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Native Americas

Powhatan's Methods

by Mick Baker, 3 July 2018

Parahunt, weroance of the Powhatan proper in the early 1600s, was the son of the Powhatan paramount chief, Wa-Hun-Sen-A-Cawh, the great Powhatan of history.

Unfortunately, Parahunt was fully cognisant of the fact that he would not inherit the paramount chieftaincy himself. That honour was saved for Wa-Hun-Sen-A-Cawh's brother, Opitchapam, who would himself be usurped by their younger brother, Opechancanough.

Nonetheless, Parahunt was ambitious. Any chance of gaining glory in battle he would seize. Most of his drive towards militant glory he directed against the Monacan. Parahunt felt that if war should break out between the two confederacies, he could make a name for himself on the battlefield.

However, the real power lay with Powhatan and the Pamunkey pedigree.

Powhatan inherited six tribes from his father, whose own tribe we must assume was that of the Powhatan proper. However, Powhatan, being such a charismatic and powerful leader, soon suborned the largest tribe - the Pamunkey - to fit his plans.

Within a comparatively short time, Powhatan had conquered some thirty or so tribes and brought them into the confederacy with varying degrees of success (see the Chickahominy and Rappahannock in particular). Possibly some of these tribes were taken from an existing 'empire' which appeared to have been dominated by the Piscataway.

However, unlike the Iroquois league which was founded about the same time, Powhatan ruled through fear, control, and his own personality rather than any desire for a common interest.

James Mooney (1907) has something to say on the matter

As an example of Powhatan's methods, we are told how, in 1608, for some infraction of his authority, he made a night attack on the Piankatank tribe, slaughtered all the men who could not escape, and carried off the women as captives.

Some years before he had taken advantage of the death of the chief of the Kecoughtan to invade their territory, kill all who made resistance, and transport the rest bodily to his own country, finally settling them at Piankatank, which he had previously depopulated.

In the same way, on the strength of an ominous prophecy, he had exterminated the entire Chesapeak tribe and transplanted a colony of his own people in the desolated territory. To make his position more secure, he placed his sons or brothers as chiefs in several principal towns, while he himself ruled in his own capital.

Powhatan warriors
Warriors of the Powhatan confederacy watch over their fellows in this early illustration which also seems to show English colonists and a stockaded settlement

From all accounts, he was greatly feared and implicitly obeyed, governing rather by his own personality than according to tribal custom. The powerful Chickahominy, however, although accepting him as over-lord, maintained their own home rule, and took an early opportunity to put themselves under the protection of the English.

In the end, Wa-Hun-Sen-A-Cawh's confederacy began to crumble after his death. The colonists were a destabilising factor, and Opechancanough seemed happy to lead his people into war against them. By this time the colonists had become too strong and the confederacy was destroyed.


Primary Sources

Robert Beverly (1705)

John Smith (1607)

William Strachey (1616)

The Virginia Census of 1669

Main Sources

James Mooney (1907)

Helen C Rountree

First Nations: Issues of Consequence, Lee Sultzman

Legends of America website

Historic Jamestowne website

Colonial - A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century

Purvis, Thomas L & Balkin, Richard - Colonial America to 1763 (Almanacs of American Life)

Swanton, John R - The Indian Tribes of North America

Access Genealogy



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