Commonwealth of Virginia today
recognizes eight tribes of Powhatan's People:
(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.
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.
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,
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.
- Powhatan's burial mound is now
supposedly located on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in
- 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
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.