Wahunsenacawh, commonly known as Chief Powhatan of the Powhatan people, was the supreme ruler of most of the indigenous tribes in the Chesapeake Bay region in 1607. At its height, his realm known as “Tsenacommacah” extended across 10,000 square miles from the banks of the James River north to the Potomac River and from the Atlantic Ocean west to the rolling hills of the piedmont. The tribes in this region were linked by a common language, eastern-Algonquian.
A young Wahunsenacawh inherited rule over six communities, but expanded his rule to more than 30 groups that included nearly 15,000 people. He was Mamanatowick, the chief of chiefs, but his power and authority varied from one part of Tsenacommacah to another. Peoples distant from his center at Werowocomoco on the north bank of the York River were more politically independent than those located within the core territory. He ruled by the threat of force but also by marriage alliances and persuasion. The various tribes paid tribute to Powhatan.
Captain John Smith was the Jamestown leader with the most direct contact with Powhatan during the first years of the English settlement, but Powhatan never visited Jamestown. Archaeologists recently discovered the site of Werowocomoco and the footprint of a longhouse that may have been Powhatan’s residence.
In 1609 he ordered his warriors to lay siege to James Fort, which was the catalyst for the infamous “starving time” winter that killed several hundred colonists. This began the first Anglo-Powhatan war, which lasted until the 1614 marriage of one of Powhatan’s daughters, Pocahontas, to English colonist John Rolfe. This marriage had the blessing of Powhatan and lead to a relatively peaceful period in relations between the two peoples. Powhatan died in April 1618.
He is of parsonage a tall well proportioned man . . . his head somwhat gray. . . . His age neare 60; of a very able and hardybody to endure any labour.
What he commandeth they dare not disobey in the least thing. It is strange to see with what great feare and adoration all these people doe obay this Powhatan. For at his feet, they present whatsoever he commandeth, and at the least frowne of his browe, their greatest spirits will tremble with feare: and no marvell, for he is very terrible and tyrannous in punishing such as offend him.
– Captain John Smith on Chief Powhatan