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Powhatan Indians

Powhatan Indians – Said by Gerard to signify “falls in a current of water,” and applied originally to one tribe but extended by the English to its chief Wahunsonacock, and through him to the body of tribes which came under his sway. Also called:

Powhatan Connections. The Powhatan belonged to the Algonquian linguistic stock, their nearest relatives probably being the Algonquian tribes of Carolina and the Conoy.

Powhatan Location. In the tidewater section of Virginia from Potomac River to the divide between James River and Albemarle Sound, and the territory of the present eastern shore of Virginia. (See also Maryland)

Powhatan Subtribes constituting this group are as follows:

Powhatan Villages

Powhatan History

The Powhatan were visited by some very early explorers, including probably the Cabots in 1498. Their territory was well known to the Spaniards in the latter part of the sixteenth century and a Jesuit mission was established among them in 1570 though soon extinguished by the Indians. In 1607 the Virginia colony was planted on James River and from that time on relations between the Whites and Powhatans were of the most intimate character, friendly at first, but later disturbed by the exactions of the newcomers. Peace was restored for a time by the marriage of Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas to John Rolfe, and lasted until Powhatan’s death in 1618. In 1622 Powhatan’s second successor, Opechancanough, led an uprising against the colonists, as a result of which all of the White settlements except those immediately about Jamestown were destroyed. War continued until 1636 when exhaustion of both sides led to peace, but in 1644 Opechancanough  led another uprising as destructive as the first. He was captured and was killed the same year. The tribes made peace separately, and they were placed upon reservations, where they gradually dwindled away. In 1654 or 1656 the Pamunkey assisted the English in resisting an invasion of some inland people, but the allied army was severely defeated (see Manahoac). In 1675 these Indians were accused of having committed certain depredations, really caused by the Conestoga, and several unauthorized expeditions were led against them by Nathaniel Bacon. In August 1676, a great body of them gathered in a fort near Richmond which was carried by storm, and men, women, and children indiscriminately massacred. Peace was made with the survivors on condition that an annual tribute be paid by each village. In 1722 in a treaty made at Albany between the English and Iroquois, the latter agreed to cease their attacks upon the Powhatan Indians, but the Powhatans already had been greatly reduced and they continued to decline. Those on the eastern shore of Virginia, who had become very much mixed with Negroes, were driven away in 1831 during the excitement caused by the slave rising under Nat Turner. In 1785 Jefferson reported the Powhatan Indians reduced to two tribes, the Pamunkey and Mattapony, embracing only about 15 men, but be must have overlooked great numbers of these Indians, for at the present time there are several bands, including the Chickahominy, Nansemond, Pamunkey, Mattapony, Upper Mattapony, Rappahannock, Wicocomoco, Potomac, Powhatan, and Werowocomoco (Speck, 1925).

Powhatan Population. The Powhatan population was estimated by Mooney (1928) as 9,000 in 1600; Smith (1884) allows them 2,400 warriors; in 1669 a census gave 528 warriors or about 2,000 population, the Wicocomoco being then the largest tribe. In 1705 the Pamunkey by themselves numbered 150 souls. Jefferson in 1785 represented the two tribes which he mentions as having but 15 men; Mooney, however, believed that there must have been a population of something like1,000 because of the number of mixed-bloods still surviving. The census of 1910 returned 115 Chickahominy and 85 Pamunkey. The United States Office of Indian Affairs Report for 1923 includes still other bands, giving in all a population of 822, and Speck (1925) gives the names of 10 bands aggregating 2,118 in 1923. The census of 1930 returned only 203 Indians from Virginia but evidently missed nearly all except the Pamunkey.

Connection in which the Powhatan have become noted. The Powhatan Confederacy is famous as embracing those Indians among whom the first permanent English settlement in North America was made; for the personal character of its chief, Powhatan, who had conquered about 24 tribes, in addition to the 6 under him at his accession, before the appearance of the Europeans; on account of the dealings of the Whites with both Powhatan and his brother Opechancanough, as well as the massacre of the settlers by the latter in 1622 and again in 1644; and not least from the fame attached to Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas. There are post villages named Powhatan in Jefferson County, Alabama; Lawrence County, Arkansas; Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.; McDowell County, West Virginia; a county and county seat of the name in Virginia; Powhatan Point in Belmont County, Ohio; and Powhatan in Brown County, Kansas.