Chief Powhatan

Chief Powhatan

Male 1545 - 1618  (72 years)

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  • Name Powhatan  
    Title Chief 
    Born 17 Jun 1545  Algonquin Empire, Virginia Find all individuals with events at this location  [1, 2, 3
    Gender Male 
    Occupation Paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians  [2
    Also Known As Wahunsenacawh  [4
    Died 14 Apr 1618  Pamunkey River, King William County, Virginia Find all individuals with events at this location  [1, 2, 3
    Person ID I40746  The Hennessee Family
    Last Modified 23 Nov 2014 

    Father Unnamed Pamunkey Native American,   b. Algonquin Empire, Virginia Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. Algonquin Empire, Virginia Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Mother Unnamed Native American,   b. Algonquin Empire, Virginia Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. Algonquin Empire, Virginia Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Married Algonquin Empire, Virginia Find all individuals with events at this location  [5
    Family ID F14698  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    Family Unnamed Native American 
    Married Y  [1
     1. Pocahontas,   b. 1595, Werowocomoco, Virginia Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 21 Mar 1616, Gravesend, Kent, England Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 21 years)
    Last Modified 19 Aug 2020 
    Family ID F14699  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Event Map
    Link to Google MapsBorn - 17 Jun 1545 - Algonquin Empire, Virginia Link to Google Earth
    Link to Google MapsDied - 14 Apr 1618 - Pamunkey River, King William County, Virginia Link to Google Earth
     = Link to Google Earth 

  • Photos
    Powhatan (1545-1618)
    Powhatan (1545-1618)

    Chief Powhatan, detail of map published by John Smith (1612)

    Paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians

  • Notes 
    • Chief Powhatan (died 1618), whose proper name was Wahunsenacawh (sometimes spelled Wahunsonacock), was the paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians in the Tidewater region of Virginia at the time English settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607.

      Powhatan, who led the main political and military power facing the early colonists, was probably the older brother of Opechancanough, who led attacks against the English in 1622 and 1644. He was the father of Pocahontas, who eventually converted to Christianity and married the settler John Rolfe


      In 1607, the English colonists were introduced to Wahunsenacawh as Powhatan and understood this latter name to come from Powhatan's hometown near the falls of the James River near present-day Richmond, Virginia.[1]

      Seventeenth-century English spellings were not standardized, and representations were many of the sounds of the Algonquian language spoken by Wahunsenacawh and his people. Charles Dudley Warner, writing in the 19th century, but quoting extensively from John Smith's 17th-century writings, in his essay on Pocahontas states: "In 1618 died the great Powhatan, full of years and satiated with fighting and the savage delights of life. He had many names and titles; his own people sometimes called him Ottaniack, sometimes Mamauatonick, and usually in his presence Wahunsenasawk." Many variants are used in texts:


      Little is known of Powhatan's life before the arrival of English colonists in 1607. He apparently inherited the chiefdom of about 4-6 tribes, with its base at the fall line near present-day Richmond. Through diplomacy and/or force, he had assembled a total of about 30 tribes into the Powhatan Confederacy by the early 17th century. The confederacy was estimated to include 10,000-15,000 people.[2]

      In December 1607, English soldier and pioneer John Smith, one of the Jamestown colony's leaders, was captured by a hunting expedition led by Opechancanough, the younger brother of Chief Powhatan. Smith was taken to Werowocomoco, Powhatan's capital along the York River. Smith recounted in 1624 that Pocahontas (whose given name was Matoaka), one of Powhatan's daughters, kept her father from executing him. However, since Smith's 1608 and 1612 reports omitted this account, many historians have doubted its accuracy. Some believe that the event Smith recounted as a prelude to his execution was an adoption ceremony by which Smith was ritually accepted as subchief of the town of Capahosic in Powhatan's alliance.[3] As the historian Margaret Williamson Huber has written, "Powhatan calculated that moving Smith and his men to Capahosic would keep them nearby and better under his control."[1]

      In January 1609, Smith recorded directing some of his men to build an English-style house for Powhatan at Werowocomoco, in exchange for food supplies for the hungry English colony.[4] Both sides looked for opportunities to surprise one another. Smith proceeded to Opechancanough's village. When ambushed, he held the chief at gunpoint before the warriors. When Smith returned to Werowocomoco, he found the house unfinished and the place abandoned. The men had deserted to the Powhatan side. At a village now called Wicomico in Gloucester County, the reconstructed ruins of what were traditionally believed to be the chimney and part of the building for Powhatan are known as Powhatan's Chimney.

      Since 2003, state officials and researchers have concluded the likely site of Werowomocomo is further west along the York River at Purtan Bay. There archeologists have found evidence of a large residential settlement dating to 1200, with major earthworks built about 1400. They have found extensive artifacts, including European goods, which indicate likely interaction with the English in the early 17th century. In 2006 the Werowomocomo Archeological Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Excavations continue by a team headed by the College of William and Mary.

      Powhatan made his next capital at Orapake, located about 50 miles (80 km) west in a swamp at the head of the Chickahominy River. The modern-day interchange of Interstate 64 and Interstate 295 is near this location. Sometime between 1611 and 1614, Powhatan moved further north to Matchut, in present-day King William County on the north bank of the Pamunkey River, near where his younger brother Opechancanough ruled at Youghtanund.

      By the time Smith left Virginia in 1609, the fragile peace between colonists and Algonquians was already beginning to fray. Soon conflict led to the First Anglo-Powhatan War, and further English expansion beyond Jamestown and into Powhatan's territory. The English effectively destroyed two subtribes, the Kecoughtan and the Paspahegh, at the beginning of this war. Powhatan sent Nemattanew to operate against the English on the upper James River, though they held out at Henricus. With the capture of Pocahontas by Captain Samuel Argall in 1613, Powhatan sued for peace. It came about after her alliance in marriage on April 5, 1614 to John Rolfe, a leading tobacco planter. Rolfe's longtime friend, Reverend Richard Buck presided the wedding. Prior to the wedding, Reverend Alexander Whitaker converted Pocahontas and renamed her "Rebecca" at her baptism.

      Whitaker (left, in white vestments) as portrayed in The Baptism of Pocahontas, 1840, by John Gadsby Chapman
      Meanwhile, the English continued to expand along the James riverfront. The aged Powhatan's final years have been called "ineffectual" (Rountree 1990). Opechancanough became the greater Native power in the region. Upon the death of Wahunsunacock in 1618, his next younger brother Opitchapam officially became paramount chief. However, Opechancanough, the youngest brother, had achieved the greatest power and effectively became the Powhatan. By initiating the Indian Massacre of 1622, and attacks in 1644, he attempted to force the English from Virginia. These attempts met with strong reprisals from the English, ultimately resulting in the near destruction of the tribe.

      Through his daughter Pocahontas (and her marriage to the English colonist John Rolfe), Wahunsunacock was the grandfather of Thomas Rolfe. The numerous Rolfe family descendants comprised one of the First Families of Virginia, one with both English and Virginia Indian roots. The modern Mattaponi and Patawomeck tribes believe that Powhatan's line also survives through Ka-Okee, Pocahontas' daughter by her first husband Kocoum.[5]

      According to one legend, Chief Powhatan, returning homeward from a battle near what is now Philadelphia,[6] stopped at the Big Spring on Sligo Creek (present-day Takoma Park, Maryland near Washington, DC) to recuperate from his wounds in the medicinal waters there.[7] Modern historians have dismissed this tale as lacking credibility; nonetheless, a commemorative sculpture of Chief Powhatan has stood at the site since 1985.[8]. [2]
    • Biography

      Powhatan was the father of Pocahontas. Powhatan had inherited the leadership of a few tribes, which he built into a loose empire controlling Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers. This corresponds to Eastern Virginia, most of Maryland, and Delaware. Each Powhatan tribe had its own village, with houses of bark over wooden frames. They planted corn and tobacco, hunted and fished. Every few years, the local land would be depleted, so they would abandon the old village and rebuild a few miles away.

      In 1607, English colonists of the Virginia Company arrived, hoping to make their fortune. Initially, they built a wooden fort, James Fort, which gradually became the English colonial village of James Towne, or Jamestown. Relations in the early days were chaotic. On any given week, the settlers at James Fort could be fighting with one of Powhatan's tribes, while trading peacefully with others. Powhatan lived long, and allegedly had 100 wives, with one child by each. There were a dozen known children of his; Pocohantas was his favorite. King James had Powhatan coronated Emperor of Virginia. (This made Pocahontas a princess, theoretically outranking the English nobility when she visited England.)

      John Smith wrote:

      "What he commandeth they dare not disobey in the least thing. It is strange to see with what great feare and adoration all these people doe obay this Powhatan. For at his feet, they present whatsoever he commandeth, and at the least frowne of his browe, their greatest spirits will tremble with feare: and no marvell, for he is very terrible and tyrannous in punishing such as offend him." [1]


      John Smith described Powhatan as follows: "...their Emperor proudly [lay] upon a bedstead a foot high upon ten or twelve mats, richly hung with many chains of great pearls about his neck, and covered with a great covering of Rahaughcums [raccoon skins]. At his head sat a woman, at his feet another, on each side, sitting upon a mat upon the ground, were ranged his chief men on each side [of] the fire, ten in a rank, and behind them as many young women, each a great chain of white beads over their shoulders, their heads painted in red, and [he] with such a grave a majestical countenance as drove me into admiration to see such state in a naked savage." [2] [3]

  • Sources 
    1. [S4039]

    2. [S4051]

    3. [S4055]

    4. [S4051]
      (sometimes spelled Wahunsonacock)

    5. [S4042]