A subject long discussed by archaeologists, anthropologists, and ethnohistorians, the origins of Tsenacomoco are unclear. Most recently, the historian James D. Rice has argued that before about 1300, when Virginia Indians were largely hunters and gatherers, their political organization was more egalitarian, with no strong central authority. By the time the English arrived in 1607, however, the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tidewater Virginia had organized into chiefdoms of one or more towns and a paramount chiefdom ruled by a strong, but not absolute, central authority. Five important forces led to this transition: 1) accelerating population growth, 2) increasing dependence on agriculture, 3) the centuries-long cooling period known as the Little Ice Age, 4) competition for prime town locations, and 5) an increase in warfare and long-distance trade.
Over the next few decades, Powhatan expanded Tsenacomoco by a combination of diplomacy and force. While appointing allies and kinsmen as district and tribal chiefs, Powhatan ruled as the mamanatowick, or paramount chief, of Tsenacomoco. By 1607, roughly twenty-eight to thirty-two lesser chiefdoms and tribes paid tribute to Powhatan. Along the James River these included the Chesapeakes, Nansemonds, Kecoughtans, Warraskoyacks, Quiyoughcohannocks, Paspaheghs, Weyanocks, Appamattucks, Arrohatecks, and Powhatans. Up the Pamunkey (York) River were the Chiskiacks, Werowocomocos, Pamunkeys, Mattaponis, and Youghtanunds. The Piankatank Indians lived on the river of the same name. The Opiscopanks, Lower Cuttatawomens, Moraughtacunds, Rappahannocks, Pissasecks, Nandtaughtacunds, and Upper Cuttatawomens all lived on the Rappahannock River. The Wiccocomicos, Sekakawons, Onawmanients, and Patawomecks occupied the Potomac River, and the Accomacs and Occohannocks lived on the Eastern Shore, across the Chesapeake Bay. The Chickahominies, who lived in the heart of Tsenacomoco, on the Chickahominy River, were independent of Powhatan's rule.
Boundaries, Language, Population, Name
The inhabitants of Tsenacomoco spoke Algonquian and lived in the southernmost range of Algonquian speakers who lived along the east coast of North America, from Labrador, Canada, to North Carolina. Siouan-speakers lived to the west of Tsenacomoco, above the fall line in the Piedmont. They included the Monacans, who lived on the upper James River, and the Mannahoacs, who occupied the upper reaches of the Rappahannock River. The Iroquoian-speaking Massawomecks and Susquehannocks lived farther to the north and west, in the area of present-day western Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. All of these tribes periodically raided and clashed with their neighbors in Tsenacomoco (and vice versa).
Scholars disagree about the population of Tsenacomoco. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), Thomas Jefferson estimated "about 8000 inhabitants, which was one for every square mile." More recently, the anthropologist Helen C. Rountree has suggested a population of about 15,000 living in an area of approximately 6,000 square miles. Other estimates range from as low as 13,000 to as high as just over 22,000, with the historian Rice setting the Indian population of the entire Chesapeake region in 1607 at more than 30,000.
The idea that Tsenacomoco means "densely inhabited place" complements the suggestion, made by the historical geographer Michael Williams, that when Christopher Columbus arrived in America in 1492, "the population density of the forest [in what is now the eastern United States] was probably even greater than that of densely settled parts of western Europe." Still, Tsenacomoco was much less densely populated than England, at least in 1600. (England's population more than doubled between 1520 and 1630.) While Tsenacomoco's population density may have been about 2.5 people per square mile, rural England in 1600 averaged a density of between 50 and 100 people per square mile.
Land and People
The waterways of the Chesapeake Bay and the tidal rivers in Tsenacomoco were critical for communication, transportation, and the many natural resources associated with them. While Tsenacomoco's canoes may have been cumbersome compared to the light and fast birch-bark canoes that the Massawomecks and Susquehannocks used in their raids (paper birch did not grow in Tidewater Virginia), they were more than adequate for transporting men, fish, and trade goods. In this way, the rivers, rather than acting as natural boundaries, were connectors of towns and chiefdoms and facilitators of trade, news, and war. By contrast, the fall line did serve as a natural boundary because it prohibited water travel, while Tsenacomoco's northern border, on the Potomac River, acted as a different kind of boundary. It suggested the limit of Powhatan's control rather than any obstacle to easy travel.
In addition to wide, deep rivers, the landscape of Tsenacomoco featured forests of walnut and oak. The Indians had no domesticated animals other than dogs, so they used fire to harvest wood and clear space for towns and garden plots. According to the Dutchman David Peterson DeVries, who visited Virginia in March 1633, smoke from such fires was one of the land's distinctive features. "When the wind blows out of the northwest, and the smoke too is driven to sea," he wrote, "it happens that the land is smelt before it is seen."
The Indians of Tsenacomoco resided in large and small towns, in even smaller hamlets, and in temporary hunting camps. In reality, no living spot was permanent. When their fields became exhausted, the people abandoned a town site and constructed another at a different location. (War also provoked such moves, and, in a few instances, Powhatan even forced the relocation of some tribal groups.) Typical buildings were made of slender wooden poles stuck in the ground and then bent at the top to form a roof. Transportable woven mats covered the roofs and walls against the weather, and were laid on the bare earth to serve as floors. A fire burned in the middle of the room, rendering the houses warm but smoky. A large town might resemble John White's painting of Secotan (located in present-day North Carolina) and include garden plots, dwellings, storehouses, and ceremonial and religious structures.
Virginia Indians utilized a far-flung trading network. For some upper Chesapeake tribes, the network extended as far north as the Great Lakes. It was employed not only for trade but to pass information—the so-called moccasin telegraph—and it extended far to the south as well. When a Spanish naval captain sailing north from Florida stopped at a town in present-day South Carolina, hoping to learn Jamestown's location in order to attack it, the residents gave him precise directions, even though the English settlement was hundreds of miles away and they likely had never been there themselves.
Despite his fearsome qualities, Powhatan's power was not absolute. Each chiefdom had its own weroance, or chief, and these chiefs sat on a council, or cockarouse, that advised the paramount chief. (Weroances also had their own councils.) In some matters the mamanatowick deferred to the council; in others he acted independently of it. The chiefs and paramount chiefs both were also advised by priests, or kwiocosuk. Weroances may have been subordinate to their priests, while the paramount chief most likely was not. Powhatan, especially, took the lead in matters of diplomacy with outsiders, while one of his successors, his brother or kinsman Opechancanough, appeared to be more of a war leader.
Although Powhatan possessed ample powers of punishment and did not hesitate to use them, he also bore responsibility for the welfare of the people, who ascribed power to him based on circumstances. In good times, they paid him large quantities of tribute, mostly foodstuffs such as corn and beans, which were placed in storehouses from which they could be drawn for feasts, for trade, for sacred rituals, and for feeding people in times of need. When food was abundant, or when the Powhatans prevailed over their adversaries, the people considered his leadership to be unquestionably legitimate. In a time of extensive famine or defeat, however, their trust in him and, therefore, his power declined.
In 1607, Powhatan was at the height of his power. And then the English sailed into the heart of Tsenacomoco.
The English Arrive
Tsenacomoco was then in the second year of a drought that would last until 1612. Sooner or later, all plants and creatures in the food chain would be affected: the gardens' yields dropped while the forests' oaks produced fewer acorns for the deer, which would thus decline in numbers and reduce the Indians' principal source of protein. Because other protein-rich species, such as waterfowl and anadromous fish—or fish such as shad that ascend rivers for breeding—were plentiful only at certain times of the year, the lean seasons soon outnumbered the fat. The English, who seemed to the Indians utterly incapable of taking care of themselves, stressed the carrying capacity of the land to the tipping point with their ceaseless demands for food.
The Powhatans found the English different in customs, incompetent, and rude. While the natives washed themselves in the rivers daily, the English regarded bathing as unhealthy. They also were ignorant of protocol in Tsenacomoco, sailing past towns without visiting their chiefs, marching around tribal territories fully armed as though intending war, planting crosses in places that did not belong to them, and squatting on tribal land (as they did at Jamestown) without asking permission beforehand—or ever.
The answer probably is that Powhatan thought he might find the newcomers useful as a subject "tribe," perhaps for tribute items such as iron hatchets, or to intimidate with their noisy muskets other tribes within Tsenacomoco or his enemies outside, such as the Monacans. When diplomacy and argument failed, Powhatan and his successors sought to punish the English by killing some of them, to keep them in line rather than to obliterate them. By the time Powhatan fully understood English intransigence, it was too late and they were too strong. Powhatan had pondered the question of whether the English were more of a potential asset to his paramount chiefdom than a threat, and he arrived at the wrong conclusion.
The Englishmen were in Tsenacomoco on behalf of a private stock company, the Virginia Company of London. The company wished to establish a foothold in the Chesapeake Bay region and exploit the resources there for the benefit of its stockholders. Over the next few years, the settlers endeavored to carry out the company's program despite disease, hunger, death, and Powhatan's efforts to control them.
In 1609, Powhatan left his capital, Werowocomoco, on the York River and moved west to Orapax on the Chickahominy River. That autumn, Smith departed for England, never to return. During the next few years, even as the two groups fought the First Anglo-Powhatan War, the English spread beyond Jamestown and established new settlements, especially up the James River. In 1613, Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas and took her to Jamestown as a hostage. She converted to Christianity in April 1614 and married John Rolfe as Powhatan agreed to suspend hostilities.
After Powhatan died in April 1618, his brother or kinsman Opitchapam became paramount chief. He was not well,
however, and eventually Opechancanough succeeded him. Each new paramount chief
inherited a weakening Tsenacomoco, because the English had made their own
alliances inside and outside the polity and disrupted long-established networks of
trade and politics.
The End of the Paramount Chiefdom
Over the next two decades, the English proved themselves as brutal as they were tenacious. Finally, on April 18, 1644, Opechancanough launched a last, desperate assault on their settlements. It failed, the colonists retaliated, and many of the native residents fled Tsenacomoco. Two years later, the colonists captured and killed Opechancanough. In October 1646, a new paramount chief named Necotowance concluded a peace treaty that ended the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646) and made all of the tribes subject to the English king. The treaty set aside land for the tribes, but the settlers generally ignored that provision. Soon, the surviving inhabitants of Tsenacomoco either adapted to the new order or moved away. The paramount chiefdom ceased to exist.
As of 2012, two tribal reservations existed and are located in King William County: the Mattaponi Indian Reservation on the banks of the Mattaponi River and the Pamunkey Indian Reservation on the Pamunkey River. These few hundred acres comprise the remnants of Tsenacomoco. Other Powhatan descendant communities recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia today include the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Nansemond, Patawomeck, Rappahannock, and Upper Mattaponi.
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 Indians lay siege to Jamestown, denying colonists access to outside food sources. The Starving Time begins, and by spring 160 colonists, or about 75 percent of Jamestown's population, will be dead from hunger and disease. This action begins the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614).
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.
1618–1621 - While the elderly Opitchapam serves as paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, Opechancanough appears to build his own power base without unduly alarming the English.
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.
1630 - By this year, Opechancanough succeeds Opitchapam as paramount chief of Tsenacomoco.
April 18, 1644 - Opechancanough and a force of Powhatan Indians launch a second great assault against the English colonists, initiating the Third Anglo-Powhatan War. As many as 400 colonists are killed, but rather than press the attack, the Indians retire.
1646 - The English capture Opechancanough on the Pamunkey River. His successor, Necotowance, surrenders to the colonists, and Opechancanough is shot and killed while in English custody at Jamestown.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Salmon, J. Tsenacomoco (Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom). (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Tsenacomoco_Powhatan_Paramount_Chiefdom.
- MLA Citation:
Salmon, John. "Tsenacomoco (Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 17, 2012 | Last modified: May 30, 2014
Contributed by John Salmon, historian for Virginia Civil War Trails, and author of The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. He also helped author the National Park Service's Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Feasibility Study and Environmental Assessment (2006).