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The Americas

North American Native Tribes


Mattaponi (Powhatan Confederacy) (North American Tribes)

Generally speaking, the European settlers in North America coined the phrase 'Indian' or 'Red Indian' to describe the North American tribes they found while they were settling what is now the USA. To the north of this vast collection of varying regions and climates were the native settlements of what is now Canada, while to the south were the various peoples of modern Mexico, most especially the Aztecs. The Mattaponi were located on the eastern seaboard in what is now the states of Delaware and Maryland (eastern section). They were neighboured by the Moraughtacund to the north, the Cuttawomens and Opiscopank to the east, the Pamunkey to the south, and the Youghtanund to the immediate west, with the larger Algonquian-speaking Nanticoke tribe hogging the Chesapeake coast beyond them.

CompendiumFor much of its recorded existence the tribe was firmly a constituent part of the Powhatan confederacy, which was formed in the second half of the sixteenth century. Wa-Hun-Sen-A-Cawh (Wahunsonacock), otherwise known as Powhatan, took over the then-small Powhatan confederacy after his father's death. He quickly expanded the confederacy, creating a union rather than focusing merely on subjugating the other regional tribes. (More information about the Powhatan confederacy is available via the compendium link, right.)

At its height the confederacy consisted of at least thirty-two tribes. First documented by Captain John Smith in 1607 (he of Pocahontas fame), the Mattaponi name is shown in a variety of ways in original records, including Mattapament, Mattapament, or Mattapoment. They lived along the banks of the river which today bears their name, and were one of the founding nations of the Powhatan confederacy. William Strachey gives a figure of 140 warriors for the tribe, estimating their total number at about 450 men, women, and children.

The sub-rulers or sub-kings of the Powhatan confederacy of the Virginia coast and Chesapeake Bay region were known as weroances (the plural form, or weroance, singular), an Algonquian word meaning leader or commander. Operating under the authority of a paramount chief called Powhatan, a weroansqua was the female equivalent. Spellings of both titles vary greatly thanks to the lack of standardised spelling of the time. Each tribe of the Powhatan confederacy was led by its own weroance, and like any titled lord in Europe's nobility he would carry the tribe's name as his title. Pochins, weroance of the Kecoughtan, would be referred to as Weroance Kecoughtan, or simply 'Kecoughtan'. Most foreign writers who came across a weroance did so only on a special occasion, because a foreigner's presence was special, as would be any notable visitor from outside the tribe. However, John Smith noted that there were few differences between weroances and their subjects.

(Information by Mick Baker, from primary sources by John Smith (1607), William Strachey (1616), The Virginia Census of 1669, and Robert Beverly (1705) with additional information from James Mooney (1907), from Helen C Rountree (information which forms the basis of the tribal locations map), from Everyday Life of the North American Indian, Jon Manchip White (1979), from The Encyclopaedia of North American Indian Tribes, Bill Yenne (1986), from The Native Tribes of North America - A Concise Encyclopaedia, Michael Johnson (1993), from the Atlas of Indians of North America, Gilbert Legay (1995), from Colonial America to 1763 (Almanacs of American Life), Thomas L Purvis & Richard Balkin, from The Indian Tribes of North America, John R Swanton, and from External Links: First Nations: Issues of Consequence, Lee Sultzman, and Legends of America, and Historic Jamestowne, and Colonial - A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century, and Access Genealogy.)

c.1530s - 1550

The first chief of a new confederacy along the eastern seaboard is driven north to the Virginia area by Spanish colonists in Florida and surrounding regions. Once there, he takes over control of at least five other Indian tribes in Virginia.

Upon his death his son, the young Chief Wahunsenacawh, inherits the duty of ruling over the six communities. He gradually expands his rule to cover more than thirty groups that includes a generous estimate of 15,000 people, although a more conservative calculation based on primary sources would indicate the total to be nearer 8,500.

c.1550 - 1607

By the end of the sixteenth century, Wahunsenacawh (more accurately known as Wa-Hun-Sen-A-Cawh, and better known as Powhatan) is the paramount chieftain of the Powhatan confederacy, which includes most of the indigenous tribes in the Chesapeake Bay region. The tribes in this region are linked by a common language, Eastern Algonquian.

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 (click or tap on map to view full sized)

FeaturePowhatan is mamanatowick, the chief of chiefs, and he lives amongst the Pamunkey people, but his power and authority varies from one part of the confederacy to another. Peoples who are distant from his centre at Werowocomoco on the north bank of the York River are more politically independent than those who are located within the core territory. The various tribes pay tribute to him, and he rules by the threat of force but also by marriage alliances and persuasion. Several sub-chiefs, or weroances, govern specific regions or tribes under his authority and in his name. Some of these, as might be expected in any ruling elite, are relatives of his, although inheritance in Powhatan society is matrilineal.

fl 1600s?


Weroance of the Mattaponi.

Werowough is weroance of the Mattaponi and a renowned hunter, as are most of his tribe. The tribe has some of the most skilled trackers and, thanks to the abundant game that live in the environs, some of the best archers as well. Werowough himself is considered the best of all.


FeatureJames Fort is founded within the area of the British Colonies, the earliest part of the later Jamestown Colony (1609) on the river of the same name. Captain John Smith encounters the Powhatan and catalogues the confederacy's many sub-tribes. He gives a count of Indian warriors as thirty Youghtanund, thirty Mattaponi, and three hundred Pamunkey. He says there are seven hundred under Opechancanough, brother of Wa-Hun-Sen-A-Cawh and weroance of the Pamunkey.

1610 - 1618

The Susquehannock attack the Patawomeck villages in northern Virginia despite additional protection provided by the settlements of the British Colonies. Skirmishes between the English and natives for food also occur during an exceptionally dry spell of weather that lasts for seven years (according to dendrochronological samples taken for the region). This forms part of the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609-1614).

1622 - 1624

The Province of Maine (the far north-eastern corner of the modern USA) is founded in 1622, its name perhaps originating from the French province of the same name in New France. But it is not all plain sailing for the settlers of the British Colonies. The Jamestown Massacre devastates the Jamestown Settlement and the Citie of Henricus on Good Friday, 22 March 1622. Natives of the Powhatan confederacy launch a surprise attack which leaves a quarter of the colony's population dead (347 people, although the Patawomeck refuse to participate in the massacre). They are led in this Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622-1644) by Opechancanough, younger brother of the great paramount chieftain Powhatan and now himself paramount chieftain of the Powhatan confederacy.

Jamestown Massacre of 1622
This portrayal of the surprise attack on the Jamestown Settlement and Citie of Henricus in 1622 show natives of the Powhatan confederacy massacring colonists who have been caught entirely unawares, carrying out the normal business of the day

1644 - 1646

The Second Battle of Virginia - sometimes referred to as the start of a Third Anglo-Powhatan War - takes place in 1644, with the native Powhatan confederacy still under Opechancanough. This bookends the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622-1644). The result is that the English completely crush the Powhatan and take control of eastern Virginia. The Powhatan survivors leave Virginia, notably including the Mattaponi. They make their way to a new settlement in the highlands along the Piscataway Creek. At the end of the war, the tribe slowly make their way back and, in 1646, along with other Powhatan, they sign their first treaty with the English. By the terms of this treaty, the Mattaponi would be designated as tributaries. Reservations are allotted for a number of tribes, and in return a quantity of fish and game is demanded as annual tribute.

Being distracted by this war the colonists have little time to concern themselves with the Susquehannock. Unchallenged, the Susquehannock extend their dominion south from the Susquehanna River to the Potomac River where they claim the area between these two points as hunting territory. They do not ask permission of those tribes that live in this area.

1656 - 1657

Peace treaties are signed between the court of Rappahannock County, the county justices, and the king and chiefs of the Mattaponi. Tribal members are to be treated as being equal to Englishmen, and are to be accorded their due civil rights.


The census of 1669 gives twenty Mattaponi and only fifty Pamunkey. A later confusion between Manskin and Manakin meant that the former name is systematically removed from all text (the Manakin (possibly Manokin?) are a Nanticoke band living in Manakin Town, in what becomes Princess Anne in Somerset County).


Another Indian war is triggered, this time involving the British Colonists of Maryland as well as those of Virginia. Known as Bacon's Rebellion, it is named after the leader of the Virginia Volunteers, Nathaniel Bacon, who leads his men in direct opposition to the wishes of colonial Governor Berkeley in a war of attrition against the Indians. The main effort is directed against the Susquehannock, but Maryland Indians in general, very likely fleeing from the depredations of the Iroquois, make several small raids into Virginia and all local Indians are held accountable by the colonists.

Bacon's Rebellion
Nathaniel Bacon refused to follow Governor Berkley's accommodation-not-annihilation approach to dealing with the native Americans - instead he was happy to support the dissatisfied settlers who had suffered from poor crops and high taxes and wanted the natives punished and pushed out

According to Beverley, these raids are instigated by the jealousy of New York traders. A detachment of a hundred men - including mounted troops - is authorised. No one is allowed to sell powder or arms to the Indians on pain of death and forfeiture of estate. The tribes involved are the Susquehannock and Doeg (probably the Tauxenent of the former Powhatan confederacy or possibly the Nanticoke) of Maryland and the Occaneeche and others of Western Virginia. The remnants of the Powhatan confederacy, led by Queen Cockacoeske of the Pamunkey, and including the Mattaponi in the list of those affected, take no part in the hostilities but suffer nonetheless. The Pamunkey and Occaneeche are almost annihilated by the colonists.


Queen Cockacoeske of the Pamunkey signs the Middle Plantation Treaty, which brings the war to a close. By this treaty all of the tribes submit to the British Colonists, and are confirmed in their tribal lands, subject to an annual peppercorn rent of three arrows and a tribute of beaver skins. The signatory tribes do not include the Mattaponi. They, along with the Pamunkey, continue to provide the colony's successor - the state of Virginia - with annual tribute in accordance with the 1646 and 1677 treaties.


The Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Chickahominy tribes attend the Treaty Conference at Albany, New York. This is an attempt to end the wars between the Iroquois and the southern tribes. The Iroquois have invaded Virginia frequently, which usually involves the settlers, which in turn keeps the tribes in a constant state of alert and caution. Although the Mattaponi continue to occupy their reservation throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, incoming colonists continually make inroads into their territory.


By this time there are only a handful of tiny Algonquian-speaking tribes remaining in the Virginia area, and one Iroquoian group. By the end of the century only four Algonquin reservations (Gingaskin, Mattaponi, Nansemond, and Pamunkey) and an Iroquoian one (Nottoway) remain. Some of the tribes that lose their reservations continue living together nearby, becoming ancestors of the modern 'citizen' tribes (especially the Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, and Rappahannock). The others have generally dispersed into the west and into other tribes.

In the Piedmont, the tribes of the Sioux withdraw southwards, sometimes returning and then leaving again. Non-Indians pour freely into their territory. The Pamunkey join with the Mattaponi to be treated as one tribe. However, this does not last and the two tribes separate once more (in 1894). These two are now the only surviving tribes of the Powhatan confederacy. The Pamunkey had provided the nucleus of the confederacy at foundation, so it is fitting that they should now be the last [but one] tribe standing.

Algonquin people fishing
Algonquian-speaking tribes in the Virginia area included the remnants of the Powhatan confederacy, but by 1700 their former military strength had been destroyed, leaving a diminishing number of them as increasingly marginalised foragers in a land of farmers

1702 - 1727

The Mattaponi and the English select one James Adams and those Indians who are grouped around him as the official translators to act between the two groups. Adams and his group become known as the Upper Mattaponi. Their settlement in the nineteenth century is recorded as Adamstown. They gain separate recognition in 1921, the members being descendants of a group of Indians who live near Passaunkack during the 1700s.


Many former member tribes of the Powhatan confederacy are extinct by 1722, having drifted away or merged with other remnant groups. The Rappahannock had already lost their reservation shortly after 1700, while the Chickahominy had lost theirs in 1718. These groups and the Nansemond fade from public view in the later USA. Only the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and an Eastern Shore group keep reservations, although their land constantly shrinks in size.


The state governor, Thomas Jefferson, notes that settlers are encroaching on Indian land. The Mattaponi have developed their own tribal government, completely separate from the Powhatan chiefdom, although the tribe is still nominally a member of the confederacy. The tribe continually have to defend themselves against the efforts of many who would deny their very existence as a tribe, and the attempts to wrest their property from them.

1812 - 1820

In 1812 the local government attempts to take an acre of land from the Mattaponi for the building of a dam. This attempt fails. By 1820, some Mattaponi are living with the Cheroenhaka, although a substantial number still remain where they had been.


The 'Gregory Petition' alleges that the Mattaponi and the Pamunkey are no longer Indians. This attempt to once more separate the two tribes from their lands also fails. It is reported that the two Indian groups which are living in King William County are indeed the Mattaponi and Pamunkey.

fl 1868


'Major Chief' of the Mattaponi.

1865 - 1894

The Pamunkey Baptist Church is formed, where many Mattaponi attend. Three years later the Mattaponi tribe has its own tribal leadership and they submit a list of chiefs, headmen, and members to the governor. Ellston is the major chief of the tribe, with Austin Key and Robert Toopence included amongst his headmen.

New Algonquian alliances
During their later years the former warriors of the Powhatan confederacy worked alongside their colonial neighbours in a new form of alliance that none of them could have foreseen back in 1607

The Mattaponi and the Pamunkey are the last two tribes to represent the once-mighty Powhatan confederacy, but they are treated by the Commonwealth of Virginia as a single unit until 1894, when the Mattaponi formally separate from the Pamunkey-led Powhatan chiefdom. Five trustees are appointed to the Mattaponi. Both tribes are declared exempt from certain local and county taxes.

1921 - 1924

The Upper Mattaponi tribe gain separate recognition in 1921. For the main body of Mattaponi, maintaining their culture and identity has proven difficult, despite their also gaining official recognition in this year. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 bans interracial marriage in the state of Virginia, and many Mattaponi are reclassified as black in official records due to their ethnic origin.

1942 - 1987

The Upper Mattaponi build the Indian River View Church, and next door is the Sharon Indian School, a one-room structure which had been built in 1917. This is replaced with an eight-room building in 1952. In the early days, the children of both tribes are educated together. The school closes in the 1960s with the end of official state racial segregation in public schools. The building is returned to the tribe's jurisdiction and use in 1987 and is subsequently used as a community centre.

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