Courtship and Marriage Ceremony
Women became eligible for marriage once they reached puberty and were able to fulfill their obligation to bear children. Men became eligible once they had completed the huskanaw, a ritual that initiated them into manhood. Only then were they considered able to fulfill their obligation to hunt, fish, and fight. The man initiated courtship by presenting his potential bride with gifts of food, thus demonstrating his ability to provide. She was free to decline the proposal, but if she did not, the suitor negotiated a bridewealth with her parents. The opposite of a dowry, the bridewealth was an amount of wealth paid by the groom (or his parents) to the bride's parents, presumably to compensate them for her lost labor once she left to live with her husband. A feast would be held to celebrate a successful negotiation.
William Strachey, a Virginia Company of London secretary and author of The Historie of travaile into Virginia Britannia (1612), wrote that "According to the order and custome of sensuall heathenisme," Powhatan may have had "many more then one hundred" wives who lived in various houses and took turns keeping him company: "when he lyeth on his bedd, one sittith at his head and another at his feet; but when he sitteth at meat, or in presenting himself to any straungers, one sitteth on his right hand, and another on his leaft … ." Strachey continued that, of Powhatan's many wives, he favored about a dozen, "in whose company he takes more delight then the rest, being for the most parte very young women … ." The Englishman may not have realized that all of these women were working wives, raising corn, cooking, and otherwise tending the mamanatowick, who, like all chiefs, was expected to entertain lavishly. Some of the wives were also expected to wear valuable furs, jewelry, and face paint, to impress visitors.
If the first marriage was for life, Strachey wrote, then all others were temporary. They were negotiated for a specified time, such as a year, "after which they [the spouses] may putt them awaye," or decide not to renew the contract. But "if they keepe them longer then the tyme appointed, they must ever keepe them, how deformed, deceased, or unaccompaniable soever they may prove." These kinds of marriages, in a society whose men regularly went to war, would have been particularly advantageous to the older widows.
Wives were allowed to engage in sexual relationships outside of their marriage, so long as these arrangements were sanctioned by their husbands. Strachey, perhaps reflecting a monogamous English society, was scandalized by this practice. He described the Powhatans as "most voluptious," and suggested that wives, given permission, turned into "Virgill's scrantiae," scrantiae being an old Roman epithet for unchaste women. (It was actually the ancient Roman playwright Plautus who coined the word.) According to Strachey, such women "may embrase the acquaintance of any straunger for nothing, and it is accompted no offence," a circumstance that left them "full of their countrye desease (the pox) very young." In fact, however, Powhatan women probably behaved less according to their sexual whims than to the dictates of custom: husbands often loaned their wives to visitors as a form of hospitality.
After English Contact
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Marriage in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2020, October 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Marriage_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen C. "Marriage in Early Virginia Indian Society." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 29 Oct. 2020. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 25, 2011 | Last modified: October 29, 2020
Contributed by Helen C. Rountree, 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).