Where did the Powhatan live?

John Smith Map of Virginia

John Smith Map of Virginia

When the humans who crossed the Bering Straits at the end of the last great Ice Age first arrived on the Virginia landscape, the environment was vastly different than today. Although the regions comprising the Blue Ridge Mountains, Piedmont, Ridge and Valley, and Coastal Plain were in place, the effects of the glaciers to the north caused long, hard winters and short, cool summers. As Virginia’s climate changed to a warmer, drier one and sea level rose, open grassland gave way to a rich floodplain with woods of pine and oak, and vegetation became profuse. The floodplain that developed on Virginia’s Coastal Plain contained numerous environmental zones that produced a variety of marine, fresh water and terrestrial life. The mixed forest zone in particular provided the greatest variety and abundance of plant and animal life. It was rich in nuts and berries, gave access to fish and shellfish, and provided an abundance of animals and birds including white-tailed deer, turkey, ducks, opossum, raccoon, black bear, river otters, skunks, red and gray foxes, civet cats and wolves. Many plants and roots were available for gathering, and the rich soil made the eventual cultivation of crops possible.

Village of Secotan, John White

Village of Secotan, John White

In the late 16th century, the inhabitants of Virginia lived along waterways which also provided their main form of transportation. The Chesapeake Bay, created when warming caused sea levels to rise, was really the valley of the Susquehanna River flowing down from the north, which was  flooded by the rising ocean. This valley, now the Bay, is fed by tributaries which lie in the Virginia Coastal Plain—the Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James Rivers. These tributaries are actually tidal estuaries; they consist of freshwater flowing downstream and meeting with saltwater from the ocean.

A typical Powhatan “town”, as the English called them, lay along a stream or river in a cleared area of deciduous forested land in Virginia’s Coastal Plain. Immediately surrounding the settlement were cultivated fields, dotted haphazardly with tree stumps burned to create the fields. Just beyond the fields lay a variety of environments used by the people. The forest provided game and plants to gather for food, trees to cut for housing and tool production and roots for medicines. Nearby marshes provided reeds to weave into mats and tuckahoe tubers to gather for food. The streams and rivers provided fresh water fish upriver beyond the salt-water zone and marine and shellfish down river. Rivers and ponds also provided a habitat for wild birds and aquatic plants.