Tsenacomoco and Jamestown
Archaeological work conducted in 1996–1997 determined that a Patawomeck settlement on Potomac Creek, where the creek empties into the Potomac River at Marlboro Point, dates to around AD 1300. The Algonquian-speakers likely intruded on the area from the north and lived behind a palisade designed to protect them from various warring groups. By 1607, when the first English colonists arrived at Jamestown, the Patawomeck lived north of Accokeek Creek on the south bank of the Potomac River. Their principal town, surrounded by a palisade, was Patawomeck. Based on accounts published in 1612 and 1624, they numbered from 160 to 200 men, and English observers suggested their tribal name translated to “trading place.”
The Patawomeck paid tribute to Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, a political alliance of twenty-eight to thirty-two Algonquian-speaking tribes centered on the James and Pamunkey (York) rivers. Their distance from Powhatan’s seat of power, however, and their proximity to enemies such as the Algonquian-speaking Piscataway, who lived on the Potomac’s north bank, and the Iroquoian-speaking Massawomeck, who used the river to attack from farther up north, forced the Patawomeck to play smart politics. The tribe took advantage of the protection that came with their tribute payment, yet still asserted their independence whenever possible, often playing Powhatan and the English off of each other.
The First Anglo-Powhatan War ended the next year and Powhatan died in 1618. In 1619, Opechancanough likely began pressuring the Patawomeck to participate in a planned attack against English settlements. When the attack was finally launched in March 1622, the Patawomecks remained at home. Late that summer, with the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632) now raging, an English diplomatic visit to the Patawomeck went awry, with the English killing thirty or forty men, women, and children and taking the Patawomeck weroance prisoner. On March 27, 1623, the Nacotchtank Indians, neighbors of the Patawomeck, beheaded Henry Spelman, who was on a trading mission.
It is unknown whether the incident was related to the killings of the Patawomeck or whether the Patawomeck were involved, but Opechancanough hoped that the tribe’s allegiance had turned in his favor. In May 1623 he agreed to meet an English emissary, Captain William Tucker, at the town of Patawomeck. (Some scholars argue that the meeting was, in fact, on the Pamunkey River.) With Patawomeck assistance, Tucker poisoned the drinks of Opechancanough and his party and then fired on the Indians. Opechancanough survived, but just barely. In the autumn of that year, the Patawomeck and the English jointly attacked the Piscataway Indians, and the next summer the Patawomeck may have assisted in a devastating attack against the Pamunkey.
With the end of the Third Anglo-Powhatan War in 1646 and the death of Opechancanough, the English colonists took nearly complete control of Tsenacomoco’s heartland. Their encroachment into Patawomeck territory, however, did not begin in earnest until 1654, when colonists patented 12,600 acres of land in what was then Westmoreland County (later Stafford County). In 1655, the Patawomeck weroance allowed Gerrard Fowke to patent 3,000 acres along Potomac Creek, with permission to build a house, plant crops, and graze cattle. Giles Brent received similar permission for land along Aquia Creek.
By then many Patawomeck Indians had either died of disease or moved away, leaving the planters of Westmoreland County eager to take advantage of the tribe’s relative weakness. Brent overstepped the limits of his agreement and the dispute was heard in the county court in August 1658. (Brent’s mother was a Piscataway Indian; the Piscataway were traditional enemies of the Patawomeck.) In 1661 the deputy governor, Francis Moryson, worried about war with the Patawomeck, appointed a committee to mediate the dispute. In 1662, a group of Westmoreland planters—Brent, Fowke, John Lord, and Captain George Mason (great-grandfather to the Revolutionary-era George Mason)—attempted to frame the Patawomeck weroance, Wahanganoche, for murder. After the House of Burgesses appointed a special committee to deal with the situation, the chief was freed.
The planters were not deterred. In 1663 Fowke raised a militia and led it against the Patawomeck without consent of the General Assembly. The burgesses responded not only by making the county pay for the war’s expense, but also by passing legislation in September 1663 that required the Patawomeck to return any English hostages. Two years later the assembly reserved to the governor the power to appoint all tribal weroances and required that the Patawomeck sell all of their remaining land for the site of a fort. In 1666, the governor’s Council declared war on the Patawomeck, calling for “their utter destruction if possible and that their women and children and their goods … shall be taken to be disposed of.” A 1669 census recorded no Patawomeck warriors, and the tribe disappeared from all colonial records.
Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries
Despite the disappearance of the name “Patawomeck” from historical records after 1669, the Patawomeck people persisted as a community. After the war against the Patawomecks in 1666, many of the men within the tribe were likely killed, and most of the women and children, who were not already living in English families, were probably enslaved. Others who escaped the English likely joined with nearby existing coalescent Indian groups such as the Doegs, Nanzaticos, and Portobagos. Evidence for this comes in the form of ceramic types, including Potomac Creek ceramics, representing various communities of practice coming together at sites such as Camden, Baylor, and Deshazo along the Rappahannock River in the late seventeenth century. Though viewed as singular groups by the English, these coalescent communities fostered distinct identities through daily practices and beliefs, helping to maintain vestiges of their previous tribal affiliations, and breaking off from the larger groups or moving as the situation required.
For the Patawomecks, like many Virginia Indians, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were defined by movement, fission, and fusion as they began to adapt to the new cultural and social landscape brought about by colonization. Eventually, by the early nineteenth century, the majority of tribal ancestors had settled in the White Oak and Passapatanzy areas of Stafford and King George counties, along Potomac Creek and not far from their ancestral villages. At one time a bustling area, the Patawomecks were able to maintain strong social and community boundaries in the White Oak area through intermarriage and community organizations, such as White Oak Church. The socially bounded and rural nature of the Patawomeck community around Potomac Creek in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries aided in its persistence by allowing cultural borders to be maintained and ancient subsistence practices to continue. Fishing, farming, and forestry were the most common occupations of Patawomeck people well into the 1900s, as had been the case for countless centuries, and served to reinforce community bonds and Indigenous knowledge of the lands and waters. Starting in the early 1900s and continuing to today, scholars from institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, the Smithsonian Institution, the College of William and Mary, and American University have recorded and published on aspects of Patawomeck life and culture.
Like other Virginia Indians, the Patawomeck faced threats to their identity and culture from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and subsequent legislation banned 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 Pocahontas and John Rolfe 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.” It essentially erased Virginia Indians as a category of people under the law.
The tribe nevertheless took steps to assert its identity. The tribe appealed directly to the General Assembly and was granted recognition on February 16, 2010.
The tribe is governed by a chief and is based in Stafford County.