Body Art in Colonial Virginia? You Bet!

The first English settlers in North America were astonished to find tattooed and painted natives.

Visitors touring Historic Jamestowne
Assorted Pottery and Artifacts at Historic Jamestowne
Powhatan Exhibit at Jamestown Settlement

It may be hip to get tattooed today, especially among millennials, for whom it’s become almost a rite of passage. But when Capt. John Smith first arrived near Jamestown in 1607, he was curious to find the Powhatan Indians covered with tattoos — specifically the women. For they were the only ones who braved puncturing their skin with a heated instrument — likely bone or stone — to depict flowers, fruits, serpents, lizards, and other designs inspired by nature.

"Their women," Smith wrote of the Powhatan tribe he encountered, "some have their legs, hands, breasts and face cunningly embroidered with diverse works, as beasts, serpents, artificially wrought into their flesh with black spots." 

Nancy Egloff, the historian at Jamestown Settlement, explains: "They primarily tattooed their upper bodies — their arms, chest, faces, shoulders, and thighs."

As you visit museums today in Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown — such as The Williamsburg Art Gallery, the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary, or the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, — it’s important to remember that the arts go way back to the original inhabitants of the area, the Powhatan.

The Native American heritage is especially evident in Historic Jamestowne, where archaeologists have uncovered thousands of native artifacts — the largest known collection of Virginia Indian artifacts from the contact period. Historic Jamestowne also features the church site of the Fort James wedding of the most famous Powhatan, Pocahontas, who married colonist John Rolfe. Her enduring legacy is also the subject of the exhibit, “The World of Pocahontas Unearthed,” as is an upcoming exhibition at Jamestown Settlement, called “Pocahontas Reimagined,” which runs from July 15, 2017, through Jan. 28, 2018. Both exhibits illuminate the life ways of the native people of Pocahontas’ time.

Although many Powhatan women were tattooed, it’s not clear whether Pocahontas was, according to Egloff. In the animated Disney film, Pocahontas, she's shown with an armband. But the one portrait of her while in England, years after the Jamestown founding, does not show any of the cunning embroidery portrayed in Smith's writing.          

While only Powhatan women were tattooed, both men and women painted themselves using dyes from plant roots. Egloff says only certain classes could wear puccoon because of its value. Thirty Powhatan tribes were part of a chiefdom under the control of one man, Wahunsenacawh, who was the father of Pocahontas and many other children. Each tribe had a sub chief. The rest of the social ladder included warriors, priests, and the lower class.  

Only the upper classes, Egloff says, were given precious puccoon, a plant not native to the area that the Powhatan traded for with people to the south. They used it to dye their skin red. Others would use the more available local bloodroot. They smeared bear grease and nut oil over the dyes, which helped keep them warm in winter and fend off bugs in the summer.     

Three main colors — red, white, and black — formed their palette. Men going to war were painted black and red. White showed up during dances and harvest time, Egloff says. "They used black to symbolize death or solemnity," she explains. "White is more of an upbeat color."     

Smith, in his journals, seems mystified by these painted natives. He describes them as “dancing…singing and yelling out such hellish notes and screeches; being strangely painted, every one.” At another occasion, three of the men danced around a fire, their faces painted “such like devils…painted halfe blacke, half red: but all their eyes were painted white, and some red stroakes… along their cheeks.”       

Today, that history comes alive at the Jamestown Settlement, America’s first permanent English colony, where you can immerse yourself in the Powhatan culture at a recreated Indian village. There, you will find several houses made of sapling frames covered with reed mats, a crop field, and a ceremonial circle of carved wooden posts. Historical interpreters discuss and demonstrate the Powhatan way of life. They grow and prepare food, process animal hides, build dugout canoes, make tools and pottery, and weave plant fibers into cordage. And yes, some even sport the body paint that so surprised the first English settlers to these shores.

Meanwhile, those in the market for some modern-day ink can consider several tattoo parlors in Yorktown. They might even be able to replicate some of the fantastical designs of the Powhatan people of long ago.

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