He first appears in English records in 1611, when George Percy mentioned 'Munetute' [sic] as being sent by paramount chief Wahunsunacawh to lead native resistance to the colonists' expansion in the upper James River region around the time Henricus was built, in the course of the First Anglo-Powhatan War. Percy also notes that the English derisively called him Jack-of-the-Feather on account of his feathered native war regalia, remarking that "he used to come into the field all covered over with feathers and swans' wings fastened unto his shoulders, as though he meant to fly".
On account of the fact that he was never wounded in these skirmishes, it seems that he began to believe he was magically invulnerable to musket-fire, and that he managed to persuade his fellow tribesmen of this attribute, enhancing his reputation with them.
In the more peaceful times following the war, he continued to play a prominent role; the English even trained him to become a proficient musket shot. At one point in 1618, he turned renegade and again raided the English, capturing some guns, but these were returned by Opechancanough.
In 1619, Opechancanough sent him to propose that the English contribute 8 to 10 soldiers to accompany a Powhatan war party for an assault on a Siouan tribe above the fall line, to avenge some Powhatan women they had slain. In return, the Powhatans would equally share all plundered captives, corn and territory with the English. This proposal was accepted by the council, however failed ever to materialize.
A short time before the Great Massacre of 1622, Nemattanew appeared at the home of a certain Morgan, where he saw some trading-trinkets and proposed taking Morgan to Pamunkey where a good price might be had for them. Morgan agreed and was never seen again, but a few days later Nemattanew showed up at the plantation and announced his death. The fact that he was wearing Morgan's hat caused the field-hands to suspect he might have played a role in his murder, but when they tried to force him to go with them to the nearest magistrate, he offered much resistance, causing one of the field-hands to shoot him. As he lay dying, he begged them to be buried behind English lines, and not to reveal to his people that he had been felled by English fire, to which he was supposedly invincible.
In England, Captain John Smith, who had not been in Virginia since 1609, wrote in his 1624 Generall Historie of Nemattanew's death as occurring only two weeks before the massacre, but Rountree infers from contemporary documents, particularly Council in Virginia, that it occurred no later than November 1621, while George Yeardley was still governor, and a full five months before the massacre. There is also some evidence in this document that by 1621, Nemattanew had again fallen out of favor with Opechancanough. However, there is a variety of speculations among modern historians as to what Nemattanew's true role may have been, with general agreement that the massacre was already in its planning stages before Nemattanew died, rather than a reaction to his being killed.
- A True Relation by George Percy (modernized spelling version)
- Pocahontas's People, Helen Rountree 1990, p.72.
- Warpaths, Ian Kenneth Steele, p46, 1994, ISBN 0-19-508223-0
- Rountree 1990, p.69.
- Rountree 1990 p. 71.
- Natives and Newcomers By James Axtell, p. 253.
- Epanow, Nemattanew's contemporary active in New England.