views updated May 11 2018



Powhatan (pronounced pow-uh-TAN or pow-HAT-un) meant “waterfall” in Virginia Algonquian. It was the name of an individual tribe and also the name of an alliance of thirty to forty tribes and groups united by their language, their location, and their political leader, Chief Wahunsunacock (also known as Powhatan) and his family.


The Powhatan lived in what is now the state of Virginia, in the area along the coastal plain known as the Tidewater. Their Northern boundary was the Potomac River; the southern boundary was the Great Dismal Swamp on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. Some Powhatan fled north to Pennsylvania and New Jersey and lived with the Lenape (see Delaware entry). In the early twenty-first century descendants of the Powhatan lived primarily in Virginia and New Jersey.


In the early 1600s the Powhatan tribe was estimated to number about 135 to 165 people, while the Powhatan Confederacy consisted of between 3,900 and 10,400 people. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 785 people identified themselves as members of the Powhatan tribe. In 2000 that number had declined to 568, but 2,055 were members of a tribe of the original Powhatan Confederacy.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

The Powhatan Alliance lasted only from about 1570 to 1650. Today there are reservations in the states of Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island named for tribes who were part of the alliance. Along with the Powhatan tribe itself, some of the tribes of the confederacy were the Arrohatek, Appamattuck, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Chiskiack, Chickahominy, Nansemond, Rappahannock, and Kecoughtan tribes.

When the Europeans first arrived in the New World several different, independent groups had formed a union with one another under the name of the Powhatan Alliance. In fact the oldest treaty written in this country was among the Powhatan nations in 1646. For thousands of years the people had lived along coastal areas of the mid-Atlantic. After the Europeans came they struggled to survive war, illness, prejudice, and the disruption of their culture. Diseases brought by the Europeans wiped out half the tribe by the late 1600s. But stories of the Powhatan remain popular, especially those about the historical, but often fictionalized, figure Pocahontas.


Hostile contact with Europeans

The first contact between the Powhatan and Europeans took place around 1525 when Spanish explorers visited coastal Virginia. In 1560 the Spanish wanted to establish a Catholic mission in the area that would later be called the Tidewater. They kidnapped the son of a local chief, took him to Cuba, taught him Spanish and the Christian religion, and renamed him Don Luis de Velasco.

In 1570 he returned to his homeland with several missionaries. Finding his people starving he left the Spaniards and returned to his home. Later he returned to the mission with a war party and killed the missionaries. In 1571 a group of Spaniards launched a raid in retaliation and killed thirty Powhatan people.

In 1584 the British created a colony on Roanoke Island in Virginia. Six years later a group of new British settlers arrived with supplies. They found that all the colonists had disappeared. There were rumors that the Powhatan had killed them. (For another theory on what happened to these colonists, see Lumbee entry.)

Important Dates

1570: The Spanish attempt to establish a mission in Powhatan territory, but are driven away or killed by the Native Americans.

1590: Powhatan consolidates his power over Tidewater, Virginia.

1607: The British colonists of the Virginia Company arrive in Powhatan territory.

1618: Powhatan dies and his title passes to his brother, Opichapam.

1646: A treaty with the British ends the Powhatan Wars.

1651: Colonists establish first Indian reservation near Richmond, Virginia, for remaining Powhatans.

1980: The state of New Jersey recognizes the Powhatan Renape Nation. Other tribes of the Powhatan Alliance gain state recognition in Virginia during the 1980s.

1982: The Powhatan Renape Nation negotiates for 350 acres (141 hectares) of state-owned land for the Rankokus Indian Reservation.

Powhatan extends his rule

During the late 1500s Chief Powhatan (1550–1618) was creating an empire in what is now Virginia. He had inherited a confederacy of six tribes from his father, but the ambitious leader quickly expanded his domain. It is not known for sure how large the Powhatan Confederacy was, but estimates range from 128 to 200 villages, consisting of as many as 8,000 or 9,000 people and encompassing thirty tribes. Communities under Powhatan’s power received military protection and adhered to the confederacy’s well-organized system of hunting and trading boundaries. In return, subjects paid a tax to Powhatan in the form of food, pelts, copper, and pearls.


In 1607 a group of British colonists established a fort on the James River near Chesapeake Bay in Powhatan territory. They did not know they were trespassing on land ruled by a shrewd and powerful head of state. Powhatan remained highly suspicious of the newcomers while at the same time maintaining peaceful relations. In the first year of the new colony the Powhatan captured John Smith (1580–1631), one of the colonists. Smith later wrote his account of the event, creating the basis for the continuing American legend of Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas (1595–1617). Smith said that the Powhatan threatened to execute him, but Pocahontas rescued him. He also claimed that Pocahontas later persuaded her father to send food to the starving colonists. There are good reasons to doubt Smith’s story, but by most accounts, the Jamestown settlers would have perished from starvation had it not been for the Powhatan’s help.

A group of descendants of the Powhatans, the Powhatan Renape in New Jersey, point out that Smith enjoyed making up stories that made him look good. He only told the story about his rescue by Pocahontas after she had become famous. Previously he never even mentioned a near-execution or Pocahontas. Many historians believe that the event Smith experienced was not an execution, but a special ceremony to make Smith a sub-chief under Powhatan.

The British later kidnapped Pocahontas and held her hostage in Jamestown to ensure the good behavior of her father, Chief Powhatan. She married the British colonist John Rolfe (c. 1585–1622) in 1614. Rolf experimented with planting Brazilian tobacco in Virginia and is often credited with successfully establishing tobacco as a cash crop. This contributed to making the colony financially successful. In 1616 the Virginia Company, a major financial backer of the Jamestown colony, sponsored a trip to England for Pocahontas, John Rolf, and their infant son, Thomas. On that trip Pocahontas was introduced to Queen Anne (1575–1619), before whom she became a spokesperson for the Jamestown colony. While in England Pocahontas caught an infectious disease (probably pneumonia) and died on March 21, 1617.

The First and Second Powhatan Wars

Powhatan died in 1618 and his title passed to his brother, Opichapam. Opichapam was a weak leader, but his reign was short. His power passed to his brother, Opechancanough, in 1622. The new chief, who had headed the Pamunkey tribe for many years, considered the British his enemies. He attacked the colonists on March 22, 1622, hoping to drive them out of his territory. About one-fourth of the colonists died in this First Powhatan War.

Population of Powhatan Alliance Members: 2000 Census

In the 2000 U.S. Census, 2,055 people said they were descended from Powhatan Alliance member tribes. No one claimed to be Monacan, Rappahannock, or Nansemond, even though there are reservations named for those tribes in the state of Virginia.

Population of Powhatan Alliance Members: 2000 Census

“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.

The struggle continued for about ten years, with lulls when the Native Americans ran out of food or the British ran out of gunpowder. The first war ended in 1632 when the Powhatan and the British colonists signed a truce, but warfare started up again not long after the truce and continued for many decades. The once powerful Powhatan began to lose force, and the once vulnerable colonists grew in strength and numbers. By 1675 the Powhatan Confederacy had been demolished, and the remaining Native Americans were forced to live under Virginia law.

The Powhatan people who survived began to speak English and adopt British ways. After 1646 the surviving Powhatan groups were sent to separate areas of tribal lands.


Worshipping the creator

The main god the Powhatans worshipped was Okewas, sometimes called Okeus. Okewas, who appeared in the form of a young man, was a vengeful god who created the world. Anyone violating his strict moral code met with misfortune. Special priests told the people what Okewas wished from them. Those priests held ceremonies at his temples and made sacrifices to fend off his anger. The priests also healed the sick, identified criminals, and made sure Okewas’s image was carried into battle. Priests could be identified by the way they wore their hair, shaved on the right side of the head except for a single lock of hair on the scalp.

The afterlife

The Powhatan believed the afterlife was a time of unending singing and dancing. In their traditions, upon dying the soul traveled along a path lined with berries and fruit bushes eastward to the Sun, the home of the Great Hare. Halfway to the Sun the soul entered the wigwam of a lovely female spirit who provided corn and other refreshments. After reaching the Sun the soul found its ancestors eating with the Great Hare. Eventually the soul re-entered the world of the living in a new form.

The Powhatan wars destroyed most of the group’s traditional ways of life. By about 1800 Protestant missionaries had most likely converted most of the Powhatan people to Christianity. In 1865 Powhatan people founded the Pamunkey Indian Baptist Church.


Most scholars believe that the language spoken by the Powhatans, a dialect (variety) of the Eastern Algonquian family, has become extinct. Although many Powhatans spoke the language in 1750, by 1800 it had almost died out. The modern Native Americans who live in Virginia speak English. Their identity as a tribe, which would entitle them to certain rights and benefits, has been challenged in the Virginia courts because they did not speak a Native language during the past two centuries.


The Powhatan tribe was traditionally ruled by a male or female leader. Leadership positions were passed down through the women of the tribe. The common people of the tribe paid tribute to the leader in the form of corn, skins, game, and copper. As a result the leaders could afford to wear elaborate clothing, eat the highest quality food, and live in larger-than-average houses. Leaders had almost absolute rule over their subjects. They could order the punishment or death of people who committed offenses. Priests ranked second in command.

Each village also had its individual leader. He or she paid tribute (tax) to superiors and received tribute from lower members of the tribe. Next came councilors, men who gained their position for accomplishing feats of strength or bravery. Along with priests and the tribal leader, these men made up the council that had power to declare war.


In Powhatan families duties were generally divided by gender. Women usually tended to the farming, gathering, and drying food. They planted beans, corn, squash, and tobacco. Older children helped their mothers plant and weed gardens. Women wove mats and baskets, prepared animal hides, and made pottery.

Men hunted and fished, and sometimes engaged in trade. The Powhatan had paths interlinking their villages. They carried out long-distance trade by receiving and passing items from far-off places along these trails. Women sometimes accompanied the men on trade journeys to paddle the canoes so the men could keep their hands free to handle weapons.

Daily life


Families usually consisted of a married couple, their children, and the grandparents from one or both sides. These extended families of six to twenty people shared a Powhatan house. Sometimes brothers and their families lived in the house, too. Most people married between ages thirteen and fifteen. Occasionally a wealthy man had two or more wives and families. Chief Powhatan was said to have had a dozen wives.


Powhatan houses, called yehakins, were generally long and narrow. They were made by bending saplings (young trees) and covering them with mats woven from marsh reeds, rushes, or bark. The bent saplings formed a semicircular roof. Poles buried in the ground helped support the roof. Houses usually had one room with a door at either end. In summer the mat walls were rolled up or taken off to provide fresh air. Low platforms lining the walls served as work areas during the day and as beds at night.

The other main structure in a Powhatan village was a temple for the worship of their gods. The Powhatan often built temples on hills or ridges that overlooked the village. Constructed in the same way as the houses temples were 60 to 100 feet (18 to 31 meters) long and faced in an east-west direction. At the eastern part of the temple, near the entrance, they kept fires burning. The dried bodies of dead tribal leaders were guarded by wooden images of Okewas and other spirits in a room that faced the west. The tribe sometimes used temples for storage of food, goods, and other valuables. Some villages were surrounded by palisades, logs or stakes driven into the ground to form a fence.

Clothing and adornment

Because the area where they lived was very warm, the Powhatan kept clothing to a minimum. In summer children generally went naked until they reached puberty. Adults wore breechcloths (material that went between the legs and fastened at the waist) made of deerskin or grasses. In winter they added deerskin or turkey feather cloaks, moccasins, and leggings. When it was very cold, they wore a layer of animal grease for insulation.

Hairstyles varied according to a person’s social status and gender. Men shaved the right side of the head (to keep it from tangling in their bowstrings). Young women shaved the front and sides of the head and braided the hair that remained; married women wore their hair in a long braid in back.

Women wore tattoos of animals and plants, made by rubbing soot into cuts made in the skin with copper knives. Men and women both painted their shoulders; sometimes they painted their faces or even their whole bodies with white, yellow, blue, red, or black paints made of natural materials. Designs could be enhanced with soft down from birds or shiny bits of dirt. Both sexes wore jewelry made of glass, copper, or bone beads.


Most food came from hunting, fishing, farming, and gathering wild plants. The tribes moved upriver in the winter months to a place where deer, raccoons, and turkey were more plentiful. They fished with nets, hooks and lines, and bows and arrows. They also caught shellfish. When farming they moved from one field to another as the soil became depleted. The Powhatan grew corn, beans, and squash. In winter women, children, and old men gathered walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, and chestnuts. Native Americans collected nuts of all kinds, such as hickory, pecan, and pine nuts. Hazelnut trees were common throughout the wooded areas of the northeast. Native Americans ate hazelnuts raw or roasted, ground them into flour, or crushed them for nut oil to use in cooking. To prepare for winter they stored food in underground pits or elevated storage areas near the family home.

Powhatan Hazelnut Soup

  • 21/4 cups ground, blanched hazelnuts
  • 2 packages (41/2 gram) instant beef broth
  • 2 scallions, washed and sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons minced parsley
  • 5 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Place all ingredients in a large saucepan, and simmer together gently, stirring occasionally, for one hour. Serve hot. Make the servings small; the soup is rich.

Kimball, Yeffe, and Jean Anderson. The Art of American Indian Cooking. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965, p. 175


Powhatan children trained for their roles in society beginning at a young age. Both mothers and fathers taught their sons to hunt. Every morning the mother threw a piece of moss in the air. A boy had to hit it with his arrow before he could have breakfast. Boys also learned to make tools from stones and shells. They used these tools to carve bowls, make weapons, and hollow out logs to make canoes that could carry up to thirty people. Girls learned gardening and meal preparation. They also were taught to make pottery and prepare animal skins to be made into clothing and purses.

By the mid-1700s Christian missionaries had taught many young men Christianity, English, and arithmetic. Much later schools for Native American children opened in Virginia, but they taught students little about their Native culture. For example during the 1930s the white teacher of a pottery school on the Pamunkey reservation instructed students to use a pottery wheel, instead of using traditional Pamunkey pottery-making techniques. Until an Indian American high school opened in 1950, none of the Virginia Indian schools went beyond seventh grade. In the 1960s Virginia schools ended their policy of segregation (separating the races in schools), marking the end of Indian schools there.

Healing practices

Powhatan priests used their influence with the gods to diagnose diseases and prescribe cures. They used rituals and herbs to treat sore throats, infections, diarrhea, fevers, and poisoning.



For more than two hundred years women of the Pamunkey tribe were famed for their pottery made of clay from their reservation. They strengthened the raw clay with crushed and burned mussel shells and used their hands to shape a particular object. Then they smoothed the surface with a mussel shell. They sometimes etched a pattern on the surface before placing the piece in a fire to harden.


The Powhatan danced for both religious purposes and amusement. Music accompanied the dancing. The Powhatan made rattles from dried gourds filled with pebbles or seeds. They also stretched animal skins over wooden bowls to make drums. Flutes were made from pieces of cane.

Dramatic production

Around 1880 the Pamunkey staged a production of the popular story of Pocahontas, a story that is more legend than historical fact. Rather than wearing the scanty clothing that was traditional, they donned elaborately beaded costumes.



The main harvest of the Powhatans took place each year from August through October. With food plentiful and the workload lightened, the people chose this time of year to hold their major religious ceremonies. Unfortunately little is known about them because the British did not record the details.

In the mid-2000s thousands of people gathered in King William, Virginia, every Memorial Day for the annual Spring Festival held at the Sharon Indian School on Upper Mattaponi tribal grounds. This tribe was once part of the Powhatan Coalition. Festivities include sharing Native foods, storytelling, arts and crafts, dancing, games and rides for children, and educational programs.


A person’s name was very important in Powhatan tribes. A man who was known for his abilities in hunting and bringing food home to his family would obtain a name that reflected his skills. Throughout his life a man’s changing status was reflected in the way his name might change. At a celebration marking the birth of a new baby, the father would announce its name. Later the mother gave the child a nickname. If a boy showed some special ability, such as skill with a bow and arrow, his father gave him another name reflecting this ability. Later if he performed a brave deed, the chief might give him still another, a name-title that singled him out as special.


Powhatan boys who wanted to be leaders underwent a dangerous rite called Huskanow. The ceremony began with feasting and dancing. Then the older men took the boys out of the village and pretended to sacrifice them. The boys were expected to lie still for many hours. They stayed in the forest for several months under the watchful eye of their elders. The boys were later beaten and had to drink hallucination-causing drugs; some became so agitated that they had to be kept in wooden cages. They were then “reborn” and allowed to return to their families. Any sign that a boy was reverting to the ways of boyhood required him to undergo a second Huskanaw. Few boys could endure the process a second time, and many died in the process.

Courtship and marriage

Young women were considered ready for marriage as soon as they reached puberty. Before young men could marry they had to prove they could hunt, fish, and take care of a family. Young people courted each other with gifts of food. Parents generally bargained for the bride price, the goods a young man gave a young woman’s family in order to marry her. He gathered the items, presented them to her family, and went home. The bride then traveled to his home, where his father performed the marriage ceremony by joining their hands and breaking a string of beads over their heads.


The Powhatan wrapped the bodies of the dead in animal skins or rush mats, then buried them. They also buried beads with the body for use in the afterlife. Women served as mourners; they blackened their faces and wept for the entire day following the death. Sometimes the tribe placed bodies on high scaffolding to decompose. Every few years they buried all the bones together in large pits.

Current tribal issues

The biggest problem facing descendants of the Powhatan is gaining recognition from federal and state governments as Native American tribes. Before the 1960s only two groups regained their status in Virginia as independent tribes within the boundaries of their traditional lands. The other tribes that made up the Powhatan Alliance were presumed to be extinct. However, during the 1970s and 1980s several other groups fought for and received recognition by the state of Virginia. In addition the state of New Jersey recognized the Powhatan Renape Nation in 1980. In 1995 the Chickahominy tribe began seeking recognition from the federal government.

In 1971 many of the Tidewater Indians joined with other eastern tribes to form the Coalition of Eastern Native Americans. Membership in this group helped Powhatan Alliance descendants gain access to federal funds for education, job creation, and housing improvements.

Notable people

Wahunsunacock (1550–1618), better known as Powhatan, led the Powhatan Coalition between 1570 and his death in 1618. A clever politician, he united the tribes of Coastal Virginia under his rule. He once asked the British, “Why should you take by force from us that which you can have by love? Why should you destroy us, who have provided you with food?”

Probably the best-known Powhatan was his daughter, Pocahontas (1595–1617), whose real name was Metoaka. Many Powhatan tribe members today trace their ancestry to the Rolfes, her last name after she married an Englishman. She died when she was in her early twenties.

Behrman, Carol H. The Indian Wars. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 2005.

Boraas, Tracey. The Powhatan: A Confederacy of Native American Tribes. Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Books, 2003.

Carbone, Elisa. Blood on the River: James Town 1607. New York: Viking, 2006.

Feest, Christian F. The Powhatan Tribes. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.

McDaniel, Melissa. The Powhatan Indians. New York: Chelsea Juniors, 1996.

Mossiker, Frances. Pocahontas: The Life and the Legend. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Rosinsky, Natalie M. The Powhatan And Their History. Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2005.

Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville: University Of Virginia Press, 2006.

Sita, Lisa. Pocahontas: The Powhatan Culture and the Jamestown Colony. New York: PowerPlus Books, 2005.

Waselkov, Gregory A., Peter H.. Wood, and Tom Hatley, eds. Powhatan’s Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast, Revised Edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Williams, Suzanne. Powhatan Indians. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2003.

Cotton, Lee. “Powhatan Indian Lifeways.” National Park Service. (accessed on July 16, 2007).

Home of Pamunkey Indian Tribe. (accessed on July 16, 2007).

Monacan Indian Nation. (accessed on July 16, 2007).

The Official Nansemond Indian Tribal Association Website (accessed on July 16, 2007).

“Powhatan Indian Village” Acton Public Schools: Acton-Boxborough Regional School District. (accessed on July 16, 2007).

“Powhatan Language and the Powhatan Indian Tribe (Powatan, Powhatten, Powhattan)” Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting Indigenous American Indian Languages. (accessed on on July 16, 2007).

Rankokus Indian Reservation (accessed on July 16, 2007).

The Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe (accessed on July 16, 2007).

George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute

Laurie Edwards


views updated May 14 2018


c. 1548

Powhatan (present-day Richmond, Virginia)



Powhatan-Renapé leader

" . . . Why should you destroy us, who have provided you with food? What can you get by war? . . . "


Powhatan was a major leader of the Powhatans, Renapé-speaking people of the region that is now Virginia. (Powhatan had taken the name of his tribe to signify his power.) Before the arrival of the English he had several other names, including Wahunsonacock ("He Makes an Offering by Crushing with a Falling Weight" or "He Knows How to Crush Them"). He was the main political leader in the area at the time the English were trying to establish their first permanent settlements, most notably Jamestown. Although Powhatan was suspicious of the English, he maintained generally peaceful relations with them. He used his diplomatic skills to avoid confrontation and to stay one step ahead of the colonists' efforts to take power and land from Native Americans. He was a successful politician with other Native American groups as well, forming a confederacy of more than thirty groups that lasted for several years. The peace established by Powhatan lasted until a few years after his death, when his brother Opechancanough led the Powhatans in uprisings against English settlers.

Heads powerful alliance

Powhatan was born around 1548 in a village called Powhatan, which is today the site of Richmond, Virginia. By the late 1500s he presided over the Powhatan Confederacy, an alliance of Native American tribes and villages stretching from the Potomac River to the Tidewater region of Virginia (lowlying land along the Atlantic coast). From his father, Powhatan inherited a confederacy of six tribes, but the ambitious leader quickly expanded his domain. Estimates of the size of the Powhatan Confederacy range from 128 to 200 villages consisting of approximately 9,000 inhabitants and encompassing nearly 30 tribes. In 1612 Powhatan's family reportedly numbered twenty sons and ten daughters (one of whom was Pocahontas ; see entry), and he was said to have had twelve or more wives.

Communities under Powhatan's rule received military protection and adhered to the confederacy's well-organized system of hunting and trading boundaries. In return, subjects paid a tax to Powhatan in the form of food, pelts (animal skins), copper, and pearls. Europeans who visited Powhatan in the 1600s have described a large structure filled with "treasures," which was probably the chieftain's storehouse and revenue collection center. Around 1608 John Smith (see entry), the leader of the Jamestown Colony, described Powhatan as a "tall well-proportioned man . . . his head somewhat gray. . . . His age is near 60; of a very able and hardy body to endure any labor." Others who knew the chieftain described him in the same way. One colonist said he was regal and majestic: "No king, but a kingly figure."

Distrusts Europeans

The society of the Powhatans was greatly influenced by Spanish attempts to set up a mission in the area in 1570 and by English efforts to colonize the Roanoke region in the 1580s. The Europeans introduced new diseases, which greatly reduced the Powhatan population. In the early 1600s English sea captains conducted raids along the Atlantic coast, carrying off many Native Americans as slaves. When the Jamestown expedition landed on the shore of Powhatan's domain in 1607, the English were unaware that they were trespassing on a land ruled by a shrewd and well-organized head of state. Powhatan could easily have demolished the struggling community, but instead chose to tolerate the English for a time—probably out of a desire to develop trade relations. Despite his interest in acquiring European-made metal tools and weaponry, Powhatan was suspicious of the English colonists. The independent Powhatan villages at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay shared his distrust of Europeans, and attacked the settlers when they came ashore.

Helps Jamestown colonists

During the early 1600s Powhatan usually resided at Werawocomoco ("Good House"), located on the north side of the lower Pamunkey (York) River. Reportedly, he also had large houses in each of the "kingdoms" he had inherited as well as the "treasure" house on the upper Chickahominy River. Smith was made prisoner there in late 1607 or early 1608 either for coming too close to the treasure house or for other offensive actions. Smith was threatened with execution. According to his own story and various legends, however, he was rescued by Pocahontas, who later persuaded Powhatan to send food to the starving colonists. By most accounts, the Jamestown settlers would have perished had it not been for the assistance of Powhatan.

Powhatan addresses John Smith

In 1609 Powhatan delivered the following speech to John Smith, encouraging the Jamestown colonists to disarm themselves.

I am now grown old, and must soon die; and the succession must descend, in order, to my brothers, Opitchapan, Opekankanough, and Catataugh, and then to my two sisters, and their two daughters. I wish their experience was equal to mine; and that your love to us might not be less than ours to you. Why should you take by force that from us which you can have by love? Why should you destroy us, who have provided you with food? What can you get by war? We can hide our provisions, and fly into the woods; and then you must consequently famish by wronging your friends. What is the cause of your jealousy? You see us unarmed, and willing to supply your wants, if you will come in a friendly manner, and not with swords and guns, as to invade an enemy. I am not so simple, as not to know it is better to eat good meat, lie well, and sleep quietly with my women and children; to laugh and be merry with the English; and, being their friend, to have copper, hatchets, and whatever else I want, than to fly from all, to lie cold in the woods, feed upon acorns, roots, and such trash, and to be so hunted, that I cannot rest, eat, or sleep. In such circumstances, my men must watch, and if a twig should but break, all would cry out, "Here comes Capt. Smith"; and so, in this miserable manner, to end my miserable life; and, Capt. Smith, this might be soon your fate too, through your rashness and unadvisedness. I, therefore, exhort [urge] you to peaceable councils; and, above all, I insist that the guns and swords, the cause of all our jealousy and uneasiness, be removed and sent away.

Reprinted in: Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991, pp. 58–59.

English writers depicted Powhatan as a very powerful man. They were impressed by the guards who surrounded him and his home. Certainly Powhatan received tribute from many groups but several others were only weakly attached to his confederacy. Many tribes on the north side of the Powhatan River had at least some degree of self-rule. Farther north, Powhatan's control seems to have ended at the Mattaponi River. The English may have wished to portray Powhatan as being more powerful than he actually was because they wanted to control the region. This would be easier to do if all the power belonged to one person. They hoped to make Powhatan a subject of the James I, king of England, thus bringing his territory under British rule. Since it was crucial to gain Powhatan's loyalty, colonial leaders made every effort to befriend him. For instance, in 1609 he was offered a crown from James I. Powhatan reluctantly agreed to have it placed on his head, and in return he sent the king his old moccasins and a cloak.

Remains wary of colonists

In 1614 Pocahontas was captured by the English and converted to Christianity. In 1614 she married John Rolfe (see entry), a Jamestown colonist who was credited with starting the tobacco industry in Virginia. In the meantime Powhatan began to turn against the English. He quietly prepared his people for a war that would expel the invaders. His strategy included sending several of his advisors to England to estimate the strength and intentions of the British Empire. One such observer was Uttamatamakin (Tomocomo), who went to England with Pocahontas in 1616. In arguments with officials at the court of James I, Uttamatamakin became known as a vigorous defender of Renapé religion and values. Pocahontas died suddenly in 1617 as she was returning to Virginia from England. Powhatan died the following year. It was left to his brother Opechancanough, in 1622, to wage the war of liberation that had been envisioned by Powhatan. Three hundred colonists were killed, thus setting in motion the English policy of deliberate extermination of Native Americans.

For further research

"Chief Powhatan." http://www.apva.org/ngex/chief.htm Available July 13, 1999.

Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliff, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991, pp. 58–59.

Feest, Christian F. The Powhatan Tribes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

McDaniel, Melissa. The Powhatan Indians. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.

Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.


views updated May 21 2018


Powhatan (ca. 1550-1618) was chief of a confederation of Algonquian Indians in Virginia at the time of the British colonization of Jamestown.

Powhatan was the son of a chief reportedly driven from Florida by the Spaniards. Settling in Virginia, the chief soon conquered about five local tribes and confederated them under his leadership. Powhatan inherited this confederacy and continued to conquer other tribes so that, by the time of the colonization of Jamestown, he ruled about 30 tribes comprising some 8, 000 people.

Powhatan made his headquarters at Werowocomoco, a village on the north side of the York River 15 miles from Jamestown. However, his home was at the falls of the James River (near present Richmond). This site was known as Powhata, thus the English colonists called him Powhatan.

As chief of this confederation, Powhatan was noted for ruling with rigid discipline. He was said to be very cruel to prisoners, and he always maintained a personal guard of 30 to 40 warriors. He had several wives, 20 sons, and 10 daughters, one of whom was Pocahontas.

In 1607 Powhatan was described by John Smith as a "tall, well proportioned man" with gray hair and thin beard who had an aura of sadness about him. The early colonists came to Powhatan to beg for corn, for, as the Native Americans later said, they were yet too weak to steal it. Powhatan was suspicious of the newcomers, refusing to sell them corn. He ordered ambushes of small parties of Englishmen, and several workers were murdered in the fields.

In 1608, according to a story of debated authenticity, Capt. John Smith had been captured and was about to be clubbed to death when he was saved by Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas. This incident did not change Powhatan's attitude toward the English. Nor did his crowning when, in 1609, acting under orders from the Virginia Company, Capt. Christopher Newport, using a gilded crown brought from England for the purpose, crowned Powhatan "Emperor of the Indies." John Smith said that Powhatan appreciated the gifts he received but could be persuaded only with difficulty to stoop to allow the crown to be put on his head.

In 1610 Smith's unsuccessful attempt to capture Powhatan triggered Indian retribution. However, in 1613 Samuel Argall captured Pocahontas and held her hostage for the good behavior of the Powhatan confederacy. An uneasy truce followed.

In 1614 John Rolfe, one of the English settlers, asked to marry Pocahontas. Governor Sir Thomas Dale agreed to the marriage, as did Powhatan, and it took place in Jamestown that June. Powhatan did not trust the colonists sufficiently to attend the wedding and sent his brother in his place.

With the marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe, Powhatan made a formal treaty of peace with the English which he kept until his death in April 1618. He was succeeded by his second brother, Itopatin (or Opitchepan), who in a few short years would go to war with the Virginia settlers again.

Further Reading

The information about Powhatan is in Capt. John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia. … (1624; several later editions). Also consult Frederick W. Hodge, Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico (2 vols., 1907-1910); Kate D. Sweetser, Book of Indian Braves (1913); and John R. Swanton, The Indian Tribes of North America (1952). □


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ETHNONYM: Pouhatan

The Powhatan are an American Indian group whose members live on the Mattoponi and Pamunkey state reservations in Virginia and in nearby communities. At the Beginning of the sixteenth century the Powhatan were a confederacy of thirty tribes numbering nine thousand people in two hundred villages located on the southeastern and southwestern sides of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and northEastern Virginia. Numbered among the Powhatan subgroups were the Appomattac, Chesapeake, Chickahominy, Mattapony, Pamunkey, Pianketank, Potomac, and Rappahannock.

The Powhatan were agriculturalists, growing maize, beans, pumpkins, and various fruits. They practiced an animistic religion and believed in the immortality of the soul. When a chief died his body was wrapped in skins, placed on a scaffold, and burned. The bodies of others were buried in the ground. The Powhatan confederacy ended in 1644 following a period of hostilities with English colonists resulting from Powhatan raids in 1622 that nearly wiped out the English settlements in Virginia. Subsequent English hostilities decimated the tribes, so that by 1705 the Powhatan were reduced to only twelve villages. The Powhatan languages belonged to the Algonkian family and were out of use by the end of the eighteenth century.


Sheehan, Bernard W. (1980). Savagism and Civility: Indians and Englishmen in Colonial Virginia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Speck, Frank G. (1928). Chapters on the Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes of Virginia. New York: Museum of the American Indian.

Stern, T. (1952). "Chickahominy." American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 96:176-225.


views updated May 23 2018

Powhatan (1550–1618) Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy of Native North Americans. This confederacy controlled the region of America around Jamestown, Virginia, at the time of the first English settlement (1607). The confederacy included c.30 peoples, with Powhatan's capital at Werowocomoco. According to legend, the colonists' leader, John Smith, was saved from execution by the intercession of Pocahontas, Powhatan's daughter.

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