Powhatan is an Eastern Algonquian language that was spoken in the Powhatan Confederacy (Tsenacommacah), until the 1790. The Powhatan Confederacy was made up of a number of tribes, such as the Pamunkey, Mattaponi and Chickahominy, under the leadership of Chief Wahunsenacawh, also known as Powhatan. He ruled over most of what is now Virginia in the northeast of the USA. The language is also known as Virgina Algonquian or Virginia Algonkian.
The language is known from word lists collected in the early 17th century by William Strachey (1572-1621), an English writer, and Captain John Smith, an English soldier, explorer, governor of the Jamestown Colony, Admiral of New England and author. Strachey's list includes 500 words, and Smith's just 50.
Some words borrowed into English from Powhatan include hickory, hominy, moccasin, muskrat, opossum, persimmon, pokeweed, raccoon, terrapin and tomahawk.
In 1607, Captain John Smith was captured by Powhatans while searching for food along the Chickahominy River. He was taken to their main village, Werowocomoco. Smith was later released unharmed, but he feared for his life, and claimed that the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, saved him from execution. Scholars have since questioned Smith's version of these events.
After unsuccessful rebellions against British colonial rule, the Powhatan Confederacy was destroyed by colonists in 1644. Survivors fled to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where they took refuge with members of the Lenape Nation.
The Powhatan tribes, including the Mattaponi, Nansemond, Chickahominy, Pamunkey and Patawomeck, still exist in Virginia. In New Jersery the Powhatan Renape Nation can be found at the Rankokus Indian Reservation in Westampton Township in Burlington County.
Since the 1970s there have been efforts to revive the Powhatan language. In 1975, a linguist called Frank Siebert published a book on the phonology of the language. A basic reconstruction of the language was made by the Powhatan linguist, Blair Rudes (1951-2008) for the 2005 film The New World, which is set at time of European colonization of Virgina. Linguists at the College of William and Mary in Wiliamsburg, Virgina, are working with the Patawomeck tribe of Stafford County, Virgina to recover the language.
Information about the Powhatan language and people
Page last modified: 05.09.21
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