Hampton archive: A Yuletide feast to remember

Hampton (Hampton, Virginia)ConservationJamestown (Jamestown, Virginia)Arts and CultureWeatherEnvironmental IssuesArchaeology

Engraved by Flemish artist Theodor de Bry from watercolors produced by Roanoke Island colonist John White, these images show Algonquin Indian settlements in North Carolina. Scholars believe Kecoughtan and other Powhatan villages would have been similar, though only the major settlements were protected by palisades.

Engraver Simon de Passee made this portrait of Capt, John Smith in 1616, eight years after the colonist spent part of the Christmas season with the Kecoughtan Indians.

Smith described an ample menu of oysters, fish, meat, wildfowl and bread after his Christmas 1608 visit to Kecoughtan. Shown above are such Indian staples as vegetable stew; dried sunflower seeds, oysters, corn and squash; coarsely ground cornmeal; and corncakes.

Jamestown Settlement interpreter Sharon Walls holds a basket filled with typical Indian foods inside one of the living history museum's re-created Powhatan dwellings.

Staff map (b&w) by ANDRES SPIRES Virginia's first Christmas

Tantalizingly terse account of a Kecoughtan Christmas piques scholars' interest

Hampton Roads was in the worst of moods when Capt. John Smith tried to cross its waters during the Christmas of 1608. Traveling in two boats with about 40 men, he'd set out from Jamestown the day before, intent on boosting the colony's failing food supply by trading for Indian corn. But as the expedition ended an overnight stay at the village of Warraskoyack -- located near present-day Smithfield on the Pagan River -- the mercurial Tidewater weather had other ideas.

Sailing past the mouth of the James River -- then known as Powhatan Flu, Smith and his companions rounded what is now Newport News and made for the village of Kecoughtan on the Hampton River. That's when the rising winds and combative seas erupted into a full-fledged nor'easter.

Miserably hungry, wet and cold, the hard-luck crew put ashore, possibly thinking of the times back home when their Yuletide holidays had been a much jollier occasion. Little did they know that over the next six or seven days they would not only fill their empty stomachs but also celebrate English America's first recorded Christmas in an unexpectedly happy fashion.

"... the extreame wind, raine, frost, and snowe, caused us to keepe Christmas among the Salvages," Smith would report, describing the hostile weather conditions.

Then -- in an uncharacteristically warm recollection -- he went on to observe that "wee were never more merrie, nor fedde on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild foule, and good bread, nor never had better fires in England than in the drie warme smokie houses of Kecoughtan."

Nearly 400 years later, Smith's bright, brief quote is so tantalizingly vivid -- especially given the colony's persistent trials -- that many readers feel as if they had been short-changed by his terseness.

They also wonder what more he might have revealed about his visit.

"It's so neat -- and it's such a teaser. This notion of 'keeping Christmas' is so English," says Nancy Egloff, a historian with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

"But then we don't know anything more about what happened -- except for a couple of sentences."

Even with this nagging lapse in Smith's report, however, it's still possible to fill in many of the blanks from other sources.

Kecoughtan's strategic position at the entrance to Hampton Roads made it one of the most visited places in early Virginia, scholars say. And judging by the unusually detailed and numerous descriptions the colonists left, their unscheduled stay couldn't have found a much better haven.

Indeed, not long after they discovered the site on April 30, 1607, the English recognized what the Indians already knew: Kecoughtan occupied "a comparatively high, wholsome and fruictfull" piece of land -- especially measured against the swampy environs of Jamestown. As many as 3,000 acres might have been cleared for farming -- a practice at which the inhabitants were judged to be more expert than any of their neighbors.

Fruit trees abounded, added colonist William Strachey in his 1610 report -- and they were accompanied by rich sources of gooseberries, cherries and plums. Good fishing was a near-certainty because of the proximity of the Chesapeake Bay and the combined fertility of the James and Hampton rivers.

Like Smith, Strachey also noted the abundance of cornfields and the manner in which the bays, coves and creeks conjoined to "make that place very pleasant to inhabit." "... Kecoughtan ... is an ample and faire Country indeed," he concluded.

"We have more quotes for Kecoughtan than for any other place in early Virginia -- and every one of them talks about it as a great place to live," says E. Randolph Turner III, head of the Tidewater office of the state Department of Historic Resources, who has compiled a comprehensive list of the colonists' descriptions.

"The land was wonderful. The harbor was convenient and ample. It was a very, very favorable environment because of the quality of the soil and the rich resources of the rivers and the bay. So when the English saw it, they described it with very graphic words. It clearly got their attention."

Mapmakers pounced on the village, too, making Kecoughtan one of the most often recorded native landmarks of the early Colonial period.

It shows up prominently on Smith's famous map of 1608, which locates it between the east bank of the Hampton River and Old Point Comfort in what is now the vicinity of the Hampton Veterans Administration Medical Center. Even more explicit, Turner says, is a map that Spanish ambassador to England Pedro de Zuniga may have traced from Smith's original in 1608. A second English map produced by Robert Tindall the same year confirms this location.

Though no traces of native structures have yet been found, a 1993 archaeological study of the medical center site turned up other evidence that makes these maps look authoritative.

"Sometimes village sites like this can be deceiving. They can be tricky to pinpoint," says Tom Higgins, now with the James River Institute for Archaeology, who helped conduct the survey for the College of William and Mary.

"Though we didn't find any archaeological features, we did turn up a good amount of simple stamped Roanoke ceramics shards, and they're a hallmark -- a signature -- of Late Woodland and contact-period Indian settlements. But they were broad and widespread over a pretty good area instead of being concentrated in one place."

Before being decimated by Powhatan's warriors in the later 1590s, Kecoughtan may have boasted 1,000 inhabitants and as many as 300 houses, making it one of the largest and most prosperous settlements on the lower Chesapeake Bay. Following defeat it declined rapidly, becoming a modest tributary of the great chief's growing empire.

By the time English arrived, the site contained only 18 houses and some 60 or 70 people, Smith reported after a 1607 visit. But its diminished size did nothing to lessen the attractions of its dry, warm houses or the hospitality of its people.

Framed with saplings that were sunk into the ground at one end, then bent over and lashed into an arch at the other, the domelike dwellings were covered with such smartly woven reed mats that they remained watertight and comfortable in the most miserable weather. Smith and his companions would have entered to find knee-high sleeping benches covered with animal hides and arranged in a circle around a well-tended fire.

Smoke would have billowed across the 12-to-15-foot-high ceilings before exiting through a rainproof hole in the roof. Baskets of dried corn, beans, peas and other vegetables would have crowded the walls, while shanks of dried and smoked meat and seafood would have hung down from the framework of saplings.

"It was kind of like living in a combination of your garage, your bedroom and your pantry," says Frank Hardister, supervisor of the re-created Powhatan Indian village at Jamestown Settlement.

"The houses were primarily single-family homes, and they were used primarily for storage, shelter and sleeping."

Just how the English quartered among the Indians isn't clear. But Egloff suspects that it took a substantial effort to accommodate so many unexpected guests -- and that Smith may have spent some time with Powhatan's son Pochin, who was the village's leader.

She also believes that Kecoughtan's well-documented prosperity may have combined with a time of plenty to produce a feast comparable to the Christmas meals the settlers remembered.

"It was just at the end of the harvest season -- and just after the end of a major hunting season -- so they probably had ample reserves," she says. "And when you see Smith's description, it's pretty clear that they had a lot of food."

Though some brave soul may have retrieved fresh oysters from the iced-over Hampton Flats, it's likely that the succulent bivalve was served smoked, dried and then rehydrated in a tasty vegetable stew. Dried and smoked fish might have been prepared in much the same fashion, Hardister says.

Husk bread made from boiled corn meal and ashcakes baked in the fire pit would have been an important complement to these dishes.

"Husk bread is very moist," Hardister says, "and little difficult to describe. But ashcakes taste just like cornbread -- unseasoned, with no salt, sugar or butter. You just have to brush off the coals and ashes to eat them."

Ripe persimmons and nuts could be expected because of the late fall season. Roast venison and wild fowl -- including turkeys, geese and ducks -- probably provided the centerpiece to the meals.

Judging from Smith's unusually warm description, they also helped the settlers forget -- if only for a few days -- the hunger and hardship that was a daily part of life at Jamestown.

"You haven't lived until you've had turkey roasted over an open fire," Hardister says.

"The flavor from the smoke really makes it good -- and it's a lot juicier. The fat just seems to soak through the meat." *

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Hampton (Hampton, Virginia)ConservationJamestown (Jamestown, Virginia)Arts and CultureWeatherEnvironmental IssuesArchaeology
  • Becoming Hampton: A winsome place for a settlement
    Becoming Hampton: A winsome place for a settlement

    One early English colonist described it as an "ample and faire Country." Another called it "pleasantly seated." Capt. John Smith relished his Christmas 1608 feast there so much that he touted its "good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild-foule, and good bread."

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