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Who are the Powhatan Indians?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Powhatan Indians are Native Americans who lived in Virginia centuries ago. These Indians are well known for having conflicts with English settlers of the Jamestown colony in the 1600s. Many people are also familiar with these Native Americans because of the tales told about Pocahontas, who was the daughter of Chief Powhatan. Today, some Powhatan Indians still call Virginia their home while others live in such places as New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The name Powhatan means waterfall or falls in a current of water. Long ago, this Indian confederacy claimed more than 30 different tribes. The most remembered leader of the Powhatan Indians was called Chief Powhatan, though his true name was Wahunsonacock. Interestingly, Chief Powhatan did not lead his people in the way many Native American chiefs did. He did not gather together with village chiefs to come to an agreement about tribal decisions. Instead, he had the authority to make decisions for the people, and the village chiefs were supposed to accept and implement his decisions.

Though many people are very familiar with the story of chief Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas, much of what they know is really inaccurate. Movies and children's books often depict Pocahontas as being involved in a romance with John Smith, but that is not true. She did eventually marry a European named John Rolfe, however. Additionally, many movies and books depict Pocahontas as being older than she really was when she met John Smith; in reality, she was either 10 or 11 years old. Interestingly, Pocahontas wasn't even her real name; it was a nickname that meant spoiled child while her real name was Matoaka, which can be translated to mean playful one.

While today's Powhatan Indians typically live in houses and apartments like most people, their homes were very different centuries ago. Rather than living in tepees as some Indians did, they lived in round houses referred to as wigwams while others lived in longhouses, which were long, narrow homes that were covered with bark.

Female Powhatan Indians typically dressed in fringed skirts while men wore breech cloths and donned leggings when the weather was colder. Members of both genders donned earrings, and deerskin moccasins were typically the chosen footwear. These Native Americans commonly wore headbands adorned with beads that had a feather protruding from the back instead of very long headdresses. They often had tattoos and would sometimes paint their bodies. Today's Powhatan Indians usually wear modern-style clothing, though some may also own traditional-style moccasins and headdresses.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a America Explained writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By anon946803 — On Apr 22, 2014

Per their own website, the Powhatan Renape of New Jersey did not move en masse from another location as a tribe. They consist of an assortment of individuals claiming ancestry from other tribes who happened to find each other after settling in New Jersey.

It was entirely up to New Jersey to give state recognition but this group is more of a social organization such as you might find with Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, etc. There were no historical "Powhatan" Indians but there were many tribes aligned under quasi-rule of an Indian known by most as Powhatan. That leader and his daughter Pocahontas were members of the Pamunkey. The Pamunkey still exist on their lands and have been tentatively approved for federal recognition.

By anon346616 — On Aug 29, 2013

Thanks a lot! This helped me on my school project! Thumbs up!

By Viktor13 — On Oct 15, 2011

@titans62 - I have never heard of the Powhatan people being moved down the Trail of Tears. I believe that was almost entirely the Cherokees. There are still a bunch of Powhatans in the vicinity of their original settlements near the East Coast, so it makes sense that there wasn't a mass migration out West.

By stl156 — On Oct 15, 2011

@Izzy78 - I'm curious about more of the background of the Renape story. Why is New Jersey trying to take away the land? Is it related to wanting to develop, or are there more political reasons?

The article mentions that Pocahontas was actually married to John Rolfe, and not John Smith, but wasn't Rolfe still an important colonial individual? I don't remember exactly what he did, but I've definitely heard the name before. How did they end up together in the first place, and how did the two different sides (Powhatans and settlers) feel about the marriage?

By Izzy78 — On Oct 14, 2011

Right now in New Jersey, there is a branch of the Powhatan tribe called the Powhatan Renape who are fighting for land rights. It has been in the news for a while.

The basics are that the Renape are a group of Indians who moved to New Jersey and have been recognized as a specific clan and were given a lease of land. New Jersey is now trying to take away most of the lease and leave them with a small fraction of what they originally had. It is a sad story.

When I was reading this, I was wondering if there were any famous Powhatans from more recent times. Has anyone heard of any?

By matthewc23 — On Oct 13, 2011

@titans62 - I'm not sure about the War of 1812. I have never heard anything about them being involved in that. I don't know of the Powhatan tribe being relocated to Oklahoma or other places. I know in Virginia today, there a few tribes that still exists. I'm not sure of the exact number of people in them, though.

Something I do think is interesting is that when slaves or servants would escape the early colonies, a lot of times they would join local Powhatan tribes for safety. What I am wondering is how they communicated, since a lot of the early slaves didn't know English and obviously wouldn't have know the Powhatan language.

By titans62 — On Oct 12, 2011

I know that during the War of 1812, a lot of the tribes of the Iroquois League were involved in conflicts with the United States. Did the Pawhatan Indians get involved in that war, or did they just have early conflicts?

Along the same lines, were the Pawhatan's ever moved to reservations in the southwest during the Trail of Tears era?

What about interactions with other countries? Did they ever get involved with the French or Spanish in trading or other activities?

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a America Explained writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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