What was the relationship between the Powhatan and the English?
From the time of their arrival, the English settlers at Jamestown faced food shortages and even starvation, due in part to the new climate and their lack of experience and manpower to grow crops in Virginia. Recent scientific investigation has yielded evidence to show that there also may have been a period of severe drought around the time of settlement, which could have affected the ability of both the colonists and the Powhatans to grow food. Other sources indicate it was the drinking brackish river water (a mixture of fresh and salt water), which caused them to be more susceptible to illnesses such as typhoid and dysentery that proved to be the principal cause of the settlers’ sicknesses and death. Before the end of September 1607, an epidemic swept the settlement and left almost half of the 104 men and boys dead. By January 1608, fewer than forty survived. The colony was on the brink of collapse. In addition, two of their leaders, Captain Newport and Bartholomew Gosnold were gone, Newport having sailed for England in June and Gosnold having perished in August. During this time, there were no further Indian attacks. Not only were there no further attacks, the neighboring Indians brought food to the dwindling population in the fort. This turn of events, in all likelihood, saved the depleted and sickly Englishmen from perishing.
The years that followed were filled with similar hardships for the settlers, who were still trying to adapt to their new environment. They were also characterized by overtures from the Powhatans, who periodically shared their agricultural methods and assisted them through trade of food supplies. The winter of 1609- 10, known as “the starving time”, was especially harsh, and relations between the English and the Powhatans were strained. The Powhatans had literally laid siege to the fort, which made it impossible for the settlers to find food other than what provisions they had within the fort. In May 1610, when two English ships arrived at Jamestown, only 60 people were still alive. This was all who were left of the approximately 350 present the preceding October. Once again, the English had survived a near-disaster.
The interdependence of the English and the Powhatans many times seemed one-sided when the English were in desperate need of food and that provided by the local Indians was the only thing between their survival and their demise. The Powhatans’ understanding of the environment and geography was also very important to the Jamestown settlers in mapping the region. For their part, the Powhatans, though wary of the motivations of the English, were very interested in barter, especially in acquiring guns, hatchets, lead musket balls, metal tools and European copper. In addition to the corn they needed from the Indians, the English later came to desire local animal furs, especially beaver pelts, which were then exported to England for use in felt hat production. The colonists learned that the Powhatans wanted English cloth, especially wool, because they did not have comparable materials from which to make clothing and blankets. The Powhatans were accustomed to using traditional stone, shell or bone tools, but soon found that English-made metal tools were more durable and held a sharp edge longer. The strong desire for trade on the part of both parties fueled the off-and-on relationship for years to come. The Indians and settlers understood each other’s needs and desires well enough for successful barter in small-scale items, but their ideas about land ownership and use posed more significant obstacles. The Powhatans did not interpret the concept of “selling” land in the same way as the English purchasers. When the Powhatans continued to hunt on land that the English considered their possession, conflict was a common result.
Captain John Smith had much success initially in obtaining food, farming advice, and geographical knowledge from the Powhatans. Indeed, the fact that the colony managed to survive at all was in large part due to the ability of Smith to speak and negotiate with the Indian tribes. However, by early 1609, his tactics became more aggressive and his tenure with the colony was not long, as an injury sustained in a gunpowder explosion caused him to return to England in the fall of 1609. After his departure, hostility grew between the English and the Powhatans. With the development of new settlements over the next four years, the English began pushing the Powhatans off their land, which fronted the rivers. Fighting between the groups was common, with raids on each other’s land and kidnappings. As more plantations were established along the James River after 1616, relations continued to deteriorate, with both cultures claiming use of the land.
Almost from the first interactions between the two cultures, both groups used hostages or sent intermediaries to learn one another’s languages in order to serve as interpreters. It was hoped that this would encourage “good behavior” on both sides. Nothing seemed to work for very long. The 1613 kidnapping of Pocahontas, a daughter of Wahunsonacock, her baptism as “Rebecca” and her eventual marriage to John Rolfe in 1614 are perhaps the most famous of these interactions. A period of relative calm between the English and the Powhatans did occur after these events.
After Wahunsonacock died in 1618, his brother Opechancanough became ruler. Opechancanough worked to win the trust of the settlers, entering into agreements for land and reciprocal defense, among other things. In reality, Opechancanough believed that the English had treated his people like a subjugated nation – collecting payment of tribute in corn and, in some cases, reducing them to dependence by removing them from their lands. Opechancanough was patient and waited until the time was right. In 1622, he led the first coordinated attack on several English plantations, killing more than 300 of the 1,200 colonists. Jamestown was warned and escaped destruction. This led to a decade of open warfare, culminating in a treaty in 1632. A decade of tenuous peace followed.
Prior to these attacks in 1622, the Virginia Company had dramatically increased the number of colonists sent to Virginia every year, and the population had tripled within three years, threatening Powhatan territory between the York and James Rivers. By 1622, Indians were forced to move inland away from their traditional river valley homes. The lack of communication that existed between the two groups in 1607 did not improve sufficiently to bridge cultural differences as deep and sensitive as land ownership. As a result of the treaty in 1632, the English tried to limit contact between the Indians and the colonists, including limiting trade. In 1646, after a second Indian uprising and the death of more than 400 colonists, the Powhatans suffered a final defeat and signed a formal peace treaty with the Virginia government. This treaty barred the Indians from traveling on the James-York peninsula.
By mid-century, the Powhatans were confined to land north of the York River, without access to their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Smaller tribal groups merged with larger ones, losing their independent identity. In spite of this, the Powhatan Indians overcame many obstacles, including years of discrimination, and learned to adapt in order to survive. Most importantly, they maintained their cultural pride and an Indian presence in Virginia that continues to the present day with eight recognized tribes in Virginia. These include seven Powhatan tribes – Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Nansemond, Pamunkey, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi – and the Monacan Nation.