What were the social structures of the Powhatan?

Powhatan at Werowocomoco.

Powhatan at Werowocomoco. Detail from John Smith’s Map of Virginia, 1612.

In 1612, John Smith recorded the following observation about how inheritance of Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom was decided in Powhatan society. “His kingdome descendeth not to his sonnes nor children, but first to his brethren…and after their decease to his sisters. First to the eldest sister then to the rest and after them to the heires male and female of the eldest sister, but never to the heires of the males.” Powhatan society was matrilineal, with kinship and inheritance passing through the female line. In the last quarter of the 16th century, through his mother’s line, Powhatan inherited the control of six tribes in the Tidewater area of Virginia. Through intimidation or warfare, he also began consolidating others. By the time the English arrived, Powhatan loosely controlled approximately 32 tribal groups and had centrally located his headquarters at Werowocomoco on what’s now the York River.

Reproduction Indian Gorget

Reproduction Indian Gorget

The Powhatan people lived in a ranked society of rulers, great warriors, priests and commoners, with status being determined by inheritance or achievement. Chiefs inherited their positions of authority and granted positions of rank to outstanding hunters and warriors. As a result, individuals in these newly granted positions were often set up as trusted advisors or counselors and were included in elaborate feasts. Priests were men of power, often having a great influence over rulers. They wore badges of distinction, were organized into their own hierarchy and performed duties in the temples.

Larger homes, more wives, and more elaborate clothing, meals and burial customs were afforded to Powhatans of higher status. They possessed and controlled goods such as copper (made into gorgets and beads), shell beads, fresh water pearls and furs. Although political positions were inherited through women, little political authority was given to them except in the case of a female chief, or “werowansqua.”