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Pocahontas and Jamestown 4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Duotone of PocahontasWhen the first 104 English colonists landed on Jamestown Island on May 14th, 1607, they imagined themselves the first civilized men in a wild and savage environment. In truth, the region of present-day Virginia in which the settlers arrived had long been home to some thirty Native American tribes, organized into what is known as the Powhatan Confederacy. The English traded with, learned from and waged war with the Powhatan. With the legendary Pocahontas as ambassador, these people played perhaps the most pivotal role in the fate of the first English settlement in America. Who were the Powhatan?
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1607

By the 1600's, the tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy had called tidewater Virginia home for several hundred years. Perhaps as many as 14,000 people supported themselves by farming, hunting and harvesting the abundant shellfish of the Chesapeake Bay. They spoke dialects of the now-extinct Algonquian language, versions of which were spoken by native people all along the east coast of America.

These people had no written language and kept no records. What is known about the tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy comes entirely from the archaeological record and the English settlers, who made detailed observations of all they encountered in the Americas. The newcomers could not help but be impressed by the Powhatan and their powerful leader, Wahunsonacock, whom the English simply called Powhatan.

Image of John Smith
Jamestown resident Capt. John Smith helped to perpetuate the Pocahantas myth.
 

John Smith, who had a great deal of personal contact with the chief, famously described him as "a tall, well proportioned man, with a sower looke. . .of a very able and hardy body to endure any labour."

Skeletal remains back up Smith's words. The Powhatan people averaged six feet tall, much taller than the average European in the 1600's. Their black hair and eyes and reddish brown skin, together with their decorative tattoos, seemed exotic and beautiful to Smith.

Other Englishmen, including William Strachey, Ralph Hamor and Thomas Hariot, wrote letters, diaries and histories filled with information about the Powhatan. They describe a self-sufficient woodland people who built their houses and canoes out of trees, dressed themselves in leather and made tools out of stone, bone and sinew. The men hunted and fished, sometimes traveling great distance, while the women stayed in camp and farmed the land near their home.

Image of long house
 
An artist's depiction of a Powhatan village in the early 17th century.

The Powhatan were wary of the English, but they also saw the new comers as potential trading partners who had important goods. Though Powhatan's leadership had made allies of the thirty-odd tribes of the Confederacy, there had been a long history of warfare among them, and peripheral tribes still posed a threat. Knives and gunpowder, therefore, were coveted advantages.

The Powhatan Confederacy was a status-conscious hierarchy in which commoners paid tribute- something like a tax- to local chiefs, or werowances, who in turn paid tributes to Chief Powhatan himself. By some accounts, the chief received as much as 80 percent of all that was produced in the 900 square miles of his confederacy. His great wealth allowed him to support one hundred wives and all of their children. One of these children, a daughter whom he nicknamed Pocahontas, would achieve fame that would long outshine that of her father.
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4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Images: Pocahontas as painted by Jean Leon Ferris (c. 1921), Virtual Jamestown, Univ. of Virginia; Virginia Historical Society; Museum of Natural History, Univ. of Michigan.


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