This moment forever changed colonial-indigenous relations
On March 22, 1622, Powhatan fighters killed 347 English settlers in Virginia. The English quickly called it a “massacre”. The colony, founded in 1607, could have collapsed. Instead, the survivors, supported by reinforcements and new weapons from England, launched a deadly series of reprisals. By the time active hostility ended in 1624, settlers and new recruits from England had probably killed more Aboriginal people than the number of colonial casualties in 1622.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the bloody encounter that shocked settlers and English policymakers and investors abroad. There have been other notable colonial-era anniversaries in Virginia recently: the August 1619 arrival of the first enslaved Africans and the July 1619 establishment of a locally elected colonial assembly (later known as of House of Burgesses), the first self-government in North America.
As a historian who has written about the difficulties faced by the English in establishing a presence in North America, I believe that the violence that began on March 22, 1622 represented a watershed moment in American history. Before that fateful day, records show that English settlers had hoped to coexist with Native Americans around the Chesapeake Bay. While there had been violence from 1609 to 1614 in what historians call the First Anglo-Powhatan War, the English in Virginia believed they had finally established good relations with the Powhatans, a confederacy of about 30 related communities to a chief named Wahunsonacock – or Powhatan in English.
On April 5, 1614, Wahunsonacock’s daughter Pocahontas (also known as Matoaka) married John Rolfe, a colonial official who had been active during the war. She was probably 17 or 18 at the time. Marriage was more than the union of two souls. The Powhatans and the English thought the union might cement an alliance between them.
In January 1615, Pocahontas gave birth to their son Thomas. Soon after, the family sailed for England. Pocahontas converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. In 1616 she posed for a portrait by the engraver Simon van de Passe, who depicted her dressed as an elite English woman in a classical Renaissance-style pose. Although it might be tempting to view her adoption of European dress and customs as a form of oppression, contemporary English observers believed that the transformed Pocahontas proved that the English could convert Native Americans to their vision of civilization.
But the dream of conversion and coexistence of the colonial promoters proves ephemeral. Before returning home in 1617, Pocahontas fell ill and died, felled by an unknown European disease. The following year Wahunsonacock died. Control of the Powhatan Confederacy passed to his brother Opitchapam (also known as Itoyhatin), who worked closely with another brother, Opechancanough. As historian James Horn recently argued, Opechcancanough was probably Paquiquineo, who as a child was kidnapped by Spaniards around the Chesapeake Bay. His captors took him to Spain, where he appeared to convert to Catholicism and became Don Luís de Velasco. In 1570 he returned home on an expedition to establish a Jesuit mission in the bay. The following year, Paquiquineo joined other local natives in killing the priests.
Wahunsonacock’s brother had a deep distrust of the English. Unlike Wahunsonacock, who may have believed that the English would become subordinate to the Powhatans, Opechancanough and his allies watched the growing English population with concern. The spread of tobacco growing, which began in earnest in the mid-1610s, encouraged English settlers to seek fresh soil for their fields. Their desire for land to meet the insatiable European demand for tobacco created constant friction with the Powhatans. The growing influence of Opechancanough and the relentless colonial desire for new tobacco fields brought about the violence of 1622.
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The English reacted to the news of the uprising with horror. A printer published the names of every woman, man and child who died that day. One observer described the attack enthusiastically, decrying a surprise attack on families and the subsequent desecration of their bodies. In 1628, engravers from a workshop in Frankfurt am Main illustrated an account of the war with an eye-catching tableau of unmeasured violence unleashed against unarmed settlers.
The rebellion of 1622 shocked the English. Less than two years earlier, the pilgrims had arrived at the Wampanoag community of Patuxet (modern Plymouth). While the newcomers fared poorly the first winter when nearly half of them died, they benefited from an earlier epidemic that had killed many natives on the New England coast. For a time, at least, the English believed they could live among the remaining Aboriginal people in the area, at least in part because there was less competition for resources.
The settlers had no similar advantage along the Chesapeake. Indeed, the disappearance in the 1580s of the small community of Roanoke (in present-day North Carolina) marked their imagination: even in a fertile land, the English could not survive. This fear of failure remained through the early years in Jamestown when early settlers succumbed with frightening speed to local diseases made more virulent by lack of food.
But Pocahontas’ conversion and marriage and the tobacco profits seemed to suggest that, at last, the English could create a lasting colony along the Chesapeake. This hard-earned sentiment collapsed on March 22, 1622. The sense of betrayal and anger at losing their access to tobacco led to two years of reprisals, including, in one possible incident, the mass poisoning of hundreds of Powhatans, an episode of violence. that the English had never perpetrated in North America. An outraged King James I provided arms to aid the colony’s response.
As we wrestle with the significance of 400 years of captivity and slavery in a territory that became the United States, it should be recognized that 1622 was the year an Indigenous alliance opposed European colonizers. in North America. Rather than adjust their plans, the English continued their search for economic gains, regardless of the cost to the natives. Modern tensions between some Native communities and other Americans contain echoes of the kinds of fears and suspicions that exploded on that fateful day in March 1622.
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