Some scholars believe that the Pamunkey have occupied their tribal area for 10,000 to 12,000 years. By 1607, when thefounded , the Pamunkey lived in along the Pamunkey River. They spoke a and were one of the six core tribes of , a political alliance of Algonquian-speaking tribes that in 1607 was ruled by . Powhatan likely appointed his younger brother or cousin as the weroance, or chief, of the Pamunkey.
As part of Tsenacomoco, the Pamunkey were involved in the periods of hostility between the English and Indian communities that are now known as the(1609–1614), (1622–1632), and Third (1644–1646) Anglo-Powhatan Wars. Opechancanough, who by 1630 had become the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, launched the attacks that initiated the second and third conflicts. The 1646 that ended the Third Anglo-Powhatan War set aside land for Virginia Indians, including the Pamunkey, in the Pamunkey Neck area of present-day King William County. This is the same land on which the Pamunkey reside today. The treaty also established a tradition of paying yearly tribute to the Virginia governor—a tradition that continued into the early twenty-first century. (The fourth Wednesday of November is set aside for presentations of fish and game at the Virginia State Capitol or Executive Mansion in Richmond.)
In the 1670s, the Pamunkey weroansqua, or female chief,Efforts to preserve and protect the Pamunkey Indian Reservation extended through the eighteenth century, when many of the tribal groups lost their land, and into the late nineteenth century, when each of the four remaining reservation tribes—the Gingaskin, worked with the colonial government to secure rights for her people. In 1676, and his attacked the Pamunkey, captured some tribal members, and killed others. That summer, Cockacoeske met with a committee of and members of the in Jamestown to offer additional men to defend the against frontier tribes and to remind the politicians of the Pamunkey warriors who had been killed fighting alongside the colonists. In February 1677 she asked the General Assembly to release those who had been taken captive and to restore Pamunkey property. On May 29, 1677, Cockacoeske signed a treaty, published in London as the , in which she, on behalf of several tribes united under her authority, swore allegiance to the Crown, including an annual tribute of game, in exchange for hunting rights, access to civil courts, and ownership of land within a three-mile radius of any Indian town. Cockacoeske’s successor, , also fought for her people’s rights. As the European population expanded into their tribal lands, she and the “Great Men of the Pamunkey” submitted petitions to the colonial government asking the English to confirm Pamunkey ownership of tribal lands, remove squatters, and reduce the annual tribute to the Crown. , Nottoway, and Pamunkey—was pressured to dissolve its reservation, ending its relationship to the state, and then to divide the land among its members. The Pamunkey refused, maintaining their reservation, church, and school.
Like other Virginia Indians, the Pamunkey struggled to preserve their identity and culture early in the twentieth century. Thebanned interracial marriage in Virginia and asked for voluntary racial identifications on birth and marriage certificates. “White” was defined as having no trace of African ancestry, while all other people, including Indians, were defined as “colored.” To accommodate elite Virginians who claimed and as ancestors, the law allowed for those who had “one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood [to] be deemed to be white persons.” The laws essentially erased Virginia Indians as a category of people under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the Racial Integrity Act unconstitutional in (1967).
By late in the century, the tribes had reasserted their identities. In 1979, with help from a federal grant, the Pamunkey tribe opened the Pamunkey Indian Museum. The museum is located on the reservation; its collection includes stone tools, arrowheads, and pottery, a craft practiced consistently by the Pamunkey since before the colonial era. On March 25, 1983, Virginia Joint Resolution 54 formally recognized the Pamunkey tribe, along with the, , Mattaponi, , and tribes. (The and tribes were recognized in 1985 and 1989, respectively.)
In 2009, the U.S. government opened the petition process from the Pamunkey tribe for federal recognition. After an investigation into tribal laws and practices—including a law the tribe removed in 2012 that banned interracial marriage—the U.S. Department of Interior granted the Pamunkey Indian tribe federal recognition on July 2, 2015, stating, “The Pamunkey Indian Tribe has occupied a land base in southeastern King William County, Virginia—shown on a 1770 map as ‘Indian Town’—since the Colonial Era in the 1600s.” Federally recognized Indian tribes receive access to services from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, including medical, housing, and educational benefits.
The Pamunkey tribe maintains its own laws and its own governing body, which consists of a chief and seven council members. The positions are elected, but voluntary; councilors are not paid. Elections for the chief and council are held every four years. Votes are cast in the traditional manner, using a basket, peas, and corn kernels. On election night, the basket is passed for each candidate; every voter places in it either a pea, indicating a vote against the candidate, or a corn kernel, indicating a vote in favor. The peas and corn kernels are tallied for each candidate; the person with the most corn is elected. The chief is elected first, followed by the seven councilors.