Known as Wahunsunacawh to the Powhatan tribe, he is thought to have been born around 1545. When he grew up, he became chief of six bands from his father. He then founded the Powhatan Confederacy in Virginia, assembling a total of about 30 tribes by the early 17th century. The Confederacy was estimated to include 10,000-15,000 people.
He was said to be an astute and energetic ruler, but he was also noted as being strict and occasionally cruel toward his subjects. In the Algonquian language of his people, his title as emperor was mamanatowick. Each tribe within the Powhatan Confederacy had its own chief and Powhatan ruled as the chief of these chiefs.
He lived in Tenakomakah, which is now Tidewater, Virginia when first encountered by white settlers. When the English settled Jamestown in 1607, he was in his 60’s and was described as having a dignified bearing, and reserved and stern disposition. His first attitude toward the whites was friendly although suspicious, he soon became embittered by the actions of the newcomers. His actions were ambivalent towards the English as he sometimes ordered or permitted attacks against the colonists while at other times, he traded food for sought-after English goods such as metal tools.
In 1609, the Virginia Company of London, the sponsor of the colony, ordered the colonists to present Powhatan with a royal crown and gifts which symbolized that he would henceforth be a prince in the service of King James I. However, Powhatan rejected this notion, and that autumn, after John Smith, the leader of the colony, departed for England, Powhatan planned to starve the white settlers into submission. He cut off all trading and began to attack any of them who left Jamestown. Some 80 percent of the colonists died, and Jamestown would have been abandoned except for the timely arrival of supply ships and new colonists the following spring.
On the treacherous seizure of his favorite daughter, Pocahontas in 1613, he became openly hostile but was happily converted for a time through her marriage to John Rolfe. He died in 1618, leaving the succession to his brother, Opitchapan, who however was soon superseded by a younger brother, the noted Opechancanough, who hated the white settlers and would destroy any peace that Chief Powhatan had earlier made.
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander/LegendsofAmerica, updated January 2021.