What did the Powhatan know about Europeans before the English landed?
Contact with Europeans began in the early 16th century when French and Spanish ships sailed the Chesapeake Bay. In the mid-16th century, an Englishman on board a French privateer described a “very good bay” at about 37 degrees latitude. A Virginia Indian was taken from his home about the year 1560 and sent on a ship to strange lands. His Spanish captors gave him a new name, Don Luis. For ten years he lived in their culture and learned their ways. He may have shown them that his own culture was not as backward or uncivilized as some of them thought.
Don Luis left this culture behind him when he was taken and forced to live among the Spanish for ten years in their various capitals – Mexico City, Madrid, and Havana. In 1570 he was asked by missionaries to assist them in establishing a mission in his home territory. He accompanied a group of Jesuits to the peninsula between what is now the James and York Rivers in coastal plain Virginia. But he soon went back to his own people, leaving the Jesuits to fend for themselves. When the priests’ food supply ran out, they asked Don Luis to help them. His response was to have his people kill the Jesuits, sparing only one boy. A Spanish military expedition retrieved this boy in 1572, and nothing more is known about Don Luis thereafter.
Powhatan was certainly aware of these foreign intruders within and on the edges of his territory. Their presence, along with the alarming prophecy of destruction by invaders, undoubtedly influenced his attitude toward the Jamestown settlers who sailed into Tsenacommacah in 1607.