Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 110 / Number 3 - Review
Before and After Jamestown: Virginia's Powhatans and Their Predecessors.
By Helen C. Rountree and E. Randolph Turner III.
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. xii. 260 pp. $39.95.
History and archaeology often run on parallel tracks, but they do not often come together as neatly as they do in Before
and After Jamestown. This collaboration between two experts on early Virginia surveys a thousand years of Powhatan history
literally from the ground up. Skillfully blending archaeology and ethnohistory with ethnographic analogy and practical experience,
Rountree, the ethnohistorian, and Turner, the archaeologist, have combined their expertise to create a new kind of window on
the past. Through it one can see (thanks to a fine collection of photographs of artifacts and archaeological digs) both how and
where the first Powhatans lived, and how archaeologists have painstakingly uncovered a people's history.
From the Late Woodlands period (900 to 1500 A.D.) to the late twentieth century, the story of Pocahontas's people is
fascinating and poignant. It is set in an area about a hundred miles square, south of the Potomac River between what is now
Interstate Highway 95 and the Atlantic Ocean. When the English arrived, there were around 25,000 people already living in
the area. Rountree and Turner tell us how those people built and furnished their houses, what they ate, wore, and believed,
how they slept, bathed, danced, and worshipped, and how they hunted, fished, sailed, and made war. Much of this information
is drawn from the authors' own previous publications, but it also uses data from recent and ongoing archaeological excavations.
The result is as detailed and complete a picture of a people and their culture as one is likely to encounter. This work also
corrects and enlarges upon the records left by early English observers. John White drew pictures of Indian houses with one
end square, laid out in neat rows, but he may have been imposing an artificial orderliness for his European audience. Turner
offers evidence that houses were oval in shape and grouped at random. Rountree draws upon the writings of John Smith,
William Strachey, and others, expanding them with the insights of ethnohistory. For example, English writers observed that
Indians treated each other with great politeness and were equally good-mannered in discourse with strangers. In that, they
were unlike Englishmen, who were prone to argue and relished public debate. Thus Powhatan restraint was often taken as
agreement by the English, who were then surprised when the Indians later attacked them. "It is no wonder, then," Rountree
writes, "that the English colonists in the next few decades would fail to understand a people who appeared to go from one
extreme to the other" (p. 123).
Native culture influenced the newcomers in many ways, some well known, such as the English adoption of Indian
guerrilla-style warfare and the cultivation of corn, and of Powhatan words like raccoon, terrapin, and opossum. Not so
well known, perhaps, is that apone, a Powhatan word for bread, became the English cornpone, and that hominy came from
usketahamen, meaning that which is "beaten by an instrument."
Of the book's seven chapters, three cover the first century of contact between natives and newcomers, beginning with a
description of a flourishing Powhatan culture when the English arrived at Jamestown in 1607, and ending with the Powhatans'
"much-reduced circumstances" (p. 175) a hundred years later. The history of the Powhatans is not a triumphant one, and the
book traces their decline both in numbers and in prosperity as the decades passed. Where thousands of Powhatans once lived,
there are about 1,500 enrolled members of state-recognized tribes in Virginia. Several thousand others claim that heritage
informally. Archaeological investigations are made with care, respecting native traditions, and often with ceremonial reburials
of bones and artifacts.
This book deserves a wide audience as well as a scholarly one, especially as the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown
settlement approaches in 2007.
University of St. Thomas