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.
These factors were interdependent. A reliance on agriculture led to an increase in population and the need for better farmland. The Little Ice Age, meanwhile, shortened growing seasons, especially in the north, making good land more difficult to obtain. This led to instability, especially among the Iroquoian-speaking Indians in present-day New York. The Susquehannocks lost that competition for land and were pushed south, raiding the upper Potomac River and the Shenandoah Valley. The Indians in Tidewater Virginia largely escaped the conflict, in part by banding together into chiefdoms and, eventually, paramount chiefdoms. Internal factors, in addition to or instead of outside incursions, may also have played a role. In the mid- to late 1500s, Powhatan inherited control over the core six tribes of Tsenacomoco: the Powhatans, the Youghtanunds, the Mattaponis, the Pamunkeys, the Arrohatecks, and the Appamattucks. (The Indians of Tsenacomoco are sometimes called, simply, the Powhatans, after the paramount chief and the tribe or group from which he hailed.)
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
With a more settled, agricultural lifestyle and a central political authority came more distinct geographical boundaries. Tsenacomoco stretched from the south bank of the James River—called the Powhatan River by the Indians—north to the south bank of the Potomac River. On the west, Tsenacomoco was bounded by the fall line, and on the east by the Chesapeake Bay. The Indians on the Eastern Shore were not always reliably under Powhatan’s control. Neither, for that matter, were the Patawomecks in the north. Tsenacomoco’s boundaries, in other words, were not fixed but tended to reflect the reach of the paramount chief’s power and influence at any given moment. Still, as the historian April Hatfield has pointed out, Tsenacomoco’s boundaries remained generally consistent and were largely co-opted by the English, serving as the early and unofficial borders of the new Virginia colony.
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 name of Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom was reported by the early Jamestown settler William Strachey, who wrote in his Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia that Powhatan’s people called their land “Tsenacommacah.” The anthropologist Frederic W. Gleach has translated this to mean “densely inhabited place,” citing earlier work by the scholars David Beers Quinn and James Geary that suggests that the word’s base means “land dwelt upon,” “dwelling house,” or “house site,” while its prefix, tsen-, means “close together.” Geary himself has written that Tsenacomoco means “a nearby dwelling-place,” while the anthropologist Rountree has suggested “our place.”
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.”
Like other Algonquian speakers along the East Coast, the people of Tsenacomoco took their living from the rivers and forests. Women gathered wild plants and firewood, tended the fields or gardens of corn and beans, and did the cooking. Hunting and fishing were men’s work. The English described the men, who ran and walked extensively through the woods in pursuit of enemies or game, as tall and lean with handsome physiques. Whether inside or outside of Tsenacomoco’s boundaries, tribes hunted within prescribed limits. Stalking game in another tribe’s territory sometimes elicited retaliation. These and other invisible demarcations sometimes confused the English. The Indians of Tsenacomoco did not fence in their fields, and they cleared more land of trees than they actually farmed. The remaining land became home to various wild grains, edible greens, and medicinal plants—all important to the Indians. The English, however, considered such land “unimproved” and, therefore, subject to seizure.
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.
Towns were located near garden plots and on high ground close to watercourses. Some towns were enclosed within light palisades for protection against enemies; Powhatan’s hometown, located on Tsenacomoco’s frontier, was an example, as was Pomeiooc, also painted by White. Most towns, however, sprawled over the landscape amongst woods and open space and could not even be seen all at once. This made it difficult for a stranger to estimate the town’s size and thereby how many fighting men it might have.
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.
Tsenacomoco was ruled by the mamanatowick, or paramount chief. When the English arrived in 1607, that position was held by Powhatan (Wahunsonacock), who was probably born around 1550 in the town called Powhatan. After inheriting Tsenacomoco’s core six tribes, he either conquered or persuaded the rest to pay him tribute. Captain John Smith, in The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), described Powhatan as an imposing figure: “He is of personage a tall well proportioned man, with a sower looke, his head somwhat gray, his beard so thinne, that it seemeth none at all, his age neare sixty; of a very able and hardy body to endure any labour.”
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
On April 26, 1607, the ships Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery sailed into the Chesapeake Bay with 144 English men and boys, including crews. A landing party came ashore to reconnoiter at a place they gratefully named Point Comfort. At dusk, Indians attacked and wounded two Englishmen and then retreated under musket fire in the first, inauspicious contact between the English and the people of Tsenacomoco.
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.
Scholars have long wondered why Powhatan did not wipe them out. He could have done so easily, especially in the earlier years when the English were quickly dying from sickness and starvation. (In June 1607, 104 men and boys lived at Jamestown; by the end of the winter, all but 38 were dead.) For at least the first decade, the Indians not only vastly outnumbered the English but also had the advantage in weaponry and woodland-warfare experience. The strangers’ initially terrifying muskets, Powhatan’s men quickly learned, were more to be feared for their noise than for their effectiveness in killing: slow to load, requiring a lighted “match” or wick that might burn out or be put out by rain, and not very accurate. The Powhatan warriors’ method of guerrilla fighting, as well as their accuracy with bows and arrows and their skillful wielding of war clubs and tomahawks in close combat, made them the superior fighting force.
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.
The Englishmen first explored up the James River and wished to go farther, into Monacan territory. Powhatan forbade it, probably concerned that the newcomers might forge an alliance with his enemies. They planted themselves on a low, mosquito-ridden neck of land, drank seasonally brackish water that poisoned them, bickered with each other, and died. During the winter, Opechancanough captured Captain John Smith and brought him to Powhatan, who believed Smith to be the strangers’ leader (he was not, at that point). Powhatan put Smith through what probably was an “adoption” ceremony—Smith later credited Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas with saving his life—to make him a subject weroance. In the summer of 1608, in part to escape the chaos at Jamestown, Smith led two expeditions by boat up the Chesapeake Bay without Powhatan’s permission. He explored for precious metals and the Northwest Passage to the Orient, forged trading agreements with various tribes, and drafted a map of the bay that influenced English settlement for the rest of the century. He also angered Powhatan for not behaving subserviently, and Powhatan soon decided to eliminate Smith and attack the English to force them to leave Tsenacomoco.
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 ties that bound the tribes to the paramount chief’s authority always had been stronger toward Tsenacomoco’s interior and weaker on its edges. With the English expanding their settlements, constructing farms and forts on tribal lands, and moving about Tsenacomoco at will, the threat of dissolution was imminent. On March 22, 1622, Opechancanough led an attack on most of the scattered English settlements, killing many of their inhabitants and inaugurating the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632). His goal likely was to cause them to reduce the size of the colony. With the colonists arriving in ever-increasing, land-hungry, and better-armed numbers, however, Opechancanough’s cause was hopeless.
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.