Virginia and Prisoners of War Before the American Revolution

Fights between Native Americans resulted in the capture of prisoners, but they were not kept for long periods of time in prisoner of war camps. Feeding and housing prisoners required an allocation of resources that was not considered appropriate. Captured people (especially women and children) were incorporated into the culture of the victorious Native American tribes, enslaved, or executed. Ritual torture before execution was not uncommon for captured warriors.1

The English colonists had no desire to provide food or shelter to criminals. Those accused of a crime were kept in a jail until trial. Afterwards, the innocent were freed and the guilty were punished by fines, whippings, mutilation, and painful time in the "stocks." Punishment by imposing a prison sentence would have required using tax revenues for the length of the sentence.

Other than exchange of hostages, the English colonists rarely kept Native Americans as captives. The most famous exception was the capture of Pocahontas by Captain Samuel Argall in 1613.

Another exception was in 1662. Leading planters in Westmoreland County on the Northern Neck captured and imprisoned Wahanganoche, the chief of the Potowomack. He was falsely accused on murder, but a committee appointed by the General Assembly freed him and fined Giles Brent, John Lord, Gerrard Ffowke and George Mason.

The closest approximation of a prisoner of war camp in the 1600's was the use of Tangier Island in 1645. After the 1644 uprising led by Opechancanough, Governor Berkeley and the English successfully responded with military action. They captured Opechancanough and a group of his warriors in 1645. Opechancanough was imprisoned briefly in Jamestown, and a colonist murdered him while defenseless in jail.

The warriors were shipped to Tangier Island cast adrift there, with no food or shelter. They had no tools, so the potential to make canoes for escape was minimal. Those captives were essentially imprisoned on the island and left to slowly starve to death.2

During Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, forces led by Nathaniel Bacon occupied Jamestown. It was recaptured, briefly, by Governor Berkeley's army, and it acquired 20 prisoners. The "rebels" had to be carried to the Eastern Shore as Berkeley's allies fled on ships when Bacon returned and burned Jamestown. Bacon's forces "barbarously imprisoned" at least one member of Governor Berkeley's Council of State.

At the end of Bacon's Rebellion, Governor William Berkeley ended up with many captured rebels. A few prisoners escaped while in custody, and others died in prison before trial or scheduled execution. Bacon himself had died from disease, and the loss of his charismatic leadership led to the failure of his rebellion.

Berkeley quickly tried and executed most of the key ringleaders; former Governor William Drummond was among the 23 hanged. Berkeley and his allies, whose houses and farms had been plundered during the rebellion, focused primarily on seizing the assets of other captives. The majority of people who marched and fought with Nathaniel Bacon, those without land or other property to seize, were pardoned by the governor and sent back home.

The only alternative would have been to keep those who fought against the official government imprisoned on tobacco ships. The captains of those vessels had been key allies of Governor Berkeley and enabled his final military victory, but needed to get rid of the prisoners so their ships could go back to profitable trading. Berkeley had no way to generate funds to feed prisoners other than raising taxes, and that had been one of the triggers that started Bacon's Rebellion.3

The French and Indian War did not result in capture and incarceration of large numbers of enemy troops in Virginia. The fighting between Virginia militia and Native American forces was guerilla warfare; the rules of war were different from battles between French and British regiments.

The American Revolution created the first opportunity for formal military surrenders on complete armies, creation of cartels for prisoner exchanges, and application of traditional European procedures for managing prison camps created for enemy soldiers.

Albemarle Barracks

Civil War Prisons

Prisoner of War Camps in Virginia - World War II

Prisons in Virginia

Virginia and Prisoners of War in the American Revolution


1. Nathaniel Knowles, "The Torture of Captives by the Indians of Eastern North America," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 82, Number 2 (March 22, 1940), (last checked January 15, 2021)
2. "The Case of Wahanganoche; an excerpt from the Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia (1662)," Encyclopedia Virginia, February 13, 2013,; "Chapter 4 - Narrative History," Martha W. McCartney, in A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century, Danielle Moretti-Langholtz (Principal Investigator), National Park Service, December 2005, (last checked January 15, 2021)
3. Maria Kimberly and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, "William Drummond (d. 1677)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, November 4, 2014,; Stephen Saunders Webb, 1676, the End of American Independence, Syracuse University Press, 1995 p.11,; "Bacon's Rebellion," Colonial National Historical Park, National Park Service,; John Harold Sprinkle Jr., "Loyalists and Baconians: the participants in Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, 1676-1677," PhD dissertation, William and Mary College, 1996, p.72, p.142, p.148, (last checked January 16, 2021)

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