Powhatan (d. 1618)


Powhatan, whose given name was Wahunsonacock, was the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, a political alliance of Virginia Indians whose core six groups all settled along the James, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey rivers. Introduced to the Jamestown colonists in 1607 as Powhatan, he was for a decade the most powerful point of contact for the English; in 1614, the marriage of his daughter, Pocahontas, to John Rolfe, helped end, at least temporarily, years of war. Coming to power in Powhatan, the Powhatan Indians’ principal frontier town on the James River, Wahunsonacock likely was raised much as any other Algonquian-speaking Indian would have been—learning archery and hunting from the men of his village. By 1607, he was paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, having expanded it, through a combination of force and diplomacy, to between twenty-eight and thirty-two tribes and petty chiefdoms. Powhatan negotiated with the English, and especially John Smith, attempting to reach accommodation with the colonists and, when he could not, attempting to intimidate or kill them. In 1609, he moved his capital from Werowocomoco to Orapax, which was farther west, and intensified his efforts to kill Smith and expel the English. Pocahontas’s marriage ended that stage of the conflict, and relations were peaceful until Powhatan’s death in 1618. When his brother, Opechancanough, became leader of Tsenacomoco, he launched the attack that inaugurated the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632).

Early Years

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.

Paramount Chief

Map of Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom

By 1607 and the arrival of the Jamestown settlers, Powhatan ruled Tsenacomoco, an alliance of twenty-eight to thirty-two tribes and petty chiefdoms anchored by the Powhatan Indians and five others: the Pamunkey, the Arrohateck, the Appamattuck, the Youghtanund, and the Mattaponi. Powhatan inherited leadership of this group of six and, through some combination of force and diplomacy, dramatically expanded from there. While the core groups were situated along the James, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey rivers, by 1607 Tsenacomoco extended from north of the Rappahannock to the south side of the James, from the fall line to the Eastern Shore.

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

John Smith Map

Powhatan’s eventual subjects in the lower James River likely had contact with Europeans prior to 1607. In 1570, Spanish missionaries, joined by a Virginia Indian who had been baptized Don Luís de Velasco, established a mission among the Chiskiack; when Don Luís returned to his tribe, the Spanish were massacred. During the winter of 1585–1586, an expedition from the English colony at Roanoke that included John White and Thomas Hariot ventured north to the Chesapeake Bay, visiting Skicoac, the principal town of the Chesapeakes. Two decades later, Powhatan told John Smith that his people’s distrust of the English was due to a prophecy, undoubtedly influenced by these events, that a people would come from the lower Chesapeake and destroy the Powhatan.

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.

Smith Rescued by Pocahontas

At this meeting in late December 1607, Powhatan feasted Smith and attempted, in spite of the language barrier, to interview him. The paramount chief also subjected Smith to an ordeal that apparently led him to fear for his life; Smith later wrote that he was only saved by the heroic actions of Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas. Long after this episode entered into American legend, most historians have concluded that it probably never happened, or at least not as Smith described. Rather than trying to kill Smith, Powhatan likely was trying to adopt him through a ritual of mock execution. When it was over, Powhatan offered him the nearby town of Capahosic to rule as a subchief. He also promised to supply the English with food, wives, and anything else they might need.

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].

Powhatan's Mantle

As a result, the English traveled to Werowocomoco, where they displayed their gifts and attempted to crown Powhatan. After dressing him in his new English clothes, Newport and his men asked him to kneel, but again, possibly out of pride, Powhatan refused. Finally, the English, by leaning hard on his shoulders, induced the mamanatowick to bend his knees slightly, at which point Newport quickly fitted the crown on his head. The soldiers fired a salute. In return for these attentions Powhatan gave his old cloak and moccasins to Newport, and presented the English with a few bushels of corn.

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.

The Portraictuer of Captayne John Smith

Soon after, while Smith pillaged the upriver towns of their winter stores, Powhatan abandoned Werowocomoco in favor of Orapax, a more-remote town on the Chickahominy River in the western part of Tsenacomoco. From there, he continued his attempts on Smith’s life. With orders to kill Smith by any means, Powhatan’s men arranged an ambush at the glassworks outside Jamestown, but it failed. The colonists became increasingly uneasy venturing outside their fort, and they suspected the three Germans of spying on behalf of Powhatan. Smith, however, was undeterred and sent two parties out from Jamestown to establish daughter settlements farther up the James. Late in the summer of 1609, he even attempted to purchase from Powhatan the fortified town of Powhatan—the young Wahunsonacock’s hometown—in order to settle English colonists there. Smith’s expansion efforts failed, however, largely because of mutual distrust between the English and the Indians, and the violence that followed. On his way back to Jamestown from the town of Powhatan, Smith was badly injured in a gunpowder explosion. He returned to England in October 1609, but Powhatan’s enmity toward Smith’s people remained undiminished.

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

John Rolfe and Pocahontas

In April 1613, Captain Samuel Argall captured Pocahontas. She had been visiting the Patawomeck town of Passapatanzy, and the weroance there, Iopassus (Japazaws), yielded to Argall’s pressure to hand her over. After transporting Pocahontas back to Jamestown, Argall sent word to Powhatan that his daughter would be released in exchange for a return of all weapons seized from the fort by Indians, as well as all Englishmen living—either voluntarily or involuntarily—with the Powhatan. The paramount chief responded that he would seek the advice of his council. Three months later, he returned to Jamestown seven men, each carrying a by-now useless gun, and the offer of five hundred bushels of corn on the return of his daughter. The English declined and, hearing nothing back after several more months, sailed up the York and Pamunkey rivers with Pocahontas. Against some resistance, they managed to burn a village and the surrounding fields before arriving at Matchcot, one of Powhatan’s residences. Powhatan was unable to meet them—his health may have been declining—and Opechancanough represented him. During the negotiations it transpired that Pocahontas apparently wanted to marry John Rolfe and remain among the English. Permission was given, and the English returned to Jamestown with their now-willing prize.

Marriage of Pocahontas & Rolfe Puzzle

Since she had converted to the Anglican Church during her captivity, the Jamestown deputy governor, Sir Thomas Dale, also agreed to the union, and the two were married on or about April 5, 1614, likely by one of the two ministers then working in the colony, either Richard Bucke or Alexander Whitaker. Powhatan sent one of Pocahontas’s uncles—possibly her mother’s brother—to witness the marriage. He also rescinded his standing order to attack the English whenever and wherever possible, ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614), and Indians and colonists once again visited each other freely.

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.

Later Years

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.

April 26, 1607
Jamestown colonists first drop anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, and after a brief skirmish with local Indians, begin to explore the James River.
June 25, 1607
By this date, Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, sends an ambassador to Edward Maria Wingfield, president of the Jamestown colony, promising peaceful relations and inviting the Englishmen to plant gardens.
September 1607
By this month, the Jamestown colonists, who landed in April, have exhausted their stores of food and survive only on gifts of food from Powhatan's subchiefs, including Opechancanough.
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.
December 1607
While exploring the upper reaches of the Chickahominy River, John Smith is captured by a communal hunting party under the leadership of Opechancanough.
Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, ambushes the Piankatank Indians for reasons unknown to the English, who find it unnerving. They learn of the attack while visiting Powhatan at Werowocomoco, where they see the hanging scalps of Piankatank men.
February 1608
Christopher Newport and John Smith visit Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, at his capital, Werowocomoco. Powhatan feeds them and their party lavishly, and Newport presents the chief with a suit of clothing, a hat, and a greyhound. The English continue upriver to visit Opechancanough at the latter's request.
June—September 1608
John Smith explores the Chesapeake Bay without Powhatan's permission.
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.
January 1609
John Smith meets with Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, at his capital, Werowocomoco. Against Indian custom, Smith refuses to disarm in Powhatan's presence, and the chief attempts, but fails, to have Smith killed.
Summer 1609
John Smith unsuccessfully attempts to purchase from Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, the fortified town of Powhatan in order to settle English colonists there.
October 1609
John Smith leaves Virginia. The Jamestown colony's new leadership is less competent, and the Starving Time follows that winter.
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 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.
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.
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APA Citation:
Huber, Margaret. Powhatan (d. 1618). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/powhatan-d-1618.
MLA Citation:
Huber, Margaret. "Powhatan (d. 1618)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 25 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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