Chowanoke Descendants Community

Culture of the Chowanoke

In this section we will be exploring the culture of our people. Often times we get so caught up in the genealogical and historical aspects of the Chowans that we forget that they had a way of life that they would want us to remember. Their language, music, food, these things we can try to know. Maybe not enact everything into our own modern lives, but at least remember. Then maybe we can know what it was like to live at Chowanoke.

Music of the Southern Algonquians - Lars Adams

     Language may be forgotten, and the traditional ways of the past may be lost forever, but a universal language that can remain is that of music. Described by the early explorers of Virginia and North Carolina, the music, instruments and singing of our ancestors can once again be enjoyed. The instruments employed are largely the same as many other tribes throughout eastern North America. These consist of the flute, the drum and the rattle. It seems that these instruments were often used for different purposes and events, the rattle and human voice being the principle means of celebration, the drum for ceremony, and the flute for personal enjoyment. This paper will explore these three instruments and how they were played, using eyewitnesses of the times who described them. In this way we can see with our minds eye what it must have been like, and how we can learn to incorporate some of the old ways into our modern lives.

The Rattle

     Thomas Hariot was the first English descriptor of Indian music. He notes both the construction and playing of rattles by saying [spelling adjusted], “into a round pumpkin or a gourde, which after they have taken out the fruits, and the seeds, then fill with small stones or certain big kernels to make more noise, and fasten that upon a stick, and singing after their manner, they make merry.”1 He goes on to say that they do this for celebration, “when they have escaped any great danger by sea or land, or be returned from the war in token of love they make a great fire about which the men, and women sit together.”2 Later, in Jamestown, John Smith described greater detail on how they were played.  “…their chief instruments are rattles made of small gourds, or pumpkin shells. Of these they have base, tenor, countertenor, mean, and treble. These mingled with their voices sometimes twenty or thirty together...”3 So now we know, they used dried gourds, affixed on sticks, inside which was pebbles or corn kernels, perhaps beans (probably depending on the intended tone). They made them of varying sizes, low, medium and high pitches so that they could play off of one another, and this accompanied with singing, they would sing into the night in celebration of life.

The Drum

     We have several descriptions of the Southern Algonquian Drum, which is consistent from person to person describing it. John Smith said that the drum is used primarily for war dances. To make a drum, he said, “They have a great deep platter of wood [a large bowl]. They cover the mouth thereof with a skin, at each corner they tie a walnut, which meeting on the backside near the bottom, with a small rope they twitch them together till it be so taught and stiff, that they may beat upon it as upon a drum.”4 John Lawson, who traveled throughout North and South Carolina, agreed, though he stated that they used a clay pot, rather than wood. Says he, “…the other with a Drum, made of an earthen Pot, covered with a dressed-Deer-Skin, and one Stick in his Hand to beat thereon…”5 Robert Beverly also concurs but adds another detail, “Their Drums are made of a Skin, stretched over an Earthen Pot half full of Water.”6 So now we have a clearer picture. Their drums were of a large bowl, whether it be wood or clay may depend on the tribe or the craftsman’s preference, though they may have produced different sounds. They used a dressed dear skin, meaning tanned, and not rawhide. This was to facilitate its easy removal to add or remove water, which would change the tone from low to high.. The skin was tightened over the top by the used of walnuts at the corners of the skin. These would meet at the bottom and with more rope they would tie and twist together to tighten, and the drum was ready. This in accompaniment with the rattles would be the center of great dances and celebrations.

The Flute

     There is only one description of the Southern Algonquian Flute, that of John Smith. It’s true, William Strachey also describes it, but his was merely a copy of Smith’s description. Smith describes the flute as, “… a thick cane, on which they pipe as on a recorder.”7 Strachey states the same, but does state however, the flute is “being hardly to be sounded without great straining of the breath upon which they observe certain rude times.”8 So, we know now that the flute of our ancestors (And pretty much the rest of the Southeastern tribes) was made of a thick piece of river cane (an American species of bamboo). Today’s cane flutes probably look very much like the ones encountered by John Smith. Since we know they “pipe as on a recorder” we know the mechanics of the flute would have to follow the same as the modern day Native American flute, Using two chambers. One blows air through into the first chamber, which exits through a hole in the top, passing through a thin, flat groove, making a thin stream of air that passes over another hole into the sound chamber, creating a beautiful, sometimes haunting sound. They are quite easy to play. Strachey’s comment that they cannot be played without a great straining of breath more likely inferred that he had no idea what he was doing when he tried to play it. Smith stated that for music they used flutes, for wars they use drums, and their chief instrument was the rattle.9 Also, in many other areas the flute was used as a courtship instrument, but no one mentions this regarding the southern Algonquians. This indicates that the flute was used primarily on a personal level for musical enjoyment and not normally in accompaniment of other instruments. But then again, There have been explorers of other southeastern tribes who noted the flute accompanying the drum and rattle, so it could be something that the whites simply failed to notice.

     To conclude, I have shown the four ways our ancestors expressed themselves within music. They used the cane flute, the gourd rattle, the water drum, and their voices to make songs of celebration that lasted long into the night. It has been said that every single night they lit a new fire and made music. One can imagine that after a long day of tending the fields, or coming back from the hunt, how it would be to conclude every night with a celebration. One can imagine finding a quiet place along the Chowan river to sit with a flute and let the melodies flow. We can do the same today. We live modern lives and of course can’t find a stomping ground (most of us wouldn’t be inclined to use it anyway), but no one can stop us from buying a CD using these instruments and enjoying this style of music. If one is musically inclined, a cane flute is quite inexpensive compared to the other larger wood flutes, and sounds just as beautiful. We can still honor our ancestors with song.


1 Hariot, Thomas, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
Illustrated by White, John. Translated out of Latin into English by Hakluyt, Richard. (New York, printed by J. Sabin & Sons, 1871)
2 Ibid
3 John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (London, Printed by I.D and I.H for Michael Sparkes, 1624)
5 Lawson, John, A New Voyage to Carolina (London, published in 1709)
6 Beverley, Robert, The History and Present State of Virginia, (London, printed for R. Parker, 1705)
7 John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (London, Printed by I.D and I.H for Michael Sparkes, 1624)
8 William Strachey, The History of Travaile Virginia Britannia (London, printed for the Hakluyt Society, MDCCCXUX)
9 John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (London, Printed by I.D and I.H for Michael Sparkes, 1624)