Jamestown Interpretive Essays

Liminals, Liminality, and the Algonquian Exchange: The Other Jamestown

Crandall Shifflett
Professor Emeritus, Virginia Tech
Director, Virtual Jamestown



Over the past decade or more, “Atlantic World History” has provided a new framework to study the past in a comparative, cross-disciplinary, and transnational context. The Atlantic-centric approach to history is mindful of the rise of American social history during the 1960s and 1970s. Social history freed the discipline from the clutches of elite- and politico-centric, discipline-bound, atheoretical, and nationalistic approaches to the past and moved the compass needle. New coordinates arose on the historical map. “History from the bottom up” presented a rare opportunity to emphasize social origins and connections to the forces of change and continuity that surrounded them. Sub-fields emerged in the history of the family, labor, immigration, urbanization, childhood, and other fields. Borrowings from the fields of cultural anthropology, economic and social theory, psychology, sociology, and other disciplines informed historical inquiry like never before. As a young graduate student who had somehow escaped from these same social origins, it was inspirational to see scholars newly engaged in studies on indentured servants, slaves, factory workers, immigrants, white and black farm laborers, women, and others long ignored.

Likewise, Atlantic history has been no less inspiring and it has greatly influenced current research and writing on colonial American history in general, and the Americans (used interchangeably with Indians and native people) in particular. Atlantic World scholars have drawn attention to how the process of history washed over the “New World” landscape bringing with it its own compelling sources of change and continuity. The Atlantic World approach to colonial history brought with it a distinct set of assets and liabilities. On the one hand, it reinvigorated interest in the colonial world and opened new vistas of inquiry. On the other hand, ironically in some iterations it has inadvertently reinforced some of the Eurocentrism and nationalism, especially with regard to the history of native peoples, that its approach seemed well-positioned to correct.

Students of indigenous populations face significant obstacles. Of the most formidable is the biased textual record the invaders left. Almost everything we know about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Indians emanates from European chroniclers. Comparing multiple first-hand accounts in a comparative – i.e., French, English, Spanish, and Dutch writings – context can overcome some of the bias naturally built into one-sided perspectives. Archaeological evidence can provide some correctives. Perhaps most promising of all is ethnographic analyses of Indian behavior.  Studying Indians up close in discrete contexts, what social historians have called “thick description,” provides more certainty and sure-footedness in interpreting scant evidence and overcoming the attitudes and paying close attention to local circumstances and conditions from their  unique historical perspective. In other words, thick description means not just describing behavior, but analyzing behavior in its context in ways that can be understood today. It requires an ethnographic approach, the system of meanings encoded in material and spiritual culture. Historians like Karen Ordahl Kupperman provide a good example of ethnogenetic analysis. In a chapter on “reading Indian bodies, Kupperman looked at hair styles, posture, dress, tattoos, and other signifiers of “self-presentation.” The author has also used this same approach to pursue the ethnogenesis of American Indians broadly in sixteenth century North America.

Critical Appraisal of Atlantic History

The most recent critical appraisal of Atlantic history gives preference to John Elliott’s definition:  the study of "the creation, destruction, and re-creation of communities as a result of the movement, across and around the Atlantic basin, of people, commodities, cultural practices, and values." The appraisal list five objections to Atlantic history: 1. lack of coherence or unity; 2. uncertain boundary or entity; 3. imperial history in new clothes; 4. Ignores or deflects attention from indigenous populations; and 5. links areas of Atlantic or transnational relations in border zones at expense of developments in discrete areas.

Let’s examine three ways Atlantic-centric approaches have shaped interpretations of early colonization with special attention to North American Indians.

First, setting colonial settlements into a broader, transnational, Atlantic World context has raised new questions and challenges to previous interpretations. Alan Taylor, for example, has pointed out that the North American population from 1492 to 1776 actually declined. Many readers will be surprised to hear this statement, given the large numbers of immigrants in the period, especially after the 1700s. Despite this influx of immigrants and the thousands of Africans forcibly transported the losses of North America’s native people, decimated by disease, warfare, and a massive uprooting of Indian communities, more than made up for these additions. Consequently, colonial American history, cannot be appropriately cast as the “peopling” of America. Such an interpretation is a good example of the persistence of Eurocentric perspectives still present in early generation Atlantic World studies. Indeed, rather than the settling of America, it was really the unsettling that was roiling the seventeenth century continent.

Second, the Atlantic World approach shifted the emphasis upon small colonial settlements to sweep over entire continents: Europe, Africa, South America, and North America. Characteristically, early Atlantic World scholarship underscored the theme of victimization. The most influential work in this vein has been Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange, emphasizing “the biological and cultural consequences of 1492.” Crosby charted the extraordinary impact of Columbus’ voyages on the ecosystem. Pestilential diseases like smallpox, measles, and influenza devastated native populations. The most stunning and controversial part of the Columbian Exchange concerns the death rate of Indians of uncertain dimensions. Pick a number between one and 25 million in Mexico and Peru and another one to 12 million in North America, the exact figures are still unclear, but numbers so large it is impossible to comprehend losses on such an unparalleled scale. The speed and scale of the projected losses “boggle the mind,” according to historian Colin G. Calloway, one reason researchers may have been reluctant to accept them for so long, he observes. Crosby’s work deserves the recognition it has received for bringing such a catastrophe to the world’s attention. Crosby considered both sides of the equation, but the Columbian Exchange is essentially a narrative of victimization. For the most part, only plants, animals, and diseases were exchanged.

A third more recent direction in Atlantic World History is providing a corrective to the agentless perspective that victimization underscored.  Scholars have begun to approach the study of Indians, not simply as victims or objects but, as one Indian chief put it when 2007 planners asked why Virginia Indians objected to the use of the term “celebration” for the 400th anniversary at Jamestown: “because we helped the English survive and build a nation.” Recently, it is this direction that has been taken in the study of North America’s native people during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In Daniel Richter’s eloquent phrase, when we “face east from Indian country,” we open the door on what James Merrell has called the chance to observe and illuminate a “new world” for Indian people. This approach turns away from using the telescope to view Europeans up close and Indians from afar and instead reverses the lens to examine Indians up close with Europeans in the distance. Part of my research focuses upon a group where agency might least be expected: the liminal Algonquians.

Liminals and the Algonquian Exchange

The Algonquians constituted a large and diverse array of speakers who occupied the Atlantic seaboard from Labrador to North Carolina and along the northern and western margins of Iroquoia to Lake Superior. From New England to North Carolina they practiced a mixed economy in which hunting and gathering supplemented horticulture or fishing and sustained many large and permanent villages. When the French, Spanish, Dutch, and English invaders came, they immediately became dependent upon local natives for knowledge of the area and good relations with the local population. Often their very survival depended upon the native people. In order to ensure success, the Europeans typically brought with them, or found them shortly after arrival, figures they had previously abducted or new captures to use as guides, interpreters, trade negotiators, and cultural translators.

Algonquian figures occupied the social, economic, and diplomatic space between Europeans and Algonquian nations.  Often forced to serve two masters, despite being victims at times of colonial imperialism, ironically Algonquian liminals found agency despite their predicament and became vital instruments in the course of colonial American history. This perspectival turn in examining Algonquian history presents an opportunity to privilege agency as the genesis of what may be called here the Algonquian Exchange.

For interpretive and analytical purposes, the Algonquian Exchange might be seen as the contrapuntal force to the Columbian Exchange. In this usage of the term, we move beyond, although do not dispute, the abundant evidence of victims and their “contributions” to history, towards a deeper search for the evidence of the many ways that Indians, in this case Algonquians, became part of the DNA of America, influenced its development, and carried forward their genetic cultural markers in the core culture.

Algonquian Creoles: Pocahontas, Tisquantum, and Pacquiquineo

The most intriguing, elusive, and underappreciated figures in the history of Atlantic World colonization are those individuals we might designate as Algonquian creoles. These were men and women who served as the interface between two worlds. At times suspected by both and usually trusted by neither, they served in a variety of capacities. Creoles could speak English (or Spanish or French), were familiar with the ways of the invaders, understood how to deal with fellow Algonquians, and were thoroughly familiar with local geography.  Algonquian creoles were usually forced into the brokerage role. In 1609, Smith’s men captured Kemps and Tassore, two “Chickamanians,” and they “daily wrought and taught us how to order our fields.” Sometimes brokers were arranged exchanges. Examples of this type are Namontack who traveled with Christopher Newport back to England in 1608. Thomas Savage, an English boy, was left with Powhatan in exchange for Namontack. Uttamatommakin (also known as Tomocomo or Tomakin) went with Pocahontas to England in 1616 and 1617 as Powhatan’s envoy and “reporter.” The most famous Algonquian creole at Jamestown, Pocahontas was abducted, sent to the English fort near Richmond where Rev. Alexander Whitaker instructed her in Christianity. Later, she was baptized in a public ceremony at Jamestown’s church and grew into the brokerage role, as she moved from playing innocent games with English boys as a child and morphed as an adult into the most effective and influential broker in the Virginia colony. New England had creole figures just as valuable as Pocahontas.

Tisquantum (“Squanto”), a native Patuxet lived at present-day Plymouth. The Patuxet belonged to the Wampanoag confederation of tribes. His early life is obscure. In 1614, his story begins with the arrival of Captain John Smith and men on several ships who came to map Cape Cod and vicinity. After Smith completed his work, he left for England, leaving in charge, Captain Thomas Hunt with instructions to engage the Indians in trade. But Hunt had other ideas. He lured 24 Nauset and Patuxet Algonquians onto his ship with an offer to trade beaver and took them captive. He stowed them in the hole of the ship and sailed to the Straits of Gibraltar and on to Malaga, Spain, where he sold as many as he could into slavery. Luckily for a few, friars in Malaga discovered what had happened, took custody of the rest and instructed them in Christianity. Back in America, the Nauset and Patuxet tribes were furious. English and French ships were no longer welcomed in Cape Cod and Plymouth and the beaver trade came to a halt. In 1617, an unwitting French captain wrecked his ship on the north shore of Cape Cod. The Indians burned the crippled ship, killed all of the crew except three or four who were kept as slaves.

One of the French mariners who had learned enough of the Algonquian language to communicate with them felt moved to tell the survivors that “God was angry with them for their wickedness, and would destroy them and give their country to another people.” A sachem spurned the prediction, assembled his tribe on a nearby hill, and challenged the French to prove that his God had such power over so many people. The Frenchman assured them that he “surely would.” Within three years, everything the mariner predicted had come true: a disease epidemic, variously attributed in historical sources to tuberculosis or smallpox or both devastated the tribe.

 Tisquantum, one of the Indians Hunt had abducted, survived the plague and made his way from Spain to England where he learned English and signed on with the treasurer of the Newfoundland Company colony as an interpreter and expert on North American natural resources.  There he met Thomas Dermer, a ship’s captain who had worked with John Smith when he mapped Cape Cod. The New England Company, headed by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, wanted to reestablish the beaver trade with the Massachusetts Algonquians and realized that Tisquantum could be a valuable asset to smooth the way as a peacemaker; they could use his strong English skills as interpreter with the still angry Patuxets. Like the Atlantic creoles of West Africa who served in the slave trade, Gorges saw that Algonquian creoles like Tisquantum could act to broker trade exchanges between Indians, fur dealers, and the Newfoundland Company. After bringing Dermer and Tisquantum back to England briefly to make plans, he sent them in 1619 to reestablish trade and map out the natural resources that the New England Company hoped to exploit. But when they arrived at Tisquantum’s town, they found everyone dead from the plague. Tisquantum located Massasoit and his brother Quadequina, the heads of the Wampanoag Confederation and took up with them.

Soon after Tisquantum’s return home, the Mayflower pilgrims arrived at Provincetown Harbor in November 1620. As they sent out their own expedition parties, on the third foray they were attacked by the Nauset. All escaped unharmed but the Pilgrims continued their expeditions around Cape Cod, eventually ending up in Patuxet territory in the area named Plymouth on Smith’s map. The Pilgrims worked out of the Mayflower for months, rarely seeing an Indian, before they moved onto land in March. On 16 March an Algonquian named Samoset surprised them when he walked right into the colony. Samoset knew a little English picked up from the fishermen around the harbors, enough to tell the Pilgrims about Tisquantum and his superior language skills. On 22 March, Tisquantum came with Massasoit and Quadequina to the English colony. Together the Pilgrims and the three Indians negotiated a peace treaty to establish trading relations.

Tisquantum soon became a key figure in the trade alliance and an integral member of the Plymouth Colony, translating and negotiating between Plymouth’s governors, including William Bradford, and tribal leaders like Massasoit. He made peace with the Nauset and with a number of other Indian leaders in the Wampanoag Confederation. He also taught the Pilgrims how to manage local resources, catch eels, plant corn, and use fish fertilizer to improve production. Without Tisquantum, the Plymouth Colony may not have survived. The same might be said of Pacquiquineo, an Algonquian creole who figured most prominently in the English settlement of Jamestown.

In 1561, winds blew a Spanish caravel off course on the South Carolina coast and drove the vessel several hundred miles north. The Spaniards anchored “in a large river, possibly the Chickahominy.” There they encountered a group of Algonquians and two of them “(‘a principal and his servant’) were forced or “agreed to accompany them on their voyage.” The principal was named Paquiquineo, a boy of about 12 years of age. Since he was reported to have a servant, he was obviously of high status.  He was of the Paspahegh tribe. Paspahegh was the name of the entire area on the Powhatan (James) River extending southeastward from the mouth of the Chickahominy to well beyond the peninsula that later became Jamestown.

In 1570, Spanish Jesuits returned to Chesapeake Bay, with Paquiquineo as an interpreter and guide to establish the Ajacán mission in Virginia to convert the Indians to Christianity. The Jesuit priest Father Juan Rogel headed the Virginia mission and another priest, Father Juan Baptista de Segura, reported to him from the field. Both had worked to establish missions at St. Augustine and Santa Elena. The group also included Father Luis de Quiros, and six lay brothers (Gabriel Gomes, Sancho Cevallos, Juan Baptista Mendez, Pedro de Linares, Gabriel de Solis, and Christobal Redondo). They took with them Paquiquineo and Alonzo de Olmos, son of a Florida colonist and an altar boy who did not want to be separated from the priests he had served. The location of the Ajacán mission was near the Indian town of Kiskiack on the Pamunkey (York) River.

Segura and his fellow Jesuits labored under difficult conditions. A severe six-year drought plagued Virginia. Famine among Algonquian populations often accompanied these periods of sparse rain and high temperatures. The Virginia Algonquians had come to depend upon crops of corn, beans, and squash to supplement their hunter-gatherer diet and compensate for the periodic scarcities of game and fish. Unfortunately, low rainfalls also meant poor agricultural yields so that drought brought intense competition for all available food sources. Roving bands of Indians, some from the North, attacked town populations to rob their fields and storage bins for their own needs. The arrival of missionaries and soldiers during these times, as was the case at Jamestown, exacerbated already attenuated environmental conditions and made Indians far less charitable that might otherwise have been the case. Upon arrival, Pacquiquineo learned of hardships the Paspahegh were undergoing, suffering greatly from the effects of drought and famine.

During these times of distress, Indian religious leaders rose in importance in their communities to give spiritual explanations to unusual phenomena like famine, disease, and the sudden appearance of strangers in their midst. Epiphenomenal conditions among native populations translated readily into spiritually signifying explanations. Paquiquineo’s reappearance surprised local Algonquians. The combination of famine, strange visitors, and the sudden visitation of an Algonquian figure long since vanished suggested supernatural forces at work. The Paspahegh reasoned –encouraged by interpretations of their shamans -- that he had returned from the dead. His arrival at such a time likely signaled some kind of spiritual sign, something equivalent to the Ghost Dance phenomenon that Plains Indians of the late nineteenth century experienced. He may have been seen as a prophet, for example, who would lead them and show the way out of their misery of famine, warfare, and invasion. Of course, the Jesuits had no appreciation for how local environmental and social conditions and Algonquian spirituality might intersect. For them behavioral manifestations of distress in the forms of religious dances, prophecies, and spiritual awakenings would likely be seen as signs of paganism. Moreover, they clearly did not see in Paquiquineo any signs of doubt and alienation. For several years, Paquiquineo had cleverly practiced the art of dissimulation, kept his real feelings to himself, while openly he expressed his eagerness to convert his people.  Within five days of the group’s arrival, to the utter surprise of the Jesuit priests, Paquiquineo turned quickly away from his captors, and crossed back into the world of the Paspahegh. He simply disappeared, and when he did not return in a few months, the three priests, now in need of supplies, went to find him. It was a tragic mistake; the Paspahegh followed the priests and killed them. Five days later, they arrived at the Spanish Virginia mission and exterminated everyone in the camp, except for Olmos, the boy who lived to tell the story. Thereafter Paquiquineo disappears from all historical records. But did he really disappear or did he reappear as a different person?

Catholic legend paints a not unexpectedly dark image of Paquiquineo. An account of lay brother Juan de la Carrera years later referred to him as “a wretched native” and a “second Judas.” Carrera reported that he went off and lived a pagan life with his uncle “a chief in a country far distant from ours,” where he engaged in “marrying many women in a pagan way.” The Powhatan practice of chiefs taking multiple wives was just another sign of paganism to Catholics. Looking at it from Paquiquineo’s perspective, he might have responded that if the Jesuits had been more like their namesake, he would have been far less likely to have acted like Judas. After all, he was aware of Indians in Florida being labeled as devil worshipers and the commonly reported abuse of soldiers. He had witnessed the contradiction between the message of kindness and humanity and the practice of cruelty, slavery, and violence, especially against those who opposed the invaders.


Time does not permit a fulsome explication of the Algonquian exchange. Yet, based upon a few examples, it is clear that Algonquian creoles provide a promising window on agency, indigeneity, and some of the features of the Algonquian exchange.  Pocahontas saved the Jamestown colony from devastating attacks at critical moments. Her marriage to John Rolfe ensured years of peace. Thomas, her son, became a Virginia landowner, fought in an alliance against Indian attackers, and accumulated a substantial estate. Without question, the Algonquians helped the coastal invaders survive and build a nation. At vulnerable moments in Virginia and New England, when the Algonquians might have snuffed out the fledging colonies, they acted instead to provide what was needed for the invaders to survive: corn and seed, peace and trade negotiations, and interpreters and guides to the terrain, language, and cultural practices of the Algonquians. They taught the invaders fishing and hunting skills, how to cultivate “new world” crops, avoid contaminated water, and live under conditions of drought. Without Tisquantum, the Pilgrims at Plymouth would have been unable to establish peace with local Indians, engage in the fur trade, or even survive. Without the intervention of Pacquiquineo, the Spanish might have made Virginia a Spanish colony and consolidated their control of the North American coast from Virginia to Florida. Instead, he assured the success of English competition with rival European powers that allowed the Chesapeake colony to become the first permanent English settlement in North America. Recent research has discovered evidence of how Algonquians influenced Euro-American family and child-rearing practices and political organization, and made additional contributions to the Algonquian exchange in folk medicine, astronomical observations, map making, and other areas yet to be explored. Clearly, we stand to learn much more about the Algonquian exchange when we face east from Indian country.


The author wishes to thank the British Association for American Studies, British Association for Canadian Studies, and the Eccles Centre at the British Library for the award as Eccles Centre Visiting Professor in North American Studies 2008-2009, which made possible the research, reflection, and writing of parts of this essay. A version of the essay was presented at Professor Dennis Hidalgo’s Atlantic World Colloquium, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia, 26 March 2012.
On the theory of thick description and his own method of ethnography, see Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures; Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973);  on the ethnography of Virginia Indians, see Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Ch. 2., “Reading Indian Bodies,” in Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2000), 41-76; see also Crandall Shifflett, : “Clothing and Self Presentation,” in American Centuries: The Ideas, Issues, and Trends that Made U.S. History, ed. Karen Ordahl Kupperman (New York: Facts on File, 2011), 31-37.

John Elliott, "Afterword, Atlantic History: A Circumnavigation," in David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, eds., The Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (New York: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 233-249, esp. 239.

See James C. Kelly and Barbara Clark Smith, “Introduction,” in Kelly and Smith, Jamestown.Quebec.Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings (Washington and New York: Smithsonian Books, 2007), 10-15, on these perspectives that are summarized and elaborated here. On the present state of the field, see Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan, Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal  (New York : Oxford University Press, 2009), esp. “Introduction: the Present State of Atlantic History,” 3-33.

Alan Taylor, American Colonies. The Penguin History of the United States, Eric Foner, ed. (New York: Viking Penguin, 2001), xi. Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of British North America: an Introduction (New York: Knopf, 1986) and Bailyn with the assistance of Barbara DeWolfe, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1986).  On Virginia as an Atlantic colony, see April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

For an overview and assessment of the various estimates of disease-related population loss, see Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 107-112.  On “boggle,” see C. G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 415.

James H. Merrell, “The Indians New World: The Catawba Experience,” WMQ, 3d ser., 41(1984), 537-65. Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Taylor, American Colonies, 93.

Quotation: CWJS, “The Proceedings,” Vol. 1, 263. Collier exchange:  CWJS, “The Proceedings,” Vol. 1, 245; Namontack-Savage exchange: CWJS, “The Proceedings,” Vol. 1, 216; Uttamatamakin: Virtual Jamestown, http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/ot2www-smith?specfile=/web/data/collections/projects/jamestown/public/texts/www/smith.o2w&act=surround&offset=3078016&tag=Smith,+John,+1580-1631:+The+complete+works+of+Captain+John+Smith+[vol.+2]&query=Tomocomo, retrieved 02/14/2012.

Quotation: Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War  (New York: Viking Penguin, 2006), 52; http://www.mayflowerhistory.com/History/BiographyTisquantum.php, retrieved 9 March 2012.

Ibid., 3.

For descriptions of the Spanish visits and the documents in the Spanish archives, see Conway Robinson, An account of discoveries in the West until 1519, and of voyages to and along the Atlantic Coast of North America, from 1520-1573. (Prepared for “The Virginia historical and philosophical society.” Published by the society. Richmond: Shepherd and Colin, 1848), quotation, 486n.  Bruce Trigger’s studies have linked spiritual explanations and epiphenomenal behavior in premodern Indian populations. See Bruce G. Trigger, “Early Native American Responses to European Contact: Romantic versus Rationalistic Interpretations,” Journal of American History 77:4 (March 1991), 1195-1215.

For quotations: “wretched life,” “second Judas,” “chief in a country…”, and “marrying…” see Horn, A Land as God Hath Made It, 7, and “rising fortunes,” 3. For quotation “missions to discover,” see  Robinson, An account of discoveries, 486. Lewis and Loomie, Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia, 109, 119, and 134, refer to the Jesuit mission as a “day and a half away” and “10 leagues” (30 miles). This may or may not be reliable.




Crandall ShifflettŠ 1999, 2000