Wahunsenacah’s Paramount Chieftancy

Wahnsenacah brought together about 31 Algonquian tribes to form his paramount chieftancy into a territory known as Tsenacommacah. He had inherited six tribes that formed the basis of his chiefdom: the Powhatans, Pamunkey, Arrohateck, Appamattuck, Youghtannund, and the Mattaponi. Opechancanough, his brother or cousin, weroance of the Pamunkey, composed the largest of the core group and provided warriors when Wahunsenacah needed them. Wahunsenacah used a combination of force and diplomacy to form his chieftancy.

Chief Wahunsenacah

Wahunsenacah was about 60 years of age when the English arrived, according to John Smith, making the 1550s the approximate decade of his birth. He was born near modern Richmond in a town the English knew as Powhatan and his followers as Powhatans. On the bases of demonstrated leadership skills and spiritual qualities that earned him the title of mamanatowich, connoting shamanistic, priestly, or spiritual powers, he became a powerful charismatic figure. Werowocomoco located on the York River was his capital.

Wahunsenacah and the Invaders

Wahunsenacah gets an early understanding of the English invaders when John Smith is captured and brought before him at Werowocomoco. He shrewdly asked Smith how he had come to Tsenacommacah. Smith lied saying a storm had forced his ship ashore. Wahunsenacah followed with a query about how long Smith and his men planned to stay. Smith replied they would leave as soon as repairs were made to his ship. Wahunsenacah knew this to be a lie, since they had been in Jamestown for six months and had built a fort.

Despite these rocky beginnings, both the Powhatans and Smith continued to work together because both wanted and needed something the other had: Wahunsenacah wanted peace and trade, especially iron tools. Smith and the settlers could not feed themselves and needed the Indians to provide foodstuffs like corn, venison, and fish. Despite claims sometimes made that the English had superior resources, weapons, and men that allowed them to conquer the Indians, the English were dependent upon the Indians for about a decade and a half, until the numbers of settlers increased in the late 1620s. Until then, the Algonquians were superior in terms of warriors, hunters, fishermen, and knowledge of how to survive in the coastal environment. The English survived only because Wahunsenacah refrained from outright assault on the fort. He mistakenly believed he could bring them into his paramount chieftancy, even promising to make Smith equivalent to a son and offering him the town of Capahowasick, just south of Werowomomoco.

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