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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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.
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.
resident Capt. John Smith helped to perpetuate the Pocahantas
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
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.
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.
artist's depiction of a Powhatan village in the early
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.
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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Pocahontas as painted by Jean Leon Ferris (c. 1921), Virtual
Jamestown, Univ. of Virginia; Virginia Historical Society;
Museum of Natural History, Univ. of Michigan.