In 1609, Powhatan recognized that his base of operations at Werowcomoco was too exposed to the English. Werowcomoco was on the shoreline of the York River at modern-day Purtan Bay, and the English could sail or row barges directly to it.

Powhatan moved inland two years after the English settled at Jamestown, to avoid threats from foreign enemies. This is comparable to the reason why the English located their capital at Jamestown rather than Cape Charles or the modern location of Norfolk, and why the rebelling Virginians moved their capital from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780.

Orapakes, on John Smith's Map of Virginia
Orapakes, on John Smith's Map of Virginia
Source: Library of Congress

Here's how John Smith described Powhatan's move:1

In all his ancient inheritances, he hath houses built after their manner like arbours, some 30. some 40. yards long, and at every house provision for his entertainement according to the time. At Werowcomoco on the Northside of the river Pamaunkee, was his residence, when I was delivered him prisoner, some 14 myles from James Towne, where for the most part, he was resident, but at last he tooke so little pleasure in our neare neighbourhood, that he retired himselfe to Orapakes, in the desert betwixt Chickahamanta and Youghtanund.

According to Helen Rountree,2 Orapakes was just a temporary capital. It was in a swamp at the head of the Chickahominy River, near the modern-day interchange of I-64 and I-295 (perhaps the archeological site in New Kent County labelled 44NK100). The location lacked the broad, flat river-bottoms where the Algonquians planted corn; was not easily accessible by canoe; and was located at the edge of his territory. Orapakes was more distant from the English than Werowocomoco, but it was too close to the rival Monacans for comfort.

Powhatan lived at Orapakes for at least two years after he moved there in 1609. He was based at Orapakes when John Ratcliffe came to trade for corn in September 1609, at the start of what ended up being the disastrous "Starving Time" for the Jamestown colonists in 1609-10. Ratcliffe and many in his party of 50 men spent the evening in the Native American dwellings at Orapakes. The next day, they appeared to successfully trade copper and other goods for Algonquian corn, but then the Algonquians attacked. 34 English men were killed/captured, and the English supply ship barely managed to fight its way downriver and escape empty to Jamestown. Ratcliffe himself was captured, tortured, and finally burned at the stake - a clear contrast to how Powhatan had treated the previous English leader, John Smith, at Werowocomoco in December 1607.3

Sometime between 1611 and 1614, Powhatan moved his capital again. He went further north, away a greater distance from the English to Matchut, near where his brother Opechancanough ruled at Youghtanund.


1. Smith, John, The generall historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles, together with The true travels, adventures and observations, and A sea grammar - Volume 1, memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/lhbcb:@field(DOCID+@lit(lhbcb0262adiv10)) (last checked September 30, 2007)
2. Rountree, Helen, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed By Jamestown, University of Virginia Press, 2005, p.130-132
3. Price, David A., Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation, Random House, 2005, pp.125-126, http://books.google.com/books?id=_EFbS_7fFcYC (last checked September 28, 2009)

Capital Cities of Virginia
Virginia Places