The Powhatan Confederacy

The relationship between the Jamestown settlers and the indigenous people of Virginia was strained from the start. Much of the initial ill will was rooted in the the colonists' belief that the Indians would welcome them and willingly supply food.

From the white perspective, it seemed that a mutually beneficial arrangement could be made by exchanging European tools and Christianity for sustenance. That bargain made little sense to the natives, however.

The settlers failed to realize that the Indians lived very close to the subsistence level by hunting and gathering little more than their immediate needs required. Additional pressure on their food supply raised a real possibility of starvation.

Tensions were heightened when the colonists allowed their livestock to wander into Indian cornfields, and especially when the whites used their superior firepower to extort food contributions from the tribes.

The primary native leader in the area was known to the settlers as Powhatan, but properly as Wahunsonacook. He headed a loose confederation of about 30 Algonquian tribes from a village north of Jamestown on the York River. Powhatan was at first fascinated by English tools, but that interest was soon dampened by threats to native lands and food supplies.

Relations improved for a number of years following 1614, when John Rolfe married Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas. However, her death in 1617 and Powhatan’s own demise the following year enabled the more aggressive Opechancanough to exert control over the confederacy.

The new chief feigned an interest in Christianity and issued invitations to settlers to move farther onto native lands. In March 1622, the Indians launched a surprise attack on the dispersed white settlements. Nearly 350 whites were killed — nearly one-third of the population. Livestock was slaughtered and crops were burned. The Indian uprising of 1622 rang the death knell for the Virginia Company. With the colony in total disarray, the company declared bankruptcy. A number of tobacco planters had become wealthy, but the Virginia Company itself was never profitable. In 1624, Virginia was made a royal colony and would remain so until independence.

Warfare between the races continued for another decade, but no decisive battle was won by either side. The settlers gave up any pretense of coexisting with the Indians and embarked upon a policy of extermination. In 1632, the tribes were forced to make major land concessions in the western Chesapeake Bay area.

Resistance flared again in 1644, when more than 400 settlers were killed in the fighting. That conflict, however, was not a threat to the greatly enlarged colony's existence. The nearly 100-year-old Opechancanough was captured in 1646 and died, probably a victim of murder, in Jamestown.


See Indian Wars Time Table .

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