The Powhatan (also spelled Powatan and Powhaten) were a very powerful confederacy of Native American tribes, speaking an Algonquian language, who lived in what is now Virginia at the time of the first English-Native encounters. Powhatan was also the original name of the town that Wahunsunacock (the Chief Powhatan) came from (present site of Richmond, Virginia), as well as the name of the river where it sat (today called the James River). When this chief created a powerful empire by conquering much of Virginia, he called his lands Tenakomakah and himself the Powhatan, actually a title corresponding to 'Emperor', but often assumed to be his given name. Beside the town of Powhatan, another capital of this confederacy was called Werowocomoco.
The original six constituent tribes in Wahunsunacock's Powhatan confederacy were: the Powhatans proper, the Arrohatecks, the Appamattucks, the Pamunkeys, the Mattaponis, and the Chiskiacks. He added the Kecoughtans to his fold by 1598. Another closely related tribe in the midst of these others, all speaking the same language, was the Chickahominy, who managed to preserve their autonomy from the confederacy.
In 1607, when English soldier and pioneer John Smith arrived, he was captured by Opchanacanough, the younger brother of Chief Powhatan. According to Smith's account (which in the late 1800s was considered to be fabricated, but is still believed by some to be mostly accurate—although several highly romanticized popular versions cloud the matter), Pocahontas, Powhatan's daughter, prevented her father from executing Smith. It is believed that this was a ritual intended to adopt Smith into the tribe.
After Smith left Virginia because of an injury sustained in a gunpowder accident, the nervous tribe attacked and killed many of the Jamestown residents. The residents fought back, but only killed twenty. When Smith came back, he made peace and the past was forgotten.
However, within a few years both the Chief and Pocahontas were dead from disease. The Chief died in Virginia, but Pocahontas died in England, having been captured and married to the tobacco planter John Rolfe. Meanwhile, the English continued to encroach on Powhatan territory. After Wahunsunacock's death, his younger brother Opitchapam became chief, followed by their younger brother Opechancanough, who in 1622 and 1644 attempted to force the English from their territories. These attempts invited strong reprisals from the English, ultimately resulting in the destruction of the tribe.
The Powhatan language is now extinct, although approximately 3,000 Powahatan people remain in Virginia. Some of them live today on two tiny reservations, Mattaponi and Pamunkey, found in King William County, Virginia. The principle sources for reconstructing the vocabulary of the language are the word lists provided by Smith and by William Strachey.
Powhatan County was named in honour Chief Powhatan and his tribe, although located about 60 miles to the west of lands ever under their control. In the independent City of Richmond, Powhatan Hill is believed by tradition to be located near the village Chief Powhatan was originally from, although the specific location of the site is unknown.