The Powhatan Confederacy comprised thirty Native American tribes in the region we now know of as Maryland, Virginia, and a part of North Carolina. The entity was named after Chief Powhatan, who ruled from 1547 to about 1618. The tribes that made up the Confederacy were most widely known for the Anglo-Powhatan Wars that lasted from 1610 to 1646.
During Powhatan’s rule, the colonial settlement of Jamestown was founded in 1607. Under the powerful chief, also known as Wahunsenacah, the confederacy tribes provide each other with military support. They paid Powhatan taxes in various forms, such as food, pearls, copper, and pelts. They lived near fields where the women cultivated various crops. Meanwhile, the men were more focused on warfare and training.
What was Pocahontas’s connection to the Powhatan Confederacy?
Pocahontas was born in 1596, which coincided with the time of Powhatan’s rule. But what was the Powhatan Confederacy for her at that time?
For those who have read or watched even the fictionalized version of Pocahontas’ life, her marrying one of the Jamestown Colony settlers was a well-known fact. However, Pocahontas was more than just the Native American wife of a white settler. She was also the daughter of the chief himself, Powhatan. Powhatan had many wives and children, but Pocahontas was arguably the most famous. She was his daughter with a Pamunkey tribe wife. Pocahontas’s other names were Matoaka and Amonute. Later, though, she became known for her Christian name, Rebecca.
Pocahontas also established a name for herself. She made friends with the settlers of Jamestown Colony and even married one of them. Interestingly, her name meant either “mischievous one” or “little wanton.” When she first met the Chesapeake Bay area colonists, she was merely a girl of 10 or 11. Though her name was strongly associated with John Smith, one of the colonists she saved when she warned them of an impending ambush, she became the wife of John Rolfe in 1614.
The marriage had allowed peace between the Native Americans and the English to prevail. It is worth noting, however, that Powhatan was previously married to Kocoum, a Powhatan man. This was based on a colonist account.
What was the Powhatan Confederacy made up of?
The Confederacy is said to have thirty tribes. However, it began with six. These were the six tribes that Wahunsenacah had inherited from his mother.
The six tribes were (in alphabetical order):
Later, Wahunsenacah endeavored to extend his reach. The Iroquois Confederacy, which expanded through unifying previously warring tribes, had inspired him. He took control of more tribes until he reached up to Werowocomoco, which is now modern-day Richmond, Virginia.
Wahunsenacah accomplished his expansion by attacking other tribes. He had the chiefs and elders killed and replaced by his sons, family members, and other trusted or responsible Confederacy members.
However, it was not all war and killing. The Powhatan chief was also able to persuade some chiefs to join him by laying down the possible benefits of doing so. He also used bribery, which he never thought of as stooping low. Because of his varied efforts, he managed to put together 30 tribes in one Confederacy by 1607.
Maintaining the loyalty of those who had become part of the Confederacy was another thing. Wahunsenacah went on hunting expeditions with his warriors. They attacked non-member tribes, taking in prisoners and scalping enemies as signs of victory. Because they fought together and achieved so many things together while amid danger, the bonding had become more profound. Military victory and tribal honor fostered stronger ties among the tribe members.
What was the Powhatan Confederacy government like?
To make the Confederacy work, Wahunsenacah came up with a system with every member knowing his place. He served as the Mamanatowick or Great Chief, while a War Chief and a Peace Chief worked directly below him. Moreover, he consulted with at least seven counselors. Interestingly, English accounts say that there were at least 14 or 20 of them.
Each member tribe followed the same model, with a local chief leading each. The Confederacy distributed a tribute among the various tribes according to their needs. There was also a surplus set aside for the rainy days.
People were willing to help each other to make the following happen:
- End intertribal warfare
- Tribe protection against non-member tribes
- Distribution of adequate food and clothes for Confederacy members
- Honor and worship the deities and the land
Similar beliefs and goals had made the tribes stick together. At first, what seemed like an impossibility had somehow worked out, even though some of the member tribes had been absorbed by force.
How did the Confederacy end?
Good or bad, everything has its end. While the Powhatan Confederacy had a good run, it lost after the English defeated it in the Anglo-Powhatan war of 1644 to 1646. After that, the Confederacy of Tribes would be mentioned in almost the same breath as the Jamestown Colony.
While the Powhatans continued to live in the area they had lived in for centuries, they were no longer independent. Their rule had to be authorized by the English governor. The English had also been taking their lands. By the next half-century, almost all of the reservations were gone.
So while the Powhatan Chief had managed to create a semblance of unity among thirty tribes and had a well-structured government, he had not considered the possibility of being colonized.