Powhatan: The Powerful Native American Chief and His Kingdom
Powhatan was the name of both a powerful Native American chief (king) and the confederacy he ruled at the time of the arrival of English Colonists in Virginia in 1607. Powhatan reigned over several thousand people who initially helped the English survive, especially during the harsh winter weather when food was scarce.
Chief Powhatan, whose name more properly was Wahunsenacawh (or a variation thereof), was born around 1545 and died in 1618. The Powhatan Confederacy got its name from him.
“As the English saw him, Powhatan was ‘a tall well proportioned man, with a sower looke’ who ruled with an iron hand. Few doubt his word was law and he did hold life and death powers over his many subjects.”
Powhatan ruled a federation of about 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes throughout an area of approximately 6,000 square miles (15,540 square km).
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A 1630 map of Virginia; written across the middle is the name “Powhatan.” ( Public Domain )
Life of the Powhatan Indians
Powhatan people grew corn, beans and squash, the ‘Three Sisters’ that grew in symbiosis. The bean vines grew on the corn stalks and the low-growing squash controlled the weeds. They also grew other vegetables. The men hunted and fished, and the women farmed and gathered wild plant foods. The women also made clothing from animal skins, says HistoryIsFun.org.
The Powhatan made their homes out of sapling frames covered with reed mats or tree bark. They made their tools from stone, bones, and wood and later obtained firearms and other metal implements from the English.
Reconstructed Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement living-history museum. (Nationalparks/ CC BY SA 2.5 )
They traded over an extensive network both within their own nation and with outside tribes. HistoryIsFun.org says:
“In a ranked society of rulers, great warriors, priests and commoners, status was determined by achievement, often in warfare, and by the inheritance of luxury goods like copper, shell beads and furs. Those of higher status had larger homes, more wives and elaborate dress. The Powhatans worshipped a hierarchy of gods and spirits. They offered gifts to Oke to prevent him from sending them harm. Ahone was the creator and giver of good things.”
Powhatan War and Peace
The Powhatan confederacy was at peace with the English at first, then they clashed with them. There was peace following Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas’ marriage to a colonist, but war would break out again, leading to a period of intermittent fighting until 1676.
Powhatan was a powerful chief, according to Biography.com . He ruled about six tribes, including: his own Powhatan, the Pamunkey, Arrohateck, Appamattuck, Youghtanund, and Mattaponi.
Powhatan, detail of map published by John Smith (1612). ( Public Domain )
Through both war and alliances he came to rule about 30 tribes, each with its own chief called a werowance. These sub-chiefs answered to Powhatan, paid him tribute, and their men fought alongside his warriors when necessary.
It is unknown when Powhatan became king, but he was in charge when the colonists arrived in April 1607. He sent an ambassador to seek peace and helped the newcomers with food after the harvest. Without that help it is questionable whether the English colony would have survived.
John Smith in Captivity
In the winter of 1607, the Indians captured English Captain John Smith and brought him before Powhatan in his capital of Werowocomoco, where they kept him over the winter. He later wrote that Pocahontas saved his life, though Biography says this may be an exaggeration.
A relief above the west door of the U.S. Capitol rontunda depicting the legend of Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life. Some say the story is spurious. ( Public Domain )
Powhatan released Smith the next year but he returned seeking food and help for his people. Powhatan agreed to give food in exchange for weapons to fight his enemies but the colonists continued to encroach on native territory, aggravating the two sides’ differences.
Powhatan moved to a new village and made it his capital to distance himself from the English, who wanted to make him a subject of the English king.
Powhatan Tricks some Colonists
In November 1609 Powhatan lured some colonists to his new capital under pretense of trade, but attacked and killed most of them. The Encyclopedia Virginia online states :
“In November 1609, Powhatan invited a party of about thirty colonists, led by John Ratcliffe, to Orapax on the promise of a store of corn. The English were ambushed and killed; Ratcliffe himself was tortured to death. Powhatan's men, on the paramount chief's orders, took every opportunity to kill English stragglers and to steal what they could from the fort.”
Powhatan then cut trade ties and ordered all who left the Jamestown fort would be attacked by Indian warriors. The settlers were in difficult straits until new supplies and leadership arrived from England in the summer of 1610. With reinforcements the English began to attack the tribes.
Colonists captured Pocahontas in 1613 or 1614 (accounts vary). She lived among the English, who demanded a return of their people captured in raids. Powhatan did return some colonists, but he did not comply with a return of the weapons the Indians had stolen, so Pocahontas remained a captive. Not long after her capture she became a Christian and married colonist John Rolfe.
‘The Baptism of Pocahontas’ (1840) by John Gadsby Chapman. ( Public Domain )
Peace Until Powhatan’s Death
That marital alliance between an Indian princess and a colonist brought peace for the rest of Powhatan’s life, until 1618. The peace was not to last though. Biography.com states:
“After traveling to England with her husband, Pocahontas died there in 1617. Powhatan died soon after, in April 1618, in territory that is now part of Virginia. Powhatan was succeeded by his brother, Opitchapam, and then by another brother, Opechancanough. Under Opechancanough, war with the colonists would begin again.”
'John Smith taking the King of Pamunkey prisoner', a fanciful image of Opechancanough from Smith's ‘General History of Virginia’ (1624). ( Public Domain )
Powhatan was an impressive ruler who had amassed a great deal of power and influence before the arrival of the Jamestown colonists upended his way of life. He ably countered their actions, but numbers and weaponry were not on Powhatan's side for long.
Pocahontas visited England with her husband and young son Thomas in 1616. Their mission was to recruit new settlers. Pocahontas met John Smith, who had been an early settler in the New World. She told him she would be “for ever and ever your Countrieman.”
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In March 1617, just as they were about to return, Pocahontas died. John Rolfe returned to Virginia, having been appointed secretary of the colony. Thomas returned to Virginia in the 1630s, but by then his father and Powhatan were both dead. The truce had been broken since 1622, when Pocahontas’ uncle, Opechancanough, led a bloody uprising.
Painting of a meeting of Powhatan warriors, some armed with battle clubs. ( Public Domain )
Diseases and warfare killed many natives of the Powhatan Confederacy. There was intermittent fighting until 1676. Britannica says :
“Long-standing conflicts with the Iroquois were ended by a treaty in 1722, but the greatly reduced Powhatan population continued to decline. Those on the eastern shore of Virginia, who had long intermarried with free and enslaved Africans, were driven off in 1831 during the disturbances caused by a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.”
There are now an estimated 2,000 Powhatan Indians.
Top Image: ‘The Coronation of Powhatan’ (circa 1835) by John Cadsby Chapman. Source: Public Domain
By Mark Miller