Foremost among Captain John Smith’s interactions with Chesapeake Indians were his dealings with Powhatan, the most influential leader in the what is now known as eastern Virginia. The relationship started with his capture by warriors associated with Powhatan, and grew into an cooperation that saved the colony, but then deteriorated into hostility.
The term “Powhatan Indians” is used by some anthropologists to encompass the tribes who were thought to have paid tribute to the leader Powhatan. These tribes are sometimes mistakenly called the “Powhatan nation” or “Powhatan tribe”. Although there were as many as 30 separate Algonquian speaking tribes in Eastern Virginia when the English arrived in 1607, is not known exactly how many paid tribute to Powhatan. John Smith assumed that all or most of them were, and this information became what was taught for many years.
The only “Powhatan tribe” was a tribe based about a mile below the falls of the James River, near present-day Varina in Henrico County, Virginia, said to have been the birthplace of the influential leader. In 1607 the chief of that tribe was Powhatan’s son, known as Tanx Powhatan or Parahunt. The similarity in names created some early confusion among the Jamestown colonists.
Some Virginia Algonquian tribes, such as the Chickahominy and the Rappahannock, did not regularly pay tribute to Powhatan, although at the time of contact they were usually allies of the tribes that did. Because the term “Powhatan Indians” leads people to believe all Virginia Algonquian-speaking tribes were associated with Powhatan, the term “Virginia Algonquians” is preferred in these writings.
Today there are seven state-recognized tribes in Virginia who are descended from those the 17th-century Algonquian-speaking tribes culturally associated with Powhatan in some way: the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Nansemond, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, and Upper Mattaponi.
When the English arrived in Virginia in 1607, Powhatan was understood to be the tributary leader of several tribes on the tidal rivers and creeks. Virginia Algonquian-speaking tribes ranged from the Potomac River in the north to just south of the James River in the south, and from the fall line of the rivers in the west to the Atlantic Ocean. Powhatan, who was probably in his 60’s when he first met the English, had acquired this tributary relationship through inheritance and influence that was frequently reinforced with family or marriage ties. He apparently held his leadership position through great personal and spiritual charisma, as well as a complex system of social rules not fully understood by the English.
The tribes within Powhatan’s influence paid tribute to him in food and goods, which were then used for redistribution, trade, rewards, and ceremony. In the early years of the English colony, it appeared that Powhatan’s first intent was to incorporate the English into the Native sphere as another tribe. Thwarted by the English, who had another agenda, he retired from leadership around 1616 and died in April 1618.
Warriors associated with Powhatan captured Captain John Smith in late 1607, and according to one account written years later, threatened to kill him. However, within a month of his capture, Smith was free, back in Jamestown, and reporting that he had concluded an arrangement in which Powhatan would provide the colonists with food.
This is what was reported to have happened: In December 1607, men led by Opechancanough, a chief of the Youghtanund nation who was related to Powhatan, captured Captain John Smith while he was exploring the Chickahominy River. They marched Smith from village to village and then presented him to Powhatan.
In one account, Smith claimed that Powhatan threatened to kill him but then decided not only to spare him but also to trade with the English. In an account written many years later, Smith claimed that Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, intervened to rescue him, but scholars consider this unlikely.
Scholars think it is likely that Powhatan saw Captain John Smith as a leader of the Englishmen and wanted to incorporate the English into his group of tributaries, thereby making the Jamestown colony one of the tribes under Powhatan’s sphere of influence. Or perhaps the charismatic Captain John Smith may simply have talked his way out of a difficult situation, just as he did so many other times in his life, according to his other tales.
For Captain Smith, the weeks spent in Powhatan’s custody provided an unprecedented glimpse of American Indian life. The language skills and insights he gained during this time undoubtedly helped him in other dealings with Indians he encountered.
Captain John Smith gave different accounts of his 1607 captivity by Powhatan. His original account, written in a 1609 letter, did not mention a rescue by Pocahontas, but a later account did. Some scholars think that the Pocahontas story was a complete fabrication, while others believe that it may have been partly true but that Smith misunderstood the situation. Since there were no other English witnesses, and no Virginia Native left any account, the difference of opinions is unlikely to be resolved.
The Virginia Indians and the English became allies and trading partners in early 1608. Both sides exchanged youths to learn the other’s languages and ways. Trading began with the Powhatan providing food in exchange for metal and manufactured goods.
There is no doubt that the food and assistance provided by the Indians allowed the colony to survive its first winter. Before the food relief, the colony was in dire shape. More than 60 of the 104 men had died.
The importance of the alliance to the English is demonstrated by their attempt to stage a coronation ceremony for Powhatan in the fall of 1608. By that time, ships had carried news of the colony’s progress to the Virginia Company owners in London and to King James I. Orders came back to formalize the understanding.
The English colonists invited Powhatan to Jamestown offering him gifts and proposing to crown him (and have him swear allegiance to King James I). Powhatan refused to come. Captain John Smith writes that Powhatan’s response was: “If your king have sent me presents, I also am a king, and this my land…. Your father is to come to me, not I to him, nor yet to your fort.”
The English did go to Powhatan, exchanged gifts, formalized trade, and forced a crown on Powhatan’s head, but the ceremony marked the start of a power struggle.
Over the late fall and winter of 1608, the Virginia Algonquian tribes refused to trade corn. The region was in the midst of a drought and corn was in short supply. Jamestown colonists were again on brink of starvation.
In January 1609, Captain John Smith visited Powhatan personally but negotiations failed. Contact with another chief, a kinsman of Powhatan, led to some trading but ended in combat and a quick escape by Captain John Smith and his men.
After that, relationships between many of the Virginia Algonquian tribes and the English were strained. There was no outright war, but there were hostilities and a lack of cooperation.
Opinions differ on why the alliance between the English and the Natives failed.
During the course of 1609, relationships further deteriorated. The Indians all around the Chesapeake were hostile; the English changed their policies and aimed to overthrow the Virginia tribes and impose English rule.
The role of Captain John Smith in this breakdown was ambiguous. He encouraged cooperation, and the other English colonists accused him of favoring the Natives.
Captain John Smith was injured in the fall of 1609 and returned to England. After his departure, open conflict between the colonists and the American Indians intensified.
There is no doubt that the Virginia Algonquians could have easily wiped out the Jamestown colony in its first years. There is sometimes speculation by scholars on why they did not do so.
When the English arrived, the tribes of eastern Virginia did not agree on the best way to interact with the strangers. Some saw them as potential allies who had useful tools. Others saw them as a nuisance who were not likely to stay.
Scholars knowledgeable on Algonquian cultures point out that it would have gone against custom for these tribes to have destroyed a group of visitors, particularly if they came to trade. From the Indian perspective, the English showed some talents and knowledge that would have been useful if they remained as allies and respected those people who were already there.
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