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The Powhatan (also spelled Powatan and Powhaten), is the name of a Virginia Indian tribe. It is also the name of a powerful confederacy of tribes which they dominated. The confederacy is estimated to have been about 14,000-21,000 people in eastern Virginia, when the English settled Jamestown in 1607. They were also known as Virginia Algonquians, as they spoke an eastern-Algonquian language known as Powhatan.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a mamanatowick (paramount chief) named Wahunsunacawh created a powerful chiefdom by affiliating 30 tributary peoples, whose territory was much of eastern Virginia, called Tsenacommacah ("densely-inhabited Land"), He was known by his title, Powhatan. Each of the tribes within the chiefdom had their own weroance (chief), but all paid tribute to Powhatan.

After Powhatan's death in 1618, hostilities with colonists escalated under the chiefdom of his brother, Opechancanough, who sought in vain to drive off the encroaching English. His large-scale attacks in 1622 and 1644 met strong reprisals by the English, resulting in the near elimination of the tribe. By 1646 the Powhatan Confederacy was largely destroyed, in part due to infectious diseases to which they had no immunity. By this time, the colonies were desperate for labor.

Almost half of the incoming whites arrived as indentured servants. As colonial expansion continued, the Europeans imported growing numbers of enslaved Africans for labor. By 1700 the colonies had about 6,000 black slaves, one-twelfth of the population. It was common for black slaves to escape and join surrounding Powhatan; white servants were also noted to have joined the Indians. Africans and whites worked and lived together; some natives also intermarried with them. After Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, the colony enslaved Indians for control. In 1691 the House of Burgesses abolished Indian slavery; however, many Powhatan were held under servitude well into the 18th century.

In the 21st century, seven Indian tribes are recognized by the state as having ties with the original Powhatan confederacy. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi are the only two peoples who have retained reservation lands from the 1600s. The competing cultures of the Powhatan and English settlers were united temporarily through the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Their son Thomas Rolfe was the ancestor of many Virginians; thus, many of the First Families of Virginia have both English and Virginia Indian ancestry.



The name Powhatan is believed to have originated as the name of the village or town that Wahunsunacawh (whose official title Chief Powhatan was to be used) came from. It was located in the East End portion of the modern-day city of Richmond, Virginiamarker). The Powhatan Hill neighborhood is in the general vicinity of the original village.

Powhatan was also the name used by the natives to refer to the river where the town sat at the head of navigation (today called the James River, renamed by the English colonists for their own king, James I).

Powhatan Countymarker and its county seat at Powhatan, Virginiamarker were honorific names established years later, in locations west of the area populated by the Powhatan Confederacy.

Building the Powhatan Confederacy

Wahunsunacawh had inherited control over just six tribes, but dominated more than thirty by the time the English settlers established their Virginia Colony at Jamestown in 1607. The original six constituent tribes in Wahunsunacock's Powhatan Confederacy were: the Powhatans (proper), the Arrohatecks, the Appamattucks, the Pamunkeys, the Mattaponis, and the Chiskiacks.

He added the Kecoughtanmarker to his fold by 1598. Some other affiliated groups included the Youghtanunds, Rappahannocks, Moraughtacunds, Weyanoaks, Paspaheghs, Quiyoughcohannocks, Warraskoyacks, and Nansemonds. Yet another closely related tribe in the midst of these others, all speaking the same language, was the Chickahominy, who managed to preserve their autonomy from the confederacy.

In his famous work Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-82), Thomas Jefferson estimated that the Powhatan Confederacy occupied about 8,000 square miles of territory, with a population of about 8,000 people, of whom 2400 were warriors. Later scholars estimated the population of the paramountcy as 15,000.

The English settlers in the land of the Powhatan

The Powhatan Confederacy were the Indians among whom the English made their first permanent settlement in North America. This contributed to their downfall. Conflicts began immediately; the English colonists fired shots as soon as they arrived (due to a bad experience they had with the Spanish prior to their arrival). Within two weeks of the English arrival at Jamestown, deaths had occurred.

The settlers had hoped for friendly relations and had planned to trade with the Virginia Indians for food. Captain Christopher Newport led the first English exploration party up the James River in 1607, when he met Parahunt, weroance of the Powhatan proper. The English initially mistook him for the paramount Powhatan (mamanatowick), who was in fact his father, Wahunsunacawh.

On a hunting and trade mission on the Chickahominy Rivermarker in December 1607, Captain John Smith, later president of the colony, was captured by Opechancanough, the younger brother of Wahunsunacawh. Smith became the first Englishman to meet the paramount chief, Powhatan. According to Smith's account, Pocahontas, Wahunsunacawh's daughter, prevented her father from executing Smith.

Some researchers have asserted that a mock execution was a ritual intended to adopt Smith into the tribe, but other modern writers dispute this interpretation. They point out that nothing is known of 17th-century Powhatan adoption ceremonies. They note that an execution ritual is different from known rites of passage. Other historians, such as Helen Rountree, have questioned whether there was any risk of execution. They note that Smith failed to mention it in his 1608 and 1612 accounts, and only added it to his 1624 memoir, after Pocahontas had become famous.

In 1608, Captain Newport realized that Powhatan's friendship was crucial to the survival of the small Jamestown colony. In the summer of that year, he tried to "crown" the paramount Chief, with a ceremonial crown, to make him an English "vassal." They also gave Powhatan many European gifts, such as a pitcher, feather mattress, bed frame, and clothes. The coronation went badly because they asked Powhatan to kneel to receive the crown, which he refused to do. As a powerful leader, Powhatan followed two rules: "he who keeps his head higher than others ranks higher," and "he who puts other people in a vulnerable position, without altering his own stance, ranks higher." To finish the "coronation", several English had to lean on Powhatan's shoulders to get him low enough to place the crown on his head, as he was a tall man. Afterwards, the English might have thought that Powhatan had submitted to King James, whereas Powhatan likely thought nothing of the sort.

After John Smith became president of the colony, he sent a force under Captain Martin to occupy an island in Nansemond territory and drive the inhabitants away. At the same time, he sent another force with Francis West to build a fort at the James River falls. He purchased the nearby fortified Powhatan village (present site of Richmond, Virginiamarker) from Parahunt for some copper and an English servant named Henry Spelman, who wrote a rare firsthand account of the Powhatan ways of life. Smith then renamed the village "Nonsuch", and tried to get West's men to live in it. Both these attempts at settling beyond Jamestown soon failed, due to Powhatan resistance. Smith left Virginia for England in October 1609, never to return, because of an injury sustained in a gunpowder accident. Soon afterward, the English established a second fort, Fort Algernonmarker, in Kecoughtan territory.

In November 1609, Captain John Ratcliffe was invited to Orapakes, Powhatan's new capital. After he had sailed up the Pamunkey River to trade there, a fight broke out between the colonists and the Powhatan. All of the English ashore were killed, including Ratcliffe, who was tortured by the women of the tribe. Those aboard the pinnace escaped and told the tale at Jamestown.

During the next year, the tribe attacked and killed many Jamestown residents. The residents fought back, but only killed twenty. However, arrival at Jamestown of a new Governor, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, (Lord Delaware) in June of 1610 signalled the beginning of the First Anglo-Powhatan War. A brief period of peace came only after the capture of Pocahontas, her baptism, and her marriage to tobacco planter John Rolfe in 1614. Within a few years both Powhatan and Pocahontas were dead. The Chief died in Virginia, but Pocahontas died while in England. Meanwhile, the English settlers continued to encroach on Powhatan territory.

After Wahunsunacawh's death, his younger brother, Opitchapam, briefly became chief, followed by their younger brother Opechancanough. In 1622 and 1644 he attacked the English to force them from Powhatan territories. Both these attempts were met with strong reprisals from the English, ultimately resulting in the near destruction of the tribe. The Second Anglo–Powhatan War that followed the 1644 incident ended in 1646, after Royal Governor of Virginia William Berkeley's forces captured Opechancanough, thought to be between 90 and 100 years old. While a prisoner, Opechancanough was killed, shot in the back by a soldier assigned to guard him. He was succeeded as Weroance by Necotowance, and later by Totopotomoi and by his daughter Cockacoeske.

Red line shows boundary between the Virginia Colony and Tributary Indian tribes, as established by the Treaty of 1646.
Red dot shows Jamestown, capital of Virginia Colony.

The Treaty of 1646 marked the effective dissolution of the united confederacy, as white colonists were granted an exclusive enclave between the York and Blackwater Rivers. This physically separated the Nansemonds, Weyanokes and Appomattox, who retreated southward, from the other Powhatan tribes then occupying the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. While the southern frontier demarcated in 1646 was respected for the remainder of the 17th century, the House of Burgesses lifted the northern one on September 1, 1649. Waves of new immigrants quickly flooded the peninsular region, then known as Chickacoan, and restricted the dwindling tribes to lesser tracts of land that became some of the earliest Indian reservations.

In 1665, the House of Burgesses passed stringent laws requiring the Powhatan to accept chiefs appointed by the governor. After the Treaty of Albany in 1684, the Powhatan Confederacy all but vanished.

Capitals of the Powhatan Confederacy

The capital village of "Powhatan" was believed to be in the present-day Powhatan Hill section of the eastern part of Richmond, Virginiamarker. Another major center of the confederacy about to the east was called Werowocomoco, It was located near the north bank of the York Rivermarker in present-day Gloucester Countymarker.

Werowocomoco was described by the English colonists as only as the crow flies from Jamestown, but also described as downstream from present-day West Pointmarker, measurements which conflict with each other. In 2003 archaeologists initiated excavations at a site in Gloucester County that have revealed an extensive indigenous settlement from about 1200 (the late Woodland period) through the early Contact period. Work since then has added to their belief that this is the location of Werowocomoco. The site is on a farm bordering on Purtain Bay of the York River, about 12 air miles from Jamestown. The more than 50-acre residential settlement extends up to 1000 feet back from the river. In 2004 researchers excavated two, 200-foot-long, curving ditches at the far edge, which were constructed about 1400 CE. In addition to extensive artifacts from hundreds of years of indigenous settlement, researchers have found a variety of trade goods related to the brief interaction of Native Americans and English in the early years of Jamestown.

Around 1609, Wahunsunacock shifted his capital from Werowocomoco to Orapakes, located 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, not far from where his brother Opechancanough ruled at Youghtanund.


The Powhatan lived east of the fall line in Tidewater Virginia. They built their houses, called yehakins, by bending saplings and placing woven mats or bark over top of the saplings. They supported themselves primarily by growing crops, especially maize, but they also fished and hunted in the great forest in their area. Villages consisted of a number of related families organized in tribes led by a chief (weroance/werowance or weroansqua if female). They paid tribute to the paramount chief (mamanatowick), Powhatan.

According to research by the National Park Service, Powhatan "men were warriors and hunters, while women were gardeners and gatherers. The English described the men, who ran and walked extensively through the woods in pursuit of enemies or game, as tall and lean and possessed of handsome physiques. The women were shorter, and were strong because of the hours they spent tending crops, pounding corn into meal, gathering nuts, and performing other domestic chores. When the men undertook extended hunts, the women went ahead of them to construct hunting camps. The Powhatan domestic economy depended on the labor of both sexes."

All of Virginia's natives practiced agriculture. They periodically moved their villages from site to site. Villagers cleared the fields by felling, girdling, or firing trees at the base and then using fire to reduce the slash and stumps. A village became unusable as soil productivity gradually declined and local fish and game were depleted. The inhabitants then moved on. With every change in location, the people used fire to clear new land. They left more cleared land behind. The natives also used fire to maintain extensive areas of open game habitat throughout the East, later called "barrens" by European colonists. The Powhatan also had rich fishing grounds. Bison had migrated to this area by the early 15th century.

Powhatan today

As of 2009, the state has recognized seven Powhatan Indian-descended tribes in Virginia. They have approximately 2,500-3,000 people enrolled as tribal members. It is estimated that 3 to 4 times that number are eligible for tribal membership. Two of these tribes, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey, still retain their reservations from the 1600s; both are located in King William County, Virginiamarker. The Powhatan language is now dormant. Attempts have been made to reconstruct the vocabulary of the language; some of the sources are word lists provided by Smith and by 17th-century writer William Strachey.

Powhatan Countymarker was named in honor of the Chief and his tribe, although located about to the west of lands under their control. In the independent city of Richmondmarker, Tree Hill Farm in the city's east end is traditionally believed to be located near the village which Chief Powhatan was originally from. The specific location of the site is unknown.

Since the 1990s the Powhatan Indian tribes that have state recognition, along with the one other Virginia Indian tribe that is state recognized, have been seeking federal recognition. It has been a difficult process. They have been hampered by the lack of official records and misclassification of family members through the years in Virginia. While head of Vital Statistics in the stae for decades in the early 1900s, Walter Plecker conducted a campaign to reclassify as black, people of mixed race whom he believed were trying to pass as Indian or white. Tribal members describe his work as "paper genocide". A white supremacist and a follower of the eugenics movement, Plecker thought that years of intermarriage with other "races" meant there were no "real" Virginia Indians left. After Virginia passed more stringent segregation laws defining as black anyone with any African blood Racial Integrity Act of 1924, Plecker directed local offices to use only the terms "white" or "colored" on official documents, such as birth, death and marriage certificates, tax documents, etc. The Virginia tribes efforts to gain recognition have also encountered resistance because of fears they would establish gambling on their lands.

In March 2009 five of the state-recognized Powhatan Indian tribes and the one other state-recognized Virginia Indian tribe introduced a bill to gain Federal recognition through an act of Congress. "The Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act" went first to the House Committee on Natural Resources. The Committee voted on April 22 to pass the bill on the US House of Representatives, who approved the bill on June 3. On June 4, 2009 the bill was sent to the Senate. They referred it to their Committee on Indian Affairs. This is where the bill is as of July 16, 2009, the furthest it as gotten in the process. The bill has a section forbidding the tribes from opening up casinos, even if casinos were to be allowed in Virginia.

Powhatan Renape

Flag of Powhatan Renape

The Powhatan Renape are a band of Powhatan descendants who relocated to New Jerseymarker, and are currently recognized by that state. The term "Renape" is a common Algonquian word for "true humans", seen for example in the name Lenape (Lenni Lenape) — the native inhabitants of what is now New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

No cognate of Renape was ever recorded for Virginia Algonquian, although the form Renapoaks was recorded for Carolina Algonquian by Ralph Lane in 1586 (as a term used by the inhabitants of Roanoke Islandmarker for all those on the mainland).

Powhatan and film

The Powhatan people are featured in the Disney animated film Pocahontas (1995). An attempt at a more historically accurate representation was the drama The New World (2005), but it still relied on the myth of a romance between Pocahontas and John Smith.

Some of the current members of Powhatan-descended tribes complained about the Disney film. Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Renape Nation said the Disney movie "distorts history beyond recognition."

See also


  2. Egloff, Keith and Deborah Woodward. First People: The Early Indians of Virginia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992
  3. Wood, Karenne. The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail, 2007.
  5. Waugaman, Sandra F. and Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, Ph.D. We're Still Here: Contemporary Virginia Indians Tell Their Stories. Richmond: Palari Publishing, 2006 (revised edition).
  6. Rountree 1990
  7. Matchut
  9. Rountree, Helen C. and E. Randolph Turner III. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia's Powhatans and Their Predecessors. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
  10. Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005
  11. "The Chesapeake Bay Region and its People in 1607"
  12. Kimberlain, Joanne. "We're Still Here", The Virginian-Pilot, June 7-9 2009.
  13. H.R. 1385: Thomasina E. Jordan Indian tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2009,
  14. see Hodge, Handbook of American Indians Vol 2, p. 371.
  15. The Pocahotas Myth by Chief Roy Crazy Horse, Powhatan Renape Nation website, accessed 28 Nov 2009

Further reading

  • Gleach, Frederic W. (1997) Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Gleach, Frederic W. (2006) "Pocahontas: An Exercise in Mythmaking and Marketing", In New Perspectives on Native North America: Cultures, Histories, and Representations, ed. by Sergei A. Kan and Pauline Turner Strong, pp. 433-455. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Karen Kupperman, Settling With the Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640, 1980
  • A. Bryant Nichols Jr., Captain Christopher Newport: Admiral of Virginia, Sea Venture, 2007
  • James Rice, Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson, 2009.
  • Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, 1990

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