MA-TA-OKA OF POW-HA-TAN: THE GIRL OF THE VIRGINIA FORESTS.
(Generally known as "The Princess Pocahontas.") A.D. 1607.
Throughout that portion of the easterly United States where the noble bay called the Chesapeake cuts Virginia in two, and where the James, broadest of all the rivers of the "Old Dominion," rolls its glittering waters toward the sea, there lived, years ago, a notable race of men.
For generations they had held the land, and, though their clothing was scanty and their customs odd, they possessed many of the elements of character that are esteemed noble, and, had they been left to themselves, they might have progressed—so people who have studied into their character now believe—into a fairly advanced stage of what is known as barbaric civilization.
They lived in long, low houses of bark and boughs, each house large enough to accommodate, perhaps, from eighty to a hundred persons—twenty families to a house. These "long houses" were, therefore, much the same in purpose as are the tenement-houses of to-day, save that the tenements of that far-off time were all on the same floor and were open closets or stalls, about eight feet wide, furnished with bunks built against the wall and spread with deer-skin robes for comfort and covering. These "flats" or stalls were arranged on either side of a broad, central passage-way, and in this passage-way, at equal distances apart, fire pits were constructed, the heat from which would warm the bodies and cook the dinners of the occupants of the "long house," each fire serving the purpose of four tenements or families.
In their mode of life these people—tall, well-made, attractive, and coppery-colored folk—were what is now termed communists, that is, they lived from common stores and had all an equal share in the land and its yield—the products of their vegetable gardens, their hunting and fishing expeditions, their home labors, and their household goods.
Their method of government was entirely democratic. No one, in any household, was better off or of higher rank than his brothers or sisters. Their chiefs were simply men (and sometimes women) who had been raised to leadership by the desire and vote of their associates, but who possessed no special authority or power, except such as was allowed them by the general consent of their comrades, in view of their wisdom, bravery, or ability. They lived, in fact, as one great family bound in close association by their habits of life and their family relationships, and they knew no such unnatural distinction as king or subject, lord or vassal.
Around their long bark tenements, stretched carefully cultivated fields of corn and pumpkins, the trailing bean, the full-bunched grapevine, the juicy melon, and the big-leafed tabah, or tobacco.
The field work was performed by the women, not from any necessity of a slavish condition or an enforced obedience, but because, where the men and boys must be warriors and hunters, the women and girls felt that it was their place and their duty to perform such menial labor as, to their unenlightened nature, seemed hardly suitable to those who were to become chiefs and heroes.
These sturdy forest-folk of old Virginia, who had reached that state of human advance, midway between savagery and civilization, that is known as barbarism, were but a small portion of that red-skinned, vigorous, and most interesting race familiar to us under their general but wrongly-used name of "Indians." They belonged to one of the largest divisions of this barbaric race, known the Algonquin family—a division created solely by a similarity of language and of blood-relationships—and were, therefore, of the kindred of the Indians of Canada, of New England, and of Pennsylvania, of the valley of the Ohio, the island of Manhattan, and of some of the far-away lands beyond the Mississippi.
So, for generations, they lived, with their simple home customs and their family affections, with their games and sports, their legends and their songs, their dances, fasts, and feasts, their hunting and their fishing, their tribal feuds and wars. They had but little religious belief, save that founded upon the superstition that lies at the foundation of all uncivilized intelligence, and though their customs show a certain strain of cruelty in their nature, this was not a savage and vindictive cruelty, but was, rather, the result of what was, from their way of looking at things, an entirely justifiable understanding of order and of law.
At the time of our story, certain of these Algonquin tribes of Virginia were joined together in a sort of Indian republic, composed of thirty tribes scattered through Central and Eastern Virginia, and known to their neighbors as the Confederacy of the Pow-ha-tans. This name was taken from the tribe that was at once the strongest and the most energetic one in this tribal union, and that had its fields and villages along the broad river known to the Indians as the Pow-ha-tan, and to us as the James.
The principal chief of the Pow-ha-tans was Wa-bun-so-na-cook, called by the white men Pow-hatan. He was a strongly built but rather stern-faced old gentleman of about sixty, and possessed such an influence over his tribesmen that he was regarded as the head man (president, we might say), of their forest republic, which comprised the thirty confederated tribes of Pow-ha-tan. The confederacy, in its strongest days, never numbered more than eight or nine thousand people, and yet it was considered one of the largest Indian unions in America. This, therefore, may be considered as pretty good proof that there was never, after all, a very extensive Indian population in America, even before the white man discovered it.