American Indians > Indians & Smith

Native American encounter re-enactment
Local tribes welcome the crew of the shallop in this re-enactment at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, August 2007. (Photo by H. Rigby)

Two worlds collided when the American Indians of the Chesapeake Bay met Captain John Smith. History does not record what the Indians thought of the strangers from England. But Captain John Smith’s stories provide some perspective on the first contacts between English settlers and the American Indians.

During his time at Jamestown and on his Chesapeake voyages, Captain John Smith and his men met people from many different Indian nations. Most tribes welcomed the English newcomers and helped them on their journey, but a few tried to discourage them.

Influential Powhatan

Of all the encounters between Captain John Smith and Indians of the Chesapeake, none was more important to the English than his contact with Powhatan, the influential spiritual leader to whom several tribes of Virginia paid regular tribute. After being captured by Powhatan in 1607, Captain John Smith negotiated an alliance that helped the colony survive its first year. However, his subsequent dealings with other tribes led to the collapse of this alliance. By the time Captain John Smith left Virginia, there was open conflict between the Virginia tribes and the English.

 

Early European Contacts

The English were not the first Europeans to visit the Chesapeake Bay; Spanish vessels likely sailed into the Bay several times in the 1500s. A Spanish map by Diego Gutierrez was the first to record the Chesapeake Bay, although he called it “Bahia de Santa Maria.”

The English were the first Europeans to come to Virginia with the intention of staying. But the Indians would not have known that. They may have thought that the English would stay for a short time, and then go home.

Captain John Smith’s Diplomacy

Compared to other Europeans of the early 1600s, Captain John Smith seems to have been open-minded towards indigenous peoples. He described them in glowing terms as comely and civil and referred to their leaders as kings and emperors.

Captain John Smith learned some of the local language, and was able to carry on most of his negotiations without an interpreter. He may have been a persuasive speaker and a man of considerable charm and diplomacy; according to his own accounts, he was frequently able to turn initial hostility into a warm welcome. It may have been likely that his positive attitude toward native peoples, his talents for diplomacy, and his practice of treating them as equals, led to his successes in Jamestown and on his voyages.

The detailed observations of the Chesapeake’s American Indians in Captain John Smith’s journals and map provide a treasure-trove of information rarely available for the time period.

Friends and Enemies

In addition to his dealings with Powhatan, Captain John Smith encountered many other Indian tribes during his Chesapeake voyages.

According to Smith, most encounters were positive: “… they boldly demanded what we were, and what we would; but after many circumstances they seemed very kinde….”

Others less so: “There was about an hundred nimble Indians skipping from tree to tree, letting fly their arrows so fast as they could.”

Read more descriptions of the American Indians in Captain John Smith’s own words in what are referred to as his journals, some of which may have been written long after his visit to Virginia.

Did You Know?

  • Captain John Smith described the Indians of the Chesapeake as tall and referred to a Susquehannock man as a giant. In fact, archeology has shown that on average the Indians were only an inch or two taller than Europeans.

Learn More about the American Indians and Captain John Smith

  • See the points of interest on the Historical Map to discover more about Captain John Smith’s encounters with American Indians.
  • Another early Jamestown colonist, William Strachey, compiled a dictionary of the Algonquian language in 1612. Read Strachey’s “Dictionarie of the Indian Language.”
  • Follow the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail to learn about Virginia’s First People from American Indian perspectives.

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