The Powhatan Indian World

Map of the tribes in the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom in 1607.
The Powhatan Chiefdom in 1607.

Helen C. Rountree

When the English arrived in Virginia in 1607 and created the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, they did not encounter an uninhabited land. An estimated 50,000 Virginia Indians had called what is now the Commonwealth of Virginia home for more than 12,000 years. The tribes the English encountered first, and most often, belonged to the powerful Powhatan Chiefdom. The land occupied by the Powhatan Indians encompassed all of Tidewater Virginia, from the Potomac River in the north to south of the James River, and parts of the Eastern Shore. This area, which they called Tsenacommacah, was about 100 miles long from north to south and about 100 miles wide from southeast to northwest. Before the arrival of foreigners, and their unknown diseases, the Powhatan Indians were estimated to have numbered 25,000.

By 1607, the Powhatan Chiefdom numbered approximately 15,000. Chief Powhatan, whose given name was Wahunsunacock, was the mamanatowick (paramount chief) of the Powhatan Chiefdom. In the sixteenth century, he inherited six tribes from his mother or someone related to her; Powhatan society was matrilineal so descent was passed through the mother's line. By 1607, the Powhatan Chiefdom had more than 30 different tribes, each of which had its own chief (weroance/weroansqua). All had been gained through marriage alliance or coercion and were "ruled" by and had to pay "tribute" to Powhatan.

Image of a Powhatan Indian town based on a John White watercolor of other Algonquian-speaking Indians.
What a Powhatan town might have looked like.

NPS Image

The Powhatan Indians lived in towns located on high ground near rivers, which were sources of food and transportation. The Powhatan also used the rivers to bathe every morning. Sometimes the towns were palisaded, which usually meant they were closer to enemy territory. The towns consisted of from two to a hundred houses with six to twenty people living in each dwelling, according to Captain John Smith. These houses, called yehakins, were typically scattered and interspersed between the trees.

The yehakins were made from saplings bent and lashed together at the top to form a barrel shape. Woven mats or bark were placed on top of the saplings and space left for an entrance at each end of the house and an open hole at the center of the roof for smoke to escape. The size of the house varied, but someone like Chief Powhatan, as the mamanatowick, had a larger house than most - it even had separate corridors! In summer, when heat and humidity increased, the mat walls could be rolled up or removed for better air circulation. Inside the house, bedsteads were built along both walls. One or more mats were placed on top for bedding, with more mats or skins for blankets. A rolled mat served as a pillow. During the day, the bedding was rolled up to save space.

Yehakins were constructed by the women (who may have also owned them). Women provided most, if not all of the fuel, and much of the food as well. Besides building the houses, and everything associated with them, Powhatan women cooked and prepared food, gathered firewood (which was kept constantly going), collected water for cooking and drinking, reared the children (with help from the men when they were home), made the clothing, farmed (planting and harvesting), and made baskets, pots, cordage, wooden spoons, platters and mortars. Many tasks took them away from not only their houses, but the towns as well. They also collected edible plants - which meant women needed to be able to identify the various useful plants in all seasons and terrains. Women were barbers for the men and would process any meat the men brought home, as well as tan hides used to make clothing. They were constantly doing something. To acquire the varied knowledge and skills necessary to be an adult, Powhatan girls' education began at an early age.

How a Powhatan man might have looked based on a John White watercolor of other Algonquian-speaking people.
A Powhatan man ready to hunt.

Unknown British Musuem

Powhatan men had fewer jobs than the women, but they were especially demanding. Their world revolved around always being prepared to kill enemy people and animals efficiently. Besides hunting and war, men built dugout canoes (used by men and women), fished, and cleared garden plots. They fished mostly in the spring and hunted mostly in the fall; it was the man's responsibility to provide animals, for food, clothing and tools. Hunting was a taxing job, requiring mental concentration, extended bursts of physical energy, and an intimate knowledge of the terrain and plant cover that attracted animals. Hunting methods necessitated the men's unique hairstyles. They wore the left side of their hair long and tied in a knot, decorated with various trophies from wars or feathers, and shaved the right side, so as not to get their bow strings caught in their hair. The intensiveness of hunting required periods of rest. During their "rest time" men also cleared land for garden plots, built and repaired fishing weirs and hunting gear, and exchanged information with other men.

Men's work was different than women's, but both were important and benefited Powhatan society as a whole. In fact, if a Powhatan family had at least one adult male and one adult female it could live comfortably entirely by its own labor. Powhatan children learned how to be adults, and to do adults' work, from both of their parents. At first, both boys and girls were taught mostly by their mothers; fathers helped rear the children when they were not hunting or fishing. Once boys were old enough, agile enough, good enough runners, and were an accurate shot with a bow and arrow, they were taken hunting and fishing by their fathers. These same hunting skills also helped the boys learn the art of war and vice versa.

Between the ages of ten and fifteen boys had learned all necessary skills to be a man in Powhatan society and were initiated as men. They began to dress like men, wearing a breechclout passed between the legs and attached to a cordage belt, and leggings or moccasins when in the woods to protect against scratches that could become easily infected. Girls, of course, continued to learn women's work from their mothers. They became women once they reached puberty, which was by about the age of thirteen. They then wore a deerskin apron, hung on a cordage belt, and grew their hair out (they wore no clothing before puberty and shaved their hair except for a strand in the back that was usually braided). Like men, they wore leggings and moccasins when in the woods. The women wore their hair in a variety of ways: hanging loose, braided into a plait with bangs, or cut short in a uniform length.


Marriage in Powhatan society meant that a man was able to be a provider for his wife and family - which had to be proven to the prospective in-laws. Marriage indicated a man had truly reached maturity and that a woman was able to bear children. Once a man found a woman he wanted to marry, he had to attract her interest and, if she still lived with her parents, gain their approval. He did so through gifts of food, which showed his ability to provide. Once an agreement was reached, the man negotiated and paid a bride wealth to her parents, as a way of compensating her family for their loss of valuable labor and for her child-bearing potential. The bride wealth served as a public declaration of the chosen woman's value. Soon after the man procured the necessary household items (a house, mortar and pestle, mats, pots, and bedding) and the bride wealth was paid, the bride was brought to the groom's house. There, her father, guardian or "chief friend" joined the couple's hands together. A string of beads was measured to the man's arm length and then broken over the couple's hands (the beads were given to the person who brought the bride). The couple were now married, and expected to be for life, and a celebration took place. Divorce was possible, however, in which case any children were possibly split between their parents according to their sex.

Another type of marriage, a marriage by contract, was a temporary agreement made between a Powhatan man and woman that usually lasted one year. Each year, the contractual union was either renewed or ended and the two were free to marry others. If, however, the allotted time passed without the union being ended or re-negotiated the couple were married permanently.

English view of Powhatan seen surrounded by his wives and important council.
English depiction of paramount chief Powhatan.

John Smith's Map of 1612.

Chief Powhatan, and possibly other chiefs, were in a position to not only choose whom they wanted to marry on a grander scale, but could pay whatever bride wealth they saw fit with no negotiation (they outranked their prospective in-laws). Marrying the paramount chief was considered an honor. However, unlike other Powhatan Indian marriages, Powhatan's wives were not allowed to have extramarital relations, which were permitted in the rest of Powhatan society if the wife had her husband's permission. As the paramount chief, Powhatan was able to afford more wives than the average man (multiple wives were allowed so long as they could all be supported); he was recorded as having had more than one hundred wives. Once one of his wives had a child by him, Powhatan sent her with their baby back to her home town, where they were supported by Powhatan. Once the child was old enough, he or she was sent back to live with Powhatan's other children. The mother was then considered divorced from Powhatan and free to marry another. For all Powhatan Indians, marriage was considered a child-rearing arrangement. Love, if it materialized during the course of a marriage, was welcomed but not expected, as the worlds of men and women were so different and separate.


Besides being taught the differences in their worlds, Powhatan boys and girls learned how to properly act. They were taught to be respectful in public; self control was one of the greatest virtues. This served a functional purpose as well, since there was no law enforcement. Even chiefs sometimes did not have the right to intervene in quarrels between people. It was best to follow the policy that "proper human beings" simply were not supposed to be openly hostile with each other. Instead, a non-interfering and non-preaching stance was taken to avoid insulting anyone. This respectful public attitude was especially important when Powhatan Indians encountered non-relatives or someone they did not trust or like. This was one of many causes of the misunderstandings with the English, who took the Powhatan's polite listening as a sign of agreement. It wasn't. It was simply normal public behavior towards outsiders - you tolerated them until you couldn't stand them.


Differing cultural standards, behaviors, languages, and attitudes caused many of the conflicts between the Powhatan Indians and the English. At first, the Powhatan Indians tried to help the newcomers, but the English overstayed their welcome and overstepped the Powhatan's hospitality. By 1609, Chief Powhatan was tired of the constant English demands for food and officially told his people not to help them. The relationship deteriorated between the two peoples. It was not mended until Powhatan's favorite daughter Pocahontas was captured by the English in 1613. While in captivity, she met John Rolfe. According to English accounts, the two fell in love and wanted to get married. Powhatan gave his approval and, after she was converted and renamed Rebecca, peace was solidified by the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in April 1614. Within a year the couple had a son, Thomas. In 1616, the Virginia Company paid to send the Rolfe family to England to gain more English interest in Jamestown.

While in England, Pocahontas became sick and died of an unknown illness in 1617. The following year, her father died. The chiefdom then passed, briefly, to Powhatan's younger brother, Opitchapam, before being passed to his next younger brother, Opechancanough. At first, the peace endured, but John Rolfe's tobacco experiments started to flourish, becoming the cash crop that the Virginia Company, which had funded the Jamestown settlement, had long anticipated. More and more English came to Virginia and began pushing Powhatan Indians from their lands. The Powhatan Indians had been respectful and helpful to the English because it was their way, but their patience began to wear thin.

Sidney King painting of Attack of 1622.
The Powhatan Indians attack the English.

NPS Image

In March of 1622, Opechancanough coordinated an attack against all English settlements. Because of a young Indian boy's warning, Jamestown was spared. Many outlying settlements were attacked. Of a population of about 1,200 English settlers, about 350-400 were killed. Afterwards, the Powhatan Indians withdrew, as was their way, waiting for the English to learn their lesson or pack up and leave. The English, instead, retaliated and more conflicts arose and continued on and off for the next ten years, until a tenuous peace was reached.

By 1644, the English numbered about 8,000 and continued to encroach upon Powhatan Indian lands. Opechancanough planned a second attack - though some of the members of the Powhatan Chiefdom decided to side with the English. As in 1622, 350-400 English were killed. By 1646, Opechancanough, then almost one hundred years old, was captured by the English. While in captivity at Jamestown, he was shot in the back - against orders - and killed. Opechacanough's death began the death of the Powhatan Chiefdom; it was eventually reduced to tributary status.

Opechancanough's successor Necotowance signed the first treaties with the English in 1646. The treaties set up clear boundaries between what was considered English-owned lands and Powhatan-owned lands. The Powhatan Indians were not permitted on English lands unless conducting official business and had to wear striped coats (later badges) that denoted it. In 1677, more Virginia Indians signed a second treaty, as a result of Bacon's Rebellion. This treaty set up more reservation lands for the Powhatan and Virginia Indians. It also reinforced yearly tribute payments to the English of fish and game. The Powhatan Indians were now relegated to small reservations and were fully subjects of the English.

Map showing the Powhatan lands that were lost during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Map of Powhatan reservation lands lost.

Helen C. Rountree

In the eighteenth century, Powhatan Indian lands dwindled more as many lost their reservations. The Rappahannock lost theirs shortly after 1700, the Chickahominy in 1718, and the Nansemond sold theirs in 1792. These tribes then faded from public view (many of the tribes had were reported extinct by 1722). They became invisible as a means of survival. The only Powhatan tribes that maintained their reservations were the Pamunkey, Mattaponi and the Gingaskin. Some traditional ways were still practiced, but, after decades of interactions with the English, many Powhatan Indians were identifying themselves as Christians and speaking English. By the end of the century, many of the native languages were no longer heard.

In the nineteenth century, the Powhatan Indian tribes with reservations were pressured again for their lands. The whites also wanted to end the Virginia Indian's legal status as tribes. Many of the tribes were very poor and surrendered to legal pressure; they sold their reservation lands for profit. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi, though also poor, withstood the attempts at termination and refused to give up their reservations, which they still hold today. They also maintained their tribal structure and treaties with the Commonwealth of Virginia.


More trouble came for all Virginia Indians in the twentieth century in the form of Walter Ashby Plecker. Walter Plecker was a white supremacist and a follower of the eugenics movement. He was the first Registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Virginia from 1912 to 1946. He believed there were no "true" Virginia Indians left. If any of them had one-sixteenth African ancestry, or, by 1923 any trace, he or she was labeled as "colored." Plecker said those trying to use the term "Indian" by "'sneaking' in their birth certificates through their own midwives" were "like rats when you are not watching" and perpetuating a "racial falsehood." He wanted all official documents, such as birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, and voter registration books to reflect his views by not using the term "Indian." Plecker himself admitted, though, that he had "been doing a good deal of bluffing, knowing all the while that it could never be legally sustained" as he had no science to back up his claims.

In 1924, the Racial Integrity Act was passed. Walter Plecker's "paper genocide" became easier. He was an advocate for the Act as he wanted to keep the "white" "master race" pure. He believed Virginia Indians, whom he called "mongrels," wanted to escape "negro status" so they could go to white schools and marry whites. To escape Plecker's aggressive campaign, many Virginia Indians left the state. Others stayed, trying to hide until the storm passed. Many people grew up unaware of their Virginia Indian heritage. The Racial Integrity Act was finally repealed on June 12, 1967 in the United States Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia. Virginia Indians were now able to marry whom they chose and, more importantly, to change their birth certificates to accurately show they were Indians. Prior to 1997, when Delegate Harvey Morgan's bill passed waiving it, a fee was required to change the records.

Opening ceremony with tribal members in regalia, including Chickahominy Chief Stephen Adkins, at the Annual Chickahominy Fall Festival and Pow-Wow.
The Chickahominy Fall Festival and Pow-Wow, 2010.

Sarah J. Stebbins

As the twentieth century came to a close, the Virginia Indians had re-gained their proud heritage and history. By the end of the 1980s, seven tribes, part of or allied with the Powhatan Chiefdom, were recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia. One other tribe, the Monacan Nation (never associated with the Powhatan Chiefdom), was recognized then as well. In 2010, three more tribes were recognized by the Commonwealth: the Patawomeck (allied with the Powhatan Chiefdom), the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), and the Nottoway.

Since the 1990s, six of the state-recognized Virginia Indian tribes - the Upper Mattaponi, the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Nansemond, the Rappahanock, and the Monacan Nation - have been seeking federal recognition (the two reservation tribes, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey were part of the bill at first, but have since decided to pursue another route). They have been trying to get the bill passed through an Act of Congress; Walter Plecker's "paper genocide" in the twentieth century makes petitioning the Bureau of Indian Affairs (the usual way to get federal recognition) virtually impossible. The process has been long, difficult, and expensive and the bill has failed at various levels over the years. The last version passed the US House of Representatives, H.R.1385, before the companion bill in the Senate, S.1178, died - Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) placed a hold on it, preventing it from being heard and voted on by the Senate.

The Virginia Indians have not given up, however. In February 2011, they began the process again. This time, a version of the bill was submitted to the US House of Representatives, H.R.783, and a companion bill placed in the Senate, S.379, on the same day. As of March 2011, the bills are in the respective committees for the House and the Senate, the first step in the process. In the summer of 2015 the Pamunkey received Federal recognition.

Aerial photo of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey reservation lands.
View of the Mattaponi reservation (top) and most of the Pamunkey reservation (bottom).

Helen C. Rountree

Today, the recognized Virginia Indian tribes' population numbers about 5,800 (the Powhatan-descended comprise about 3,400 of that total) and, collectively, own under 2,000 acres of land. They have endured much over the last four centuries and have survived. They have not forgotten the past. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi (the only two tribes who still own reservation lands) still make the yearly tribute payment of fish and game, as stipulated by the treaties signed in 1646 and 1677 - now paid to the Virginia Governor. As far as anyone knows, they have not missed a payment in over 330 years!

Virginia Indian tribal members keep very busy working as advocates for their people. Among other things, they serve as tribal officers when asked (unpaid), represent the tribe at the United Indians of Virginia, at the Virginia Council on Indians, and/or at other tribes' powwows, accept speaking engagements for school and civic groups so that they can teach their history from their perspective, and they ensure their children learn about their people's history and any still-existing crafts. The Virginia Indians are proud of who they are, of their heritage, and of their history. They are still here.

Breed, Allen. "Virginia Indians balk at Jamestown Anniversary without Recognition." 12/26/2005. Web. 22 May 2008.

Dilday, Robert. "Baptists executives urge federal recognition of Virginia tribes." 08/19/2010. Web. 21 August 2010.

Egloff, Keith and Deborah Woodward. First People: The Early Indians of Virginia. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1992.

Fiske, Warren. "The Black-and-White World of Walter Ashby Plecker." The Virginian-Pilot. 08/18/2004 1-7. Web. 22 May 2008.

Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Haile, Edward Wright (editor) Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607-1617. Chaplain: Roundhouse, 1998.

Hardin, Peter. "Documentary Genocide: Families Surnames on Racial Hit List." 03/05/2000. Web. 4 June 2010.

Kimberlain, Joanne. "We're Still Here." The Virginian-Pilot. June 7-9 2009: Print.

"Native American Citizenship: 1924 Indian Citizenship Act." Web. 24 May 2009.

Plecker, Walter. "Walter Plecker Letter to Local Officials." Web. 4 June 2010.

Rountree, Helen C. (editor) Powhatan Foreign Relations: 1500-1722. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Rountree, Helen C. and E. Randolph Turner III. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia's Powhatans and Their Predecessors. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

"THOMAS (Library of Congress)." H.R.1385. 06/04/2009. Web. 10 June 2009.

"THOMAS (Library of Congress)."S.1178. 12/23/2009. Web. 10 June 2009.

"THOMAS (Library of Congress)." H.R.783. 02/17/2011. Web. 25 March 2011.

"THOMAS (Library of Congress)" S.379. 02/17/2011. Web. 25 March 2011.

"U.S. Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. (1967)." FindLaw. 1994-99. Web.3 February 2000.

Waugaman, Sandra F. and Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, PhD. We're Still Here: Contemporary Virginia Indians Tell Their Stories. Richmond: Palari Publishing, revised edition 2006.

Wood, Karenne (editor). The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. Charlottesville: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2007.

Sarah J Stebbins
NPS Seasonal, March 2011

Available online through the National Park Service is A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: THE FIRST CENTURY by Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, Ph.D.

Additional information on Virginia Indians can be obtained through the Virginia Council on Indians website at:

Federal recognition of Virginia Indians factsheet

Last updated: September 18, 2015

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