Spotlight: Tsenacomoco

Published:April 20, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Just this morning we published our entry on Tsenacomoco, which was the name of the large Indian political alliance, led by Powhatan, that the first Englishmen at Jamestown encountered in 1607.

How do we know it was called Tsenacomoco?

The name of Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom was reported by the early Jamestown settler William Strachey, who wrote in his Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia that Powhatan’s people called their land “Tsenacommacah.” The anthropologist Frederic W. Gleach has translated this to mean “densely inhabited place,” citing earlier work by the scholars David Beers Quinn and James Geary that suggests that the word’s base means “land dwelt upon,” “dwelling house,” or “house site,” while its prefix, tsen-, means “close together.” Geary himself has written that Tsenacomoco means “a nearby dwelling-place,” while the anthropologist Rountree has suggested “our place.”

One wouldn’t think of pre-contact Virginia as being “densely inhabited,” and if that, indeed, was the case, my question would be: compared to what? Leave it to Thomas Jefferson to be the first to guesstimate the number of Indians who populated Tsenacomoco: 8,000, he wrote, or about one for every square mile. Helen Rountree, on the other hand, has suggested 15,000 people over about 6,000 square miles, while other estimates range from as low as 13,000 people to as high as just over 22,000. That’s in the neighborhood of 2.5 people per square mile compared with rural England’s 50–100.

It may have been dense to the Indians, in other words, but not so much to the English!

Read the rest of the entry to learn how and when Tsenacomoco came into being, how its boundaries were fixed (or not, as the case may be), and how those boundaries influenced our present-day boundaries of Virginia.

IMAGE: The Town of Pomeiooc by John White (1585–1586). This town, I should say, was not in Tsenacomoco, but in the Outer Banks region of present-day North Carolina. But the cultures were very similar, and White’s art, in my opinion, was just gorgeous (©The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved)


1 Comment on “Spotlight: Tsenacomoco”

  1. John Chinn

    Much is shrouded in mystery lost to destruction and the passage of time. We stand ,now, a people always considered irrelevant and worthless in our own Land.

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