John Smith's description of the Powhatan
confederacy in AD 1608 is one of the best records available
of the natives before colonial expansion took its toll on
their civilisation and population numbers.
Within a century of its creation the Powhatan
confederacy collapsed, unable to retain its lands, keep its people
unified, or resist the advanced Europeans and their hungry thirst
for more land.
Prior to all of that, this is how the Powhatan
appeared to Captain John Smith in 1608, with additional description
applied relatively soon afterwards:
...The twelfth of January we arrived at
Quartering in the next houses we found, we
sent to Powhatan for provision, who sent us plentie of bread,
Turkies, and Venison; the next day having feasted us after his
ordinary manner, he began to aske us when we would be gone: fayning
he sent not for us, neither had he any corne; and his people much
lesse: yet for fortie swords he would procure us fortie Baskets.
The President shewing him the men there present that brought him
the message and conditions, asked Powhatan how it chanced he became
so forgetfull; thereat the King concluded the matter with a merry
laughter, asking for our Commodities, but none he liked without
gunnes and swords, valuing a Basket of Corne more precious than
a Basket of Copper; saying he could rate his Corne, but not the
Captaine Smith seeing the intent of this
subtill Salvage began to deale with him after this manner.
Powhatan, though I had many courses to have
made my provision, yet beleeving your promises to supply my wants,
I neglected all to satisfie your desire: and to testifie my love,
I sent you my men for your building, neglecting mine owne. What
your people had you have ingrossed, forbidding them our trade:
and now you thinke by consuming the time, we shall consume for
want, not having to fulfill your strange demands. As for swords
and gunnes, I told you long agoe I had none to spare; and you
must know those I have can keepe me from want: yet steale or
wrong you I will not, nor dissolve that friendship we have
mutually promised, except you constraine me by our bad usage.
The King having attentively listned to this
Discourse, promised that both he and his Country would spare him
what he could, the which within two dayes they should receive.
Yet Captaine Smith, sayth the King, some doubt I have of your
comming hither, that makes me not so kindly seeke to relieve you
as I would: for many doe informe me, your comming hither is not
for trade, but to invade my people, and possesse my Country, who
dare not come to bring you Corne, seeing you thus armed with your
men. To free us of this feare, leave aboord your weapons, for here
they are needlesse, we being all friends, and for ever Powhatans.
John Smith is shown in this illustration trading with the
native Americans who resided close to James Fort, although
his explorations took him much further afield, across the
northern edge of Chesapeake Bay and into Susquehannock
territory (click on image to view full sized)
A detailed set of features & king lists focussing on
these complex peoples.
...Whilst we expected the comming in of the Country, we
wrangled out of the King ten quarters of Corne for a copper
Kettell, the which the President perceiving him much to affect,
valued it at a much greater rate; but in regard of his scarcity
he would accept it, provided we should have as much more the
next yeare, or els the Country of Monacan. Wherewith each seemed
well contented, and Powhatan began to expostulate the difference
of Peace and Warre after this manner.
Captaine Smith, you may understand that I
having seene the death of all my people thrice, and not any one
living of these three generations but my selfe; I know the
difference of Peace and Warre better then any in my Country. But
now I am old and ere long must die, my brethren, namely Opitchapam,
Opechancanough, and Kekataugh, my two sisters, and their two
daughters, are distinctly each others successors. I wish their
experience no lesse then mine, and your love to them no lesse
then mine to you. But this bruit from Nandsamund, that you are
come to destroy my Country, so much affrighteth all my people as
they dare not visit you. What will it availe you to take that by
force you may quickly have by love, or to destroy them that provide
you food. What can you get by warre, when we can hide our provisions
and fly to the woods? whereby you must famish by wronging us your
friends. And why are you thus jealous of our loves seeing us
unarmed, and both doe, and are willing still to feede you, with
that you cannot get but by our labours?
Thinke you I am so simple, not to know it
is better to eate good meate, lye well, and sleepe quietly with
my women and children, laugh and be merry with you, have copper,
hatchets, or what I want being your friend: then be forced to
flie from all, to lie cold in the woods, feede upon Acornes,
rootes, and such trash, and be so hunted by you, that I can
neither rest, eate, nor sleepe; but my tyred men must watch,
and if a twig but breake, every one cryeth there commeth Captaine
Smith: then must I fly I know not whether: and thus with miserable
feare, end my miserable life, leaving my pleasures to such youths
as you, which through your rash unadvisednesse may quickly as
miserably end, for want of that, you never know where to finde.
Let this therefore assure you of our loves, and every yeare our
friendly trade shall furnish you with Corne; and now also, if you
would come in friendly manner to see us, and not thus with your
guns and swords as to invade your foes.
To this subtill discourse, the President
[ie, Smith] thus replyed.
Seeing you will not rightly conceive of our
words, we strive to make you know our thoughts by our deeds; the
vow I made you of my love, both my selfe and my men have kept.
As for your promise I find it every day violated by some of your
subjects: yet we finding your love and kindnesse, our custome is
so far from being ungratefull, that for your sake onely, we have
curbed our thirsting desire of revenge; els had they knowne as
well the crueltie we use to our enemies, as our true love and
courtesie to our friends. And I thinke your judgement sufficient
to conceive, as well by the adventures we have undertaken, as by
the advantage we have (by our Armes) of yours: that had we intended
you any hurt, long ere this we could have effected it. Your people
comming to James Towne are entertained with their Bowes and Arrowes
without any exceptions; we esteeming it with you as it is with us,
to weare our armes as our apparell. As for the danger of our
enemies, in such warres consist our chiefest pleasure: for your
riches we have no use: as for the hiding your provision, or by
your flying to the woods, we shall not so unadvisedly starve as
you conclude, your friendly care in that behalfe is needlesse,
for we have a rule to finde beyond your knowledge.
Many other discourses they had, till at
last they began to trade. But the King seeing his will would not
be admitted as a law, our guard dispersed, nor our men disarmed,
he (sighing) breathed his minde once more in this manner.
Captaine Smith, I never use any Werowance so
kindely as your selfe, yet from you I receive the least kindnesse
of any. Captaine Newport gave me swords, copper, cloathes, a bed,
towels, or what I desired; ever taking what I offered him, and
would send away his gunnes when I intreated him: none doth deny
to lye at my feet, or refuse to doe what I desire, but onely you;
of whom I can have nothing but what you regard not, and yet you
will have whatsoever you demand. Captaine Newport you call father,
and so you call me; but I see for all us both you will doe what
you list, and we must both seeke to content you. But if you intend
so friendly as you say, send hence your armes, that I may beleeve
you; for you see the love I beare you, doth cause me thus nakedly
to forget my selfe.
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
Powhatan 'held this state and fashion when Captain Smith was
delivered to him prisoner'
Smith seeing this Salvage but trifle the time to cut his throat,
procured the salvages to breake the ice, that his Boate might
come to fetch his corne and him: and gave order for more men
to come on shore, to surprise the King, with whom also he but
trifled the time till his men were landed: and to keepe him
from suspicion, entertained the time with this reply.
Powhatan you must know, as I have but one
God, I honour but one King; and I live not here as your subject,
but as your friend to pleasure you with what I can. By the gifts
you bestow on me, you gaine more then by trade: yet would you
visit mee as I doe you, you should know it is not our custome,
to sell our curtesies as a vendible commodity. Bring all your
countrey with you for your guard, I will not dislike it as being
over jealous. But to content you, to morrow I will leave my Armes,
and trust to your promise. I call you father indeed, and as a
father you shall see I will love you: but the small care you
have of such a childe caused my men perswade me to looke to my
It can clearly be seen that, despite his
protestations, Captain Smith held Chief Powhatan in little real
regard, merely biding his time until he was ready to take action
should it be needed.