Native Americans and English traders both came armed, and did not asssume every deal would be negotiated peacefully
Source: National Park Service, Jamestown - Sidney King Paintings, John Smith Trading With the Indians
The English sailing to Jamestown understood that the occupants of the New World might be hostile. The story of Father Juan Baptista de Seguera in 1570 may not have been known to the English, but those on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery knew that the Roanoke Colony had disappeared 20 years earlier.
Relations between the English and the Algonquians in Virginia were hostile from the very first day. When the English first came ashore at Cape Henry, April 26, 1607, two of them were wounded by Native Americans. The English response, after they explored inland and rowed across Hampton Roads to discover Point Comfort: build a cross at Cape Henry. They could have built a fort, but the instructions were to move inland.
Shortly after arriving at Jamestown Island three weeks later, a brief flurry of arrows convinced the Council that a fort had to be constructed immediately.
The English were worried about more than just the Algonquians under Powhatan's control. Our only contemporary image of that Jamestown fort comes from the Spanish archives, which retained a copy of the 1608 drawing provided by a spy to Spanish ambassador Pedro de Zúñiga. John Smith or his cartographer may have produced the map, which was sent to London and perhaps intercepted there by the Spanish.
sketch of triangular fort at Jamestown
Source: The "Zuņiga Chart" of Virginia, 1608
The English were wise to worry about their European rivals. There really was a threat of invasion of Virginia by international enemies, in addition to the domestic threat from Native Americans that were being displaced, in 1607.
re-creation in 2006 of James Fort palisade, along the James River
(the modern John Smith statue faces what would have been the main entrance to the fort)
Under international law as the Europeans defined it in 1607, the English were entitled to claim Virginia by right of discovery. The European nations knew the lands in the New World were not "empty." However, the Europeans asserted rights to lands that were not occupied by any *Christian* prince.
The colonists made their claim to Virginia clear with a religious symbol, by erecting a cross at Cape Henry when they arrived. The English claimed exclusive territorial title by right of discovery, and the cross alerted any other Europeans that the colonists would defend that claim.
Europeans also claimed lands by right of conquest. After the English defeated an enemy, they felt entitled to claim exclusive rights to the lands of the enemy.
Powhatan also asserted a claim to the territory of defeated enemies and rivals. In the mid-1590's, 15 years before the English colonists arrived, he expanded the boundaries of his paramount chiefdom, the territory called Tsenacommacah.
He seized control of the town of Kecoughtan, at the tip of the Peninsula and site of the modern city of Hampton. The group living there may have been allied with other tribes in southeast Virginia/northeast North Carolina. Powhatan's warriors killed the werowance (chief), along with many members of the tribe occupying that land. Powhatan repopulated the site with his subjects and installed his son Pochins as the new werowance.
Powhatan also conquered the Chesapeake tribe in what today is Norfolk/Virginia Beach, and seized control over their territory. According to William Strachey, Powhatan ordered the slaughter of the tribe to block a prophecy of his priests that "from the Chesapeake Bay a nation should arise which should dissolve and give end to his empire."1
location of different tribes in Virginia in 1607
derived from Virginia Department of Historic Resources - First People: The Early Indians of Virginia, portrayed on Frye-Jefferson map (1751)
Powhatan was the leader of the Virginia tribes who occupied the lands where the English arrived. There were other non-Algonquian tribes in 1600 west of the Fall Line, and Algonquian-speaking tribes north of the Rappahannock River that did not consider Powhatan to be their paramount chief... but the English happened to sail into Powhatan's turf. His authority over 30+ tribes was enhanced by his skill asserting his dominance through dress, architecture, and behavior as well as through force.
John Smith was clearly impressed when he first met Powhatan ("their Emperour") in his capital in January, 1608:2
Powhatan established his leadership role with drama as well as force
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith
Powhatan did not try to expel the English from his territory, Tsenacommacah. He knew how much effort was required to carve a canoe with shell and fire, and to create wooden palisades that protected towns. The strange-talking, light-skinned, bad-smelling "tassantassas" with the sharp iron tools had value. Powhatan's war aims were to acquire technology and status goods (shiny glass beads and copper) from the English, without losing control of his territory to the European arrivals.
Powhatan's strategy - the way he implemented his war aims - was to control food supplies in hopes of keeping the English dependent upon him. His tactics - the way he implemented his strategy - was to mix diplomacy with fighting, rather than to fight 100% of the time.
The English war aims were equally simple. The Europeans wanted to extract wealth from Virginia, preferably in the form of gold, silver, and jewels that would be valued in Europe.
The first settlers were employees of the Virginia Company, hoping to get rich and return to Europe. They were not religious zealots seeking freedom; the first English immigrants to Virginia were not refugees who planned to cross the Atlantic Ocean once, and never return "home" to England.
For every supply ship that arrived at Jamestown, there was a ship sailing back to England that offered a chance to go back. Many of the early leaders at Jamestown, including John Smith, did return back to England.
The English had to defend their new territory to keep the Spanish, Dutch, and French away. For those colonists who were planning to be in Virginia only briefly, why fight to acquire long-term title or ownership of the land from the Indians?
After a few years, the English realized that the Virginia colony was not going to be a source of mineral wealth comparable to the areas occupied by the Spanish in Central and South America. In 1610, the English completely abandoned Jamestown. All of the colonists climbed on board their ships and sailed downstream towards England. At the mouth of the James River, they met Lord de la Warre with a resupply and returned to Jamestown. The English returned to Jamestown, glad that they had not torched their fort and houses as they had abandoned the town.
Bottom Line: the English decided there was nothing in Virginia worth death from disease/starvation/fighting. Had the retreating English not met Lord de la Warre's resupply, Powhatan's alternating pattern of hot and cold war would have worked. Powhatan would have retained control of the Peninsula and the rest of his confederacy, along with the iron tools he had acquired from the English.
Lord De la Warre arrives in the nick of time on ships with cannons, prepared to fight... someone
Source: National Park Service - Sidney King collection of paintings created for the 350th Anniversary of Jamestown
When Lord de la Warre assumed control of the colony in 1610, Powhatan was forced to deal with more aggressive occupier. De la Warre intensified the English military efforts, burning Indian cornfields and towns. His use of scorched-earth tactics was comparable to those used by the English in Ireland, as the English seized control of that island from the Celtic residents.
In 1613, John Rolfe planted a crop of tobacco with seeds imported from the Caribbean islands. After that crop was sold in Europe for a high price, the Virginia Company changed its goals for the business venture in Virginia. The company's new purpose for investing in the colony was still to gain wealth, but through agricultural production rather than through mining precious metals. "Virginia leaf" became more popular in Europe than the harsher-tasting "Spanish leaf" - and in those days, there were no filters or flavorings like menthol to smooth the smoke, so the quality of the tobacco was critical to the taste.
harvesting tobacco leaves on the Peninsula in the 1600's before drying and "prizing" them into hogsheads (barrels) for shipping to Europe
Source: National Park Service - Sidney King collection of paintings created for the 350th Anniversary of Jamestown
That's when ownership of land became so important. First the English seized the most-convenient lands for growing a crop - the existing fields and even towns of the Indians. The Virginia soils on the Peninsula were naturally fertile, but would yield good tobacco crops for only 2-3 years with no fertilizer. After that, the English needed to occupy other lands that had been controlled by the tribes under Powhatan's control.
The English often tried to acculturate the Powhatans and convert them to the English religion and lifestyle. However, the English efforts at Christianizing the "heathen" were much less intense than the Spanish efforts in their colonies.
The Catholic Church was an independent power that had its own desires to increase its influence by winning converts in the New World. The Anglican church in England was much more subordinate to the monarch, after King Henry VIII split the English church away from the control of the Pope in Rome and seized the monasteries. That event, long before Jamestown, may have been a key reason why the English colonists in Virginia treated the Native Americans differently from the Spanish.
The English tactics were similar to Powhatan's - spurts of overt hostility, mixed in with attempts to replace open warfare with a warm peace or at least a cold war. Neither side wanted to invest the resources in constant, intense fighting. Powhatan had more people, but the English had better technology.
Native Americans gained access to guns and gunpowder soon after the English arrived at Jamestown
Source: "The Maps and Map-Makers of Maryland," A Land-skip of the Province of Maryland (by George Alsop, 1666)
The technology-limited Native Americans had to trade with the English for for guns and gunpowder, since they were unable to manufacture their own. The English needed food and purchased deerskins and other goods for export. had water-based mobility, but they were not completely safe in their sailing ships. They had to keep a guard against a canoe-based attack, when the sailing ships were near the Virginia shoreline. Think the English believed their way of life was as superior as their technology, and that the Algonquians would be willing (or could be coerced) to abandon their traditional culture?
John Rolfe's marriage to Pocahontas was one temporarily-successful attempt to establish peaceful coexistence between the English and the Native Americans. Powhatan and the English both took a calculated risk when they approved that marriage, and it led to eight years of peace.
the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe led to an eight-year pause in warfare between the Native Americans and the colonists
Source: Wikipedia, Pocahontas
The Virginia colony could have created a blending of two cultures, with the Algonquians adopting English technology and the colonists adopting farming, hunting, and housing patterns from the Native Americans. Both cultures could have modified their perspective on land ownership and racial identify, shifting from "us vs. them" to a society where intermarriage and mixed offspring were common.
By 1622, the colonists were encouraging the Algonquians to visit regularly in the English houses and to adopt English patterns of life. However, Opechancanough's uprising sought to eliminate the "other" culture from Virginia, and brought an end to the concept of integrating the Native Americans into English culture. 400 years later, history books are just beginning to consider the Algonquian perspective on colonization.
The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe can be viewed as a prelude to the final decision by the English to suppress the Algonquian culture in Virginia. She navigated the rituals of English society, in the colony and finally in London. After 1613, it was a one-way street for Pocahontas to "become English," at least in her superficial characteristics of dress and language, while her English husband adopted few if any Algonquian habits.
For centuries, English/American artists have emphasized how Pocahontas adopted English manners and dress. By the time she was captured in 1613, she may have already been married to an Algonquian named Kocoum and may have had tattoos on her face (a symbol of high status)... but no English portraits show her with tattoos.
One possibility: Pocahontas may have been happy choosing John Rolfe as her new husband, rather than returning to her tribe. In her old culture, she was just one of many children fathered by the paramount chief. Powhatan used her as an ambassador to the Patawomeck tribe - and when they sold her to Captain Samuel Argall for a copper kettle, Powhatan did not complete negotiations to ensure her return.
In English society, however, Pocahontas was quickly provided status as someone very special, a "princess" with a father who was the equivalent of a king. Perhaps she chose, willingly, to switch rather than to fight.
On the other hand, it's an old saying that people fight for "their way of life." Maybe Pocahontas voluntarily adopted a new culture after her marriage, blending her old and new culture together so she got the best of both worlds - or she may have simply masqueraded as English, but was still a fully-Algonquian woman dressed in different clothes. She died three years after marrying John Rolfe, so there is inadequate evidence to assess her motivations.
Pocahontas is on official seal of Henrico County
It is clear that few other Algonquians chose to trade lifestyles. The Europeans had little success converting the adult Algonquians to adopt English religion, clothing, or housing - though the Algonquians were quite sophisticated in their capacity to acquire and use English technology, while still living in Algonquian towns, growing crops the Algonquian way, and dressing in the Algonquian style.
The hard life for an indentured servant in the colony attracted immigrants from England primarily because Virginia offered a chance to acquire land from Powhatan and his subordinate tribes. To the Algonquians, English title to land they already controlled was no incentive. The English had a little success with the young Algonquian children that Powhatan and his successors permitted to live in English households, but that ended in 1622.
how the interior of an English colonist's house may have appeared in 1622
Source: National Park Service, Sidney King collection of paintings created for the 350th Anniversary of Jamestown
By March 22, 1622, Powhatan had died and been replaced by Opechancanough. A thumbnail description of the situation by Phillip Levy summarizes what he faced:3
The English did not view Opechancanough as overtly hostile, and the Native Americans retained easy access to the English houses. As a result, Opechancanough was very successful in surprising his enemies on March 22. The Algonquians were visiting and working as usual, indoors and outdoors, with the English that day.
Starting at noon, however, the peaceful conversation stopped. The Algonquians started attacking English men, women, and children with knives, hatchets, and farm implements. About 350 English died in the uprising, which the English labeled a "massacre."
Theodore De Bry engraving of March 22, 1622
Source: Indians of North America - Theodore De Bry Woodcuts
That event marks the end of Powhatan's strategy of accommodation in order to achieve rare goods and technology, while constraining the English to a small portion of Tsenacommacah.
The 1622 uprising also marks the end of English accommodation. For the English, peaceful coexistence was replaced by a policy of excluding the Algonquians from English settlements, literally building a wall across the Peninsula. Native Americans were required to wear official badges when trading with the English, in territory once occupied by the Chickahominy, Paspahegh, Kiskiack, Kecoughtan, and other tribes.