Powhatan was born Wahunsonacock and came to power in the town of Powhatan, a settlement located on the north bank of the James River just below the falls at modern-day Richmond. When John Smith met him face to face in 1607, the chief went by the name of Powhatan, after his hometown, even though he by then had been living at his new capital of Werowocomoco. Smith guessed him to be about sixty years old, which suggests an approximate birth date of 1550.
Nothing specific is known of Powhatan's early life. Among the Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians, succession to the status of chief, or weroance, was matrilineal, meaning that Wahunsonacock must have been the son of a sister of a Powhatan weroance, taking his place as chief on the death of his uncle. Despite his status, Wahunsonacock's childhood likely was no different from other boys; until he was about five, he went to the gardens, marshes, and forests with his mother, probably practicing archery, with her encouragement, on any creature that moved there. As an adolescent, having proved himself a proficient hunter, he endured the huskanaw ritual initiating him into manhood, after which he returned to his family and joined the ranks of the tribe's warriors and hunters. His status as an heir to the rank of chief probably made him a cockarouse, or member of his uncle's council.
In 1608, Powhatan ambushed the Piankatank Indians for reasons unknown to the English, who found it unnerving. They learned of the attack when visiting Powhatan at Werowocomoco, where they saw the hanging scalps of Piankatank men. The English also were told and reported that Powhatan's men had previously destroyed the Chesapeake at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and replaced the Kecoughtan Indians with loyalists on the north side of the James. Because of Powhatan's violence, some anthropologists have argued that the Powhatan paramount chiefdom is better understood as an empire. It is clear, however, that Powhatan did not possess the absolute power of an emperor, and he controlled no standing army. Instead, he looked for other ways to maintain control. Historians have noted that Powhatan moved populations—placing the remnants of the Kecoughtan Indians in Piankatank territory, for instance—and installed sympathetic chiefs. The weroance of the largest of the core groups, the Pamunkey, was Powhatan's own brother, Opechancanough. Powhatan, as paramount chief, also may have married the sisters of several of his subchiefs, making them his brothers-in-law and his sons the heirs to their chiefdoms.
Powhatan marshaled impressive resources, but they were limited by the energies of himself, his family, and his people. A good deal of his wealth came from tribute—he was offered annually as much as 80 percent of what his people produced, although he did not accept all of it; in the meantime, he and his family gardened, hunted, and made necessities like any other Powhatan family. Still, in many respects his was a life apart. He had a house in Werowocomoco and in each of his subject territories, visiting his residences from time to time in a kind of royal progression. His bodyguard, fifty of Tsenacomoco's tallest men, traveled with him. So did a dozen or so of his numerous wives. Wherever he slept, four men stood guard on each side of the house and called to each other at intervals throughout the night; failure to respond resulted in a severe beating. At all times Powhatan's subjects made sure to reserve the best of their food or other products for his consideration.
As paramount chief, Powhatan took the title of mamanatowick, a word that means "powerful spirits" or "powerful shaman" and suggests that his importance was more than just political or military. Archaeological excavations at Werowocomoco have uncovered an area of the capital, set apart by a double ditch, that contained a very large house, likely the dwelling of a chief. Such an area was, apparently, unique among Tidewater Indian towns. John Smith wrote that Powhatan's house had carved animal-like images at each corner, further suggesting his priestly status, although he stored most of his wealth at temples such as Uttamussak, a site a few miles to the west in Pamunkey territory.
Arrival of the English
The Jamestown colonists dropped anchor in the Chesapeake Bay on April 26, 1607, and after a brief skirmish with local Indians, began to explore the James River. They met various weroances who identified themselves as subjects of Powhatan and who undoubtedly sent the paramount chief reports of these visits. By June 25, Powhatan had sent an ambassador to Edward Maria Wingfield, the colony's president, promising peaceful relations and inviting the Englishmen to plant gardens. By September the colonists' stores of food were exhausted and they survived only on gifts of food from Powhatan's subchiefs, including Opechancanough.
In December, John Smith was captured by Indians while exploring the upper reaches of the Chickahominy River. That Opechancanough was captain of the raiding party suggests that the Indians were on more than a routine operation and that Powhatan may have ordered Smith's capture. In any event, after nearly a month, Smith was brought before the paramount chief at Werowocomoco. He described Powhatan as "a tall well proportioned man, with a sour look, his head somewhat gray, his beard so thin that it seems none at all, his age near 60; of a very able and hardy body to endure any labour." In another account, he wrote of Wahunsonacock as this proud savage, having his finest women, and the principal of his chiefe men assembled, sat in ranks … himself as upon a Throne at the upper end of the house, with such a Majesty as I cannot express, nor yet have often seen, either in Pagan or Christian; with a kind countenance he bade me welcome, and caused a place to be made by himself to sit.
And again: Sitting upon his bed of mats, his pillow of leather embroidered … with pearls and white beads, his attire a faire Robe of skins as large as an Irish mantle, at his head and feet a handsome young woman; … Powhatan carried himself so proudly, yet discreetly (in his Savage manner) as made us all admire his natural gifts considering his education.
Powhatan calculated that moving Smith and his men to Capahosic would keep them nearby and better under his control. It would also please the Paspahegh Indians' weroance, one of Powhatan's strongest warriors, who was upset to have the colonists in his territory. Powhatan also hoped the English could supply his people with copper and weapons. However, once Smith understood the proposal, he refused, citing his allegiance to James I.
In February 1608, Smith and Captain Christopher Newport visited Werowocomoco. Despite initial problems crossing a bridge into the capital, they counted the meeting as a political success. Powhatan fed them and their party lavishly, and Newport presented the mamanatowick with a suit of clothing, a hat, and a greyhound. Newport, the Virginia Company of London's direct representative in America, treated Powhatan as an equal, even as a superior, while Smith persisted in viewing the paramount chief as a trickster and, ultimately, a subject of the English Crown. He repeatedly urged Newport not to trust him, advice that Newport ignored.
Crowning of Powhatan
Relations between the Jamestown settlers and Powhatan quickly soured, with colonists reneging on their promises of metal tools for foods already sent, and the Indians acquiring them by way of theft. (Powhatan custom demanded gifts be rewarded with gifts.) That summer, the English explored the Chesapeake Bay without Powhatan's permission, making matters worse. In September 1608, after a trip back to England, Newport returned to Virginia with a plan to improve relations: the English would bestow on Powhatan various gifts—a scarlet cloak and unspecified "other apparel," a bedstead and other furniture, and a ewer and basin for washing—and formally present him with a decorated crown. Newport dispatched Smith to Werowocomoco to invite Powhatan to Jamestown, but the chief refused to go, telling Smith: If your king have sent me presents, I also am a king, and this my land, 8 days I will stay [at Werowocomoco] to receive them. Your father [Newport] is to come to me, not I to him, nor yet to your fort, neither will I bite at such a bait [fearing capture if he came to Jamestown].
In the end, the English gestures of alliance and goodwill failed. To the English, Powhatan was a subject who refused to behave as such. To Powhatan, John Smith was a weroance acting like a mamanatowick, roaming beyond the area granted him by Powhatan and demanding food and labor. Powhatan responded by ordering his people to refuse to trade with Smith or his agents, and to attack the English when and where they could. The English regarded this as treachery and reacted accordingly.
In December 1608, Smith received from Powhatan the offer of a shipload of corn in exchange for a grindstone, some guns and swords, a cock and hen, copper and beads, and men to build Powhatan an English-style house. Smith sent three Germans to begin work on the house and, in January 1609, traveled to Werowocomoco himself. This meeting with Powhatan was tense from the beginning. Against Indian custom, Smith refused to disarm himself in the chief's presence and the two men traded accusations about the events of the last year. As it happened, Smith was right to be wary: Powhatan excused himself from the meeting, a sign for his own men to kill Smith. They failed. That night, the chief presented Smith with a bracelet and pearl necklace, gifts intended to remind him of his obligations as a weroance. Smith, however, saw them as a bid to mollify him, and relations only worsened.
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. As a result, the number of colonists decreased while Powhatan's store of copper, weapons, and English-made tools increased. In addition, he offered asylum to any English colonist who deserted Jamestown, and quite a number did so. The Indians had more food and cleaner water, and Powhatan's rule was less harsh. During the winter of 1609–1610, the English struggled to survive what came to be known as the Starving Time. The following summer, however, brought harder-nosed governors, better-supplied colonists, and more war; the English even began killing Indian women and children. English interests had reached their nadir during the Starving Time and were now, and forever more, on the rise.
Capture and Marriage of Pocahontas
Powhatan conveyed his attitude about the marriage to the one English visitor he allowed into his presence after this time, Ralph Hamor, who was then secretary to the colony. In 1615 Hamor traveled to Matchcot in an attempt to arrange a marriage between a younger sister of Pocahontas and Deputy Governor Dale. Powhatan made it plain that he considered the governor rapacious. Apart from the fact that his daughter was already married to a neighboring weroance, he told Hamor that no reasonable person would ask a chief such as himself for two of his daughters at once. A single marriage between them was a sufficient guarantee of alliance.
After Pocahontas's marriage and the end of hostilities, Powhatan became less of a presence in the colonists' reports to London and, presumably, in their lives as well. They described him making a progress through Tsenacomoco as usual, hearing of the death of his daughter and expressing his grief, and, later, visiting up on the Potomac River, having left Opechancanough in charge of the allied groups. His death was reported to the colonists in April 1618. If his funeral followed custom, then his body was flayed, his flesh removed from the bones and dried, his skeleton rearticulated and his abdomen filled with valuables, and the whole covered with the preserved skin to achieve a semblance of the living form. The mummy was wrapped in white buckskin and placed in a quiocosin, or sacred building for ceremonial use, where it was watched over by his shamans.
Powhatan was succeeded first by his next-youngest brother, Opitchapam, who proved ineffectual, and then by Opechancanough, the last great Powhatan leader. Like his brother, Opechancanough had not been a great admirer of the English, and against the tide of greater English numbers, he planned the attack that started the Second Anglo-Powhatan War in 1622. The motivations behind the attack have been debated. While colonists saw the Indians as merely ungrateful and most modern historians have rightly argued that they were rebelling against oppression, there also may have been religious factors at work. Contemporary reports by the Virginia Company note that the attack, as originally planned, coincided with the redisposition of Powhatan's bones, suggesting that Opechancanough's assault was a part of the final mortuary celebration. In other words, in addition to its more immediate goals, the maneuver may have been a tribute of sorts to Powhatan's power—military, political, and spiritual.
December 1607 - Late in the month, John Smith is brought before Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco. He later tells of his life being saved by Pocahontas; in fact, Powhatan likely puts Smith through a mock execution in order to adopt him as a weroance, or chief.
September 1608 - Christopher Newport returns from England with a plan to improve relations with Virginia Indians by bestowing on Powhatan various gifts and formally presenting him with a decorated crown. The subsequent crowning is made awkward by Powhatan's refusal to kneel, and relations sour.
November 1609 - Powhatan invites a party of about thirty colonists, led by John Ratcliffe, to Orapax on the promise of a store of corn. The English are ambushed and killed; Ratcliffe himself is tortured to death.
April 1613 - Powhatan's favorite daughter, Pocahontas, is captured and held hostage by the English, bringing a truce in the First Anglo-Powhatan War. The fight goes out of Powhatan, and during his apathy over the next year, his daughter is converted by the English.
April 5, 1614 - On or about this day, Pocahontas and John Rolfe marry in a ceremony performed by Richard Bucke and assented to by Sir Thomas Dale and Powhatan, who sends one of her uncles to witness the ceremony. Powhatan also rescinds a standing order to attack the English wherever and whenever possible, ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
1615 - Ralph Hamor meets Powhatan at his residence in Matchcot in an attempt to arrange a marriage between a younger sister of Pocahontas and Deputy Governor Sir Thomas Dale. Powhatan expresses contempt for Dale and says a single marriage between his people and the English is sufficient guarantee of alliance.
April 1618 - The death of Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, is reported to the English colonists.
March 22, 1622 - Indians under Opechancanough unleash a series of attacks that start the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The assault was originally planned for the fall of 1621, to coincide with the redisposition of Powhatan's bones, suggesting that the attack was to be part of the final mortuary celebration for the former chief.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Huber, M. W. Powhatan (d. 1618). (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Powhatan_d_1618.
- MLA Citation:
Huber, Margaret Williamson. "Powhatan (d. 1618)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 5, 2011 | Last modified: May 30, 2014
Contributed by Margaret Williamson Huber, professor emerita in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mary Washington, and author of Powhatan Lords of Life and Death (2003).