History Files


Colonial Americas

Virginia and the Indians (1606-1608)

by Mick Baker, 24 July 2018

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 investment.

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 which would become Virgina.

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 breakdown).

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).

Map of the Powhatan confederacy AD 1600
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 or tap on map to view full sized)

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'. [1]

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 his companions.

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 fashion.

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.

[1] 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.

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 unknown.

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.

Pocahontas saves Captain John Smith
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

Jamestown Colony

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 European intrusion

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 the English.

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 America.


Online Sources

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.