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Presentation U.S. History Primary Source Timeline

Virginia's Early Relations with Native Americans

Those 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 they soon began to offer food and 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 indigenous people for food.

Discovery and Exploration

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 people. Unfortunately for the Native Americans, Smith believed that the English should treat them 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 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 Native American women. He knew that the English "invade my people, possess my country." Native Americans 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 Native American settlements. They burned villages and 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 Native Americans 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 Native American lands and somewhat greater contact with Native Americans. It also left settlers more vulnerable to attack. By this time, the Native American 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 Native Americans, 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 Native American Christian convert. One result was an ever-hardening English attitude toward the Native American. Another was bloody reprisals against local tribes.

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.