At the time of the English colonists’ landing in present day Virginia in 1607, the Algonquin-speaking Powhatan Confederacy was a thriving, multi-tribal civilization spanning the state’s Tidewater region. Most of the Powhatan language has been lost over time, suffering rapid decline in the century following the establishment of Jamestown.

While some Powhatan words have been incorporated into American English (hominy, chum, etc), it seems that the language was all but extinct by the turn of the nineteenth century. While it is almost impossible to discern the exact year that the last Powhatan speaker faded into collective misrecollect, it is feasible to examine the causes that lead to the extinction of the Powhatan language: disease, warfare, and intermarriage.

Prior to European contact, the tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy lived east of the fall line in the Tidewater region of Virginia, situated along the York, James, and Chickahominy rivers. The tribes inhabiting the area either shared language and culture with the paramount chiefdom of Powhatan, most famously known as Pocahontas’ father, or had entered into alliances with him, thereby joining the Powhatan Confederacy [1].
John Smith estimated that there were around 28 tribes or groups living in the area [2]. The capital of the confederacy was situated at Werowocomoco, thought to be in present day Gloucester County. Most of what is known of the Powhatan Confederacy comes from early English colonist accounts and archaeological evidence. Modern scholars have concluded that in the first years after the European colonists arrived, the Powhatan population was approximately 14,300 [3].

There is some debate as to whether all the tribes in the confederacy spoke the same language [4]. While John Smith, the most famous source on the Powhatan people, asserted that all tribes in the confederacy spoke “the language of [the man] Powhatan,” modern linguists such as Frank Siebert believe that many dialects were spoken [5].  According to Helen C. Rountree, the Powhatan language had been spoken in eastern Virginia for at least 300 years by the time of European contact, and as a result had many dialects. Despite this, the language appears to have been easily understood by all members of the confederacy [6]. According to his journals, John Smith was able to use the same interpreter (which he claimed to be himself) throughout his broad travels in the region during the summer of 1608 [7].

Following the English colonists arrival in December of 1607, it became apparent that their only means of survival was trade with the Powhatan. Desperately in need of food, the colonists traded copper and other “trinkets” for corn.
John Smith is the principle source on the first contact between the Powhatan and colonists [8] . Smith was in Virginia between 1607 and 1609, and was involved in major exploratory expeditions of the region [9]. His records of tribe names and locations remain some of the very few sources on pre-European contact Powhatan villages, however inaccurate they may be [10]. Smith is also one of the few sources on the Powhatan language, as he recorded fifty Powhatan words during his interactions with them. William Strachey, another early colonist, recorded over five hundred Powhatan words during his time in Virginia [11]. Both men composed novels on their return to England, and theirs are the only remaining records of the Powhatan language [12].  John Smith’s map, shown above, was the primary map used by colonists for almost a hundred years.

While the relationship between the Powhatan and the colonists began on relatively friendly terms, tensions soon mounted. When a drought struck, Englishmen took corn from a Powhatan chief at gunpoint. The Powhatan then refused to give the colonists food, which lead to the Starving Time and First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614). Wars in 1622, 1644, and 1675 decimated the Powhatan population [13]. This combined with near-constant warfare between the colonists and tribes in the region led to a significant reduction in Powhatan numbers [14]. So determined were the colonists to engage in ethnic cleansing of the first inhabitants of the area, manhunts were instituted in 1644, hunting the Powhatan as if they were wild game [15]. Rolling disease epidemics also took a toll on the Powhatan. While it is difficult to find sources on the exact number of Powhatan tribal members that succumbed to disease, it is obvious from the 1669 census that the population had been drastically reduced [16].

Chart 1 shows the population estimates of the six most populated tribes by John Smith and William Strachey during the first few years of the colony. The decreased numbers in the1669 census and in Robert Beverley, Jr.’s History and Present State of Virginia in 1705 reflect the rapid decimation of the Powhatan people [17].

Chart 2 reflects the numbers from Chart 1, with Strachey’s estimates in red, Smith’s in blue, and the results of the 1669 census and Beverley’s estimates in yellow and green, respectively.

Disease and warfare were the two most dramatic reasons for the extinction of the Powhatan language, but other, more subtle factors also played a role.  The Powhatan were reported to have been fairly open to members of other groups joining them [18]. Laws passed during the seventeenth century forbade Englishmen and slaves from joining their ranks, which seems to attest to their willingness to allow others to join their tribes [19]. Intermarriage with African and white communities appears to have contributed to the extinction of the Powhatan language, as many members either left their reserves to join new communities or allowed members of other groups to live among them [20]

The overlay map below illustrates the differences between John Smith’s 1612 map and the modernizing forces at play in seventeenth century Virginia. While the Powhatan tribes had initially lived relatively close to the colonists at Jamestown, Native Americans in the Tidewater became increasingly isolated.

As time went on, the Powhatan found themselves living in economic, social, and cultural isolation on land that was increasingly encroached upon by white colonists [21]. Members of splintered tribes often banded together, retreating into the frontier areas of Virginia [22]. The broken tribes occasionally joined other groups that they had once been enemies of, losing their cultural identity and language in the process [23]. By 1800, the Powhatan language was extinct.
A 1780s letter by Thomas Jefferson describes the loss of the Powhatan language and the state of Powhatan tribes in Virginia [24]. “There remain of the Mattaponies three or four men only, and they have more negro than Indian blood in them. They have lost their language, have reduced themselves, by voluntary sales, to about fifty acres of land, which lie on the river of their own name, and have, from time to time, been joining the Pamunkies, from whom they are distant but 10 miles. The Pamunkies are reduced to about 10 or 12 men, tolerably pure from mixture with other colours.The older ones among them preserve their language in a small degree which are the last vestiges on earth, as far as we know, of the Powhatan language.”
In the early to mid-nineteenth century, the growing romanticism surrounding the disappearance of Virginia’s first inhabitants led to renewed interest in the Powhatan [25]. The bloody wars between Native Americans and the colonists were revised into romantic tales of the noble savage, and the myth surrounding John Smith’s epic adventures among the Powhatan led to numerous poems and plays [26]. Interest in the Powhatan surged again in the early twentieth century during Jamestown’s tercentennial [27]. The Powhatan people had become integral to the founding-myth of America [28].
This Google Ngram reflects the renewed interest in the Powhatan people in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The chart also shows the rise in popularity during Jamestown’s tercentennial.
Two hundred years after the extinction of the Powhatan language, film director Terrence Malick sought to revitalize the language for The New World, a retelling of Pocahontas’s love affairs with John Smith and John Rolfe.

Blair A. Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, researched other Algonquin-speaking tribes, particularly the Lenape, seeking to resurrect the Powhatan language [29]. As a result, for the first time in two centuries, Powhatan was spoken again.

This Wordle represents the most significant words and themes from samples drawn from modern website histories of the Powhatan. Both the National Park Service and the Encyclopedia Virginia have written extensively on the Powhatan, and the extinction of their language is a recurring topic.