Indian Towns

Open Town of Secota
John Smith’s Map of Virginia
Paspahegh Recreated from Archaeological Survey
Palisaded Town of Pomeiooc
Towns John Smith Identified
Dispersed Indian Town (recreated)


Indian settlements by tribal name had long existed in what is now Virginia before the arrival of colonial invaders. The Spanish were the first to attempt to plant a colony in Virginia. In 1561, they captured a Paspahegh Indian boy named Pacquiquineo, took him away , taught him Spanish, converted him, renamed him Don Luis Velasco, and returned in 1570 to plant a Roman Catholic mission on the York River. Pacquiquineo unexpectedly abandoned the mission site, returned to his Paspahegh tribe, and came back to kill the priests at the mission. Two years later, the Spanish returned to seek revenge but abandoned their attempt to establish a mission.

In 1607, the English invaded the Chesapeake Bay and established a fort in the Paspahegh hunting territory and named it Jamestown. In 1608, Captain John Smith took two reconnoitering voyages up and down the rivers of the Bay area. He identified over 200 Indian settlements he referred to as towns. His “discoveries” led to the creation of the Map of Virginia upon which he located all the tows by tribal names.

The Other Jamestown
Indian Towns Located by John Smith

Types of Towns

Indian towns layouts were either fortified or open and dispersed. Pomeiooc is an example of a fortified or palisaded town. Ten to twelve foot overlapping posts characterized these towns with a fire pit in the center. These fire pits were public spaces of profound significance. They were spaces for ceremonial dances, tribal meetings, and significant exchanges. Each enclosure held all the tribes religious relics and graves of their leaders. Each town had its own water source and Chief Weroance. Weroances occupied larger houses on the higher ground of the settlement. Fortified towns typically indicated the need for security against other tribes or invading foreigners.

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Open and dispersed towns exhibited some of the same features as fortified towns. Public spaces for dances and celebrations, houses for leaders and commoners, water sources, and burial sites could be found but in a more scattered pattern. Also, patches of corn in different stages of growth and tobacco plots might also be present. Raised reed stands were located near corn patches, places for children to sit and scare aware crows and predators from the corn. Secota is an example of a dispersed town as is Paspahegh. Other spaces could be reserved for food preparation, fish or animal skin drying racks, and tool making.


Town Life and Economies

Town is a term that seems appropriate to capture the essence of the settlements as self-contained entities that met every need of its inhabitants, men, women, and children, each with specific tasks and responsibilities. Men fished the river upon which most towns were located, using various techniques of spearing, dip-netting, line and hook baiting, or wadding and scaring fish into weir nets made of reeds and marsh grass. Coastal Algonquians were located mostly within a day’s journey or less from the ocean where oysters, King Crab, sturgeon, hammer head shark, mussels, and many other varieties of sea life flourished. Women planted and harvested corn through the spring, summer, and fall months. Boys and girls acted as scarecrows, sitting in stands on reeds near the corn patch to keep away crows, deer, or any other predators. Women kept the fires burning in the longhouses for warmth in winters or to control mosquitoes in summers. Part of the town usually contained an area for ritual celebrations, sometimes attended by visitors from neighboring towns. Religious ceremonies, feasting after a highly successful hunting or fishing expedition, corn and harvest festivals,  and victory dances after dispatching an enemy assault seem to be the most likely occasions for town dances, as surmised from ethnographical and archaeological evidence. Gatherings around a central open fire, as depicted in John White’s drawing of the town of Pomeiooc, might have been other moments of communal engagement. From these towns, Algonquian men went out in the winters and early springs to hunt and fish, often preceded by women carrying mats and other necessities to set up for temporary shelter and subsistence. From these towns also families dispatched their sons for the coming of age custom known as the huskanaw, to be described later, a hardening and defining time symbolizing the transition from childhood to adulthood and the essential qualities of each survivor. Inside the towns, were longhouses whose location and size marked the status of chiefs and commoners and burial grounds and charnel houses, likewise status based.