Wahunsonacock, whom the English called Powhatan for his birthplace, was a member of the Renape tribe of Algonquin Indians. Powhatan evidently inherited his chief’s status in the Renape fashion, through his mother. He attained his full power as a chieftain and priest by the force of his personality, his energy, and ultimately, his willingness to employ force.
In the several decades before the English arrived to colonize his territory, Powhatan imposed his power over 28 loosely related tribes living in 200 villages around Chesapeake Bay.Powhatan would be described by Captain John Smith as a “tall, well-proportioned man. . . His age is near 60, of a very able and hardy body to endure any labour.”
Another English colonist wrote that Powhatan “hath been a strong and able savage, sinewy, active and of a daring spirit, vigilant, ambitious.” He surrounded himself with 40 or 50 bodyguards and never slept without 4 men guarding his house. He also maintained a large family; he was said to have had at least 12 wives, and he fathered at least 20 sons and 10 daughters.
When English colonists first arrived in May, 1607, Powhatan was wary because English sea captains had already been seizing Indians as slaves. However, he chose to let the English begin their settlement at Jamestown. The settlers’ first months were disastrous due to the climate and the lack of proper water and food.
In the summer of 1608, Smith took charge and organized the colonists more efficiently. Smith suffered a wound, however, and had to return to England in 1609.Powhatan allowed the English to settle in, but he remained on his guard. Smith later claimed that Powhatan told him that he had at first assumed that the English had come merely to trade, but he now realized they intended to settle permanently.
Although Powhatan did not wage an all-out war against the English, he did not stop members of his tribes from frequently attacking them. Between 1610 and 1613 he carried out a series of attacks against the English and seized some of them as prisoners. He refused to release them when the English took his daughter Pocahontas as a hostage in 1613 (see no. 30).
Powhatan maintained an uneasy relationship with the English settlers until his death. Leadership of the tribes then passed to his half-brother Opechancanough.