isolated area away from the boys’ home village. Months of torture mainly involved feeding young boys narcotics that drove them so mad they had to be imprisoned in a “huskanaw pen.” After being weaned off the narcotics the boys were educated in the ways of a Powhatan warrior. If the now-new warrior indicates he remembers even his parents, he would be put through the huskanaw again, which usually resulted in his death.

George Cassen’s Unhappy Death - In November 1607 John Smith began an exploration of the Chickahominy River. Several of his men were lured ashore by native women. When the ruse was discovered all escaped except George Cassen. The warriors tied the naked Cassen between two stakes, lit a fire behind him, cut off his fingers one joint at a time, detached the skin from his face and head, cut open his belly, pulled out his bowels, and burned his body down to the bones. The natives assumed the English were weaklings because George and others submitted to similar ordeals did not die like good warriors should. (Love and Hate in Jamestown, page 60-61).


Relating the Powhatans to Recent History – Based on their knowledge and skills the Powhatan could only support a small, limited number of individuals on their land from North Carolina to just north of Arlington, Virginia. Would a “modern” nation adapt a way of life similar to theirs if its capabilities to create wealth were extremely limited as theirs’ was? Yes. Consider how much like hunter-gatherers the German people became when reduced to poverty by the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. The more we know and understand about cultural patterns the closer we will come to experiencing peace on earth.


Joseph L. Bass, EdD, represents ABetterSociety.Info, Inc., a non-profit focused on improving world society. Our approach is to help people consider approaches for overcoming social problems different from conventional thinking.


He is available to provide talks and participate in dialogues to discuss a variety of topics. Some include: 1. Understanding different types of social structures and their influence on today’s world; 2. The clash of social structures and the American Civil War, Jim Crow Era, and the Civil Rights Movement; 3. Refocusing efforts to overcome poverty; 4. Frederick Douglass, respect, and dependency.



Love and Hate in Jamestown, David A. Price, Vintage Books: A Division of Random House, Inc., New York, 2003.

Pocahontas’s People, Helen C. Rountree, The University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1989.

The Powhatan Indians of Virginia, Helen C. Rountree, The University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1989.

Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne, Scribner, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, 2010


© ABetterSociety.Info, Inc. 2016