Published January 12, 2023

Patawomeck Eel Pots

To make an eel pot, first you must find a white oak tree that has grown straight, without knots or gnarls, until its trunk is about eight inches in diameter. Once you fell the tree with axe and saw, the work of shaping it into smaller pieces and splitting it into thin, pliable strips begins. You shave off bark using a draw knife, and cleave the log by wedging a froe tool into the grain and hitting it with a mallet. Using a pocketknife and your fingers, you next pry loose thinner and thinner strips. With the tree trunk broken down into pliable ribbons of wood, you are ready to weave.

Four years ago, Dr. D. Brad Hatch was one of just two members of the Patawomeck Indian tribe who knew what to do next: How to weave an eel pot on a spinning mold, how to join the funnel trap inside the outer barrel, how to cover the white oak with black tar to give it longevity and strength against briny waters.

Brad Hatch stands in water holding an eel pot at sunset
Brad Hatch holds an eel pot in the Rappahannock River behind the Patawomeck Museum & Cultural Center in Fredericksburg in December 2022. All photos by Pat Jarrett / Virginia Humanities.

After inheriting several antique eel pots when his uncle passed away, Brad began to visit DP Newton, who revived the craft of making eel pots in the 2000s with Mickey Schenemann. DP agreed to teach Brad the process, starting with cutting down a tree. His research into eel pots also led him to Carl “Boozie” Schoen, who remembered weaving them as long ago as the 1940s, during the winter offseason with his grandfather, Carl Newton. Boozie became a mentor to Brad and gifted him his handmade eel pot molds, saying, “It’s time to send it to the next generation.”

“When I was partway through making my second pot, DP passed away,” Brad shared. “I was the only person left who knew how to do this, which was, for me, a very sobering thought.”

In 2020, determined to change this, Brad launched an eel pot class at the Patawomeck Museum and Cultural Center in February. COVID forced a change of plans, cancelling lessons after a couple of sessions. “I needed somebody that was young to work with me, and to carry it on past me. So that is how I met David.”

Now Brad is teaching fellow tribal members David Onks IV and Reagan Andersen how to make eel pots as part of the Virginia Folklife Program’s 2022-23 Apprenticeship Program cohort.

David—whose family stewards the garden at the tribal center and are active members of the tribal congregation—began working with Brad in 2021.

“My great grandmother on my Dad’s side was one of the few people who remembered making the pots—we actually found her tar recipe,” David said.

Eel pots were once important sources of income and independence for the Patawomeck people. Tribe members would set the roughly arm-length basket traps into nearby waters to capture eels, which were valuable as exports to European markets and as bait for crabs. “Fishing has brought our people together as a form of community action for hundreds of years,” explained Brad.

This skill enabled the Patawomeck Indians to trade food with starving colonists in 1609. In 1666, however, the governor’s Council “called for the Patawomeck Indians’ ‘utter destruction.’” (Learn more in Encyclopedia Virginia.)

close up of hands weaving eel pot
Brad Hatch works on weaving the outer barrel of an eel pot.

“We started living with English families, but we stayed in the same general area of Potomac Creek, what we call today the White Oak region. In some ways we hide in plain sight, but there’s always been a separation between us and other people in this region,” Brad said. Economic independence afforded by selling eels and crabs contributed to community cohesion and survival. “When people came back home after the Civil War, the landscape was devastated. . . Patawomeck people turned back to the water for a living and they kind of used this eel pot to rebuild their economy—it made a lot of people wealthy here.”

Today the eel pot functions as a symbol of identity and resistance for Patawomeck Indians. Their commercial use ceased following legislation passed in the 1980s that restricted the mesh size allowed for marine traps. In Brad’s words:

“The eel pot is a symbol of persistence in this landscape. It is something that brought us through hard times. It is also something we were able to carry from our ancestors right on up until today. Not only has the eel pot provided food, but it maintains our culture, it sustains us in a spiritual sense. We resisted colonialism with it.

There are objects that say a whole lot more about a group of people than any historic document ever could. Eel pots are one of those things. They have a real story to tell about our people, about where we’ve been and where we are going.”

The eel pot is a symbol of persistence in this landscape.

Brad Hatch

By weaving eel pots together, Brad, David, and Reagan tap into a centuries-old continuity. “I tend to find that while I’m making the pots, I do think of the people of our past,” Reagan said. “I’ll think, ‘Oh George Newton might use this on his line.’ Or I’ll think of my great-grandfather. The whole time.”

“I think about my great grandmother while making them. She passed away shortly after I was born, but I’ve always heard stories about her eel pots. She is who I connect with while I make them,” David shared.

posed portrait of brad hatch, david onks, and reagan anderson with eel pots surrounding them, david also holds an eel pot
Brad Hatch, David Onks and Reagan Andersen in the milking shed (a temporary eel pot workshop) at the Patawomeck Museum & Cultural Center.

Brad offered: “It’s a powerful feeling to be able to connect with people in the past that way. And to also know that, hopefully, a hundred years from now, somebody will be able to connect with me when they sit down and make an eel pot.”

As they wrestle to maneuver the oak splits over and under, snipping here and there to tighten and perfect, their conversation signifies another kind of continuity. “Oral tradition is a very important part of Virginia tribal communities. When we sit and make eel pots, we don’t make them in silence,” Brad explained. Sharing stories and memories as they weave strengthens their sense of Patawomeck identity.

Weaving eel pots, and teaching others how, is also a bridge to the future. Next year David will begin undergraduate studies in computer science, but he is hoping his work will inspire other young tribal members.

“I’m part of a generation that is very much technology oriented, which means that many people my age are not interested in historical crafts like eel pot construction. It is important that we continue educating others on our tribe’s traditions so that our culture is not lost, but rather preserved, in generations to come,” David said.

During our visit, Reagan finished weaving her third eel pot, “Virginia,” which she plans to gift to the Department of Historic Resources. (Terri and Bernice, her first two eel pots, are displayed at home.) Brad, with grant support from Virginia Humanities, is teaching an eel pot workshop in the Northern Neck in February to other Virginia Indians. He hopes to inspire further inter-tribal teaching of traditional crafts.

“Eel pots have been passed down in an unbroken line, which is a rare thing. There are only a few crafts that Virginia Indians do that are unbroken in that sense.”

Celebrate the accomplishments of D. Brad Hatch, David Onks IV and Reagan Andersen and our other apprenticeship teams at the Library of Virginia on Friday, July 7 (more details).