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Describing the interactions between the English settlers and the native peoples including the contributions of Powhatan to the survival of the settlers.



  • Review that the Powhatan people and the English settlers at Jamestown established trading relationships and for a while had positive interactions. Captain John Smith initiated trading relationships with the Powhatans. The Powhatans traded food, furs, and leather with the English in exchange for tools, pots, guns, and other goods.

  • Tell the students the name Powhatans has been applied to all of the Algonquian-speaking Indians in Tidewater Virginia. In the decade before English settlement, Chief Powhatan, also known as Wahunsonacock, inherited six to nine tribes, which included the Powhatans, Pamunkeys, Mattaponis, Arrohastecks, Appomatucks, and Youghtamunds. He also united other tribes, either by conquest or threat of conquest, and formed a confederacy. The tribes of the confederacy provided military support and paid taxes in the form of food, pelts, copper, or pearls. The Powhatan villages were located on Virginia's coastal plain. The boundaries of the Powhatan confederacy reached from the Potomac River, west to the fall line of Virginia (which is the boundary between the Coastal Plains and the Piedmont) and south to the Virginia-North Carolina border. It is believed that between 13,000 and 14,300 Powhatans lived in Virginia when the English arrived in 1607.

  • Explain that the Powhatans depended on the rivers and the Bay to provide a means of traveling to other villages. They fished the waters for food and used the streams and creeks for drinking water. They did much of their fishing from canoes, which they called quintans. The quintan was the main source of transportation for the Powhatans. They were as valuable and as necessary to their owners as automobiles are to us today. It was the largest item the men built. The biggest quintans were 4 feet deep and 50 feet long, and each could hold up to 40 men. The average quintan was smaller, holding 10 to 30 people, including their goods. When traveling, a warrior might have carried a deerskin mantle, traditional weaponry, mats for temporary shelter, and a ceramic pot for cooking.

  • Describe how the Powhatan and English leaders finally realized that both sides could benefit from peaceful relations. Each side had something the other wanted. The Powhatans viewed the English as newcomers who were possibly useful and potentially dangerous because of the firearms they carried. "Things" were what the Powhatans wanted from the English. These "things" were tools: shovels, hatchets, and axes that the common people could put to use immediately. Items such as bells and scissors were wanted not for what they could do, but because they were made of metal. The English were looking for the trade route to the Far East and needed knowledgeable guides as well as food.

  • Tell the students how the Powhatans introduced new crops to the English, including corn and tobacco.

  • Share the resource from the Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center about Living with the Indians. It is available at: http://www.historyisfun.org/PDFbooks/Living_with_the_Indians.pdf.

  • Describe how Pocahontas was an Indian princess, the daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Algonquian Indians in the Tidewater region of Virginia. She was born around 1595. They named her Matoaka, though she is better known as Pocahontas, which means "Little Wanton," playful, frolicsome little girl.

  • Describe how Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, believed the English and American Indians (First Americans) could live in harmony. Pocahontas began a friendship with the colonists that helped them survive.

  • The spring of 1608 brought increased hostilities between the English and the Powhatans. Chief Powhatan lost patience with the English when they began drilling their men outside the fort at Jamestown, appearing to prepare an attack. The Powhatans questioned why people who had steel tools would have any need for stone tools. The English took hostages in exchange for the stolen tools. Hostilities escalated when the English raided and burned Paspahegh villages. To their astonishment, the Powhatans began to realize that the English intended to make Virginia an outpost of English culture. They saw the English as "blustering foreigners" who needed help from them just to survive. When the English began to build a triangular, palisaded fort, the Paspaheghs immediately became suspicious of the "visitors." Building a fort may have been a sensible thing to do in the minds of the English, but it was not carefully planned. The Powhatans saw the fort as a sign of both permanence and of distrust on the part of the English. As the first stockade at Jamestown was finished, the colonists began to push the Powhatans out of the area. By the time the colony was two years old, the major Powhatan settlements had been seized. The Powhatans were so fixed on retribution, that the colonists were safe only when inside the fort.

  • Share the resource from the Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center about Cultures in Contact. It is available at: http://www.historyisfun.org/PDFbooks/Cultures_in_Contact.pdf




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Updated on August 11, 2008.