James River Chiefdoms: The Rise of Social Inequality in the Chesapeake

By Martin D. Gallivan | Go to book overview

Preface: The Arrival of the Tassantasses

On 24 July 1608 John Smith and 12 of his men pushed a small barge into the James River and floated downstream for the Chesapeake Bay. Powered by sail, oars, and a desperate need for provisions, the Englishmen set out to learn what they could of the area surrounding James Fort and its inhabitants. This was Smith’s second expedition on the Bay, and by this time his contacts with the Native societies of eastern Virginia assumed a familiar pattern. At the northern reaches of the Chesapeake, Smith’s men encountered a large force of armed Tockwoghs who surrounded the Englishmen. Quickly though, their hostile posture gave way to an exchange of goods, after which the two parties returned to the Tockwoghs’ village, where the Tockwoghs entertained the visitors with a lavish feast (Smith 1686c:171).

During the early years of the Jamestown Colony, Smith and other colonists described a number of similar encounters throughout the Tidewater region with diverse groups of Algonquin-speaking Indians who comprised the Powhatan paramountcy.1 The colonists also provided fleeting accounts of contact with other Native groups, including the Monacans of the Virginia Piedmont. Frequently, local groups initiated these encounters with the English through threats, intimidation, and hostilities, occasionally involving the shedding of blood and the loss of life. After a brief show of force, the Powhatans often assumed a less belligerent posture, offering the Tassantasses, or strangers, gifts and a feast hosted by the weroance, whom the English described variously as king, commander, or chief. We catch a glimpse of Native political dynamics in these events and the situational tactics through which the diverse Native societies in the Chesapeake region sought to probe the intentions of the English and to absorb them into their world. During the early seventeenth century, the Native world of the Virginia Coastal Plain was centered on the overwhelming authority of the individual named Powhatan, the Mamanatowick, or “great king,” of the Powhatans. The Powhatans’ social organization was defined by sharp inequities of status, authority, and wealth that included weroances. Across the fall line in the Piedmont, a powerful Monacan polity marked by chiefs’ towns and tributary villages loomed as a persistent threat to the coastal Algonquins.

By Smith’s second trip on the Bay, his encounters with Native groups

-xi-

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