Role Plays: Paramount Algonquian Chief

NOTEThis teaching exercise allows the teacher to employ role playing as a way to engage students in the learning process. Suggestions are included in the sections on “Casting Instructions.” Teachers may designate monologues, two or more student participants, or student to class exchanges.  Teachers are also free to depart from these suggestions and use the historical material as they wish to create their own learning strategies.

NAME:  Powhatan (Wahunsenacawh)

TITLE:  Paramount Chief of His Chiefdom of 31 Tribes


Powhatan was the chief of a Powhatan alliance of Algonqian Indians that occupied Virginia in the early seventeenth century. At the time of settlement, the Powhatan chiefdom included about thirty tribes and 8,000 persons, encompassing an area of control that extended from present day Jamestown to the Potomac River and from the fall line to the Eastern Shore (Map of Paramount Chiefdom).  As the English saw him, Powhatan was "a tall well proportioned man, with a sower looke" who ruled with an iron hand. To some extent, Englishmen found what they were looking for, a powerful ruler over all the native people with whom they could deal and exploit, just as the Spanish had done with Montezuma. The English feared the Spanish, detested their Catholic religion, but hoped to imitate their success in the New World. Upon arrival of the English, Powhatan was still consolidating his control over local Indian tribes. He is suspicious of the newcomers, but is willing to compromise and trade with them because they have things he covets, such as copper, a sacred ornamental metal , beads, iron tools, cloth, and other items.

John Smith estimated his age to be about 60 when he arrived, making the 1550s the approximate decade of Powhatan’s birth. He was born Wahunsenacawh in a town near the falls of the James River close to modern Richmond. In 1607, the town was known as Powhatan, a name by which the English came to know Wahunsenacawh and his tribesmen. By then his capital was Werowocomoco and the area of his control known as Tsenacommacah. He had inherited six tribes which formed the core of his chiefdom: the Powhatans,  the Pamunkey, the Arrohateck, the Appamattuck, the Youghtanund, and the Mattaponi.  Opechancanough, Powhatan’s brother or cousin, was the chief or weroance of the Pamunkey, the largest of the core group and the source of warriors when Powhatan needed them, since he had no army of his own. He used a combination of force and diplomacy to build his paramount chieftancy.

Little is known of his childhood but from gleanings of other English accounts, most notably that of Henry Spelman (see his Relation of Virginia), he likely grew up hunting and fishing and earned his leadership status through the huskanaw ritual whereby young adolescent Powhatan boys gained admission to manhood.  On the bases of demonstrated leadership skills and spiritual qualities that earned him the title of mamanatowick, connoting shamanistic, priestly, or spiritual powers, Powhatan became a powerful charismatic figure.  

Powhatan was understandably uneasy about the presence of the new settlers. These were not the first newcomers to the area. When Captain Christopher Newport arrived with his three ships, the Chesapeake Indians of the Cape Henry region, drove a landing party back to the ships. Curiosity turned to mistrust and fear quickly as the result of the settlers' misunderstanding of the local situation. About a week after the initial attack, Newport took a small boat up the river on a reconnoitering, get-acquainted mission, stopping at various Indian villages.

In these conversations, he learned that Powhatan ruled the whole area above Jamestown. Proving that a little knowledge can be dangerous and thinking that the Chesapeakes who had initially driven them back to the boats were not under Powhatan's dominion, Newport attempted to make an alliance against the Powhatan Indians with a local chief he mistook for Powhatan. Before the Jamestown settlers could complete their fort, 200 Paspaheghs, a tribe of Powhatan’s chieftancy that lived near the juncture of the James and Chickahominy rivers, attacked them, killing Eustis Clovell and wounding eleven other colonists.

During the early months of the colony, the Powhatans conducted several small-scale raids against James fort, probably to test the strength of and learn more about the invaders. In 1607 Powhatan's brother, Openchancanough, captured Captain John Smith and brought him back to Powhatan's main village, Werowocomoco. Powhatan had already become acquainted with Smith in his previous bargaining for corn and other provisions. But in this meeting, Powhatan shrewdly questioned Smith about how he had come to be in Tsenacommacah. Smith responded that a storm had forced his ship ashore for repairs. Powhatan followed up with a query about how long he planned to stay and Smith replied as soon as repairs were made to the ship. Powhatan knew these to be lies. The English had built a military fort and been in Jamestown for six months. It is also in this 1607 encounter that Smith claimed that he was tried before Powhatan and sentenced to death. According to Smith, his life was spared by the intercession of Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas. Historians have disputed this account, alleging that Powhatan staged a mock trial and was attempting to bring the English into his chiefdom.  Whatever Powhatan's intentions, he did permit Smith to return to Jamestown.

Despite these rocky beginnings, Powhatan continued to pursue peace and trade with the newcomers. He allowed his sons and at least one daughter (Pocahontas) to travel to and from the settlement. The English needed the Indians to survive, especially their corn, venison, and fish, and the Indians guaranteed their survival by supplying them. Meanwhile, the settlers continued to blunder into situations that earned them the ire of the Indians. Captain Christopher Newport, for example, in a well-intentioned gesture decided to stage an elaborate coronation ceremony for Powhatan in an attempt to cement the friendship between the two groups. Powhatan was a proud and respected leader, the equivalent of an English king already. He did not believe he needed crowning, especially by the English whom he regarded as his subjects.

The newcomers, unaware of Indian customs and Powhatan's high standing among his own people, added insult to injury by requesting that the coronation take place in Jamestown. Instead, Powhatan requested the ceremony be staged in his own village, where he usually received tributes, and he announced that he would gladly accept gifts for a total of eight days. Newport, Smith and several other colonists complied with some of Powhatan's wishes, traveling to Werowocomoco to take part in a celebration neither party understood. One side thought it was crowning a king while the other believed it was receiving tribute from its subjects, and neither side was correct. Powhatan received the gifts sent by King James including a canopy bed and a scarlet cloak. [See Smith's account of the awkward ceremony].

Powhatan continued to observe the English warily. His warriors harassed the colonists with small-scale attacks. Although the colonists eventually planted their own corn, they remained dependent, especially during the first years of settlement, upon the Indians to ensure that they would have enough provisions. Powhatan continued to trade but the terms became more contentious. Jamestown was undergoing a severe drought when the English arrived, and food was therefore scarcely adequate for the Indians. In 1614, the English kidnapped Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas in order to get back some of their own people taken in previous attacks. The settlers offered a prisoner exchange and Powhatan complied with this request. He refused, however, to return the stolen weapons that the colonists demanded.

Powhatan admonished the governor to treat his daughter well and seemed content to allow her to remain a captive until he got what he wanted from the English. Later that same year Pocahontas asked permission from her father to marry the colonist John Rolfe. Powhatan gave his blessing in hopes it would bring peace and sent his brother and two sons to witness the ceremony. Finally, convinced that the English had to be forced to leave, Powhatan put the Fort under siege, fled to Orapax, and waited for the English to leave or starve to death. They nearly starved in the winter of 1609-1610 and had abandoned the Fort before being met by a supply ship on the James River. Powhatan died in April 1618 and was succeeded by his more skeptical brother, Opechancanough.

Powhatan proved that he could overcome most obstacles to co-existence, but there was one challenge he could not surmount. He could not alter the English conviction that they were superior to Indians. So long as the heathen savage was fundamental to the English definition of an Indian, the English were the "natives," and the legacy of Jamestown continued with even worse consequences for subsequent newcomers.


Powhatan is a complex figure not easily captured from the English accounts, the only written sources available. When he felt threatened, he acted with force, sometimes annihilating tribes he considered disloyal. In 1608, he ambushed the Piankitank Indians and hung the male scalps at Werowocomoco, his capitol.  Under suspicion that the Chesapeakes had collaborated with the English, he destroyed the tribe at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay soon after English arrival and replaced the Kecoughtan tribe with loyalists near the James River.

Despite his substantial power and authority, Powhatan ruled by the dictates of custom, as John Smith recognized. Although he could be ruthless when threatened, for the most part, his petty chiefs subjected themselves willingly to his authority, likely because custom was sacred, but also just as likely because the chiefdom provided security from marauding tribes or food from its storehouses in times of scarcity. According to custom, he received an annual tribute from each of his subjects in the forms of skins, beads, copper, pearls, venison, turkeys, wild beasts, and corn. In years of drought or under threats of attack, tribes in the chiefdom could receive distributions of food or additional warriors to fend off attacks.


You should present Powhatan as a confident and charismatic figure, wiser and more knowledgeable than the English recognized, trying to do the best he could to protect his people.

Powhatan’s prior knowledge of the invaders and how it might have shaped his response to them may be based upon this evidence:

Your strategy in this role-playing simulation will be to:

  1. point out Powhatan’s willingness to compromise (see the Discourse below)
  2. reveal how Powhatan’s prior knowledge of foreign invasions informed his encounters with the English
  3. stress how he enabled the English to survive
  4. show that the Indians, not the English,  had superior resources, knowledge,  and even power  until they were outnumbered in the 1620s and 1630s.

Using Powhatan’s Discourse of Peace and War, two students, one representing Powhatan, the other John Smith, engage in a conversation that reveals what each thinks of the other, and how each side understands and misunderstands the other. In the course of the dialogue, answer the following questions:

In this discourse, Powhatan tells Smith that he has “seene the death of all my people thrice.” Powhatan continues about a report from Nansemond [one of his tributary groups] that says Smith has come to destroy his people. He challenges Smith to seek by love what he is trying to gain by force; he recognizes the English need for provisions, but warns Smith that if he continues to use force, his people will run and hide and they will starve to death; he indicates his desire to “ sleepe quietly with my women and children, laugh and be merry with you, have copper, hatchets, or what I want being your friend;” and he ends with this promise: “ Let this therefore assure you of our loves, and every yeare our friendly trade shall furnish you with Corne; and now also, if you would come in friendly manner to see us, and not thus with your guns and swords as to invade your foes.”

As for Smith, he claims they have kept their word while the Powhatans have not; “we have curbed our thirsting desire of revenge.” he continues his threats by saying we have better arms; you come with bows and arrows so we have to be armed; he claims no use for the Powhatans’ riches; if you hide, he says, we will not starve [This claim proved unsustainable since they nearly starved in the winter of 1609-10]; he asserts the settlers do not need his care.

Keep in mind that the English settlers live in fear of the Indians. They are in a strange and unfamiliar land. Many of them are “gentlemen” from comfortable homes. Very few of them have even a basic knowledge of agriculture. Fishing and hunting are casual recreations at best, not the means to survive. Their arrogance, airs of superiority, and threats are a result of a combination of the differences between two cultures and also masks to cover their fears and insecurities. They are interested in gold and silver, a passage to the Orient, and a profitable enterprise. Converting Indians to Christianity is a worthy and desirable goal, but not the driving motivation for the colony. Powhatan, on the other hand, sees the English as invaders whom he hopes to make part of his paramount chieftancy while engaging them in trade for commodities that will improve the life of the Powhatans.

Powhatan tells Smith, he got more kindness from Captain Newport who gave him clothes, a bed, swords, copper [a ritual metal coveted by the Algonquians], and tools. But you, he says, gave me little and demanded a lot; you say you are friendly and yet come armed.

At this point the two men become fearful of one another. Smith gets some of the Indians to break the ice on the river so he can flee; meanwhile, he tries to buy time with more conversation. He tells Powhatan that gift exchanges as a courtesy is not the English custom. For the Powhatans, the opposite is the case; gift exchanges are customary in relationships with outside groups. Smith says he will leave his arms as a good faith gesture and return later. Powhatan, now suspicious of Smith’s intentions, flees himself. His men surround the house, and Smith escapes by firing his guns to frighten away Powhatan’s men.


Virtual Jamestown: see Powhatan’s Discourse of Peace and War. John Smith reports this conversation with Powhatan in 1608 during his capture.

Enyclopedia of Virginia History


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