Almost nothing is known of Savage’s life before 1607, when the boy left England on the John and Francis with the so-called First Supply of Jamestown colonists. He arrived in Virginia on January 2, 1608, to work as a laborer, but was soon thrust into a very different role. That February, he accompanied Captain Christopher Newport, Captain John Smith, Matthew Scrivener, and thirty to forty other men on a diplomatic visit to Werowocomoco, the capital of Tsenacomoco. There, Newport presented the paramount chief, Powhatan, with gifts from King James I—and with Savage, whom Smith and Newport led the Indians to believe was Newport’s own son. Powhatan reciprocated by giving Newport his servant, Namontack, and a large bushel of beans.
English and Indian leaders alike seemed to believe that these young men could absorb languages and transcend political and cultural barriers in a way that grown men could—or would—not. Savage and Namontack were just two of a handful of youths who were made to participate in this type of cultural exchange. The motive was twofold: the boys could promote understanding and facilitate trade between cultures in times of peace, but they might also serve as informants in times of war. In his nearly three years with the Indians, Savage learned the Indians’ language (a form of Algonquian), their culture, and their expectations; he also saw Anglo-Indian relations deteriorate beyond repair.
Career as a Public Interpreter
Savage may have been present when Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas in 1613, and he played a critical role in negotiating an end to the fighting between the English and the Pamunkey tribe in March 1614. That May—after the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe effectively ended the First Anglo-Powhatan War—Savage returned to the Indian capital with Ralph Hamor, secretary of the colony. Their mission was to arrange a marriage between Powhatan’s youngest daughter and Sir Thomas Dale, the governor of Jamestown. According to Hamor, the paramount chief greeted Savage warmly, but scolded him for escaping: “My childe you are welcome, you have bin a straunger to me these foure yeeres, at what time I gave you leave to goe to Paspahae [Jamestown] … to see your friends, and till now you never returned.” Despite the warm reception, Hamor and Savage’s attempt to arrange the marriage was unsuccessful.
Savage’s activities between 1614 and 1619 are largely unknown. By 1619 he was living at Martin’s Brandon, the plantation of Captain John Martin, and in 1619 and 1620, Martin and Governor George Yeardley vied for Savage’s services. In 1621 Savage accompanied John Pory, the secretary of the colony, on two trading expeditions to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, home to the Occohannocks and Accomacs. He developed a special relationship with these groups, and in particular with Esmy Shichans, the Eastern Shore’s so-called Laughing King.
At this time the relationship between the English colonists and the Powhatans again edged toward violence. Powhatan had died in 1618; his brother, Opechancanough, had effectively inherited the leadership of Tsenacomoco. Though Opechancanough had been outwardly receptive to talk of peace with the English and converting his people to Christianity, he was planning an attack that would devastate the English colony and, he hoped, send them away permanently. One version of his plan had involved poisoning the English using large quantities of a deadly plant native to the Eastern Shore, which he needed to obtain from Esmy Shichans; in addition to refusing to send the plant, the Indian leader alerted his friend Savage to Opechancanough’s true intentions.
Savage tried to warn English authorities, including Jamestown’s new governor, Sir Francis Wyatt, but his message fell on deaf ears. Wyatt had taken Opechancanough’s promises of peace at face value, writing to the Virginia Company of London that the English enjoyed “very great amytie and confidence w[i]th the natives.” On March 22, 1622, Opechancanough led a swift and terrible assault on outlying plantations that killed as many as 347 colonists, or about one-fourth of the English population in Virginia. The event initiated the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632). The conflict lasted a decade, during which time colonial authorities relied on interpreters to reinforce their alliance with the Patawomecks and, in Savage’s case, to leverage his good relationship with the Accomacs and Occohannocks to obtain much-needed food and secure lands.
In the years that followed, some questioned Savage’s loyalties, but not his talents. Pory wrote that Savage “with much honestie and good successe hath served the publicke without any publike recompence, yet had an arrow shot through his body in their service.” Former governor Yeardley, showing less kindness than Pory, poached Savage from the colonial government by having him convicted of slander and insubordination against Captain William Eppes, a business associate of Yeardley’s with a violent streak, and sentenced Savage to serve his and Eppes’s own interests. In March 1625 Savage was designated the official interpreter of the Accomac region, but was ordered not to interact with the Indians without first securing Eppes’s permission, perhaps because he was not trusted. Savage worked for Yeardley and Eppes until 1627, when the former died and the latter left Virginia for the West Indies. At this point, Savage focused his attention on the burgeoning—and profitable—Indian fur trade.
Personal Life and Later Years
In or around 1621, Savage had received from Esmy Shichans a large tract of land on the Eastern Shore containing an estimated 9,000 acres. (This tract of land would become known as Savage’s Neck.) About two years later, he married a woman named Hannah (sometimes Ann), who had come to Virginia at her own expense in 1621 on the Seaflower. The two had a son, John, around 1624. Savage’s prosperity in the fur trade is reflected in the records of the day: by early 1625, Savage was recorded as possessing a house, a barn, a boat, and two servants; two years later, he was the owner of a 150-acre plantation, Savages Choice.
Having added the role of planter to his resume, Savage continued to serve as an interpreter until his death in or before September 1633. He was survived by his son, who inherited his land, and his wife, who by 1638 had married a planter named Daniel Cugley.