Pamunkey Indian Tribe

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More than 400 years after the first permanent English settlers encountered these Indians, the Pamunkey Nation was finally granted federal recognition in 2015.

Official Tribal Name: Pamunkey Indian Tribe

Address: Route 1, P.O. Box 226, King William, VA 23086
Phone: 804-843-3526
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Official Website: www.pamunkey.net

Recognition Status: Federally Recognized

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Alternate names / Alternate spellings: Virginia Algonquians, Powhatan, Powatan

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Region: Northeast

State(s) Today: Virginia

Traditional Territory: The Pamunkey territory was about 8,000 square miles in what is now eastern Virginia. They called this land Tsenacommacah, meaning “densely inhabited land.” They say they have been at their present location in King William, Virginia since the Ice Ages.

Confederacy: Powhatan Confederacy

Treaties: The Pamunkey exacted a deed for their reservation from the Virginia assembly in 1677. This treaty is recorded in the Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia. The present chief and council retain a copy of it, which is quoted in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (vol. v, pp. 189-195). It explicitly mentions the rights of the Indians, permitting “oystering, fishing, gathering tuckahoe, curtenemmons (the Pamunkey word for the dock plant), wild oats, rushes, and puckwone.’”

The treaty also alludes to the return of white children and slaves among the Indians and forbids any further enslavement of Indians.

There were known to have been subsequent records of dealings with the Indians preserved in the archives of King William Court House, but these were destroyed when the court house was burned by Northern troups during the Civil War.

Reservations: Pamunkey Indian Reservation
Land Area: 300 acres
Tribal Headquarters: King William, VA 
Time Zone: Eastern

Of the remnant tribes in Virginia, the Pamunkey have long formed the social backbone. They have retained their internal government, their social tradition and geographical position as the people of Powhatan. Their village is one mile from the station of Lester Manor, about twenty miles east of Richmond. It comprises an area of some three hundred acres almost surrounded by a curve of the Pamunkey River. Much of it is a virgin swamp which constitutes the tribal hunting ground.

Population at Contact: It is estimated that there were about 14,000–21,000 Powhatan people in eastern Virginia when the English settled Jamestown in 1607.

Registered Population Today: About 150

Tribal Enrollment Requirements: Ancestry must be traced to a specific group of historical Pamunkey Tribal members identified by both the Pamunkey Tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  They require pre-existing mutual socialization with the Pamunkey tribal body and its members to a level determined satisfactory by the Pamunkey Tribe.

Genealogy Resources: Many of the First Families of Virginia have both English and Virginia Indian ancestry.

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Name of Governing Body: Council
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Number of Executive Officers: Chief, Assistant Chief

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Language Classification: Algic -> Algonquian -> Eastern Algonquian

Language Dialects: Powhatan

Number of fluent Speakers: Powhatan became extinct around the 1790s after speakers switched to English during their interactions with the settlement of Jamestown.  Like many Algonquian languages, Powhatan did not have a writing system.

Dictionary: The sole documentary evidence for this language is two short word lists recorded around the time of first European contact. William Strachey recorded about 500 words and Captain John Smith recorded only about 50 words. Smith also reported the existence of a pidgin form of Powhatan, but virtually nothing is known of it.

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Wahunsunacawh had inherited control over six tribes, but dominated more than thirty by 1607, when the English settlers established their Virginia Colony at Jamestown. The original six tribes under Wahunsunacock were: the Powhatan (proper), the Arrohateck, the Appamattuck, the Pamunkey, the Mattaponi, and the Chiskiack.

He added the Kecoughtan to his fold by 1598. Some other affiliated groups included the Youghtanund, Rappahannocks, Moraughtacund, Weyanoak, Paspahegh, Quiyoughcohannock, Warraskoyack, and Nansemond. Another closely related tribe of the same language group was the Chickahominy, but they managed to preserve their autonomy from the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom. The Accawmacke, located on the Eastern Shore across the Chesapeake Bay, were nominally tributary to the Powhatan Chiefdom, but enjoyed autonomy under their own Paramount Chief Debedeavon (aka “The Laughing King”).

Related Tribes: The Indians on the Mattaponi River, only about ten miles from the Pamunkey, appear to have been closely affiliated with the Pamunkey, and the recent history of the two bands has been practically identical. There are about 75 in the Mattaponi village near Wakema who are completely merged in blood with the Pamunkey, through inter-marriage, and no differences in community life can be observed between them. The Mattaponi are also reservation Indians. Their deed, in the possession of the chief, dates also to 1658. These are the only two tribes with reservations in the state of Virginia.

Traditional Allies: The Powhatan were a series of about 30 townships or villiages called chiefdoms. Each chiefdom was ruled by its own weroance (male chief) or weroansqua (female chief), both more correctly meaning “commander,” who paid tribute to a mamanatowick (paramount chief) named Wahunsunacawh (called Chief Powhatan by the Europeans) because he formed the alliance in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Pamunkey township was ruled by Opechancanough, who was Chief Powhatan’s brother.

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Historical Leaders:

Chief Powhatan (Wahunsenacawh or  Wahunsunacock) – Paramount Chief of all the Powhatan villages.

Don Luis a.k.a. Opechancanough – Brother of Powhatan, chief of the Pamunkey village.

Pocahontas – Legendary daughter of Chief Powhatan who is credited with saving the life of Captain John Smith, and later married John Rolfe.
Pocahontas Profile for Kids
The Real Pocahontas
Pocahontas, Pamunkey(1595?-1617)
New books for kids excavate facts about Pocahontas, Jamestown colony
The Princess Prisoner
Pocahontas, Child of Peace
I’m related to Pocahontas. Can I enroll in her tribe?

Queen Anne, (ca. 1650-ca. 1725) – The widow of Totopotomoi, the Pamunkey chief, Queen Anne became the chief of the tribe following the death of her husband during the battle in which he supported the English against other Indian warriors. Read more: AAA Native Arts – AAA Native Arts http://www.aaanativearts.com/#ixzz3gBKoJaMb

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Tribe History: The Pamunkey under Powhatan figured most prominently in the events connected with the founding of Jamestown and the explorations by Captain John Smith.

After Chief Powhatan’s death in 1618, hostilities with colonists escalated under the chiefdom of his brother, Opechancanough. His large-scale attacks in 1622 and 1644 resulted in the near extinction of the tribe. By 1646, what is called the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom by modern historians had been decimated. More important than the ongoing conflicts with the English settlements was the high rate of deaths the Powhatan suffered due to new infectious diseases carried to North America by Europeans, such as measles and smallpox.

By the mid-17th century, the leaders of the Jamestown colony were desperate for labor to develop the land. Almost half of the English and European immigrants arrived as indentured servants. As settlement continued, the colonists imported growing numbers of enslaved Africans for labor. By 1700, the colonies had about 6,000 black slaves, one-twelfth of the population. It was common for black slaves to escape and join the surrounding Powhatan; some white servants were also noted to have joined the Indians.

Africans and whites worked and lived together; some natives also intermarried with them. After Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, the colony enslaved Indians for control. In 1691, the House of Burgesses abolished Indian slavery; however, many Powhatan were held in servitude well into the 18th century.

In the 21st century, eight Indian tribes are officially recognized by Virginia as having ancestral ties to the Powhatan confederation. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi are the only two peoples who have retained reservation lands from the 17th century. The Powhatan Renape Nation has been recognized by the state of New Jersey. The competing cultures of the Powhatan and English settlers were united through unions and marriages of members, of which the most well known was that of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Their son Thomas Rolfe was the ancestor of many Virginians.

In the News:

Virginia’s Pamunkey Indian tribe granted federal recognition

Further Reading:

Pamunkey Speaks: Native Perspectives – Without complaint and with considerable humor, these stories relate how the Pamunkey gained their education, worked the river, defended their country, and today honor their heritage.