The sun had been up only a few hours on that fatal spring morning when hundreds of Powhatan warriors descended upon English colonists in Virginia, burning settlements and plantations along the James River in a sudden and fierce attack. So began the Powhatan Uprising of March 22, 1622, which claimed the lives of approximately 347 colonists and came perilously close to extinguishing England’s most promising outpost in North America.
Because the Indian uprising had such an important impact on English colonization and Anglo-Powhatan relations, historians have concentrated their research on the larger issues. In the process the more immediate suffering of the colonists has sometimes been obscured. Among the forgotten victims of the attack were the missing women of Martin’s Hundred plantation. These female colonists, perhaps 20 in all, were virtually the only captives taken by the Powhatans in the uprising. Few details of their ordeal have survived, and information about their lives is almost nonexistent. In fact, we may never know if they shared the fascinating, if often horrifying, adventures of more well-known Indian captives in American history. It is certain, however, that these women witnessed the violent deaths of neighbors and loved ones before being abducted; that they lived with their enemies while the English ruthlessly attacked Indian villages in retaliation; and that they received no heroes’ welcome upon their return to the colony.
Martin’s Hundred was one of the largest and most important private plantations in early seventeenth-century Virginia. Founded in 1617 and funded by the Society of Martin’s Hundred–a group of investors headed by London attorney Richard Martin–the plantation comprised roughly 20,000 acres flanking the James River. Wolstenholme Towne, named after another of the Society’s investors, Sir John Wolstenholme, was the plantation’s main population center. In this embryonic settlement, located approximately seven miles downstream from Jamestown, colonists constructed cottages, a church, a storehouse, and a small fort amid Virginia’s tall trees.
The settlement was a disaster almost from the beginning. The Society had dispatched some 250 colonists to the plantation in October 1618 and sent between 30 and 100 additional settlers before March 1622, but by the eve of the Powhatan Uprising, less than 150 remained alive. Disease, malnutrition, poor organization, and ignorance of their new environment all contributed to a high mortality rate. Three months prior to the Indian attack, colony officials described Martin’s Hundred as’sorely weakened and . . . in much confusion.’ The situation was so precarious that the Society informed the Virginia Company of London–whose aim was to establish a Protestant English colony in a land threatened by Spain–that their colonists were physically and financially unable to house, feed, clothe, educate, and convert local Indian children as they had earlier pledged to do. Since 1614, when Powhatan Chief Wahunsonacock agreed to peace after the English captured his daughter Pocahontas, the former enemies had enjoyed a cordial relationship. However, as more settlers moved in, carving the land up into tobacco plantations and ruining Indian hunting grounds by driving away the game, the Powhatans saw their centuries-old way of life being destroyed. Determined to rid the land of the invaders, Opechancanough ordered the March 22 assault on the Virginia settlements. The warriors struck down the colonists with their own hammers and hatchets. The English were unprepared and surprised, and their attackers burned houses, killed livestock, scattered possessions, and mutilated the dead and dying before fleeing. Fortunately for the residents of the main settlement of Jamestown, an Indian informant had alerted them to the upcoming attack, and they were on guard, but Wolstenholme Towne was ‘ruinated and spoyled’ by the Indian assault and suffered the highest death toll of any settlement during the uprising. Although the official number of Virginia colonists killed was recorded at 347, some settlements, such as Bermuda Hundred, did not send in a report, so the number of dead was probably higher. The Indian raids suddenly and shockingly transformed Virginia into a ‘labyrinth of melancholy,’ a severely wounded colony struggling to survive. The loss was so great that Martin’s Hundred and many other settlements were temporarily abandoned, although England continued to’set forth a verie chargeable supply of people’ to Virginia.
Within months of the uprising, Edward Waterhouse, a secretary for the Virginia Company, reported in his official Declaration of the State of the Colony and . . . a Relation of the Barbarous Massacre that 77 people–52 men, 16 women, six children, and three unspecified–were killed in the attack at Martin’s Hundred alone. However, Waterhouse overestimated the number slain, for he listed as dead several women who were unaccounted for and were presumed killed but who were, in fact, captives. At least 58 colonists died at the plantation, and the dazed and despairing survivors had every reason to believe that those missing had either been killed in inaccessible areas, hacked or burned beyond recognition, or captured, which they believed would lead to certain death.
In the weeks and months following the Powhatan onslaught, neither the Virginia Company officials nor the Society of Martin’s Hundred attempted to locate and recover the missing settlers. One-sixth of Virginia’s colonists had been wiped out in a single day, and for the survivors, staying alive took precedence over a hunt for neighbors they thought were beyond rescue. The devastated colonists spent their time trying to feed and shelter themselves and brace for future attacks by the Indians. In London, Edward Waterhouse published his list of the dead for the purely pragmatic reason ‘that their lawfull heyres may take speedy order for the inheriting of their lands and estates’ in Virginia. Slowly, however, Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic came to believe that a number of women from Martin’s Hundred who had been presumed killed by the Indians were still alive. A year after the uprising, Richard Frethorne, a settler in Wolstenholme Towne, reported that the Powhatans held 15 people from that plantation in their villages, while another source indicated that there were ’19 English persons retayned . . . in great slavery’ among the Indians and that ‘there were none but women in Captivitie . . . for the men they tooke they putt . . . to death.’
In 1624 Captain John Smith published his Generall Historie of Virginia and provided even more detailed information. He reported that an English expedition along the Potomac River had received a message in late June or early July 1622 from Mistress Boyse, ‘a prisoner with nineteene more’ of the Powhatans. Mistress Boyse, who pleaded for the governor to try to secure the captives’ release, was the wife of either John Boyse, who had represented Martin’s Hundred in the first Virginia legislature of 1619, or his kinsman, Thomas Boyse of the same plantation, who was listed among those killed in the March 1622 attack. With her at the Indian stronghold near present-day West Point, Virginia, were Mistress Jeffries, wife of Nathaniel Jeffries who survived the uprising, and Jane Dickenson, wife of Ralph Dickenson, an indentured servant slain in the assault.
While their former neighbors feared new attacks, the captive women were placed in almost constant jeopardy by the fierce and frequent English raids on the Powhatans. Lodged as they were with Opechancanough, the prime target of retaliation, the English women, like their captors, endured hasty retreats, burning villages, and hunger caused by lost corn harvests.
The colonists’ retaliatory raids in the summer and fall of 1622 were so successful that Opechancanough, who had been unprepared for such massive offensives, decided in desperation to negotiate with his enemies, using the captured women as his trump card. In March 1623, he sent a message to Jamestown stating that enough blood had been spilled on both sides, and that because many of his people were starving he desired a truce to allow the Powhatans to plant corn for the coming year. In exchange for this temporary truce, Opechancanough promised to return the English women. To emphasize his sincerity, he sent Mistress Boyse to Jamestown a week later. When she rejoined her countrymen she was dressed like an Indian ‘Queen,’ in attire that probably would have included native pearl necklaces, copper medallions, various furs and feathers, and deerskin dyed red. Boyse was the only woman sent back at this time, and she remained the sole returned captive for many months. For the present, colony officials felt that killing hostile Indians took precedence over saving English prisoners, and they never intended to honor the truce in good faith. However, the Powhatans were allowed to plant spring corn to lessen their suspicions ‘that wee may follow their Example in destroying them . . . .’
In May 1623 the colonists arranged a spurious peace parley with Opechancanough through friendly Indian intermediaries. On May 22, Captain William Tucker and a force of musketeers met with Opechancanough and other prominent Powhatans on neutral ground along the Potomac River, allegedly to negotiate the release of the other captives. But Tucker’s objective was the slaughter of Powhatan leaders. After the captain and the Indians had exchanged ‘manye fayned speeches,’ approximately 200 of the Powhatans who had accompanied their leaders unwittingly drank poisoned wine that Jamestown’s resident physician and later governor, Dr. John Pott, had prepared for the occasion. Many of the Indians fell sick or immediately dropped dead, and Tucker’s men shot and killed about 50 more. Some important tribal members were slain, but Opechancanough escaped, and with him went any hopes of a quick return for the captured women. Between May and November of that same year, the colonists ravaged the Powhatans throughout Tidewater Virginia. The ‘fraudulent peace’ had worked, and the Indians had planted corn ‘in great abundance’ only to see Englishmen harvest it for their own use. Successful raids by the settlers not only proved the undoing of the Powhatans but made fortunes for several Jamestown corn profiteers. These raids against the Indians helped to heal the emotional wounds of the colonists, but victory came at a high price. While the captive women suffered alongside their captors, the Indian war transformed the colony into an even cruder, crueler place than before. The war intensified the social stratification between leaders and laborers and masters and servants, while a handful of powerful men on Virginia Governor Sir Francis Wyatt’s council thoroughly dominated the political, economic, and military affairs of the colony. It soon became clear that the fate of the missing women depended not upon official concern or humanitarian instincts but upon the principle that everything and everybody had a price. Near the end of 1623, more than a year and a half after the uprising, the prosperous Dr. Pott ransomed Jane Dickenson and other women from the Indians for a few pounds of trade beads. After her release, Dickenson learned that she owed a debt of labor to Dr. Pott for the ransom he had paid and for the three years of service that her deceased husband had left on his contract of servitude at the time of his death. She complained bitterly that her new’servitude . . . differeth not from her slavery with the Indians.’ By 1624, no more than seven of the fifteen to twenty hostages had arrived in Jamestown. The majority of them returned with Jane Dickenson. Those who did not come back were presumed killed during the 1622 attack, although one captive, Anne Jackson, was not returned until 1630. Mistress Boyse, the first of the missing women to rejoin the colony, was not mentioned in official records following her return. Another of the captives, Mistress Jeffries, died within a few months of her release. Anne Jackson probably returned to the colony badly broken from the consequences of her captivity, for in 1630 the council ordered that she ‘bee sent for England with the first opportunity,’ with the stipulation that her brother take care of her until she was on board a ship. Nothing more was heard of Jane Dickenson after she petitioned the council in March 1624 for release from her’slavery’ with Dr. Pott.
The missing women of Martin’s Hundred were uprooted by their enemies, manipulated by their countrymen, and mistreated in both societies. No brave frontiersmen stalked their captors, and no romantic legends arose to memorialize them. There were no heroics involved in their return; in the harsh, unforgiving world of Virginia in the early seventeenth century, it was a dispassionate business transaction that brought about their release.
This article was written by J. Frederick Fausz and originally published in the March 1998 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!