Political Organization in Early Virginia Indian Society


Political organization in early Virginia Indian society likely was similar across the several distinct and culturally diverse groups that lived in the area; however, due to the records left by the English colonists, the most is known about the Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco. The alliance’s six core groups lived along the James, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey rivers, with their capital, Werowocomoco, situated on the present-day York River. Each constituent group consisted of one or more towns ruled by a weroance, or chief, whose position was inherited matrilineally. For guidance, the weroance consulted his council, or cockarouses, and whenever he acted he was first obligated to seek the approval of his one or more kwiocosuk, or shamans. The mamanatowick, or paramount chief, ruled all of Tsenacomoco and likely combined the authority of weroance and kwiocosuk. He lived an opulent and exalted life—bejeweling himself in necklaces, bracelets, and a crown and traveling with a fifty-man bodyguard—but he was not an absolute ruler. He, too, consulted his council and, lacking a standing army or police force, he was not always able to enforce his will on subordinates. In the end, the ultimate authority in Tsenacomoco was religious, not political. Although the paramount chief was seen to own all of the land and its wealth, the shamans were empowered to intervene with the gods, mollifying them with sacrifices on the occasion of famine, flood, or other disasters.

Chiefdoms and Other Organizations

When the English landed at Jamestown in 1607, several distinct groupings of Indians populated the area of present-day Virginia. The Powhatan Indians occupied the Tidewater between the south bank of the James River and the north bank of the Rappahannock River; the Chickahominy and Patawomeck Indians lived along the Chickahominy and Potomac rivers, respectively; the Saponi, Mannahoac, and the Monacan Indians claimed the Piedmont east of the Shenandoah Valley; and the Meherrin and Nottoway Indians lived south of the James River.

Although these groups were culturally and linguistically diverse, and often at war with one another, they shared basic political systems. The people lived in towns of between two and twenty households, with each town ruled by a chief and his council. The towns, in turn, formed either confederacies (loose, voluntary associations) or paramount chiefdoms ruled by a paramount chief, whose council included the subchiefs. Although individual towns made their own decisions about when to hold some rituals or how to discipline the unruly, they worked together to decide such issues as when to go to war. The Meherrin Indians were an exception in that they seem to have occupied only a single town at first contact. The Powhatans, by contrast, occupied so many towns and so much territory that they better resembled an empire than a confederacy. Further, much of this territory was obtained through warfare or threat of warfare and not through voluntary associations. With the centralization of power within the inherited position of mamanatowick, most anthropologists consider the Powhatans as a paramount chiefdom.

The Powhatan chiefdom, known as Tsenacomoco, began as a group consisting of the town Powhatan near the James River’s falls plus five other groups: the Pamunkey, the Arrohateck, the Appamattuck, the Youghtanund, and the Mattaponi. Powhatan, who served as the paramount chief, or mamanatowick, from sometime before 1607 until his death in 1618, likely inherited leadership of this alliance and, through a combination of force and diplomacy, expanded it to include twenty-eight to thirty-two tribes and petty chiefdoms. Each was ruled by a chief, or weroance, and because some were brought into Tsenacomoco by force, they showed no great allegiance to each other or to the paramount chief, often warring with one another or attempting to ally themselves with the English.

Tsenacomoco was defined by these more or less willing alliances and not by physical boundaries. With the six core groups situated along the James, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey rivers, Powhatan’s capital of Werowocomoco on the York served as Tsenacomoco’s spiritual and political center. Those towns and peoples closest to the capital—including the powerful, thousand-strong Pamunkey Indians, ruled by Powhatan’s younger brother Opechancanough—apparently identified most strongly with Tsenacomoco. Those farthest, such as the Patawomecks, have occasioned debate among historians and anthropologists over whether they were members of the paramount chiefdom at all. In any case, the English would make firm allies of the Potomac River and Eastern Shore chiefdoms within a decade and a half of Jamestown’s founding.

The Chickahominy Indians were notable for not immediately joining Tsenacomoco, in spite of their relatively central location, and for not following the chief-council style of government. A fairly large group of perhaps 1,500 people, they lived on both sides of the Chickahominy River. It’s possible that Powhatan attempted and failed to integrate them into his alliance, although about the year 1616 Opechancanough, in an impressive feat of diplomacy, convinced them to join by playing them against the English. The Chickahominies did not recognize any one weroance, and instead were ruled by a council of elders that included their kwiocosuk, or shamans. Even while they were outside Tsenacomoco, the Chickahominies nevertheless sent the paramount chief tribute and warriors in exchange for gifts of beads and copper. They did not, however, send a representative to sit on the mamanatowick’s council, and on occasion Powhatan had to pay them to join his warriors.


Each of the groups in Tsenacomoco was ruled by a weroance, or chief. The position was inherited through the female line: from eldest to youngest brother, then from eldest to youngest sister, and then to the eldest son of the eldest sister, and so on. That meant that most weroances the English met were men (the term for female chief was weroansqua). The senior brother, the district weroance, lived at the district’s most important town; his younger siblings (including, in at least one case, his sister), ruled in the subordinate towns or villages. The district weroance had a council of his own, with positions earned through feats of skill or bravery, and in turn he served on the paramount chief’s council, which ranked even higher in honor. Councillors both advised weroances and executed their orders.

A weroance had a variety of responsibilities. The families within his chiefdom held land in common, and it’s possible that the weroance allotted specific tracts to specific families, who used them for gardening and hunting. As a result, families found it best to be in the good graces of their weroance in order to ensure the means to support themselves. The chief occasionally acted as a judge, hearing complaints and punishing the guilty. While murderers and thieves were sometimes sentenced to death—sacrificed, perhaps, to the main deity, Okee—others were beaten with cudgels, or short clubs. The weroance also served as a military leader, arranging for his towns’ defense or calling for raids on neighbors. Often such raids were motivated by a desire to replace those killed in war with enemy captives, who were sacrificed to Okee. Providing sacrifices as a means of keeping the gods well disposed toward the Powhatans was one of the weroance‘s most significant obligations.

By definition the weroance was wealthy; the word itself means someone who is rich and esteemed. In addition to being the result of his own efforts, the wealth came from tribute, usually in exchange for land. Tribute consisted of deerskins, pearl and shell beads, corn and other foodstuffs, copper, and the puccoon root that the Powhatans used to make red body paint. Some of these treasures became the personal ornaments of the chief. He might wear one or more pearl or shell necklaces, or a copper gorget (a collar or piece of armor protecting the throat); he might also wear a headdress constructed of, on the left side, a half-circle of red-dyed deer’s hair and, on the right, a copper half-circle. Mostly, though, the weroance’s wealth was not used for his personal aggrandizement but for the betterment of the community. He might use copper and beads to induce warriors to fight and to reward them when successful. He presented necklaces or bracelets of pearls to political subordinates, including emissaries to other chiefs, as symbols of his trust. He also used his wealth to perform the necessary function of entertaining visitors with lavish feasts and providing them with sleeping quarters and female companions. Upon the chief’s death, his copper and beads were placed with his body in the temple.

The weroance was a quasi-religious figure. He had a responsibility to provide the kwiocosuk, or shamans, with housing, food, clothing, and firewood, and otherwise safeguard the quiocosins, or temples. Unlike common Indians, the weroance could visit the quiocosin without arousing the anger of Okee; he could also participate in rituals. The colonist John Smith‘s lengthy description of a male initiation at Quiyoughcohannock, on the south side of the James, mentions the weroance leading the dance and prodding those who lagged behind. When he died, the weroance‘s bones were kept in the quiocosin.


The mamanatowick was the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, and because the word apparently refers to a spiritual presence, his status likely was at least as religious as it was political; the colonists suggested that the Indians considered him to be semi-divine. Although his responsibilities were similar to those of a weroance, the paramount chief lived an even more opulent life. Powhatan enjoyed an unusually large house, with a raised platform at one end piled high with woven reed mats, on which he sat when giving audience. He employed a bodyguard of fifty men, and four night sentinels kept watch over his house. Archaeological investigation suggests that the site of Werowocomoco had been inhabited for several centuries at the time Powhatan took up his residence there, and it seems always to have been a place of unusual spiritual power. (In response to English incursions, Powhatan moved his capital farther west to Orapax in 1609; Opechancanough, who was paramount chief from around 1630 until his death in 1646, located his capital somewhere well up the Pamunkey River.)

Like his weroances, the mamanatowick had a store of treasure, but his was much larger; Powhatan stored his near the quiocosin at Uttamussak. Likewise, he wore much more ornamentation than his weroances, usually in the form of furs and pearl necklaces. His household, too, used many items acquired by trade with distant peoples, rather than the local wares found in the houses of his subjects.

Despite the exalted nature of his existence, the mamanatowick was not an absolute ruler. He made no decisions without the advice of his council, or cockarouse, and issues involving punishment, war and peace, or the reception of visitors required lengthy discussion. While the English saw the grisly results of Powhatan’s 1608 attack on the Piankatank Indians, or heard how, around 1596, he had violently driven off the Kecoughtans and replaced them with those more loyal to him, Powhatan nevertheless was powerless to return Opechancanough’s favorite wife, who had been seduced by another weroance. Still, the Powhatans considered the mamanatowick owner of all Tsenacomoco.

Like the weroances, Powhatan had many wives, some of whom traveled with him. He chose them from towns all over his dominions, allowing the mamanatowick to instill loyalty through family connections, which would be more important yet if a wife were the sister of a chief. Then, due to matrilineal inheritance, the son of such a union would succeed his mother’s brother, or Powhatan’s subordinate weroance. Thus, if Powhatan’s brother-in-law were to die, Powhatan would ideally be dealing with his own son. In due course, Powhatan and his brothers would be succeeded as mamanatowick by their eldest sister’s son, who would be a cousin—the father’s sister’s son—to many of his subordinate weroances. The practice would have ensured close, long-term family alliances throughout Tsenacomoco, although it was disrupted by the arrival of the English.


The English colonists made it clear that at the time Jamestown was established and for at least a century afterward the ultimate authority in Powhatan society was religious. (Whether the neighboring Meherrins, Nottoways, Monacans, and Saponis accorded the same responsibilities to their religious men has not been recorded.) The kwiocosuk, or shamans, acted as intermediaries with the spirit world. Through trance, they could discover why a god had caused disasters such as famine, flood, epidemic, or internal dissension, and offer suitable sacrifices designed to mollify that god and restore order. Shamans also were empowered to identify thieves and cure the sick. Some were reported to have taken part in military activities, holding an image of their main god, Okee, on a pole at the head of an armed force.

Kwiocosuk also acted as advisors to their weroance. The chief required their approval for his activities; likewise, if the shamans learned from their spiritual contacts that a certain course of action was advisable, the weroance had little option but to carry it out. Thus, as the council was subordinate to the weroance, so the weroance was to the shamans. The mamanatowick may have been an exception to this arrangement. As a near-divine figure, he likely combined the spiritual authority of a shaman with the executive power of a weroance. If this is true, then the seven kwiocosuk living at the chief religious center at Uttamussak were religious councillors to Powhatan and not—as in the case of the constituent groups—his political superiors.

After English Contact

Traditional leaders remained in place—weroances or, for the Chickahominy, elders—until around the 1720s. The last hereditary Pamunkey rulers, from 1656 onward, were women (Cockacoeske and Ann). The onslaught of English occupation severely reduced the prestige of both leaders and the priests who advised them, and they ultimately faded from history, being replaced in the surviving tribes by conclaves of the adult men. “Headmen” (and a “female chief” for the Nottoways) emerged later yet, in the 1830s. Powhatan headmen became elected chiefs from the late nineteenth century onward. The two reservations, Pamunkey and Mattaponi, have male-only suffrage as of the beginning of the twenty-first century; the “citizen” tribes, upon organizing formally in the twentieth century, instituted universal suffrage for their elections. Tribal officers in Virginia still tend to be male, although that has begun to change with a female chief among the Rappahannocks and several women on their and other tribal councils. Tribal meetings are held at regular intervals, with the chairman (officially designated the Chief—not a pejorative term in Virginia) presiding, and nowadays they are conducted using Robert’s Rules of Order.

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APA Citation:
Huber, Margaret. Political Organization in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/political-organization-in-early-virginia-indian-society.
MLA Citation:
Huber, Margaret. "Political Organization in Early Virginia Indian Society" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 26 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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