John White painted the earliest known images of Native Americans.  Several of White’s paintings of the Indians of the New World included tattoos.  One woman, of Florida, had tattoos covering much of her body.  Another, in Virginia the chief’s wife had the same style tattoo on her arms.   Not all Indians had tattoos.  Of note, the chiefs did not, nor did the conjurers who would be considered medicine or holy men.  The chief’s wives seemed to be heavily adorned, however, and some of the men in DeBry’s engravings seem to have marks or symbols on their upper backs near their shoulders.  So, tattoos, along the coastline were in use when the Europeans arrived. 

It should be of no surprise then to find records of tattoos later, but actually, those kinds of records are very rare.  We find court records of being branded for various offenses, but never tattooed. 

Tattoos have been a part of humankind for various reasons for as long as 5000 years, in Egypt, Japan, Greece and Rome.  Some tattoos were used as markers indicating members of a group, some were used as personal adornments and others as marks to identify those expelled, such as criminals or outcasts.  The Greeks used tattoos to indicate the status of slavery.

The Mayans, Incas and Aztecs were known to use tattoos.  So were the Indians along the coastline of America, apparently from the area now Florida and northward, at least through current day North Carolina and possibly into Virginia.

We don’t really see or hear much about tattoos after that in the colonial records.  Whether that’s because they weren’t really in use or because they were simply considered normal, at least for Indians, and otherwise “unremarkable,” we have no way of knowing. 

Before emancipation during the Civil War, people of color who were free had to register in Virginia.  One of the reasons was to provide proof that they were legitimately free and not a runaway slave.  These records are of interest because they hold records of both Indians, who were considered to be “of color,” meaning not white and also descendants of Indians wrongfully enslaved who had subsequently been freed through the court system.  Yes, that did happen, and several times.  Those records are invaluable resources.  In any event, while going through these records, I found two in Paul Heinegg’s extracted records that I found quite interesting.

Rockingham County, Virginia Register of Free Negroes

No. 84, 13 October 1825, Isaac Adams Twenty Two Years of Age on the 10th day of August 1825. Isaac is rather a dark Mulatto Man and is Five Feet 10-1/4 Inches high, has on his left arm the impression of a Cable and Anker and the letters I.A. made by the incertion of Indian Ink.

A cable and an anchor.  Was the man a sailor?  Rockingham was a long way from the coastline.  And I.A. were obviously his initials.

This next one made me laugh out loud.

Petersburg, Virginia, Register of Free Negroes 1819 – 1833

No. 2361, Nancy Stewart…5 feet 5 inches, of a bright mulatto complexion…has the figure of a man made with India Ink on the right arm and the following letters: “J. B & N.S.” and was born free. 17 Mar: 1837.

I remember vividly when I was a teenager that one young man had his girlfriend’s name tattooed on his arm.  My Mother said something like “I surely hope his next girlfriend and his wife have the same name.”  Of course, I thought that the young man was sooooo romantic (no, he was not my boyfriend) and my Mother so much the wet blanket, but sure enough, a few months later….Mother’s inferred prophecy, which had nothing to do with psychic ability and everything to do with wisdom and common sense, came true.

So it seems that people have changed little over time and that not only was Nancy Stewart infatuated with J.B. at one time, but she even went so far as to have his figure put on her arm.  Truly, he will be with her one way or another, forever, till death do them part….and even for awhile after that.


About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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