Because England is a Christian nation, the
Discovery Doctrine supposedly gave it the right to govern all
non-Christian nations. In 1606, therefore, England was able to give
a Royal Charter to the Virginia Company to develop a market in the
New World for English commerce and for 'propagating of Christian
Religion to such people, as yet live in darkness'. In this charter,
Indians were characterised as living 'in Darkness and miserable
Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God'.
The Virginia Company, a corporation, was founded
and directed by a group of merchants and gentry who were motivated
in part by the promise of strong economic returns for their
Their royal charter gave them permission to exploit
the riches of Virginia with little or no concern of any possible
ownership of these riches by Indian nations. The company planned to
establish a trading post which would acquire valuable furs from the
Indians and would sell the Indians manufactured goods and textiles.
In addition, the company planned to search for gold and to exploit
the region's timber resources.
In addition to seeking profits, the company also
indicated that it would seek the conversion of the heathen (that is,
conversion of Indians to Protestant Christianity), the expansion of
the English kingdom, increased revenues for the king, and employment
for the English vagrant poor.
The following year, three English ships brought one
hundred and twenty British settlers into Chesapeake Bay where they
established a colony at Jamestown. At this time there were an
estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Indians living in the area that would
The major tribal confederacy in the area was the
Powhatan, an Algonquian-speaking confederacy of about thirty tribes
(although some sources indicate as many as forty-three tribes).
These tribes included the Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and
Rappahannock (and see the Powhatan king list page for a full
The initial alliance of six tribes had been formed
in the late 1500s, just prior to the English invasion, and had been
greatly expanded by the first chief's son, a Pamunkey leader named
Wahunsonacock (see map, below).
The Powhatan confederacy (the pale orange area) was formed towards
the end of the sixteenth century, and under its second paramount
chief it rapidly expanded to cover territory which is now
divided between the states of Delaware and Maryland (click
on map to view full sized)
A detailed set of features & king lists focussing on
these complex peoples.
His capital was located at the falls of the James River in Virginia.
This was called Powhatan, meaning 'Falls of the River', and
therefore the allied tribes were also known as the Powhatan. To
confuse the matter a bit, Wahunsonacok was also called 'The
Powhatan' or simply 'Powhatan'. 
The English Captain John Smith led a small party of
exploration up the Chickahominy River. The English were attacked by
about two hundred Pamunkey warriors who captured Smith and killed
The Pamunkey, under the leadership of
Opechancanough, Wahunsonacok's brother, were a part of the larger
Powhatan confederacy. Smith was taken before the dominant chief,
Powhatan (Wahunsonacok), and was eventually released. Smith,
described by his contemporaries as a self-promoting mercenary,
reported that he had been kept in a comfortable and friendly
Many years later he would tell a story about being
on the verge of being clubbed to death when a prominent woman
intervened and saved his life. In one version of the story, he named
Pocahontas (a nickname meaning the 'spoiled child') as the woman who
had saved his life (she was about ten years old at the time). He
told this story only after the death of Pocahontas, by which time she
had gained some fame amongst the English.
While English writers often describe the Indians as
hunters, they were actually farmers who had been planting crops in
the region for several centuries. The English were delighted by some
of the Indian crops, including strawberries (which were described as
being larger and tastier than those in England) and persimmons.
Persimmon bread was a common Indian gift.
However, the English looked upon the land as vacant,
even when it had been cleared and planted with the Indian crops of
maize (corn), beans, and squash. For the English, land was occupied
only when it was laid out in neat rectangles, fenced, and used for a
single crop. Since the Indians cleared their lands by burning and
used intercropping - the practice of planting crops together - their
lands did not look 'neat' and 'occupied' to English eyes. The
English also seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the park-like
wilderness was actually a well-managed ecosystem which the Indians
maintained by regularly burning it.
One exploring expedition from the Virginia Company
at Jamestown travelled up the James River. When the group
encountered some Indians in a canoe, the group's leader, Christopher
Newport, asked them for directions. One of Indians sketched a map of
the river, its falls, and two native kingdoms beyond the falls. When
the English party reached the falls, Newport wanted to continue
exploring on foot, but was told by Pawatah, a local village leader,
that the Monacan would attack them for entering their territory.
 It's likely that the name of
the location gave rise to the name of the confederacy and the
capital together, and then the position of chief came to be
known by the same label, possibly very quickly afterwards.
Powhatan 'held this state and fashion when Captain Smith was
delivered to him prisoner'
In 1608, the English colonists at Jamestown found
that most of their stores were rotten or had been eaten by rats. The
countryside around them had abundant game, and John Smith encouraged
the colonists to live off the land. Smith sent groups to different
places to gather food resources. However, many of the colonists were
unaccustomed to living off the land and found it easier to trade
with the Indians for supplies. As a result, the settlement was
stripped of items - particularly metal items - which could be used
for trade. In addition, some colonists deserted to live with the
Indians whose way of life they preferred.
With regard to trade, the English introduced a
trade item which was new to the Powhatan: sky blue Venetian glass
beads. The traders told the Indians that these were a rare substance
and that they were worn only by kings.
The English soon realised that Powhatan led a
confederacy of about thirty different groups and his cooperation
would be vital to their continued existence. From a European
perspective, leaders such as Powhatan needed to be kings and so they
decided to conduct a coronation ceremony for him which would make
him a king with loyalty to the British Crown. The ceremony was a
comedy of cultural misunderstandings as the English attempted to
choreograph a feudal ceremony in a society in which two key elements
of the ceremony - the crown and the act of bending the knee - were
John Smith led a small group south around
Chesapeake Bay and up the Patuxent and Rappahannock rivers. They had
a short battle with the Mannahoac in which they wounded and captured
Amoroleck. Amoroleck reported that there were four Mannahoac
villages on the Rappahannock, each of which had its own leader. When
asked what lay beyond the mountains, Amoroleck indicated that he did
not know as the woods had not been burnt.
The attempted execution of Captain John Smith at the
hands of Powhatan warriors (with Pocahontas saving his
life) would appear to be a ritualised 'mock execution',
performed in order to adopt Smith as a weroance
- the English becoming, in Powhatan's eyes, yet another
sub-tribe to be controlled and brought under his influence
Life in the early years of the Jamestown
colony, which was built around James Fort, was a precarious
matter, especially as the settlers initially had to rely on
trading with the natives who were not always welcoming of this
The English explorers made contact with an Algonquian-speaking
group whom they called Tokwogh (possibly the Nanticoke?). With
the help of the Tokwogh, the English then contacted an
Iroquoian-speaking group, the Susquehannock, and exchanged gifts
with them. The English described the Susquehannock as a
'giant-like people' because they were significantly taller than
Later, a group of about sixty Susquehannock visited
Captain John Smith and the English colonists.
Captain John Smith attempted to obtain corn from
the Pamunkey who were under the leadership of Opechancanough. When
the chief indicated that he was unwilling to trade, the captain held
a gun to the chief's breast and threatened to kill him unless the
English boats were filled with twenty tons of corn. He also told the
Pamunkey that if they did not fill his boats with corn, he would
fill it with their dead carcasses.
English colonists heard rumours about an Indian
mine in the interior. Lured by the possibility of gold, John Smith
and six others set off to verify its existence. They employed
Potomac guides who they placed in chains during their march. They
found a great hole which had been dug with shells and hatchets. The
mine, developed by the Indians to obtain minerals for making body
paints, failed to yield any gold.
These then were examples of the earliest contacts
between the English and the native Indians of east Coast North
Native American Netroots
Text adapted by Mick Baker from original posts
on the discussion forum, Native American Netroots,
primarily by user 'Ojibwa', dated 2 December 2013.