What happened to the Powhatan Indians?

As English plantations expanded and Indian-controlled lands shrank, it became much harder for the Powhatan people to support themselves. There was less unclaimed land available for hunting and agriculture, and Powhatan participation in the fur trade declined. Other Indian groups beyond the limits of the English settlement took over this valuable trade.

Powhatan Indian cooking pot and pipe, Late Woodland Period

Powhatan Indian cooking pot and pipe,
Late Woodland Period

The Powhatan people still desired English goods, however, so they had to find other ways to pay for them. A few Indians became planters themselves, buying or patenting land under English law. Some became tenant farmers, renting English-owned land. Many other Indians combined their traditional economic activities with part-time work for the English in a variety of different jobs. Indian craftsmen also began making items to sell to the English. In 1676, the Virginia government set up regular markets in the colony where Indians could sell items like clay pots, tobacco pipes and woven mats to the English. All of these endeavors helped the remaining Indian communities survive in a world that was increasingly dominated by English people and institutions.

The end of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom left the Indians of the Virginia coastal plain divided into several different tribal groups, each of whom had to find their own way of dealing with a rapidly changing world. Some of these groups broke apart into even smaller units, but others joined together, forming new tribal alliances to help maintain a way of life different from that of Virginia’s English majority.

It is clear that most Indians preferred to keep their own customs and institutions, despite pressure from Virginia’s colonial government to adopt English ways. Some Powhatan people, especially tribal leaders, learned to speak English in order to deal with governmental authorities, and by the end of the 17th century, younger Indians had begun to speak English as their first language. Even so, most Indians chose to live lives that were different from the lives of their English neighbors.

Indian village, from Robert Beverley’s The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705

Indian village, from Robert Beverley’s The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705

The Powhatan Indians overcame many obstacles, including years of discrimination, and learned to adapt in order to survive. As a way of economic survival, smaller tribes merged with larger ones, jeopardizing independent identity. Strong kinship networks helped tribal identities endure even when economic necessity led to the dispersal of tribal populations. Family became the chief mechanism for the survival of Powhatan culture, a tradition that endures right up to the present day, with eight recognized tribes in Virginia. These include seven Powhatan tribes—Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Nansemond, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi and the Monocan Nation in Virginia’s Piedmont.