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The Americas

North American Native Tribes


Nansemond (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 Nansemond were located on the eastern seaboard in what is now the states of Delaware and Maryland (eastern section), as one of the most southerly of the Powhatan confederacy's tribes. With part of the Atlantic coast to themselves, they were neighboured by the Warraskoyack to the north, the Chesapeake to the south, beyond which were further Eastern Algonquian tribes, and the large Iroquoian-speaking Nottoway tribe to the west.

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. At its height the confederacy consisted of at least thirty-two tribes. The Nansemond name is shown in a variety of ways in original records, including Nansemund, Nandsamund, Nansamond, or Nansamung. The tribe lived along the Nansemond River, located in modern Suffolk County and Chesapeake, occupying an area that they called Chuckatuck. (More information about the Powhatan confederacy is available via the compendium link, right.)

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 Nansemond.

1607 - 1608

Weyhohomo is weroance of the Nansemond, one of the largest sub-tribes of the Powhatan confederacy. Exhibiting traits which could be equated with paranoia, Weyhohomo has collected a huge cache of weapons, food, clothing, and other necessities which are stored in his main village, just in case his tribe is attacked. His concerns proved to be entirely justified.

Initially the Nansemond are very wary of the British Colonists when they begin to settle around the area which will become Jamestown. They have every reason to be cautious as, in 1608, one of the Nansemond towns is raided and houses and canoes are destroyed in order to force the Indians to give the settlers corn. Captain John Smith and his men demand four hundred bushels of corn or the village will be demolished. The Indians agree and the English leave with most of the tribe's corn supply.


Relations with the English deteriorate even further when the settlers try to gain control of Dumpling Island, traditional home of the weroance (located at Wilroy Swamp, upstream from the mouth of the Nansemond River). This is also where the tribe's sacred items are kept and their temples are located. The English destroy the burial sites of the Nansemond tribal leaders and desecrate those temples. They ransack houses and the tribal religious sites for valuables, such as copper ornaments and pearls. These items are torn from the dead bodies of buried leaders as their graves are defiled.

1610 - 1618

In 1610 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).

Virginia's native Americans fishing
This unspecified group of Virginia's native Americans is illustrated in this sixteenth century engraving, showing them fishing and probably marking them out as a coastal people, as the Nansemond would have been

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.


The English begin to move into Nansemond lands. Affected by these continued incursions in the seventeenth century, the tribe splits apart. Those who convert to Christianity and adopt more English customs remain along the Nansemond River and become farmers. Those who go to war against the settlers in 1644 have a different fate.

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, with those of the Nansemond who had fought fleeing towards the south-west and the Nottoway River. Here they are assigned a reservation by the Virginia Colony.

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.


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. This is in payment for reconnaissance and surveillance services, and supplying a quota of warriors to serve against any enemy. Cockacoeske is recognised in certain special dignities and although several tribes are reunited under her authority, the Chickahominy and Rappahannock refuse to submit to her suzerainty, having been free of Powhatan dominance since the death of Wa-Hun-Sen-A-Cawh (Powhatan) in 1618.

The signatory tribes are: the Appamatuck, Nansemond, Nantaughtacunds, Pamunkey, Portabaccoes (one of the late-appearing tribes in the confederacy which may be a new formation or the amalgamation of previous units), and Weanoc of the former Powhatan confederacy, plus the Meherrin, Monacan, Nottoway, and Saponi. This treaty marks the end of the Indian period. The Indians along the coast lose their remaining land and are confined to small reservations because certain chiefs (Asconnowett, Osattaka, and the late Totopotomoi) regard[ed] themselves as 'tributaries to His Sacred Majestye and ye soveraignitye of the land where they live and doth belong to His Majesty'. Confirmed as native subject leaders are the 'Queen of Pamunkey', the 'Queen of Waonoke' (the Weanoc), 'King Serraohque of the Nottoways', and the 'King of Nansemond', amongst others.


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.

Nansemond historical marker
While the Nansemond sold off the last of their territory in 1792, they have still left their mark on modern Virginia, notably in a series of historical markers which link them to the modern land they once inhabited

1722 - 1744

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. Only the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and an Eastern Shore group keep reservations, although their land constantly shrinks in size. By 1744, the Nansemond cease living on their reservation and migrate to live with the Iroquoian-speaking Nottoway tribe on another reservation nearby.


The Nansemond sell the last of their reservation lands, three hundred acres of the Nottoway River in Southampton County. They are subsequently known as 'citizen' Indians. They have to wait another one hundred and ninety-two years before they receive official state recognition in the USA, and the Pamunkey have to wait until 2015 for theirs.

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