The Indians living in the area where Jamestown was settled must have had mixed feelings about the
arrival of the English in 1607. One of their first reactions was hostility based on
their previous experience with Spanish explorers along their coastline. They attacked
one of the ships before the English actually landed. Yet the Indians soon began to offer food and
traditional Indian hospitality to the newcomers. At first, Powhatan, leader of a confederation of
tribes around the Chesapeake Bay, hoped to absorb the newcomers through hospitality
and his offerings of food. As the colonists searched for instant wealth, they
neglected planting corn and other work necessary to make their colony self-sufficient. They
therefore grew more and more dependent on the Indians for food.
As the colony's fortunes deteriorated during its first two years,
Captain John Smith's leadership saved the colony. Part of this leadership involved exploring the area
and establishing trade with local Indians. Unfortunately for the Indians, Smith believed
that the English should treat Indians as the Spanish had: to compel them to
"drudgery, work, and slavery," so English colonists could live "like
Soldiers upon the fruit of their labor." Thus, when his negotiations with
Indians for food occasionally failed, Smith took what he wanted by force.
By 1609, Powhatan realized that the English intended to
stay. Moreover, he was disappointed that the English did not return his hospitality nor
would they marry Indian women (an affront from the Native perspective). He knew that the English
"invade my people, possess my country." Indians thus began attacking settlers,
killing their livestock, and burning such crops as they planted. All the while, Powhatan
claimed he simply could not control the young men who were committing these acts without
his knowledge or permission. Keep in mind, however, that Powhatan's reactions and statements
were reported by John Smith, hardly an unbiased observer.
In the next decade, the colonists conducted search and destroy raids on Indian
settlements. They burned Indian villages and their corn crops (ironic, in that the English
were often starving). Both sides committed atrocities against the other. Powhatan was
finally forced into a truce of sorts. Colonists captured Powhatan's favorite daughter,
Pocahontas, who soon married John Rolfe. Their marriage
did help relations between Indians and colonists.
With the reorganization of the colony under Sir Edwin Sandys, liberal land policies led
to dispersion of English settlements along the James River. Increasing cultivation of
tobacco required more land (since tobacco wore out the soil in three or four years) and
clearing forest areas to make land fit for planting. Expanding English settlements meant
more encroachment on Indian lands and somewhat greater contact with Indians. It also
left settlers more vulnerable to Indian attack. By this time, the Indians fully realized
what continued English presence in Virginia meant--more plantations, the felling of more
forests, the killing of more game--in sum, a greater threat to their way of life. The
self-proclaimed humanitarian efforts of people like George Thorpe--who sought to convert Indian children to
Christianity through education--did not help either. Finally, the deaths of Powhatan and
Pocahontas further hastened hostilities.
The Indians, led by Powhatan's brother Opechancanough, bided their time. Pretending
friendship, they were waiting for an opportunity to strike the English and dislodge them
from Virginia. In early 1622, they struck. In all, nearly 350 colonists were killed;
Jamestown itself was saved only by the warning of an Indian Christian convert. One result was an
ever-hardening English attitude toward the Indians. Another was bloody reprisals against
For additional documents related to these topics, it is probably best to focus on John
Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia and Peter Force's collection of tracts. Both these
items are in
The Capital and the Bay.
Another good source of information is the
Records of the Virginia Company, in the
Thomas Jefferson Papers.
In addition to browsing these
sources, use the terms found in the documents to the right of the page.
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