Note: The following information is from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and used with permission.
The villages of the Mississippian culture were much larger, more complex, and more permanent than that of most Late Woodland cultures. The more settled and abundant life of the Mississippian culture led to fully developed chiefdoms ruled by chiefs and subchiefs. In a chiefdom, a few highly ranked people at major centers directed the economic, socio-political, and religious activities of thousands of people living in a large region. The position of chief became a permanent office and social inequality became a basic rule.
The name "Powhatan" refers to the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Virginia tidewater or coastal plain. By 1607 many of the villages in this area were brought under one rule by the powerful "werowance" or chief, Wahunsunacock, to form the Powhatan empire. Wahunsunacock was the chief, or "Powhatan," of the chiefdom when the colonists first arrived. His title and the name of the chiefdom were one and the same. By 1607, many of the villages of the Algonquian-speaking people were brought under one rule by Wahunsunacock and formed the Powhatan chiefdom. At the time of English contact the native Tidewater population numbered around 14,000. Wahunsunacock ruled more than 32 subchiefdoms in more than 150 villages of various sizes, which he controlled through inheritance and power. In war, the districts fought for him; in peace, they paid taxes on their produce. The chief, in return, aided them in times of need.
There were hundreds of settled towns and satellite villages built near the Chesapeake Bay or in the inlets and rivers, which flow into it. These towns and villages were placed along points or other sites that allowed a commanding view of the water and the people, especially enemies, traveling on it. Waterways were the central avenues of transportation and a major source of food. Because of the abundant source of fish, oysters, clams and waterfowl, the Powhatans did not have to move around as much as tribes further inland. Over the centuries they settled into agricultural communities, growing corn and other vegetables to supplement the fishing, hunting and foraging of plants for food and medicines.
Some archaeologists use the concept of "cultural and natural areas" to explain further how the distinct cultures of the era came about. According to their theory, the environment in which a society settled presented a particular setting and the people made choices within that setting. Without external forces, a culture was inclined to change slowly once it adjusted to a setting. It was also inclined to spread over an entire area before expanding to a different environment. In Virginia, the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and mountain regions created distinct natural areas. Cultures spread along the major rivers and streams that flowed within and between each province. Because pieces of the information puzzle are missing, much of the group variation across Virginia has not been fully described nor individual cultures defined.