In 1607, English colonists became acquainted with Wahunsenacawh. They came to know him by the name Powhatan, which they learned had originated from Powhatan's hometown located close to the falls of the James River near modern-day Richmond, Virginia.
The English spellings of the 17th century had not become standardised, and several interpretations were made of the Algonquian language spoken by Wahunsenacawh and his people.
About 200 years later, while authoring his essay on Pocahontas, Charles Dudley Warner heavily depended on John Smith's 17th-century writings, and stated that Powhatan “had many names and titles; his own people sometimes called him Ottaniack, sometimes Mamauatonick, and usually in his presence Wahunsenasawk."
Powhatan’s life before the landing of the English settlers in 1607 is shrouded in mystery. He was born in 1547 (according to some sources, on June 17, 1545). It is very possible that he gained his position as the chief of four to six tribes through inheritance.
Using both diplomacy and military might, he garnered about 30 tribes into the Powhatan Confederacy by the early 17th century. At the peak of his tenure, the empire was comprised of 13,000 to 34,000 people.
In December 1607, English military man and explorer John Smith, who was serving as one of the leaders of the Jamestown colony, was taken captive during a hunting expedition led by Opchanacanough. He was subsequently presented before Powhatan in Werowocomoco, a village along the York River that had become Powhatan’s capital.
In 1624, Smith would reveal that Pocahontas (whose original name was Matoaka), one of Powhatan's daughters, prevented her father from killing him. However, as he does not mention this in his 1608 and 1612 reports, many historians have expressed their scepticism about its validity.
According to some scholars, the incident that Smith believed was taking place before his execution was, in reality, an adoption ceremony through which Smith was ritually appointed sub-chief of the town of Capahosic in Powhatan's alliance.
In January 1609, Smith apparently instructed some of his men to construct an English-style house for Powhatan at Werowocomoco. In return, they were getting food supplies for the hungry English colony.
When Smith came to Opchanacanough’s village, he faced a surprise attack and negotiated with the natives while holding Powhatan at gunpoint. When Smith came back to Werowocomoco, he discovered that the house had not been fully built, the place deserted, and his men had switched to Powhatan’s side.
Powhatan set up his next capital in Orapake, which was situated about 50 miles west in a swamp at the head of the Chickahominy River. At some point between 1611 and 1614, Powhatan relocated further north to Matchut (in modern-day King William County).
In 1609, Smith made his departure from Virginia. By then, the tentative peace between the colonists and the Algonquians was already wasting away. This ultimately resulted in the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1610-14).
The English colonists’ domain had spread beyond Jamestown and into Powhatan's territory. The English eradicated two sub-tribes, the Kecoughtan and the Paspahegh, at the start of the war. Powhatan dispatched Nemattanew to engage the English on the upper James River, but they could not be removed from Henricus.
In 1613, Pocahontas was taken captive by Captain Samuel Argall. This prompted Powhatan to initiate peace talks with the English. However, that took place after Pocahontas’ wedding to the prominent tobacco planter John Rolfe. The couple came to love one another, and she converted to Christianity. She decided to live with the English and travelled to London in 1616. She eventually died there a year later.
Meanwhile, the English kept acquiring more lands along the James riverfront. By then, Powhatan had grown old. In the last years of his life, the great chief was quite “ineffectual”. Opchanacanough was more active and influential and was seen as the most powerful Native figure in the region. Powhatan passed away in 1618 at the age of 70 or 71.
After Powhatan, his next younger brother Opitchapam was made the paramount chief. However, it was Opchanacanough who held the most power and effectively served as the chief. In the next three decades, he led the Natives in a war against the English.
Through the Indian Massacre of 1622 and attacks in 1644, he wanted to push the colonists out of Virginia. However, he was unsuccessful and was ultimately captured and killed. Furthermore, the English retributions for his actions almost resulted in the complete extermination of the tribe.
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Powhatan is interred under a burial mound situated in the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in King William. His remains were taken there by Opchanacanough. Powhatan’s capital, Werowocomoco, was supposedly established in modern-day Gloucester County, Virginia. The Werowocomoco Archaeological Site has been included in the list of the National Register of Historic Places.
Powhatan was the grandfather of Thomas Rolfe, the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. In 1635, Rolfe came to Virginia and met Opchanacanough, but he maintained his loyalty towards the British. He served as a commander of James Fort on the Chickahominy following the conclusion of the next war.
The Rolfe family was one of the First Families of Virginia. The modern Mattaponi and Patawomeck tribes hold the view that Pocahontas’ line also continued through Ka-Okee, who was her daughter from her first marriage with Kocoum.
In his ‘A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Happened in Virginia’ (1608), Smith gives a vivid description of Powhatan.
In 1906, Norman Wood, on the basis of various English reports, wrote about Powhatan’s appearance in his ‘Lives of Famous Chiefs’. He states that Powhatan was a “tall, well-proportioned man with a sower looke, his head somewhat gray, his beard so thinne that it seemeth none at all, his age nearesixtie, of a very able and hardy body, to endure any labor”.