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Algonquian Language Group

Powhatan Tribe

Language Group and Location

The Powhatans belonged to the Algonquian (al gon' kwi en) language group. The Algonquian language was spoken primarily in the Coastal Plain (Tidewater) region.

Some Algonquian Words/Phrases that the Powhatans used:

• tomahawk (tomah'hauk) = axe
• skunk (shekãkwa)
• squash (askootaskwash)
• wampum (wapapyaki) = trade good
• succotash (msikwatash) = food mixed together


Powhatans grew corn, beans, squash, and sunflower seeds. Many of these crops were dried or smoked by the Powhatan women for later use during the lean winter months.

The food the Powhatans ate changed with the seasons. They ate fresh vegetables in summer and fall. They hunted deer, turkey, and other small animals almost year round but especially in winter. In the spring, they ate fish, stored nuts, wild plants, roots, and berries.

Hunters generally used bows and arrows. They would catch fish from their canoes using long spears that had stone and bone points. Nets made of cord and traps made of saplings (small trees) were also used to catch fresh and saltwater fish.


Because they farmed, the Powhatans settled in villages. Larger villages where chiefs lived might have a large chief's house, a temple, storage buildings and perhaps a palisade (a fence made out of tall wooden poles). All villages were located near a source of water. The Powhatans depended on the rivers and the Chesapeake Bay to transport them to other villages and for food and drinking water. There were no roads, wagons, or horses to carry them or their items.

The Powhatans lived in longhouses. Longhouses were made of wooden poles covered with bark or grass mats. A longhouse would hold one nuclear family (mother, father, and their children). Wooden frames for sleeping lined the inside walls. An indoor fire was used for warmth and for cooking in bad weather.


A Powhatan village


Usually they wore a beaded headband with a feather or two in it. The Powhatans painted their faces and bodies with different colors and designs for different occasions, and both men and women often wore tattooes. Both genders generally wore their hair long. Powhatan women dressed in knee-length skirts and the men dressed in breechcloths, with leather pant legs tied on if the weather was cool. Traditionally the Powhatans did not wear shirts, although they did wear mantles and cloaks made of turkey feathers in the winter. Both genders wore earrings and moccasins on their feet.

Famous Powhatan Indians

Chief Powhatan

The ruler of this entire area, stretching from what is now Washington D.C. to northern North Carolina, with about 9000 subjects and dozens of villages was the great Powhatan. It was his title of Powhatan that the English used as the name for all the tribes. Powhatan was the "Great King." Powhatan's real name was Wahunsenacawh; Powhatan was the name of the village he came from. He died in April 1618, leaving the chiefdom to his brothers.

Chief Powhatan


Chief Powhatan's favorite daughter was named Matoaka, better known by the nickname "Pocahontas." "Pocahontas" was a nickname, meaning "the naughty one" or "spoiled child."

The famous story about how Pocahontas saved Captain John Smith's life might not be true. Captain John Smith did not tell the story of how she rescued him until 17 years after he claimed the event happened. This leads many to believe he embellished it to make it more interesting.

What is true is that Pocahontas believed the Powhatans and the English could live in harmony. She began a friendship with the colonists that helped them survive.

Pocahontas married John Rolfe, an English tobacco farmer living in Virginia. In the spring of 1616, Rolfe took her to England where the Virginia Company of London used her in their propaganda campaign to support the colony.

Pocahontas (Matoaka)


The Powhatans traded food, furs, and leather with the English in exchange for tools, pots, guns, and other goods. The Powhatan people contributed to the survival of the Jamestown settlers in several ways. Pocahontas, believed the Powhatans and the English could live in harmony. She began a friendship with the colonists that helped them survive. The Powhatans introduced new crops to the English, including corn and tobacco. Eventually, the Powhatan people realized the English settlement would continue to grow. They saw the colonists as invaders that would take over their land.

The Powhatan Indians, as they were called by the English, celebrated with dancing and feasts. They had songs and dances for a variety of occasions - grief, war, and feasting. They made music with reeds, drums, and dried gourds.

The children, both boys and girls, played running games and sometimes would dress up like their parents - painting their bodies and wearing necklaces and bracelets of shells and beads and animal bones.

Men and women had set roles in this society and rarely changed them; men hunted, fished and fought; women farmed. Children helped their parents, played, and didn't go to work until they were young adults. Young teenage boys, picked to be leaders, would go through a nine-month ordeal of physical hardship, isolation, and fasting. Young teenage girls would help their mothers and learn the necessary skills to become an adult of the village. Adult life would begin at an early age and marriage would take place between the ages of 13 and 15.

Women and children cared for the crops in the fields using tools made from bone and wood. Boys who played in scarecrow houses that stood in the middle of the fields, would throw stones at rabbits and raccoons who might nibble at the crops. Food was cooked by the women over outdoor fire pits (barbecues) and soups and stews of corn, beans and squash simmered in large clay pots at the cook fire and breads and corncakes were baked in the ashes of the cooking fire. Spits were used to roast and smoke wild turkey and duck.

The Powhatan tribe is known for their beadwork and basketry. Powhatans and other eastern American Indians also crafted wampum out of white and purple shell beads to use as jewelry and currency (money). The designs and pictures on wampum often told a story or represented family affiliations.

Wampum Belts

The dugout canoe was the main source of transportation for the Powhatans. It was also the largest item the men would build. The biggest canoes were 4 feet deep and 50 feet long. Each one would hold 40 men. The average canoe was smaller and 10-30 people could travel with goods. A dugout canoe was very heavy and hard to maneuver. To go fast enough to get somewhere, the dugout canoe needed at least two people paddling.

Powhatan Indians Building a Canoe
They used small fires to hollow out the inside of a tree


The Powhatan Indians would go to war to defend their territory, for revenge, or to capture women and children. Battles which were usually small surprise attacks fought behind trees and tall grass, would provide an opportunity for men to gain honor and prestige. Men used tomahawks or heavy wooden war clubs. They also carried shields.

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Works Cited

"Biographies: Powhatan"
(6 February 2004)

(6 February 2004)

"Dugout Canoes"
(6 February 2004)

"Gender Roles"
(6 February 2004)

"NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art"
(6 February 2004)

(6 February 2004)

"Powhatan Indian Village"
(6 February 2004)

"Powhatan Language"
(6 Feburary 2004)

"Regional Overview of Native American Clothing Styles"
(6 Feburary 2004)

"Survival" (Powhatan Timeline)
(6 February 2004)

"Village Life"
(6 February 2004)

"Virtual Jamestown"
(6 February 2004)