Jamestown: English Settlers in the Land of the Powhatan

Imagine you come home from school to find that, without your permission or knowledge, someone has begun building a new home in your backyard.  When you confront them about this, they defend their right to do so – saying the space was just empty, grass and trees.  You clearly weren’t using it anyway…
This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

A For Profit Colony

Virginia Map
The 1608 grant to the Virginia Company of London “from sea to sea” is shown demarcated in red.

The Virginia Company of London was an English joint-stock company established in 1606 by royal charter by King James I with the purpose of establishing colonial settlements in North America.  A charter was a license granted by the king granting a person, company, or group the authority to do something.  In this case, the king granted a huge chunk of North America to the Virginia Company for the purposes of colonization, as the charter said, from “sea-to-sea” – despite the fact that the continent was already known to be populated by large numbers of Native Americans.  While the new colony would be English territory, the charter gave almost complete control of colonial government to the Virginia Company.  This was a for-profit business, first and foremost.

A joint-stock company is a business arrangement that allows many individuals to pool their savings together to undertake a large project – in this case, the colonization of North America, which would hopefully yield the kind of gold and silver that had come out of the Spanish conquest of South and Central America.  Depending on the success of the colony, each investor would receive profit based on the shares he had bought. This investment was less risky than starting an English colony from scratch.

Virginia and Jamestown

detail.jpegThe area laid out in the royal charter was named Virginia, after both the organizing Virginia Company of London and Queen Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen.” Founded in 1607, the first settlement – a small triangular fort populated by about 100 settlers at the mouth of the James River – was named after King James I.  Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the Americas.

The English settlement at Jamestown was established on May 24, 1607, with the arrival of three ships commanded by Captain Christopher Newport. The initial small group of 104 men and boys chose the location because it was favorable for defensive purposes, but it offered poor hunting prospects and a shortage of drinking water.  The island was swampy and isolated, and it offered limited space, was plagued by mosquitoes, and afforded only brackish tidal river water unsuitable for drinking.  Although they did some farming, few of the original settlers were accustomed to manual labor or familiar with farming. Hunting on the island was poor, and they quickly exhausted the supply of small game. The colonists were largely dependent upon trade with the Native Americans and periodic supply ships from England for their food.

A series of incidents with the Native Americans soon developed into serious conflicts, ending any hope of a commercial alliance with them. This forced the settlers into close quarters, behind fortified walls, severely limiting their ability to farm the area and trade with other Indian tribes. Various attempts at farming led to kidnappings and killings by the Powhatans, while expeditions to establish relations with other Native Americans resulted either in the emissaries being ambushed and killed by the Powhatans, or proved fruitless in gaining sufficient supplies. The combination of disease, killings, and kidnapping almost obliterated the initial English population.

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Salt marshes along Jamestown Island. The ample wetlands on the island proved to be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

In addition, Virginia’s first government was weak, and its individuals frequently quarreled over policies. The colonists frantically searched for gold, silver, and gems, ignoring their own sicknesses.  Made up of townsmen and adventurers more interested in finding gold than farming, the group was unequipped by temperament or ability to embark upon a completely new life in the wilderness.  Indian raids further weakened defense and unification, and Jamestown began to die off. By the winter of 1609-1610, also known as the Starving Time, only 60 settlers remained from the original 500 passengers.   The famine during that harsh winter forced the colonists to eat leather from their clothes and boots and resort to cannibalism.

Describing the Starving Time, George Percy, a president of the Jamestown colony recalled: “Now all of us at James Town, beginning to feel that sharp prick of hunger, which no man [can] truly describe but he which hath tasted the bitterness thereof. A world of miseries ensued . . . [and] some, to satisfy their hunger, have robbed the store, for the which I caused them to be executed. Then having fed upon horses and other beasts as long as they lasted, we were glad to make shift with vermin, as dogs, cats, rats, and mice. All was fish that came to net to satisfy cruel hunger, as to eat boots, shoes, or any other leather some could come by. And those being spent and devoured, some were enforced to search the woods and to feed upon serpents and snakes and to dig the earth for wild and unknown roots, where many of our men were cut off and slain by the [Indians]. And now famine beginning to look ghastly and pale in every face that nothing was spared to maintain life and to do those things which seem incredible …” 

Jamestown DiagramTwo men helped the colony to survive: John Smith and John Rolfe. Smith, who arrived in Virginia in 1608, introduced an ultimatum: those who did not work would not receive food or pay. The colonists at last learned how to raise crops and trade with the nearby Indians, with whom Smith had made peace.

In 1612, the English businessman John Rolfe discovered that Virginia had ideal conditions for growing tobacco. This discovery, and the breeding of a new, “sweeter” strain, led to the plant becoming the colony’s major cash crop. With English demand for tobacco rising, Virginia had found a way to support itself economically.

New plantations began growing up all along the James River.

Prosperity did not come quickly, however, and the death rate from disease and Indian attacks remained extraordinarily high. Between 1607 and 1624 approximately 14,000 people migrated to the colony, yet by 1624, there were only 1,132 living there.

The Powhatan

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Powhatan in a longhouse at Werowocomoco (detail of John Smith map, 1612).

The Powhatan Confederacy was where the English made their first permanent settlement in North America.  It was ruled at the time by Wahunsunacawh (known to the English as Chief Powhatan).

According to research by the National Park Service, Powhatan “men were warriors and hunters, while women were gardeners and gatherers. The English described the men, who ran and walked extensively through the woods in pursuit of enemies or game, as tall and lean and possessed of handsome physiques. The women were shorter, and were strong because of the hours they spent tending crops, pounding corn into meal, gathering nuts, and performing other domestic chores. When the men undertook extended hunts, the women went ahead of them to construct hunting camps. The Powhatan domestic economy depended on the labor of both sexes.”

The Powhatan lived east of the Fall Line in Tidewater Virginia. They built their houses, called yehakins, by bending saplings and placing woven mats or bark over top of the saplings. They supported themselves primarily by growing crops, especially maize (corn), but they also fished and hunted in the great forest in their area. Villages consisted of a number of related families organized in tribes led by a chief (weroance/werowance or weroansqua if female). They paid tribute to the paramount chief (mamanatowick), Wahunsunacawh.

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Reconstructed Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement living-history museum.

All of Virginia’s natives practiced agriculture. They periodically moved their villages from site to site. Villagers cleared the fields by felling, girdling, or firing trees at the base and then using fire to reduce the slash and stumps. A village became unusable as soil productivity gradually declined and local fish and game were depleted. The inhabitants then moved on. With every change in location, the people used fire to clear new land. They left more cleared land behind. The natives also used fire to maintain extensive areas of open game habitat throughout the East, later called “barrens” by European colonists. The Powhatan also had rich fishing grounds. Bison had migrated to this area by the early 15th century.

English settlers in the land of the Powhatan

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Conflicts began immediately between the Powhatan people and the English; the English colonists fired shots as soon as they arrived (due to a bad experience they had with the Spanish prior to their arrival). Within two weeks of the English arrival at Jamestown, deaths had occurred.

The settlers had hoped for friendly relations and had planned to trade with the Virginia Indians for food. Captain Christopher Newport led the first English exploration party up the James River in 1607, when he met Parahunt, weroance of the Powhatan proper. The English initially mistook him for the paramount Powhatan (mamanatowick), his father Wahunsunacawh, who ruled the confederacy.

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Captain John Smith led a colorful life, even if his biography sometimes exaggerated his adventures.

On a hunting and trade mission on the Chickahominy River in December 1607, only seven months after building the fort on Jamestown Island, Captain John Smith, later president of the colony, was captured by Opechancanough, the younger brother of Wahunsunacawh. Smith became the first Englishman to meet the paramount chief Powhatan.

Captain John Smith imagined that someday the Virginia Indians would be doing all the work for the English, but Powhatan envisioned something different: he wanted Smith and the colonists to forsake the swamp and instead live in one of his satellite towns called Capahosick where they would make metal tools for him in exchange for full provision. 

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In this chromolithograph credited to the New England Chromo. Lith. Company, around 1870, Pocahontas saves the life of John Smith. The scene is idealized and relies on stereotypes of Native Americans rather than reliable information about the particulars of this historical moment. There are no mountains in Tidewater Virginia, for example, and the Powhatans lived not in tipis but in thatched houses. And the scene that Smith famously described in his Generall Historie (1624) did not take place outdoors but in a longhouse.

Much later, when Smith was writing a book about his life, he claimed that during his captivity, Pocahontas, Chief Wahunsunacawh’s daughter, had dramatically saved him from Powhatan’s clubs, but historians differ as to whether or not this was propaganda, or an actual native ritual. Smith’s capture represented just an example of the diplomatic strategies employed by Wahunsunacawh to make the English cooperate with and contribute to his expanding control in this region. Smith was released when he falsely promised to move the colony to Capahosick, just as the chief wished.

BONUS INFO: Six Inaccuracies in Disney’s Pocahontas

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The Coronation of Powhatan, oil on canvas, John Gadsby Chapman, 1835.

In 1608, the leaders of Jamestown realized that Powhatan’s friendship was crucial to the survival of the small Jamestown colony. In the summer of that year, he tried to “crown” the paramount Chief, with a ceremonial crown, to make him an English “vassal.” They also gave Powhatan many European gifts, such as a pitcher, feather mattress, bed frame, and clothes. The coronation went badly because they asked Powhatan to kneel to receive the crown, which he refused to do. As a powerful leader, Powhatan followed two rules: “he who keeps his head higher than others ranks higher,” and “he who puts other people in a vulnerable position, without altering his own stance, ranks higher.” To finish the “coronation”, several English had to lean on Powhatan’s shoulders to get him low enough to place the crown on his head, as he was a tall man. Afterwards, the English might have thought that Powhatan had submitted to King James, whereas Powhatan likely thought nothing of the sort.

After John Smith became president of the colony, he sent a force to occupy an island in Nansemond territory and drive the inhabitants away. At the same time, he sent another force to build a fort at the James River falls. He purchased a nearby fortified Powhatan village (present site of Richmond, Virginia) from another chief named Parahunt for some copper. Smith then renamed the village “Nonsuch,” and tried to persuade English colonists to live in it. Both these attempts at settling beyond Jamestown soon failed due to Powhatan resistance. Smith left Virginia for England in October 1609, never to return, because of an injury sustained in a gunpowder accident.

From Charter Colony to Royal Colony

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Portrait of Pocahontas, wearing a tall hat in the English style of the early 1600s.  After her baptism and marriage, her name was changed to Rebecca.

Prosperous and wealthy from his investment in the new tobacco trade, John Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, bringing several years of peace between the English and natives. However, at the end of a public relations trip to England, Pocahontas became sick and died on March 21, 1617. The following year, her father also died. Powhatan’s brother, a fierce warrior named Opchanacanough, became head of the Powhatan Confederacy. As the English continued to appropriate more land for tobacco farming, relations with the natives worsened.

After several years of strained coexistence, Chief Opchanacanough and his Powhatan Confederacy attempted to eliminate the English colony once and for all. On the morning of March 22, 1622, they attacked outlying plantations and communities up and down the James River in what became known as the Indian Massacre of 1622. More than 300 settlers were killed in the attack, about a third of the colony’s English-speaking population.

The remarkable death rate, as well as the high demand for cheap labor created by the booming tobacco industry, meant that recruiting new colonists was at times challenging to say the least.  Most any colonist who could afford the journey had little interest in personally performing the hard labor that tobacco cultivation demanded.

Due to the high cost of the transatlantic voyage at this time, many English settlers came to Jamestown as indentured servants: in exchange for the passage, room, board, and the promise of land or money, these immigrants would agree to work for three to seven years.  Along with European indentured servants, around 20 African slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619. These slaves were captives taken from a ship headed for Mexico. Though these Africans started in Jamestown as slaves, some were able to obtain the status of indentured servant later in life.

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An artist’s depiction of the arrival of the first African slaves in Jamestown, 1619.

Also in 1619, Virginia set up the House of Burgesses, the first elected legislative assembly in America. It marked the beginnings of self-government, replacing the martial law that was previously imposed on the colonists.

However, in 1624, King James revoked the Virginia Company’s charter, and Virginia became a royal colony. Its charter was transferred from the Virginia Company to the Crown of England, which meant that Jamestown was now a colony run by the English monarchy. While the House of Burgesses was still allowed to run the government, the king also appointed a royal governor to settle disputes and enforce certain British policies.

Another large-scale “Indian attack” occurred in 1644. In 1646, Opchanacanough was captured and while in custody an English guard shot him in the back—against orders—and killed him. Subsequently, the Powhatan Confederacy began to decline. Opechancanough’s successor signed the first peace treaties between the Powhatan Indians and the English. The treaties required the Powhatan to pay yearly tribute payment to the English and confined them to reservations.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. Early America
  2. Transatlantic Encounters and Colonial Beginnings (1492 – 1620)
  3. Jamestown, Virginia
  4. Powhatan

 

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