Powhatan Confederacy: Definition & History

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  • 0:00 What Is the Powhatan…
  • 0:33 Early Powhatan…
  • 2:01 Powhatan Confederacy &…
  • 4:30 Powhatan Confederacy &…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Crystal Daining

Crystal has a master's degree in history and loves teaching anyone ages 5-99.

The Powhatan Confederacy was a group of Native American tribes during the 17th century that settled in Virginia. Learn how they rose in power under Powhatan, how they reacted to English colonists at Jamestown, and how they ended up in decline.

What Is the Powhatan Confederacy?

The Powhatan Confederacy is the name of a group of Native American tribes that were very powerful during the 17th century in the area now known as Virginia. The confederacy rose in power under the leadership of Powhatan. They were also among the first Indians to have to deal with European colonists settling in their land. The Powhatan Confederacy is a good example of how Indians reacted to colonists and how the colonists reacted.

Early Powhatan Confederacy Years

The Powhatan Confederacy was made up of at least 30 Algonquian-speaking Native American tribes that used to occupy the coast of Virginia, Chesapeake Bay, and Southern Maryland. This confederacy was formed by Wahunsonacock, otherwise known as Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Powhatan tribe.

Powhatan's father was chief before him and had been driven north to the Virginia area by the Spanish colonists. Once there, he took over at least five other Indian tribes in Virginia. When Powhatan took over after his father's death, he formed the Powhatan Confederacy to create a union rather than focusing on merely subjugating the other regional tribes. The Powhatan Confederacy was also called the Virginia Algonquin. Some of the other major Indian tribes in the confederacy besides the Powhatan were the Arrohateck, the Appamattuck, the Pamunkey, the Chickahominy, and the Mattapony.

The tribes of this confederacy gave mutual military support, as well as paid taxes to Powhatan in the form of food, animal furs, copper, and pearls. There were at least 200 settlements in the region, many of which were fortified by palisades. The villages were near fields where the women farmed corn, beans, squash, and other vegetables. The men focused on hunting, fishing, and warfare.

Powhatan Confederacy and Jamestown

The tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy were the first Indian tribes to make contact with the English settlers at Jamestown Colony in 1607. Since Jamestown was in the Powhatan lands, the confederacy tribes were greatly affected by the arrival of the English. From the very start, the relationship between the Jamestown settlers and the Indian tribes was very strained.

Much of the strain centered on both the settlers and the Indians believing that they were superior to the other. The settlers would not have been able to survive without the Indians in the first few years of the colony. This not only embarrassed the settlers but made them bitter. They believed that the Indians should have willingly given them food. Instead, the Indians demanded supplies in exchange for food. In desperation, the settlers started stealing food from the Indians, which, of course, increased the tensions between the two groups.

The settlers did not understand that their demands for food put stress on the Indian tribes' way of life. The Powhatan Confederacy tribes only gathered and hunted the food that was required for their immediate needs. Additional pressure on their food supply raised a real possibility of future starvation. The region was just too cramped for both Indians and colonists to have enough food.

Tensions were heightened even more when the colonists allowed their livestock to wander into Indian farmlands. The colonists soon even started threatening the Indian tribes with their superior weapons.

Both the colonists and the Indians began to react to each other with violence, which culminated in 1608 with Powhatan's men capturing Jamestown's Captain John Smith and some other colonists while they were on a hunting raid. John Smith and Powhatan must have come to an understanding while Smith was held captive, because Powhatan started calling John Smith 'son,' and the English colonists performed a coronation ceremony to make Powhatan a king, although only a subordinate king to their own English king.

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