Powhatan Confederacy Is Founded

Powhatan forged a political alliance between Native American tribes in the Virginia region to defend against encroaching European settlers.

Summary of Event

Powhatan was one of the names of the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy in eastern Virginia. It was also the name given to a group of tribes of Virginia Indians, the name of an Indian village, and the throne name of a chief. Although historians have consistently referred to the chief of the Powhatan Indians and the ruler of the Powhatan Confederacy as Powhatan, his birth name was Wahunsenacawh. This discrepancy was caused by the English, who either did not know his birth name or found it more convenient to call him Powhatan, because he had so many names. At its largest, the Powhatan Confederacy extended north to Alexandria along the Potomac River, south to the Neuse River in North Carolina, west along Virginia’s fall line, and east to the Atlantic Ocean. Powhatan Confederacy
Strachey, William

An idealized rendering of Powhatan leading a council of tribal chiefs and others in eastern Virginia at the time of the first contact with the English. The council regulated matters of concern to the whole Confederacy.

(Library of Congress)

It has been suggested that Powhatan’s father may have come to Virginia from the south. This contention is supported by the fact that Powhatan succeeded his father as chieftain, a practice in opposition to the matriarchal system of succession practiced by the Algonquians of eastern Virginia. Whatever the case, it was Powhatan’s father who, in the mid-1570’, founded what came to be known as the Powhatan Confederacy, which during his lifetime consisted of six tribes: the Arrohattoc Arrohattoc (Arrohateck), Appomattoc Appomattoc (Appomattox), Mattaponi Mattaponi , Pamunkey Pamunkey , Youghtanund Youghtanund , and Powhatan. Upon his father’s death, Powhatan inherited control over those tribes.

Powhatan soon began incorporating more tribes into the confederacy, which expanded dramatically under his reign. At its height, the Powhatan Confederacy included twenty-nine tribes. In addition to the original six, it encompassed the Accohannock, Accomac, Chesapeake, Chickahominy, Chiskiack, Cuttatawomen, Kecoughtan, Moraughtacund (Morattico), Nandtaughtacund, Nansemond, Onawmanient, Opiscopank (Piscataway), Paspahegh, Piankatank, Pissaseck, Patawomeck (Potomac), Quiyoughcohannock, Rappahannock (Tappahannock), Sekakawon (Secacawoni), Warraskoyack, Weanoc (Weyanock), Werowocomoco, and Wiccocomico (Wiccomico).

Relatively little is known of Powhatan’s career before English settlers encountered him around 1607, since the confederacy itself kept no written records. Most historians agree, however, that Powhatan forged his confederacy through a combination of treachery, force, and terror. Powhatan allegedly attacked the Piankatank Piankatank tribe at night and slaughtered all the captives he took. When Powhatan invaded the Kecoughtan Kecoughtan , he killed all who resisted and distributed the captives throughout his domain. He was reputed to have slaughtered the entire Chesapeake Chesapeake tribe because an oracle had divined that Powhatan would be overthrown by a force from the east. He then transplanted his own people to the area formerly occupied by the Chesapeake.

Powhatan consolidated his power by conferring chiefdoms on his relatives, by his own multiple marriages with the daughters of chieftains, and by the intermarriage of his family with the sons and daughters of locally powerful chiefs. The four known brothers of Powhatan all became chiefs: Opitchapam succeeded his brother as ruler of the Confederacy, Opechancanough was chief of the Pamunkey Indians and a later successor to the confederacy’s throne, Kekataugh ruled the village of Pamunkey, and Iopassus was king of the Potomacs. William Strachey, an English writer who lived in Virginia in the early 1600’, suggested that Powhatan’s twelve marriages increased his authority among Virginia’s native tribes. A thirteenth wife has been attributed to Powhatan—Oholasc, the regent of the Tappahannocks.

There is no accurate listing of the number of children fathered by Powhatan. At the time of the English arrival in 1607, it was estimated that Powhatan had twenty living sons and twelve living daughters. The better-known Powhatan offspring included Taux-Powhatan, his eldest son and the ruler of the Powhatans; Na-mon-tack, who was presented to King James I; Pocahontas; Cleopatre; Tohahcoope, chief of the Tappahannocks; Nantaquaus, described by John Smith as the manliest, comeliest, and boldest spirit in a “savage”; Matachanna; and Pochins, chief of the Kecoughtan.

The village was the administrative unit of the Powhatan Confederacy, with power invested in a cockarouse, the weroance or war-leader, the tribal council, and the priest of each village. Each village was expected to pay four-fifths of its rude wealth in tribute to Powhatan. There is dispute about the exact number of villages in the confederacy. Strachey counted 34 villages; historians have estimated anywhere from 30 to 128 villages. Population is similarly difficult to determine, but the confederacy probably had between nine thousand and fifteen thousand inhabitants.

The cockarouse was the highest elected civil magistrate of a given village and a member of the tribal council, over which he or she presided. Cockarouses were chosen based on their experience and wisdom. Cockarouses exercised authority only during times of peace, however. They received the first fruits of the harvest, and they were in charge of all public and private concerns of their respective villages. Each cockarouse was also a delegate to Powhatan’s council and held the office for life on condition of good behavior. Although elective, the position of cockarouse might be hereditary in the female line. Women could be cockarouses.

Powhatan appointed the weroance. The weroance was a member of Powhatan’s council, the leader in hunting and fishing expeditions, and in charge of all military affairs. The weroance exercised the power of life and death over the members of his tribe, collected the tribute due Powhatan, declared war, maintained a crude ceremonial state, and presided over the village council in the absence of the cockarouse.

The tribal council regulated matters of concern to the whole Confederacy. It governed in accordance with a sense of right and wrong, with custom, with fashion, with public opinion, and with a sense of honor. It is difficult to determine whether the tribe or the village was the basic political unit of the Powhatan Confederacy, because they were frequently one and the same. Historians generally agree that a king or queen ruled over a tribe. Usually, the king was a weroance. Strachey mentions one queen, Opossunoquonuske of the Mussasran, who was also a weroance. This is probably an exception, because Oholasc was a queen but her son was the weroance.

The highest political authority resided with Powhatan and his council (Matchacomoco). The council was composed of cockarouses, weroances, and the priests of all the subject and allied tribes. The council shared the supreme authority over the Powhatan Confederacy with Powhatan. It was convened by the people and held open meetings. Powhatan presided over this advisory body to declare war or peace, conduct foreign relations, and manage domestic affairs. A unanimous vote of the council was required to implement decisions, but the personal authority of Powhatan greatly affected council policy.


In 1607, a group of English colonists founded Jamestown in eastern Virginia. Thus, Powhatan and his confederacy formed the primary basis for the English understanding of America’s native inhabitants in the early seventeenth century. By the same token, it was primarily through the inhabitants of Jamestown that Powhatan entered the pages of Western history.

Powhatan’s original capital, Werowocomoco, was about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Jamestown. In 1608, Werowocomoco was abandoned for Orapax on the Chickahominy River to keep Powhatan geographically distant from the English. Powhatan apparently used his retreat to the interior and the new threat of the English presence to increase his control over the tribes of the confederacy. The English, for their part, courted Powhatan as the most powerful American Indian in the vicinity. They gave him gifts and even a royal crown in 1609. Five years later, Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, married an Englishman named John Rolfe after converting to Christianity.

From the time of Pocahontas’s marriage, relations between the Powhatan Confederacy and the Jamestown settlement steadily improved. After the deaths of Pocahontas (1617) and Powhatan (1618), however, Powhatan’s successors (particularly his brother Opechancanough) viewed the English as intruders and sought to remove the English from ancestral native lands. From 1622 until 1676, Native American rebellions occurred intermittently until the eastern Virginia tribes were either defeated or fled westward, leaving the English in firm control of the lands of the Powhatan Confederacy.

Further Reading

  • Barbour, Philip L. Pocahontas and Her World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. A good synthesis of seventeenth century accounts of Jamestown’s founding, including much information on Powhatan.
  • Beverly, Robert. The History and Present State of Virginia. Reprint. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971. A study of Indian life and customs in the seventeenth century, first published in 1705.
  • Bial, Raymond. The Powhatan. New York: Benchmark Books, 2002. An informative study of the Powhatan geared toward younger readers. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Study of the encounters between the Powhatan Confederacy and the English, arguing that the two cultures civilized each other. Includes maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • McCary, Ben C. Indians in Seventeenth Century Virginia. Williamsburg: Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corporation, 1957. Reviews the history of seventeenth century Native Americans in Virginia.
  • Mossiker, Frances. Pocahontas: The Life and the Legend. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. Biography attempting to extricate Pocahontas from the cloud of myth and ideology in which she has become surrounded. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. Written by an ethnohistorian and anthropologist, this is one of the best studies of Jamestown and the settlement’s relationship to the Powhatan Confederacy.
  • Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. A comprehensive study of all aspects of life among the Powhatan Confederacy tribes.
  • Rountree, Helen C., and E. Randolph Turner, III. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia’s Powhatans and Their Predecessors. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2002. Detailed account of the history, customs, and culture of the Powhatans.
  • Smith, John. The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. Reprint. Philadelphia: Kimber and Conrad, 1812. An account of life in Virginia by the first Englishman to meet Chief Powhatan.
  • Strachey, William. The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania, 1612. Edited by Louis Wright and Virginia Freund. Reprint. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1967. A contemporaneous account of Virginia’s Native Americans.

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Early 16th cent.: Rise of the Fur Trade

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Apr. 20, 1534-July, 1543: Cartier and Roberval Search for a Northwest Passage

Sept., 1565: St. Augustine Is Founded

June 7, 1576-July, 1578: Frobisher’s Voyages

July 4, 1584-1590: Lost Colony of Roanoke