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Native Americas

North American Natives Compendium

by Mick Baker, 22 December 2017. Updated 22 March 2018

North American Natives Compendium Introduction
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

 

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Powhatan

Main Page - Powhatan Confederacy (to come later)

Despite the confusion over the precise meaning of Powhatan, the best-known Powhatan was the second paramount chieftain, otherwise known as Wa-Hun-Sen-A-Cawh, his personal name. Typically, though, even this name has several variations, including Wahunsonacock, Wahunsunacock, Wahunsenasawk, Wahunsenacawh, Wahunsenacock, or Wahunsenakah.

Map of the Powhatan confederacy AD 1600
The Powhatan confederacy (the pale orange area) was formed towards the end of the sixteenth century, and under its second paramount chief it rapidly expanded to cover territory which is now divided between the states of Delaware and Maryland


 

Weroances (leaders)

Spelling was not standardised until relatively recently, and older texts especially can show great variance in how names are rendered. This is certainly true of the records left by the early Jamestown settlers, so the following variations of weroance are used in different texts:

  • weeroance
  • weroance
  • werowance
  • werowans
  • wyroance
  • wyrounce
  • wyrounnces

 

Weroance authority

Paramount chiefs gave their regional sub-rulers - weroances - the authority to handle hostile situations as they saw fit. This became clear to the settlers who recorded these details in 1607 and who experienced the hostility of the weroances.

Like any ruler or sub-king, a weroance did not go out to meet a visitor - the visitor would be escorted into the presence of the weroance. They and their wives and councillors would often dress themselves in their finest jewels and tanned deer skin.

George Percy wrote a vivid description of the Rappahannock weroance, whose body was painted crimson and face was painted blue, sprinkled with silver. He wore a red deer-hair crown tied around his hair knot and a copper plate on the other side, with two feathers arranged like horns, and earrings made of bird-claws fastened with yellow metal. When the weroance came to the shore of the Rappahannock River to meet the English colonists, he was playing a flute. He escorted the explorers to his camp following a tobacco ceremony.

 

The Powhatan confederacy

There has been a good deal written about this group of Virginia Indians, often known as the Tidewater People.

Various primary authorities include John Smith (1607) and William Strachey (1616), the principal sources here, as well as the Virginia census of 1669 and Robert Beverley (1705). A debt of gratitude is also due to James Mooney who, in 1907, drew all the strands of this fascinating history together in a first rate summary.

From this summary it would appear that the Powhatan confederacy held around 21,000 square kilometres of territory (8,000 square miles) or, to put it another way, twenty per cent of the area of the modern state of Virginia. The native name for this part of Virginia was Tsenacommacah (Tsenacomacah), and Powhatan ruled his domain from his capital of Werowocomoco.

His dominion commenced with just six original tribes which were soon supplemented by Powhatan's personal conquests. The Pamunkey outnumbered the other five put together, and it is thought that they were the initial nucleus of the confederacy. However, the initial six tribes only account for five hundred of the total 2,500 warriors under Powhatan's overlordship. Smith names twenty-eight tribes but indicates thirty-six 'Kings' Houses' or tribal capitals. The total number of villages within the confederacy was 161.

A manuscript authority of 1622 agrees with Smith, indicating '32 Kingdomes'. Strachey in 1616 gives a list of thirty-two chief jurisdictions, many of which disagree with Smith's earlier list. However, he assigns two chiefs to the Appamattock, three to the Pamunkey, and four to the Nansemond. This reduces the number to twenty-six. The settlers were initially confused about the native names, and for some time they referred to the Quiyoughcohannock (or Quiockohannocks) to the south of the James River by the name of Tappahannocks.

The census of 1669, following half a century of virtually constant warfare, identifies only eleven of Smith's original list, augmented by five differently-named others, probably brought about by shifting populations and new tribal combinations.

The genesis of the Powhatan confederacy is roughly contemporaneous with that of the Iroquois league (circa 1570). Despite this, there was a very great difference between the two. The Iroquois league was founded on a federal basis of common interest, mutual respect, and assured security, whereas Powhatan was a despotic monarch who ruled his confederacy through conquest, fear, and implicit obedience. As a result, at his death, the confederacy virtually fell apart and was reduced to a seventh of its original strength within a single century, whereas the Iroquois league flourishes to this day.

Of course, the political background was very different for the two. The Powhatans had to contend with the presence of increasing numbers of incoming settlers and were exposed to frequent conflicts with them and with neighbouring tribes. Perhaps Powhatan's despotic regime was the best form of government, given the circumstances.

The Iroquois on the other hand were located further into the interior, so were better protected by the environment. Their tribal structure too seemed better able to cope with local hostilities. By 1705, when Beverley was writing, there were only six Powhatan settlements on the mainland and nine on the Eastern Shore, plus a few scattered remnants, the sum total coming to only 1,170 people (350 men). This state of affairs was the result of four Indian wars and an almost continuous state of hostility that existed between the colonists and the Indians, not to mention smallpox, epidemics, and general demoralisation, together with the total subjugation of a once-proud people.

The confederacy had been completely crushed.

Algonquin village
This Algonquin village scene would have been very familiar to the people of the Powhatan confederacy, which started out with a core of just six Algonquian-speaking tribes, but under its second paramount chieftain it grew to include a great many more

Native American fur trappers
Fur traders of the Beaver Wars

The Powhatan confederacy was not generally caught up in the Beaver Wars of 1630-1698, having already suffered badly in their wars against the colonists and experiencing a dramatic population fall, but some regionally local Algonquian speakers were involved


Shown below is a table detailing the respective warrior strengths of the confederacy according to Smith (1607); Strachey (1616); the Virginia census (1669,) and Beverley (1705). Shifting populations; renewed alliances, and new combinations of the broken remnants; the abandonment of old sites, and occupancy of new villages all play their part in accounting for the name discrepancies that recur throughout the history of the Virginia Indians.

One is tempted to make a tentative suggestion here: where a tribal name ends on '-oc' such as Arrohatoc, Appamatoc, etc, it would seem that this is the name of the tribe. Where the name ends in '-ock' such as Arrohatock, Appamatock, etc, it seems to indicate the settlement name.

 

Tribe Smith
(1607)
Strachey
(1616)
Census
(1669)
Beverley
(1705)
Locations
(mainly as per Mooney)
Powhatan

40

50

10

Powhatan, James Falls, Richmond
Pamunkey
Pamaunkee
Pamunkie
Pymankee

300

300

50

40

Romuncock, King William County
Settlements of: Uttamussak, Menapucunt, & Kupkipcock* (Kaposecocke?)*
Arrohatoc
Arrohatock
Arrohattock
Arrohattec
Arrohatteck
Arrowhatock

30

60

Arrohatocs, Henrico County
Appamatoc
Appamatock
Appamattuck
Appamatuck
Appomatux
Appatomux

60

120

50

Not above 7 families

Bermuda Hundred, Chesterfield County
Youghtanund
Youghtamund

60

70

Mattaponi
Mattapoment
Mattapament

30

140

20

Mattaponi River
Accomac
Accomack
Accawmacke

80

About Cheriton (Cherrystone Inlet), Northampton County
Accohannock
Occohannock
Accohanock
Acohanock

40

40

Chesapeake
Cheesapeack
Cassapecocke
Chesapelacks

100

About Lynnhaven River, Princess Anne County
Chickahominy
Chickahominie
Chickahamanias

250

300

60

16+

Orapaks, Chickahominy River
Chiskiack
Kiskiack
Chesskoiack
Chesacake

40 or 60

50

15

Cuttatawomens
Cuttawomen

30 + 20

Two settlements: - 1) about Lamb Creek on Rappahannock River
2) Cowtoman River
Kecoughtan

20

30

Roscows, Elizabeth City County
Moraughtacund

80

Moratico River
Nantaughtacund
Nandtaughtacund
Nanzcattico
Nanzaticoe

150

Port Tobacco on Rappahannock River
Nansemond
Nandsamund
Nansamond
Nansamung

200

200

45

20

About Chuckatuck, Nansemond County
Onawmanient
Onaumanient

100

Nomony River
Opiscopank

On the Rapphannock
Orapak
Orapakes

50

Paspahegh
Paspaheghe

40

40

Pattawomeck
Potomac
Patawomack
Patawomeck
Patawomeke

Over 200

Potomac Creek
Piankatank
Payankatank
Payankatonk
Payankatooks

50 or 60

Turk’s Ferry, Piankatank River
Pissasec

Above Leedstown on the Rapphannock River
Quiocohanoc
Quiyoughcohannock

25

60

About Upper Chipoak Creek, Surrey County
Rappahanock
Rapahanock

100

30

A few families

A few families, Rappahannock River, Richmond County
Sekakawon
Secacawone
Secacaonie
Secacawoni

30

Coon River
Tauxenent (Doeg)

40

About Gen Washington, Mt Vernon, Virginia
Warraskoyack
Warraskorack
Warrasqueak
Warrasqueoc
Warrasquoyack

60

Warrasqueak, Isle of Wight County
Weyanock
Weanoc
Waianoke
Waonoke
Weanock
Weyanoke
Weianoack

100

100

15

Werowocomoco
Werowocomico

40

40

About Roscows(?), Gloucester, opposite the mouth of Queen Creek
Wicocomoco
Wiccocomico
Wighcocomicoe
Wicomico

130

70

3

Wococomico River
?

On Potomac River
Cantaunkack

100

Mummapacune

100

Pataunck

100

Kaposecocke*

400

See above - Pamunkey settlement
Pamareke

400

Pamunkey settlement
Shamapa

100

Chepecho

300

Paraconos

10

Powchyicks

30 Bowmen

16 tribal communities
with 605 fighting men
exclusive of the
Eastern Shore
which is not noted

Totaschees

40 Bowmen

Potobaccoes*

60 Bowmen

(*Speculation: possibly the origin of the 'Portobago' Indian town name)
Mattehatique
incl with
Nanzacattico (alias
Nantaughtacund)

?

Appomatux

10 Bowmen

Westmoreland County, and distinct from the tribe on the river of that name
Gingaskin
Chingoskin

Richahecrian
Rickohockan

 

Beverley (1705) gives figures only for the principal remnants but says all the Virginia Indians together don't amount to more than 500 fighting men - including the Nottoway and Meherrin (130 combined). This leaves about 380 for the Powhatans - including those on the Eastern Shore, with a grand total of between 1,150-1,200 men.

 

Main Sources

Beverley, Robert - The History of Virginia, in Four Parts (1722) (available online via Archive.org - see sidebar link)

Kramer, Michael J - The 1622 Powhatan Uprising and its Impact on Anglo-Indian Relations

Mooney, James - The Powhatan Confederacy, Past and Present, American Anthropologist New Series, Vol 9, No 1 (Jan-Mar 1907), pp 129-152 (available via Jstor - see sidebar link)

Rountree, Helen C - The Powhatan Indians of Virginia, Their Traditional Culture

Smith - The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & The Summer Isles, Together with the True Travels, Adventures and Observations, and a Sea Grammar (1607)

Strachey - The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia (1616)

Online Sources

Access Genealogy: Powhatan Tribe

First Nations: Issues of Consequence (see sidebar link)

Legends of America (see sidebar link)

Native American Tribes

Rankly - Rappahannock Tribe

United States History

 

 

     
Text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature for the History Files.