Last updated: March 9, 2023
Powhatan was the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, or tidewater Virginia, in the late 1500s and early 1600s. During his lifetime, he was responsible for uniting dozens of tribes into a single, powerful alliance. He was the highest authority in the region when English colonists arrived and built Jamestown fort in 1607. With a shrewd political mind, Powhatan led his people through the early years of colonial invasion.
Powhatan’s given name was Wahunsenacawh, also spelled Wahunsunacock. Little of his early life is known apart from what we can assume. We know that he came to power in the town of Powhatan, which was located near present-day Richmond.
As a boy he would have aided his mother in tasks like farming and gathering useful plants. As a teenager, he would undergo a coming-of-age ritual called a huskanaw. Now considered an adult, he would have joined the other men in hunting, and might have also served as a member of the chief’s council due to his high rank.
At an unknown age, he became the weroance, or chief, of Powhatan. In order to become a weroance in a matrilineal, or female-based system of inheritance, he could have been the son of the previous weroance’s sister.
The new weroance of the Powhatan people would expand his political influence using several methods. One such method was force. Warfare was an expected and frequent reality of life in Powhatan’s time, and all men would have been trained as warriors.
Another way to expand one’s power was through marriage. This was true of many cultures around the world, but particularly in matrilineal societies like that of Tsenacomoco. If Powhatan married and had children with the sister of another tribe’s weroance, his children would be next in line. In this way, Powhatan ensured that the chiefs he was dealing with throughout his alliance were loyal, because they were in fact his own children.
Using these and other strategies, Powhatan created a network of tribes that spanned multiple rivers in coastal Virginia. His title was mamanatowick, a word indicating that he had spiritual as well as political power. His was not the only such alliance. A similar structure existed, for example, with the Piscataway in what is now Maryland’s southwestern shore, whose paramount leaders were known as tayac.
The structure of Powhatan’s alliance did not have analogs in the European world of the colonists. Today, their political structure is referred to by many names, such as a chiefdom, empire, or confederacy, but the most accurate term is “tributary nations.”
While Powhatan was the paramount chief, and tribes followed his orders, most governance was up to the individual tribes themselves. Instead, the more than 150 towns under his jurisdiction were expected to deliver regular tribute payments to Powhatan. He was offered a large percentage of whatever his people produced, which included food, clothing, and other products.
What became of these tribute payments? At the height of his power, Powhatan lived primarily at Werowocomoco, his center of leadership located on the north bank of the York River. The town of Werowocomoco had a large population and, it is believed, a long history of significance as a spiritual place. He had houses too in towns throughout his network, where he would make visits. Numerous wives, children, and bodyguards lived with him at Werowocomoco. He was surrounded, too, by a group of military and spiritual advisors, many of whom would have been his relatives.
This was the state of Powhatan’s world in 1607, when one spring day, an English ship arrived on his shores.
The Jamestown colonists were certainly not the first Europeans, or even the first English to visit the area. Powhatan may have heard, for example, of the failed Roanoke colony and possibly of the Spanish missionaries before them, all of whom had been killed. So, when he encountered the new arrivals, he responded in a manner that suggested he did not view them as much of a threat.
The first colonist Powhatan met personally was Captain John Smith. In the winter of 1607-8, Smith was captured and brought to Werowocomoco by Powhatan’s brother and weroance of the Pamunkey, Opechancanough. The mamanatowick and his advisors likely discussed what to do with their prisoner and decided that they would make him their ally.
According to Smith’s narrative of his capture, Powhatan allegedly told him that, “now they were friends, and presently he should [go] to [Jamestowne], to send him two great [guns], and a [grindstone], for which he would [give] him the Country of Capahowosick, and [forever esteem] him as his [son] Nantaquoud.”
The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles by Captain John Smith (1624)
In other words, Powhatan offered to “adopt” Smith as his son and give the colonists a better parcel of land in exchange for a trade of guns and a grindstone. This “adoption” was yet another method that Powhatan was familiar with as a way to expand one’s alliances. In essence, Powhatan was extending peace and land to the Jamestown colonists, as long as they respected his leadership.
This meant that they would be expected to pay Powhatan the tribute he asked for. Some of the tribute that Powhatan demanded from Smith, he gave. But noticeably, Smith did not send any guns back to Werowocomoco. He managed to postpone such a trade until transportation for a set of heavy cannons could be arranged. In return, Powhatan began to send food and other provisions to the struggling colonists. In those early years, the settlers were entirely dependent on Powhatan’s support for survival.
In February 1608, Smith visited Werowocomoco again, this time with Captain Christopher Newport, the current leader of the colony. They brought Powhatan clothing, a hat, and a greyhound, which made for a successful meeting.
But soon after, relations became strained. The English continued to withhold metal tools and guns. That summer, in order to remedy this situation, Newport decided to present Powhatan with several luxurious gifts including a crown from England’s King James I. The first mistake came when Newport asked Powhatan to come to Jamestown to receive the gifts – Powhatan demanded they come to him. The second mistake came when Newport asked Powhatan to kneel to receive the crown. This Powhatan also refused, correctly interpreting the gesture as one of subservience.
Soon after, perhaps realizing that the English did not intend to respect his terms, Powhatan ordered local tribes to cease all trading with Jamestown. That winter, Powhatan asked for numerous items, including guns and men to build him an English-style house, in exchange for corn. Smith sent three German men to build the house, yet a meeting between the two leaders quickly soured. Powhatan became set on killing Smith, and even after Smith’s departure from the colony, continued to set ambushes for the English leadership.
Smith departed for England in 1609 after sustaining an injury. Starving without the food that Powhatan once supplied them with, the colonists began lead more and more violent raids on surrounding towns. Powhatan responded by encouraging retaliation, and if additional reinforcements had not arrived from England, he may have been successful in driving the English from his lands.
In 1613, a new leader named Captain Samuell Argall kidnapped Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas. In exchange for her release, Powhatan sent back seven English prisoners with a bushel of corn, an offer that Argall refused. In an unexpected turn of events, Pocahontas and an Englishmen John Rolfe asked for permission to wed. Both parties agreed to this arrangement, and a brief peace was reached.
In 1617, Pocahontas died during her return voyage from England, where she had been invited to visit with Rolfe and her young son. That same year, Powhatan turned over his power to his brothers Itoyatan and Opechancanough. At this point, Powhatan becomes absent from written records, though he likely passed away shortly after.