Many in the world may never have known about Chief Powhatan before the release of the famous Disney movie “Pocahontas.”
While the film was an expanded version that combined truth and fantasy, Chief Powhatan was a real person, the father of Pocahontas, and the leader of the Native Indian tribes near the English settlement of Jamestown.
Where did they live?
Chief Powhatan led over thirty tribes, and he became known by the English settlers because of his desire to institute trade rather than fight with them.
His daughter, Pocahontas, married one of the colonists and then led to an extended period of peace that continued until he died in 1618.
Facts about Chief Powhatan
- Chief Powhatan’s birth name was Wahunsenacawh, also written as Wahunsunacock. He was born sometime in the 1540s or 1550s, and very little is known about his early years. His tribe had the tradition of the Chief being acknowledged from the mother’s side of the family. This is called a “matrilineal” culture.
- When he was given the title of Chief, he only had about six tribes to rule. However, he was known for his negotiations abilities and expanded influence, made alliances, and even used the war to his advantage to get more tribes.
- Each tribe had their own individual Chief that were called “werowance,” but all held their allegiance to Powhatan. The allegiance meant that they paid tribute to Powhatan as well as fought with him in many battles.
- The area that Powhatan was leader over was called Tsenacommacah or Tenakomakah. At the time, it had around 14,000 people and expanded out to approximately 6,000 square miles. This area is what is known today as tidewater Virginia, the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, and southern Maryland.
- Chief Powhatan was very wealthy and had many wives and children. Pocahontas was just one of his daughters.
- When the English settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607, Powhatan sent one of the members of their tribe to the colony to make sure that they lived in peace. He made many gestures of good faith, including sending needed food to a colony that hadn’t learned how to harvest or plant yet.
- In 1607, Captain John Smith was captured and taken to Powhatan. In later chronicles, Smith said that Pocahontas saved his life. It is unsure whether this was an exaggeration to enhance a story, as it didn’t show up until 1624. Some have guessed that there was a misinterpretation of a mock execution ceremony that was used to bind Smith to the tribe and Powhatan.
- Smith returned to the next year to negotiate with Powhatan. There was an exchange of food for the weapons that Powhatan needed. But there began to be additional problems because the settlers were expanding into the land ruled by Powhatan. This problem disrupted the truce that Powhatan and the settlers had established.
- The settlers wanted to make the Native Indians and Powhatan a subject of the King of England, and in 1609, Powhatan left his area and distanced himself and the tribes from the settlers.
- By 1609 Powhatan invited some colonists to his new location, and instead of meeting peacefully, the colonists attacked the Native Indians. It was then that Powhatan stopped all trade and then ordered anyone who left the Jamestown settlement to be attacked.
- The colonists barely survived until new ships arrived with supplies and more people, and they then began to take forceful actions against the Indian tribes.
- The situation between the settlers and Powhatan got worse as he tried to keep in charge of his territory. Pocahontas was captured in 1613 by the settlers and Powhatan had to negotiate her release by returning some of the guns the Native Indians had taken. When the items returned weren’t good enough, the colonists kept Pocahontas.
- Pocahontas converted to Christianity and married a colonist named John Rolfe. This led to another extended time of peace, which lasted the rest of Powhatan’s life.
What did you learn?
Chief Powhatan was the leader of how many Native Indian tribes?
What was the name of Powhatan’s famous daughter?
What did Powhatan negotiate with the early English settlers for peace?
Food and supplies
What was the name of the English settler that was captured by Powhatan’s tribe?
Why did Powhatan move his capital city?
To distance himself from the encroaching settlers
What action took place that created a state of peace that lasted until Powhatan died?
The marriage of Pocahontas to an English settler