Friday, 6 February 2009

The Powhatan

When the first permanent English colonists arrived in Virginia in May 1607, they encountered several Native tribes. Among the most prominent were the Powhatan. The word Powhatan translates to "ruled by priests," and their society was structured around spiritual concepts. Contrary to what most historical and modern texts state, the Powhatan were not a confederacy. Confederacy is a term applied by the English and is a common misinterpretation of Powhatan culture. The correct terminology is Powhatan nation, paramount chiefdom, or Powhatan tribes.

Originally, there were six tribes forming the Powhatan nation: the Appamatuck, Arrohateck, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Powhatan, and Youghtanund. Only the Mattaponi and Pamunkey survive to modern day, and both have reservations in present-day Virginia . Before the Powhatan nation's collapse, more than thirty tribes had joined through alliance and perhaps this led to the mistaken conclusion they were a confederacy.

All tribes spoke an Algonquian language, but in different dialects. Algonquian as it was spoken in Virginia in the seventeenth century is now extinct, but written traces of the language survive. John Smith and William Strachey left small dictionaries. Many of the adopted words can be found in present-day English, such as raccoon, moccasin, tomahawk, and powwow.

Unlike many plains tribes, the Powhatan were not nomadic. They lived in semi-permanent towns of various sizes. Houses were built by bending saplings and implanting them in the ground. Poles were lashed horizontally, and the frame was covered by mats woven from rushes. Upon becoming warriors, boys separated from the family to live on their own, and once married, women went to live with their husbands.

Men and women led very different lives. While the men tended to the hunting and fishing, women's chores varied from season to season. In the winter, they gathered dried reeds and plants that were important for cordage. In the spring, they collected saplings and bark for making mats and house building. Early planting included preparing fields for crops, such as corn, beans, and squash. After the crops were planted, their tasks turned to weeding and foraging for berries. In the early fall, they harvested the crops and gathered nuts. In late fall, they accompanied the men on their hunts to help process deer carcasses.

Despite Englishmen often referring to the women as "drudges," Powhatan women could rise to the level of a chief, and the raising of corn was considered highly important in their society. Unlike most English women of the time, they also had the choice of whom they could marry.

A typical day for both genders began before dawn with a bath in the river, regardless of weather, followed by breakfast. Meals were informal, with people eating when they were hungry, rather than at a specific hour. Mothers encouraged boys to shoot small animals with their bows to add to the morning cook pot.

While men went out during the day to hunt and fish, women pounded tuckahoe (a sturdy plant that grows in slow moving water, such as ponds, swamps, marshes, and the banks of streams) or corn, when in season, to make bread. Women also made baskets and clay pots. Deer hides were scraped and tanned for clothing. In the evenings, both sexes sang and danced.

The English observed that the Powhatan treated each other with respectful manners. Unfortunately, they had the mistaken impression that polite listening on the part of the Powhatan was one of agreement, which ended up setting off decades of back-and-forth swings between cooperation and raiding.

Kim Murphy


Alison Stuart said...

Fascinating post! Thanks, Kim.


Anita Davison said...

My first chance to read this as we have just moved and internet is a bit erratic. What fascinating details, I loved this post. When I was lastin washington, {the only time] they were still building the Museum of the American Indian - I must go back and see it

Kim Murphy said...

Don't feel bad, Anita. I live a little more than two hours away from Washinton, and I've never been to the museum. I have visited the museums on the local reservations. It's sad because they get no funding, but they have fascinating items that you won't see anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

Here is a list of all the tribes in Virginia today. None of the tribes have federal recognition. Your translation of Powhatan is not accurate it means People of the Dream Vision, Pow Wow means we dream vision together. Geelum Senwach great grandaughter of Powhatan. Thank you


Chickahominy Indian Tribe

Chickahominy Indians, Eastern Division

Mattaponi Tribe

Monacan Indian Nation

Nansemond Indian Tribal Association

Rappahannock Tribe
Powhatan Tribe in New Jersery

Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe

Virginia Council on Indians

Mattaponi-Pamunkey-Monacan, Inc. (MPM)

Kim Murphy said...

Thank you for your post. I used the translation that was given to me from a Mattaponi tribal member. I had read something about dream, but don't remember the specifics offhand. I should have included it.

The Patawomeck, Nottoway, and Chereonhaka (Nottoway) tribes were also recently recognized by Virginia. I'd love to speak with you privately. Please contact me at
kim at

Thanks again for writing!