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Mattanock Town Nansemond Indian Tribe

John White (c1540-c1606)

The watercolors of John White are priceless glimpses of everyday life of the Algonquian culture.  He has immortalized our people and left an legacy of a people who were once numerous in their ancestral home.





The Nansemond Indians originally lived along the Nansemond River and were part of the Algonquin empire ruled by Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas. When the English arrived in Virginia, the tribe had about 300 warriors and a total population of perhaps 1200 people.

Chief Powhatan's organization was not a confederacy, or alliance of equals.  Colonial records corroborate John Smith on the subject:  "The forme of their Common wealth is a monarchicall governement, one as Emperour ruleth over many kings or governours" (Smith, "Map of Virginia," Smith's works 1986 ed., p. 173).  Not only that, but colonist William Strachey recorded the title by which the common folk addressed Powhatan: "his owne people sometymes call him . . . Mamanatowick, which . . . signifyes great Kinge" (Historie of Travell, 1953 ed., p. 56).  He was the ruler, not the first among equals.  Smith wrote that "when he listeth his will is a law and must bee obeyed: not only as a king but as halfe a God they esteeme him.  His inferiour kings . . . they cal werowances," which translates merely to "[military] commander" ("Map," p. 174).  He had inherited six tribal territories and then added to them, by conquest according to Smith (p. 173) or, as Strachey put it, "either by force subdued unto him, or through feare yeilded" (p. 57).  Once annexed, a territory's leader took orders from Powhatan himself.  And that is not a confederacy.

The Nansemond had several towns. One group became Christianized with the marriage of John Bass to Elizabeth, daughter of the Nansemond Chief.  This group remained on the Nansemond River and became English-style farmers, though they retained their love of hunting and fishing, still calling themselves "Nansemond."

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Photo by Bill Rogers