The Pamunkey Indians were the leading tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy, led by Chief Powhattan, father of Pocahontas, at the time of first contact with English colonists at Jamestown, in 1607. Estimates are that the confederacy then numbered between 14,000-21,000, with the Pamunkey numbering about 1000. Powhatan died in 1618, after which his brother and successor, Opechancanough, attempted in vain to stave off increased English expansion into Powhatan territory. By 1646, as a consequence of war with the colonists and disease, the confederacy was largely destroyed. Many Pamunkey were enslaved to work alongside African slaves and indentured whites. Today, thirty-eight households occupy the oldest Indian reservation in the United States, established by treaty with the English in 1646 and reaffirmed in 1677. Powhatan’s burial mound is still maintained beside the Pamunkey River.
There are approximately 200 tribal members reside at least part time on remaining reservation land of 1200 acres. Though there is no tribe with a greater documented history of contact with Europeans farther back in time than the Pamunkey – it was the Pamunkey who captured John Smith, who extensively recorded his relations with them – the tribe has had to struggle at great cost, over a million dollars, in its twenty-year effort to gain federal recognition. (The tribe is state recognized by Virginia.) A contributing factor to the difficulties with federal requirements, including established genealogies, is the legacy of white supremacist and eugenics advocate Walter Plecker, Virginia’s first registrar of Bureau of Vital Statistics, who from 1924-1946, on the basis of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, reclassified, it is believed, thousands of Virginia Indians as “colored,” thus interrupting and obscuring genealogical lines.
Photography by Julia Dean