In 1705, the colonist Robert Beverley Jr. wrote that, according to the Powhatans, Opechancanough "was a prince of a foreign nation, and came to them a great way from the south-west: and by their accounts, we suppose him to have come from the Spanish Indians, somewhere near Mexico or the mines of St. Barbe." This has prompted some historians to argue that Opechancanough was the same person as Don Luís (also known as Paquiquineo), a Virginia Indian who lived among the Spanish in the 1560s and returned home with Jesuit missionaries in 1570. After apparently participating in killing the Jesuits, Don Luís disappeared from all records. If the two men were, in fact, the same person, this would help explain the widespread notion, established by John Smith in his Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), that Opechancanough had been unremittingly hostile to the English.
There are significant problems with this theory, however. Opechancanough was not always hostile to the English, or at least they did not always view him that way. At one point an Englishman even described him as "gracious." It is true that Opechancanough and Don Luís were about the same age, both were heirs to chiefdoms, and both had similar-sounding Indian names. But Opechancanough hailed from farther up the James River than did Don Luís, who likely was a Paspahegh Indian, and in 1570 their respective homes were not yet a part of any single, politically consolidated entity. Even if Beverley's reporting was accurate, the Powhatan Indians of late in the seventeenth century had an interest in disassociating themselves with Opechancanough, who was infamous for starting wars in 1622 and 1644.
Early Dealings with the English
Opechancanough makes two more appearances in the English records—assisting Powhatan in entertaining Smith and Captain Christopher Newport in February 1608 and in resisting Smith's taking of his people's winter stores early in 1609—but then disappears for five years. During this time, the English began to expand their settlements beyond the Jamestown fort, including at Henricus, established on the James River in September 1611. Their progress was slowed but not stopped by a series of guerrilla attacks that amounted to the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614).
The shift in power continued. By the time Pocahontas left for England in 1616, a rumor circulated among the colonists that Powhatan had gone visiting to the Potomac River out of fear of his brother, leaving the governance of Tsenacomoco to Opechancanough and another brother, Opitchapam. In England, the Reverend Samuel Purchas, a travel writer and editor who helped to publicize the Jamestown colony, heard a similar rumor—in this version, Powhatan fled south instead of north—and described Opechancanough in terms that belied the later view of him as unrelentingly warlike. He was charming, Purchas wrote, "a man very gracious, both with the [Indian] people and the English."
Powhatan died in April 1618 and was succeeded by his next younger brother, Opitchapam, who took the new name of Otiotan (Itoyatin). Described by the colonists as being "lame and decrepit," the new paramount chief appears only rarely in the English records of the time, suggesting that the English did not deal directly with him but with Opechancanough. Whether the brothers competed or cooperated in this way isn't known, but the English viewed Opechancanough less as a villain than as someone of whom to be wary. Evidence suggests that while Powhatan was still alive, Opechancanough paid homage to his older brother while building up a power base of his own and otherwise avoiding any undue attention from the English. Under Opitchapam, Opechancanough played a similar role, acting as a mostly benign representative of a greater power. Much of the anger that permeates the English writers' records from 1622 onward—in other words, after Opechancanough launched the surprise assault that opened the Second Anglo-Powhatan War—probably stems from the chagrin of realizing that they had been duped for so long.
The Great Assault of 1622
The assault originally was intended to coincide with a religious ceremony in which Powhatan's bones, which had resided in a charnel house since the paramount chief's death, were to be taken up, wrapped in a bundle with jewelry, and placed on a scaffold in a temple. In keeping with the custom of setting up ambushes, the occasion would mask the massing of Powhatan warriors while perhaps additionally providing the assault with a spiritual motivation. In the end, however, the attack did not take place as planned. In the summer of 1621, Opechancanough contacted Esmy Shichans, the so-called Laughing King of the Accomac Indians on the Eastern Shore, to request a large supply of the most deadly plant in eastern Virginia, Cicuta maculata, or cowbane. His plan was to poison the colonists before attacking them, but the Accomac weroance, by then a firm friend and trading partner of the English, turned him down and informed the leaders at Jamestown.
Opechancanough postponed the assault and led George Thorpe, a member of the governor's Council and an original investor in the Berkeley Hundred plantation, to believe that he was interested in converting to Christianity. In a January 1622 letter to the Virginia Company of London, the colonists reported: Capt Thorpe found by discoursinge with [Opechancanough], that he had more motiones of religione in him, then Coulde be ymmagined in soe greate blindness, for hee willinglye Acknowledged that theirs was nott the right waye, desiringe to bee instructed in ours and confessed that god loved us better then them.
At the same time, the colonists noted that both Opitchapam (Otiotan) and Opechancanough had changed their names to Sasawpen and Mangopeesomon, respectively. The ceremonial nature of the name change, of which the colonists were apparently unaware, suggests some kind of military preparation, probably one with strong religious overtones.
In any event, the assault took place on the morning of March 22, 1622, and resulted in the deaths of perhaps as many as 347 colonists, Thorpe among them. The toll might have been greater if not for several Indians, including an adult named Chauco, who gave warning to the English. Opechancanough's warriors insinuated themselves into English homes and, according to Edward Waterhouse, suddenly and "barbarously murdered, not sparing eyther age or sexe, man, woman or childe." Intended not as a genocidal measure but simply as a warning for the English to leave, the attack did not succeed and instead initiated the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. English attempts at immediate retaliation came to naught because, until late in the summer, the Powhatans were away from their towns foraging. By September, Opechancanough's people had resumed their guerrilla attacks, and the English suffered more hardship that winter than the Indians, having been too frightened to plant corn.
Still, Opechancanough's influence over the more distant tribes weakened as a result of English diplomacy and strong-arm tactics; the Accomacs left the paramount chiefdom altogether. After ordering a failed attack in the spring of 1623, Opitchapam invited the English to his capital on the Pamunkey River to discuss peace and to collect ransom for English prisoners taken the year before. Early in April, Chauco and another man traveled to Jamestown to arrange the details, and it is unknown whether Opitchapam or Opechancanough knew about his earlier betrayal. In May, the English arrived and treated their hosts to tainted wine, after which they opened fire. (According to their own report, the English "brought home part of their heads," or, in other words, scalped some of the Indians.) Opechancanough apparently was seriously injured and disappears from English records until 1630, at which point he had already succeeded his brother Opitchapam as paramount chief of Tsenacomoco. By 1632 both sides were exhausted and a peace was made—after which English settlements began expanding faster than ever before.
The Great Assault of 1644
Over the next decade, tobacco continued to be the major cash crop for the colonists and the headright system allowed Englishmen to obtain land by paying for the passage of even more English settlers. By early in the 1640s, colonists were claiming land on the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, straining the peace and prompting Opechancanough, now an old man, to undertake a familiar exercise: organizing an attack force while convincing the English that his intentions were friendly. (In 1641, for instance, he declined to retaliate when the colonists murdered one of his men.)
As a result, the English were caught unprepared when, on April 18, 1644, Opechancanough launched the second of his great assaults with a force comprised of Nansemonds (some of them), Chickahominies, Weyanocks, and possibly others. Approximately 400 colonists were killed, more than in 1622, but this time it was a much smaller proportion of the English population. And rather than press the attack, the Indians retired, whether out of military miscalculation or the assumption (again) that the English would leave. The colonists, meanwhile, were in a better position this time to counterattack, and the Third Anglo-Powhatan War was over by 1646, when an expedition led by Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley captured Opechancanough at his fort far up the Pamunkey River. (Archaeologists remain unsure of the fort's exact location, although it appears on an English map in 1662.)
Opechancanough's successor as paramount chief, Necotowance, made a peace in which, according to an English report, he proclaimed "That the Sunne and Moon should first lose their glorious lights and shining, before He, or his People should evermore hereafter wrong the English in any kind, but they would ever hold love and friendship together." In the meantime, Governor Berkeley decreed that Opechancanough be kept alive and transported to Jamestown. There, according to Robert Beverley Jr. in his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), he was treated as an oddity, with people coming to stare at him in his cell. Within two weeks of his arrival, one of the English guards shot Opechancanough dead. There is no record of where or how he was buried.
Ironically perhaps, it became fashionable late in the twentieth century for Virginians to claim Indian descent from Opechancanough through a so-called princess, Nicketti, who is alleged to have been his daughter. However, no seventeenth-century document mentions Nicketti, and Opechancanough's descendants—including his relationship, if any, to his successor, Necotowance—have remained obscure. The Pamunkey leader Cockacoeske was said to have been related, but there are no details of how.
December 1607 - While exploring the upper reaches of the Chickahominy River, John Smith is captured by a communal hunting party under the leadership of Opechancanough.
February 1608 - Christopher Newport and John Smith visit Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, at his capital, Werowocomoco. Powhatan feeds them and their party lavishly, and Newport presents the chief with a suit of clothing, a hat, and a greyhound. The English continue upriver to visit Opechancanough at the latter's request.
1609 - Early in the year, Opechancanough resists John Smith's efforts to take his people's winter stores of food. In January, the paramount chief Powhatan attempts but fails to have Smith killed. Opechancanough then disappears from English records until the year 1614.
April 1613 - Powhatan's favorite daughter, Pocahontas, is captured and held hostage by the English, bringing a truce in the First Anglo-Powhatan War. The fight goes out of Powhatan, and during his apathy over the next year, his daughter is converted by the English.
April 1614 - At the conclusion of the First Anglo-Powhatan War, the Chickahominy Indians negotiate a peace treaty with the English independent of the Powhatans.
1616 - By early in the year, Opechancanough has persuaded the Chickahominy Indians to renege on the terms of their peace treaty with the English and he soon incorporates them into the Tsenacomoco political alliance.
1618–1621 - While the elderly Opitchapam serves as paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, Opechancanough appears to build his own power base without unduly alarming the English.
Autumn 1621 - The redisposition of Powhatan's bones is to be the occasion for a massive attack against the English, but Opechancanough calls it off when his plans are revealed.
September 1622 - After their major assaults in March, Opechancanough and his forces resume guerrilla attacks on the English colonists.
May 22, 1623 - Opitchapam and Opechancanough host the English on the Pamunkey River, but they are treated to tainted wine and then ambushed. Opechancanough is apparently seriously injured and disappears from English records for seven years.
1630 - By this year, Opechancanough succeeds Opitchapam as paramount chief of Tsenacomoco.
1641 - The English murder one of Opechancanough's men, but the paramount chief declines to retaliate. He is apparently working to convince the English of his peaceful intentions while perhaps already planning another large-scale assault.
April 18, 1644 - Opechancanough and a force of Powhatan Indians launch a second great assault against the English colonists, initiating the Third Anglo-Powhatan War. As many as 400 colonists are killed, but rather than press the attack, the Indians retire.
1646 - The English capture Opechancanough on the Pamunkey River. His successor, Necotowance, surrenders to the colonists, and Opechancanough is shot and killed while in English custody at Jamestown.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Opechancanough (d. 1646). (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Opechancanough_d_1646.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen C. "Opechancanough (d. 1646)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 11, 2011 | Last modified: May 30, 2014
Contributed by Helen C. Rountree, professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University and author of Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries (1990) and Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005).