Chesapeake Creoles: The creation of folk culture in Colonial Virginia

A somewhat more complete scholarly version of this essay was originally published in The Archaeology of 17th-Century Virginia, Theodore R. Reinhart and Dennis J. Pogue, editors, pp. 107-123. The Archaeological Society of Virginia Special Publication, No. 30. Courtland.VA.

In 1749, Moravian missionaries travelling in the Virginia backcountry found English, Scots-Irish and German settlers living in wigwams made of saplings covered with bark. They wrote about their stay in one such house.

We came to a house where we had to lie on bear skins around the fire like the rest. The manner of living is rather poor in this district. The clothes of the people consist of deer skins. Their food is Johnny cakes, deer and bear is their meat. A kind of white people are found here, who live like savages. Hunting is their chief occupation (quoted in Robinson 1979:148).

Other traveller’s accounts and memoirs of the frontier settlements in the backcountry describe German and Scots-Irish communities in which women went “naked”, anointed with bear’s oil, with their hair tonsured in the Indian fashion, while men wore breechclouts and moccasins. Men put on warpaint and deerskins as they joined their Indian friends in wars against their Indian enemies (Kercheval 1986). Charles Woodmason (1953) described the frontier people as living “like Indians, whom they much resemble.” Christopher Gist tells us that George Washington, who spent much time in the backcountry, put on his “Indian clothes” when he left the “civilized” precincts of Tidewater and Rhys Isaac (1982) describes how, on the eve of the Revolution, even many of the great planters of Virginia eschewed their traditional costume in favor of the deerskin tunics and moccasins that had come to symbolize the American creole as distinct from the European.

In the year 1712, missionary Giles Rainsford (Rights 1957: 35-36) wrote:

I had several conferences with one Thomas Hoyle King of the Chowan Indians who seem very inclinable to embrace Christianity and proposes to send his son to school….I found he had some notions of Noahs flood…

Two years later, Thomas Hoyle,  living with the Chowans in the vicinity of Portsmouth, petitioned the council for a survey of his peoples’ reservation. The Chowans had spent the past two years fighting for Virginia and Carolina in their war against the Tuscaroras and on that account had suffered (and here I quote Hoyle) “considerable loss in their plantations and stocks, losing seventy five head of hogs, a mare & colt, their corn destroyed by all of which and the wearing out of their clothes, they are reduced to great poverty.”

Thomas Hoyle and his people wore English clothes and, at least in interactions with colonists, they used the English language and English names. They raised swine, kept horses, and expressed a belief in Noah’s Flood. What’s more, they fought and suffered on behalf of the English colonies against enemy Indians. Belief in the flood probably originated in the stories of Englishmen, but it had become incorporated as a natural feature of Thomas Hoyle’s worldview.  Hoyle, in fact, had learned the story from his father, and had, in turn, taught it to his own son. Does this mean that Hoyle – whose name was borrowed from the English – was an Englishman? Certainly not. Did Hoyle’s ability to speak English and to show that his education had equipped him to negotiate between his own world and that of the Virginia Colony have something to do with his position of leadership among the Chowans? Probably so.

Were Thomas Hoyle and the Chowans really English in disguise? Or what Nancy Lurie (1959) called “spin-offs”?  Or perhaps they were on their way to becoming what Helen Rountree (1990) has called “ethnic fringe people”?  Were the backcountry settlers living in wigwams and anointing their bodies with bear’s oil really confused Indians? Or another sort of ethnic fringe people?

Throughout Virginia’s history, there has been constant interaction among peoples of differing cultural backgrounds, including a great variety of Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans. And yet, our popular, and scholarly, conceptions of ourselves are as displaced English. Historians have frequently explained the uniqueness of American culture and character as somehow the product of English seeds planted in a mystical American soil. A nebulous frontier geist is often raised as the agent of an American love for independence. The particular geography of the Chesapeake and its navigable rivers is forwarded to explain divergences between Virginia’s and England’s settlement and social systems in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In a recent bold, but flawed, attempt to chart the cultural history of Colonial America, David Hackett Fischer (1989) draws a picture of Virginia’s early culture as one dominated and defined by the so-called Cavaliers who arrived here in moderate numbers following the English Civil War. This is not a new image, nor is it one that has remained unchallenged over the years. Fischer’s arguments and evidence are fresh, however, and demand a new critique. I would like to offer an alternative, if equally unoriginal, interpretation: American culture is the product of the interactions of Old and New World peoples. The 18th-century frontiersmen, described above, did not arrive on these shores, trade in their linen tow and milch cows for buckskins and a log cabin kit in Williamsburg or Philadelphia, and beat a trail for the backcountry where, on the way, they developed a taste for bear’s meat and Johnny cakes.  The mid-18th century brought a new round of settlement in the Piedmont and western Virginia which led to interactions among Germans, Northern British, Tidewater Virginians, Shawnees, Cherokees, Catawbas, Africans, and African-Caribbean creoles of diverse origins. These frontier experiences would create new ways of life that would come to dominate the American experience into the present century. But these patterns were based in part on a series of mature cultures that had developed in the Tidewater and Fall Line precincts in the 17th century: a diverse group of lifeways, beliefs, and technologies that, for lack of a better term, we may call Chesapeake Creoles.

I would like to suggest a series of contexts in which creolization emerged in 17th-century Virginia. These include, but are not limited to, sexual relations, trade relations, military alliances, frontier situations, and the particular constitution of early plantation household.  Second, I would like to suggest that there were certain groups and individuals who served as interpreters of culture in the process of creolization. From the earliest days of settlement, there had been colonists who were sent to live with Indians, to learn their languages and customs. Many of these became Indians or took Indian wives. Likewise, there were always those Indians who came among the English, learned their language and customs. Pocahontas was, of course, the most famous of these. Africans arrived in small numbers from the earliest decades of the Colonial enterprise in Virginia. By the end of the 17th century there were people who had been born in Africa, or among African-Caribbean creole cultures, who had learned, and helped create, the language and lifeways of Virginia.  Some of these had become freemen, and some remained enslaved or indentured. Some had run away to the Indian world, or, I suspect, had begun to form Maroon societies at the fringes of the colony. Some, like Anthony Johnson of Northampton County, had become successful planters in their own right – what some may call “black Englishmen” –  but they remained aware nonetheless of their distinctive identities. All these people served as interpreters and creators of cultures that were pieced together through the interactions of very diverse populations. Creole cultures are variable. Their complexions tend to reflect the varying influences of their parent cultures. Creolization tends to reflect patterns of accommodation. Out of myriads of possible ways for decorating pipes, constructing pots, or cooking dinner, creoles tend to use methods and materials that reflect common ground or behaviors shared among the cultural “parents”.

***

Captain John Smith noted that the Virginia Indians generally welcomed the newcomers with offers of food, land and women. Unlike the French and Spanish, the English seemed ill-disposed to take the Indians up on the latter offer in any formalized, legally sanctioned way. An exception, of course, was the marriage of Rolfe and Pocahontas, which brought such beneficial results to the colony. Some historians feel there was a reluctance among the settlers to form marital alliances with the Indians and they have sometimes interpreted this as a repulsion to Indian women – a conclusion not borne out by numerous descriptions of the country’s “comely wenches”.  John Lawson certainly argued that Indian women were among the great attractions of Virginia and Carolina.

Evidence for widespread encounters between English men and Indian is difficult – though not impossible – to ferret out of the historical record. Throughout the 17th century, the sex ratio of male to female colonists in Virginia varied from 4:1 to as high as 6:1. Are we then to assume that, for  seven or eight decades, Virginia was home primarily to celibates?  I suspect, instead, that the records are missing something important, and on purpose.  British policy, especially after 1646, was to minimize and control as much as possible the interactions between colonists and Indians. This policy largely evolved because it was the daily contact – the easy familiarity – between colonists and Indians that had led to the high death tolls of 1622 and 1644. It was all those Indians coming into the plantations and sitting down to dinner who managed to kill so many Virginians with their own picks and shovels. Thus, official policy was exclusion of such easy familiarity, including sexual relations. The official records of the colony seem to imply that such official policy was observed. Less official accounts, such as the chronicles of John Lawson and the secret diaries of William Byrd, suggest otherwise. By the end of the 17th century, some Indian groups in Virginia and Carolina had adapted to English interest in their women by creating a class of prostitutes, who, we are told, were identifiable by special hair-do’s.

The benefits to frontier adaptation and the Indian trade were well noted. To quote a later, rather inelegant, American Indian trader, “About the only way you could learn … most Indian talk is from a sleeping dictionary.” The traders who dealt with the Saponis and Occaneechees at Fort Christanna in Brunswick County must have sought some lessons from “sleeping dictionaries.” Among the words and phases recorded by John Fontaine, most of which were trading terms, are several which clearly connote the negotiation sexual transactions.

***

Between 1607 and 1640 or so, it is probably fair to say that the Virginia colony was dependent on Native Americans. That is not to say that English immigrants met all their needs through the Indians, but that, without Indian help and indulgence, the colony would have surely failed. At Jordan’s Journey, occupied between ca. 1620 and 1635, colonial trash deposits indicate that colonists used, broke and discarded pottery vessels of Gaston and Roanoke Simple Stamped pottery and, more rarely, of a shell-tempered, highly smoothed prototype of Colono-Indian pottery. Indian pottery was also used by the early colonists living on former Pasbehegh land near Jamestown. The pots were probably brought into the settlements filled with corn, beans, and other products of Indian fields and foraging. The Jordan’s Journey site included one building, built outside the fort, which almost certainly served as a trading post and as a barracks for Indians working on the plantation.

By the end of the 17th century, Virginia’s Indians were making pottery specifically for trade or sale to their black and white neighbors. This Colono-Indian Ware, as it is called, has been found on nearly every plantation and town site of Colonial Virginia. Traditional Native American pottery techniques were used to make vessels both in traditional shapes, and in forms designed as copies of European vessels. Indeed it seems some African slaves also made pottery, although only a few excamples have been clearly identified so far in Virginia. This pot ** for instance was discovered in the earliest slave quarter yet excavated, at Jordan’s Point. The pot was discarded sometime around 1625-1630. It can be easily distinguished from European and Indian pottery by its shape, and by the techniques used to make it. In fact it strongly resembles pottery in the African tradition still being made in jamaica, like this example ** which I purchased in Kingston just last year.  Over time, however, some of the African techniques of building and finishing pottery were adopted by Native American makers of Colono-Indian ware. By the 18th century we find numerous vessels which combine Indian and African technology with European vessel forms. These pots and pans are examples in earthenware of the sort of creolization which occurred in every aspect of life in Colonial Virginia.

Which of the 55 English persons at Jordan’s Journey in 1625 had learned, as a youth growing up in the streets of London or Bristol, to hunt the numerous deer whose bones line the early 17th-century trash deposits? Deer, in England, was a prerogative aristocracy. And Virginia deer of the period were not like the controlled herds of today; they had been hunted year-round, persistently. And yet in one deposit, we have found remains of several individuals, apparently killed, butchered, and dumped all at about the same time. The deer were apparently killed in the fall or winter, the time of the great Indian communal hunts at the fall line. Deer and other wild foods played an important part in the early diets of the colonists. I have little doubt that these deer were, for the most part, brought into the colonial settlements by Indians.

In 1624, Captain John Smith wrote

…I have much admired to heare of the incredible pleasure, profit and plenty the Plantation doth abound in, and yet it hath oft amazed me to understand how strangely the Salvages hath been taught the use of our arms, and imploied in hunting and fowling with our fowling peeces; and our men rooting in the ground about tobacco like swine.

… I understand, the Indians have become [such good shots], they are employed for Fowlers and Huntsmen by the English.

By mid-century, Virginians were ready to tackle the frontier. Early explorers and traders like Abraham Wood and Thomas Stegge began deep probes into the interior from their trading stations and frontier posts south of James River and at the Fall Line. Following initial probes were the first tentative attempts to settle the Falls and Southside areas. Here again there developed that “easy familiarity” that had bred earlier troubles. But the trade proved profitable to all concerned. Guns, iron and brass kettles, cloth and rum flowed out of Tidewater into the Piedmont country of Virginia and North Carolina. Trader Thomas Hicks moved into the Nottoway country. William Byrd I of Falls Plantation, Nathaniel Bacon of Curles, and Robert Bolling of Kippax were amiong the principal traders who allied themselves with Weyanoke, Appomattox, and Occaneechee middlemen and began sending huge pack trains into the lands of the Catawbas and Cherokees. Byrd called the workers in the Indian trade “woodsmen”; he quartered the woodsmen in his fall line garrison, and he provided a home for the Appomattox Indians in his pasture. To round out his work force, Byrd imported numerous African slaves.

The woodsmen of the 17th century frontier knew Native American lifeways, as well as the trails through the land far from the settled Tidewater region. Some took Indian wives, and some were sons of mixed marriages and more informal liaisons. These creole peoples were not as numerous as the French-Indian coureurs du bois, but they played a very significant role in transmitting English-Virginian culture to Indian peoples. Some of these people who dwelled between worlds were of African, African-English, or African-Indian parentage. The woodsmen procured the principal products of the Virginia Indian trade: deerskins and Indian slaves, both of which carried the tide of Indian culture back to the Virginia heartland. We cannot call these peoples of the frontier English, African nor Indian;  red, white nor black; because no matter what their biological heritage, their culture bore the mark of the mingling of peoples from many backgrounds.

Indian slaves, servants and tenants are far more frequent in the historic record than our history books suggest. This is particularly true in the frontier counties such as Henrico, Lower Norfolk, Surry, New Kent, and Charles City. The vast majority of Virginians of the 17th century were servants or tenants, but the living and working conditions of the period mingled persons of all ranks, races, and genders into a type of cultural cauldron unique to the 17th c. Chesapeake. They lived together in small households, generally consisting of single males only. African, English, German and Indian settlers, slaves and servants were quartered together on the scattered tobacco farms of the Chesapeake. In the second half of the century there were increasingly higher numbers of Indians and, especially, Africans sharing the quarters and lifestyles of early Virginia. Many of the earlier generations of servants, now freed, took up new lands and new batches of servants. The colonists worked the ground planting primarily Indian crops in the Indian manner, although they also kept European livestock. The servants and yeomen of Virginia shed their former cultures and assumed creolized identities as Virginians.

***

I began my own exploration of creolization with an attempt to identify Native American “contributions” to Colonial Virginia’s foodways. When we think about what we know of the more recent immigrant experience in America, there is some truth to the notion that behaviors in the privacy of the kitchen and at the home table tend to reflect more durable dimensions of “ethnicity” than many more public behaviors. Food culture does have a distinctive public dimension, however, and here we may especially view the creation of new cultural features in the interactions among diverse peoples.

Feasting was a very important aspect of Powhatan Indian culture. Frequent feasts, usually sponsored by local chiefs, may have functioned as informal redistribution and prestige-creating occasions, somewhat like the potlatches of northwest coast peoples. Much was written of the hospitality of the Indians. Wherever the English visited, they came to expect to be lavishly feasted by their hosts. Parties of Indians could expect the same treatment.  John Smith relates that huge amounts of food were brought to him and his lieutenants in each village they visited. What they could not eat was then distributed among the remainder of his party and “commoner” Indians who gathered around the feast site.  Some foods and preparation methods were apparently reserved for feasting, and sumptuary rules limited consumption of other foods to the nobility. England in the 17th century had the remnants of feudal patronage and an extensive market system to provide security from periodic shortages. Virginia’s English had neither. Instead they developed a system much like that of eastern Virginia’s Powhatan Indians, and probably modelled upon it. They institutionalized a culture of hospitality and reciprocity. A man soon learned he could expect to be well fed by appearing at any gentleman’s door. Food was traded for prestige. Generosity was the hallmark of a great man, among the Powhatan and Virginia English alike

One can readily point to the traditional cuisine of eastern Virginia and see the influence of Native American foodstuffs. The adoption of the Indian staples – maize, beans and squash – was easily accomplished. These foods had spread throughout the world by the middle of the 16th century, although they had not been widely adopted in England. Maize was viewed by the settlers as an alternative grain, clearly related to the common field grains of wheat, rye, barley and oats. Beans were easily assimilated because other varieties had been domesticated in the Old World. Indian methods of preparing many foods did not differ significantly from English counterparts. Boiled stews based on grain and meat were typical of both cuisines, as well as to many African food systems. The denizens of Brunswick County, Virginia like to claim credit for the stew that bears their homeland’s name, but early accounts of Native Virginian foods include descriptions of slow-cooked stews of game meats, corn, and beans that most of us would recognize if we were to taste them at a volunteer fire department fair or church supper.

The slow roasting of fresh meat over an open fire is a cooking technique as old as any known, but it was a method which was not commonly used in Postmedieval England, however, again except perhaps by upper classes in preparing feast foods. This cooking method was so common in the New World that the Spanish – who relearned the technique from Caribbean Indians – graced the method with their name for the cooking rack: barbacoa  or “barbecue”. The English introduction of swine to Virginia was highly successful. Foraging on the mast of the forests, the swine increased remarkably and, in their semi-feral state, they could be easily hunted or trapped. Using the Indian method of cooking bear or venison, barbecued pork became as typical of Virginia’s cuisine as any preparation. By the end of the 17th century, most Indians relied heavily on pork as well.

Drying and smoking were methods of meat and fish preservation used widely by the Indians, while the English were more used to pickling their meat.  Salt was not easily had in Virginia, so the English adapted to Virginia conditions using Virginia methods. Salt obtained from hickory ash could be rubbed into a ham which was then allowed to smoke and dry hanging in an airy cabin. The cured ham was buried in hickory ashes to further preserve it. Today Virginia is world famous for this amalgam of Indian technology and English swine. Even more characteristic is the product of the Indian method for leavening pone (cornbread) with ashes while substituting English wheat flour for the corn meal. In a wheat dough or batter the alkali leavening, particularly in the presence of an acid like sour milk or buttermilk, creates the dramatically risen bread we call biscuits.

During the last quarter of the 17th century many of Virginia’s cooks were women who had been raised in Africa. This pattern of African-American women being primarily responsible for the preparation of food became the norm which continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in many parts of Virginia, as elsewhere in the South. African women brought gumbo, eggplant, black-eyed peas, sesame, yams, sorghum, watermelon, bananas, rice, and, possibly, tomatoes to the tables of Virginia (Hess 1984: xxix-xxxi). In addition, they introduced manners of preparing these, and other, dishes using cooking techniques, spices, and tastes developed in Africa, or learned among creole communities in the Caribbean or deep South. The process of creolization of Virginia’s foodways by African-American cooks has been very well described by noted food historian, Karen Hess:

These [African-Caribbean] creole cuisines were to color Virginia cookery to an extent which has not been fully appreciated, I think, because in addition to actual borrowings, there is the thumb print that each cook leaves on a recipe, even within the same culture, no matter how skilled she may be or how faithfully she follows the recipe… And so it was that even when thoroughly English dishes were cooked by hands that had known other products, other cuisines, the result would never be quite English… And that warmth of traditional Virginia cookery constitutes its charm.

Yams and sweet potatoes are, biologically, completely different things, yet in common folk usage the terms – and the vegetables themselves – are used interchangeably. Yams are African staples, while sweet potatoes were collected wild by Indians and grown as domesticates in Native American (including Virginian) gardens. African American cooks learned to use sweet potatoes as they had used yams, and the methods of preparing and spicing these roots were identical. We confuse the two roots because their cultural treatment has been thoroughly creolized. Another group of Native American staples is the squash family, including the winter squashes and pumpkins. Our folk terminologies – as well as those of Colonial Virginia – distinguish clearly between the yellow or orange starchy roots (Yams and sweet potatoes) and the yellow or orange starchy fruits (winter squashes), but the latter are frequently prepared in the same manner as the former. If we spice the boiled or baked meat of an Indian sweet potato, or an African yam, or an Indian pumpkin with Jamaican allspice and brown sugar, and then wrap it in an English paste, and bake it in an Indian-made pan of Old-World shape, we can call it sweet potato pie or pumpkin pie. And we can argue all day whether the result is Native American, English, or African, but, I contend, it is something which is a consummate American creole creation, and we would do better to stop arguing and start eating.

***

The challenge to archaeology is to determine ways to identify those “nearly indefinable qualities” in the material residues of foodways and other elements of culture. We are less likely to succeed by counting bones or sorting potsherds than by conscientiously seeking out plastic materials that preserve, in some way, the expressive acts of individuals and communities. Of course, clay is a most plastic medium, and one which is frequently used for expression. When fired to ceramic, it provides durable artifacts amenable to archaeological scrutiny. Among the material objects commonly excavated from 17th-century sites the locally produced tobacco pipes we call Chesapeake pipes. One pressing question archaeologists have pondered for years is “Who made these pipes?”  J. C. “Pinky” Harrington, one of the early excavators of jamestown, asked this question as early as 1951:

One of the most intriguing problems [of Jamestown archaeology] is that of the hand-molded pipes…Many are obviously of Indian manufacture, but some may have been made by the settlers following Indian styles and techniques. To further complicate the problem, some of these pipes which are most Indianlike in character, have well-formed English initials incorporated in the bowl decoration. Is this a case of the Indian copying a European idea; was the maker an “educated” Indian; or did a white man make an “Indian” pipe and put his initials on it?

A recently renewed focus on these fascinating artifacts has resulted in a greater appreciation of the multicultural social conditions of early Virginia. Now rather than asking “who made these pipes?” we are more likely to ask, “What do these pipes mean?” Tobacco was a common thread which bound together all of the peoples of 17th-century Virginia. Virtually every life was touched by tobacco. Everyone participated in the making of tobacco. Indian peoples supplicated and placated their gods with tobacco. They sealed their treaties and structured their public discourse with smoke from a shared pipe. Colonists came to Virginia to make tobacco, and they brought slaves and servants to help with its making. Tobacco smoking had spread throughout the Old World in the 16th century, and many immigrants, men and women, whether from Europe, Africa, or the Caribbean, were smokers.  Archaeological collections from 17th-century sites are rife with the evidence. Most of the pipes we recover are mass-manufactured ball clay varieties from England, Holland and France, but thousands of locally-made pipes have also been excavated.

Trade in decorated tobacco pipes among Indians reaches back well into the prehistoric period. Decorated pipes, many made in Virginia, including those with the familiar “star” and “deer” motifs, have been excavated in prehistoric Indian village sites in Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, and throughout much of the Carolina Piedmont.  By the mid-17th century, these pipes had become ubiquitous on Chesapeake colonial sites and Indian settlements. Traditional Indian decorative motifs were augmented by new decorations, many of which were copied from English and Dutch pipes, signet rings, and seals. Many of the pipes were stamped with decorative devices identical to those used to stamp furniture, silver, leather and other European goods, but these stamps appear along with traditional Indian designs and some designs that have parallels in African folk arts, as well. Most common of all are designs, like these rouletted triangles, which were commonly used by everyone. Nearly identical designs can be found on English furniture, Native American pottery and decorated Nigerian calabashes.

Chesapeake pipes are notable because they are craft items, meticulously made, and beautifully decorated. They are the most intriguing surviving examples of folk art of the early Chesapeake. The care and effort which attended the creation of these artifacts attests to their symbolic importance for those who used them. The designs on these pipes have things to tell us about life in a distant past.  Chesapeake pipes provide a nearly perfect medium for interpreting the creolization of cultures in the 17th century. They were ubiquitous. They were plastic expressive media. They were objects of personal identity and public display. They were fragile and relatively inexpensive to produce or procure. And they remain in the archaeological record. That many of them are beautiful and unique objects of art is a bonus that makes their study all the more enjoyable and compelling.

One of the most common designs on Chesapeake pipes is called the “running deer”, although some of the deer seem to be “standing” rather than “running”, and some of the figures appear to be dogs, bears, pigs, or other animals.  Deer pipes offer an excellent point of entry into the process of creolization and its expression in Chesapeake pipes.  Deer pipes typically have little decoration other than the deer figure, executed on the front and back of the bowl, in rouletting infilled with white lime, or other material. Deer were very important to Virginia’s native peoples, and deer symbolism was used in a variety of ways. Beverley , writing in 1705, described the Native Virginians’ use of “a sort of heiroglyphick, or representation of birds, beasts, or other things, showing their different meaning by the various forms describ’d and by the different positions of the figures”. Likewise, Hugh Jones noted, “they have certain heiroglyphical methods of characterizing things; an instance whereof I have seen upon the side of a tree where the bark was taken off. There was drawn something like a deer and a river, with certain strokes and dashes; the deer looking down the river…”. Much earlier, John Lederer (1671) had described the Indian’s picture writing making special note that swiftness was denoted by the symbol of a stag.

The basic Indian deer motif proved sufficiently plastic to permit other “ethnic” interpretations. The deer was not only important to Native Americans. The “running stag”, the “standing stag” and other animal symbols are also common motifs of English heraldry as well.  One Englishman of the mid-17th century observed the symbols on Chesapeake Native American shields and noted their similarities to English heraldic designs, prompting him to write a book on the universality of heraldry and its symbolism. Likewise, animals are often depicted in African folk arts.  Archaeological excavations show that colonists often relied on deer, especially early in the century.  In the later 1600s, the deer skin trade, like the beaver skin trade further north, was a major nexus of colonial and Native American interaction.

One of the Chesapeake pipe bowls recovered from Nathaniel Bacon’s Curles Plantation in Henrico County, in particular, seems to exemplify the process and the problems involved in its interpretation. Stamped around the middle of the bowl is a repeated oval cartouche containing a stamped impression of a deer. This is not the traditional Indian stick-figure “running deer”, however. Instead, it is an impression of an English stag. The cartouche is almost certainly the imprint from an English-made signet ring. An excavation of burials at the Burr’s Hill site, a ca. 1670 Wampanoag Indian cemetery in Rhode Island included a group of cast brass rings, “the designs cast in intaglio”. Among the various designs were classic English heraldry motifs identified as “Horn’d Animal, Stag Running, Stag Standing…” etc. The description and measurements of one of the rings with “stag standing on oval plaque” perfectly describes the stamped motif on the Curles Plantation pipe. The author of the Burr’s Hill study concludes that the rings were generic signets produced for the Indian trade. William Byrd included “brass rings” among his list of items traded along the Occaneechee trail in the late 17th century.

Nathaniel Bacon was an Indian trader living on the frontier, and his probate inventory included large quantities of “Indian truck”, as well as five African, one “Dutch”, one mulatto and six Indian servants. Who made the Curles stag pipe? An Englishman with a signet ring? An Indian with a trade ring and a fascination for heraldry? An African who remembered from his youth calabashes decorated with rouletted triangles? This question is difficult to answer. What does this pipe mean? Perhaps this is more clear: a creolized culture, highly influenced by Native American beliefs, values, and practices, arose in the 17th century Chesapeake. At the heart of this culture was tobacco, the use of which was adopted from Native American ritual practice to English and African societies. This pipe illustrates well both the difficulty of seeking specific ethnic identities in artifacts, and the potential rewards of interpreting Chesapeake pipes as records of the construction of creole cultures.

While Indians were adopting European pottery forms, cattle and swine keeping, frame houses, woolen cloaks, and other imported lifeways; the colonial Virginians were adopting Indian pipes, along with fringed buckskin tunics, moccasins, dugout canoes, Indian-built fish dams and wiers, African-Caribbean pepper pot and yam casseroles, African-influenced religious practices, and Indian-derived Brunswick stew. In the early 1970s, three scholarly works on Southern history were published, each of which used the theme “Red, White and Black” in its title.  Each of these books was an attempt to bring peoples whose histories had not been adequately considered into the mainstream examination of the American experience. And yet these works compartmentalized ethnic groups into red, white, and black boxes which may have well described the ethnicity issues of the 1970s, but they certainly were not suitable for understanding America of the 1670s. Our colonial history was neither comprised of separate segregated cultures each with its own heritage, nor was it a “melting pot” type blending into a homogenous unity. It was, instead, a congeries of creoles reacting to and interacting with other in mutual dependence. Not so much red, white, and black, as it was pink, beige, and shades of grey.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s