Role Plays: 14-Year Old Boy

NOTEThis teaching exercise allows the teacher to employ role playing as a way to engage students in the learning process. Suggestions are included in the sections on “Casting Instructions.” Teachers may designate monologues, two or more student participants, or student to class exchanges.  Teachers are also free to depart from these suggestions and use the historical material as they wish to create their own learning strategies.

NAME:  Henry Spelman  

TITLE: Interpreter, 14-year old English boy


Henry Spelman, like Pocahontas, was born in 1595, and landed in Virginia in 1609. For reasons that are unclear, he returned to England in March 1611 with Lord De La Warr, but later returned to the colony as interpreter five years later. In 1618, he was again back in England before returning aboard the Treasurer the same year. As an interpreter, he knew the Algonquian language and the werowances about as well as anyone in the colony. His trouble began in August 1619 when he told Chief Opechancanough, Powhatan’s brother who had inherited leadership of the 30 tribes in the Powhatan chiefdom, that a governor better than the present Governor Yeardley was coming to head the colony. When the House of Burgesses learned of Spelman’s comment, they voted to remove him from his duties as interpreter; he continued to trade with the Indians. In March 1622, Opechancanough led an uprising of Indian tribes along the James River that killed about 350 colonists. About a year later, on March 23, 1623, Spelman was killed by the Anacostan Indians.

Spelman came to Jamestown on the ship Unity in 1609. He was about fourteen years of age. Shortly after arrival, John Smith took him on an expedition to the falls of the James, near present day Richmond. Here he was "sold" to Taux­Powhatan, Chief Powhatan's son, so he could learn the Indian language. After about a week, Spelman went back to Jamestown but found conditions in the fort had deteriorated. Shortly thereafter he along with Thomas Savage returned to live with Chief Powhatan where food was ample compared to Jamestown Fort. After six months, the Chief of the Patawomacks visited Powhatan. His kindness to Spelman, Savage, and Samuel, a Dutchman, enticed them to flee with the Patawomacks. Savage, fearing Powhatan's revenge, deserted and returned to tell Powhatan what had happened. When Powhatan's men came to take the boys back, the Patawomacks subdued them but not before Samuel was killed. Spelman lived with his protectors for a year until 1610. In March 1611, he returned to England but in 1616 went back to Virginia to serve as an interpreter. By now he knew most of the Indian weroances and spoke Algonquian. He was trading with the Potomac Indians in March 1622, when Opechancanough launched his attack on English settlers up and down the James River, killing 347 colonists. A year later, The Anacostia Indians killed and beheaded Spelman near present day Washington, D.C., He left a detailed and valuable account of what he learned about the Indians during the fourteen months he lived with them. It was not published until 1872, and although the account has stylistic problems and some inaccuracies, it provides an invaluable and close-up first-hand account of Algonquian life and culture.


Almost no information exists on Spelman’s personality. Only what can be drawn from his actions tell us anything and this is little more than speculation. His choice to go away from the fort and live with the Indians during the starving winter of 1609 is quite remarkable for a 14-year old boy just coming to a strange and unfamiliar land. Most likely his decision reflected the harsh conditions in the fort and his belief that life was better among the Indians. Likewise, running away from Powhatan to live with the Patawomacks also reflects a certain boldness and determination to improve on his situation. The Patawomanck werowance and Powhatan liked him, likely due to his interest in their language and culture which also made him valuable as an intermediary between the Algonquians and the English. His comment to Opechancanough may reflect his honest belief and  the understandable indiscretion of a young boy. His brutal killing by the Anacostans may have had less to do with Spelman personally and more to do with Indian-settler conflict at the time.


Read Spelman’s “Relation of Virginia.” Using the content of this account of Algonquian life, work, and culture, present yourself as a 14-year old boy telling your class what you have learned about the Indians during your 14-month stay with them. Organize your remarks around the topics:

Where possible, illustrate your remarks with visual images. For example, when explaining how they eat, show them John White’s watercolor of couple eating or an example of their foods; or how they cook fish; or images of villages with your remarks on housing, or any other images you may select.

Another student should act as an “expert” historian to correct some of your remarks. For example, Spelman at one point speaks of Indians practicing child sacrifice. No other historical account verifies this report. Instead, historians have suggested that Spelman mistook a custom called the “huskanaw” for child sacrifice (see this link for an explanation). Spelman also reported that the Indians worshipped the devil. The expert can clarify that this perception may be a misunderstanding of Indian religion.


Brown, Alexander. The Genesis of the United States. 1964

Haile, Edward Wright. Jamestown Narratives. Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony. The First Decade: 1607­1617. 1998.

Sams, Conway Whittle. The Forest Primeval. An Account, Based on Original Documents of the Indians in that Portion of the Continent in which was Established the First English Colony in America. 1916.

Virtual Jamestown. First Hand Accounts."Henry Spelman, Relation of Virginia."

©This module created by Crandall Shifflett, Virginia Tech

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