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

By Martin D. Gallivan | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Understanding the Native Worlds
of the Chesapeake

Late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century encounters between European colonists and Native societies in the Chesapeake region constitute events at the historical roots of the modern world. In the cultural strategies and historical tactics that surrounded the colonial outposts of an expanding Europe we see the origins of a modern world ordered by capitalist ventures, globalized institutions, and creolized identities. Despite centuries of scholarship aimed at explaining these early contacts, the perceptions, motives, and strategies of most American Indian participants remain opaque.

One unresolved issue related to these encounters involves rather striking inconsistencies between archaeological evidence and written descriptions related to the Native societies met by settlers of the first permanent English colony in the New World at Jamestown. Ethnohistorical interpretations of the Powhatans and Monacans often diverge in important ways from conceptions of these societies drawn from the region’s archaeological record. Where the Powhatan chiefdom of early-seventeenth-century colonial accounts was a society organized in terms of centralized decision making, hierarchical political organization, and social inequality, the archaeological record of the late precolonial and early colonial eras conspicuously lacks the typical hallmarks of such multicommunity polities. Unlike portions of the adjacent Southeast and North American interior, no clear site-size hierarchies appear in regional surveys, burials generally lacked wealth items or exclusionary ritual distinctions, and no truly monumental architecture marked the landscape. Similarly, recent archaeological research concerning the Monacans of the Virginia Piedmont and culturally related groups immediately west of the Blue Ridge Mountains has found little to match Jamestown colonists’ descriptions of Monacan kings’ houses, chiefs’ villages, and tribute relations.

How did the Powhatans and the Monacans conceive of and organize their worlds, particularly the inequality and solidarity, the authority and submission, the self-aggrandizement and defiance so eloquently witnessed by English colonists? In seeking answers to this question, one must confront the distinct cultural and historical character of late precolonialVirginia. This

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