Bronze state of Cockacoeske at the Virginia Women’s Monument. Image Credit: WikiCommons

By Holly Marsden

In 1656 the leader of the Pamunkey people in colonised Virginia, Totopotomoy, died in battle. He left behind his wife Cockacoeske. Born c.1640, Cockacoeske was a descendent of Powhatan, the creator of a powerful chiefdom that included the Pamukey people. Upon her husband’s death she became weroansqua, or queen, and ruled until her death 1686. She was also cousin to Pocahontas.

Although the English arrived in the region in 1607, Cockcoeske’s uncle Powhatan had maintained control for twenty years. However, by Totopotomoy’s crowning the indigenous people had lost power. Totopotomoy decided it was best to obey the colony’s leadership. However, Cockacoeske used a different approach. A skilled political leader, she learned and understood the colony’s political and cultural customs to regain power for the Pamunkey. 

Her relationship with plantation owner Colonel John West, for example, is regarded as a diplomatic strategy, providing a connection to a powerful colony figure via their child. Young John West was born in 1656, either after or before Totopotomoy’s death. It is suggested that Totopotomoy was aware of the affair, demonstrating a planned attempt to gain inside knowledge of colonial affairs.

In 1676 Nathaniel Bacon led a massacre of Pamunkey people, rebelling against the leadership of Virginia governor William Berkeley. After the kidnapping of her servant, weroansqua Cockacoeske went into hiding. Bacon then died and the horrific rebellion ended. Cockacoeske was called upon to support the colony, who regarded her highly as a political leader, and to represent the Pamunkey people in front of a commission sent by Charles II.

Cockacoeske was dressed in traditional clothing and addressed the audience through an interpreter. The powerful weroansqua then signed the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation. The treaty meant that the indigenous people were now British subjects, in return for limited but protected reserve of their ancestral land. As a strong believer in peaceful mediation and subtle political strategy, Cockacoeske was succeeded by her niece, Betty, in 1686.

Recommended Reading

Ethan A. Schmidt, “Cockacoeske, Weroansqua of the Pamunkeys, and Indian Resistance in Seventeenth-Century Virginia,” American Indian Quarterly 36.3 (2012): 288-317

Susan Shook, “Cockacoeske: “She didn’t give up.”” MA diss., Sarah Lawrence College, 2015.

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