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By the 1620s the English presence along the lower James encroached heavily on the territory of tribes in the Powhatan Confederacy. Powhatan chieftains kept a wary eye on the interlopers. (Map by Baker Vail; Source: Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia, by Frederic W. Gleach)

Inflame thy heart, take spleene, the cause is given
All men of knowledge, and auspicious Heaven,
Now prompt thee to revenge the blood late shed,
An expiable warre unto the dead.

—Christopher Brooke, “A Poem on the
Late Massacre in Virginia,” 1622

IN THE EARLY MORNING of March 22, 1622, Captain Nathaniel Powell was tending to his various responsibilities at “Powle-brooke,” his home on the south side of the James River. Also on the estate were Powell’s wife, Joyce, who was “great with childe,” and seven of his tenants. Powell was one of the first English settlers to build a life in the New World, having sailed to America in 1606. He was a man of stature and importance in the Virginia colony from its earliest days. A competent surveyor, a “valiant Souldier,” and a successful planter, Powell had served as acting governor of the colony and was a member of the Virginia Council of State. Contemporaries described him as a “worthy Gentleman,” “an honest and useful Inhabitant” who was “universally valued and esteemed.” He also was known for maintaining cordial relations with the Indians. M But that March morning, without warning, a horde of screaming “salvages”—Powhatan Indians—descended on his plantation. As the legendary John Smith later described the event, the Indians “not onely slew him and his family, but butcher-like hagled [mangled] their bodies, and cut off his head, to expresse their uttermost height of cruelty.” Carrying Powell’s head as a trophy, the Indians hurried on to the nearest farms and settlements. Powell and his people were reportedly the first to die, as the same scene played out many times over an 80-mile-long “front.” By day’s end, war parties had wiped out at least 25 percent of Virginia’s colonists. News of the uprising swiftly crossed the sea and sent shock waves throughout England. Referred to then as the Virginia Massacre, it was the first act in a long series of Indian-Anglo conflicts that came to be called the Tidewater Wars.


IT IS DIFFICULT FOR CONTEMPORARY AMERICANS to comprehend fully the terrors and hardships faced by early 17th-century English immigrants. The long sea voyage alone threatened death from sickness or drowning. Many who did not die aboard ship succumbed to shipboard diseases soon after landing. When they arrived on the continental frontier, new dangers awaited. Death came to them most frequently as a result of the land itself and its often harsh weather. Colonists died of malaria, scurvy, “bloody flux” (dysentery), and malnutrition. Within a few months of their May 1607 arrival on the coast of Virginia, known as the Tidewater, 50 men and boys of the original 104 would-be settlers had been buried. By early 1610 only 60 starving colonists out of 500 survived. And yet, the immigrant ships continued to arrive, carrying the adventure-seeking sons of noble families, ambitious planters, small farmers, indentured servants, and in 1619 the colony’s first slaves. Many came to find a living in the cultivation of tobacco, a crop that was then in high demand in Europe. Over a three-year period beginning in 1619, as tobacco cultivation boomed in the Tidewater, 3,570 hopefuls joined the more than 1,000 colonists already in place, but only 1,200 survived to 1622. As the Virginia Governor’s Council reported, more of them had died “by the Imediate hand of God, then by the Trecherie of the Salvages.”

Yet despite that, the greatest perceived challenge to the new arrivals was maintaining peace with the natives who had occupied the land long before the English arrived. Within a few weeks of their 1607 landing, the Jamestown colonists had built a rudimentary triangular fort. Two years later Captain John Smith, the noted combat veteran and soldier of fortune, reported that there were 300 firearms in Jamestown. A drill manual of the period listed 56 distinct steps for the loading and firing of the matchlock. (As contemporary historians Millet and Maslowski drily observed, “In battle, many militiamen never lived to crucial Step 43: ‘Give fire breast high.’”) Nonetheless, the smoke and roar of the musket, and an occasional hit by its huge ball, tended to frighten the Indians—until they taught themselves to use it.

As the colony expanded, each settlement was responsible for raising its own militia. The rules varied, but most commonly they stipulated that all able-bodied males between the ages of about 16 and 60 were obligated to serve and to muster and train. Militiamen were responsible for providing their own weapons, and in their equipment and appearance, they resembled the soldiers back in their homeland. In 1622 they carried swords and pikes and still wore armor—gear that proved inappropriate and ineffective for waging war in the oppressive Virginia summer heat against an indigenous people well versed in stealth and in the use of the bow and war club.

The musket used in early Virginia only exacerbated matters. A variation of the matchlock, it was a cumbersome 16- to 20-pound behemoth that could fire a 10-gauge round twice in a minute at the best of times, requiring a long resting stick to steady and a “match”—a long, slow-burning, saltpeter-soaked piece of twisted hemp—to ignite. Its range did not exceed 30 yards with any hope of accuracy, and it misfired about three times in 10.

Rather than aiming at individuals, the colonists employed the conventional Old World tactic of firing in volleys, which, while effective in open-field warfare, proved useless in the forests of the New World. The Indians refused to stand still to receive a volley. Instead, they attacked from ambush, vanished into the forests, and made combat a very personal experience.

In truth, in those early years, the colonists’ germs were more effective than their weaponry against the native peoples. With little natural immunity to combat the white man’s diseases, the Indians were ravaged by illness. Still, they presented a very real threat to the tiny aggregate of colonists.

The clash of the two cultures made for uneasy relations in the best of times, interspersed with periodic outbursts of violence. From the beginning, the English assumed a proprietary attitude, viewing the Indians as either “noble savages” in need of conversion or soulless heathens in need of removal. For their part, the tribes generally did not respond well to the colonists’ relentless efforts to bring them to Christ, and they viewed with alarm the continued white encroachment. But they did benefit from a viable trade relationship with the whites, providing them with corn, furs, and other commodities in exchange for European blankets, tools, and—whenever possible—weapons.


THE INDIANS OF THE TIDEWATER belonged to the Powhatan Nation, an Algonquian-speaking confederacy that consisted of some 30 tribes, each with its own chief, and all of whom paid homage to the paramount chief. According to John Smith, the Tidewater natives built their houses—barrel-shaped structures framed by bent saplings—on high ground close to rivers that provided food and transportation. For centuries, they had practiced a combination of hunting, fishing, and planting, letting the seasons determine their form of subsistence.

At the time of the English migration, Powhatan was paramount chief of the multi-tribe confederacy from which his name derived, and he oversaw a domain that stretched a hundred miles along the Virginia coast, from the Potomac River in the north to south of the James in the Tidewater. As early as 1609 he had staged an armed resistance to the whites in what has come to be called the Anglo-Powhatan War. It was remarkable for the cruelty and thoroughness with which both parties conducted their campaigns. Self-proclaimed professional soldiers destroyed Indian towns, boats, and fields, and the Indians reciprocated in kind.

The Anglo-Powhatan War lasted five years, followed by an uneasy peace. When Powhatan died in 1618, his brother, Opechancanough, assumed power. While feigning friendship with the whites, Opechancanough hatched a secret plot to visit such mayhem upon them as to forever compromise their influence and, as historian Bernard Bailyn put it, to “properly confine” them. Some accounts point to the colonists’ killing of a lesser chief—Nemattanew, or Jack of the Feather—as the catalyst for the disaster to come. Whatever the reason, Opechancanough traveled quietly about, enlisting the support of tribes inimical to the whites and preparing for one cataclysmic attack.

At one point, friendly Indians divulged Opechancanough’s plans to the English, and the governor and council warned the inhabitants to be on their guard. But Opechancanough, when questioned as to his motives, replied that he “held the peace so firm, the sky should fall [before] he dissolved it.” Convinced of his good intentions, the settlers—farmers, tradesmen, tenants, officials, wives, children, servants, and all—were taken completely by surprise when Opechancanough launched his attack on the morning of March 22.

For all its brutality, it was a brilliantly conceived and strategically executed campaign, waged simultaneously by many war parties over dozens of miles. They burned farms, fields, businesses, and villages all along the Virginia frontier and killed 347 men, women, and children, including a few members of the council. Only by dint of a last-minute warning were the residents of Jamestown and a handful of nearby settlements spared. The dazed survivors of the attacks ran to those settlements and huddled in terror. After nearly a month they came up with a plan for defense and retribution. It was unanimously agreed that a force of 300 men would be assembled to attack Opechancanough. Unfortunately, fewer than 180 men still alive were capable of service, 80 of whom were “useful only for carrying corn,” owing to age, injury, or infirmity.


WHEN NEWS OF THE ATTACK reached England, the usual need to assign blame arose, and many critics naively fixed on a lack of security within the colony as the underlying cause of the disaster. John Chamberlain, a lifelong social observer and letter writer, penned in disgust, “Yt was by their own supine negligence that lived as careles and securely there as yf they had ben in En­gland, in scattered and stragling houses far ­­asunder­…­.­[T]he disgrace and shame is as much as the losse, for no other nation wold have ben so grossely overtaken.” A well-known London attorney and poet, Christopher Brooke responded to the Indian attack by composing a lengthy commemorative verse—“A Poem on the Late Massacre in Virginia”—in which he laid the blame for the disaster squarely at the feet of the colonists themselves. Those who were killed, he wrote, “might still have florisht / But for Security, in which yee perisht.”

Safeguarding the colony at this time, however, would have been a near impossible task, and the fact that many of the settlers were, in the words of one official, “planted dispersedlie in small familyes, far from neighbours” certainly exacerbated the situation and contributed to the ease with which the Indians had carried out the killings and destruction.

In addition to blame, the English public had lots of advice for the colonists. Edward Waterhouse, a secretary to the Virginia Company who had never been to the New World, did not let that impede him from putting forth a detailed plan of action for the beleaguered colonists. In August he published a treatise recommending that the settlers invade the Indians’ country “by a right of Warre, and the law of Nations,” drive them away, and commandeer their fields. The Indians’ crops would fall to the colonists and the wild game would increase, while domestic animals would “flourish unmolested.” To accomplish these ends, he advocated attacking the Indians on all fronts, destroying their food supplies, boats, and houses, foiling their attempts to hunt and fish, and “animating and abetting their enemies against them.” He also proposed adopting the Spanish custom of enslaving the Indians, so that the colonists would have the freedom to pursue their own “Arts and Occupations.”

Most advice tended to follow this theme of comprehensive destruction. John Martin, a Londoner who had helped found Jamestown, wrote a lengthy paper titled, “The Manner Howe to Bringe the Indians into Subjection.” It proposed a 200-man army, equipped with several boats with which to ply the rivers and bays, whose sole purpose would be to visit ruin upon the Indian communities.

The settlers needed arms and ammunition much more than they needed criticism or advice, and they sent an appeal for weaponry to the Virginia Company, the chartered joint stock operation financing the colonization effort. John Smith, in England at the time, offered to lead 100 soldiers and 30 sailors, provisioned with food and weapons, to “inforce the Salvages to leave their Country, or bring them the…feare of subjection.” He further suggested keeping this force garrisoned in the colony for the foreseeable future. It was a workable plan. Unfortunately, after discovering that a costly war with the Indians would yield no plunder as a return on its investment, the Virginia Company refused to spend money on a military force. It did, however, send hundreds of firearms, provided at no cost and with the king’s approval, by the Privy Council. The company had requested “certain old caste Armes remaining in the Tower…altogether unfit, and of no use for modern Service, [which] might nevertheless be serviceable against the naked people.” They got what they asked for: 1,000 halberds, 2,000 helmets, 500 shirts and coats of mail, and 40 breastplates. The company also shipped 400 longbows, along with 800 sheaves of arrows, with 24 arrows to the sheaf.

If ever there was a weapon for which the English were universally feared, it was the longbow. A competent archer could shoot up to seven arrows a minute, with the seventh in flight before the first struck its target. It had an effective range of 200 to 400 yards, whereas the Indians’ bows, though deadly in their hands, could only hope for an accurate range of about 150 yards. The longbows and arrows never reached Virginia: When the colonists heard of the intended shipment, they redirected the bows to Bermuda, to keep them out of Indian hands but still relatively close should they be required.

In October the company sent a very specific letter to Virginia, ordering the governor and council to exact “a sharp revenge upon the bloody miscreants, even to…the rooting of them out from being any longer a people upon the face of the Earth.” The terrible war that ensued was notable for sudden attacks and bloody ambushes on both sides. Fear was a constant presence, and as one settler bemoaned, “We dare scarce stepp out of our dores neither for wood nor water.” “We goe continually in danger of our lives,” wrote another.

Nonetheless, with the help of friendly tribes, the colonists soon came to hold their own against their elusive enemy. By February of the following year, they had slain more Indians than in the entire early life of the Virginia Colony—people from the Weyanoke, Appamattock, Nansemond, Wariscoyak, Tapahatonah, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, and Chesapeake tribes all suffered. Adapting Indian methods, the colonists learned, in the governor’s words, to “make war, kill, spoile, and take by force or otherwise whatsoever boote or Corne, or any thing else [they] can attaine unto, from any of the Salvadges our enemies.”

On one occasion, two of the native tribes proposed peace talks. During the negotiations, the colonists, under the leadership of a Captain Daniel Tucker, served the Indians poisoned wine, killing some 200, including the chiefs of the Pamunkeys and Chesapeakes. The poison had allegedly been prepared by Oxford-educated Dr. John Pott, later a council member and governor of Virginia. Tucker then ordered the heads of some of the victims removed and carried away, to cause “a great dismayinge to the blodye infidelles.”

Food shortage remained an ever-present challenge for the colonists (some had to rely on a diet of only crabs and oysters for sustenance), and what could not be obtained by trade with friendly tribes or shipments from England was often taken by force from hostile natives. Nor were the English the only side to go without food. Resolved to use hunger as a weapon, the colonists undertook a deliberate campaign to starve the Indians by burning their crops of corn, squash, peas, and beans and confiscating or destroying their vital stores of corn, without which they could not survive the winter. For good measure, they destroyed the Indians’ canoes, to prevent them from finding food elsewhere.

Meanwhile, new arrivals continued to swell the population, and despite a continued high mortality rate, the colony grew. By 1625 over 1,200 colonists were living in Virginia, some 700 of whom were capable of fighting Indians. Over the next few years, several ordinances were passed for the protection as well as the training of the settlers. All houses were ordered palisaded; every settler was instructed to keep both aggressive and defensive weapons, to be inspected regularly by an appointed “muster master”; mustering and drilling were stepped up and made a part of every holiday and observance; beacons were built throughout the colony to monitor Indian movements and prevent surprise attacks; and regular seasonal campaigns were planned and carried out against the natives.

The fighting continued for 10 years, exhausting and depleting both sides. In 1632 the governor at last signed a treaty with some of the warring tribes, and in time, relations between the colonists and the other hostile factions improved as well. Trade resumed and life settled into the uneasy peace that had existed before the massacre of a decade before.

Things remained quiet until March 1644, when the irrepressible Opechancanough—now well into his 90s—launched another surprise attack on a number of settlements and outlying farms, this time killing between 400 and 500 settlers. By now, however, their population had grown to some 8,000, and they were well disposed to respond. This second conflict lasted two years and resulted in a resounding Indian defeat. Opechancanough was captured and then killed by one of the soldiers assigned to guard him. In the words of historians Millet and Maslowski, “His death symbolized the demise of future resistance to white expansion in the Tidewater area.” The bloody Tidewater Wars—and the centuries-old dominance of the Native American culture in coastal Virginia—were finally at an end.


Ron Soodalter has authored more than 150 articles for publications, including the New York Times, Military History, Wild West, and Smithsonian. His most recent book is The Slave Next Door.