by Frank G. Speck

Part 2

In the North Carolina sub-group we have strong indications from the illustrations of White of what is evidently Muskogian influence in the ceremony of the corn harvest (the "busk" of the Creek) with its ceremonial adjuncts, the emetic or "black drink," the scratching rite and other details. Except that in White’s pictures the people of Secotan are seated in a circle instead of in the "square" ground of the southeastern tribes, we might imagine the procedure to be a Muskogian one. Other ceremonial and religious rites of special significance are the burial customs, bone burial, cleaning the, bones of important persons, the mortuary house or temple, and the like.

The social unit of the area is impossible to determine. We have no direct information bearing on the question. Smith's observation on the maternal descent of Powhatan's dynasty is suggestive but not conclusive. Chieftaincy descent may have been at times maternal in the same group where the common people may either have had no ("sib" ???)or have had an economic social determination; for instance, the hunting territory institution like the Delaware as was recently shown by MacLeod, (American Anthropologist, vol. 24; No. 4, 1922). It may be regarded as a likelihood that the Powhatan group had an organization of a similar nature, since the hunting territory basis is common to both.

If one were induced to point out what special preferential relationships in culture, if any, showed forth in this region it would undoubtedly be the feature's of religious and political autocracy, which latter had assumed under Powhatan the form of a true Algonkian dynasty. Both developments appeal to the culture type of Siouan peoples in the Carolinas and farther south, where hierarchic and royal privilege were so impressive as culture traits that they seem quite unlike the usual thing in native North American government.

All native mythology is now gone, and none was placed on record by the Virginia adventurers. Even though a fairly large body of folk-lore and superstition remains among the Indian descendants, there is nothing ethnically distinctive about it. Animal tales and some personal narratives of European and negro extraction, locally adapted to the condition of recent Indian life in the region, are all that we now have to represent the oral tradition of this area.

There is little archaeological differentiation from parts of the middle Atlantic coast, though ceramic texture and form are relatively crude. Pottery vessels had generally pointed bottoms, without flaring or shouldered rims, and the clay substance abundantly provided with pebbles and mussel shell material. The shell heaps along the coast and river shores, where aboriginal mollusk-curing operations were conducted, are numerous but shallow. The occurrence of clay smoking pipe fragments among the usual pottery forms extending from top to bottom of the shell deposits furnishes evidence that tobacco culture was present among native industries at the first migration. No stratification or superimposed levels are indicated. For the most part the refuse and the deposits are not much more than 10 to 16 inches below the surface. The shells of clams and oysters, black loam, potsherds and stone artifacts rest upon the undisturbed yellow sand or ocean mud bottom of Tertiary deposition. In view of the apparent lateness of human occupation through the thinness of the deposit layer we have the testimony of a tradition recited to Strachey by Powhatan that the Powhatan peoples had been in Virginia only about three centuries. It may not be held as a strictly valid inference by many at present, but despite the evidences of a cruder stone age, (slate, quartzite and argillaceous material) intermingled with a finer age of industry everywhere present in the tidewater region, neither is deep nor characterized by special types or separate levels. Even the slate and soapstone implements which incidentally have been accepted by Parker, (11) and for a while by Skinner, when occurring in New York state, as suggestive of an Eskimo industry, lose much force in view of their appearing on the surface of eastern Virginia and North Carolina associated with similar forms of implements, arrowpoints, scrapers, knives and spear-heads made of quartz, quartzite, chert, jasper-like flint, and flint which are considered as materials of a later period. Would anyone think seriously of making out a case for Eskimo occupation upon the basis of these occurrences as far southward, over unglaciated country, as Virginia and North Carolina? The archaeological content of the Powhatan area, along the Chesapeake, cannot be differentiated from that of the Virginia and Carolina highland section, and the Delaware region. Similar hard stone material and forms are discovered over the whole Atlantic section from the Alleghanies to the sea, from the Carolinas northward through southern New England, except for the intrusion of Iroquoian ceramic patterns and the polished celt at certain points especially in New England. Here in the southeast, however, at the very doors of a southern Iroquoian habitat (Meherrin, Tuscarora) we find the Powhatan industries to have kept remarkably free from borrowing. This is certainly true of pottery and pipe forms. Virginia Algonkian ceramics are in brief in close resemblance to what in New York and New England has been described by northern archaeologists (Willoughby, Moorehead, Skinner and Parker) as archaic Algonkian. The walls of pots are thick, their size large, the material unrefined and gravelly, the surface not extremely well smoothed, the bottoms very pointed and the rims generally straight. The surfaces of the pots are decorated with cord, net, and less frequently though occasionally, with incised angular designs. The latter I may add from having looked over material in eastern museums besides that actually in the ground, increases in abundance the more one goes southward along the coast toward South Carolina and again toward the mountains. Admitting withal that the archaeological question is still an open one, I believe we may say without prejudice that the Powhatan area has affinities with the southern coast region, and that similar types reach northward to southern New England.

The southeastern Algonkian area turns out to be one of considerable importance. The reason for this lies in the bearing it had upon the absorbing problem of Algonkian distribution. The Virginia tribes were geographically situated near the southeastern, terminus of the great linguistic family. Their culture was therefore marginal to the stock, and yet on account of its advancement and complexity it appeared as a peak of culture sufficient to deserve rank as a distinct sub-center, in short, a marginal sub-center. The complexities are, however, by no mean baffling, inasmuch as the main influence from the outside may be distinctly traced to the southeastern or Gulf area, without specifying whether it arose from a Muskogian or possibly an older eastern Siouan, or even an Iroquoian civilization. The Virginia tidewater Algonkian, as we shall see with increasing emphasis, appear to have been less Algonkian in culture than they were in speech. A similar change of culture has been noted in the history of the prairie Algonkian whose Algonkian affinities stand forth only through the link of language. The parental linguistic characteristics of the Virginia branch of the stock were retained with remarkably little modification other than phonetic shifts, yet in respect to material and social life the Powhatan tribes had become converted by southern influences to such an extent that their culture status, had we no information concerning language to guide us, would deserve to be included with the Gulf area rather than with the Algonkian of the north. As to racial classification at present we know practically nothing, yet a determination of physical type would go far toward solving the problem.

A second feature of importance in an attempt at the interpretation of culture movements in this area is the part played by these intermediate Algonkian in conveying to their northern kindred tribes, through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and even as far as southern New England, a revised adaptation of southern ethnic traits. Thus there was created a northeasterly culture migration, affecting, by the introduction of agriculture and its arts, the industrial and social life of Algonkian groups far into the hunting area of the north. We then are led to see where the Algonkian of the North Atlantic and southern New England states got their corn, bean and tobacco culture and most of the artifacts concerned in those sedentary activities, their splint-basketry, woven fabrics, especially the remarkable feather technique, their mat and bark-covered rectangular wigwams, dome-shaped instead of conical form, and many other details of economic life which can best only be hinted at as yet. Other traits, extending as far as the southern New England coast, to be traced with this point of derivation in view as a possibility are the "long-house," the stockaded villages, ceramic influences, fish nets, shell beads, the ungrooved adze or "celt", the, water-drum, the flageolet, the netted stick ball-game (similar to lacrosse), methods of hairdressing, and the unpuckered one-piece moccasin. The culture complex of agriculture and ceramics has already been treated suggestively by Kroeber and Spinden, (12) while in another paper I presented a similar case for splint basketry. In surveying the social and religious aspects of eastern Algonkian life there is a strong suspicion that from the southern portion of the continent brought along by Iroquoian migration, also came such traits as the matrilineal reckoning of descent, with animal totemic associations. With the foregoing also came the development of autocratic power vested in the hands of the hereditary chief, the confederacy idea centering about the "Long House" (13) the weakening of the Algonkian institution of the hunting territory as the nomadic hunting life gave way to agriculture, and finally such an agricultural rite as the corn festival, to which may be added shamanistic societies, religious communalism in general, mound erection, group burial, and no doubt far-reaching influences in mythology.

In brief I feel a certain security in making a preliminary interpretive conclusion that the explanation of eastern; more properly Atlantic coast Algonkian culture relationships, may be understood as resulting from a southeastward migration of Algonkian-speaking peoples, who gradually, after reaching the culmination of their drift, probably somewhere on the western shores of Chesapeake Bay, cultivated the superior economic and social properties of the south and then, secondly, after its assimilation served in the northern spread of the resulting culture-complex.

The question of chronology might be thought of in this connection. There seems to be some fairly good evidence that the southeastern Algonkian drift was a relatively recent one. We have an eastern migration legend, the Walam Olam, accredited to the Delaware and their neighbors, relating to a period not much before the historical era when this group of people migrated into Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The archaeological phenomena of the Chesapeake region are not suggestive of antiquity; there is homogeneity over a single rather thin surface stratum. And finally we have the ensuing historical testimony. Strachey, the most explicit author on Virginia ethnology, estimated from what he had been told by the Powhatan that the Indians had, at that time, not been inhabitants below the falls of the James (the site of Richmond) for much more than 300 years (Strachey, op.cit. p.23).

There seems to my mind to be still better reason now than there was seven years ago for the following statement of the situation in the southeast as I saw it then, that the Carolina Algonkian were comparatively recent intruders into the region and formed the last offshoot of the general Algonkian, movement southward along the Atlantic Coast, where, step by step, it seems, wherever the advancing bands settled down, the migration appears to have been continued later by a smaller, offshoot, until the moving force had expended itself. (14)

An interesting problem stands forth if this be true: Why should the Algonkian, drifting southward across the Alleghenies and down the coast, have retained their parent speech when they acquired a more advanced material culture by contact with outsiders? Among various possibilities it may be met by assuming that the Algonkian immigration was a rather sudden one carried forward by warlike men who took the women and children of the invaded territories, that its coming was met with hostility by the resident peoples, that it brought the immigrants into an unfamiliar and exotic southern climatic environment where already a well-adapted sedentary culture was found established. These requirements are logically met if we regard the old Algonkian center of distribution to have been in the Canadian zone, say in the regions about the Great Lakes, and the advancing wave to have collided with eastern Siouan bands among the mountains and on the eastern slopes, or with other cultures of the southeastern of Gulf type. The preceding remarks accordingly lay down some conclusions which have been the outcome of a rather long period or research both in the field (15) and through the older published records of the Atlantic Coast region. I would hardly venture to offer them in such definite form were it not for the conviction of their basic correctness, of which amplifications are still to be expected as more comes to be known concerning the surrounding cultures in the Carolina and Gulf area, and in the upper Mississippi valley.

Although the argument, if it is one, may not have been presented in its details with sufficient art to bring out its most convincing aspect, nevertheless, for the fundamental idea of a fairly recent Algonkian migration into the southeast there seems to be some basis.

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa.


(11) Even Hawkes (The Labrador Eskimo, Geological Survey of Canada 1916, pp. 2 and 17) admits a scattered Eskimo population as far south on the verbal authority of Skinner. Skinner in his recent statements (Ameican Anthropologist, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1923, p. 96) more logically inclines to regard Parker's "Eskimoan" evidences in New York state as a phase of archaic Algonkian culture; relying upon a certain fundamental similarity between Eskimo, old Algonkian and Athabaskan culture which is of late coming to be more generally recognized since it was broached some years ago by Boas.

(12) H.T. Spinden, Origin and Distribution of Agriculture In America, p. 269; A.L. Kroeber, Tribes of the Pacific Coast, (p. 393), both articles in Proceedings 19th Congress of Americanists, 1915, Wash., 1917. Also Kroeber, American Anthropologist, vol. 25, no. 1, 1923.

(13) An obscure but important statement from Strachey tells us that the towns and forts of Powhatan, and the country in general of Powhatan, were known as Tsenacommacoh (Strachey op. cit. p.29).

(14) Remnants of the Machapunga Indians of North Carolina. American Anthropologist, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1916.

(15) This work was carried on under the auspices of the Museum of the American Indian (Heye Foundation) N.Y., and the collections of ethnology from the region are to be found in this institution.

Courtesy of American Anthropologist


Speck, Frank G. The Ethnic Position of the Southeastern Algonquian. American Anthropologist 26; 1924: 184-200.

Copyright 2001
Carolina Algonkian Project