Opechancanough’s birth date is unknown, although one writer, in 1649, estimated that he was nearly 100 years old in 1644. That likely was an exaggeration. In English records, he usually is described as a “younger brother” of Powhatan, who also was estimated by the English to have been born in the 1540s. Like Powhatan, Opechancanough became the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, and because inheritance was matrilineal, he could have been Powhatan’s full brother or shared just a mother; they also could have been first cousins through a pair of sisters. Either way, the Powhatans’ kinship system still may have considered them “brothers.”
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.
At some point, Powhatan likely appointed Opechancanough weroance, or chief, of the Youghtanund Indians, and later of the adjacent territory downriver, Pamunkey. This made him military protector of one of Tsenacomoco’s most critical territories. The Pamunkey River (then called the Youghtanund) provided an avenue of attack for the Powhatans’ Siouan-speaking enemies, the Monacan Indians, who lived in its headwaters, requiring a trusted and able group of warriors to stand guard. The land along the Pamunkey River also featured extensive and fertile corn-growing soil, along with significant stretches of tuckahoe-producing freshwater marsh. And in 1607 it was home to Uttamussak, Tsenacomoco’s holiest temple. The river valley was a critical part of Tsenacomoco, and its defense by Opechancanough says much about the esteem in which Powhatan held him. By all English accounts, even the most hostile ones, Opechancanough was an outstanding politician, but such power had its limits. Another weroance, Pepiscunimah (Pipsco), seduced Opechancanough’s favorite wife and took her to live with him, and while Powhatan was able to exile the chief, he could not force him to return Opechancanough’s wife. When the English arrived, Pepiscunimah became their firm ally.
Early Dealings with the English
The Jamestown colonists arrived in April 1607. In December a hunting party led by Opechancanough captured Captain John Smith in a skirmish near the town of Apocant at the headwaters of the Chickahominy River. Smith was removed to the hunters’ camp, where Opechancanough and his men feasted him and otherwise treated him like an honored guest. Protocol demanded that Opechancanough inform Powhatan of Smith’s capture, but the paramount chief also was on a hunt and therefore unreachable. Absent interpreters or any other means of effectively interviewing the Englishman, Opechancanough summoned his seven highest-ranking kwiocosuk, or shamans, and convened an elaborate, three-day divining ritual to determine whether Smith’s intentions were friendly. According to the shamans they were, but that didn’t stop the father of an Indian killed in the skirmish from attempting to murder Smith. Finding it a good time to leave camp, Opechancanough took Smith and went in search of Powhatan, at one point visiting the Rappahannock Indians, who had been attacked by a European ship captain a few years before. (Smith was not the same captain, the Rappahannocks decided, because he was too short.) Eventually Opechancanough delivered Smith to Powhatan at Werowocomoco, Tsenacomoco’s capital on the York River.
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).
In April 1613, Captain Samuel Argall captured Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas while she was visiting the Patawomecks on the Potomac River. After transporting her to Jamestown, Argall demanded ransom, and Powhatan partially complied. The by-now-aging paramount chief then dithered for several months, the fight apparently having gone out of him. When in March 1614 the English forced the issue, the colonist Ralph Hamor recorded their impression that Opechancanough had quietly achieved “command of all the people” of Tsenacomoco. He, and not the ill Powhatan, negotiated an end to the ransom stalemate.
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.”
Around the same time, Opechancanough managed to pull off an enormous feat of diplomacy at the expense of the colonists. The Chickahominy Indians had long resisted incorporation into Tsenacomoco, and in the spring of 1614, at the conclusion of the First Anglo-Powhatan War, they had negotiated a separate pact with the English. But during the peace that followed, English settlements spread even faster up the James, and the Chickahominies became restless. By early in 1616, Opechancanough had persuaded them that their treaty had been made not with the English generally but only with Virginia’s deputy governor, Sir Thomas Dale, who had since left for England with Pocahontas and her husband, John Rolfe. The new deputy governor was George Yeardley, and the Chickahominies, Opechancanough argued, had no peace with him. The tribe therefore reneged on promises of tribute, and when confronted by Yeardley, made initial gestures of appeasement. Shortly after, however, Yeardley heard they had joined Tsenacomoco, uniting the Tidewater‘s Algonquian-speaking Indians against 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
At some point Opechancanough realized that guerrilla warfare would not halt the English colony’s continued expansion, and he began to plan a large-scale assault. The tactic was known to the Powhatans, who had staged a mock battle to entertain John Smith in 1607, but they used it sparingly due to their limited number of warriors. Intended as a warning to the English, the assault would target multiple settlements as well as English ships used to trade for corn along the Potomac River and other points to the north. The nervous behavior of the Patawomecks by 1619 suggests that Opechancanough was pressuring them to join the anti-English movement while also working to unify Tsenacomoco.
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.
By Beverley’s time, the descendants of Opechancanough’s people had disowned him, claiming his leadership to be illegitimate because he hailed from somewhere to the southwest, possibly in Spanish territory (hence the argument that Opechancanough and Don Luís were the same person). Early in the eighteenth century, the English were still worried about Spanish claims to the mid-Atlantic region, so this was a useful way for the defeated Powhatans to distance themselves from a leader whose memory the English still reviled. Opechancanough’s image has hardly improved over time, thanks initially to John Smith’s Generall Historie, in which Opechancanough was cast as a villain next to the relatively benign Powhatan. Later popular historians often resorted to caricature. In a 1981 essay, “Opechancanough: Resistance Leader,” J. Frederick Fausz attempted to recast him as a “freedom fighter,” but to only limited effect. It has been simpler to exaggerate Opechancanough’s role as the ultimate villain or, more rarely, hero; meanwhile, his very real political, diplomatic, and military abilities are too often overlooked.