The Jamestown Massacre - A Look Back

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Jamestown Massacre

Recently I had a discussion with several other Americans of various ethnicities about the treatment of the people that were living throughout North and South America during the time that the first American colonies were established.

I find that people are generally ignorant when it comes to the colonists of the Americas, North America in particular, as that is what I am most familiar with; English settlers to be more specific.

People are usually far more to one side than the other: Either they think that the settlers were terrible people and should not have been on the land in the first place, or they feel that the natives were insolent savages and nothing more. I fall somewhere in the middle, seeing obvious failings on both sides.

The people with whom I was having this discussion with all fell to the side of thinking that all settlers were terrible people, taking land that didn't belong to them, and that the natives were apparently perfect in everything that they did. No matter what, they felt that the Christian settlers were in the wrong.

Sadly most of them had no clue what actually happened during the first colonies and the Jamestown massacre until I either informed them or refreshed their foggy memories:

 

Jamestown Settlement

Jamestown was the earliest lasting English colony in the new world. It was founded by the Virginia Company of London on May 14th, 1607, which was chartered by James I a year earlier along with its sister company the Virginia Company of Plymouth.

Life in Jamestown was in no way easy. The land that was initially settled was less than ideal and the Powhatan Indians were on the attack almost immediately after the settlers made landfall. That is a fact: There is clear historical evidence that the Powhatan made the first move in attacking the English settlers just a week after they arrived.

Attacks from the Powhatan Indians were the least of the settlers' problems: They had far worse to deal with, namely what is known as the Starving Time during the winter of 1609-1610, when their supply convoy ran into a hurricane, crops failed, and trade was cut off by the Powhatan Indians.

The Starving Time ended with the deaths of the vast majority of settlers living in Jamestown and nearly brought the colony to an end. The cause is clearly convoluted, but there is no doubt that the Powhatan played their role in the deaths of a great many settlers that horrible winter.

Then in 1611 and 1612 John Rolfe planted and began exporting tobacco from the colony. This breakthrough in trade firmly established the colony and allowed it to thrive in comparison to the first few years of struggle.

Issues with the Powhatan Indians continued into the following years, as more and more land was used up the river to cultivate their new crop, thus growing the colony and using more of the land that was formerly occupied by the Powhatan.

 

Wahunsunacock, Chief Powhatan

After the succession and death of Wahunsunacock, the leader of the Powhatan Indians and a seemingly level-headed fellow compared to those that came after him, likely thanks to the marriage of his daughter Pocahontas to John Rolfe 1614; relations with the Powhatan once again became a major issue for the colonists to deal with.

Sometime after Wahunsunacock was succeeded his brother Opechancanough ended up with power over the Powhatan. Opechancanough was by all accounts an ignorant and hateful individual that showed extreme disdain and prejudice towards the settlers from the very beginnings of the colony.

The Powhatan's animosity and hatred towards the settlers came to a head with an attack that was planned and led by Opechancanough in 1622; this attack is known as the Jamestown massacre.

Even with much better relations between the settlers and the Powhatan in the years following the marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe, Opechancanough continued to carry his hatred for the settlers and the contempt that he must have felt for his previous failings against the settlers.

Plotting and planning to destroy the settlers for years, Opechancanough finally had his chance to launch his attack on every settlement along the James River.

The sneak attack that Opechancanough planned resulted in the deaths of approximately half of the settlers, huge amounts of destruction which lead to the complete abandonment of many of their settlements, as well as the enslavement of a great number of female settlers that were captured during the attack.

 

Opechancanough

After the attack by the Powhatan under the command and leadership of Opechancanough the colonists of course retaliated, which I believe to be a completely valid reaction to such a heinously planned and executed attack.

A couple of years after the Jamestown massacre the Virginia colony was turned into a royal, or crown colony; thus removing the Virginia Company of London from their previous involvement with the colony. This also gave the English much more power in the new world, which in turn helped lead to all future misdeeds towards innocent natives.

The decisions and actions of the Powhatan Indians, culminating with the Jamestown Massacre, without a doubt deserve much of the blame for the misdeeds directed towards those that were native to North America during the time of the first English colonies, to the end of them and into the creation of the United States of America.

Since we know that Opechancanough was entirely behind the Jamestown Massacre, as well as many other hostilities between the settlers and the natives, we can and should thusly blame him for the actions of the settlers from then on.

The reaction after the Jamestown massacre by the settlers was due to the actions of Opechancanough and those that followed him. They carry the burden of any mistreatment that their people had to endure, as well as the burden of the suffering of many thousands of other natives in the future, thanks to the negativity that the Jamestown massacre allowed and provided to current and future colonists.

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3 Comments

Thank you so much for the fair treatment you gave all involved in the Jamestown Massacre. I've been visiting websites and reading about the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of Jamestown. I was under the impression that it was going to be a celebration of the courage shown by the men that came from England to the New World. What I found was almost apologetic.

We recently found that Richard Pace, the man that alarmed the settlement of the impending attack,was my husband's 14th great-grandfather. I'm sure you know the story of his friendship with the Indian,Chanco, so won't bore you with that.

Again I thank you for giving me something to show our grandchildren so they don't get the impression that what the settlers did was wrong. Martha Henson

I completely agree with you in saying that a great many of the written opinions about new world settlers show them in somewhat of a negative light. Many people seem to think that the settlers had it easy and that they were trying to cause problems with the native people, which is just ridiculous.

Also, thank you for mentioning Chanco, who really should have been in the article; and telling the story of Richard Pace being your husband's 14th great grandfather, that's very interesting and something that I'm sure your grandchildren will enjoy knowing.

Charles, what an interesting article! I completely agree that the relationship between the Jamestown colonists and the Powhatans was very complex. Most people don't realize this, because all they know comes from Disney and grade-school textbooks. The original journals of the colonists show that the colonists regarded the "savages" (or "hindees" as they sometimes called them)as worthy adversaries, not to be underestimated and that they tried to negotiate with them as equals, especially during the "Starving Time." A couple of years ago one of my short stories was about the Starving Time (published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2007, "Dead of Winter"). I've been fascinated by the Powhatans for years--still working on a novel featuring them. Oh well, it's good to know there are people out there who share my interest. I hope you'll visit my website and take a look at "Dead of Winter."

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This page contains a single entry by Charles Lumia published on August 20, 2008 5:14 AM.

Olympic Swimming - An Amazing Moment in Sport was the previous entry in this blog.

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