What is the Powhatan Tribe?

Brenda Scott

The Powhatan Tribe was a group of Native Americans located in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia. The first European contact with the tribe occurred in the mid to late 16th century when Spanish explorers traveled the area. The bulk of the information we have of them, however, comes from Captain John Smith and other settlers from Jamestown, Virginia. "Powhatan" or "Powhatan Chiefdom" was the name of a large federation of Virginia Indians, with the Powhatan Tribe as one specific tribe within this larger group.

Settlers from the colony of Jamestown encountered the Powhatan Tribe.
Settlers from the colony of Jamestown encountered the Powhatan Tribe.

Like other northern Indian tribes, the Powhatan Tribe lived in longhouses made of bent saplings covered with bark. Their villages, ranging in size from two to 100 dwellings, were placed in the middle of their fields. In addition to farming, they fished, hunted and gathered nuts and plants from the woods.

The Powhatans lived in Virginia's Chesapeake Bay area.
The Powhatans lived in Virginia's Chesapeake Bay area.

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Powhatan villages were placed along rivers which formed the primary means of transportation. They used dugout canoes formed from large trees. When traveling by land, they would often take dogs along as pack animals. Their clothing consisted of breechcloths and leggings for the men and skirts for the women. Both men and women wore long hair, earrings and tattoos.

Unlike the Indian tribes in neighboring areas who belonged to the Iroquois Confederacy and had a democratic form of government, the Powhatan tribes were very autocratic. At the time Jamestown was founded, the Powhatan Tribe was ruled by Wahunsonakok, a powerful chief who had conquered and claimed over 30 different Indian bands living in as many as 100 different villages to form the Powhatan Chiefdom. While each band still had a chief, they were all required to pay tribute to Wahunsonakok and were under his authority.

In the beginning, relations between the English and Powhatan were somewhat contentious, and prisoners were taken on both sides to be held for exchange and peace negotiations. At one point the chief's daughter, Motoaka, better known as Pocahontas, was taken by the English and held as an exchange for English prisoners. Pocahontas converted to Christianity and was courted by John Rolfe. In 1613, the two were married with the chief's consent, and the Powhatan Tribe and English settlers established a peaceful coexistence.

The peace was not permanent, and after the death of Wahunsonakok, his brother Opechancanough became chief. The new leader was concerned about the encroachment of English settlers who were constantly moving westward, taking more land to replace the fields depleted by tobacco crops. In 1622, he led a serious of surprise attacks which killed almost 350 settlers in one sweep. This began a decade of warfare which finally ended when a peace treaty was signed in 1632.

Twelve years later, Opechancanough organized another attack, killing almost 500 settlers. At that point, a two-year extermination campaign was launched against the Powhatan. The hostilities ended in 1646 with the death of the chief. The remaining bands of Powhatan Indians were forced off their land holdings and placed on small reservations.

Many of the 30 bands of the Powhatan tribes have gone extinct, although their descendants remain. Some members currently reside on two small reservations in Virginia established in the 1600s. Eight Powhatan tribes are recognized by the state of Virginia, and five of these — along with another Virginia tribe — have applied for federal recognition.

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