Virginia and Tsenacomoco in 1622
At the beginning of 1622, it seemed that the greatest danger facing the Jamestown colony was disease. According to Samuel Wrote, an investor in the, since 1619 the colony’s initial population of 700 had been supplemented by at least 3,570 new arrivals, and yet the total population had grown to only 1,240 people—a net growth of only about 540 new residents. The rest had died. As one young man, Richard Frethorne, wrote home to his parents, “the country … is such that it causeth much sickness, [such] as the scurvy and the bloody flux and diverse other diseases.”
The colonists’ Indian neighbors seemed to pose less of an immediate threat. The Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco comprised a polity of twenty-eight to thirty-two small chiefdoms and tribes that stretched from the James to the Potomac rivers and encompassed much of Virginia’s coastal plain. Often called the Powhatan Indians, after their paramount chief,, they had been at peace with the English since 1614, when the marriage of Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas to John Rolfe had put an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War. Although tensions remained, the vast majority of encounters between the Indians and the English were peaceful. They routinely with one another for food (grain and wild game), “truck” (cloth, manufactured beads, and metal tools), and labor (Indians hunted for and worked in English households).
By 1622 the growing tobacco trade had put the colony on a sounder economic footing than during its first few years, easing another constant worry on the part of colonists and investors in the Virginia Company of London. The English tobacco farms that spread along the banks of the James and its tributaries, wrote the company’s secretary, Edward Waterhouse, were “placed scatterlingly and straglingly as a choyce veyne of rich ground invited them, and the further from the neighbors held the better.”
Thus isolated from one another, no single colonist was in a position to observe that an unusually large number of Indians were visiting and working among the English settlements on the morning of March 22. They came unarmed, offering to trade, skins, or labor. Many sat for breakfast with their English hosts.
Then, suddenly, “” the Indians “drew their weapons and fell upon us murdering and killing everybody they could reach sparing neither women nor children, as well inside as outside the dwellings.” Some of the dead, Waterhouse wrote, were mutilated: “not being content with taking life away alone,” the attackers made “a fresh murder, defacing, dragging, and mangling the dead carcasses into many pieces, and carrying away many parts in derision.” More than 300 colonists, or nearly a third of the population, were killed in the space of a few hours.
The result of this devastatingly effective attack was a ten-year conflict, the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, that transformed the relationship between the two groups and reshaped both Virginia Indian and colonial English societies.
Causes of War
It seems surprising, in retrospect, that the Powhatan Indians were able to maintain such secrecy. A single defection, just one warning to the English, could have spoiled their plans. (In fact there were several alerts, including one by an Indian known as[sometimes Chanco], but it came only at the last moment; there was no chance to sound a general alarm.) Moreover, the basic issues between the Powhatan Indians and the English were hardly a secret. In the immediate aftermath of March 22 colonists had no trouble identifying the grievances that had led the Powhatan Indians to attack. Their analyses, and those of historians, emphasize two explanations: the importance of land and the lack of respect.
At the conclusion of the First Anglo-Powhatan War in 1614 both sides could claim a draw. The Powhatan Indians allowed the colonists to stay, but the English settlements were confined to fewer than a dozen settlements clustered just below the falls of the James, at Jamestown, and around Point Comfort.
Relations between the Powhatan Indians and the English soured in 1617, however. In March, just as she was about to depart to Jamestown after a visit to London, Pocahontas died. Her marriage to Rolfe had been at the heart of the peace between her father and the English; now that bond was broken. No comparable diplomatic marriage was arranged to replace this connection. (attempted to negotiate one, on behalf of , but failed.) Moreover, an important member of Pocahontas’s entourage, an influential priest named Uttamatomakkin, formed a harsh impression of the English during his stay in England. When he returned to Virginia in May 1617, Uttamatomakkin delivered a bitterly unfavorable report to Opechancanough, Powhatan’s brother (or close kinsman) and main advisor, about his observations of the English.
Nearly simultaneous changes to the leadership of both the Powhatan Indians and English also led to a less compromising attitude on both sides., who had captured Pocahontas in 1613 and later captained the ship that carried her to England, took over as deputy governor after returning from London in 1617. Argall tried to restrict contacts between Indians and English, though these efforts failed. Similarly Powhatan, who had presided over the peace of 1614, stepped aside as paramount chief in 1617 in favor of his brother (or close kinsman) Opitchapam. (Upon becoming paramount chief, Opitchapam to Otiotan, sometimes rendered Itoyatin.) Powhatan died the following April. The number of violent incidents and diplomatic conflicts between the Indians and the colonists increased.
At the same time, changes in the distribution of land (including the introduction of the headright system and the granting of larger parcels of land to government officials and private investors) enabled English tobacco planters to spread out over a much larger area than before. By 1622 English settlements covered prime agricultural lands on both sides of the James River near Jamestown and on a few patches along the lower James and lower Eastern Shore. The greatest growth, however, was along the middle stretches of the James between the Chickahominy River and the falls of the James (at present-day Richmond).
The growing number of colonists living near the larger Powhatan Indian population centers upriver from Jamestown, coupled with the continuing practice of private trade between Indians and newcomers, led to a “daily familiarity” between the two groups. It did not, however, lead to increased respect., who arrived in 1620 as part of a concerted attempt to convert the Indians to Christianity (and civility), complained that “there is scarce any man amongest [the colonists] that doth soe much as afforde [the Indians] a good thought in his hart and most men with their mouths give them nothing but maledictions and bitter execrations.” But Thorpe, too, offended the Powhatan Indians. His job was, in effect, turning Indians into English Christians; or, as later in his Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), “insinuating himselfe into [Opechancanough’s] favour for his religious purpose.” If necessary, he planned to take away Indian children and raise them as English. It was hardly a sign of esteem for Powhatan Indian culture.
The English seriously underestimated both the Indians’ resentment and their confidence that they, and not the English, ruled this land the English called Virginia. Opitchapam (Otiotan) had inherited from Powhatan the title of paramount chief of Tsenacomoco. In 1622 the population of Tsenacomoco was roughly twenty times that of the Jamestown colony; thus the colony continued to exist because Opitchapam and Opechancanough (responsible for external relations, including both war and diplomacy) wanted it to.
At some point before 1621 Opechancanough began laying plans for an attack that would signal the Powhatan Indians’ superiority over the English and allow them to exert more control over the newcomers. In 1621 Opitchapam took on a new name, Sasawpen, while Opechancanough became Mangopeesomon. In Powhatan culture such name changes usually signaled an important new development in a person’s life. Perhaps not coincidentally, at about the same time Opechancanough asked Esmy Shichans, a weroance (the head of a chiefdom) from the Eastern Shore, for a supply of poison to use against the colonists. Shichans refused. Although he did not immediately tell the English about the poisoning plot, he did tell them about a great ceremony for “” for secondary reburial that had recently brought together Indians from throughout Tsenacomoco. The gathering presented Opechancanough with the perfect opportunity to plan a coordinated attack “uppon every Plantatione of the Colonie.”
Having lost the opportunity for surprise thanks to Shichans’s revelations, Opechancanough postponed his plans. In the meantime he adopted a more conciliatory demeanor toward the English. He showed George Thorpe much kindness, going so far as to hint that he might welcome instruction in Christianity. Opechancanough even appeared to brush off the murder of one of his leading warriors, Nemattanew (also known as Jack of the Feather), by the English. Although he was, in fact, enraged by the killing, Opechancanough sent a message to the governor, Sir Francis Wyatt, that Nemattanew had been too “farr owt of … favor” for the Powhatan Indians to make an issue of it.
March 22 was less than two weeks away.
The Attacks of 1622The simultaneous attacks of 1622 came as a complete shock to the English. The blow was “so sudden,” wrote Waterhouse, “that few or none discerned the weapon or blow that brought them to destruction.” In only a few places were they able to defend themselves. Counterattacks were out of the question, since the colonists’ ability to withstand even the next wave of attacks was questionable. Yet the Powhatan Indians did not press their advantage. They launched no further attacks in 1622, except for a single skirmish in September that killed four colonists.
Opitchapam and Opechancanough evidently did not wish to eliminate the English settlements; otherwise, they would not have contented themselves with striking a single major attack. What, then, did they hope to accomplish through the March 22 assault?
The Powhatan Indians’ behavior provides several important clues to their intentions. First, twenty of the twenty-four attacks fell on the upriver settlements, where the spread of the English settlements had most directly intruded on the original, core nations of the paramount chiefdom. (Powhatan had inherited several chiefdoms in this area in the 1570s, then greatly expanded his influence and control over the next few decades). The older English settlements, especially Jamestown and other downriver places where the colonists had originally been allowed to live, were less hard-hit. Second, many of the English dead were mutilated, adding to the humiliation of their resounding defeat. According to Edward Waterhouse, George Thorpe’s killers, “with such spight and scorne abused his dead corps as is unfitting to be heard with civill eares.” Third, Opitchapam and Opechancanough followed through after their victory with studied silence rather than with additional raids, evidently assuming that a single devastating blow would communicate their message.
Given the evidence above, the Powhatan Indians seemed satisfied that the March 22 attacks had fulfilled their purpose: to put the English in their proper place, both literally and figuratively. They expected the English to remain in a subordinate position to Powhatan’s (now Opitchapam’s) paramount chiefdom and to remain geographically confined to the downriver settlements near Jamestown or the remote Eastern Shore. Thus the anthropologist Frederic Gleach has aptly characterized the March 22 attacks not as a “massacre” (which suggests a simple, savage randomness) or as an “uprising” (which assumes that the Powhatan Indians had already been subdued by the English), but rather as a “coup … a sudden and vigorous attack” intended as a corrective blow to the misbehaving English living in the midst of Powhatan’s people.
The War That Followed
Opechancanough must have felt vindicated by the initial results. The English abandoned many of their more exposed settlements in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of March 22, huddling together in Jamestown and other relatively safe places as they decided what to do next. The situation was so dire that Governor Wyatt took refuge on the Eastern Shore for six weeks during the summer of 1622. There was even some talk of moving the entire colony there.
Despite appearances, however, the English colonists’ retreat did not mean that they understood the Powhatan Indians’ message. On the contrary, they assumed that their intent, according to Edward Waterhouse, was to “destroy us.” Their withdrawal from outlying settlements was purely strategic. In fact, some regarded the March 22 attacks as the perfect excuse to wage unrestricted war against the Powhatan Indians. “Our hands which before were tied with gentlenesse and faire usage, are now set at liberty,” Waterhouse wrote. He continued, “[We] may now by right of Warre, and law of Nations, invade their Country,” and then “enjoy their cultivated places” while reducing the Indians “to servitude and drudgery.”
But how? There were still far more Indians than English colonists. The first step was to find allies and food to sustain the colony through the next year. Rather than counterattack right away, the English initially focused their attention on the Potomac River and the Eastern Shore, trading and strengthening alliances with more distant chiefdoms while they developed a strategy for repaying the Powhatan Indians.
The strategy that emerged was devastatingly effective. “To lull them the better in securitie,” John Smith wrote, the English deliberately “sought no revenge till thier corne was ripe.” Then, throughout the fall and early winter of 1622–1623, they sacked the most vulnerable Powhatan villages (timing their raids to “surprize their corne”). When Wyatt listed his military assets he counted not only fighting men, but also, according to the, those who were “serviceable for caryinge of corne.” Even diplomacy revolved around food: the English agreed to a truce in the spring of 1623 in order to let both sides plant their crops, but they fully intended to resume their “feede fights” after the corn ripened.
This was not the only truce that was arranged with the intention of violating it. In May 1623 Opechancanough agreed to meet with an English delegation. After the negotiations the English offered poisoned drinks to toast the accord, then fired on the deathly ill Powhatan delegates. Some of the English took scalps, and back in Jamestown they bragged (mistakenly) of having killed Opechancanough.
The climax of the war came in the summer of 1624. In the only full-scale battle of the decade-long conflict, sixty Englishmen landed near a key Powhatan, one inhabited by members of the . For two days the two sides fought to a stalemate. While the struggle continued on the open battlefield, a few Englishmen took advantage of the diversion to burn the Indians’ fields, destroying enough food, the governor’s Council claimed, “to have sustained four thousand men for a twelve-month.” When the Powhatan Indians finally realized the extent of the damage, they “gave over fightinge and dismayedly, stood most ruthfully lookinge one while theire corne was cutt downe.”
Virginia’s leaders deliberately prolonged the war for another eight years after the climactic victory of 1624. Although the Powhatan Indians mounted occasional raids and light skirmishes, the English generally took the offensive. The Virginians staged regular “fieringe and wastinge” attacks in which they inflicted light casualties and carried away large quantities of grain, always taking care to leave enough survivors to plant another crop the following spring. Strategically timed truces and peace treaties encouraged the Powhatan Indians to plant more food, which the English then looted at harvest time. As late as 1629 the Englishthat the year’s campaign had done more damage than any other “since the great massacre.” The fighting continued well into 1632, when a new governor finally signed an agreement—unpopular with Virginia’s elites, who were profiting from the “feede fights”—to end the war.
The Powhatan Indians were not exactly vanquished. Their 1632 agreement with the English merely ended the war; there is no indication that it contained any humiliating provisions or admissions of defeat. (The original was destroyed during the; notes taken by the early Virginia historian Conway Robinson described it only as “a peace.”) The Powhatan Indians still outnumbered the English, and they retained control of considerable territory (greater in extent than that of the English) north of the James River. The basic rhythms of their lives remained fundamentally the same, as did their economy, , and political system. Following the old rules governing the succession, for example, Opechancanough succeeded his brother Opitchapam, who had died in 1629, as paramount chief.
The balance of power, however, had tipped toward the English. By the end of the war English farms had spread all along both banks of the James River below the falls, and even across the Peninsula to the south side of the lower York River. At the end of the 1630s the English population (now grown to nearly 8,000) exceeded that of the Powhatan Indians, and early in the 1640s colonists began taking up lands on the north bank of the York River, along the Rappahannock, and even as far north as the Potomac River. The war also presented a great many reluctant “Powhatan” Indians—chiefdoms that had for a time been under the paramount chief Powhatan, but not entirely willingly—the opportunity to reclaim their independence; thus Opechancanough’s power was restricted to a much smaller number of subordinate chiefdoms covering a much smaller area.
The war also significantly altered colonial society. The March 1622 attacks set in motion an investigation that led to the dissolution of the Virginia Company of London. In 1624assumed direct Crown control of the colony. The decade-long war also led to the concentration of wealth and political power in the hands of a small group of men whom some historians have characterized as warlords. Virtually all of the men who led expeditions against the Indians served on the governor’s Council. They decided when to raid Powhatan Indian fields, and as commanders kept much of the plunder for themselves, which they then sold at inflated wartime prices or fed to their and slaves so that they could produce more tobacco rather than wasting their labor on food crops. Not coincidentally, every councilor who led a military expedition between 1622 and 1625 ranked among the fifteen colonists controlling the greatest number of laborers—the real key to wealth in seventeenth-century Virginia.
In the aftermath of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, ancontinued to flex its muscles, going so far as to eject the king’s appointed governor, the relative outsider , in 1635. The war also promoted the expansion of English settlements and tobacco production, to the point that by early in the 1640s the colonists were once again encroaching on Powhatan communities. By then the Powhatan Indians, still numerous, independent, and led by Opechancanough, were prepared to fight another war against the English: the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646).