It was within the territory of a chiefdom of more than 30 tribes, united under the leadership of the powerful chief Wahunsunacock (d. 1618), that the colony of Jamestown was established in Virginia in 1607. This remarkable object dates to this first period of contact between native North American peoples and English colonists.
Once thought to have been a mantle (cloak), it is now considered to have been more likely a hanging consisting of four white-tailed deer hides that have been trimmed and sewn together with sinew. The elaborate shell beadwork decoration consists of a central standing figure, flanked by two opposed four-legged animals in profile that have been interpreted as a mountain lion or a wolf and a white-tailed deer. The circles may represent settlements and the tribes of the chiefdom.
The mantle is listed in the 1656 catalogue of the Tradescant Collection – the founding collection of the Ashmolean – as: ‘Pohatan, King of Virginia’s habit all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke’. Chief Wahunsunacock was known to the English as ‘Chief Powhatan’, after whom the mantle is named. Chief Powhatan led the main political and military power facing the early colonists and is also known to be the father of Pocahontas, who eventually converted to Christianity and married the English colonist John Rolfe. There is no known record of how or when it was acquired by the Tradescants. It might have been collected during a trip to Virginia by the younger John Tradescant in 1637, or it could have been obtained earlier. Among the most widely accepted theories for its origins is that it may have been one of the gifts recorded as being presented by Chief Wahunsunacock to Captain Christopher Newport in 1608 for King James I.
Southern Chesapeake Bay region, Virginia, United States of America
Leather, shell and sinew
235 x 160 cm
Presented by Elias Ashmole, 1677, from the Tradescant Collection