The Commonwealth of Virginia today
recognizes eight tribes of Powhatan's People:



Eastern Chickahominy




United Rappahannock

Upper Mattaponi




Chief Powhatan
(c. 1547—c. 1618)
, whose proper name was Wahunsenacawh or (in seventeenth century English spelling) Wahunsunacock, was the leader of the Powhatan (also spelled Powatan and Powhaten), a powerful tribe of Native Americans, speaking an Algonquian language, who lived in Tenakomakah— which is now tidewater Virginia—at the time of the first English-Native encounters. Powhatan was the father of Pocahontas. He is said to have had over 100 wives.

Powhatan was originally the name of one of the towns where he lived, a location now in the east end of the city of Richmond, Virginia, as the adjacent river (today called the James River). When he created a powerful empire by conquering most of tidewater Virginia, he called himself the Powhatan, often taken as his given name, but actually a title. Another chief village was established at Werowocomoco on the north bank of the York River about 25 miles from where "the river divides" at West Point, Virginia, according to Smith.

Little is known of Powhatan's life before the arrival of English colonists in 1607. He apparently inherited the chiefdom of about 4-5 tribes, with the base at the fall line near Richmond, and through diplomacy and/or force, had assembled a total of about 30 into the Powhatan Confederacy by the early 17th century. In December 1607, English soldier and pioneer, John Smith, one of the colony's leaders, was captured by Opechancanough, the younger brother of Chief Powhatan and was taken to Werowocomoco. According to Smith's account (which in the late 1800s was considered to be fabricated, but since is believed to be mostly accurate—although several highly romanticized popular versions cloud the matter), Pocahontas, Powhatan's younger daughter, is said to have prevented her father from executing Smith. However, it is also believed by some that this was a ritual intended to adopt Smith into the tribe. After Smith left Virginia because of an injury sustained in a gunpowder accident in 1609, the nervous tribe attacked and killed many of the Jamestown residents. The residents fought back, killing over twenty members of the tribe. Although on the opposite side of the York River, Werowocomoco was only 20 miles as the crow flies from Jamestown. 

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Chief Powhatan's Mantle

One of Powhatan's actual cloaks, made of deerskin, decorated with "roanoke" (shell beads). Powhatan presented his old cloak and shoes to the English, after his "coronation" ceremony, as an exchange for those they had put on him. It made its way back to England, where it is still preserved in the Ashmolean Museum, of Oxford. The circles represent the chief towns of the tribes Powhatan controlled. Before some of the shells came off, there were 34 circles.
Guess who is the man in the middle?


For security reasons[citation needed], around 1609, Wahunsunacock shifted his principal capital from Werowocomoco to Orapakes, located about 50 miles west in a swamp at the head of the Chickahominy River, near the modern-day interchange of Interstate 64 and Interstate 295. Sometime between 1611 and 1614, he moved further north to Matchut, in present-day King William County on the north bank of the Pamunkey River, near where his younger brother Opechancanough ruled at Youghtanund. However, within a few years both Chief Powhatan and Pocahontas were dead from disease. The Chief died in Virginia, but Pocahontas died in England, having been captured and married to colonist John Rolfe, a leading tobacco planter. Meanwhile, the English continued to encroach on Powhatan territory. After the death of Wahunsunacock in 1618, his younger brother Opchanacanough became chief, and in 1622 and 1644 he attempted to force the English from Virginia. These attempts invited strong reprisals from the English, ultimately resulting in the near destruction of the tribe. Many of his direct descendants carry the surname Custalow. Through his daughter Pocahontas (and her marriage to the English colonist John Rolfe), he was the grandfather of Thomas Rolfe. As a result of Thomas Rolfe's birth, and his descendants, the Rolfe family is considered one of the First Families of Virginia, one with both English and Native American roots.

Points of Interest:

  • Powhatan's burial mound is now supposedly located on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia.
  • Powhatan County, although located somewhat to the west of their actual territory, was named for Chief Powhatan and his tribe.
  • In the independent City of Richmond, Powhatan Hill is believed, by tradition, to be located near Chief Powhatan's village, although the specific location of the site is unknown.
  • Chief Powhatan's other chief village, Werowocomoco, is an archeological site in Gloucester County, Virginia which has been listed as a National Historic Site.

Powhatan County is a county located in the U.S. state — officially, "Commonwealth" — of Virginia. As of the 2000 census, the population was 22,377. Its county seat is Powhatan. The county is named for the Indian Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas.
  ~ Wickipedia

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