Jamestown Interpretive Essays

Indians and English Meet on the James

Karen Ordahl Kupperman
Professor of History
New York University

When Jamestown was founded in 1607 many of the English settlers were new to transatlantic projects and unsure of what to expect. However, the Pamunkeys among whom they settled were very knowledgeable about the opportunities and dangers posed by the European presence. For almost a century ships had been in and out of Chesapeake Bay. One had taken a young Pamunkey man with them and this man, baptized as Don Luís de Velasco, had spent a decade with Dominicans in Spain, Havana, and Mexico City before he returned to the James River in the company of Jesuit missionaries in 1571. The mission, which posed a fundamental threat to Pamunkey culture, was soon destroyed and Don Luís returned to his own people. Through his lore the Pamunkeys acquired detailed knowledge of Europeans and their capacities.
Roanoke, the first English colony in North America, was abandoned twenty years before Jamestown's founding. Some of the settlers may have made their way to Chesapeake Bay, and they would have added to Pamunkeys' transatlantic knowledge. Earlier reports from Roanoke, especially Thomas Harriot's Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, published in 1590 with engravings of John White's paintings of the coastal Carolina Algonquians, had prepared English migrants for the complex societies they would meet in Virginia. (1) And the Roanoke record also contained a warning about a formidable tribe on the great bay to the north, the Pamunkeys and their great leader Powhatan.
Both Americans and English thus came to the founding of Jamestown with some knowledge and some assumptions about the other. The English had been taught to think of the Americans as accomplished people living in highly developed societies. It was the Indians' accomplishments that made colonization feasible in English eyes. They knew they would rely on native crops for their food and they hoped for native products to be obtained in trade to pay their costs. Moreover, the advanced nature of Indian societies was the best indicator of the land's potential. Had the people on it been very primitive, that would have meant the land was poor.
Powhatan and his Pamunkeys saw the new English settlement as an opportunity, one that they could exploit skillfully. They knew the Europeans as edgy, rapacious, and somewhat incompetent. Captain John Smith, one of the leaders of the Jamestown colony, was told that Powhatan had inherited the overlordship of six tribes and had conquered others; in 1607 he had over thirty tribes among his clients. Because he ruled over other rulers, the colonists called him an emperor. Not only had he conquered tribes around the Chesapeake, but his Pamunkeys and their allies had strictly controlled relationships with Europeans in the bay. Powhatan (whose given name was Wahunsonacock) saw no reason why he could not control the straggling Jamestown colonists and turn their presence to his own uses.
Powhatan was prepared to allow the English to settle along the James River because Indians throughout the region valued the manufactured trade goods they brought from across the Atlantic. Metal tools that could hold an edge were especially highly prized; they enhanced farming, hunting, and warfare without dramatically changing traditional modes. Copper kettles also made life easier. Glass beads had spiritual significance to Americans and were incorporated into native worship systems. They also showed up as status symbols among Indian elites. Just as aristocrats in Europe wanted American gold, pearls and furs for fine beaver hats to enhance their elegance and status, so American leaders wore glass beads and copper ornaments of European origins.
For chiefs like Powhatan the coming of Europeans and their trade goods meant becoming middlemen between the settlements on the coast and tribes farther inland, a role that offered greatly enhanced authority. For this reason, he wanted the English to settle where they would be dependent on him and he could keep a constant watch on them. As he looked at Jamestown, Powhatan surely thought that the English would need American support perpetually. The hundred or so settlers in the first contingent knew little about farming and found the environment baffling. As Captain John Smith admitted, "Now although there be Deer in the woods, Fish in the rivers, and Fowls in abundance in their seasons; yet the woods are so wide, the rivers so broad, and the beasts so wild, and we so unskillful to catch them, we little troubled them nor they us." The colonists were forced to admit that "had the Savages not fed us, we directly had starved." Most of the first colonists were also ignorant in military matters. The Virginia Company of London directed that military drill be conducted where the Indians could not witness it, "for if they See Your Learners miss what they aim at they will think the Weapon not so terrible." (2)
Despite their inexperience and weakness, the English expected to dominate the Indians. From the beginning the Virginia Company wrote that the relationship would inevitably become hostile: "for you Cannot Carry Your Selves so towards them but they will Grow Discontented with Your habitation." (3) The combination of dependence and assertiveness is a dangerous one, and it led the English into swaggering behavior in encounters and to extreme acts of retaliation when they saw a challenge. Smith would seize a child hostage as his men entered a village because he believed that weakness led to bloodshed, and all leaders used threats to force reluctant tribes to provide food. Smith said these policies earned Powhatan's respect, and he certainly admired Powhatan's strategic and tactical acumen. The two men and the forces they commanded settled into a wary truce in the early years. After Smith left the colony in 1609, less experienced leaders took over and the relationship deteriorated into outright war punctuated by extreme acts of vengeance.
Some people on both sides entered into different kinds of relationships. Several English boys, including Henry Spelman, were left with Indian tribes in order to learn the language and the culture. Powhatan's young daughter Pocahontas often functioned as his go-between in the early years. These young emissaries forged strong affectionate relationships across the cultural divide that continued even after they returned to their own side. And Pocahontas, who was later kidnapped and brought to Jamestown, ultimately converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe. Through their son Thomas many Virginians claimed a dual ancestry. A settler named William Claiborne founded a trading post on Kent Island in Chesapeake Bay from which he engaged in a trading partnership with the powerful Susquehannocks. Some individuals on both sides melted into the others' populations. All these ties were tenuous, yet helped to create a web of mutual knowledge.
Powhatan died in 1618; thus he did not live to see how dramatically he had misestimated the future when he allowed Jamestown's founding. As his life was ending, various developments came together to encourage the colony's growth: a good cash crop in tobacco; hard times in Europe that made people willing to emigrate; and new Virginia Company policies that offered land ownership to migrants. The trickle of settlers became a flood and colonists spread over the land. Intensive land use, European-style, was incompatible with native systems of extensive and varied land use, and Pamunkeys and their clients found themselves pushed westward into the territories of their enemies. Powhatan's successor, Opechancanough, led a great systematic attack on all the settlements on March 22, 1622 that killed a third of the English. This stunning attack led to the revocation of the Virginia Company's charter and much criticism in England. Virginia became a royal colony, but the practical effect was the transfer of control to the planters. In its aftermath the colonists began a ten-year war of attrition and dividing lines became hardened.
Suggested Readings:

Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America. Ithaca, New York and London: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Rountree, Helen C., ed. Powhatan Foreign Relations, 1500-1722. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

End Notes:

1 Thomas Harriot, A Briefe and True Report of the new found land of Virginia, (London, 1590).

2 John Smith, Advertisements For the unexperienced Planters of New-England, or any-where, 1631, in Philip L. Barbour, ed., The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, 3 vols., (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), III:273; Virginia Company, "Instructions Given by way of Advice," 1606, in Philip L. Barbour, ed., The Jamestown Voyages Under the First Charter, 1606-1609, 2 vols., (Cambridge, 1969), I:52.

3 Virginia Company, "Instructions Given by way of Advice," in Barbour, ed., The Jamestown Voyages, I:50.

Crandall Shifflett© 1999, 2000