Southern Colonies: 1566–1733

European Relations with Native Americans in the Southern Colonies

Native American Culture before White Settlement

Before the arrival of white colonists, the Southern region was dominated by Native American tribes such as the Powhatan, Cherokee, and Muskogee.

Many Native American tribes and groups lived in the region of the Southern colonies prior to white settlement. One of the most prominent groups were the Powhatan, an Algonquian-speaking group that lived in the areas of present-day Virginia and Maryland. The Powhatan consisted of an alliance of several hundred villages—approximately 15,000 people—united under Chief Powhatan.

Powhatan culture was defined by distinct gender roles. Women were responsible for farming—primarily corn, squash, and beans—as well as gathering plants. They were also in charge of raising the children; making clothing, baskets, and other goods; and building houses. Men were in charge of hunting, fishing, building dugout canoes, and defending the tribe. Powhatan society was matrilineal, meaning that family ties were traced through the mother.

Powhatan villages were generally built on high ground near bodies of water such as rivers or streams. They consisted of anywhere from 2 to 100 houses, each accommodating between 6 and 20 people. Powhatan houses, called yehakin, were built using bent saplings. The trees were then covered with reeds and bark. A large hole was left in the roof of each house to allow smoke from the cooking fire to escape.

Village of Pomeiooc, by Theodor de Bry (after John White)

The village of Pomeiooc in North Carolina was similar to the Powhatan villages near Jamestown. Its structures have barrel-vaulted roofs and surround a common area. A defensive palisade encircles the village.
Credit: Original image housed by North Carolina Collection/UNC Libraries. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Two other tribes living in the Southern colonies were the Cherokee and the Muskogee, also called the Northern Creeks. The Cherokee, an Iroquoian tribe, lived primarily in present-day Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. The Muskogee lived in present-day Georgia. Like the Powhatan, the Cherokee and Muskogee were constantly prepared for war. Both the Cherokee and Muskogee had a red chief and red villages to lead in times of war and a white chief and white villages in times of peace. They also planted crops, hunted, and gathered food. The Cherokee and Muskogee also built villages and towns. The Cherokee built log cabins featuring a single door and a hole to let smoke escape. Cherokee towns consisted of 30 to 60 homes and generally featured a council house. The Muskogee built their homes using wattle and daub, a technique consisting of woven sticks and reeds covered with a layer of mud or clay.

Native American Tribes of the South, c. 16th Century

Many Native American tribes and groups lived in the region of the Southern colonies prior to white settlement.

Bacon's Rebellion

Bacon's Rebellion arose from differences of opinion on how to deal with Susquehannock raids on European settlements in Virginia. The rebellion failed and its leaders were executed.

Bacon's Rebellion marked a turning point in the relationship between colonists and local tribes. Causes of the rebellion began as early as 1675. The colony faced a number of economic concerns, among them decreasing tobacco prices and increased competition from nearby colonies. At the same time, the colony also faced extreme weather and natural disasters.

Tensions in Virginia reached a breaking point in July 1675. A group of Doeg Indians led a raid on the farm of Thomas Matthews. The raiders claimed Matthews had not paid them for goods he had taken from the tribe. Infuriated, the colonists decided to retaliate and lead a raid of their own. The misguided colonists, however, led a raid on the wrong tribe, the Susquehannocks. The colonists' raid triggered numerous other attacks by neighboring tribes.

Sir William Berkeley, the governor of Virginia, tried to broker a peace between his colony and the Native Americans, but his efforts failed. In defiance of Berkeley, Nathaniel Bacon Jr., a Virginia colonist and cousin to the governor, took matters into his own hands. He led a raid against the friendly Appomattox tribe, capturing several of its members.

Berkeley continued his efforts to calm hostilities. His Long Assembly, established in March 1676, enacted several policies. The first was to declare war on hostile tribes, the second to establish a defensive perimeter around Jamestown, and the third to restrict trade with Native Americans.

Unfortunately, the measures backfired. Building a defensive wall and manning it with soldiers led to increased taxes. Meanwhile, trade restrictions negatively impacted traders, including Bacon. In an act of defiance against Berkeley, Bacon was elected the leader of a rebel group determined to drive all Native Americans from Virginia. He and his followers attacked the peaceful Occaneechee tribe.
Nathaniel Bacon (left) confronts Governor Sir William Berkeley (right) in front of the statehouse in Jamestown in 1676. Bacon led a rebellion against Berkeley, destroying the peaceful relations between Virginia colonists and Native American tribes.
Credit: Lee, Susan (Pendleton) 1832?-1911; Manly, Louise, 1857-1936/The Library of Congress/
Berkeley and 300 men pursued Bacon and demanded he turn himself in. Bacon refused but returned to Jamestown in June 1676 after learning he had been elected to the House of Burgesses, the colony's governing body. Bacon was captured and forced to apologize to Berkeley. In a surprising turn of events, however, Bacon's supporters swarmed the statehouse and forced Berkeley to flee.

Bacon maintained control over the Virginia Colony but succumbed to dysentery in October 1676. His rebellion was put down by Berkeley, and 23 of Bacon's supporters were hung for their part in the rebellion. The damage Bacon had inflicted was irreparable. Anti–Native American sentiment had taken root in the colony, and many of the relationships between the colonists and peaceful tribes were destroyed.