What Did Marriage Mean To The Powhatan Native American Inhabitants Near Jamestown?

Marriage was a complex subject in Native American culture, as was sexuality. These concepts were perhaps more “liberated” for Native Americans. Marriage wasn’t always something that occurred through ceremony. A man and woman might simply decide to couple with one another one day — and they would be considered married by their tribe. Sexuality was viewed much differently as well — and with more normalcy — which may have contributed to the common colonist viewpoint that Native Americans were savages. 

For the Powhatan Native Americans living near Jamestown, marriage was still very important. Or insofar as we know. Most of the information we have on their views of marriage come from the observations of Jamestown settlers.

Marriage in Powhatan culture wasn’t all that different from what we would recognize today. A man might find himself interested in a female member of his tribe or another tribe, and then decide to “court” her. He would do this by offering food or gifts. What made a Powhatan woman desirable? Those who managed to provide the way they were supposed to according to typical roles and tasks. Or beauty. Typical.

He might eventually decide to propose. The woman’s parents could either support the marriage or forbid it, much as in European culture. Should they support the marriage, they might offer some of their wealth. The primary difference between Powhatan culture and Puritan settlers was that men would often take more one wife — women, after all, were associated with wealth through family units. No matter how many wives a man took, he would need to support them all.

Marriage wasn’t always forever. For Powhatan Native Americans, the second wife — and each wife thereafter — was likely “negotiated” for a set period of time. Sometimes it lasted only until the new life provided a child. Like Christian marriage, this was a way to bring families together and forge lasting bonds within a greater community. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it did not.

Another major difference between the two cultures? Men were expected to remain faithful to their wives, but not the other way around. As long as a wife received permission from her husband, she was allowed to take as many lovers as she wished. This permission was commonly given.

The age of consent did not exist in the 17th century. Young women were married as soon as they were able to mother children. Men could marry as soon as they could provide food for their family.