Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Originally Wahunsonacock. 1550?-1618.
noun pl. Powhatan or Pow·ha·tans
- a. A confederacy of Native American peoples of eastern Virginia in the 16th and 17th centuries, with present-day descendants in the same area.b. A member of this confederacy.
- The Algonquian language of the Powhatan, a dialect of Virginia Algonquian.
Origin: After Powhatan.
Powhatan (ca. 1550-1618) was chief of a confederation of Algonquian Indians in Virginia at the time of the British colonization of Jamestown.
Powhatan was the son of a chief reportedly driven from Florida by the Spaniards. Settling in Virginia, the chief soon conquered about five local tribes and confederated them under his leadership. Powhatan inherited this confederacy and continued to conquer other tribes so that, by the time of the colonization of Jamestown, he ruled about 30 tribes comprising some 8, 000 people.
Powhatan made his headquarters at Werowocomoco, a village on the north side of the York River 15 miles from Jamestown. However, his home was at the falls of the James River (near present Richmond). This site was known as Powhata, thus the English colonists called him Powhatan.
As chief of this confederation, Powhatan was noted for ruling with rigid discipline. He was said to be very cruel to prisoners, and he always maintained a personal guard of 30 to 40 warriors. He had several wives, 20 sons, and 10 daughters, one of whom was Pocahontas.
In 1607 Powhatan was described by John Smith as a "tall, well proportioned man" with gray hair and thin beard who had an aura of sadness about him. The early colonists came to Powhatan to beg for corn, for, as the Native Americans later said, they were yet too weak to steal it. Powhatan was suspicious of the newcomers, refusing to sell them corn. He ordered ambushes of small parties of Englishmen, and several workers were murdered in the fields.
In 1608, according to a story of debated authenticity, Capt. John Smith had been captured and was about to be clubbed to death when he was saved by Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas. This incident did not change Powhatan's attitude toward the English. Nor did his crowning when, in 1609, acting under orders from the Virginia Company, Capt. Christopher Newport, using a gilded crown brought from England for the purpose, crowned Powhatan "Emperor of the Indies." John Smith said that Powhatan appreciated the gifts he received but could be persuaded only with difficulty to stoop to allow the crown to be put on his head.
In 1610 Smith's unsuccessful attempt to capture Powhatan triggered Indian retribution. However, in 1613 Samuel Argall captured Pocahontas and held her hostage for the good behavior of the Powhatan confederacy. An uneasy truce followed.
In 1614 John Rolfe, one of the English settlers, asked to marry Pocahontas. Governor Sir Thomas Dale agreed to the marriage, as did Powhatan, and it took place in Jamestown that June. Powhatan did not trust the colonists sufficiently to attend the wedding and sent his brother in his place.
With the marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe, Powhatan made a formal treaty of peace with the English which he kept until his death in April 1618. He was succeeded by his second brother, Itopatin (or Opitchepan), who in a few short years would go to war with the Virginia settlers again.
Further Reading on Powhatan
The information about Powhatan is in Capt. John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia. … (1624; several later editions). Also consult Frederick W. Hodge, Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico (2 vols., 1907-1910); Kate D. Sweetser, Book of Indian Braves (1913); and John R. Swanton, The Indian Tribes of North America (1952). □