Different Ideas of War
When the hundred or so English settlers sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in the spring of 1607, they encountered one of the most powerful Indian chiefdoms on the Atlantic seaboard. Powhatan, the paramount chief, or mamanatowick, ruled twenty-eight to thirty-two Algonquian-speaking groups that resided from north of the Rappahannock River to south of the James and west to the fall line. The Indians called their land Tsenacomoco and were intent on defending it from invaders either through diplomacy or war. The English, meanwhile, were sometimes confused about which groups were under Powhatan’s control. The Chickahominy Indians, for instance, lived in the heart of Tsenacomoco but were independent. The Patawomecks, who lived along the Potomac River, paid Powhatan tribute but were not always loyal.
The Indians waged war frequently but on a small scale. They fought off raiding parties of Siouan-speaking Monacans, among others, but at times they also battled each other. Powhatan men “are soon moved to anger,” Captain John Smith observed, “and so militious that they seldome forget an injury.” As such, they often fought to avenge slights and to earn increased personal status, creating a cycle of retribution that sometimes blurred the line between war and peace. The mamanatowick demanded that his warriors also fight for political reasons, which included conquering other Algonquian-speaking groups and bringing them into the paramount chiefdom. In 1608, Powhatan’s men ambushed the Piankatank Indians, later displaying their scalps for the English in the capital at Werowocomoco. Powhatan also attacked the Chesapeakes and the Kecoughtans, moving the remnants of the latter group into Piankatank territory. Still, finding opportunities to wage war on non-Algonquian-speakers helped the mamanatowick direct his men’s vengeful energy in ways that usefully bound the paramount chiefdom together.
Because of this constant, small-scale warfare, some scholars have argued that, at least from the Indians’ perspective, assigning the term “Anglo-Powhatan War” to this period of conflict doesn’t make sense. “This dichotomy [of war and peace] is nearly irrelevant in Native American cultures,” the anthropologist Frederic W. Gleach has written, “where war and peace were often ongoing, simultaneous processes …” For the English, however, wars generally came equipped with clear-cut beginnings and endings; wars were persistent and thorough. And during much of the time between 1609 and 1614 the colonists saw themselves to be, in the words of a 1624 report, “at warre with the natives, so that by them divers times were many of our people slaine, whose blood Sir Thomas Dale neglected not to revenge …” The historian J. Frederick Fausz coined the phrase “Anglo-Powhatan War,” writing that the event was England’s “first and most ambiguous military victory in the forests of the New World.” It was critical for both sides, in other words, regardless of how they might have viewed warfare in general.
Lead-up to War
The Indians of Tsenacomoco had encountered Europeans before. In 1570, Don Luís de Velasco, an Indian who had left home on a Spanish ship, converted to Catholicism, and changed his name, returned to the Chesapeake with a party of Jesuit missionaries. Several months later, he led Indians on a raid that killed all the Spaniards except for a young boy. During the winter of 1585–1586, a party of Englishmen from Roanoke visited the Chesapeake Indians, and sometime after 1587, the so-called Lost Colonists may have gone to live either among that same group or with Indians closer to Roanoke. Either way, various Powhatans told the Jamestown settlers that the mamanatowick had ordered the earlier colonists killed. Historians disagree over whether these rumors were true or deliberately planted in an attempt to intimidate the English.
When the Englishmen built a fort on the James River in May 1607, they chose their site based on how best to defend themselves from the Spanish, not the Indians. Powhatan was more concerned with, among others, the powerful Monacans, who lived beyond the fall line, than with this small party of soldiers. Rather than immediately kill them, Powhatan endeavored to learn more about them. While arranging for a party of English explorers to be feasted, he ordered those who remained at Jamestown to be attacked, presumably so he could test their weapons and tactics. As the colonist Gabriel Archer noticed, the Indians quickly learned not to “approche scarce within musket shotte,” while the colonists learned to fear ambush from the tall grass and “dyvers arrowes at randome.”
Captain George Percy called Powhatan “the subtell owlde foxe,” and this was one occasion where he earned the nickname. Pretending not to have authorized the attack, Powhatan told the colonists that he now would protect them. In this way, he kept the English off guard and compounded for them what already was a confusing situation. Were they at war or peace? Were they dealing with friend or foe?
In December 1607, a communal hunting party led by Powhatan’s younger brother (or close relative) Opechancanough captured John Smith, eventually delivering him to Werowocomoco, on the York River. There, according to legend, Pocahontas saved the Englishman’s life. But many scholars now believe that Smith instead may have undergone an adoption ritual whereby Powhatan attempted to absorb the colonists into his chiefdom. Offering Smith the title of weroance, or chief, of the village of Capahosic, near Werowocomoco, Powhatan hoped to place the Englishman where he could more closely watch him. Smith declined, declaring his allegiance to King James I, but later that year he attempted, more or less, to adopt Powhatan. In September 1608, Smith and Captain Christopher Newport awkwardly crowned the mamanatowick in order to make him subject to the English king. Powhatan accepted their gifts but soon after cut off trade with the English.
The weather, meanwhile, complicated matters. The colonists had arrived near the beginning of a devastating seven-year drought (1606–1612)—the driest stretch in 770 years—that was accompanied by particularly fierce winters. Food, especially corn, was at a premium, and the colonists had come to Virginia unprepared and, for the most part, disinclined to fend for themselves. Supplies from England had not been adequate to keep them alive, and they had been unable to assume control over Powhatan’s system of tribute, as they knew the Spanish had done with the Indians in South America. As the English quickly died of malnutrition and disease those first two years, gifts of food from the Indians saved the colony. But the drought continued and Smith supplemented those gifts by aggressively bargaining for, and often outright stealing, corn. When Powhatan halted trade, he created a serious crisis for the Jamestown settlers.
In May 1609, the Crown issued the Virginia Company of London a second charter and dispatched a fleet of ships, additional colonists, and supplies. The flagship Sea Venture, however, appeared to be lost at sea, taking with it the colony’s new leadership. Political chaos resulted at Jamestown, with then-President Smith feeling beset both by critics and the threat of famine. Late in the summer, in an effort to relieve conditions at the fort (and perhaps to relieve himself of his critics), he sent two groups of soldiers to live off the land. Downriver, a party led by Captains Percy and John Martin attempted to meet with the Nansemond Indians, but after two of the colonists’ messengers disappeared, the Englishmen attacked a nearby settlement. Percy later reported that his soldiers “burned their [the Nansemonds’] howses, ransacked their Temples, Tooke downe the Corpses of their deade kings from their Toambes, and Caryed away their pearles Copper and braceletts, wherewith they doe decore their kings funeralles.” The fighting that resulted led to half of Percy and Martin’s hundred men being killed.
Smith left the colony in October 1609, and in November, young Spelman traveled to Jamestown with an invitation from Powhatan for the English to visit his new capital at Orapax. Instead of finding corn for trade, however, the colonists, led by Captain John Ratcliffe, walked into an ambush; about thirty-three men, or two-thirds of their number, were killed. The Indians captured Ratcliffe, and their women skinned him alive using mussel shells. (Spelman was horrified by what had happened and fled Powhatan to live among the Patawomecks.) Shortly thereafter, all but a handful of the colonists retreated to Jamestown, and the mamanatowick ordered his warriors to cut off trade to the fort and access to the surrounding woods, where the colonists might hunt or forage. If it was not quite a siege in the conventional sense, it had a similar effect. There was no need to fight the Englishmen and their muskets head-on; he would let famine do the work for him.
This was Powhatan’s best chance to win the war and to evict the English colonists from Tsenacomoco. Over the winter, the 240 men, women, and children at James Fort endured the Starving Time, during which they fed on snakes, rats, mice, musk turtles, cats, dogs, horses, and possibly even each other. By May 1610, only about sixty of the colonists remained alive. Remarkably, the Sea Venture‘s passengers and crew arrived at Jamestown on May 24, having survived in Bermuda for ten months. One of the new colonists, William Strachey, later wrote that the particulars of the “Famine and Pestilence” he found within the fort were more “then I have heart to expresse.”
Sir Thomas Gates opted to abandon Virginia, but as the colonists sailed down the James, they encountered a ship bearing the new governor, Thomas West, baron De La Warr, and a year’s worth of supplies. Fausz describes De La Warr’s arrival, along with the “new vengeful resolve that took root” among the colonists, as “the critical turning point in the First Anglo-Powhatan War.”
The English Regroup
The rumors that Powhatan had ordered the Lost Colonists killed, perhaps intended to impress upon the Jamestown settlers the reach of the mamanatowick’s power, had in fact helped to provoke a holy war against the Indians. Governor De La Warr and Lieutenant Governor Gates came to Virginia with instructions from the Virginia Company to capture Powhatan and kill his kwiocosuk, or priests, whom the colonists believed to have advised the paramount chief to destroy the Roanoke remnant. Weroances, meanwhile, were to be made to redirect their annual tribute to the English, and all Indians, but especially their children, were to be educated in English ways and converted to Christianity.
Discipline among the colonists was critical. Toward that end, Gates implemented a set of rules governing the behavior of military personnel. Later edited and published by William Strachey as the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall (1612), the rules, especially as expanded in 1611 by Sir Thomas Dale, were so strict as to provoke a backlash in England (a man accused of stealing food, for example, was bound to a tree until he starved). For the time being, though, they helped bring stability to a colony that had long teetered on the edge of the abyss.
Then, on July 9, 1610, the English launched a vicious counterattack against the Powhatans. During the Starving Time, thirty colonists had been garrisoned, with plenty of food, at Fort Algernon near the mouth of the James. The nearby Kecoughtan Indians had let them be, but now the English, in the ironic words of George Percy, were “desyreous for to be Revendged upon the Indyans att Kekowhatan.” Luring the warriors to the riverbank with a drummer who imitated a traditional Powhatan greeting, the English attacked the Kecoughtans and inflicted, by Percy’s accounting, “suche extreordinary Lardge and mortall wownds thatt it seamed strange” any were able to escape.
Not long after, a group of Paspahegh Indians, in whose territory Jamestown was situated, attacked the blockhouse guarding the peninsula’s entrance from the mainland. By way of retaliation, a force under the joint command of Captains Percy, John Davis, and William West attacked the Paspahegh town, killing fifteen or sixteen people, burning houses, and taking corn. The wife and children of the weroance Wowinchopunck were captured, but Percy wrote that “my sowldiers did begin to murmur becawse the queen and her Children weare spared” when other captives had been beheaded. “So upon the same a Cowncell beinge called itt was agreed upon to putt the children to deathe the which was effected by Throweinge them overboard and shoteinge owtt their Braynes in the water.” Shortly afterward, while returning to Jamestown, the children’s mother was executed, likely by Davis. The Warraskoyacks and Chickahominies—the latter not members of Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom—also were attacked. After the Warraskoyacks fled, the colonists burned two of their villages and harvested the remaining corn.
In the coming years, the English would use in Ireland various tricks of colonialism they had learned in Virginia; during the First Anglo-Powhatan War, however, they brought to Virginia terror tactics perfected in Ireland. Specifically, as Fausz has written, their “use of deception, ambush, and surprise, the random slaughter of both sexes and all ages, the calculated murder of innocent captives, the destruction of entire villages” all were new to America. While the Indians could be just as violent as the English (consider the fate of John Ratcliffe, for example), certain restraints were built into their method of waging war. The practice of avenging particular slights tended to personalize, and so limit, the scope of conflict. The Indians’ desire to take prisoners also acted as a restraint. Prisoners served as symbols of success and targets for rage; they also could serve as adoptees into the chiefdom or as hostages to be traded. Because it threatened the lives of these potential prisoners, unlimited violence was not always useful. In addition, Indians traditionally spared the lives of chiefs, women, and children. (Recall that Don Luís and his men killed all the Spaniards in 1571 except for a young boy.)
As the First Anglo-Powhatan War escalated, however, fewer restraints were in evidence, and descriptions by the colonists of the Powhatans’ calling on their god Okee suggest that both sides may have seen themselves in a holy war. In November 1610, De La Warr sent a large expedition of perhaps two hundred men, including miners, west toward the falls of the James. After an initial defeat at the hands of the Appamattucks’ weroansqua, or female chief, Opossunoquonuske, the colonists destroyed the Appamattuck village and severely injured the weroansqua. (The drummer who had tricked the Kecoughtans just barely escaped the Indians’ special attempts to kill him.) William West, the governor’s nephew, and Wowinchopunck, the Paspahegh weroance, were both killed later on in the continued tit-for-tat battles.
By the beginning of 1611, the war’s momentum returned briefly to the Powhatans. First, they pushed the colonists back from the falls. Then on March 28, an ill De La Warr sailed for the West Indies, leaving George Percy in charge pending the arrival of the new deputy governor, Sir Thomas Dale. Seizing the opportunity of a power vacuum—just as they had done after Smith’s departure in 1609—several hundred warriors, led by the revenge-seeking Paspaheghs, attacked the Jamestown blockhouse. Percy described “Arrowes as thicke As hayle” that killed the blockhouse’s entire garrison of twenty men, but when the Powhatans refused to risk attacking James Fort, they lost perhaps another opportunity to end the war.
Instead, Dale took over in May and proved to be a ruthless disciplinarian and canny strategist. He expanded the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, and took Richard Hakluyt (the younger)‘s stern advice that “if gentle polishing [of the Indians] will not serve, then we shall not want hammerours and rough masons enough … to … prepare them to our Preachers hands.” In June, Dale led a hundred armored soldiers against the Nansemonds at the mouth of the James River, burning their towns. Then in September, after receiving a shipload of reinforcements, the colonists attacked upriver, gaining enough ground to found the new settlement of Henricus. In December, Dale’s men used Henricus as a launching point for new attacks, defeating the Appamattucks once and for all. Dale now had the mamanatowick stuck in a vice between the English gains on both ends of the river and the Monacans and other non-Algonquian-speakers beyond the falls.
For the next two years, the elderly Powhatan could do little but lie low, his authority weakened. Indications of this are the number of English plantations established along the James despite periodic Indian resistance. Captain Samuel Argall, meanwhile, explored the northern, more vulnerable reaches of Tsenacomoco and there found the Patawomecks to be especially willing trading partners. This was partly due to the influence of Henry Spelman, the young boy who had fled Powhatan in 1609 after the ambush of John Ratcliffe’s party. Having matured into a reliable interpreter, Spelman now served as a liaison between Argall and Iopassus (Japazaws), weroance of the Patawomeck town of Passapatanzy. The relationship bore unexpected fruit when, in April 1613, Argall learned that Pocahontas was staying in Passapatanzy. Using the stick of English military might and the carrot of a potentially lucrative partnership, Argall convinced Iopassus to help him kidnap Pocahontas, ironically giving to the English what the Indians traditionally prized in war: a valuable prisoner. (As for Spelman, he seemed to personify the blurred lines between friend and foe, native and English, war and peace. A few years later, he would just escape execution on the charge of bad-mouthing the English to Opechancanough.)
After concluding treaties with the Accomacs and Occohannocks on the Eastern Shore, Argall and his superior, Dale, attempted to use Pocahontas to win concessions from her father. But for a year Powhatan only stalled, until, in March 1614, Dale, Argall, and 150 English soldiers—with Pocahontas in tow—paddled deep into Pamunkey territory, home to Opechancanough and Tsenacomoco’s most fearsome bowmen. At present-day West Point, where the York and Mattaponi rivers meet, the Englishmen disembarked and faced down several hundred Indians. When, after two days, neither side was willing to fire first, the colonists returned to Jamestown. The war ended on a note of anticlimax.
The First Anglo-Powhatan War had begun with a truce and a cultural exchange when young Henry Spelman had gone to live with the weroance Parahunt. Now it ended with another truce and cultural exchange. This time, Pocahontas, Parahunt’s half-sister, decided to remain among the English. During the stalemate of 1612–1613, she had converted to Christianity, and in April 1614 the English informed her father that she intended to marry John Rolfe, one of the Sea Venture‘s passengers. Powhatan assented. The English and the Indians did not share many understandings about war, but they both agreed that this marriage could bring peace.
And for a while it did. Although Pocahontas died in England in 1617, and her father a year later, the peace held and the English took advantage by expanding their settlements far beyond Jamestown. After Rolfe introduced a saleable grade of tobacco to the colony, plantations were established up and down the James, while the Indians bided their time. The title of mamanatowick did not immediately transfer to Opechancanough, but as the weroance of the Pamunkey, he controlled the last great stronghold in Tsenacomoco. The English, meanwhile, took Pocahontas’s conversion as a sign that all of the Powhatans were prepared to abandon their traditions; even Opechancanough seemed to flirt with conversion. As Hakluyt had predicted, English “hammerours” had readied the Indians “to our Preachers hands.”
Or so it seemed. On March 22, 1622, Opechancanough’s warriors struck the colony suddenly and without the usual restraint, launching the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632).