The Powhatan (also spelled Powatan and Powhaten), is the name of a Virginia Indian tribe. It is also the name of a powerful group of tribes which they dominated. It is estimated that there were about 14,000-21,000 of these native Powhatan people in eastern Virginia when the English settled Jamestown in 1607. They were also known as Virginia Algonquians, as they spoke an eastern-Algonquian language known as Powhatan.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a mamanatowick (paramount chief) named Wahunsunacawh created a powerful organization by affiliating 30 tributary peoples, whose territory was much of eastern Virginia, called Tsenacommacah ("densely-inhabited Land")
Wahunsunacawh came to be known by the English as "Chief Powhatan. " Each of the tribes within this organization had its own weroance (chief), but all paid tribute to Chief Powhatan. After Chief Powhatan's death in 1618, hostilities with colonists escalated under the chiefdom of his brother, Opechancanough, who sought in vain to drive off the encroaching English.
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His large-scale attacks in 1622 and 1644 met strong reprisals by the English, resulting in the near elimination of the tribe. By 1646 what is called the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom by modern historians had been largely destroyed. In addition to the ongoing conflicts with the ever-expanding English settlements and their inhabitants, the Powhatan suffered a high death rate due to infectious diseases, maladies introducted to North America by the Europeans to which the Native Americans of the United States had developed no natural immunities.
By this time, the leaders of the colony were desperate for labor to develop the land. Almost half of the English and European immigrants arrived as indentured servants. As colonial expansion continued, the colonists imported growing numbers of enslaved Africans for labor. By 1700 the colonies had about 6,000 black slaves, one-twelfth of the population. It was common for black slaves to escape and join the surrounding Powhatan; white servants were also noted to have joined the Indians.
Africans and whites worked and lived together; some natives also intermarried with them. After Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, the colony enslaved Indians for control. In 1691 the House of Burgesses abolished Indian slavery; however, many Powhatan were held in servitude well into the 18th century. In the 21st century, eight Indian tribes are recognized by the state as having ties with the original Powhatan complex chiefdom.
The Pamunkey and Mattaponi are the only two peoples who have retained reservation lands from the 17th century. The competing cultures of the Powhatan and English settlers were united temporarily through the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Their son Thomas Rolfe was the ancestor of many Virginians; thus, many of the First Families of Virginia have both English and Virginia Indian ancestry.
Naming and terminology The name "Powhatan" is believed to have originated as the name of the village or town that Wahunsunacawh came from. The official title Chief Powhatan used by the English is believed to have been derived from the name of this location.
Although the specific situs of his home village is unknown, in modern times, the Powhatan Hill neighborhood in the East End portion of the modern-day city of Richmond, Virginia is thought by many to be in the general vicinity of the original village. Tree Hill Farm, which is situated in nearby Henrico County a short distance to the east, is also considered as the possible site. "Powhatan" was also the name used by the natives to refer to the river where the town sat at the head of navigation. The English colonists chose to name it instead for their own leader, King James I.
Many features in the early years of the Virginia Colony were named in honor of the king, as well as his three children, Elizabeth, Henry, and Charles. Although portions of Virginia's longest river upstream from Columbia were much later named for Queen Anne of Great Britain, in modern times, it is called the James River. It extends from Hampton Roads westerly to the confluence of the Jackson River and Cowpasture River near the town of Clifton Forge. (The Rivanna River, a tributary of the James River, and Fluvanna County, each survive as named in legacy to Queen Anne).
However, the only water body in Virginia to retain a name which honors the Powhatan peoples is Powhatan Creek, located in James City County near Williamsburg. Powhatan County and its county seat at Powhatan, Virginia were honorific names established years later, in locations west of the area populated by the Powhatan peoples. The county was formed in may, 1777. Complex chiefdom Likewise, perhaps more significant misnomers are the terms "Powhatan Confederacy" and "Powhatan Confederation. This grouping of tribes is clearly not best-defined in modern terms as a confederacy. That word is generally thought of as a grouping of entities each with greater individual power than the group when united. In many uses, a confederacy is distinctly different in structure from a centralized greater power than the parts, such as the current federal structure of the United States. Many historians attribute to a minor level the failure of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War in part to the weakness of the central government in comparison to the Union. It is important for a reader to note that most historians do not consider this difference as one of the major weaknesses leading to the Southern loss. However, the term Confederacy has become associated with the principal of states' rights versus the central U. S. government). Using the word "confederacy" to define the Powhatan tribes extant in 1607 can therefore, be misleading when seeking to understand these people, their governments and their culture. It is true that the various tribes each held some individual powers locally.
Each had a chief known as a weroance (male) or, more rarely, a weroansqua (female), meaning “commander,”. As of 2010, we do not know to what degree most of the various tribes belonged to the group by choice or perhaps by coercion or even greater force. As early as the era of John Smith of Virginia, the individual tribes of this grouping were clearly recognized by the English as falling under the greater authority of the centralized power (whatever it is labeled) led by the chiefdom of Chief Powhatan (c. June 17, 1545 – c. 1618), whose proper name was Wahunsenacawh or (in 17th century English spelling) Wahunsunacock. At the time of the 1607 English Settlement at Jamestown, he ruled primarily from Werowocomoco, which was located on northern shore of the York River. This location of Werowocomoco, itself only rediscovered in the early 21st century, was very central to locations of the various tribes. The improvements discovered during archaeological research at Werowocomoco have reinforced the paramount chiefdom of Chief Powhatan over the other tribes in the power hierarchy. Such issues in other cultures and the definitions are covered at some length by author Robert L.
Carneiro in his 1981 work on anthropology, The Chiefdom: Precursor of the State. The Transition to Statehood in the New World. The center of power held by Chief Powhatan (and his several successors) is much more concisely defined as a "complex chiefdom. " To refer to this complex chiefdom, the term "Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom" has become favored. Over time, this and other revisions to the knowledge and information available about the Powhatan peoples native to Virginia will undoubtedly be made as research work at Werowocomoco and elsewhere continues in the 21st century. See also: Werowocomoco edit] Chief Powhatan builds his chiefdom Wahunsunacawh had inherited control over just six tribes, but dominated more than thirty by the time the English settlers established their Virginia Colony at Jamestown in 1607. The original six constituent tribes in Wahunsunacock's group were: the Powhatan (proper), the Arrohateck, the Appamattuck, the Pamunkey, the Mattaponi, and the Chiskiack. He added the Kecoughtan to his fold by 1598. Some other affiliated groups included the Youghtanund, Rappahannocks, Moraughtacund, Weyanoak, Paspahegh, Quiyoughcohannock, Warraskoyack, and Nansemond.
Yet another closely related tribe in the midst of these others, all speaking the same language, was the Chickahominy, who managed to preserve their autonomy from the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom. In his famous work Notes on the State of Virginia (1781–82), Thomas Jefferson estimated that the Powhatan Confederacy occupied about 8,000 square miles (20,000 km2) of territory, with a population of about 8,000 people, of whom 2400 were warriors.  Later scholars estimated the population of the paramountcy[clarification needed] as 15,000.  The English settlers in the land of the Powhatan John Smith taking the King of Pamunkey prisoner', a fanciful image of Opechancanough from Smith's General History of Virginia (1624). The image of Opechancanough is based on a 1585 painting of another native warrior by John White The Powhatan Confederacy were the Indians among whom the English made their first permanent settlement in North America. This contributed to their downfall. Conflicts began immediately; the English colonists fired shots as soon as they arrived (due to a bad experience they had with the Spanish prior to their arrival). Within two weeks of the English arrival at Jamestown, deaths had occurred. The settlers had hoped for friendly relations and had planned to trade with the Virginia Indians for food. Captain Christopher Newport led the first English exploration party up the James River in 1607, when he met Parahunt, weroance of the Powhatan proper. The English initially mistook him for the paramount Powhatan (mamanatowick), who was in fact his father, Wahunsunacawh. On a hunting and trade mission on the Chickahominy River in December 1607, Captain John Smith, later president of the colony, was captured by Opechancanough, the younger brother of Wahunsunacawh.
Smith became the first Englishman to meet the paramount chief, Powhatan. According to Smith's account, Pocahontas, Wahunsunacawh's daughter, prevented her father from executing Smith. Some researchers have asserted that a mock execution was a ritual intended to adopt Smith into the tribe, but other modern writers dispute this interpretation. They point out that nothing is known of 17th-century Powhatan adoption ceremonies. They note that an execution ritual is different from known rites of passage.
Other historians, such as Helen Rountree, have questioned whether there was any risk of execution. They note that Smith failed to mention it in his 1608 and 1612 accounts, and only added it to his 1624 memoir, after Pocahontas had become famous. In 1608, Captain Newport realized that Powhatan's friendship was crucial to the survival of the small Jamestown colony. In the summer of that year, he tried to "crown" the paramount Chief, with a ceremonial crown, to make him an English "vassal. They also gave Powhatan many European gifts, such as a pitcher, feather mattress, bed frame, and clothes. The coronation went badly because they asked Powhatan to kneel to receive the crown, which he refused to do. As a powerful leader, Powhatan followed two rules: "he who keeps his head higher than others ranks higher," and "he who puts other people in a vulnerable position, without altering his own stance, ranks higher. " To finish the "coronation", several English had to lean on Powhatan's shoulders to get him low enough to place the crown on his head, as he was a tall man.
Afterwards, the English might have thought that Powhatan had submitted to King James, whereas Powhatan likely thought nothing of the sort. In fact, only by being warned beforehand by a sympathizing servant, was an assassination plot led by braves averted (the British also refused to let the natives take their muskets for "safekeeping"). After John Smith became president of the colony, he sent a force under Captain Martin to occupy an island in Nansemond territory and drive the inhabitants away. At the same time, he sent another force with Francis West to build a fort at the James River falls.
He purchased the nearby fortified Powhatan village (present site of Richmond, Virginia) from Parahunt for some copper and an English servant named Henry Spelman, who wrote a rare firsthand account of the Powhatan ways of life. Smith then renamed the village "Nonsuch", and tried to get West's men to live in it. Both these attempts at settling beyond Jamestown soon failed, due to Powhatan resistance. Smith left Virginia for England in October 1609, never to return, because of an injury sustained in a gunpowder accident.
Soon afterward, the English established a second fort, Fort Algernon, in Kecoughtan territory. The Coronation of Powhatan, oil on canvas, John Gadsby Chapman, 1835 In November 1609, Captain John Ratcliffe was invited to Orapakes, Powhatan's new capital. After he had sailed up the Pamunkey River to trade there, a fight broke out between the colonists and the Powhatan. All of the English ashore were killed, including Ratcliffe, who was tortured by the women of the tribe. Those aboard the pinnace escaped and told the tale at Jamestown. During that next year, the tribe attacked and killed many Jamestown residents.
The residents fought back, but only killed twenty. However, arrival at Jamestown of a new Governor, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, (Lord Delaware) in June of 1610 signalled the beginning of the First Anglo-Powhatan War. A brief period of peace came only after the capture of Pocahontas, her baptism, and her marriage to tobacco planter John Rolfe in 1614. Within a few years both Powhatan and Pocahontas were dead. The Chief died in Virginia, but Pocahontas died while in England. Meanwhile, the English settlers continued to encroach on Powhatan territory.
After Wahunsunacawh's death, his younger brother, Opitchapam, briefly became chief, followed by their younger brother Opechancanough. In 1622 and 1644 he attacked the English to force them from Powhatan territories. Both these attempts were met with strong reprisals from the English, ultimately resulting in the near destruction of the tribe. The Second Anglo–Powhatan War that followed the 1644 incident ended in 1646, after Royal Governor of Virginia William Berkeley's forces captured Opechancanough, thought to be between 90 and 100 years old.
While a prisoner, Opechancanough was killed, shot in the back by a soldier assigned to guard him. He was succeeded as Weroance by Necotowance, and later by Totopotomoi and by his daughter Cockacoeske. The Treaty of 1646 marked the effective dissolution of the united confederacy, as white colonists were granted an exclusive enclave between the York and Blackwater Rivers. This physically separated the Nansemonds, Weyanokes and Appomattox, who retreated southward, from the other Powhatan tribes then occupying the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck.
While the southern frontier demarcated in 1646 was respected for the remainder of the 17th century, the House of Burgesses lifted the northern one on September 1, 1649. Waves of new immigrants quickly flooded the peninsular region, then known as Chickacoan, and restricted the dwindling tribes to lesser tracts of land that became some of the earliest Indian reservations. In 1665, the House of Burgesses passed stringent laws requiring the Powhatan to accept chiefs appointed by the governor. After the Treaty of Albany in 1684, the Powhatan Confederacy all but vanished.
Red line shows boundary between the Virginia Colony and Tributary Indian tribes, as established by the Treaty of 1646. Red dot on river shows Jamestown, capital of Virginia Colony. Capitals of the Powhatan people The capital village of "Powhatan" was believed to be in the present-day Powhatan Hill section of the eastern part of Richmond, Virginia, or perhaps nearby in a location which became part of Tree Hill Farm. Another major center of the confederacy about 75 miles (121 km) to the east was called Werowocomoco. It was located near the north bank of the York River in present-day Gloucester County.
Werowocomoco was described by the English colonists as only 15 miles (24 km) as the crow flies from Jamestown, but also described as 25 miles (40 km) downstream from present-day West Point, measurements which conflict with each other. In 2003 archaeologists initiated excavations at a site in Gloucester County that have revealed an extensive indigenous settlement from about 1200 (the late Woodland period) through the early Contact period. Work since then has added to their belief that this is the location of Werowocomoco. The site is on a farm bordering n Purtain Bay of the York River, about 12 nautical miles (22 km) from Jamestown. The more than 50 acres (200,000 m2) residential settlement extends up to 1,000 feet (300 m) back from the river. In 2004, researchers excavated two curving ditches of 200 feet (60 m) at the far edge, which were constructed about 1400 CE. In addition to extensive artifacts from hundreds of years of indigenous settlement, researchers have found a variety of trade goods related to the brief interaction of Native Americans and English in the early years of Jamestown.
Around 1609, Wahunsunacock shifted his capital from Werowocomoco to Orapakes, located in a swamp at the head of the Chickahominy River, near the modern-day interchange of Interstate 64 and Interstate 295. Sometime between 1611 and 1614, he moved further north to Matchut, in present-day King William County on the north bank of the Pamunkey River, not far from where his brother Opechancanough ruled one of the member tribes at Youghtanund. Characteristics The Powhatan lived east of the fall line in Tidewater Virginia.
They built their houses, called yehakins, by bending saplings and placing woven mats or bark over top of the saplings. They supported themselves primarily by growing crops, especially maize, but they also fished and hunted in the great forest in their area. Villages consisted of a number of related families organized in tribes led by a chief (weroance/werowance or weroansqua if female). They paid tribute to the paramount chief (mamanatowick), Powhatan. According to research by the National Park Service, Powhatan "men were warriors and hunters, while women were gardeners and gatherers.
The English described the men, who ran and walked extensively through the woods in pursuit of enemies or game, as tall and lean and possessed of handsome physiques. The women were shorter, and were strong because of the hours they spent tending crops, pounding corn into meal, gathering nuts, and performing other domestic chores. When the men undertook extended hunts, the women went ahead of them to construct hunting camps. The Powhatan domestic economy depended on the labor of both sexes. " All of Virginia's natives practiced agriculture. They periodically moved their villages from site to site.
Villagers cleared the fields by felling, girdling, or firing trees at the base and then using fire to reduce the slash and stumps. A village became unusable as soil productivity gradually declined and local fish and game were depleted. The inhabitants then moved on. With every change in location, the people used fire to clear new land. They left more cleared land behind. The natives also used fire to maintain extensive areas of open game habitat throughout the East, later called "barrens" by European colonists. The Powhatan also had rich fishing grounds.
Bison had migrated to this area by the early 15th century. The Powhatan people today  State and federal recognition As of 2010, the state of Virginia has recognized eight Powhatan Indian-descended tribes in Virginia. Collectively, the tribes currently have 3,000-3,500 enrolled as tribal members. It is estimated, however, that 3 to 4 times that number are eligible for tribal membership. Two of these tribes, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey, still retain their reservations from the 17th century and are located in King William County, Virginia.
Since the 1990s, the Powhatan Indian tribes which have state recognition, along with the other Virginia Indian tribe which has state recognition, have been seeking federal recognition. It has been a difficult process. They have been hampered by the lack of official records verifying heritage and by the historical misclassification of family members in the 1930s and 1940s, largely a result of Virginia's state policy of race classification on official documents.
After Virginia passed stringent segregation laws in the early 20th century and ultimately the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which mandated every person who had any African heritage be deemed black, Walter Plecker, the head of Vital Statistics office, directed all state and local registration offices to use only the terms "white" or "colored" to denote race on official documents and thereby eliminated all traceable records of Virginia Indians. All state documents, including birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, tax forms and land deeds, thus bear no record of Virginia Indians.
Plecker oversaw the Vital Statistics office in the state for several decades, beginning in the early 20th century, and took a personal interest in eliminating traces of Virginia Indians. As a follower of the eugenics movement and, by modern day standards, a white supremacist, Plecker falsely surmised that there were no true Virginia Indians remaining as years of intermarriage has diluted the race. Over his years of service, he conducted a campaign to reclassify all bi-racial and multi-racial individuals as black, believing such persons were fraudulently attempting to claim their race to be Indian or white.
The effect of his reclassification has been described by tribal members as "paper genocide". Initially, the Virginia tribes' efforts to gain federal recognition encountered resistance due to federal legislators' concerns over whether gambling would be established on their lands if recognition were granted, as it would raise federal tax concerns and also casinos are illegal in Virginia. In March 2009, five of the state-recognized Powhatan Indian tribes and the one other state-recognized Virginia Indian tribe introduced a bill to gain federal recognition through an act of Congress. The bill, "The Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act", included a section forbidding the tribes from opening casinos, even if casinos became legal in Virginia. The House Committee on Natural Resources recommended the bill be considered by the US House of Representatives at the end of April, the House approved the bill on June 3, 2009. The bill was then sent to the Senate's Committee on Indian Affairs, who recommended it be heard by the Senate as a whole in October. On December 23, 2009, the bill was placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar under general orders, which is where the bill is currently.
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