The Indian Wars of the Colonists of Virginia

In pursuing the history of the wars between the white and Indian races, it is observable, that though the different contests had different immediate causes; the grand causes of Indian hostility were the invasion of their territory and the belief that the whites would eventually take possession of the whole country. Subsequent events have clearly shown the foresight of the Indians, and their determined resistance should, therefore, excite our admiration.

The first permanent settlement of the English was made at Jamestown, on the James River, Virginia, in 1607. The emigrants were one hundred in number, Captain John Smith being the most prominent person.

Captain John Smith
Captain John Smith

The Indians were at first friendly to the English. A trade was opened with them, and besides relieving their distresses, they instructed them in the mode of raising Indian corn. But in the extremity of their suffering from famine, the settlers forgot to conciliate their warlike neighbors and some of their number suffered the consequences of error. Among others, Captain Smith nearly lost his life; being captured and taken into the presence of the king, Powhatan, he was condemned to die, and only saved by the interposition of Pocahontas, the king’s favorite daughter. As long as Smith remained in the colony, his known valor and activity awed the Indians into maintaining peace. When Smith was forced to return to England, every provocation was given to them to begin hostilities, by the reckless settlers, and they were not backward. Supplies of provisions were withheld, and the whites so harassed that their number was reduced to sixty persons, a few left to communicate the miseries of the “Starving Time.”

The arrival of the judicious Lord Delaware, with a large number of emigrants and supplies of provisions restored order, and the Indians were again taught to revere the power of the English.

In 1612, the marriage of Pocahontas took place. It was the accidental result of treachery. A scarcity prevailing at Jamestown, Captain Argal was sent to the Potomac for a cargo of corn. Learning that Pocahontas was living near where he then was, and hoping Powhatan would offer provisions to ransom his daughter, Argal enticed her on board his vessel, and in spite of her entreaties conveyed her to Jamestown. The indignant Powhatan rejected the demand of a ransom, but promised, if his daughter was restored, to forget the injury and supply the wants of the colonists. During her residence in the settlement, Pocahontas made such an impression on Mr. Rolfe, a young man of rank, that he offered her his hand and solicited the consent of Powhatan in marriage. This was granted and the ceremony was performed with great pomp.


Powhatan, one of the most sagacious of the Indian sachems, saw through the designs of the English, and was constantly getting into difficulties with them. But his death prevented the terrible execution of his schemes. Although not holding the office of chief sachem, Opekankanough was the great leader of the Indians after Powhatan’ s death. His name is connected with one of the most dreadful massacres recorded in the history of savage warfare. By a series of mutual insults and outrages, the Indians and the English had become almost open foes. Opekankanough resolved to exterminate the whites if possible, and fixed upon the 22d of March, 1622, as the day of vengeance.

Only fourteen days before the massacre, Nemattanow, a renowned warrior, and known among the English as Jack-of-the-feather, came among them, and induced one Morgan to take some commodities to Pamunkey, to trade with the Indians. Morgan went, and never returned. As he went in company with Nemattanow, and the warrior returned with his cap upon his head, and reported his death, the servants of Morgan shot the supposed murderer. Although Nemattanow was his rival in reputation, Opekankanough affected great grief at his death, and skillfully used the circumstance to inflame his warriors to revenge. By his dissimulation, Opekankanough completely lulled the suspicions of the English; and just before the massacre, he received one of their messengers, and treated him kindly, assuring him, that the sky should fall, before he would violate the peace with the whites. Never was a plot better contrived. On the morning of the 22d of March, the Indians came unarmed among their intended victims, and even sat down to breakfast with them. The English loaned them the boats with which they communicated with other tribes, and gave them utensils, which were converted into offensive weapons. The hour arrived; and suddenly, the Indians sprang like tigers from their ambushes, and appeared in overwhelming numbers, in the midst of the English settlements. The dread whoop was heard in all directions, and destruction followed. Age, sex, nor condition, saved the devoted ones, and in the space of an hour, three hundred and forty-seven men, women, and children were butchered. Out of eighty plantations, six only were left uninjured; and these were saved by the timely warning of a Christian Indian called Chanco.

The English spent the ensuing summer in strengthening them-selves against further attacks, and preparing for revenge. To attain their object, they were compelled to use means as treacherous as those of the Indians. For, under pretence of making peace again with them, they fell upon them unawares, and murdered them without mercy. It was, for some time, reported that Opekankanough was among the slain. But the same sachem executed a still more terrible massacre twenty-two years afterwards, and is thus related by Mr. Drake, in his Book of the Indians.

How long Opekankanough had been secretly plotting to cut off the intruders of his soil cannot be known; but, in 1644, all the Indians, over a space of country of six hundred miles in ex-tent, were leagued in the enterprise. The old chief at this time, was supposed to be near one hundred years of age, and, though unable to walk, would be present in the execution of his beloved project. It was upon the 18th of April, when Opekankanough, borne in a litter, led his warriors forward, and commenced the bloody work. They began at the frontiers, with a determination to slay all before them, to the sea. After continuing the massacre two days, in which time about five hundred persons were murdered, Sir William Berkeley, at the head of an armed force, checked their progress. The destruction of the inhabitants was the greatest upon York and Pamunkey rivers, where Opekankanough commanded in person. The Indians now, in their turn, were driven to great extremity, and their old chief was taken prisoner, and carried in triumph to Jamestown. How long after the massacre this happened, we are not informed; but it is said, that the fatigues he had previously undergone, had wasted away his flesh, and destroyed the elasticity of his muscles to that degree, that he was no longer able to raise the eyelids from his eyes; and it was in this forlorn condition, that he fell into the hands of his enemies. A soldier, who had been appointed to guard him, barbarously fired upon him, and inflicted a mortal wound. He was supposed to have been prompted to the bloody deed, from a recollection of the old chief’s agency in the massacre. Just before he expired, hearing a great bustle and crowd about him, he ordered an attendant to lift up his eyelids; when he discovered a multitude pressing around, to gratify the untimely curiosity of beholding a dying sachem. Undaunted in death, and roused, as it was, from sleep, at the conduct of the confused multitude, he designed not to observe them; but, raising himself from the ground, with the expiring breath of authority, commanded that the governor should be called to him. When the governor came, Opekankanough said, with indignation, “Had it been my fortune to have taken Sir William Berkeley prisoner, I would not meanly have exposed him as a show to my people ” and soon after expired.

It is said, and we have no reason to doubt the fact, that it was owing to the encroachments upon his ‘ands, that Opekankanough determined upon a massacre of the whites. These intrusions were, nevertheless, conformable to the grants of the proprietors. He could hardly have expected entire conquest, as his people had already begun to waste away, and English villages were springing up over an extent of country of more than five hundred miles, with a populous beyond any preceding example; still, he was determined upon the vast undertaking, and sacrificed himself with as much honor, it will, perhaps, be acknowledged, as did Leonidas at Thermopylae.

The successors of Opekankanough maintained peace with the English until the settlements were sufficiently powerful to compel its observance. In 1656, Totopotomoi was king of Pamunkey. In that year, a large tribe of Indians, called Rechahecrians (Rickohockans, known later as Cherokee), came down from the inland mountainous country, and forcibly took possession of the country about the falls of James River. The legislature of Virginia was then in session, and it determined to send an armed force to dispossess the intruders. For that purpose, one hundred men were raised, and put under command of Captain Edward Hill, who was joined by Totopotomoi, with one hundred Indians. This force did not find the Rechahecrians unprepared. A bloody battle ensued. Of the detail, we are not informed. The result, however, was disastrous to the allies. Totopotomoi, with most of his warriors, was slain, and the English totally defeated, owing, it was said, to the criminal conduct of Captain Hill. This officer lost his commission, and his property was taken to defray the losses of the country. A peace seems to have been concluded with the Rechahecrians soon after.

The Indians renewed hostilities some years after, during the administration of Sir William Berkeley, when the declining state of the colony seemed to offer impunity to attack. The remote settlements were first assailed, and then incursions made into the interior of the country. The dissensions of the colonists prevented them from taking measures of defense or retaliation. At this time began the rebellion of Nathaniel Bacon. That daring leader raised a large force to march against the Indians; but the refusal of Berkeley to sanction his commission, led him to employ his men in the overthrow of the government at Jamestown. The Indians were compelled to conclude a treaty of peace as Boon as the rebellion was suppressed. This was their last serious war with the Virginia settlers. As the whites advanced into the country with rapid strides, the tribes which had given the early settlers much trouble, were either totally destroyed, or retired to the farther west. The kingdom of Powhatan was in possession of the whites, and the desperate measures of Opekankanough were remembered but as the last efforts of a conquered nation.

Frost, John, LL. D. Frost's Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities, From the Earliest Record of American History to the Present Time; Nearly 200 Engravings from Original Designs, by Distinguished Artists. New York: Wells Publishing Company. Vol. 1. 1873.

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