The Third Anglo-Powhatan War

The third Anglo-Powhatan war (1644 to 1646) started with a large, coordinated strike by Powhatan warriors against the Virginia colonists. Several outlying settlements were struck with the Powhatan killing and/or capturing between 400 and 500 English settlers. At this time, there were 8,000 to 10,000 English colonists in Virginia.

The Powhatan, an alliance of several groups, were led by the elderly Opechancanough who was about 100 years old at this time. Opechancanough had also led the early 1622 Powahatan war against the English.

The English had established Jamestown as a mercantile venture in 1607. Since that time, tobacco had become an important export crop, so the English demand for increasing amounts of good farm land had increased. Ignoring the fact that the Indian nations of Virginia were agricultural, the newly arrived colonists simply assumed that the Indian fields were somehow “vacant” and available to them.

From the Powhatan perspective, the coordinated attacks against settlements which had encroached in their territory were meant to send a message to the English. In his book Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia, anthropologist Frederick Gleach writes: “Like his earlier attack, the 1644 coup can be best understood as an attempt by Opechancanough to correct the colonists’ inappropriate behavior and to stay their ceaseless expansion.”

The English colonists responded to the attacks by declaring a general war against the Powhatan. All private trade with the Powhatan was to be terminated. The Virginia Assembly felt that the Indians had obtained guns, powder, and shot through private trade. However, it was soon apparent that the colonists needed the trade in order to survive: without Indian corn they would starve. In 1645, the Assembly allowed authorized agents to trade with the Indians in order to obtain the badly needed grain.

The colonists attacked the Pamunkey and Chickahominy, two tribes affiliated with the Powhatan alliance. The Weyanocks, fearing English attacks, moved south of the Blackwater Swamp and purchased land from the Tuscarora.

In 1646, the General Assembly authorized a force under Lieutentant Francis Poythers to find Openchancanough and press for peace. Poythers, a trader with general knowledge of Virginia Indians, had experience in dealing with Opechancanough regarding land claims. Poythers, however, was unable to find Opechancanough.

A force led by Governor Berkley and aided by Rappahannock and Accomac allies manage to capture Openchancanough between the falls of the Appomattox and James rivers. At this time, the elderly Indian leader was unable to walk unaided. The English treated Opechancanough as a side show, displaying him to curious English colonists. The Indian leader, however, maintained his dignity and upbraided the English commander for the English’s lack of respect. The English commander then ordered that Opechancanough be treated with the dignity befitting his station.

The English governor considered sending Openchancanough to England where His Majesty would be presented with a royal prisoner (the English considered Indians chiefs to be royalty, not understanding any of the concepts of Indian government). Before a decision regarding his fate could be made, one of the guards took matters into his own hands and shot the elderly leader in the back. The wound proved to be fatal.

Hundreds of Indians who had been captured by the English during the Third Anglo-Powhatan War were sold into slavery.

With the death of Opechancanough, Necotowance assumed leadership of the Powhatan alliance and negotiated a new treaty with the English. This treaty was the first time Necotowance’s name appeared in the English written records and there is no indication that the English had ever had any previous dealings with him.

The peace treaty between the English colonists and the Powhattan called for the removal of the Powhatan Confederacy to an area north of the York River. Necotowance signed the treaty as “king of the Indians.” The treaty established a pattern of removing Indian nations away from the invading Europeans as a strategy to reduce the conflict between the two groups.

The Second Anglo-Powhatan War

The years after the 1614 treaty between the English and the Chickahominy were relatively peaceful. During this time the English colonists in Jamestown expanded their tobacco raising enterprises, often appropriating Indian corn fields for this export crop.

In 1618, Wahunsonacock (also known as The Powhatan) died. There was a leadership struggle among the Powhatan and Opechancanoe emerged as the new leader of the confederacy.

Concerned about the increasing use of guns by the Powhatan, in 1618 the English decreed that Indians were not to be taught to shoot guns. The decree mandated death for both teacher and student. The following year, a death penalty was established for anyone selling guns to the Indians.

In 1621, the Reverend Jonas Stockam preached that the only way of bringing the gospel to the Indians was to kill the elders: “till their Priests and Ancients have their throats cut, there is no hope of bringing them to conversion.”

The flash point that started the Second Anglo-Powhatan War centered around Nemattanew (Jack of the Feathers), the charismatic war chief of the Pamunkey. Nemattanew would go to war covered with feathers and with swans’ wings attached to his shoulders. In some instances, he would bewitch enemy warriors, including the English soldiers.  He had been revitalizing native culture and warrior traditions, preparing them for combat against muskets. He was thought to be invulnerable to bullets.

The starting point of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War is generally traced to 1622 when Nemattanew persuaded an Englishman named Morgan to go to Pamunkey to trade. This was the last anyone saw of Morgan. A few days later, however, Nemattanew went to Morgan’s house and informed the two young male servants there that Morgan was dead. The young men noticed that Nemattanew was wearing Morgan’s hat and they tried to take him to the authorities. When he refused, they shot him. As he was dying, he asked the young men not to reveal how he died.

Opechancanough was upset when news of Nemattanew’s death reached him and he vowed revenge. However, it also seems that he had been planning his attack on the English colonists for over a year. The death of Nemattanew simply provided an additional excuse for the war.

Two weeks after Nemattanew’s death, the Indians entered into the English villages, just as they often had in the past, bringing them presents of food. The next morning, they joined the colonists for breakfast and even joined them in working the fields. The Indians had come unarmed so there was little concern among the colonists. Then the Indians picked up the colonists’ tools and guns and began an unprecedented slaughter, killing men, women, and children. By the day’s end, 350 English colonists—one-fourth of the colony’s total population—were dead. The official count was 347 dead, but after its dissolution, the Virginia Company indicated that about 400 were slain.

Jamestown was not attacked. According to some accounts, often told a couple of centuries after the war, Christian Indians had warned the Jamestown colonists of the coming attack. The official account of the attacks, written shortly afterwards, makes no mention of this warning. In the nineteenth century histories of the colony, an Indian boy named Chanco is credited with warning the colonists, and yet no contemporary accounts of the colony make mention of this name.

The attack took the English by surprise and many argued that this strategy had been so clever that it could not have been masterminded by Indians and credited the Spanish with engineering it. There was, however, no evidence that the Spanish were involved.

The English retaliated with a series of raids on the Indians. Instructions from London to the Virginia colonies called for a perpetual war to exterminate the Indians and the Governor of Virginia issued a directive to rob, hunt down, and kill the Indians of the area. Military commanders were ordered not to make peace on any terms. Writing in the Handbook of North American Indians, Wilcomb Washburn notes: “the attack provided a ready-made justification for waging perpetual war (as Christian legal theory allowed against infidels) against any and all Indians. Too often the rules of honor were abandoned in the process.”

The Powhatan did not plan on engaging in a protracted war. They made their attacks, suffered few losses, and then did not make further assaults on the colonists. Unlike European warfare, Indian warfare was not about extermination. From an Indian perspective, the colonists were unruly and not behaving according to the natural laws that governed Indian conduct. The attacks were intended to simply teach the colonists a lesson. The goal was to restrict them to a small territory, to put an end to Christian proselytizing, and to demonstrate Powhatan power. By attacking only the outlying colonies and not Jamestown itself, the Powhatan attempted to show the English that these settlements were inappropriate.

The English colonists, of course, misinterpreted the message. They continued to view themselves as being endowed by their religion to occupy the lands of others, to convert them, and to rule all non-Christian nations.


Virginia and the Indians, 1606 to 1608

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 characterized 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 to 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 to sell the Indians manufactured goods and textiles. In addition, the Company planned to search for gold and to exploit the timber resources of the region.

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 120 British settlers into Chesapeake Bay who established a colony at Jamestown. At this time there were an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Indians living in the area that would become Virgina. The major tribal confederacy in the area was the Powhatan (also spelled Powhattan), an Algonquian-speaking confederacy of about 30 tribes (some sources indicate as many as 43 tribes). These tribes included the Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Rappahannock. The alliance of these tribes had formed in the late 1500s, just prior to the English invasion, by a Pamunkey chief named Wahunsonacock. His capital was located at the falls of the James River in Virginia. This was called Powhatan which means “Falls of the River” and thus the allied tribes were known as the Powhatan. To confuse the matter a bit, Wahunsonacok was also called The Powhatan or simply Powhatan.

Captain John Smith led a small party up the Chickahominy River. The English were attacked by about 200 Pamunkey warriors who captured Smith and killed his companions. The Pamunkey, under the leadership of Opechancanough, were a part of the larger Powhatan Confederacy. Smith was taken before the dominant chief, Powhatan, 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 saved his life (she was about 10 years old at the time). He told this story only after the death of Pocahontas and after she had gained some fame among 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.

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 traveled 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.

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 new trade item 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 realized that Powhatan led a confederacy of about 30 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 on the 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 English explorers made contact with an Algonquian-speaking group whom they called Tockwogh (possibly the Nanticoke?). With the help of the Tockwogh, 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 60 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 rumors 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.

Lost Identity

I was born in Hampton, Virginia. I lived in Newport News, Virginia until the age of seven. My story starts as a young child with horrible night terrors. My dreams have always played a large role in my life. I remember playing long hours then laying down on my couch and just going into a deep meditation. I remember it clearly. Everything was black, except for lines of color, mostly greens and pink swirling. I remember at the age of four going into one of these deep trances and trying to “remember who I am”. Trying to before my birth.

Aside from that, I remember the night terrors. Dark, evil dreams that to this day disturb me. My Mother tried everything. Painting a cat on my bed to “watch over me”. When that failed they purchased a new bed. Finally, my Grandfather told my Mom that she should make a dream catcher with me. You see, my Grandfather was part Cherokee and French. Except, he tried to hold on to as much Cherokee culture as he can.

The dream catcher was the only thing that worked. I remember one dream in particular. I was standing in a dark catacomb. Terrified. Then a monk entered the doorway and told me “remember you are asleep”. I was age four. Ever since then, I have been able to lucid dream. I believe that “monk” was my spirit guide.

I also believe that the location of my birth and early childhood was no coincidence. Growing up there. Jamestown and the surrounding cities on the James River. I remember learning about it and going on field trips in school. I wore my moccasins that my family got while visiting Oklahoma. (I got to feed a black bear in a cage, I remember loving on him and feeling sad that he was pinned up. I remember looking into his eyes and my Mothers fear to let me close. I had no fear though.)

Anyways, I learned about Jamestown when I was in school, age 6. I learned about my own heritage, Cherokee, English, French and Irish. I remember being filled with anger. I remember my love for nature and for animals.

My entire life people have caught me speaking to animals, mostly my cats, and they tell me “Becky, it’s JUST a cat”. I’ve always been angered about that. How people look at non-human beings as if they are things and not sacred life forms. I look into the eyes of an animal, and I see a being that is on a higher plane than we are.

This post is really jumbled. But there are so many things that have always circled my mind. Our mandalas and art depicting the Trail of Tears hangs in my families den….yet….they’ve become nothing but decoration. Many nights, when everyone is asleep, I go into the den and look at the mandalas and art. I think what they mean. I think about my Grandfather. His gift with plants. And his silent but obvious clinging to that side of our ancestry.

I have looked up my ancestry on my Fathers side. Apparently, Norweigan Vikings that settled in England. One of my ancestors, William Jarrett, was the man who helped John Smith with the plans on how to revive the Jamestown colony. Except, he was a pirate. So no credit went to my family lol. Except when they took land in Virginia and named it “Jarratt Virginia”.

My Father says that he has no Native American blood. I don’t think that is correct. Reading the stories of our ancestors, they were highly involved in the first settlements of Virginia. It would be nearly impossible if they did not mix with Powhatan. However, it’s highly probable that they did but it is forgotten as most Native American heritage, culture and identity have been forgotten.

Killed off.

Blotted out.

Erased from history.

Except that it lingers in the DNA of many people who have found themselves connected to the land, the plants, the animals and a great mystery that lingers within them, even from a very early age.