It would be very difficult to provide a history of the Powhatan Indians without providing a history of the entire Powhatan Confederacy. Past and present historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists tend to group the various tribes when documenting history.
The name “Powhatan” refers to the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Virginia tidewater or coastal plain.
By 1607 many of the villages in this area were brought under one rule by the powerful “werowance” or chief, Wahunsunacock, to form the Powhatan empire.
Wahunsunacock was a member and chief of the Pamunkey, the largest of the Virginia tidewater tribes. This paramount chief came from the town of Powhatan, near the falls of the James River and he used his hometown name to refer to himself and his chiefdom.
At the time of English contact the native Tidewater population numbered around 14,000. There were hundreds of settled towns and satellite villages built near the Chesapeake Bay or in the inlets and rivers which flow into it.
These towns and villages were placed along points or other sites that allowed a commanding view of the water and the people, especially enemies, traveling on it.
Waterways were the central avenues of transportation and a major source of food. Because of the abundant source of fish, oysters, clams and waterfowl, the Powhatans did not have to move around as much as tribes further inland.
Over the centuries they settled into agricultural communities, growing corn and other vegetables to supplement the fishing, hunting and foraging of plants for food and medicines.
In his diary, John Smith gives a description of these Indians.
“The men bestowe their times in fishing, hunting, wars and such manlike exercises . . . The women and children do the rest of the worke. They make mats, baskets, pots, morters, pound their corne, make their bread, prepare their victuals, plant their corn, gather their corn, beare al kind of burdens and such like.”
This traditional Woodland Indian practice of women as farmers was perceived by the English as proof of the Indian male’s laziness, even though the men kept busy with year-round hunting and fishing, making traps, stone tools and canoes.
Another practice which surprised the English was the role of women as house builders. Women built homes made of bent saplings covered with woven mats or bark slabs if the family was of higher status.
For larger families or families of high status, the houses were constructed in a long, tunnel-like fashion to which the English gave the name “long houses.”
These houses seemed primitive and flimsy to the colonists but clearly they were better suited than the English ones to the hot Virginia summers and the cold winters.
The central fire in each home was kept smoldering in summer to make it mosquito-free and the woven mats provided partial ventilation.
In winter extra mats or bark and a roaring fire made it quite warm and dry. These homes were also places to keep food stores dry and safe from predators.
The Powhatan Indians moved every few years to better farmland.
The Powhatans, like other coastal Algonquian tribes, did not use fertilizer on their fields, so after a few years each family would move both the fields and their homes to a newly-cleared site nearby.
Gradually, over a couple of decades, a whole town or village would be relocated. The abandoned fields could be used again later by anyone who wanted them, but there was an understanding that this land remained in the stewardship of the tribe.
This concept that unused and open land was a source of food and materials for all to share (at least among non-enemies) was quite different than the European idea of land ownership.
The English assumed that any tract of unoccupied land was available to be claimed which they did quite readily. They then railed against the Powhatans for “trespassing on private property”.
Relations between the Powhatans and the English grew less friendly as the settlers moved to expand the colony.
Settlers began to attack Indian villages, in some cases burning homes and fields. In one instance, they not only destroyed the whole town of Paspahegh, but also killed every Indian including women and children.
This broke the most basic rule of warfare for the Powhatans and their attacks on the English became more severe. The situation continued to worsen until a colonist captured Pocahontas, a favored daughter of the chief Powhatan, in April 1613.
Pocahontas was a member of the Pamunkey tribe.
She was taken to Jamestown where she remained a hostage for about a year, learning English and marrying her tutor, John Rolfe. Their marriage helped to secure a peace agreement between the two cultures for a while.
This period of peaceful relations came to an end after the death of Pocahontas in England and the return of John Rolfe and other colonial leaders in May 1617.
Disease, poor harvests and the growing demand for tobacco lands caused hostilities to resume.
The paramount chief Powhatan died soon after in 1618 and the mantle of power passed officially to his brother Opitchapam, but it was a second brother Opechancanough who held the real authority.
Opechancanough led a major raid on English settlements in March 1622, assuming that the English would react to such a brutal attack in Indian fashion and withdraw from the area altogether. Instead the colonists sent for reinforcements and counter-attacked.
After a decade of intermittent warfare the English colony had grown to about 8,000 while the Powhatan population had fallen to 5,000.
In addition to the killing there were devastating diseases and displacement of tribes as the English pushed further inland seeking more land for the cash crop tobacco.
Opechancanough launched another fierce raid in April 1644.
His warriors killed hundreds of settlers, but the English were so numerous by then they were able to retaliate quickly.
After two years of brutal raids, the Powhatans were unable to hold the English off and Opechancanough was captured and taken to Jamestown. A proud old man of eighty, he refused to admit defeat and sign a treaty.
While still a prisoner, he was shot in the back by an English guard. With his death the Powhatan chiefdom came to an end.
From that time on, the Powhatans and other coastal tribes steadily lost control of their lands and traditional ways of life.
The colonial government allowed many tribes to keep certain areas of land, but none of these “reservations” were large enough to sustain the traditional ways of hunting and gathering.
Because of this, Indians were unable to sustain their independence by farming only and many were forced to work for the English as servants, guides or even as slaves.
Settlers continued to encroach on Indian lands, thus shrinking reservations until the Indians were forced off the land altogether. Many tribes disintegrated or merged with other tribes.
Some Indians chose to assimilate into white society and others joined free black communities.
By the end of the 18th century only two tribes, the Pamunkey and the Accomac, still had land and were officially recognized as Indians.
Even though they seemed invisible to most Virginians, Powhatan tribes have kept their identity and ties with each other.
The Pamunkeys succeeded in maintaining some of their ancestral lands, though it was divided in two parts in the 18th century. Those living along the Mattaponi River formed a separate tribe called the Mattaponi and they were later recognized by the state as such.
In 1901 a tribe called the Chickahominy formed from Indians living off reservations and in 1925 a splinter group, the Eastern Chickahominy, was organized.
Three other tribes – the Nansemond, the Rappahannock and the Upper Mattaponi – came into being, but none of these non-landed tribes were officially recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia until the 1980’s.
Inspired by the success of the Powhatan tribes, an ancient enemy, the Monacans of the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge, gained official status as a tribe in 1989.
Most of its 700 members live in Amherst County and the Lynchburg area.
Both the Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservations, located east of Richmond, welcome visitors.
The Pamunkey Tribe also maintains a museum on the reservation as an excellent educational resource regarding the Pamunkey people and the other tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kathy Spaar is a naturalist with the Fairfax County Park Authority working at Hidden Oaks Nature Center. Kathy offers programs that interpret Indian life in Virginia at the time of European contact, and also presents programs on edible and medicinal plants with a focus on their uses in Native American and European cultures.
Opechancanough or Opchanacanough (1543?-1644) was a tribal chief of the Powhatan Confederacy of what is now Virginia in the United States, and its leader from 1618 until his death in 1644. His name meant “He whose Soul is White” in the Algonquin language.