Wahunsenacah’s Paramount Chieftancy in Tsenacommacah

Wahnsenacah (aka Powahatan) 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, Ruler of Tsenacommacah

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 Tsenacommacah 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 environmental knowledge of how to survive in the coastal region. 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.

Myth of Matoaca (Pocahontas) and John Smith as Lovers

Wahunsenacah offered the town of Capahowasick when Openchancanough, Powhatan’s brother, brought him before his brother at his Werowocomoco capital. At the time of this exchange, a disagreement arose, and the chief’s men threated to club Smith. Matoaka intervened and asked her father to spare Smith’s life. From this incident and subsequent interactions between Smith and Matoaka, a myth grew about their relationship, even the suggestion that they were romantically inclined. Historians do not support this for the following reasons:

  1. Pocahontas was only 11 years old when Smith arrived at Jamestown.
  2. Smith was often not at Jamestown and around Matoaka. He was only at Jamestown for a short time before returning to England. Also, when he was there, he traveled extensively exploring the region, meeting with Algonquian groups, and gathering data for his Map of Virginia.
  3. Smith, a notorious braggart, claimed to have been saved by beautiful women several times before Jamestown.
  4. Most convincingly, the English records provide no evidence of an intimate relationship. Instead, when Matoaka later meets Smith in London, she refers to Smith as one who her father treated as a son, offering him a territory of his own (Capahowasick).
  5. Matoaka’s real love was John Rolfe who she later married and bore a son.