Powhatan Tribe

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Powhatan Indians (Southern Renape pawd’tan, ‘falls in a current’ of water. – Gerard). A confederacy of Virginian Algonquian tribes. Their territory included the tidewater section of Virginia from the Potomac s. to the divide between James river and Albemarle sound, and extended into the interior as far as the falls of the principal rivers about Fredericksburg and Richmond. They also occupied the Virginia counties east of Chesapeake Bay and possibly included some tribes in lower Maryland. In the piedmont region west of them were the hostile Monacan and Manahoac, while on the south were the Chowanoc, Nottoway, and Meherrin of Iroquoian stock. Although little is known in regard to the language of these tribes, it is believed they were more nearly related to the Delaware than to any of the northern or more westerly tribes, and were derived either from them or from the same stem. Brinton, in his tentative arrangement, placed them between the Delaware and Nanticoke on one side and the Pamptico on the other.

When first known the Powhatan had nearly 200 villages, more than 100 of which are named by Capt. John Smith on his map. The Powhatan tribes were visited by some of the earliest explorers of the period of the discovery, and in 1570 the Spaniards established among then a Jesuit mission, which had but a brief existence. Fifteen years later the southern tribes were brought to the notice of the English settlers at Roanoke island., but little was known of them until the establishment of the Jamestown settlement in 1607. The Indians were generally friendly until driven to hostility by the actions of the whites, when petty warfare ensued until peace was brought about through the marriage of Powhatan’s daughter to John Rolfe, an Englishman. (See Pocahontas). A few years later the Indians were thinned by pestilence, and in 1618 Powhatan died and left the government to Opechancanough. The confederacy seems to have been of recent origin at the period of Powhatan’s succession, as it then included but 7 of the so-called tribes besides his own, all the others having been conquered by himself during his lifetime.

Opechancanough was the deadly foe of the whites, and at once began secret preparations for a general uprising. On Mar. 22, 1622, a simultaneous attack was made along the whole frontier, in which 347 of the English were killed in a few hours, and every settlement was destroyed excepting those immediately around Jamestown, where the whites had been warned in time. As soon as the English could recover from the first shock, a war of extermination was begun against the Indians. It was ordered that three expeditions should be undertaken yearly against then in order that they might have no chance to plant their corn or build their wigwams, and the commanders were forbidden to make peace upon any terms whatever. A large number of Indians were at one time induced to return to their homes by promises of peace, but all were massacred in their villages and their houses burned. The ruse was attempted a second time, but was unsuccessful. The war went on for 14 years, until both sides were exhausted, when peace was made in 1636. The greatest battle was fought in 1625 at Pamunkey, where Gov. Wyatt defeated nearly 1,000 Indians and burned their village, the principal one then existing.

Peace lasted until 1641, when the Indians were aroused by new encroachments of the whites, and Opechancanough, then an aged man, organized another general attack, which he led in person. In a single day 500 whites were killed, but after about a year the old chief was taken and shot. By his death the confederacy was broken up, and the tribes made separate treaties of peace and were put upon reservations, which were constantly reduced in size by sale or by confiscation upon slight pretense. About 1656 the Cherokee from the mountains invaded the lowlands. The Pamunkey chief with 100 of his men joined the whites in resisting the invasion, but they were almost all killed in a desperate battle on Shocco creek, Richmond. In 1669 a census of the Powhatan tribes showed 528 warriors, or about 2,100 souls, still surviving, the Wicocomoco being then the largest tribe, with 70 warriors, while the Pamunkey had become reduced to 50.

In 1675 some Conestoga, driven by the Iroquois from their country on the Susquehanna, entered Virginia and committed depredations. The Virginian tribes were accused of these acts, and several unauthorized expeditions were led against them by Nathaniel Bacon, a number of Indians being killed and villages destroyed. The Indians at last gathered in a fort near Richmond and made preparations for defense. In Aug., 1676, the fort was stormed, and men, women, and children were massacred by the whites. The adjacent stream was afterward known as Bloody run from this circumstance. The scattered survivors asked peace, which was granted on condition of an annual tribute from each village. In 1722 a treaty was made at Albany by which the Iroquois agreed to cease their attacks upon the Powhatan tribes, who were represented at the conference by four chiefs. Iroquois hostility antedated the settlement of Virginia. With the treaty of Albany the history of the Powhatan tribes practically ceased, and the remnants of the confederacy dwindled silently to final extinction. About 1705 Beverley had described them as “almost wasted.” They then had 12 villages, 8 of which were on the Eastern shore, the only one of consequence being Pamunkey, with about 150 souls. Those on the Eastern shore remained until 1831, when the few surviving individuals, having become so much mixed with Negro blood as to be hardly distinguishable, were driven off during the excitement caused by the slave rising under Nat Turner. Some of them had previously joined the Nanticoke. Jefferson’s statement, in his Notes on Virginia, regarding the number and condition of the Powhatan remnant in 1785, are very misleading. He represents them as reduced to the Pamunkey and Mattapony, making altogether only about 15 men, much mixed with Negro blood, and only a few of the older ones preserving the language.

The fact is that the descendants of the old confederacy must then have numbered not far from 1,000, in several tribal bands, with a considerable percentage still speaking the language. They now number altogether about 700, including the Chickahominy, Nandsemond, Pamunkey, and Mattapony (q. v. ) with several smaller bands. Henry Spelman, who was prisoner among the Powhatan for some time, now in the house of one chief and then in that of another, mentions several interesting customs. The priests, he says, shaved the right side o the head, leaving a little lock at the ear, and some of them had beards. The common people pulled out the hairs of the beard as fast as they grew. They kept the hair on the right side of the head cut short, “that it might not hinder them by flappinge about their bow stringe when they draw it to shoot; but on ye other side they let it grow and have a long locke banginge downe there shoulder.” Tattooing was practiced to some extent, especially by the women. Among the better sort it was the custom, when eating, for the men to sit on mats round about the house, to each of whom the women brought a dish, as they did not eat together out of one dish. Their marriage customs were similar to those among other Indian tribes, but, according to Spelman, “ye man goes not unto any place to be married, but ye woman is brought unto him where he dwelleth.” If the present of a young warrior were accepted by his mistress, she was considered as having agreed to become his wife, and, without any further explanation to her family, went to his hut, which became her home, and the ceremony was ended. Polygamy, Spelman asserts, was the custom of the country, depending upon the ability to purchase wives; Burk says, however, that they generally had but one wife. Their burial customs varied according to locality and the dignity of the person. The bodies of their chiefs were placed on scaffolds, the flesh being first removed from the bones and dried, then wrapped with the bones in a mat, and the remains were then laid in their order with those of others who had previously died. For their ordinary burials they dug deep holes in the earth with very sharp stakes, and, wrapping the corpse in the skins, laid it upon sticks in the ground and covered it with earth.

They believed in a multitude of minor deities, paying a kind of worship to everything that was able to do them harm beyond their prevention, such as fire, water, lightning, and thunder, etc. They also had a kind of chief deity variously termed Okee, Ouioccos, or Kiwasa of whom they made images, which were usually placed in their burial temples. They believed in immortality, but the special abode of the spirits does not appear to have been well defined.

The office of werowance, or chieftaincy, appears to have been hereditary through the female line, passing first to the brothers, if there were any, and then to the male descendants of sisters, but never in the male line. The Chickahominy, it is said, had no such custom nor any regular chief, the priests and leading men ruling, except in war, when the warriors selected a leader.

According to Smith, “their houses are built like our arbors, of small young sprigs, bowed and tied, and so close covered with mats or the bark of trees very handsomely, that notwithstanding wind, rain, or weather they are as warm as stoves, but very smoky, yet at the top of the house there is a hole made for the smoke to go into right over the fire.”
According to White’s pictures they were oblong, with a rounded roof (see Habitations). They varied in length from 12 to 24 yds., and some were as much as 36 yds. long, though not of great width. They were formed of poles or saplings fixed in the ground at regular intervals, which were bent over from the sides so as to form an arch at the top. Pieces running horizontally were fastened with withes, to serve as braces and as supports for bark, mats, or other coverings. Many of their towns were enclosed with palisades, consisting of posts planted in the ground and standing 10 or 12 ft high. The gate was usually an overlapping gap in the circuit of palisades. Where great strength and security were required, a triple stockade was sometimes made. These inclosing walls sometimes encompassed the whole town; in other cases only the chief’s house, the burial house, and the more important dwellings were thus surrounded.

They appear to have made considerable advance in agriculture, cultivating 2 or 3 varieties of maize, beans, certain kinds of melons or pumpkins, several varieties of roots, and even 2 or 3 kinds of fruit trees.

They computed by the decimal system. Their years were reckoned by winters, cohonks, as they called them, in imitation of the note of the wild geese, which came to them every winter. They divided the year into five seasons, viz, the budding or blossoming of spring; earing of corn, or roasting-ear time; the summer, or highest sun; the corn harvest, or fall of the leaf, and the winter, or cohonk. Months were counted as moons, without relation to the number in a year; but they arranged them so that they returned under the same names, as the moon of stags, the corn moon, first and second moon of cohonks (geese), etc. They divided the day into three parts, “the rise, power, and lowering of the sun.” They kept their accounts by knots on strings or by notches on a stick.

The estimate of population given by Smith is 2,400 warriors. Jefferson, on the basis of this, made their total population about 8,000.

For Further Study:

In addition to the authorities found in Arber’s edition of Smith’s Works, consult Mooney, Willoughby, Gerard, and Bushnell in American Anthropology, ix, no. 1, 1907.



MLA Source Citation:

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 26 August 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/powhatan-tribe.htm - Last updated on Oct 12th, 2011


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