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An Early Colonist Describes "the Nature and Manners" of the Algonquian People

Thomas Hariot was an astronomer and mathematician who traveled to Roanoke Island on one of Sir Walter Raleigh's early expeditions to the New World. Encountering local Indian populations, Harriot learned the Algonquian language and later published an account of the voyage entitled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. In this passage from the 1588 publication, Harriot relates what he can "of the nature and manners of the people" he encountered. While Hariot makes many astute observations, his account was clearly written with a mind towards assuaging the fears of fellow Europeans; he details what he perceives as the Algonquians' military inferiority and assures his readers that "they in respect of troubling our inhabiting and planting, are not to be feared." His perceptions, moreover, are colored by his cultural bias; the Algonquians, he writes, are "in respect of us a people poore, and for want of skill and judgement." All in all, however, Hariot concedes that"in those thinges they doe, they shewe excellencie of wit," and concludes that "if meanes of good government bee used, that they may in short time be brought to civilitie, and the imbracing of true religion."

It resteth I speake a word or two of the naturall inhabitants…how that they in respect of troubling our inhabiting and planting, are not to be feared; but that they shall have cause both to feare and love us that shall inhabite with them.

They are a people clothed with loose mantles made of Deere skins, & aprons of the same rounde about their middles; all els naked; of such a difference of statures only as wee in England; having no edge tooles or weapons of yron or steele to offend us withall, neither know they how to make any: those weapons that they have, are onlie bowes made of Witch hazle, & arrowes of reeds; flat edged truncheons also of wood about a yard long, neither have they any thing to defend themselves but targets made of barcks ; and some armours made of stickes wickered together with thread.

Their townes are but small, & neere the sea coast but few, some containing but 10 or 12 houses: some 20. the greatest that we have seene have bene but of 30 houses: if they be walled it is only done with barks of trees made fast to stakes, or els with poles onely fixed upright and close one by another.
Their houses are made of small poles made fast at the tops in rounde forme after the maner as is used in many arbories in our gardens of England, in most townes covered with barkes, and in some with artificiall mattes made of long rushes; from the tops of the houses downe to the ground. The length of them is commonly double to the breadth, in some places they are but 12 and 16 yardes long, and in other some wee have seene of foure and twentie.

In some places of the countrey one onely towne belongeth to the government of a Wiróans or chiefe Lorde ; in other some two or three, in some sixe, eight, & more; the greatest Wiroans that yet we had dealing with had but eighteene townes in his governmet, and able to make not above seven or eight hundred fighting men at the most: The language of every government is different from any other, and the farther they are distant the greater is the difference.

Their maner of warres amongst themselves is either by sudden surprising one an other most commonly about the dawning of the day, or moone light; or els by ambushes, or some suttle devises: Set battels are very rare, except it fall out where there are many trees, where eyther part may have some hope of defence, after the deliverie of every arrow, in leaping behind some or other.

If there fall out any warres between us & them, what their fight is likely to bee, we having advantages against them so many maner of waies, as by our discipline, our strange weapons and devises els ; especially by ordinance great and small, it may be easily imagined; by the experience we have had in some places, the turning up of their heeles against us in running away was their best defence.

In respect of us they are a people poore, and for want of skill and judgement in the knowledge and use of our things, doe esteeme our trifles before thinges of greater value: Notwithstanding in their proper manner considering the want of such meanes as we have, they seeme very ingenious; For although they have no such tooles, nor any such craftes, sciences and artes as wee ; yet in those thinges they doe, they shewe excellencie of wit. And by howe much they upon due consideration shall finde our manner of knowledges and craftes to exceede theirs in perfection, and speed for doing or execution, by so much more the more is it probable that they shoulde desire our friendships & love, and have the greater respect for pleasing and obeying us. Whereby may bee hoped if meanes of good government bee used, that they may in short time be brought to civilitie, and the imbracing of true religion.

Source | Thomas Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590); from University of Virginia Library's Electronic Text Center, "First Hand Accounts of Virginia, 1575-1705," Virtual Jamestown, http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/jamestown-browse?id=J1009
Creator | Thomas Hariot
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Thomas Hariot, “An Early Colonist Describes "the Nature and Manners" of the Algonquian People,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 19, 2017, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/594.

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