Virtual Paspahegh Village

Wowinchopunk (fl. 1607‐1611}

Wowinchopunk was the werowance, or chief, of the Paspahegh tribe in the Chesapeake region of Virginia. The Algonquian-speaking Paspahegh were tributaries of Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom, and were likely incorporated into the chiefdom around the turn of the sixteenth century, before the arrival of the English in 1607. Wowinchopunk, described as one of Powhatan’s “mightiest and strongest…champions,” was one of the first Powhatan chiefs to interact with the English, who established their Virginia colony in Paspahegh land on Jamestown Island. Wowinchopunk was recognized by the English as being brave but brash, and was known to openly resent the English settlers’ presence in his lands. Little is known of Wowinchopunk and the Paspahegh tribe as they appear only intermittently in English records. Most of their interactions with the colonists were marked by hostilities, ending with Wowinchopunk’s death at the hands of the English and the dispersal of the surviving Paspahegh in 1611.

The English were welcomed to Powhatan’s Tsenacommacah by Wowinchopunk soon after their arrival to Virginia in late April. On May 4, 1607, the English feasted at Paspahegh as welcomed guests where they were “entertained with much welcome,” listening to, but unable to understand, a speech given by Wowinchopunk. Thinking formal negotiations for Jamestown Island unnecessary, the English set about building their fort on Paspahegh land. Wowinchopunk must have certainly been questioning the motives of the English, who insisted they were visitors without plans for permanent settlement. The chief sent a spying party who arrived quietly by canoe around midnight the first night of the colonists’ settlement, but soon fled after the English guard sounded the alarm. The English had no contact with the Paspahegh for three days, during which Wowinchopunk may have been consulting with Powhatan. Two decorated messengers soon arrived to inform the English that their werowance was coming, and on May 18, Wowinchopunk formally called on the English, bringing with him a deer for a feast and a hundred armed men. The size of Wowinchopunk’s party made the English uneasy, and their entreaties that the werowance and his men be the first to disarm went unheeded. According to George Percy in his 1608 account, the Paspahegh chief promised the English "as much land as we would desire to take," although the general consensus among historians is that such a promise was highly unlikely. Wowinchopunk and his men left quickly and angrily from Jamestown following a small skirmish over an Englishman’s hatchet.

From May 21 to May 27, Captain Christopher Newport led an expedition upriver, the first of many that made the Powhatan wonder whether the English were merely visiting as they claimed, or interested in a more permanent settlement in Virginia. Upon their return to Jamestown, the visiting party learned that four hundred Powhatan warriors had assaulted the fort under the leadership of Wowinchopunk while they were away. The skirmish did not last long; Wowinchopunk and his men withdrew quickly upon receiving English gunfire. The attack left three Indians and one colonist dead and a number of wounded on both sides. The English later discovered that the Paspahegh, Quiyoughcohannock, Weyanock, Appamattuck, and Chiskiack were involved. There is little doubt that Chief Powhatan authorized and coordinated the attack that was directed by Wowinchopunk. Given that the Paspahegh had long-established feuds with a number of tribes they fought alongside, as well as Wowinchopunk’s meager force of forty warriors, the Paspahegh chief lacked the political capital to inspire the 150-350 men of the other tribes to join in the attack. Powhatan discovered a wealth of information about the English through the attack, much of which was worrisome. As for the English, within thirteen days of their arrival on Jamestown Island, they had inadvertently offended their closest neighbors, the Paspahegh, and possibly turned most of the more distant Powhatan tribes into enemies.

Following the raid on May 27, the Paspahegh and the English fell into a short-lived peace following Powhatan’s June order that raiding of the English was to cease. Wowinchopunk and the Paspahegh appear only intermittently in the English record during the whole of 1608, including a brief skirmish in the spring following the resuming of Paspahegh harassment and filching of tools at Jamestown fort. When the English took hostages to exchange for their stolen goods, the Paspahegh retaliated by capturing two straggling Englishmen for their own hostages. The English escalated tensions by burning and raiding several Paspahegh towns. Wowinchopunk soon released the two Englishmen; in return the English released one Indian prisoner but kept the rest, in order to determine who their true enemies were. It was not until Powhatan personally intervened with a gift of corn that the remaining Indians were released.

Indian men, likely Paspahegh, continued to harass the English in the spring and summer of 1609. In one skirmish John Smith, then President of the colony, and Wowinchopunk attempt to drown one another in the river. Tensions escalate during the “starving winter” of 1609-10 when the Paspahegh refuse to trade with the English. The colonists manage to capture Wowinchopunk and held him prisoner at Jamestown fort. His wives, children, and subjects visited him often in prison and at length Wowinchopunk was able to escape. Smith retaliated by raiding nearby Paspahegh villages, killing several men in the process.

In May of 1610, an English supply fleet under the care of the newly appointed Virginia governor, Lord De la Warr, arrived at Jamestown. The hungry and desperate colonists had abandoned the fort . But the De la Warr relief ship convinced them to return. De la Warr proved harsher and more militant than his predecessors, to the detriment of Wowinchopunk and the surviving Paspahegh. De la Warr sent messengers to Powhatan on July 15, offering peace and friendship if Powhatan ceased his hostilities and returned all English captives and weapons, or an open confrontation if he refused. Powhatan responded by telling the English to either keep their activities confined to Jamestown or to get out of Virginia.

Outraged, De la Warr had the hand of a captured Paspahegh Indian cut off and sent back to Powhatan with a final warning. The English governor received no answer.

On August 9, 1610, he sent George Percy and seventy men to the Paspahegh’s largest town, home to about forty adult able-bodied men. The colonists put “some fifteen or sixteen to the sword,” and shot others. They set the village on fire and cut down all the growing corn they could find. A wife of Wowinchopunk and her children were captured and taken with the English when they retreated. In a grisly move, the English decided to kill the royal children by throwing them overboard and shooting them in the water. The queen was killed by sword upon the return to Jamestown. Wowinchopunk and the survivors abandoned their villages permanently, and the tribe never recovered from one of the most infamous examples of English brutality in the history of Jamestown.

Wowinchopunk, described by the colonists as one of Powhatan’s greatest warriors, was killed in a skirmish with the English in February of 1611, after a colonist “thrust him twice through the body with an arming sword.” His followers avenged his death by killing several Englishmen, but the loss of Wowinchopunk to both his remaining people and Powhatan was likely deeply felt. The Paspahegh history ends with that of their chief, as the remnants of Wowinchopunk’s people appear to have merged with other chiefdoms following his death.

Sources and Further Reading

Fausz, J. Frederick. “’An Abundance of Bloodshed on Both Sides’: England’s First Indian War, 16091614.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98, no. 1 (January 1990): 3-56.

Percy, George. Observations Gathered Out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southern Colony of Virginia by the English, 1606. In Edward Wright Haile, ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, The First Decade: 1607-1617. Champlain, VA: RoundHouse, 1998.

Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Shifflett, Crandall, “Timeline of Pashegh-English Interaction,” Virtual Jamestown,” retrieved 9 January 2014.

Smith, John. A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia [1608]. In Edward Wright Haile, ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, The First Decade: 1607-1617. Champlain, VA: RoundHouse, 1998.

Strachey, William. The History of Travel into Virginia Britannia: The First Book of the First Decade [1612]. In Edward Wright Haile, ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, The First Decade: 1607-1617. Champlain, VA: RoundHouse, 1998.

Townshend, Camilla. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

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