He is of parsonage a tall well proportioned man... his head somwhat gray.... His age neare 60; of a very able and hardybody to endure any labour. What he commandeth they dare not disobey in the least thing. It is strange to see with what great feare and adoration all these people doe obay this Powhatan. For at his feet, they present whatsoever he commandeth, and at the least frowne of his browe, their greatest spirits will tremble with feare: and no marvell, for he is very terrible and tryannous in punishing such as offend him.
- Captain John Smith

Chief Powhatan (1547 – 1618) was the leader of the Algonquin speaking tribes of the Chesapeake Bay from north of the Mattaponi River to the lands south of the James River. His real name was Wahunsonacock, though became known to the settlers as Chief Powhatan, which is to say he was The Chief, and his home village was named Powhatan. He is best remembered for his Powhatan Confederation, for his dealings with Captain John Smith and the settlers, and for being the father of Pocahontas.

The Powhatan Confederation

Powhatan inherited six tribes from his mother, and by the time settlers arrived he had managed to gather a total of thirty-two tribes under his command. He was, by all accounts, a successful and wealthy chief, and the chiefs of all tribes under him offered him payment as tribute. Powhatan had over one hundred wives and an unknown number of children. He had many servants, and a host of over 50 bodyguards. His Confederation consisted of around 12,000 people, of which approximately 3,000 were warriors.

Powhatan was probably a stern man, as Captain Smith notes above, for most leaders are. He was also probably a fair leader (after he combined all the tribes, they followed him faithfully), and was by all accounts a wise and intelligent man. He was the supreme judge of Powhatan law, bearing the rights to pronounce life or death upon those judged.

Powhatan was a warrior chief. Most tribes that eventually fell under the Powhatan Confederation had to be taken by force. During these times of strife, braves of the losing side were often put to death if taken hostage. It was considered a sign of strength for a brave to refuse to cry out. Women and children were kept alive, as they were viewed as the source of strength and future of the Confederation. Truth be told, there are probably many braves who were not killed, as they would be needed for survival. Likewise, there are probably plenty of women and children who, though not killed, served the rest of their lives in a status nearing that of slavery.

By the time the settlers arrived, though, most differences had been worked out. Powhatan reigned supreme and was paid tribute from lesser chiefs, and it was a time of peace and prosperity for his people. The region they lived in was extremely rich in food and other resources, and his people very talented in harvesting them.

Powhatan and Captain John Smith

Initially, relations between European settlers and the Powhatan Confederacy were cooperative. The Powhatan tribes traded food and skins in exchange for various items, with copper being particularly alluring to them.

Both sides recognized each other as a necessary ally, and also a great threat. The Powhatan Confederation found they were suddenly sharing real estate with gun toting foreigners, and the settlers desperately needed Powhatan trade to survive. During the short period where a strained peace was going on, both sides conducted small, guerrilla style raids on each other. It seems that the Powhatan Confederacy’s only tactical failure was to completely misunderstand the colonists’ intentions. Powhatan braves fought for women and children, or for revenge, but not to take land. Land was immense and changing over time, and in their opinion, nobody owned it. By the time Powhatan realized the colonists were engaged in this bizarre land grab, where they intended to take it away and never ever share it again, his Confederacy had already conceded too much.

On one of Captain Smith’s expeditions, he was captured and brought before Chief Powhatan. According to popular modern rumor, Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, talked her father into letting Captain Smith go free. She was only about 11 years old at the time though, so it is generally thought that either Powhatan let Smith go for reasons of his own, or Smith just made up the whole story. See the Pocahontas node for further information.

Powhatan’s brother, Opechancanough, was bolder and less interested in any sort of peace with the white settlers. He conducted all out war with the invaders almost immediately after Powhatan’s death. The repercussions were predictably terrifying for the Powhatan Confederacy. Today, their language is extinct, and there are barely 3,000 of the tribe left alive.

Sources:

  • http://www.powhatan.org/ - The Powhatan Nation
  • http://www.apva.org/ngex/chief.html - Jamestown Rediscovery
  • Encarta Encyclopedia
  • http://falcon.jmu.edu/~ramseyil/vaindianspowindex.htm - Powhatan Indians of Virginia

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