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The Americas

North American Native Tribes


Rappahannock (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 Rappahannock were located on the eastern seaboard in what is now the states of Delaware and Maryland (eastern section). With direct access to Delaware Bay to the east, they were neighboured by the Pissasecs and Onaumanients to the north, the Moraughtacund to the south, and the much larger Nanticoke tribe to the west.

CompendiumFor much of its recorded existence the tribe was nominally 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, although the powerful Rappahannock, unusually within the confederacy, were always at pains to maintain their own identity. This became more evident upon Wa-Hun-Sen-A-Cawh's death, when the Rappahannock reasserted their full independence from any overlord. They dominated the Rappahannock River, with thirteen villages spread over the north and south banks of the river. Their name is shown relatively reliably in original records, with 'Rapahanock' being the only alternative spelling of any note. (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, from The Powhatan Chiefdom: 1606, Old Dominion University Model United Nations Society, 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. The Rappahannock are one of the region's more powerful tribes. Whilst acknowledging Wahunsenacawh as their 'king' they nevertheless retain a certain measure of independence, never allowing themselves to be totally dominated by their mighty overlord. This independence continues and at Powhatan's death in 1618, their freedom is assured.

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 Rappahannock. Independent from 1618.

? - 1604


Minor chief. Kidnapped and murdered by the English.


The Rappahannock span both sides of the Rappahannock River, so the tribe's main centre is often a meeting place for diplomatic affairs. The tribe is also the chief producer of tobacco within the Powhatan confederacy. Peace ceremonies are often concluded here over a traditional pipe of tobacco. Thanks to this, the Rappahannock villages are a popular destination for such occasions, and the tribe's weroance profits greatly from his position as 'Chief of Tobacco'. (A later weroance, Taweeren, is certainly known to do well from the tobacco trade.)

In May 1607 news spreads of explorers sailing on the James River. The Rappahannock weroance takes a party and hurries there, staying with the Quiyoughcohannock. They send word requesting a meeting with the newcomers, and the two sides meet on 4 May.

In December of the same year the tribe first meets Captain John Smith at their chief settlement of Topahanocke (Tappahannock). Smith has been brought to them as a prisoner of Powhatan's brother, Opechancanough. Three years earlier, some members of the Rappahannock had been kidnapped and their chief murdered. Now Opechancanough forces Smith to confront the Rappahannock in a sort of identification line-up. Smith is declared innocent, not fitting the description of the murderer.


Smith returns to the Rappahannock in the summer of 1608, where he maps fourteen villages on the northern side of the river. Territory on the southern side forms the tribe's hunting grounds. Smith also mediates in a dispute between the Rappahannock and their neighbours, the Moraughtacund.

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).

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. This confederacy no longer includes the Rappahannock as a constituent member, but they may still be working alongside it as an ally. They certainly are not immune from reprisals by the colonists, coming under attack in 1623.

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), although the colonists view the Rappahannock as being independent of the confederacy and therefore leave them alone. The result of the war is that the English completely crush the Powhatan and take control of eastern Virginia. The Powhatan survivors leave Virginia while, during the 1640s and 1650s, illegal English settlements begin to spring up in the Rappahannock valley. The Rappahannock withdraw from the river's south bank.

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.

? - 1651


Weroance of the Rappahannock.


Accopatough cedes land to the east of the Totuskey Creek to the British Colonists just before his death in April. In May, his successor, Taweeren, confirms the land cession. By 1652 the Rappahannock's main town is located three kilometres (two miles) up Cat Point Creek, but within a year the colonists have been moving in such numbers that the colony allocates the tribe a plot of reserved land. The Rappahannock commit to building an English-style house for Taweeren, but in 1654 disputes between the colonists and the Indians have continued to rumble on, and in November colonists visit the tribe to claim restitution for damages. In a subsequent brawl Taweeren is killed.

1651 - 1654


Weroance of the Rappahannock. Killed by colonists.

1654 - ?


Weroance of the Rappahannock.

1662 - 1669

In 1662 Virginia Colony fixes the Rappahannock land boundaries at Cat Point Creek in the west and Totuskey Creek in the east. The tribe gives up trying to defend its land and moves away. In 1669 it resettles around the headwaters of the Mattaponi River. There are probably a hundred people an all, including thirty bowmen.


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. The Rappahannock, along with other tribes, hide in the Dragon Swamp to avoid the English vigilantes who have threatened to kill all Indians 'for that they are all enemies'. When the rebellion is over, the Rappahannock amalgamate at one village.

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


Queen Cockacoeske of the Pamunkey signs the Middle Plantation Treaty. 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 (after a year of trying), having been free of Powhatan dominance since the death of Wa-Hun-Sen-A-Cawh (Powhatan) in 1618.

1682 - 1684

In November 1682 the Virginia Council directs 3,474 acres of land to be laid out for the Rappahannock Indians 'about the town where they dwelt'. Between 1683-1684 the General Assembly forces the Rappahannock to abandon their fortified single village and move upriver to the Portobago Indian town that has been created for them on this reserved land, on the ridge between the Mattaponi and Rappahannock rivers. In this position the remaining seventy Rappahannock will act as a buffer between the colony and marauding Seneca (Iroquois) warriors from New York who continue to raid.


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.

1705 - 1706

The Nantaughtacund (Nanzatico), who live across the river in Portobago Town, are deported to Antigua in the West Indies, where they are sold into slavery. Within a year (1706), Essex County orders the Rappahannock to leave Portobago Indian Town, using the militia to enforce the order. Their land is reserved for English settlers, while many Rappahannock settle downriver, in King & Queen County. This is the location of their ancestral homelands, and it is here that they remain to this day.


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 USA. Only the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and an Eastern Shore group keep reservations, although their land constantly shrinks in size.

Rappahannock heritage sign
This Department of Historic Resources sign is one of a series in the region which points out or highlights various places and incidents related to the former tribes which occupied the entire area

1921 & 1985

The Rappahannock integrate their remaining groups in 1921 as part of a drive towards forming an amalgamated tribal government, part of their fight for state recognition. It takes until 1985 before they finally win recognition as one of the 'Historic Tribes of Virginia' by means of a general assembly act of 25 March of that year.

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