Sidney King painting, "Indian Uprising, 1622"
Source: National Park Service - Sidney King paintings
Opechancanough became the paramount chief sometime after the end of the first Anglo-Powhatan War, perhaps even before Powhatan died. Another brother, Opitchipan, held the leadership role officially until his death in 1629, but it appears that Opechancanough made the key decision to abandon Powhatan's way of dealing with the colonists through negotiations and appeasement.
Opechancanough determined that diplomacy had failed, and the Native Americans should not passively submit and allow the English immigrants to displace the tribes within Tsenacommacah. He tried to use military force to get the colonists to abandon Virginia, or at least adjust their relationship with the local tribes.
In his lifetime, Opechancanough organized two major surprise assaults on the colonial settlements. The attack in 1622 triggered the Second Anglo-Powhatan War which lasted for a decade. The 1632 peace treaty did not end the conflict between cultures, and in 1644 Opechancanough launched another attack that started the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644-46). Hundreds of settlers were killed in the initial surprise attacks, and even more Native Americans were killed in reprisals.
A year before the 1622 assault on the colonial homesteads and settlements, Opechancanough coordinated plans with various tribes at the ceremony for the "taking up of Powhatan's bones," when the Algonquian-speaking groups in eastern Virginia had assembled to relocate the great chief's bones to a final place of honor.
A chief on the Eastern Shore alerted the colonists that an uprising was being planned, and Opechancanough was planning to use poison from a plant (Cicuta maculata). Opechancanough was forced to delay his attack until the following Spring, when the colonists had relaxed their guard.
Opechancanough had planned in 1621 to poison colonists with water hemlock (above), but his efforts to acquire a stockpile from the Eastern Shore led to revelation of his plan
Source: US Forest Service, PLANTS Database Provides Answers for Vegetative Questions
The assault finally came on March 22, 1622. Nearly 347 English settlers, roughly one-third of the colonists, were killed. Wolstenholme Towne in Martin's Hundred, east of Jamestown, suffered the greatest loss of life. Colonists in undefended farmhouses at the greatest distance from Jamestown suffered severely, and the Henricus settlement with its iron furnace at Falling Creek was destroyed.
Not everyone chose to follow Opechancanough's orders. Late on March 21, 1622 at least one Native American revealed the assault plans. In Virginia myth one person named Chanco warned Richard Pace, who lived on the south side of the James River. "Chanco" is apparently a conflation of a person named "Chauco" on the Pamunkey River together with a boy who lived near Pace's plantation, both of whom may have alerted the colonists.1
Pace warned the settlement at Jamestown, which was not attacked. As John Smith later described it:2
the allegiance of Chanco to the colonists, rather than to his fellow Native Americans, is honored on the interior of the reconstructed church at Jamestown
Opechancanough could not exterminate the colony, but tried instead to reset the balance of power. If Opechancanough had intended to completely expel the English from Virginia, then he would have followed up with further attacks.
The Native Americans lacked the resources to support sustained warfare. Opechancanough could not besiege Jamestown in 1622 as Powhatan had done in the first Anglo-Powhatan War of 1609-13, but Governor Francis Wyatt still fled to the Eastern Shore for six weeks in 1622.3
engraving of 1622 uprising suggests the violence expressed against the colonists
Source: Brown University, John Carter Brown Library, Massacre at Jamestown, Virginia, 1622
The colonists did have the capacity for sustained warfare. They retaliated for 10 years with widespread destruction of Native American towns, destroying hard-to-replace crops as well as easy-to-replace thatch buildings. There were intermittent raids in March while food reserves were low before crops were planted, in July when corn fields could be cut down, and in November when the destruction of towns would have the greatest impact.4
There was one unusual battle in 1624, when about 800 Indians battled 60 English soldiers for two days. The mismatch between arrows and guns determined the winner. The Indians suffered heavy casualties, but just 16 of the English were wounded.5
Colonial leaders decided in 1629 to block any Native Americans from living on the eastern end of the Peninsula. In 1630, colonial control of the northeastern edge near the mouth of the York River was increased by offering 50 acres of free land to those willing to settle at Kiskiack (now part of the US Naval Weapons Station near modern Yorktown).6
after the 1622 attack, the English settled Kiskiack (Chiskiack) and planned barricades to exclude Native Americans from the eastern portion of the Peninsula, ultimately leading to the settlement at Middle Plantation in 1634
Source: Virginia Under Charles I and Cromwell, 1625-1660
In 1632, the colonists reached a peace agreement with Opechancanough that excluded Native Americans from the lower half of the Peninsula. To control access, the General Assembly approved building a wooden wall between the James and York Rivers and expanded the offer of 50 free acres to those willing to settle near the wall.
Behind the wall, a new community was established on the watershed divide. Middle Plantation (later named Williamsburg) was in the middle on the peninsula between Archers Hope Creek (now known as College Creek) on the James River and Queens Creek on the York River.
Using a wall for defense and defining a boundary was not new. Native American towns used palisades for protection, Jamestown had a fort with wooden walls, and before 1620 wooden barriers had been erected at Henricus and Bermuda Hundred to enclose small peninsulas.
A wall between Martin's Hundred to Kiskiack had been proposed soon after the 1622 attack, but the location of the barrier was moved further west in 1633. The extra decade of warfare had allowed the colonists to expand their control over the Peninsula; by 1632, the General Assembly included two representatives elected from the area around Kiskiack.7
a barrier between Martin's Hundred and Kiskiack was proposed in 1624 (red line), but the wall built in 1634 (blue line) enclosed more acres on the Peninsula
Source: location of 1634 palisade from Phillip Levy, A New Look at an Old Wall. Indians, Englishmen, Landscape, and the 1634 Palisade at Middle Plantation
(overlaid on map from ESRI, ArcGIS Online)
Architecturally, the wall across the Peninsula reflected the limited labor and materials available in a colony only 25 years old:8
approximate route of 1634 palisade across the Peninsula, cutting through modern-day Williamsburg
Source: location of palisade from Phillip Levy, A New Look at an Old Wall. Indians, Englishmen, Landscape, and the 1634 Palisade at Middle Plantation
(overlaid on USGS 7.5 minute topo, 2010)