The Powhatan (also spelled Powatan and Powhaten), or Powhatan Renape [The word "Renape", which means human [http://www.powhatan.org/history.html] , is cognate with Lenape, the name of another Algonquian-speaking tribe of what is now New Jersey and Pennsylvania.] (literally, the "Powhatan Human Beings"), is the name of a Native American tribe. It is also the name of a powerful confederacy of tribes that they dominated. Also known as Virginia Algonquians, they spoke an eastern-Algonquian language also known as Powhatan, and lived in what is now the eastern part of Virginia at the time of the first European-Native encounters there. The name is believed to have originated from a village near the head of navigation on a major river, each of which was also called "Powhatan."

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a weroance named Wahunsunacock created a mighty empire by conquering or affiliating by agreement with around 30 tribes covering much of eastern Virginia, called Tenakomakah ("densely-inhabited Land"), [http://www.wm.edu/niahd/journals/index.php?browse=entry&id=4965 "c.f." Anishinaabe language: "danakamigaa": "activity-grounds", "i.e." "land of much events [for the People] "] and he himself was known as Powhatan. However, beginning with the arrival of the English settlers at Jamestown in 1607, encroachment of the new arrivals and their ever-growing numbers on what had been Indian lands resulted in conflicts which became almost continuous for the next 37 years.

After Wahunsunacock's death in 1618, hostilities escalated under the chiefdom of his brother, Opechancanough, who sought in vain to drive the Europeans away, leading the Indian Massacre of 1622 and another in 1636. These attempts saw strong reprisals from the English, ultimately resulting in the near elimination of the tribe. The Powhatan Confederacy had been largely destroyed by 1646. As the colonial expansion continued, many members assimilated into the populations of persons of European and African origin.

Remaining descendants in Virginia in the 21st century include seven recognized tribes with ties to the original confederacy, [ [http://www.virginiaplaces.org/vacities/matchut.html Matchut ] ] including two with reservations, the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi, which are accessed through King William County, Virginia. Many years after the Powhatan Confederacy no longer existed, and some miles to the west of area it included, Powhatan County in the Virginia Colony was named in honor of Chief Wahunsunacock, who was the father of Pocahontas.

Although the cultures of the Powhatan and the European settlers were very different, through the union of Pocahontas and English settler John Rolfe and their son Thomas Rolfe, many descendants of the First Families of Virginia trace both Native American and European roots.


ource of name

The name "Powhatan" is believed to have originated as the name of the village or "town" that Wahunsunacock (who has become better-known as the Chief Powhatan) came from. It was located in the East End portion of the modern-day city of Richmond, Virginia). "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" is a Virginia Algonquian word meaning "at the waterfalls"; [According to the "Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes"; "c.f." Anishinaabe language: "Baawiting" "at the falls/rapids" (=Sault Ste. Marie)] [Bright, William (2004). "Native American Place Names of the United States". Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, pg. 397] the settlement of Powhatan was at the falls of the James River. [ [http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes/powhatan/powhatanchiefs.htm Powhatan Indian Chiefs and Leaders ] ]

Powhatan Hill in the independent city of Richmond is in the general vicinity of the Native American village. Powhatan County and its county seat at Powhatan, Virginia were honorific names many years later, but the location is well west of the area populated by the Powhatan Confederacy.

Building the Powhatan Confederacy

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 Kecoughtans to his fold by 1598. 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. Wahunsunacock had inherited control over just four tribes, but dominated over thirty by the time the English settlers established their Virginia Colony at Jamestown in 1607.

In his famous work "Notes on the State of Virginia" published in 1781-82, Thomas Jefferson estimated that the Powhatan Confederacy at one time occupied about eight thousand square miles of territory, with a population of about eight thousand people, of whom twenty-four hundred were warriors. [ http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=JefVirg.sgm&

The English settlers in the land of the Powhatan

The Powhatan Confederacy is famous as embracing those Indians among whom the first permanent English settlement in North America was made. This was also to be the downfall of the Native American empire. Conflicts began immediately, shots were fired the instant the colonists arrived (due to a bad experience they had with the Spanish prior to their arrival). Within two weeks of the arrival at Jamestown, deaths had occurred.

The settlers had hoped for friendly relations and had planned to trade with the Native Americans for food. Captain Christopher Newport led the first English exploration party up the James River in 1607 and first met Chief Powhatan and several of his sons. Newport later crowned the Chief with a ceremonial crown and presented him with many European gifts to gain the Indians' friendship. Newport realized that Chief Powhatan's friendship was crucial to the survival of the small Jamestown colony.

On a hunting and trade mission on the Chickahominy River, President of the Colony Captain John Smith was captured by Opechancanough, the younger brother of Chief Powhatan. According to Smith's account (which in the late 1800s was considered to be fabricated, but is still believed by some to be mostly accurate—although several highly romanticized popular versions cloud the matter), Pocahontas, Powhatan's daughter, prevented her father from executing Smith. Some researchers have asserted that this was a ritual intended to adopt Smith into the tribe, but other modern writers dispute this interpretation, pointing out that nothing is known of seventeenth-century Powhatan adoption ceremonies, and that this sort of ritual is even different from known rites of passage. Further, these writers argue, Smith was not apparently treated as a member of the Powhatans after this ritual.

John Smith left Virginia for England in 1609, never to return, because of an injury sustained in a gunpowder accident. In September 1609, Captain John Ratcliffe was invited to Orapakes, Powhatan's new capital. When he sailed up the Pamunkey River to trade there, a fight broke out between the colonists and the Powhatans. All of the English were killed, including Ratcliffe, who was tortured by the women of the tribe.

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 only came after the marriage of Pocahontas and colonist John Rolfe in 1614.

However, within a few years both the Chief and Pocahontas were dead from disease. The Chief died in Virginia, but Pocahontas died in England, having been captured and willingly married to the tobacco planter John Rolfe. Meanwhile, the English settlers continued to encroach on Powhatan territory.

After Wahunsunacock's death, his younger brother, Opitchapam, became chief, followed by their younger brother Opechancanough, who in 1622 and 1644 attempted to force the English from Powhatan territories. These attempts saw strong reprisals from the English, ultimately resulting in the near destruction of the tribe. During the 1644 incident, 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 Nectowance and then by Totopotomoi and later by his daughter Cockacoeske. By 1665, the Powhatan were subject to stringent laws enacted that year, which compelled them 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

Besides the capital village of "Powhatan" in the Powhatan Hill section of the eastern part of the current city of Richmond, another capital of this confederacy about 75 miles to the east was called Werowocomoco. It was located near the north bank of the York River in present-day Gloucester County.

Werowocomoco was described by the English colonists as only 15 miles as the crow flies from Jamestown, but also described as 25 miles downstream from present-day West Point, measurements which are in conflict with each other. Therefore, the long-lost location of Werowocomoco is in some dispute. Long thought to have been near Wicomico, near Gloucester Point, roughly 25 miles downstream from West Point, substantial archaeological evidence discovered in the early 21st century locates the site on Purtan Bay, about 12 air miles from Jamestown, but much less than 25 miles below West Point.

Around 1609, Wahunsunacock shifted his capital from Werowocomoco to Orapakes, located in a swamp at the head of the Chickahominy River, 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 County on the north bank of the Pamunkey River, not far from where his brother Opechancanough ruled at Youghtanund.

In the 1700s, the Royal Powhatan family migrated from Virginia with Spanish and English explorers and settled in Triana, Alabama. The Royal Powhatan surname merged by union with the Toney surname of Triana. The official Powhatan-Toney union site and Capital of the Alabama Powhatan Confederacy is in trust to the United States and Protected by the Federal Government. The community was called Spring Hill and located in Pond Beat, 4000 acres of land located in Pond Beat owned by Powhatans, was Federally monitored and designated as a National Security location in 1941 (According to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge). Between 1930 and 1941 the Alabama Powhatan Culture transferred about 100 square miles on land to the Federal Government in the interest of National Security, Conservation or Economic Development. The Cherokee and Chickasaw Nation ceded Powhatan land to the United States in the 1800s, but the official controller of Powhatan land in 1800, was Powhatan mixed-race Indian families allied with the Powhatan-Toney Family who controlled the land until 1930-1941.


The Powhatan lived east of the fall line in Tidewater Virginia. They built their houses of poles, rushes, and bark, and 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 that were led by a king or queen, who was a client of the Emperor and a member of his council.

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." [ [http://www.johnsmith400.org/2TheChesapeakeBayRegionanditsPeoplein1607.pdf The Chesapeake Bay Region and its People in 1607 ] ]

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 gradually became untenable as soil productivity gradually declined and local fish and game were depleted. The inhabitants then moved on. With every change in location, a village used fire to clear new land and left an even larger amount of 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 arrived to this area by the early 15th century. [cite journal|last=Brown|first=Hutch|date=Summer 2000|title=Wildland Burning by American Indians in Virginia|cite journal|journal=Fire Management Today|publisher=U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service|location=Washington, DC|volume=60|issue=3|pages=30-33]

Powhatan today

Enas E. Ragland is the Principal Tribal Leader of the Triana Powhatan Nation. The Tribal Leader assumed power and intellectual control of the "Powhatan" surname after the death of his Powhatan-Toney grandmother Louise Toney (the Spiritual Queen of the Triana Powhatan Nation). Enas has began protecting the legacy of his Great Great grandmother's maiden "Powhatan" surname. Powhatan-Toney maternal grandmothers were the last known Alabama Powhatans to use the Powhatan surname. The Toney family has controlled the Powhatan surname since the 1800s.

Almost 3,000 Powhatan people remain in Virginia. Very many of them live in the two tiny reservations, Mattaponi and Pamunkey, found in King William County, Virginia. However, the Powhatan language is now extinct. Attempts have been made to reconstruct the vocabulary of the language; the only sources are word lists provided by Smith and by William Strachey.

The American entertainer Wayne Newton is of mixed Powhatan, Cherokee, Irish, and German ancestry.

Powhatan County was named in honor of the Chief and his tribe, although located about 60 miles to the west of lands ever under their control. In the independent city of Richmond, Powhatan Hill in the city's east end is traditionally believed to be located near the village Chief Powhatan was originally from, although the specific location of the site is unknown.

Powhatan in film

The Powhatan people are featured in the Disney animated film "Pocahontas" (1995). An attempt at a more historically accurate representation of them appears in "The New World" (2005).

ee also

* Black Indians
* Native Americans in the United States
* Native American tribe
* One-drop rule


Further reading

*A. Bryant Nichols Jr., "Captain Christopher Newport: Admiral of Virginia", Sea Venture, 2007

External links

* [http://www.virginiaplaces.org/nativeamerican/anglopowhatan.html The Anglo-Powhatan Wars]
* [http://www.powhatan.org/ Powhatan Renape Nation] — Rankokus American Indian Reservation
* [http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/jame1/moretti-langholtz/ A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century]
* [http://www.ngm.com/jamestown National Geographic Magazine Jamestown/Werowocomoco Interactive]
* [http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-01/uonc-ucl011906.php UNC Charlotte linguist Blair Rudes restores lost language, culture for 'The New World']
* [http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10950199 How a linguist revived 'New World' language]
* [http://www.kentuckykinfolkorganization.com/descendantofSamuelBurks.html Princess Cleopatra]

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