HISTORIC TRIANGLE — The early years of the Virginia colony were ones filled with strife, struggle, perseverance, heartache, and man pushed to the limits. In studying this era of local history, it is easy to see how the timbre was set for the next four centuries.
Today, we are going to look at just one of these tone-setting moments that took place exactly 400 years ago: The Jamestown Massacre of 1622.
When the First Powhatan War ended in 1614 with the marriage of Wahunsenacawh’s (commonly known as Chief Powhatan and the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy) daughter, Pocahontas, to John Rolfe, a tentative peace was garnered between the English settlers and the Powhatan Confederacy. However, this was not to last long, with tobacco being the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
English nobles, along with investors, started tobacco plantations in the area, including Martin’s Hundred, which was founded in 1617, funded by a group of investors, and headed by London attorney Richard Martin. Martin’s Hundred was comprised of 20,000 acres of land, with the population center being Wolstenholme Towne; named for plantation investor, Sir John Wolstenholme.
In 1618, there was a mass influx of English settlers into the Jamestown area. That same year, Wahunsenacawh passed away, leaving his brother, Opechancanough, as leader of the Confederacy. What Opechancanough observed and deduced deeply disturbed him.
First, the massive influx of English settlers led to a rapid proliferation of tobacco fields on what were otherwise deemed indigenous land. This stripped more of the native hunting grounds away from the local tribes and, worse, scared off game. Additionally, there was a fixation by the English settlers to proselytize to the indigenous people. In an exhibition prepared by historian Susan Danforth for the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, she explained that young children were particularly susceptible because they worked on English farms.
All of this amounted to a serious threat upon the indigenous people, their culture, and way of life. Opechancanough knew he needed to act in order to preserve the Confederation. He had three goals in mind: To demoralize the English, demonstrate the military excellence of the Powhatan Confederacy, and to force the English to move back to Europe. With the support of his brother, Opitchapam, Opechancanough ordered a raid on the English settlements.
All seemed tranquil for the English in the early hours of March 22, 1622. However, that sense of calm would soon be interrupted. Warriors from the Confederacy rushed the plantations, using hammers and hatchets as weapons to murder the colonists (men, women, and children alike) without discrimination. Additionally, houses were burned, livestock was killed, the dead and dying were left mutilated, and possessions of the settlers were scattered before the warriors moved on to their next targets.
By the end of that day, there were 347 colonists (or one-sixth the population) killed; most of which lost their lives before noon. However, historians say that this number could have been much higher as certain plantations (e.g. Bermuda Hundred) did not report a number of dead. Historians do not know how many Powhatan warriors were killed during the siege. Jamestown saw a much smaller population killed, having been properly prepared after receiving advance notice of the attack from the indigenous people.
Secretary of the Virginia Company Edward Waterhouse published a pamphlet as propaganda against the indigenous people, writing:
“Because the way of conquering them is much more easie [sic.] than of civilizing them by faire meanes [sic.], for they are a rude, barbarous, and naked people, scattered into small companies, which are helps to victorie [sic.], but hindrances to civilitie [sic.]: besides that, a conquest may be many, and at once.”
Once thriving plantations and population centers like Martin’s Hundred and Wolstenholme Towne were virtually abandoned. The Virginia Company and Society of Martins Hundred did not attempt to locate or recover the missing due to lack of resources. Twenty women were reported to have been held captive by the Powhatan Confederation, though little is known about their shared experiences.
Who survived clambered into eight crowded but protected settlements. To add insult to injury, the Virginia Company did not have the finances to support sending food nor arms to the surviving colonists. Instead, King James I sent over military equipment from the Tower of London that were deemed antiquated for military use. The colonists were forced to fend for themselves in the midst of hostile relations, with hundreds dying in the months following due to starvation, disease, and malnutrition.
The English led a counterinsurgency against the Powhatan, raiding towns, stealing food, and exacting the same level of destruction over a longer period of time than the Powhatan warriors did in a single day. In fact, in January 1623, the English boasted:
“We have slayne [sic.] more of them this yeere, then hath been slayne [sic.] before since the beginning of the colonie [sic.].”
That March, Opechancanough sent a message to Jamestown, wanting to negotiate a truce. The Confederation had not been prepared for the frequent raids and his people were starving.
What happened after that? As we always say in these history discussions, well, that is a separate story for a different day.
WYDaily’s Managing Editor Nancy Sheppard is also a professional historian, specializing in local and Virginia history.