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Native Americas

The Piscataway Emperors

by Mick Baker & Peter Kessler, 5 August 2018

In 1660 there came a grand embassy from Uttapoingassinem, the new emperor of the Piscataway tribe, one of the Algonquian-speaking tribes of southern Delaware and eastern Virginia.

The grand embassy was bringing a present to the colonial governor of Virginia, and expressing the desire to continue the tribe's peaceful existence with its neighbours, thanks to an agreement made with the governor's predecessor.

Perhaps quite naturally when presented with a claim of rank which was higher than that of his own monarch, King Charles II of England, the governor asked whether the emperor had obtained his title by succession or election. The chief ambassador, the emperor's brother, expounded the matter as follows:

Long ago [this would be around 1260-1300 as calculated back from the current emperor] there came a king from the Eastern Shore who ruled over all the Indians now inhabiting within the Province [the Algonquian-speaking lands of eastern Virginia], and also over the Patowinecks [Patawomeck] and Susquehannoughs [Susquehannock] whom, for that he did as it were embrace and cover them all, they called Uttapoingassinem.

He, dying without issue, made his brother king after him, after whom succeeded his other brothers, after whose death they took a sister's son; and so from brother to brother, and for want of such to a sister's son.

If the claim is correct then this Uttapoingassinem managed to dominate the three tribes, and perhaps others who were not named, or who had since become amalgamated with them, or had otherwise ceased to exist, or even those who had subsequently been dominated by the Powhatan confederacy.

Although we should be thankful that the story exists when so much about the pre-Columbian natives is entirely unknown, it's a shame that more explanation isn't provided. This eastern shore was the Chesapeake peninsula along the Atlantic coast, [1] but how did this emperor establish his power over the tribes to his west? No mention is made of any fighting, so was it simple a case of one Algonquin tribe demonstrating clear dominance over the others and therefore being accepted as a father figure? How does this relate to the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannock? Surely some form of conquest is required where they are concerned?

Perhaps some support is available for this theory in the statement that it is the tribes who call this emperor 'Uttapoingassinem'. Indian leaders are notorious for having multiple names which may be suitable for certain situations or forms of address. Whatever his name may have been to his own people, these tribes name him for their situation and for their form of address to him. This again suggests that he was a welcome emperor.

The next section of the story would also seem to be relevant to all three tribes, Piscataway, Patawomeck, and Susquehannock:

The government thus descended for thirteen generations without interruption until Kittamaquund's time, who died without brother or sister, and appointed his daughter to be queen...

Kittamaquund does indeed seem to be the ruler of more than one tribe. He is certainly weroance of the Doeg (Tauxenent), and is claimed as being the Powhatan confederacy's main diplomatic connection with the Piscataway tribe, the Doeg being the tribe furthest north of the chiefdom's members. Indeed, the Doeg are so close to the Piscataway that there is often doubt as to who commands the greatest loyalty - them or the Powhatans.

William Woodward painting of the Piscataway
In 1699, two gentleman planters, Burr Harrison and Giles Vandercastel, became the first settlers to explore the interior of what is now Loudoun County and the first to record a meeting with Loudoun's native Indians, the Piscataway (William Woodward oil on canvas, 2003)

[1] In the late 1500s and/or early 1600s the leader of the eastern shore tribes was Debedeavon, weroance of the Accomac and Accohannock, and under the domination of the Powhatan confederacy.

If the 'empire' of Uttapoingassinem still survived in any form then it seemed to exist to the very north of the Powhatan confederacy, where the Piscataway, Doeg, and Conoy inhabited the eastern delta of the Susquehanna River. This also directly connected them to the Susquehannock who occupied both sides of the river to the immediate north

As an aside, when considering the speed with which the Powhatan confederacy was formed, could it have taken over the domination of many tribes from the Piscataway emperor simply by showing greater strength and power?

However, Kittamaquund may have been the last emperor over the three tribes.  A complete break-up may have followed Kittamaquund's death:

...but the Indians withstood it [the election of Kittamaquund's daughter as ruler] as being contrary to their custom; whereupon they chose Wahucasso, the late emperor [by 1660], who was descended from one of Uttapoingassinem's brothers. Wahucasso at his death appointed this other Uttapoingassinem [II] to be king, being descended from one of the first kings. This man, they said, was jan jan wizous, which in their language signifies a true king; and they would not suffer us to call him tawzin, which is the style they give to the sons of their kings, who by their custom are not to succeed, but only brothers or sisters' sons.

This seems to relate mainly to the Piscataway. By this stage, the Susquehannock may have paid lip service to their alliance to the 'empire' but they were already finding their own way in the vast forests to the north-west of eastern Virginia by taking over other tribes as the influence of the colonists caused a shift in power.

The reign of Emperor Uttapoingassinem (II) was brief, as he died in 1662. With him any remaining traces of the 'empire' seem to have died. The pressure from the colonists, and loses to disease and warfare, were too great for it to survive.


Main Sources

The Powhatan Chiefdom: 1606, Old Dominion University Model United Nations Society

Online Sources

First Nations: Issues of Consequence

Legends of America

The Washington Post



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