The Mattaponi were one of six tribes inherited by Chief Powhatan in the late 16th century. The tribe spoke an Algonquian language, like other members of the Powhatan Chiefdom. The paramount chiefdom of the Powhatan numbered more than 30 tribes by the time the English arrived and settled Jamestown in 1607.
In addition, a Mattaponi band had long been settled outside the reservation at an unincorporated hamlet called Adamstown, located on the upper reaches of the Mattaponi River. This has been identified as Indian land in records dating to the 17th century. In 1921, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe of Adamstown organized as an official group separate from the main Mattaponi population who resided on the reservation.