The Coronation of Powhatan

The Powhatan Confederacy

In dealing with the political life of the eastern Virginia tribes one must attempt first an abridgment of the voluminous details which have long been published concerning the Powhatan Confederacy. Treatment has suffered from the disadvantage of having been brought out in chronicles and papers not accessible between one pair of covers to the general reader. The essential facts, however, bearing on the history and composition of this interesting Algonquian monarchy were assembled by Mooney in 1907. 1 From his summary it appears that the tribes of this group, which has been appropriately called the Powhatan group, held about 8,000 square miles, or one-fifth of the area of the State of Virginia in fact the whole tidewater section.

Their western boundary was about the geologic break line marked by the falls of the principal rivers at Great Falls on the Potomac, Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock, Richmond on the James, and Petersburg on the Appomattox, and thence following the Blackwater divide by Suffolk to the coast. Strachey, indeed, if not also Smith, makes Powhatan’s dominion extend to the head of Chesapeake Bay, but there is abundant evidence in the early records that the Maryland tribes were enemies to those of Virginia and held themselves independent. Those on the eastern shore of Virginia also seem to have been practically independent, as might have been inferred from the wide interval of water by which they were separated from the others; but as they spoke the Powhatan language and were within the Virginia jurisdiction, we may consider them with the Powhatan Confederacy.

The twenty-eight Powhatan tribes enumerated in detail by Smith as existing in 1607, numbered, according to his estimate, about 2,385 fighting men; but as he omits from this count the people of Warraskoyac and of several other ”king’s houses” or tribal capitals indicated on his map, we are probably justified in making it around 2,500. Strachey, writing about 1616, makes it 3,320, but some of his figures are plainly too high. Taking the lower estimate we should have, on a reasonable calculation, a total population for the confederacy of about 8,500, or about one inhabitant to the square mile. 2

Back of the Powhatan were other tribes of alien lineage and hostile to the tidewater people. On the upper Rappahannock were the confederated Mannahoac, and on the upper James the confederated Monacan, both apparently of Siouan stock and of ruder culture than the Powhatan. Southwest were the Nottoway and Meherrin of Iroquoian stock on the rivers of those names, and on intimate terms with the kindred Tuscarora of North Carolina. Farther toward the southwest, on the upper waters of the Roanoke, were the Occaneechi, probably also of Siouan stock. Beyond them in the mountains about upper New river were the Mohetan, for whom we seem to have but a single authority, of date 1671. The Richahecrian, or Rickohockan, who came down from the mountains in 1656 and made bloody invasion of the lowlands, appear to be identical with the Cherokee, 3 and cannot fairly be considered a Virginia people. 4

Smith's 1620 Map of the new Colony of Virginia
1620 Map of the new Colony of Virginia accompanying the memoir of John Smith. The locations of Native villages and tribes are shown for the region east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The western extent of the map is the upper center of the map, where the James River passes through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Following Jefferson, it is commonly said that the Powhatan Confederacy consisted of 30 tribes. This is approximate, but not exact. Smith (1607), our first and principal authority, names 28 tribes, giving the fighting strength of each in his text but indicates on his map 36 “king’s houses,” or tribal capitals. The whole number of villages, large and small, within the territory of the confederacy, as shown on the map, is 161. A manuscript authority of 1622 says that the confederacy comprised “32 Kingdomes.” Strachey, about 1616, gives a list of 32 chief jurisdictions, of which only about half are identifiable with those of Smith’s list. He assigns, however, two chiefs to the Appamattock, four to the Nansamond, and three to the Pamunkey, thus reducing the number of distinct tribes to 26. The census of 1669, by which time the natives had been wasted by more than half a century of almost constant warfare, has the names of only 11 of the Powhatan tribes noted by Smith, together with five others apparently resulting from shifting and new combinations of the broken remnants. In 1705, according to Beverley, there remained only six settlements in existence on the mainland and nine on the Eastern shore, besides a few scattered individuals, the whole numbering together some 350 men, or perhaps 1,170 in all. Thus within a single century the formidable Powhatan Confederacy had wasted to about one-seventh of its original strength.

This result had been brought about by three Indian wars in 1622, 1644, and 1675 together with constant killings and destruction on a smaller scale; by a system of clearances and man hunts inaugurated in 1644 and continued for some years; by smallpox and other epidemics; and by the general demoralization resulting from subjection to the conquering race.

Following is the statement of the Powhatan population in fighting men, for the first century of colonization, as given by Smith in 1607, Strachey about 1616, the Virginia census of 1669, and Beverley in 1705. The discrepancy in the names of the various lists is probably due to the progressive combination of broken tribes under new names, the abandonment of old sites, and the occupancy of new villages.

Powhatan Confederacy Population 1667-1705

Tribe Smith, 1667 Strachey, 1616 Census, 1689 Beverley, 1705 
Kecoughtas 20 30 
Paspaheghes 40 40 
Chickahamanians, nearly 250 300 60 16+ 
Weanocks 100 100 15 
Arrowhatocks 30 60 
Powhatan 40 50 10 
Appamatucks 60 120 50 Not above 7 families 
Quivougcohanocks 25 60 
Nandsamunds 200 200 45 20 
Chesapeacks, Cassapecock? 100 
Youghtanund 60 70 
Mattapament 30 140 20 
Pamaunkee, nearly 300 300 50 40 
Werawocomoco 40 40 
Chiskiack 40 or 50 50 15 
Payankatanke 50 or 60 
Cuttatawomen I 30 
Moraughtacunds 80 
Rapahanock 100 30 A few families 
Cuttatawomen II 20 
Nantaughtacund 150 50 
Wighcocomoco 130 70 
Sekacawone 30 
Onawmanient 100 
Patawomekes over 200 
Tauxenent 40 
Acohanock 40 40 
Accomack 80 

Additional King\'s Houses on Smith\'s map

Tribe Smith, 1667 Strachey, 1616 Census, 1689 Beverley, 1705 
Orapaks 50
Opiscopank (on Rappahannock)
Pissaseck (on Rappahannock)
_________ (on Potomac)
Uttamussak From Smith and Strachey references it appears that this was one of the three principal settlements of the Pamunkey No, 13
Menapucunt From Smith and Strachey references it appears that this was one of the three principal settlements of the Pamunkey No, 13
Kupkipcock From Smith and Strachey references it appears that this was one of the three principal settlements of the Pamunkey No, 13

Besides the 18 names in Strachey’s list which are identifiable with names on Smith’s list or map, Strachey has also the following: Cantaunkack, 100 men; Mummapacune, 100 men; Pataunck, 100 men; Kaposecocke, 400 men; Pamareke, 400 men; Shamapa, 100 men; Chepecho, 300 men; Paraconos, 10 men a total of 26 tribal jurisdictions, estimated by Strachey to comprise 3,320 fighting men.

In addition to the 11 names in the census of 1669 which are identifiable with Smith’s list, the same census has also the following: Powchyicks, 30 bowmen; Totas-Chees, 40 bowmen; Portobaccoes, 60 bowmen; Mattehatique (included with Nanzcattico, alias Nantaughtacund); Appomatux (Westmoreland County and distinct from the tribe on the river of that name), 10 bowmen a total of 16 tribal communities with 605 fighting men, exclusive of the Eastern shore, which is not noted.

Beverley gives definite figures only for the two or three principal remnant tribes, but says that all the Indians of Virginia together could not then raise 500 fighting men, including the Nottoway and Meherrin, whom he puts at about 130. This might leave about 350 for the Powhatan tribes, including those on the Eastern shore, or from 1,150 to 1,200 souls. 5

The political texture of the group appears to have been that of an absolute and rather despotic monarchy, made up by conquest rather than by federation. The idea involved seems to have been an advanced form of the governmental spirit latent among Algonquian groups when they inhabit fertile and populous regions. It’s like was produced on a smaller, though similar, scale in southern New England and again apparently on the North Carolina coast. It is most interesting to the student of aboriginal American government that among the tribes of different lineage inhabiting the Atlantic coast, we meet with every extreme ranging from virtual anarchy, as among the Labrador Algonquian, through the village tribe, as in New England, the geographical and dialectically determined tribes, illustrated by those of northern New England, the federal league of the Iroquois, the monarchy as we have it here in Virginia, and confederated nations, exhibited by the Cherokee and the Creeks. All of them appear, moreover, to be of relatively late origin, well within the period of Columbian discovery. 6

Returning to Mooney, we may quote:

When the English landed at Jamestown in 1607, the Powhatan Confederacy was a thing of recent origin. According to Smith’s statement, which is borne out by Strachey, Powhatan, who was probably not yet sixty years of age at that time, had inherited only the territories of Powhatan, Arrowhatock, Appamatuck, Pamaunkee, Youghtanund, and Mattapament, all the other tribes and territories being reported as his own conquests. The six original tribes occupied the territory extending some 25 miles around Richmond, and comprised some 520 or about one-fifth of the approximate 2,500 fighting men under his jurisdiction at the settlement period. Of these, the Pamunkey outnumbered all the other five together, and appear to have been the original nucleus of the confederacy, which probably had its beginning about the same period which Hewitt assigns for the formation of the Iroquois league, viz, 1570. The essential difference between the two was that, whereas the Iroquois League was founded upon mutual accommodation and common interest, the Powhatan Confederacy was founded on conquest and despotic personal authority, and consequently fell to pieces with the death of the master, while the Iroquois League still exists with much of the old-time form.

As an example of Powhatan’s methods, we are told how, in 1608, for some infraction of his authority, he made a night attack on the Piankatank tribe, slaughtered all the men who could not escape, and carried off the women as captives. Some years before he had taken advantage of the death of the chief of the Kecoughtan to invade their territory, kill all who made resistance, and transport the rest bodily to his own country, finally settling them at Piankatank, which he had previously depopulated. In the same way, on the strength of an ominous prophecy, he had exterminated the entire Chesapeak tribe and transplanted a colony of his own people in the desolated territory. To make his position more secure, he placed his sons or brothers as chiefs in several principal towns, while he himself ruled in his own capital. From all accounts, he was greatly feared and implicitly obeyed, governing rather by his own personality than according to tribal custom. The powerful Chickahominy, however, although accepting him as over-lord, maintained their own home rule, and took an early opportunity to put themselves under the protection of the English. 7

Nothing could be added to this summary from existing documents, though a remark by Strachey, evidently overlooked by Mooney, is of considerable importance. Strachey noted that the native name of Virginia and likewise the term applied to the confederacy was Tsenacomacoh. 8 This appellation assumes much importance when attention is called to its resemblance to the Algonquian term for “long house” or ”long habitation” (kwen·akàmak‛w) 9 The same term is familiar to us in the native name of the Iroquois league and also applies to the Wabanaki. 10 As to the location of the tribes or towns listed above, there exists sufficient reference in the various colonial narratives for both Mooney and myself to have indicated the same with considerable accuracy. Our results are sent forth in the following table and the chart (pl. l). Besides marking the habitat of the minor tribal units, several culture margins are outlined on the basis of material which has now come to hand to be presented shortly.

Tribes of Tidewater Virginia

TribesChief Towns
TauxenentAbout Gen. Washington, Mt. Vernon, Va.
Patowomeke (Potomac)Potomac creek
CuttatawomanAbout Lamb creek on Rappahannock River
PissasecAbove Leedstown on Rappahannock River
Onaumanient (Onawmanient)Nomony River
RappahanockRappahannock River, Richmond County
MoraughtacundMoratico River
Secacaonie (Secacawoni)Coon River
Wighcocomicoe (Wicomico)Wococomico River
CuttatawomanCowtoman River
NantaughtacundPort Tobacco on Rappahannock River
Mattapoment (Mattaponi)Mattaponi River
Pamunkie (Pamunkey)Romuncock, King William County
WerowocomicoAbout Roscows (?), Gloucester, about opposite mouth of Queen creek
Payankatonk (Payankatank)Turk's Ferry, Piankatank River
YoughtanundPamunkey River
Chickahominie (Chickahominy)Orapaks, Chickahominy River
PowhatanPowhatan, James falls at Richmond
ArrohatocArrohatocs, Henrico County
KecoughtanRoscows, Elizabeth City County
AppamatocBermuda Hundred, Chesterfield County
QuiocohanocAbout upper Chipoak creek, Surry County
Warrasqueak (Warrasqueoc)Warrasqueak, Isle of Wight County
NansamondAbout Chuckatuck, Nansemond County
ChesapeakAbout Lynnhaven River, Princess Anne County
Accomack (Accomac)About Cheriton (Cherrystone inlet), Northampton County

Again let us refer to Mooney’s study. The ensuing sketch of the momentous 54 year struggle between the advancing Virginia colonists and the resisting Powhatan natives, correctly and graphically covers the subject:

The displacement of the native tribes began almost with the finishing of the first stockade. The English, being ill supplied with provisions and not yet in position to procure more by their own labor, proceeded to live off the country, making constant demands which the helpless Indians were not strong enough to resist. For instance, a foraging party was sent to Nandsamund to procure 400 bushels of corn that the Indians had promised in order to save their canoes, which the white men had seized and were coolly chopping to pieces. It was now winter and the Indians pleaded that their corn was near spent they had already loaded the first visitors with as much as the boats could carry and that Powhatan had told them to keep the rest for themselves. So, “upon the discharging of our muskets they all fled and shot not an arrow. The first house we came to we set on fire, which when they perceived they desired we would make no more spoil and they would give us half they had. How they collected it I know not, but before night they loaded our three boats.” Continuing, they visited one town after another, but found all the people fled until they reached Apamatuck, ”where we found not much; that they had we equally divided,” leaving the owners copper and other trinkets in payment.

On another occasion ”we, having so much threatened their ruin and the razing of their houses, boats, and weirs,” the frightened Indians promised, “though they wanted themselves, to fraught our ship and bring it aboard to avoid suspicion. So that, five or six days after, from all parts of the country within ten or twelve miles, in the extreme frost and snow, they brought us provision on their naked backs.”

The result of it all was that before the colony was two years old the principal Indian settlements had been seized by the white men, Powhatan had withdrawn from his place within easy reach of Jamestown to a remote town on the head of Chickahominy river, and killings and burnings had become so frequent that no Englishman was safe alone outside the stockade of the fort.

Open war on a large scale was deferred, however, until 1622, when Powhatan had been four years dead and his brother Opechancanough had succeeded to the Indian government. Pocahontas, for whose sake her father had restrained his own hostile feeling, had died before him. On March 22, 1622 (o.s.), Opechancanough began the war with a simultaneous and unexpected attack upon almost every settlement and plantation within the limits of the colony, by which 347 men, women, and children were massacred in the space of a few hours, most of them without the slightest chance for defending themselves, their lifeless bodies being mangled and abused in regular savage fashion. The Indians of the Eastern shore took no part in the massacre or the consequent war. The people of Potomac also remained friendly until driven to hostility by the massacre of a number of their people.

Immediately on receipt of the news at home, orders were forwarded to the governor of the colony “to root out [the Indians] from being any longer a people. . . . Wherefore, as they have merited, let them have a perpetual war without peace or truce, and, although they have desired it, without mercy, too.” Exception was made, however, ”for the preservation of the younger people of both sexes, whose bodies may by labor and service become profitable.” Women were not included in this exception, but were doomed with the men. To accomplish the extermination, instructions were given to starve the Indians by burning and spoiling their corn fields, to hire the neighboring tribes to bring in their heads, and to organize and keep constantly in the field bands of armed men to “pursue and follow them, surprising them in their habitations, interrupting them in their hunting, burning their towns, demolishing their temples, destroying their canoes, plucking up their weirs, carrying away their corn, and depriving them of whatsoever may yield them succor or relief.” Special rewards were promised for the seizure of any of the chiefs, with ”a great and singular reward” to anyone who could take Opechancanough.

In January, 1623, the Virginia council reported to the home office that they had anticipated instructions by setting upon the Indians in all places, and that by computation and by the confession of the Indians themselves, “we have slain more of them this year than hath been slain before since the beginning of the colony.”

By this war the Indians were so reduced in numbers and means that for more than twenty years there was doubtful truce, when Opechancanough determined upon a final effort, although now so old and feeble that he was no longer able to walk or even to open his eyes without help. As before, the rising began with sudden surprise and massacre, April 18, 1644 (o.s.), along the whole border, but with the heaviest attack along Pamunkey River, where the blind and decrepit but still unconquered chief commanded in person, carried about by his men from place to place. The number of whites killed in this second massacre is variously stated from 300 to 500, the discrepancy being due to the fact that the colony was now so well advanced and settlements spread out over so much territory that exact accounting was neither so easy nor of so much importance as in 1622.

We have few details of this war, in which this time the advantage was so immensely on the side of the English that the result is summed up in the report of the Assembly in March, 1646, that the Indians were then ”so routed and dispersed that they are no longer a nation, and we now suffer only from robbery by a few starved outlaws.”

The same Assembly authorized other expeditions and the building of forts along the border. In the end, Opechancanough was taken and brought to Jamestown, where he was shot in prison by one of his guards. His successor, in October, 1646, made a treaty of submission by which the Indians agreed to abandon everything below the falls on James (Richmond) and Pamunkey (near Hanover?) Rivers and to restrict themselves on the north to the territory between the York and the Rappahannock.

In 1654, on occasion of another Indian alarm, a large force was ordered against the Indians on Rappahannock River, but no details of the result are given. In the next year the Indian lands were made inalienable except by permission of the Assembly. In 1656 a large body of strange Indians, called Richahecrians (possibly Cherokee), came down from the mountains and made camp at the falls of James River, apparently to start a friendly acquaintance for trade purposes. A force of 100 men, however, under Col. Edward Hill, was sent to drive them back. Totopotomoi, chief of the Pamunkey, joined the expedition with 100 of his own men. The result was disastrous. The English were defeated, the Pamunkey chief and most of his men were killed, and Hill was obliged to make terms with the Richahecrians, for which he was afterward brought to trial by the Assembly.

In 1675 came another Indian war, involving Maryland as well as Virginia, and known in history as Bacon’s Rebellion from the fact that the leader of the Virginia volunteers acted in direct opposition to the colonial governor, Berkeley. The immediate cause was a series of small raids upon the Virginia frontier by Indians from Maryland, either refugees fleeing before the Iroquois, or, according to Beverley, instigated to mischief by the jealousy of New York traders. 11 A force of 1,000 men, including cavalry, was authorized against the Indians, and it was made death, with forfeiture of estate, to sell, directly or indirectly, powder or firearms to Indians. The tribes most concerned were the Susquehanna (Conestoga) and Doeg (Nanticoke?) of Maryland, with the Occaneechi and others of western Virginia. The broken Powhatan tribes, under the woman chief, Queen Anne of Pamunkey, took no part in the hostilities, but suffered, as usual, in the result. In 1677 the war was brought to a close by a general treaty of peace with all the tribes in relation with the Virginia government, by which they submitted to the English authority and were confirmed in the possession of their tribal lands, subject each to an annual quit rent of three arrows and a tribute of beaver skins. 12 At the same time they bound themselves to give immediate notice of the appearance of any strange Indians on the frontier, and to be ready to furnish a quota of men when required to serve against an enemy. The queen of Pamunkey, widow of Totopotomoi, already mentioned, was recognized in certain special dignities. The signatory tribes were the Pamunkey, Appamattoc, Weanoc, Nansemond, Nantaughtacund, and Portabaccos all of the old Powhatan Confederacy; with the Nottoway, Meherrin, Monacan, and Saponi.

This treaty may be considered to mark the end of the Indian period. Henceforth the dwindling tribes appear chiefly as appealing for protection of justice, the chronic grievance being trespass upon their reserved lands. From various references it is evident that Indian slavery was common even after peace had come, and this probably hastened the process of intermixture with the Black race. Their last appearance in treaty negotiations was at Albany, in 1722, when, through the efforts of the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the Iroquois made definite promise to refrain from further inroads upon the Virginia tribes, among whom were named the Nansemond, Pamunkey, and Chickahominy, with the Nottoway, Meherrin, and Christanna Indians, under which last name were included the remnants of the Siouan tribes of the East. 13


  1. Mooney, James, The Powhatan Confederacy Past and Present, American Anthropologist, vol. ix, 1907.[]
  2. An interesting side-light is thrown on the question of Indian population in eastern Virginia by an estimate in 1650 of 30,000 natives, one-fourth of whom were men, in that part of the colony lying south of Cape Henry. Cf. Peter Force’s Tracts, vol. iii, no. xi, by E. W. (possibly Williams), London.[]
  3. Corrected to Yuchi by the findings of Swanton, Early History of the Creek Indians, Bull. 73, Bur, Amer. Ethnol, p. 189.[]
  4. Mooney, James, The Powhatan Confederacy Past and Present, American Anthropologist, vol. ix, 1907, pp. 129-131.[]
  5. Mooney, James, The Powhatan Confederacy Past and Present, American Anthropologist, vol. ix, 1907, pp. 132-135.[]
  6. Hewitt estimates the Iroquois League to have germinated as late as 1570, and this became the pattern for the Wabanaki Confederacy of subsequent date. Swanton assumes the Creek Confederacy to have dated back to the time of De Soto.[]
  7. Mooney, James, The Powhatan Confederacy Past and Present, American Anthropologist, vol. ix, 1907, pp. 135-136.[]
  8. Strachey, William, The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia, 1616, London, 1849, p. 29.[]
  9. Algonquian phonetic mutations permit the change of k to tc, ts. The translation of the rest of the term is simple and clear after this consonant shift.[]
  10. Speck, The Eastern Algonquian (Wabanaki) Confederacy, Amer. Anthr., vol. xvii, no. 3, 1915.[]
  11. Mooney later became convinced that these Indians were Susquehannock who had been driven into the mountains.[]
  12. The Pamunkey continue to this day to carry their “tribute,” as they call it, of venison, fowl, and fish to the Governor at Richmond. This is done about Christmas time, but it depends upon their ability to make a successful deer hunt.[]
  13. Mooney, James, The Powhatan Confederacy Past and Present, American Anthropologist, vol. ix, 1907, pp. 136-141.[]

Speck, Frank Gouldsmith. Chapters on the ethnology of the Powhatan tribes of Virginia. Indian Notes and Monographs, vol. 1, num. 5, pp. 225-455. Editor: Hodge, F. W. Heye Foundation, Museum of the American Indian. 1928.

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4 thoughts on “The Powhatan Confederacy”

  1. I found on Ancestry that one of my 5th Gt Grandmothers was from the Powhatan Tribe and both her parents were also of the tribe. I’d like to know where the names are listed to prove it.

  2. You may want to check out a book, Descendants of Pocahontas; (i think) by Robert Brown. I myself discovered at a family reunion years ago that we are descendants. If you can find it is worth buying it has names up until at least 1965 (that’s the year I was born) but I haven’t found out who to send updated information to. Hope this helps! Good luck.

  3. I was given information that I was a descendant of Matoaka. Has anyone come to you about a similar situation? I would like to know more.

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