On this day in 1586, Ralph Lane and twenty-six men stormed Dasemunkepeuc, a tongue-twisting Indian town just across the water from Roanoke Island. Convinced that the disease-ridden Indians were planning their own attack, the English marched in and started killing pretty much everybody. Their guide was an Indian named Manteo, and he did what he could to prevent his own relations from dying, but in the meantime, the town’s weroance, or chief, fell to the ground from a gunshot “thwart the buttocks.”
The colonists had first been introduced to Pemisapan* two years before, and he had made them his allies, even hosting them on his island. But drought, hunger, and disease had changed everything, and as he lay face down in the dirt, bleeding from two wounds, Pemisapan must have wondered what he might have done differently. Allowing the Englishmen to camp at Roanoke had seemed smart: keep your friends close and your enemies closer. And providing them his protection had allowed him to leverage their power against his own enemies. But when food became scarce, his otherwise-smart calculations backfired.
Now, as the chaos of battle raged around him, Pemisapan suddenly sensed an opportunity. He sprang to his feet and fled into the woods. According to Ralph Lane, two men—including “an Irish man serving me, one Nugent”—took off after him, and one imagines a blood-soaked Lane just fidgeting there on the edge of the treeline. He waited so long, in fact, that he found himself in “some doubt lest we had lost both” of the Englishmen. But before he could move to check up on them, he spied the figure of his Irishman, young Edward Nugent.
“We met him returning out of the woods,” Lane wrote, “with Pemisapans head in his hand.”
* Not long before his death he had changed his name to Pemisapan from Wingina.
A version of this post was originally published on June 1, 2011.
IMAGES: On the left is the John White watercolor captioned “A cheife Herowan,” or weroance (chief). Some historians have suggested that this is an image of Wingina (Pemisapan), whom Arthur Barlowe described as “King” of the whole country. (This White image comes courtesy of the British Museum.) On the right, meanwhile, is an engraving based on White’s watercolor done by Theodor de Bry and published in 1590. It shows both front and back of the weroance; were it Wingina, then he would have four vertical arrows tattooed on his back. But by the time de Bry made his engravings, these images had slipped the surly bonds of particularity and become archetypes. Wingina now stood in for all Indians (as you’ll recall), and the violence that led to his head in Edward Nugent’s hand served as a mere prologue.