Why Was Chief Powhatan Important?

Chief Powhatan was the father of equally famous Native American Pocahontas, and he assumed leadership of over 30 Native American tribes living near the Jamestown settlement. Chief Powhatan, known originally as Wahunsenecawh, assumed leadership initially of six tribes. His power and influence spread as he gained control over a land area called Tsenacommacah, which covered nearly 6,000 miles.

Powhatan asserted control over five Native American tribes in addition to his own. These tribes kept their own chiefs, but those chiefs remained subordinate to Powhatan.

Chief Powhatan also held power over American explorers, which contrasted the subservient position of many Native Americans during his time. He was the first to encounter Captain John Smith and other settlers in the Jamestown colony around the year 1607. Powhatan provided the settlers with food and initiated an agreement of peace with the population before taking Captain Smith hostage. Powhatan's power weakened, however, with counteractions of the Jamestown colonists. The colonists ultimately forced Powhatan's relocation away from Jamestown. Powhatan continued to rule but was unable to stop a deadly surprise attack on his people from the colonists around 1610.

Politically adept, Powhatan agreed to the marriage between his daughter, Pocahontas, and Jamestown settler John Rolfe. The marriage established a period of peace between Powhatan's people and the settlers, which lasted until Powhatan's death in 1617.