Early History of the Pamunkey Indians

At the time of the settlement of Jamestown, in 1607, that region lying in Virginia between Potomac and James rivers was occupied by three great Indian confederacies, each of which derived its name from one of its leading tribes. They were:
(1) The Mannahoac, who lived on the head waters of Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers;
(2) The Monocan, who occupied the banks of the upper James
(3) The Powhatan, who in habited all that portion of the tidewater region lying north of the James.

The last-named powerful confederacy was composed of thirty warlike tribes, having 2, 400 warriors, whose disastrous attacks on the early settlers of Virginia are well known to history. The largest of the tribes making up the Powhatan confederacy was the Pamunkey, their entire number of men, women, and children in 1607 being estimated at about 1,000, or one-eighth of the population of the whole confederacy.

The original seat of the Pamunkey tribe was on the banks of the river which bears their name, and which flows somewhat parallel with James River, the Pamunkey being about 22 miles north of the James. This tribe, on account of its numerical strength, would probably from the beginning have been the leader of its sister tribes in warfare, had it not been for the superior ability of the noted chief Powhatan, who made his tribe the moving spirit of attack on the white settlers.

On the death of Powhatan, the acknowledged head of the confederacy which bore his name, he was succeeded in reality, though not nominally, by Opechancanough, chief of the Pamunkey. John Smith, in his history of Virginia (chapter 9, page 213), gives an interesting account of his contact with this chief, whose leadership in the massacre of 1622 made him the most dreaded enemy which the colonists of that period ever had. In 1669, 50 persons, remnants of the Chickahominy and Mattapony tribes, having been driven from their homes, united with the Pamunkey.

The history of these Pamunkey Indians, whose distinction it is to be the only Virginia tribe 1 that has survived the encroachments of civilization, furnishes a tempting field of inquiry, but one aside from the writer’s present purpose, which is ethnologic rather than historical.Citations:

  1. “There are a few Indians (Dr. Albert S. Gatscliet found 30 or 35 in 1891) living on a small reservation of some 60 or 70 acres on Mattapony River, about 12 miles north of the Pamunkey reservation. They are thought by some to be the remnant of the Mattapony tribe, but the writer is of a different opinion. He believes that the territory of the Pamunkey once extended from the Mattapony to Pamunkey river, and that the land between gradually passed into the possession of the white man, thus dividing the tribe, leaving to each part a small tract on each of the above named rivers.[]


Pollard, Jno. Garland. Pamunkey Indians of Virginia. Bureau of Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1894.

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