The Powhatan Confederacy controlled most of tidewater Virginia and the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.
The Pumunkey tribe is said to have been driven north to Virginia by the Spanish, where their chief, Powhatan’s father, subjugated five other Virginia tribes. With Powhatan’s own conquests, the empire included, among some 30 peoples, the Pamunkey, Mattapony, Chickahominy, and others likewise commemorated in the names of the streams and rivers of East Virginia.
The people of the Powhatan Confederacy were a sedentary people, with some 200 settlements, many of them protected by palisades when the English arrived. They cultivated corn, fished, and hunted.
Wahunsonacock, or Powhatan, as the English called him, was the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy when Jamestown was settled in 1607. Of his many capitals, Powhatan favored Werowocomoco, known as Powhatan in English, on the left bank of the York River near modern Purtan Bay, where Captain John Smith first met him in 1608. When he was first introduced to the English, he said he was the chief of Powhatan, and the English mistook this for his name.
The English soon seized the best lands, and Powhatan quickly retaliated. To appease him, he was given a crown, and a coronation ceremony was formally performed by Christopher Newport in 1609. Peace with Powhatan was secured when his daughter Pocahontas married John Rolfe in 1614.
On Powhatan’s death in 1618, Opechancanough, chief of the Pamunkey, became the central power in the confederacy, and he organized the general attack in1622 in which some 350 settlers were killed. English reprisals were equally violent, but there was no further fighting on a large scale until 1644, when Opechancanough led the last uprising, in which he was captured and murdered at Jamestown.
In 1646 the confederacy yielded much of its territory, and beginning in 1665 its chiefs were appointed by the governor of Virginia.
After the Iroquois, traditional enemies of the confederacy, agreed to cease their attacks in the Treaty of Albany in 1722, the Powhatan tribes scattered, mixed with the settlers, and all semblance of the confederacy disappeared.
In 1990 there were about 800 Powhatan in the United States, most of them in East Virginia.