Note: The following information is from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and used with permission.
Regarding the nature of exchange, there is little discussion in the published literature. We know that some luxury goods and corn were accumulated as tribute by paramount chiefs and that gifts were given in order to secure military alliances among chiefdoms. There is little discussion of the existence of standardized media of exchange (money), and yet shell beads and copper were used to purchase goods. Apparently most of the disk-shaped shell bead strings used in trade, called "roanoke," were manufactured at Cuscarawaoke, a village on the Eastern Shore that was outside of the Powhatan realm. Roanoke was taken on trade missions and used to purchase other goods. But was it a standardized medium such that rates of exchange (prices) were known and important features of trade? Davidson says, "Smith and other early English visitors to the Chesapeake region considered roanoke and peak to be types of Indian 'money,' and these beads were commonly used as currency by both the Indians and the English later in the seventeenth century."
The constant infusion of trade goods into Indian society by the end of the 17th century had a profound effect on an individual chief's ability to acquire more trade items, thereby increasing his wealth and social status and legitimatizing his power. At the same time, the geographic dispersal of colonists limited a chief's ability to control people under his influence. Indians now could encounter colonists and trade with them on their own. The extent of this uncontrolled trade was dependent upon a number of factors. One of these was an individual Indian's proximity to an English settlement or homestead. Native Americans were more likely to establish independent trade relations with individual European settlers and traders who lived nearby. For those Indian groups, however, that were further away from English settlements but still well within the range of chiefly power and control, compliance with what Grumet calls the "persuasion of power" was enhanced as trade goods made their way to the periphery and hunters sought more furs. As mentioned above, this growth in deer skin production was done not only to increase the numbers of trade objects that a hunter, his family, or his village would receive, but also to comply with greater production demands made by chiefs as they became more enmeshed in colonial trade and relied more heavily upon the products of that trade to reinforce their status and power.
Demand for deerskins is reflected in the historical records documenting export figures. Prior to 1699, accurate figures are not available on an annual basis. For 1699 and after, large numbers of skins were exported every year. Indeed, many researchers assert that these numbers are extremely low, estimating that for some years, skins were exported in the millions. Export figures did not routinely account for skins that were of poor quality, which rotted in transit, that were small, or that were acquired and transported outside of the major traders. The pressure on hunters to kill that many deer and process that many skins must have been intense, especially in times of rapid change as disease and conflict decimated some tribes and as expanding European settlements displaced others.
In Virginia, this network of relationships began to fall apart at the end of the 17th century/beginning of the 18th century for a number of reasons. One reason for the collapse of trade networks incorporating Virginian Indians is that Indian groups in the Carolinas were very successfully competing for control of the fur and skin trade. As can be seen in the chart, the Carolinas consistently exported more deerskins than did Virginia. By 1707, they had an almost tenfold advantage. Virginia did export more beaver than the Carolinas. This could be due to environmental differences affecting beaver population size. It could also be that the beaver trade became more marginal for the Indians in the Carolinas because they focused so much on the deerskin trade while the beaver fur trade was so well developed to the north.
People throughout eastern North America lived in thousands of large villages. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people resided in each village, organized around a complex economic, social, and political structure. The people increased their reliance on intensive gardening for most of their food. Although the developments were not as elaborate in Virginia, Late Woodland people developed strong identities as each adapted to its local setting. In southwestern Virginia, the transplanted Mississippian and local cultures thrived; in the Shenandoah Valley, the Earthen Mound Burial culture grew; and to the east, the Coastal Plain Indians prospered. Village life broadened the social sphere, wealth, and security of the residents. The resulting social structure demanded more coordination of functions from the tribal leader, who assumed greater responsibility and status.
The people of southwestern Virginia formed tribal cultures very similar to the groups in the southern Piedmont of Virginia. They made a wide array of pottery tempered with sand, limestone, or shell, and impressed with cord and net. Their homes, about 15 to 20 feet in diameter, were constructed of multiple poles anchored deep into the ground. The tops of the poles were bent over and tied to form a dome-shaped house. The houses were covered with either thatch or bark and clustered around a plaza in the center of a walled village. Daily life was based on intensive gardening, supplemented with gathering wild plants and hunting animals. Mississippian culture contrasted greatly with the local cultures in southwestern Virginia. (The term "Mississippian" is used because some of the first sites of the culture were found along the Mississippi River.) A regional phenomenon, the Mississippian culture became widespread throughout the Midwest and southern United States. In Virginia, this culture made its way into the extreme southwestern corner of the state.
Some archaeologists use the concept of "cultural and natural areas" to explain further how the distinct cultures of the era came about. According to their theory, the environment in which a society settled presented a particular setting and the people made choices within that setting. Without external forces, a culture was inclined to change slowly once it adjusted to a setting. It was also inclined to spread over an entire area before expanding to a different environment. In Virginia, the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and mountain regions created distinct natural areas. Cultures spread along the major rivers and streams that flowed within and between each province. Because pieces of the information puzzle are missing, much of the group variation across Virginia has not been fully described nor individual cultures defined.
The Coastal Plains offered a unique environment of saltwater and freshwater rivers, bays, and marshes. People adapted to it by relying on fishing, particularly for the shad and sturgeon that ascended rivers to spawn. From the shallow waters, they gathered shellfish. The Coastal Plain Indians stored large amounts of food to support themselves. By the 1300s, the Coastal Plain tribes had grown to form sedentary villages supported by small short-term hunting and gathering camps. Relying more and more on farming, they favored the floodplain and low-lying necklands of rich sandy soil for village sites. The Coastal Plain people built their villages with longhouses close together and perhaps surrounded by a palisade, or with the houses dispersed, separated by fields for gardening.
The Powhatan depended on the rivers and the Bay to provide a means of traveling to other villages. They fished the waters for food and used the streams and creeks for drinking water. They did much of their fishing from canoes. The canoe was the main source of transportation for the Powhatans. It was the largest item the men built. The biggest canoes were four feet deep and fifty feet long, and each could hold up to forty men. The average canoe was smaller, holding ten to thirty people, including their goods.
When traveling, a warrior might have carried a deerskin mantle, traditional weaponry, mats for temporary shelter, and a ceramic pot for cooking. Most canoes were made from cypress trees. The size of the canoe depended on the size of the tree. Once the tree was selected, it was "cut" down by alternating between burning and chipping away at the charred area above ground level. The log would then be hollowed out. To help "cut" the hard wood, a fire would be set on the log. The burned areas would be chipped out with a shell or stone scraper. Someone had to stay close to the fire so that it did not burn out of control and destroy the entire log. The finished canoe was long with a flat or V-shaped bottom.