The Jamestown Massacre – A Look Back

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.

5 thoughts on “The Jamestown Massacre – A Look Back

  1. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.”

  4. As a Native American, I find your hypothesis completely ignorant. We were not the cause of our treatment, the colonials take full responsibility for that. They came to this land and took whatever they wanted. How would you react if I came to your house and took it over without compensation.. what would you do? Wouldn’t you fight back? Your statement follows the same logic as a wifebeater hitting his wife and then saying she asked for it.. pure B.S.

    • Hello Steven,

      Those English settlers had a very difficult time. They didn’t take whatever they wanted, in fact they grew their own crops and traded with the Powhatan. The Powhatan continually did bad things to them without care for their well being. Whether that’s justified is up to your personal beliefs. I’m simply pointing out that many of the Powhatan did what they could to destroy the English settlers.

      I personally believe in being welcoming to others. If I were the leader of the Powhatan I would have made friends with the settlers and done what I could to help them, learn from them, and teach them in the hopes of having a mutually beneficial relationship. Now certainly that would have been difficult with the European mindset of those times but I feel that perhaps Native Americans would have been given a fairer shake if things were more civil early on.

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