Now that Deb Haaland (Pueblo Laguna) has been sworn in as the 54th secretary of the interior and the first Native American to hold the office, I feel immensely proud of the Indigenous women leaders who have served as inspiration to us all. Little girls now dream of becoming queens with the power to rescue others and to take care of Mother Earth instead of their being rescued by a Prince Charming.
D.C. once had an Indigenous queen. Her name was Cockacoeske, the Queen of Pamunkey. She lived from 1610 to 1686. During that time, area tribal leaders attended an intertribal “caucus” convened at the site of today’s Capitol Hill, where they met to establish mutually beneficial tribal rights. Powhatan, the paramount chief of the Powhatan Paramountcy (and the father of Pocahontas), was known to have attended the caucus gatherings in his lifetime. Queen Cockacoeske was denied the opportunity to attend caucus gatherings because of increased violence from English settlers.
Queen Cockacoeske also had extended kin in the area. One of Powhatan’s wives was a Tauxenent Indian female. Their son was named Taux Powhatan to honor her. He and Pocahontas were half-siblings. Queen Cockacoeske’s father was Opechancanough, Powhatan’s brother. Although Queen Cockacoeske had a son named John West, he wasn’t qualified to be paramount chief because of Pamunkey tradition. Queen Cockacoeske’s niece Ann succeeded Cockacoeske after her 30 years of service to her people.
Unfortunately, Queen Cockacoeske ruled during turbulent times. She became paramount chief only after her husband, Totopotomoy, was killed in a battle against the encroaching Rickahocans at the “Battle of Bloody Run” in 1656. Before that time, the Indigenous people endured three Anglo-Powhatan wars. The first was started in 1610; it ended in 1614. The second lasted from 1622 to 1626. The third lasted from 1644 to 1646 and ended with the capture and assassination of Opechancanough. In 1646, a peace treaty was agreed upon and signed by the Pamunkey and others, which resulted in an annual treaty ceremony held to this day at the governor’s mansion in Richmond.
Queen Cockacoeske experienced life-threatening events because of Bacon’s Rebellion from 1675 to 1676. Nathaniel Bacon, a landowner, lied about Pamunkeys stealing his corn. He used the ruse as an excuse to encourage insurrection against the colonial government and kill or capture law-abiding Indigenous people.
Bacon wanted to “ruin and extirpate all Indians in General” — a genocide. His goal was to seize all Indian-held land. Some historians would later call this the “original seed of the Manifest Destiny cultural belief.” Bacon and his mob of 500 White and Black men attacked Jamestown, burning down government buildings and private homes. Gov. William Berkeley and people loyal to the British crown had to flee for their lives.
Bacon then targeted Queen Cockacoeske for assassination. She escaped his attacks by hiding in Dragon Swamp for two weeks, leaving behind all of her valuables. In hot pursuit, Bacon and his mob confiscated all of her personal belongings, killed members of her tribe and captured 45, most likely to sell them into enslavement.
Berkeley eventually enlisted the aid of militias that defeated Bacon’s rebels. Queen Cockacoeske and her people returned home after the death of Bacon. She secured the release of her people from bondage and restitution for her confiscated property.
King Charles II ordered that a peace treaty be drawn up between the remaining Indigenous leaders of the Powhatan Paramountcy and the British crown. Cockacoeske was the first signatory of the treaty in recognition of her standing as the paramount chief. On May 29, 1677, Indigenous leaders convened at Middle Plantation in Williamsburg to sign the treaty.
King Charles II further ordered that Queen Cockacoeske be given a crown with a silver frontlet, jewelry and royal garments to symbolize her authority as queen.