The Powhatan Confederacy, Past and Present by James Mooney

The Powhatan are the Indians that lived near and surrounding Jamestown.  Those same Indians claim to have killed the surviving Lost Colonists about 1607, the Colonistshaving joined with a Chesapeake Tribe after being left on Roanoke Island in 1587.  Of course, we don’t know if they actually did, or they simply told the Jamestown settlers that story to invoke fear. 

James Mooney (1861-1921), was an ethnographer who lived for many years among the Cherokee, documented the Tidewater, Southeastern and Great Plains tribes.  For his time, he was considered the foremost expert on Native Americans.  Had it not been for his perspective and his work, much of what is known today would not have been  preserved.  We own James Mooney a very large debt of gratitude.

You can read more about his life at this link:

Several of his texts have been digitized and are available online.

Most of his articles were published in the bulletins of the US Bureau of Ethnology.  The Powhatan Confederacy bulletin is available online and free. 

The Powhatan Confederacy, Past and Present James Mooney                                     American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1907), pp. 129-152

The map below, from his article, shows the range of the Powhatan Confederacy.  The yellow circles indicate the location of the bands existing at the time he wrote the article which was published in 1907.

One of the things I had always wondered is why the Powhatan Confederacy fell apart after the death of Powhatan in 1618 and then the death of his brother Opchanacanough who was killed by the European settlers in 1646.  Many other tribal groups have survived the deaths of many Chiefs, the Iroquois to the North and the Tuscarora to the South being prime examples in the same time period.

Mooney addresses this, although is an indirect manner, but when I read what he said, I realized he was right, and it made sense.  Powhatan ruled by complete authority, intimidation and fear – by attacking others, even villages of his own tribe and within his confederation, while the Iroquois and Tuscarora (also Iroquoian) rule by consensus. 

At the end of Mooney’s paper, which was published in 1907, he provided a “current” update on several tribes, or as he calls them, remnant tribes, that were part of the Powhatan Confederacy, specifically, the Pamunkey, the Mattapony, the Chickahominy, the Nansemond and a few other small bands.  The smaller bands have no names are mostly family groups. All reside in Virginia.

One group of about 40 people resides on the Mattapony River in King William County and consists of family names of Adams and Holmes.  Another is found on the Rappahannock River in Essex Co. with the surname of Nelson.  A third is found at the head of the Pocoson River in York County sporting the family name of Wise.  A fourth is on the York River in Gloucester County and descends from the Sampson family.  Lastly, a few mixed-bloods were living on the Eastern Shore, near Accomac Courthouse (Drummondtown) in Accomac County, with no family names listed and a few families with the Miles surname near Fisher’s Inlet in southern Northampton County.

Hat tip to Elaine for sending me the link to this document!


About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Chickahominy, Mattapony, Nansemond, Pamunkey, Powhatan. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Powhatan Confederacy, Past and Present by James Mooney

  1. Hannah Robinson says:

    I have pointed out to the tribe in Virginia that Powhatan took his tribe the Pawmunkey Tribe and left Virginia. The smaller villages remained behind as well as the Minister of War Opecanacaugh. The tribe calling themselves Pawmunkey need to rename the tribe to reflect the ancestory of their chief who is not Pawmunkey. I am the grandchild of Emperor Powhatan , John Rolfe and Pocahontas a direct line from Thomas Rolfe son of….parent to child down my fathers side.

  2. Steve says:

    Can I talk to you Hannah at some point. I am a writer and I am writing a story about Virginia in 1640 to 1664. Would you be available to speak to me via email?

    • Hannah Robinson says:

      Yes. I am very interested in speaking with you about this unique heritage. Powhatan was wise and wise again when he had the 100 children. Each time it fostered solidarity among the villages, after all who wants to attack your own children and grand children. Yet, an amazing aspect of this approach to tribal peace was that he preserved the DNA of each of the families when he carried those children and his tribe the Pawmunkey Tribe out of the area and was never located by the Brittish who searched high and low for them. The raids were organized by his brother and the smaller villagers that remained behind. They sadly, were enslaved to grow food and the new money crop introduced by John Rolfe, tobacco.

      Another likely error is that Princess Pocahontas was married before John Rolfe. I dispute this two year absence as a two year visit to the tribe of her mother and the young brave they link her to was a half brother. The custom was for the female to grow her hair long in the front and sides after marriage. She returned after two years with her hair still short on the sides and was therefore still single.

      I have so much to share with you. look forward and thank you for the email.

    • Hannah Robinson says:

      What a lot of people assume is that word is Native American . ” Croatoan” is of German origin and means great slaughter. Someone was alive to write it there ! There were slavers in that area and traveling Northward and Southward since the 1500’s. Did they carve that there so a search party would look no further ? Did they really stumble across a slaughter? It takes a while to carve the message so that individual was in no immediate danger. I believe the colony was taken as booty.

      • Steve says:

        Yay!!! So glad you responded.

        Listen, I saw a book called The True Pocahontas, which was written by at VA PHD Candidate, and a Native American man. They attest that Pocahontas was married to an Indian man and goes on to say that she was poisoned as she returned to VA. Is there confirmation on the last point?? Sorry, thats gotta be a touchy point, but when I heard it my ear perked up. Part of the problem with English in VA was they took their type of politics with them. So as you know there was much London royal intrigue and they kinda brought that with them to VA. So in that light, it’s possible.

        Also I am looking for experiences on how the English, Irish, African worked and related together in 1650. I have my theories. My main source is American Freedom American Slavery (Morgan) and then The Invention of the White Race (Allen) . Most other books are a variation on what these 2 classics have stated. Yet I have yet to find a definitive Indian written book on the matter, which I desire. Any help would be appreciated on any and all points.

      • Hannah Sloan Robinson says:

        I challenge anyone to do a facial recognition on my father, grandfather and the drawings the Brits did of the leaders of the Powhatan Confederacy. I am amazed that the painting of my son at age seven matches almost exactly the face of Thomas Rolfe in the Sanford Hall portrait. This portrait was with the Rolfe family and is said to be of Chief Osceola and his mother. Misnamed with the passage of time no doubt. The Sanford Hall portrait is of Thomas Rolfe and my grand mother Princess Pocahontas and I can see my father too when I study the faces and so I recognize my family. That is my grandmother and her son Thomas at about age five. The faces are slender ,when young like the portrait of Princess Pocahontas and then as they age become the distinctive faces like the drawings. I look like her and the more you study the face the more apparent it becomes. My niece and youngest daughter are very like her in features. I was ten when my grandfather told me my linage and much more. I am sorry I just did not process it. When I was presented my linage and started comparing the pictures and painting I know what he told me was so and then to have it confirmed thru government records just leaves me crying every time I think about it. The Pawmunkey Tribe left the area and it is not right to refuse my brothers and sisters admittance into a tribe that is the tribe of my grand parents.I do not mind that any group has an opportunity to preserve history, but put your own chief’s name on the tribe I was told that thousands of Pawmunkey descendants have reached out for acceptance and been denied. It is not right to use the name that belongs to my family. No one looked for us in the records and if they did they were very silent.

  3. Tanya says:

    Hi I am in Australia and i am using DNA to research an unknown part of my tree. After abandoning the ancestral name I instead with the DNA of a few other cousins went looking for patterns in names of matches we were getting in VIrginia. After relaying a few things i was finding to my mother and mentioning i had found a link to the Looney family and similarly tours here in Australia they liked to do exploring and that one had something to do with Daniel Boone my mother replied, well thats funny because my mother always told the story that we are related to John Smith and Pocahontas. Well needless to say i almost fell o f my chair as this had been popping up in DNA matches.
    However while i have all these names I cant pin point this down. My ancestral name is Blackman and i do match the Blackmans of Henrico VIrginia my ancestor was born about 1760 but we cant find him in a tree. Would you be able to direct me to any useful websites im using gedmatch my heritage ancestry but as i am not good with american records im not sure if i am missing something. There seams to be from the name matches definitely something to this family oral history.
    I only found this out last night and given that i had found the DNA first then the oral history confirmed it not the other way around i do think i am on the right path. Could anyone make recommendations of where i should look?
    thankyou so very much in advance

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