The Powhatan Confederacy

The Indian's Life

Powhatan Indians used their time wisely. The men fished in the rivers, trapped and hunted
animals for food and clothing, and made weapons and tools for farming. The women's
chores were making pottery and wooden plates, gardening, and gathering food like nuts
and berries. They grew grapes, corn, pumpkins, squash, sunflowers and beans. After the women
made the pottery, they put them out for the sun to dry them. They also made clothing for the village. Both the men and the women worked very hard.

The children were raised by their mothers, and when they were old enough to learn indians ways, the boys were taught by their fathers to hunt, fish, and make tools and weapons, and the girls were taught by their mothers to garden, cook and make things.


The Indians lived in homes called longhouses. The longhouse was made out of bark, trees, and
branches. Several families usually lived in one longhouse. The women built the longhouse and owned them. Smoke houses were used for smoking and storing meat. Smoking the meat made it last longer.


Indians only ate foods they could provide themselves. Indians grew tobacco, corn, and other
crops. They grew their crops in a garden. Indians hunted deer, bear, racoon, rabbits, squirrels, and other wild life. They only hunted when they were hungry, and they used all of the animal. They trapped and killed the animals with the weapons they made.

Tools and Weapons

The Indians made bows and arrows out of wood and rock. Silverware was made out of sea shells, rock, and wood. They made pots and dishes out of clay that was then hardened. Making the weapons using two rocks is called flinting. Their gardening tools were made of deer
antler, rocks, and bones.

Brief History
By Kathy Spaar


The name "Powhatan" refers to the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Virginia tidewater or coastal plain. By 1607 many of the villages in this area were brought under one rule by the powerful "werowance" or chief, Wahunsunacock, to form the Powhatan empire. This paramount chief came from the town of Powhatan, near the falls of the James River and he used his hometown name to refer to himself and his chiefdom. At the time of English contact the native Tidewater population numbered around 14,000. There were hundreds of settled towns and satellite villages built near the Chesapeake Bay or in the inlets and rivers which flow into it. These towns and villages were placed along points or other sites that allowed a commanding view of the water and the people, especially enemies, traveling on it. Waterways were the central avenues of transportation and a major source of food. Because of the abundant source of fish, oysters, clams and waterfowl, the Powhatans did not have to move around as much as tribes further inland. Over the centuries they settled into agricultural communities, growing corn and other vegetables to supplement the fishing, hunting and foraging of plants for food and medicines.

In his diary, John Smith gives a description of these Indians. "The men bestowe their times in
fishing, hunting, wars and such manlike exercises . . . The women and children do the rest of the
worke. They make mats, baskets, pots, morters, pound their corne, make their bread, prepare their victuals, plant their corn, gather their corn, beare al kind of burdens and such like." This traditional Woodland Indian practice of women as farmers was perceived by the English as proof of the Indian male's laziness, even though the men kept busy with year-round hunting and fishing, making traps, stone tools and canoes. Another practice which surprised the English was the role of women as house builders. Women built homes made of bent saplings covered with woven mats or bark slabs if the family was of higher status. For larger families or families of high status, the houses were constructed in a long, tunnel-like fashion to which the English gave the name "long houses". These houses seemed primitive and flimsy to the colonists but clearly they were better suited than the English ones to the hot Virginia summers and the cold winters. The central fire in each home was kept smoldering in summer to make it mosquito-free and the woven mats provided partial ventilation. In winter extra mats or bark and a roaring fire made it quite warm and dry. These homes were also places to keep food stores dry and safe from predators.

The Powhatans, like other coastal Algonquian tribes, did not use fertilizer on their fields, so after a few years each family would move both the fields and their homes to a newly-cleared site nearby. Gradually, over a couple of decades, a whole town or village would be relocated. The abandoned fields could be used again later by anyone who wanted them, but there was an understanding that this land remained in the stewardship of the tribe. This concept that unused and open land was a source of food and materials for all to share (at least among non-enemies) was quite different than the European idea of land ownership. The English assumed that any tract of unoccupied land was available to be claimed which they did quite readily. They then railed against the Powhatans for "trespassing on private property".

Relations between the Powhatans and the English grew less friendly as the settlers moved to
expand the colony. Settlers began to attack Indian villages, in some cases burning homes and
fields. In one instance, they not only destroyed the whole town of Paspahegh, but also killed every Indian including women and children. This broke the most basic rule of warfare for the Powhatans and their attacks on the English became more severe. The situation continued to worsen until a colonist captured Pocahontas, a favored daughter of the chief Powhatan, in April 1613. She was taken to Jamestown where she remained a hostage for about a year, learning English and marrying her tutor, John Rolfe. Their marriage helped to secure a peace agreement between the two cultures for a while. This period of peaceful relations came to an end after the death of Pocahontas in England and the return of John Rolfe and other colonial leaders in May 1617. Disease, poor harvests and the growing demand for tobacco lands caused hostilities to resume. The paramount chief Powhatan died soon after in 1618 and the mantle of power passed officially to his brother Opitchapam, but it was a second brother Opechancanough who held the real authority. Opechancanough led a major raid on English settlements in March 1622, assuming that the English would react to such a brutal attack in Indian fashion and withdraw from the area altogether. Instead the colonists sent for reinforcements and counter-attacked.

After a decade of intermittent warfare the English colony had grown to about 8,000 while the
Powhatan population had fallen to 5,000. In addition to the killing there were devastating diseases and displacement of tribes as the English pushed further inland seeking more land for the cash crop tobacco. Opechancanough launched another fierce raid in April 1644. His warriors killed hundreds of settlers, but the English were so numerous by then they were able to retaliate quickly. After two years of brutal raids, the Powhatans were unable to hold the English off and Opechancanough was captured and taken to Jamestown. A proud old man of eighty, he refused to admit defeat and sign a treaty. While still a prisoner, he was shot in the back by an English guard. With his death the Powhatan chiefdom came to an end.

From that time on, the Powhatans and other coastal tribes steadily lost control of their lands and
traditional ways of life. The colonial government allowed many tribes to keep certain areas of land, but none of these "reservations" were large enough to sustain the traditional ways of hunting and gathering. Because of this, Indians were unable to sustain their independence by farming only and many were forced to work for the English as servants, guides or even as slaves. Settlers continued to encroach on Indian lands, thus shrinking reservations until the Indians were forced off the land altogether. Many tribes disintegrated or merged with other tribes. Some Indians chose to assimilate into white society and others joined free black communities. By the end of the 18th century only two tribes, the Pamunkey and the Accomac, still had land and were officially recognized as Indians. In 1787 Thomas Jefferson observed in his book Notes on the State of Virginia that "the Pamunkies are reduced to about 10 or 12 men ... The older ones among them preserve their language in a small degree, which are the last vestiges on earth, as far as we know, of the Powhatan language."

The language may have disappeared but the descendants of these proud people did not. Even
though they seemed invisible to most Virginians, Powhatan tribes have kept their identity and ties with each other. The Pamunkeys succeeded in maintaining some of their ancestral lands, though it was divided in two parts in the 18th century. Those living along the Mattaponi River formed a separate tribe called the Mattaponis and they were later recognized by the state as such. In 1901 a tribe called the Chickahominy formed from Indians living off reservations and in 1925 a splinter group, the Eastern Chickahominy, was organized. Three other tribes - the Nansemond, the Rappahonnock and the Upper Mattaponi - came into being, but none of these non-landed tribes were officially recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia until the 1980's. Inspired by the success of the Powhatan tribes, an ancient enemy, the Monacans of the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge, gained official status as a tribe in 1989. Most of its 700 members live in Amherst County and the Lynchburg area.

For further reading on the history and culture of Virginia Indians, a list of recommended books is included here. The Jamestown Settlement and the historic Jamestown site are excellent places to learn more about the Powhatans and the English colony. There is much recent excitement at Jamestown over the unearthing of the original fort and the discovery of skeletal remains. Both the Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservations, located east of Richmond, welcome visitors with some advance notice. The Pamunkeys are known for their pottery and some of their work is available for sale.


Heatwole, Henry, Guide to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, Shenandoah Natural
History Association, Luray, Va., 1995.

Egloff, Keith and Woodward, Deborah, First People, The Early Indians of Virgina, The Virginia
Department of Historic Resources, Richmond, Va., 1992.

McDaniel, Melissa, The Powhatan Indians, The Junior Library of American Indians, Chelsea House
Publishers, Mexico, 1996. Potter, Stephen R., Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs: The
Development of Algonquian Culture in the Potomac Valley, University Press of Virginia,
Charlottesville, 1993.

Rountree, Helen C., Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four
Centuries, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1990.

Rountree, Helen C., The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture,
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1989.

Rountree, Helen C., Young Pocahontas in the Indian World, J&R Graphic Services, Inc.,
Yorktown, Va., 1995.