April 18, 1644: Forces under 99 year old Opechancanough, a leader of the Powhatan Confederacy, attacks the English along the Pamunkey and York rivers, 22 years after his first attack at Jamestown. His followers will kill almost 400 Virginia colonists.
BACKGROUND: Excerpted from Jordan Dill's website at http://www.dickshovel.com/500.html
The initial English (and Dutch) settlers began the process of purchasing land, supplemented as always with armed force against vulnerable Indigenous nations (such as those decimated by disease or already engaged in wars with more powerful First Nations).
It remains unclear as to what the First Nations understood of the local purchasing process, but some points are clear; there was no practise of private ownership of land, nor of selling land, among or between the Peoples prior to the arrival of the colonialists; there were however agreements and pacts between First Nations in regards to access to hunting or fishing areas. This would indicate treaties were most likely understood as agreements between First Nations and settler communities over use of certain areas of land, as well as non-aggressiveness pacts. In either case, where First Nations remained powerful enough to deter initial settler outrages the treaties were of little effect if they turned out to be less than honourable, and there was enough duplicity, fraud, and theft contained in the treaties that they could not be considered binding. Practises such as orally translating one version of a treaty and signing another on paper were frequent, as was taking European proposals in negotiations and claiming that these had been agreed upon by all -- when in fact they were being negotiated. As well, violations of treaty agreements by settlers was commonplace, particularly as, for example, the Virginia colony discovered the profitability of growing tobacco (introduced to the settlers by Native peoples) and began expanding on their initial land base.
Gradually, First Nations along the Atlantic found themselves dispossessed of their lands and victims of settler depredations. One of the first conflicts that seriously threatened to drive the colonialist forces back into the sea broke out in 1622, when the Powhatan Confederacy, led by Opechancanough, attacked the Jamestown colony. Clashes continued until 1644, when Opechancanough was captured and killed.
Opechancanough, uncle to Pocahontas, was considered a master tactician. He led the Pamunkey tribe for twenty-five years, following the death of his brother, Powhatan. For the first six months following Powhatan's death, Opechancanough reassured the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, of their safety. However, Opechancanough saw that the settlers were beginning to encroach on his tribe's hunting grounds by clearing the trees to make tobacco fields and driving away the game. He saw a pattern building which he wanted to stop. In 1622, on Good Friday, the Indians struck, killing nearly 350 settlers and destroying the town's iron works. Opechancanough was captured during a peace council with the colonists, but managed to escape soon afterward. The attack had so effectively curtailed the community's growth that Opechancanough did not attack again until 1644. Soon after this assault, the chief was taken prisoner for the last time.
In 1600, the forests of the Chesapeake Bay area were the home of Algonquin-speaking tribes who belonged to a powerful confederation ruled by a single chief, Powhatan. The Powhatans were warlike, recklessly courageous, and suspicious of strangers. For them, the most humiliating defeat was not death in battle, but the loss of their ancestral lands.
Into these lands, in 1607, came three small ships carrying 104 Englishmen, all of them men. They were employees of the London Company, a joint stock enterprise created to find gold and other riches in the American Eden. English America began as a business proposition.
The strangers sailed up a broad river and landed on a small peninsula they named Jamestown. It was a perfect place for defense, but it turned out to be a death trap. The mixture of salt water and fresh water in this mosquito-infested swamp became filthy from the settlers' waste matter, and this triggered raging epidemics of typhoid, dysentery, and salt poisoning. The Englishmen died like flies.
They also died because they wouldn't work. The company had sent over a collection of colonists that was a disaster about to happen--lazy gentlemen who'd never worked; London street urchins too worn down to work; craftsmen whose skills were pathetically unsuited to pioneering: goldsmiths and jewelers, barbers and glassblowers. So in bountiful Virginia, with the forests and rivers filled with game, they starved. Only 38 were alive, 9 months later.
They might all have died had it not been for John Smith. The son of a yeoman farmer, Smith had left England at an early age, in the pattern of De Soto, to fight the Moors in Hungary. He was captured in battle and made a slave in Turkey, but escaped to Russia and found his way back to London just in time to sail with the first ships bound for Virginia.
Smith was too low born to command the respect of the rich lay-abouts who governed Virginia. But in desperation, the company made him virtual dictator. Smith divided the settlers, including a few women who had arrived, into labor gangs and ordered them to work or starve. Then he took over negotiations with the Indians.
He and Powhatan settled into an uneasy relationship based on mutual self-interest. Powhatan wanted English iron goods and guns; Smith wanted Indian corn, the only thing that kept the colonists alive. But there was always tension. On one occasion, when trade negotiations broke down, Smith grabbed the chief's brother, Opechancanough, pushed a pistol into his chest, and threatened to kill him unless he got his corn quota.
Not long after this, Smith was injured in a gunpowder accident and had to return to England. That winter the 500 colonists ran out of food and began dying again. Some turned to cannibalism. One man chopped up his wife and salted down the pieces. Another dug up fresh graves to feed on the corpses.
When summer arrived, the 60 survivors boarded several ships and headed up the James River, abandoning Virginia. But on reaching the mouth of the river they ran into a relief ship from England and were ordered to turn back. For a time, things got better. More colonists were brought in, and what looked like a permanent truce with the Indians was reached when a settler named John Rolfe married Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas, and took her back to England to meet the king.
But when Pocahontas and her father died within a year of one another, Opechancanough led a surprise attack on the colony, slaughtering almost a third of its population. In retaliation, parties were sent out on Indian-exterminating missions. At one bogus peace parley, the English negotiators served poisoned wine, killing over 200 Indians.
Opechancanough struck back again 22 years later, in one final, furious effort to wipe out the colony. He was captured and killed, however, and his defeated people were expelled to the Virginia frontier. By this time, the London Company had gone bankrupt and Virginia had been taken over, in 1625, by the Crown. Death rates remained appallingly high, but the colonists had found a lucrative crop.