Powhatan Tribe

Coronation of Powhatan

The Powhatan Tribe
Summary and Definition: The Powhatan tribe were Algonquian people who inhabited the lands of Virginia. The tribe fiercely resisted the English colonists invasion of their homelands which led to a series of wars and conflicts. The names of the most famous people of the tribe were Chief Powhatan, his daughter, Pocahontas and his brother Opechancanough.

What was the lifestyle and culture of the Powhatan tribe?
The Powhatan tribe were leaders of the powerful league of tribes called the Powhatan Confederacy. They inhabited Virginia, from the Potomac River in the north to south of the James River, and parts of the Eastern Shoreline. Their leaders had absolute authority, unlike the more democratic tribes of the Northeast woodland cultural group. These powerful people lived in highly organized, fortified villages of longhouses, called 'yehakins', which were surrounded by their farming lands containing their crops of corn, beans and squash that covered up to 200 acres. They were also hunters and fishermen in and around Chesapeake Bay using large dugout canoes as much as 40 - 50 feet long. The English colonists in Virginia came into conflict with the tribe which led to a series of Powhatan Wars. The most famous members of the tribe were Wahunsonacock, who became known as Chief Powhatan, and his daughter, Pocahontas.

The Powhatan Confederacy
The Powhatan Confederacy was a league of over 30 Algonquian speaking Native American tribes that were located in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia and Southern Maryland. The names of the tribes associated with the Confederacy included the Potomac, Chesapeake, Mattapony, Secacawoni, Chickahominy, Nandsemond, Weanoc, Pamunkey, and the Mattapony. The tribes of the Confederacy fought in a series of conflicts known as the Powhatan Wars from 1609 - 1646. The power of the Confederacy came to an end as did the Powhatan Wars in 1646.

Where did the Powhatan tribe live?
The Powhatan are people of the Northeast Woodland Native American cultural group.   The geography of the region in which they lived dictated the lifestyle and culture of the Powhatan tribe.

  • The Northeast Woodland region extended mainly across the New England States, lower Canada, west to Minnesota, and north of the Ohio River

  • The Powhatan tribe are also classified as part of the Northeast Culture group because they shared most cultural traits with other Atlantic Coast Algonquians farther north

  • Land: Lush woodlands, rivers, ocean

  • Climate: The climate varied according to the location of the tribe

  • Land Animals: The  animals included squirrel, white-tailed deer, opossum, raccoon, bears and beavers. Fish and Sea Mammals: Seal, Fish and shell fish

  • Crops: The crops grown in the area were corn (maize), pumpkin, squash, beans and tobacco

What did the Powhatan tribe live in?
The Powhatan tribe lived in towns of Longhouses made with birch bark. The longhouses varied in size, the largest longhouses were 200 feet long, 20 feet wide and 20 feet high, had two levels and housed as many as twenty families. The  windowless Longhouses had a rounded roof, doors at both ends and a smoke hole in the roof that let in air and light. Their villages were generally located alongside a river and consisted of from three to one hundred different structures. The elongated longhouses were made of saplings that were bent and tied and covered with bark and woven mats.

What language did the Powhatan tribe speak?
The Powhatan tribe spoke in a form of Eastern Algonquian, a family of languages used by various tribes along the Atlantic Coast.

What did the Powhatan tribe eat?
The food that the Powhatan tribe ate included the staple crops of corn, beans and squash that were raised by the women. Tobacco was also farmed by the men.  The produce from the crops were dried and preserved for later use throughout the year. The food also included nuts, grains, vegetables, mushrooms, tubers, roots and fruits (blueberries, strawberries, plums and raspberries). The men also provided meat from deer (venison) and smaller game like squirrel, opossum, rabbit, wild turkey and duck. Fish such as sturgeon, pike and a variety of shellfish such as clams, oysters, lobsters and scallops were an important part of their food supply.

What weapons did the Powhatan use?
The weapons used by Powhatan warriors included bows and arrows, spears, war clubs, tomahawks and knives.

What clothes did the Powhatan wear?
The men of the Powhatan tribe wore simple clothes made from deerskin (buckskin) which consisted of a breechcloth that was passed between the legs and attached to a cordage belt. Leggings and moccasins were worn on hunting trips in the forests. The women wore a deerskin apron and like the men they also wore moccasins and leggings when working on the land or gathering food in the forest. Fur cloaks were worn in the winter. Their clothes were often decorated with painted designs, fringes and beads. Both men and women of the tribe tattooed their bodies and painted their faces with a mixture of red paint and nut oil.

Powhatan History: What happened to the Powhatan tribe?
The following Powhatan history timeline details facts, dates and famous landmarks of the people. The history timeline explains what happened to the people of their tribe.

Powhatan History Timeline

  • 1547: Wahunsonacock, who became known as Powhatan was born at the Algonquian Powhatan Village on the James River - Refer to Wahunsonacock (Powhatan) Biography

  • 1580: The Powhatan Confederacy was founded around 1580. The land of the Powhatan Confederacy reached 16,000 miles and the people of its 30 Indian tribes numbered over 15,000

  • 1607: The first English colony was founded by John Smith at Jamestown, Virginia. The land in Virginia chosen for colonisation, was in the Powhatan territories

  • 1607: December - Captain John Smith was captured by a Powhatan hunting party and taken before Chief Powhatan. The daughter of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas (Indian name Matoaka) saves the life of John Smith

  • 1608: January - Captain John Smith is released

  • 1608: Powhatan, intrigued by the new tools and weapons, helps the Jamestown colony survive with food which they traded for blue beads

  • 1608: The tradition of crowning a Native American Indian chief as a king started when Chief Powhatan was crowned as a king

  • 1608: The friendly association between the Powhatan and the colonists, initiated by John Smith, resulted in a formal coronation of Chief Powhatan on September 10, 1608 starting the tradition of crowning Native American Indian chiefs as a king

  • 1609: The newly formed friendship soon deteriorated and tensions between the Indians and colonists rose when livestock, owned by the colonists, were allowed to wander into the Powhatan cornfields

  • 1609: The Powhatan reduce trade attempting to starve the colonists out and attacks are made on the fort and the Powhatan Wars (1609-1646) erupt led first by Wahunsonacock) and then Opechancanough

  • 1609: The First Powhatan War (1609 to 1614)

  • 1609: The period covering 1609-1610 became known in the Virginia Colony as the 'Starving Time'

  • 1613: Samuel Argall captured Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, and she was held for ransom. Pocahontas was taken to Jamestown where she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca

  • 1614: Violent confrontation between hundreds of English and Powhatan men on the Pamunkey River, Virginia

  • 1614: New settlers arrived in Virginia including John Rolfe who marries Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, on April 5, 1614

  • 1616: Pocahontas,John Rolfe and their son Thomas Rolfe travel to England

  • 1617: Pocahontas dies in England and was buried on March 21, 1617, St George's Church, Gravesend, Kent.

  • 1618: The death of Chief Powhatan. His younger brother Opechancanough assumes full power

  • 1622: The Second Powhatan War (1622 to 1632)

  • 1632: A final peace was made on September 30, 1632 ending the Second of the Powhatan Wars. The Indians were effectively banished from the Chesapeake following this stage of the Powhatan Wars

  • 1644: The Third Powhatan War (1644 to 1646)

  • 1645: Chief Opechancanough refuses to admit defeat or sign a Peace treaty and is shot in the back by an English guard whilst in captivity

  • 1646: The new Powhatan chief, Necotowance, signs the 1646 Peace Treaty ending the Powhatan Wars . The result of the treaty was a boundary between the Powhatan and English lands that could only be crossed for official business with a special pass

  • 1646: The Powhatan Confederacy loses its power

  • 1665: The House of Burgesses passes strict laws requiring the Powhatan tribe to accept chiefs appointed by the governor

  • 1675: Virginia colonists demand that Powhatan Native Indians are removed from their treaty-protected lands

  • 1684: The Treaty of Albany in 1684 ends the Powhatan Confederacy

Powhatan History Timeline

The Story of Powhatan
For additional facts and information refer to the legend and the Story of Captain John Smith and Powhatan

Native American Indian Tribes
Native Indian Tribes Index

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