Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Boy to Man, Hunting
Every reader of historical fiction wants to believe that the detail a historical novelist includes in his narrative is true to what is known about the people and time about which he writes. The novelist must do considerable research to warrant such belief. My “Writing Alsoomse and Wanchese” posts have provided you different aspects of how and where coastal Carolina Algonquians lived in 1584 when they first encountered English explorers. I will eventually write about my decision-making concerning characters, plot, and specific difficulties that I have encountered, but not yet. I need to provide additional context.
A man’s role in Algonquian society was that of fisherman, hunter, and protector. Women grew and harvested the crops, collected the nuts and berries, gathered the shellfish, and prepared all sources of food for every inhabitant’s consumption. Men provided the necessary fish, fowl, and meat so vital for survival especially during the months when food that women provided was not available. Because Man is innately war-like, village survival also required that Algonquian men be fearless warriors. This post will discuss the training of boys to become hunters and warriors and how Algonquian men hunted.
A man’s success was measured by the wealth of the food he provided. Being an excellent provider required skill, endurance, and courage. How well a man was regarded in the village depended on his success as a hunter. Great exploits as a warrior gained him high favor with his weroance (ruler) and often a seat at village council meetings. It was therefore incumbent that boys’ parents trained their sons early to become skilled hunters.
Boys practiced boy and arrow skills at a young age. Any boy lagging in the development of accuracy might have his mother deny him breakfast until he was able to hit moss tossed into the air with an arrow. Games were played that involved shooting accuracy: for instance, shooting competitively arrows through rolling reed hoops. Boys learned how to construct bows and arrows. They learned intimate knowledge of local terrain and plant cover that attracted certain animals. They accompanied their fathers and older relatives on hunting expeditions, learning by observation and by trial and error that which was expected.
Psychological pressure was put on them. All children were given birth names. As they matured, they could be given replacement names that reflected a noticeable aspect of their emergent character. The names reminded everybody in the village of how much or how little they had progressed as good providers, future warriors, and men of worthy character. Here is a sampling of Algonquian boys’ names.
Algonquian Name English Translation
Askuwheteau he keeps watch
Pannoowau he lies
Sometime between the ages of 10 and 15 every boy participated in an initiation into manhood. The Virginia Powhatans called the initiation huskanaw. The very few Englishmen that commented about Carolina Algonquians rituals in the 1580s made no mention of a coming of age ritual, but it was common among Algonquian tribes elsewhere so we can assume that something quite similar happened in the villages by Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds and the Pamlico and
. Chowan Rivers
The ritual was a rigorous test of endurance. It began with a morning-long dance and feast in which the entire village participated. Two huge dance circles were formed about a large fire. People, dressed in their very best, led by their weroance, danced four in a rank, seemingly endlessly, one circle moving clockwise, the other counter-clockwise. Four principal men of the weroance stood in the middle of the two circles. They would hit with a bundle of reeds anybody who lagged as he or she danced. A group of men wearing horns and holding green boughs danced inside the two circles. Without warning they would suddenly stop, make a hellish noise, throw aside their boughs, run up a small tree while clapping their hands, and tear the tree to the ground. They would then resume their dancing. Eventually, the boys who were to be initiated, their faces painted white, were presented. They were brought into the circles. People danced around them and sang.
In the afternoon the boys were led to a tree and told to sit next to it. Men guarded them with reed bundles. The guards then formed a lane of two lines away from the tree. Boys who had recently been initiated led the boys, one by one, through the lane. The guards, pretending to be furious (as if what was happening was an abduction), struck the initiated boys with their bundles. The neophyte boys were taken to another tree and ordered to sit. The ritual was repeated. At least one of the two trees about which the young boys had sat was torn apart by the “enraged” guards. Female spectators from a distance mourned loudly. They had beside them items associated with a funeral: dry wood, mats, skins, and moss for preparing the dead.
Next came the boys’ “death” ceremony. They were taken to a valley or ravine where the weroance was waiting. A feast lasted 2 or 3 hours. Men then formed another lane through which the boys had to pass. The boys were ordered to lie lifelessly about a tree. The men danced around them for awhile and then sat in a circle around them. The weroance ordered dry wood to be brought to construct a makeshift steeple that was to be burned. All of the day’s activities were attempts to frighten the boys and test their courage.
The final part of huskanaw began a day or so later. The boys were taken into the woods for several months under the supervision of grown men, called “keepers.” Shut in a cage – a tall lattice-constructed enclosure shaped like a cone -- the boys were given a concoction of ground up, poisonous, intoxicating roots. The mixture made them crazy. They drank the concoction for 18 to 20 days. They were repeatedly beaten. They were released finally from the cage and for several weeks brought gradually off the drug. They were brought back to the village in a zombie-like state to show that they remembered nothing of their boyhood existence. If a boy exhibited any recollection of his past – such as recognizing a parent – he was taken back into the woods to repeat the final ritual. Usually the boy did not survive.
Hunting of deer was done by stalking and surrounding. “Deer stalking was done by lone hunters and demanded tremendous skill; it earned a successful hunter considerable prestige. Stalking was done with a dummy deer, made of a deerskin with the head stuffed and the body slit on one side to admit the hunter’s arm. The hunter ‘wore’ the skin as he approached a browsing deer, creeping from one tree to another. If the deer became wary and stared at him, the hunter moved the head in a natural, deerlike way … [He] would make deerlike movements and allay the suspicions of the deer, which would then allow the hunter to come near enough to shoot” (Rountree 39).
Surrounding, or “fire-hunting” done by the Powhatans of Virginia “required more people and killed more deer. There were two variants. In one, a group of men would find a herd of deer and then spread themselves in a circle around it. … They built fires between their stands and began shouting. … Panicked, the game fled the fires, only to find that between the fires were shouting, shooting men. Soon the deer would be running in a circle … while the men picked them off one by one” (Rountree 40). John Smith estimated that 6 to 15 deer were killed in a single fire-hunt. Deer could also be trapped on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. Cutting off a herd’s only means of retreat, a group of hunters needed only to advance and shoot the deer either at the end of the peninsula or in the water from land or canoe.
Large-scale hunting trips were taken in the late fall to places not overhunted. For the Powhatans, those places were located near the major
rivers’ fall line. Roanoke Algonquian group hunts probably took
place in the swamp lands south and west of Dasemunkapeuc. Up to 20 to 30 hunters participated. “While the men hunted by day, women and
children carried equipment, set up temporary households at previously arranged
places (probably on the way to the site of the following day’s hunt), and
processed the carcasses as the men brought them in. Living conditions in the camps closely
approximated those in the towns. Housing
was similar … and so was the cuisine, for the women brought their mortars and
supplies of dried corn and acorns and (probably) pots into the wilderness with
them” (Rountree 41). Virginia
The gear of a Powhatan and, most likely, Carolina Algonquian hunter consisted of a bow, arrows, a quiver, and a wrist guard. Bows were made of witch hazel. “English records say nothing of sinew backing or other strengthening devices. As with other forms of Powhatan woodworking, the wood for a bow was worked by scrapping it with a shell. Bowstrings were made from deer gut or from twisted thongs of deer hide. … John Smith wrote of arrows made of ‘straight young sprigs’ headed with a bone head two or three inches long, which were used against squirrels and birds.” He observed that some arrows were in several parts: a reed shaft, a wooden foreshaft, and a head. Arrowheads were variously made of ‘splinters’ of ‘christall’ or stone, wild turkey spurs, sharp bird bills, splinters of deer bone, ‘an oysters-shell,’ or ‘the ends of Deeres hornes.’” Stone arrowheads are mentioned in detail only by William Strachey, Secretary of Jamestown in 1609. He wrote that they were “‘in the forme of a heart’ barbed and jagged. The majority of points … that have been found archaeologically are small and triangular. Stone projectile points were ‘made … quickly’ with a small piece of antler that hung from the hunter’s wrist guard, and they were bound onto their shafts or foreshafts with deer sinew and then glued with a waterproof glue made of deer antlers boiled down into jelly. The overall length of Powhatan arrows was about forty-five inches, and they were fletched with turkey feathers cut to shape with a sharpened reed knife. The nock of the arrow was grated in, using a hafted beaver tooth” (Rountree 42).
Powhatan bows were strong enough to shoot arrows 40 yards with accuracy and 120 yards at most without accuracy. Quivers “were tubular containers more than two feet long and made ‘of small rushes.’ Wrist guards … were made of the tanned hides of wolves, raccoons, or foxes” (Rountree 42, 44).
Here is John White’s painting of a Carolina Algonquian hunter. http://www.firstcolonyfoundation.org/history/images/white_01.jpg
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of
Their Traditional Culture. Virginia Norman, Oklahoma, Press, 1989. Print University of Oklahoma