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Chief Powhatan ( c. 1545 - c.1617 )  Category ( Historical_Figures ) [suggest a correction]
 

PowhatanPowhatan was one of the names used by the great late sixteenth-early seventeenth Algonquin Indian tribe known as Powhatan. Born circa 1545 in what is now the State of Virginia, United States, he is best known for being the leader of the powerful tribe at the time of the arrival of the first English settlers in his territory. Powhatan also is famous for being the father of Pocahontas.

Powhatan was originally the name of one of the numerous towns in which the chief lived, which is located in what is now the City of Richmond, Virginia. The river that runs through the area, now known as the James River, was also called Powhatan. After he conquered much of the southeastern part of Virginia, he took the name for himself, but only as a title.

It is thanks to Captain John Smith that a descriptive record exists for Powhatan. Before Smith’s accounts there is little information regarding Powhatan’s life before 1607. It is likely that his title of chief was hereditary and that he received as a legacy around four or five tribes. Over the years of negotiations and war he increased his territory and control to approximately thirty tribes.

Smith’s account of his own capture by Powhatan’s brother, Opechancanough, is questioned by some scholars, but is overall considered to be accurate. Pocahontas famously saved Smith’s life by begging her father to spare the Englishman. However, some historians suggest that her actions were part of a ritual intended to adopt Smith into the tribe. Powhatan died before 1618 and is said to be buried in a traditional burial ground located on what is now the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia.

An elaborately decorated cloak, said to have belonged to Powhatan, is located in Oxford, England. Scholars debate its veracity, though it may be authentic. Researchers have concluded that the cloak is indeed from seventeenth century Virginia, and whoever owned it was likely someone of importance.

Image: Chief Powhatan in a longhouse at Werowocomoco (detail of John Smith map, 1612).


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