Ornamental Separator

QUEEN of the Pamunkeys

COCKACOESKE used diplomacy as a tool to maintain and expand her TRIBAL POWER

At a violent and volatile time in colonial Virginia, a Native American whom the colonists called “the queen of the Pamunkeys” used words rather than weapons to settle disputes with English settlers. Maneuvering through chaotic times that saw repeated attempts to drive her people from Virginia, she maintained her chiefly power and even tried to expand her leadership to other tribes, all while exercising her own brand of diplomacy.

During the 30 years that she held tribal power, Cockacoeske faced the uprising of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, when angry frontiersmen turned their ire against both the English rule and the Native Americans. A year later, she was a principal participant in the Treaty of Middle Plantation, as Williamsburg was then known, which brought peace between her people and the English settlers of Virginia. It is a treaty that is still symbolically celebrated today.

Cockacoeske’s leadership came at a time when indigenous peoples of Virginia faced settler encroachment on tributary land and the arrival of militarized slaving expeditions. Most of the armed slavers targeted Indian groups on the periphery of English settlements — groups that were not yet protected by tributary agreements with the colonists. Still, tributary Natives — such as the Pamunkeys — sometimes found that they were targets as well. These events culminated in the Susquehannock War, a conflict that bred resentment against Native Americans, and Bacon’s Rebellion, which was instigated by Nathaniel Bacon, a privileged plantation owner in Jamestown who used the Indian conflict to denounce what he saw as cronyism and corruption in the royal governorship of Sir William Berkeley.

Coming to Power

The arrival of a group of Indians known as the Westo proved pivotal both in Cockacoeske’s personal life and her leadership of her tribe. In 1656, the Westo came to the falls of the James River after being driven from their homeland near Lake Erie. The colonists, fearing hostilities, asked the tributaries, including the Pamunkey, to help remove the Westo from the area. The result — the Battle of Bloody Run — claimed the lives of many Pamunkeys, including Totopotomoy, Cockacoeske’s husband, the Pamunkey chief.

She assumed the tribe’s leadership position, which she held until 1686.

Bacon’s Rebellion

After Bacon attacked the Occaneechi, whom he had enlisted to help him defeat the Susquehannock tribe, Berkeley tried to regain control of the situation and invited Cockacoeske to supply military assistance against frontier tribes. The English viewed Cockacoeske as important, in part, because of her tribal position, but also because of her relationship with Capt. John West, an English settler with whom she had a child. That child, the English thought, might inherit her position as Pamunkey leader.

Cockacoeske chose to address the Governor’s Council on her terms, initially refusing to provide any assistance. Flanked by her son John West, who acted as her interpreter, Cockacoeske appeared before the committee of the Governor’s Council with a “commanding personage.”

The colonists noted her dress — a black and white wampum peak on her head and a deerskin mantle with “deep, twisted fringe,” an appearance that one commenter labeled as “majestic.”

Council members said Cockacoeske spoke English, but she insisted on communicating through an interpreter, an action likely taken to protect her interests. They pressed Cockacoeske to provide men to serve as guides for expeditions against the Susquehannock, who had been attacking English settlers, and she kept quiet, refusing to answer. After several further pointed demands from the English, she began an emphatic and passionate speech. Cockacoeske railed against the colonists for some 15 minutes, stating repeatedly, “Tatapatomoi Chepiack,” or “Totopotomoy is dead.” This was a reminder of her tribe’s losses at the 1656 Battle of Bloody Run — a loss for which the colonists never compensated her people.

The council was not moved by her remarks: “Her discourse ending and our morose chairman not advancing one cold word toward asswaging the anger and grief her speech and demeanor manifested under her oppression, nor taking any notice of all she had said,” according to an account published in the Richmond Evangelical Magazine. Cockacoeske eventually agreed to provide 12 bowmen although the council believed she had at least 150 under her command.

For her part, Cockacoeske continued to seek diplomacy and to stick to the tributary agreements by counseling her people not to fight the English rebels. Bacon and his men sought to drive the Natives from the land. When they found the Pamunkey, they violently seized furs, trading cloth and wampum. During the course of the raid, they captured 45 Natives for enslavement and killed at least eight, and Cockacoeske went into hiding in the woods for 14 days. She later said she survived only by eating a raw turtle leg that a young boy found for her. During that time, the rebels captured an older Pamunkey woman they hoped would lead to Cockacoeske. When it did not, they killed the woman and eventually raided and enslaved the Nanziattico, a community of tribes displaced by settlers.

Treaty of Middle Plantation

After the collapse of Bacon’s Rebellion, two royal commissioners — Sir John Berry and Francis Moryson — sought to understand the complaints and divisions among English colonists and to rectify the situation with the Native tributaries. These negotiations and the resulting May 29, 1677, Treaty of Middle Plantation reveal the extent to which Cockacoeske attempted to turn the tragic events of the rebellion to her favor. Articles 12 and 18 highlight how Cockacoeske attempted to return the Pamunkey leadership to the paramount chiefdom.

The arena in which she was most successful was with the royal commissioners. They labeled Cockacoeske a victim of the event and called her the “faithfull friend to and lover of the English” and made recommendations that she should be compensated for her suffering and losses with gifts. Herbert Jeffreys, the royal governor, reported on June 11, 1677, about the treaty and the signing process including the Queen of Pamunkey signing “on behalf of herself and Severall Nations now reunited under her Subjection and Government as anciently.” According to scholar Martha McCartney, article 12 of the treaty “committed several smaller, unspecified Indian nations to Cockacoeske’s rule, tangible evidence of her success in manipulating the treaty agreement to her own people’s advantage.”

By October 1677, the Lords of Trade and Plantation recommended an expansion of the treaty to include Maryland, and the king commissioned gifts for the Native leaders who signed the original treaty, including Cockacoeske. As a sign of English goodwill towards their Native tributaries, they commissioned crowns and royal robes for the four Indian leaders. Fashioned for each were crimson velvet hats trimmed with ermine fur and coronets or crowns of “thinne silver plate, gilt and adorned with false stones of various colours, with the inscription ‘A Carolo Secondo Magna Brittaniae Rege.”

Cockacoeske and her son John West, however, received additional recognition. Berry and Moryson, noted that Cockacoeske “was robbed of her rich matchcoat by the rebels,” and therefore they asked for a “crown and robe, together with a stript [striped] Indian gown of gay colours and a Bracelet of falce stones” in addition to a silver pendant to be made for Cockacoeske. Her son was to receive a scarlet coat with gold and silver lace, breeches, shoes, stockings, hat, sword and belt, and a pair of pistols.

The gifts arrived with Gov. Thomas Culpeper in June 1680, but by then the treaty had expanded to include some 12 Native leaders that represented seven Indian groups. The Executive Council of Virginia asked that the gifts be delayed, “fearing those people may be heightened thereby especially by such Marks of Dignity as Coronets, wch as they conceive ought not to be prostituted to such mean persons.” The Council further explained their reasoning on behalf of the colonists who suffered “fatal returnes for considerable presents given unto” Native peoples, as the Council argued that presents of this nature were “a wrong way of manageing of those people they esteeming presents to be the effects of fear, and not kindness.”

The Council also took issue with the preferential treatment of Cockacoeske, indicating that there were several other neighboring and foreign Indian groups that “deserved of the English at least as well as the called Queen of Pomunkey” and that they “will shew their Resentment at least against them which is almost as bad.”

It was not only the Executive Council that took exception to the adornment of Cockacoeske and the power granted to her and the Pamunkey in articles 12 and 18 of the treaty. Article 12 gave Cockacoeske dominion over “several scattered Indian nations,” and article 18 placed several of the tributaries under Pamunkey rule. Cockacoeske attempted to return the Pamunkey leadership to the “chiefly dominance.” The Chickahominy and Rappahanock resented this intrusion and the colonial secretary, Thomas Ludwell, indicated in his letters that the several Nations under Cockacoeske were “dissatisfied” and “contemptible at their new subjection.”

Ultimately, the Chickahominy and Rappahannock retained their independence while they upheld their commitment to the terms of the Treaty of Middle Plantation. Despite her efforts, Cockacoeske did not successfully re-create the Powhatan chiefdom’s paramountcy, but the Pamunkey did maintain the matri­lineal line of inheritance by not passing power onto her son. The Pamunkey interpreter George Smith reported to the governor on July 1, 1686, that Cockacoeske was dead and her heir was her niece, named in 1702 as “Ms. Betty Queen ye Queen.”

Tokens and Commemorations

The Treaty of Middle Plantation has been a cornerstone for Pamunkey and other Native American rights in Virginia over the last three centuries. As a token of peace, the royal commissioners had silver frontlets made to honor the Native signatories of the document. Unfortunately, economic circumstances forced the Pamunkey to sell the original frontlet to a settler. In the late 19th century the frontlet resurfaced, and Preservation Virginia purchased the Pamunkey frontlet from a private collector for $800 ($20,000 today) and housed the artifact at Historic Jamestowne. In May 2010 at Williamsburg the Pamunkey received an exact replica commissioned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Then, in honor of the Pamunkey Tribe’s federal recognition in 2016, Preservation Virginia repatriated the original frontlet back to the Pamunkey people. In an additional act of commemoration of the special relationship between the Pamunkey and the state of Virginia, Cockacoeske is one of the women of Virginia selected for a bronze statue at the new Voices from the Garden: The Virginia Women’s Monument in Richmond, construction on which began in Spring 2018.

Powhatan Succession

Powhatan was the chief of an alliance of Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians that included the Pamunkeys when the English arrived at Jamestown in 1607. His attack two years later on James Fort ushered in what became known as the “starving time” for the colonists. He died in 1618 after some four years of relative peace.

Opechancanough came to power sometime after 1618. Fearing continued colonial expansion, Opechancanough attacked settlers in 1622 and 1644. He was captured and killed by his English guards in 1646.

Necotowance succeeded Opechancanough and signed a treaty in 1646 acknowledging subordinate status and agreed to pay tribute to the English. A symbolic version of this tribute payment to the Virginia government is still practiced by Tide­water groups in Virginia to this day.

Totopotomoy followed Necotowance in 1649 and was known as the King of the Pamunkeys. After his death in the Battle of Blood Run in 1656, he was succeeded as head of the tribe by his wife, Cockacoeske.

Kristalyn Marie Shefveland is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Indiana and a contributing author to Virginia Women: Their Lives and Times.

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