Most early Virginia Indians spoke some form of Algic, Iroquoian, or Siouan. Although each is a distinctly different language—as different from one another as Turkish is from English—they are nevertheless related. The eight hundred or so indigenous languages in North America are classified by linguists in a tree-like system of family relationships. Within the large Amerind family are the Almosan and Keresiouan language groups. Within the Almosan group is the Algic language family, and within the Keresiouan group are the Siouan and Iroquoian families.
Algic includes two language groups: Algonquian and Ritwan. Most Algonquian speakers lived east of the Mississippi River, and at some point a portion of them moved east from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic seaboard, where they developed about fifteen Eastern Algonquian languages and dialects. These ranged geographically from present-day Labrador, Canada, to North Carolina, and included Tidewater Virginia. Ritwan, meanwhile, is a grouping of two Indian languages—Wiyot and Yurok—found in northern California.
Linguists have long argued that the more contact people speaking the same language have with one another, the more similar their dialects will become over time. In Virginia, contact, usually in the form of trade and warfare, happened via river travel. That meant that groups living in towns and villages along the same river likely spoke similar languages or dialects. For instance, the inhabitants of two towns at opposite ends of the York River drainage (Chiskiack and Matchut) apparently spoke languages more closely related than those who lived in towns relatively close together but on adjacent rivers (Chiskiack on the York and Paspahegh on the James River).
Captain Gabriel Archer, in his brief account of a James River exploration in 1607, also included a short list of Powhatan words. And Robert Beverley Jr., in his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), recorded even more of the Algonquian language, including the Powhatan word for their religious temples: "The Indians have posts fixed round their Quioccassan, which have men's faces carved upon them, and are painted."
Iroquoian and Siouan
The Nottoway and Meherrin Indians spoke Iroquoian languages and lived along the fall line of the rivers of those names in the southwestern Tidewater and far southeastern Piedmont. Their linguistic relatives included the Tuscaroras, who lived in the Carolina Piedmont and were encountered by the colonists at Roanoke, and the Cherokees, who lived in the Carolina mountains. The Susquehannocks of present-day Pennsylvania and the Five Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) farther north spoke less similar forms of Iroquois.
The Meherrin language was never recorded; its identification as Iroquoian comes mainly from its position between the Tuscaroras and the Nottoways. Tuscarora is relatively well known thanks to anthropological work done by still-fluent descendants of the families that joined the Five Nations after 1715. Its position as Iroquoian is secure. The Nottoway language, on the other hand, went unrecorded until 1820, at which point the tribe claimed only about twenty-seven people living in Southampton County. A visitor to the reservation there, in 1820, described sixty-year-old Edie Turner, a woman "styled their Queen" who, although illiterate, was "extremely intelligent." The visitor, probably John Wood, noted that "the antient Nottoway or Powhatan language is only known to the Queen and two other old Indians." After misidentifying the language as being "evidently of Celtic origin," the visitor went on to write that it "appears equally harmonious and expressive, as either the Erse, Irish, or Welsh."
Eleven years later, Jefferson mailed John Wood's new vocabulary to Peter Stephen DuPonceau. The French-born linguist corrected Jefferson's mistaken impression that Nottoway was an Algonquian language, instead identifying it as Iroquoian. Sometime later, James Trezvant, a lawyer in Jerusalem, Southampton County, and a member of Congress (1825–1831), also visited the Nottoways, creating a word list of his own that included what he said was the tribe's name for itself: Cherohakah. One of the words that appeared on the Wood-Trezvant lists was "hokeh," meaning "yes." It appears to be a cognate of the Choctaw word "okeh," or "it is," which has traditionally, but likely incorrectly, been considered a source for the English word "okay."
The Virginia Siouan-speakers' affiliation is based on a single word list published late in the nineteenth century. The language is Tutelo, whose speakers apparently were allied in the mid-seventeenth century with the Monacans and Mannahoacs mentioned by John Smith, as well as the Saponis and others who appear in Virginia records from about 1670 onward. The words in the list are cognate with those of Catawba, but appear to be more closely cognate with Biloxi and Lakota.
Many early Virginia Indians spoke more than one language or more than one dialect of the same language. Besides being encouraged by the proximity of languages, this multilingualism was necessary for trade and diplomacy with neighboring tribes and chiefdoms. In war, the Powhatans customarily only killed adult men, taking women and children captive and assimilating them into Powhatan society. The women likely helped their children retain their original language while at the same time learning their captors' language. As a result, bilingual children were fairly common among Virginia Indians.
Namontack, like the Roanoke Indians Manteo and Wanchese before him, set sail for England, leaving with Newport on April 10, 1608, and likely returning with the next resupply in the fall. His time in London must have struck both Powhatan and the Virginia Company of London as useful, because in December another Indian, Powhatan's brother-in-law Machumps, made the journey. Machumps possibly met William Strachey in London, and the two set off for the colony together in June 1609. Although it's unclear whether Machumps, like Strachey, was aboard the Sea Venture, which wrecked near Bermuda, he eventually made it back to Virginia.
While Machumps served in Virginia as an intermediary for Strachey, the English delivered fourteen-year-old Henry Spelman to Powhatan's son Parahunt in the summer of 1609. The Indian Kainta, captured by the English, was sent to England sometime around July 1610. And two men, likely Paspahegh Indians, named Kemps and Tassore, were captured by the English and lived at Jamestown. Strachey wrote that after almost a year Kemps "could speake a pretty deale of our English."
These cultural and linguistic exchanges caused tension but also paid important dividends. When Spelman was given to Parahunt, he mistakenly, and bitterly, believed he was being sold to the chief for the town called Powhatan. Late in 1609, the paramount chief used young Spelman to lure the colonists into an ambush, after which the boy fled to the Patawomeck Indians on the Potomac River. There his language and diplomatic skills would prove crucial in arranging for the capture of Pocahontas in the spring of 1613 and bringing an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614).
Death and Survival
The fading away of these Virginia languages was not government-driven, as it would be in the nineteenth century, especially in the western United States. There, children were taken from their parents, enrolled in government-funded boarding schools, and forbidden to speak their native languages. In Virginia, language loss happened much as it did in Ireland: without either coercion or efforts to keep the languages alive artificially. By contrast, the Massachusett Indians in Massachusetts conducted church services and maintained church records in their dialect of Algonquian, deliberately prolonging its use for another century. Their effort ultimately failed, and the Massachusett language, like the Virginia Indian languages, became extinct.
The term "extinct," controversial among some modern-day Indian tribes who recognize how much cultural legacy is contained in a language, is defined by linguists to mean that there are no native speakers left. When Edie Turner died in 1838, she took the Nottoway language with her. In 1844, the Reverend Edwin Dalrymple of St. Peter's Parish, New Kent County, interviewed the elderly Molly Holt and Rhoda Allmond on the Pamunkey Reservation; they were able to recall a counting-out rhyme in the old Algonquian language, but not much more.
1584 - Under the tutelage of Manteo and Wanchese, Thomas Hariot begins learning and transcribing the Algonquian language of the Virginia Indians.
February 1608 - Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, exchanges a boy named Namontack for the English boy Thomas Savage. The boys will learn the other's language in order to eventually serve as interpreters.
July 1610 - The Indian Kainta, captured by the English in Virginia, is sent to England.
1705 - During the murder trial of some Nanzatico Indian men, testimony shows that the younger Indian men involved no longer understand their elders when spoken to in the Indian language.
March 4, 1727 - The Virginia colony discharges its government-paid Powhatan interpreters from service because the Algonquian language is no longer widely enough spoken to support their use.
August 22, 1734 - The Virginia colony discharges its government-paid Nottoway interpreters because the Iroquoian language is no longer widely enough spoken to support their use.
September 21, 1809 - Former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson writes a letter to Benjamin Smith Barton informing him of the loss of Jefferson's collection of Indian vocabularies. The papers were destroyed on Jefferson's way home from Washington, D.C.
March 4, 1820 - John Wood, a mathematics professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, compiles a list of a little more than 250 words of the Nottoway language based on his conversations with one of its last native speakers, Edie Turner.
1838 - The last native speaker of the Nottoway language, Edie Turner, dies on a reservation in Southampton County.
1844 - The Reverend Edwin Dalrymple interviews the elderly Molly Holt and Rhoda Allmond on the Pamunkey Reservation. They are able to recall a counting-out rhyme in the old Algonquian language, but not much more.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C., & Wolfe, B. Languages and Interpreters in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2020, October 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Languages_and_Interpreters_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen C. and Brendan Wolfe. "Languages and Interpreters in Early Virginia Indian Society." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 29 Oct. 2020. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 2, 2011 | Last modified: October 29, 2020
Contributed by Helen C. Rountree and Brendan Wolfe. Helen C. Rountree is professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University and author of Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries (1990) and Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005). Brendan Wolfe is former editor of Encyclopedia Virginia (2008–2019).