Taxes in Powhatan's Virginia

We know Powhatan had political power in Eastern Virginia when the English arrived at Jamestown. His warehouses had stockpiles of corn even when others were hungry. "The Powhatan Confederacy was a status-conscious hierarchy in which commoners paid tribute - something like a tax- to local chiefs, or werowances, who in turn paid tributes to Powhatan himself. By some accounts, the chief received as much as 80 percent of all that was produced in the 900 square miles of his confederacy."1

Others dispute the interpretation of William Strachey's report of an 80% tax rate, suggesting it was a cultural misinterpretation of voluntary gifts.2 Nonetheless, if you "follow the money" to trace authority and power, Powhatan was the one receiving wealth that was generated by others. Some of that wealth was used for personal benefit, including the costs for sustaining perhaps 100 wives. Much of the tribute was redistributed to others, providing status and allegiance to Powhatan.

The ability to collect taxes reflects the limits of Powhatan's control. The Potomack tribe, with a fortified vollage at the mouth of modern-day Potomac Creek, ignored Powhatan's directives to withold corn from the English when he was trying to starve the colonists into submission. In one famous incident, Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas was not only unable to collect a tribute from the Potomacks - she was captured and sold to the English.


1. "Dead Men's Tales," Scientific American Frontiers, (last checked April 4, 2002)
2. Gleach, Frederic W., Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia, University of Nebraska Press, 1997, p.55

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