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Chief Powhatan (detail of map published by John Smith (1612)

Chief Powhatan (c. June 17, 1545 – c. 1618), whose proper name was Wahunsenacawh or (in seventeenth century English spelling) Wahunsunacock, was the leader of the Powhatan (also spelled Powatan and Powhaten), a powerful tribe of Virginia Indians, speaking an Algonquian language, who lived in Tenakomakahβ€” which is now Tidewater Virginiaβ€”at the time of the first English-Native encounters. Wahunsenacawh was the father of Pocahontas.


Powhatan was originally the name of one of the towns where he lived, a location in the east end of the present-day city of Richmond, Virginiamarker, as well as the name of the adjacent river (today called the James River). When he created a powerful empire by allying most of the tribes in tidewater Virginiamarker to pay tribute, he called himself the Powhatan, a title.

17th century English spellings were not standardised. Representing the sounds of the Algonquian language spoken by Wahunsenacawh and his people is made more difficult by the many different spellings for the same word. Charles Dudley Warner, writing in the 19th century, but quoting extensively from John Smith's writings, in his essay on Pocahontas states: "In 1618 died the great Powhatan, full of years and satiated with fighting and the savage delights of life. He had many names and titles; his own people sometimes called him Ottaniack, sometimes Mamauatonick, and usually in his presence Wahunsenasawk." Many variants are used in texts:

  • The place, Powhatan
*Powhatan, Powatan, Powhaten, Pohetan, Powhattan, Poughwaton,
  • The description, weroance (chief?)
*weroance, weeroance, wyrounce, wyrounnces, werowance, wyroance, werowans
  • The name, Wahunsunacock
*Wahunsunacock, Wahunsenasawk, Wahunsenacawh, Wahunsenacock
  • The title, Mamanatowick (paramount- or great- chief, overlord?)
*Mamanatowick, Mamauatonick


Little is known of Powhatan's life before the arrival of English colonists in 1607. He apparently inherited the chiefdom of about 4-6 tribes, with the base at the fall line near Richmond, and through diplomacy and/or force, had assembled a total of about 30 into the Powhatan Confederacy by the early 17th century. The confederacy was estimated to include 10,000-15,000 people.

In December 1607, Englishmarker soldier and pioneer John Smith, one of the Jamestown colony's leaders, was captured by a hunting expedition led by Opechancanough, the younger brother of Chief Powhatan, and was eventually taken to Werowocomoco, Powhatan's capital along the York River. According to Smith's 1624 account, Pocahontas (whose real name was Matoaka), Powhatan's younger daughter, is said to have prevented her father from executing Smith at this time. However, Smith's 1608 and 1612 reports omitted this entire relation, and many historians have cast doubt on its accuracy. It is also believed by some that this was a ritual intended to adopt Smith into the tribe.

In January 1609, Smith recorded he set some German workers to build an English-style house for Powhatan at Werowocomoco, in exchange for food supplies for the hungry colony. However, intrigue was in the air when Smith arrived with a company of men, as both sides looked for opportunities to surprise one another. Smith then proceeded to Opechancanough's village. When ambushed, he held the chief at gunpoint before the tribesmen. When Smith returned to Werowocomoco, he found the house unfinished and the place abandoned. The Germans had deserted to the Powhatan side. At a village now called Wicomico in Gloucester Countymarker, the reconstructed ruins of what were traditionally believed to be the chimney and part of the building for Powhatan are known as Powhatan's Chimney.

Since 2003, however, state officials and researchers have concluded the likely site of Werowomocomo is further west along the York River at Purtan Bay. Archeologists have found evidence of a large residential settlement dating to 1200 CE, with major earthworks built about 1400 CE, and extensive artifacts, including European goods indicating likely interaction with English in the early 1600s. In 2006 the Werowomocomo Archeological Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Excavations continue by a team headed by the College of William and Marymarker.

Powhatan made his next capital at Orapakes, located about west in a swamp at the head of the Chickahominy Rivermarker, near the modern-day interchange of Interstate 64 and Interstate 295. Sometime between 1611 and 1614, he moved further north to Matchut, in present-day King William Countymarker on the north bank of the Pamunkey River, near where his younger brother Opechancanough ruled at Youghtanund.

By the time Smith left Virginia in 1609, the fragile peace was already beginning to fray. Soon conflict led to the First Anglo-Powhatan War, and further English expansion beyond Jamestown and into Powhatan's territory. Two of his subtribes, the Kecoughtanmarker and the Paspahegh, were effectively destroyed at the beginning of this war. Powhatan sent the cackarous Nemattanew to operate against the English on the upper James River, though they held out at Henricus. With the capture of Pocahontas in 1613, Powhatan sued for peace. It came about after her alliance in marriage in 1614 to John Rolfe, a leading tobacco planter.

Meanwhile, the English continued to expand along the James riverfront. The aged Powhatan's final years have been called "ineffectual" (Rountree 1990). Opechancanough became more the real power in the region.

Upon the death of Wahunsunacock in 1618, his younger brother Opitchapam officially became paramount chief; however, the regime now effectively belonged to Opechancanough, the youngest brother. By starting the Indian Massacre of 1622, and attacks in 1644, he attempted to force the English from Virginia. These attempts met with strong reprisals from the English, ultimately resulting in the near destruction of the tribe.

Through his daughter Pocahontas (and her marriage to the English colonist John Rolfe), Wahunsunacock was the grandfather of Thomas Rolfe. His descendants have made the Rolfe family one of the First Families of Virginia, one with both English and Virginia Indian roots.


In A True Relation of such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Happened in Virginia (1608), Smith described Powhatan thus:"...their Emperor proudly [lay] upon a bedstead a foot high upon ten or twelve mats, richly hung with many chains of great pearls about his neck, and covered with a great covering of Rahaughcums [raccoon skins]. At his head sat a woman, at his feet another, on each side, sitting upon a mat upon the ground, were ranged his chief men on each side [of] the fire, ten in a rank, and behind them as many young women, each a great chain of white beads over their shoulders, their heads painted in red, and [he] with such a grave a majestical countenance as drove me into admiration to see such state in a naked savage."

"Powatan's Mantle" is the name given to a cloak of deerskin, decorated with shell patterns and figures, held by the Ashmolean Museummarker, Oxfordmarker. It allegedly belonged to Chief Powhatan, although the evidence is questionable. The Mantle is certainly one of the earliest North American artifacts to have survived in a European collection. It must have originally belonged to a Native American of high social status, as it was manufactured from numerous valuable native shell beads.[114480]

In his 1906 work Lives of Famous Chiefs, Norman Wood also offered a description of the chief at the time the Englishmen him. He was said to be a "tall, well-proportioned man with a sower looke, his head somewhat gray, his beard so thinne that it seemeth none at all, his age neare sixtie, of a very able and hardy body, to endure any labor."

Sites associated with Powhatan

Fictional representations

External links


Further reading

  • David A. Price, Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of A New Nation, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

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