Virginia and Tsenacomoco in 1622
The colonists' Indian neighbors seemed to pose less of an immediate threat. The Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco comprised a polity of twenty-eight to thirty-two small chiefdoms and tribes that stretched from the James to the Potomac rivers and encompassed much of Virginia's coastal plain. Often called the Powhatan Indians, after their paramount chief, Powhatan, they had been at peace with the English since 1614, when the marriage of Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas to John Rolfe had put an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War. Although tensions remained, the vast majority of encounters between the Indians and the English were peaceful. They routinely traded with one another for food (grain and wild game), "truck" (cloth, manufactured beads, and metal tools), and labor (Indians hunted for and worked in English households).
By 1622 the growing tobacco trade had put the colony on a sounder economic footing than during its first few years, easing another constant worry on the part of colonists and investors in the Virginia Company of London. The English tobacco farms that spread along the banks of the James and its tributaries, wrote the company's secretary, Edward Waterhouse, were "placed scatterlingly and straglingly as a choyce veyne of rich ground invited them, and the further from the neighbors held the better."
Then, suddenly, "at a given signal" the Indians "drew their weapons and fell upon us murdering and killing everybody they could reach sparing neither women nor children, as well inside as outside the dwellings." Some of the dead, Waterhouse wrote, were mutilated: "not being content with taking life away alone," the attackers made "a fresh murder, defacing, dragging, and mangling the dead carcasses into many pieces, and carrying away many parts in derision." More than 300 colonists, or nearly a third of the population, were killed in the space of a few hours.
The result of this devastatingly effective attack was a ten-year conflict, the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, that transformed the relationship between the two groups and reshaped both Virginia Indian and colonial English societies.
Causes of War
At the conclusion of the First Anglo-Powhatan War in 1614 both sides could claim a draw. The Powhatan Indians allowed the colonists to stay, but the English settlements were confined to fewer than a dozen settlements clustered just below the falls of the James, at Jamestown, and around Point Comfort.
Nearly simultaneous changes to the leadership of both the Powhatan Indians and English also led to a less compromising attitude on both sides. Samuel Argall, who had captured Pocahontas in 1613 and later captained the ship that carried her to England, took over as deputy governor after returning from London in 1617. Argall tried to restrict contacts between Indians and English, though these efforts failed. Similarly Powhatan, who had presided over the peace of 1614, stepped aside as paramount chief in 1617 in favor of his brother (or close kinsman) Opitchapam. (Upon becoming paramount chief, Opitchapam changed his name to Otiotan, sometimes rendered Itoyatin.) Powhatan died the following April. The number of violent incidents and diplomatic conflicts between the Indians and the colonists increased.
The growing number of colonists living near the larger Powhatan Indian population centers upriver from Jamestown, coupled with the continuing practice of private trade between Indians and newcomers, led to a "daily familiarity" between the two groups. It did not, however, lead to increased respect. George Thorpe, who arrived in 1620 as part of a concerted attempt to convert the Indians to Christianity (and civility), complained that "there is scarce any man amongest [the colonists] that doth soe much as afforde [the Indians] a good thought in his hart and most men with their mouths give them nothing but maledictions and bitter execrations." But Thorpe, too, offended the Powhatan Indians. His job was, in effect, turning Indians into English Christians; or, as John Smith later wrote in his Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), "insinuating himselfe into [Opechancanough's] favour for his religious purpose." If necessary, he planned to take away Indian children and raise them as English. It was hardly a sign of esteem for Powhatan Indian culture.
The English seriously underestimated both the Indians' resentment and their confidence that they, and not the English, ruled this land the English called Virginia. Opitchapam (Otiotan) had inherited from Powhatan the title of paramount chief of Tsenacomoco. In 1622 the population of Tsenacomoco was roughly twenty times that of the Jamestown colony; thus the colony continued to exist because Opitchapam and Opechancanough (responsible for external relations, including both war and diplomacy) wanted it to.
Having lost the opportunity for surprise thanks to Shichans's revelations, Opechancanough postponed his plans. In the meantime he adopted a more conciliatory demeanor toward the English. He showed George Thorpe much kindness, going so far as to hint that he might welcome instruction in Christianity. Opechancanough even appeared to brush off the murder of one of his leading warriors, Nemattanew (also known as Jack of the Feather), by the English. Although he was, in fact, enraged by the killing, Opechancanough sent a message to the governor, Sir Francis Wyatt, that Nemattanew had been too "farr owt of … favor" for the Powhatan Indians to make an issue of it.
March 22 was less than two weeks away.
The Attacks of 1622
Opitchapam and Opechancanough evidently did not wish to eliminate the English settlements; otherwise, they would not have contented themselves with striking a single major attack. What, then, did they hope to accomplish through the March 22 assault?
The Powhatan Indians' behavior provides several important clues to their intentions. First, twenty of the twenty-four attacks fell on the upriver settlements, where the spread of the English settlements had most directly intruded on the original, core nations of the paramount chiefdom. (Powhatan had inherited several chiefdoms in this area in the 1570s, then greatly expanded his influence and control over the next few decades). The older English settlements, especially Jamestown and other downriver places where the colonists had originally been allowed to live, were less hard-hit. Second, many of the English dead were mutilated, adding to the humiliation of their resounding defeat. According to Edward Waterhouse, George Thorpe's killers, "with such spight and scorne abused his dead corps as is unfitting to be heard with civill eares." Third, Opitchapam and Opechancanough followed through after their victory with studied silence rather than with additional raids, evidently assuming that a single devastating blow would communicate their message.
Given the evidence above, the Powhatan Indians seemed satisfied that the March 22 attacks had fulfilled their purpose: to put the English in their proper place, both literally and figuratively. They expected the English to remain in a subordinate position to Powhatan's (now Opitchapam's) paramount chiefdom and to remain geographically confined to the downriver settlements near Jamestown or the remote Eastern Shore. Thus the anthropologist Frederic Gleach has aptly characterized the March 22 attacks not as a "massacre" (which suggests a simple, savage randomness) or as an "uprising" (which assumes that the Powhatan Indians had already been subdued by the English), but rather as a "coup … a sudden and vigorous attack" intended as a corrective blow to the misbehaving English living in the midst of Powhatan's people.
The War That Followed
Opechancanough must have felt vindicated by the initial results. The English abandoned many of their more exposed settlements in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of March 22, huddling together in Jamestown and other relatively safe places as they decided what to do next. The situation was so dire that Governor Wyatt took refuge on the Eastern Shore for six weeks during the summer of 1622. There was even some talk of moving the entire colony there.
Despite appearances, however, the English colonists' retreat did not mean that they understood the Powhatan Indians' message. On the contrary, they assumed that their intent, according to Edward Waterhouse, was to "destroy us." Their withdrawal from outlying settlements was purely strategic. In fact, some regarded the March 22 attacks as the perfect excuse to wage unrestricted war against the Powhatan Indians. "Our hands which before were tied with gentlenesse and faire usage, are now set at liberty," Waterhouse wrote. He continued, "[We] may now by right of Warre, and law of Nations, invade their Country," and then "enjoy their cultivated places" while reducing the Indians "to servitude and drudgery."
But how? There were still far more Indians than English colonists. The first step was to find allies and food to sustain the colony through the next year. Rather than counterattack right away, the English initially focused their attention on the Potomac River and the Eastern Shore, trading and strengthening alliances with more distant chiefdoms while they developed a strategy for repaying the Powhatan Indians.
This was not the only truce that was arranged with the intention of violating it. In May 1623 Opechancanough agreed to meet with an English delegation. After the negotiations the English offered poisoned drinks to toast the accord, then fired on the deathly ill Powhatan delegates. Some of the English took scalps, and back in Jamestown they bragged (mistakenly) of having killed Opechancanough.
The climax of the war came in the summer of 1624. In the only full-scale battle of the decade-long conflict, sixty Englishmen landed near a key Powhatan town, one inhabited by members of the Pamunkey Tribe. For two days the two sides fought to a stalemate. While the struggle continued on the open battlefield, a few Englishmen took advantage of the diversion to burn the Indians' fields, destroying enough food, the governor's Council claimed, "to have sustained four thousand men for a twelve-month." When the Powhatan Indians finally realized the extent of the damage, they "gave over fightinge and dismayedly, stood most ruthfully lookinge one while theire corne was cutt downe."
The balance of power, however, had tipped toward the English. By the end of the war English farms had spread all along both banks of the James River below the falls, and even across the Peninsula to the south side of the lower York River. At the end of the 1630s the English population (now grown to nearly 8,000) exceeded that of the Powhatan Indians, and early in the 1640s colonists began taking up lands on the north bank of the York River, along the Rappahannock, and even as far north as the Potomac River. The war also presented a great many reluctant "Powhatan" Indians—chiefdoms that had for a time been under the paramount chief Powhatan, but not entirely willingly—the opportunity to reclaim their independence; thus Opechancanough's power was restricted to a much smaller number of subordinate chiefdoms covering a much smaller area.
In the aftermath of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, an immensely powerful elite continued to flex its muscles, going so far as to eject the king's appointed governor, the relative outsider Sir John Harvey, in 1635. The war also promoted the expansion of English settlements and tobacco production, to the point that by early in the 1640s the colonists were once again encroaching on Powhatan communities. By then the Powhatan Indians, still numerous, independent, and led by Opechancanough, were prepared to fight another war against the English: the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646).
April 5, 1614 - On or about this day, Pocahontas and John Rolfe marry in a ceremony assented to by Sir Thomas Dale and Powhatan, who sends one of her uncles to witness the ceremony. Powhatan also rescinds a standing order to attack the English wherever and whenever possible, ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
March 1617 - After two months of delay due to bad weather, Pocahontas, her husband John Rolfe, Uttamatomakkin, and the rest of their traveling party embark from England on the Virginia-bound George. Pocahontas soon takes ill, however, and is taken ashore at Gravesend, where she dies.
May 15, 1617 - On about this day, John Rolfe, Pocahontas's Indian companions, and Samuel Argall arrive in Jamestown. Uttamatomakkin delivers a scathing report to Opechancanough on what he learned while in England.
April 1618 - The death of Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, is reported to the English colonists.
Summer 1621 - Opechancanough requests from Esmy Shichans, the Accomac weroance, large quantities of the poisonous plant cowbane to be used against the English in an attack. Shichans, a trading partner of the English, informs the colonists of Opechancanough's plans.
Autumn 1621 - The redisposition of Powhatan's bones is to be the occasion for a massive attack against the English, but Opechancanough calls it off when his plans are revealed.
January 1622 - The Jamestown colonists report that Opechancanough has expressed interest in converting to Christianity. They also note that Opitchapam (Otiotan) and Opechancanough have changed their names to Sasawpen and Mangopeesomon, respectively. The change may suggest some kind of military preparation.
March 22, 1622 - Indians under Opechancanough unleash a series of attacks that start the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The assault was originally planned for the fall of 1621, to coincide with the redisposition of Powhatan's bones, suggesting that the attack was to be part of the final mortuary celebration for the former chief.
Summer 1622 - Governor Sir Francis Wyatt takes refuge on the Eastern Shore for six weeks while ships are sent out to establish alliances with Virginia Indian weroances, or subchiefs, who live on the edges of Tsenacomoco and to trade for grain to feed the colonists.
September 1622 - Powhatan Indian warriors and English colonists skirmish. Four colonists are killed.
Autumn 1622–Spring 1623 - English colonists attack Powhatan Indian villages to "surprize their corne," or steal their crops. A temporary truce is signed in the spring intended to last until the end of the harvest season.
May 22, 1623 - Opitchapam and Opechancanough host the English on the Pamunkey River, but they are treated to tainted wine and then ambushed. Opechancanough is apparently seriously injured and disappears from English records for seven years.
May 24, 1624 - Following a yearlong investigation into mismanagement headed by Sir Richard Jones, justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the Crown revokes the Virginia Company of London's charter and assumes direct control of the Virginia colony.
July 1624 - In the only full-scale battle of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, Powhatan Indians and English soldiers fight to a standstill near a Pamunkey town. A contingent of Englishmen destroys the Indians' crops in the field.
1630 - By this year, Opechancanough succeeds Opitchapam as paramount chief of Tsenacomoco.
1632 - An agreement between the English colonists and the Powhatan Indians ends the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. There is no indication that it contains any humiliating provisions or admissions of defeat.
May 7, 1635 - The General Assembly meets to state its objections to Governor Sir John Harvey and to restate its objections to the royal monopoly on tobacco. The governor's Council elects one of their own, John West, as governor.
ca. 1640 - For the first time, the English population in Virginia exceeds the population of the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco.
Early 1640s - English colonists take up lands between the north shore of the York River and the south bank of the Potomac River, in territories still inhabited by large numbers of Virginia Indians.
April 18, 1644 - Opechancanough and a force of Powhatan Indians launch a second great assault against the English colonists, initiating the Third Anglo-Powhatan War. As many as 400 colonists are killed, but rather than press the attack, the Indians retire.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rice, J. D. Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632). (2015, November 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Anglo-Powhatan_War_Second_1622-1632.
- MLA Citation:
Rice, James Douglas. "Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 30 Nov. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 30, 2015 | Last modified: November 30, 2015
Contributed by James Douglas Rice, professor of history at SUNY Plattsburgh. He is the author of Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson (2009) and Tales from a Revolution: Bacon's Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America (2012).