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Powhatan "Feedfights" - Virginia - 1610-1614

The First Anglo-Powhatan War ended with the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in April 1614. During the War, which began in 1610, he colonists had a difficult time bringing the swift-moving Indians to decisive battle, and so the objective of colonial strategy became the Indians' villages and food supplies. Colonial forces struck Indian villages, killing old men, women, and children, burning homes, and destroying crops and food caches. The settlers retaliated, burned Indian villages, taking their corn in “feed fights”.

At the time of the first settlement by the Europeans, it has been estimated that there were not more than twenty thousand Indians within the limits of the State of Virginia. Within a circuit of sixty miles from Jamestown, Captain Smith says, there were about five thousand souls, and of these scarce fifteen hundred were warriors. Powhatan was the ruler of the native people of Virginia at the time when the first Europeans came there. The whole territory between the mountains and the sea was occupied by more than forty tribes, thirty of whom were united in a confederacy under Powhatan, whose dominions, hereditary and acquired by conquest, comprised the whole country between the rivers James and Potomac, and extended into the interior as far as the falls of the principal rivers.

Campbell, in his “History of Virginia,” states the number of Powhatan's subjects to have been eight thousand. Powhatan was a remarkable man ; a sort of savage Napoleon, who, by the force of his character and the superiority of his talents, had raised himself from the rank of a petty chieftain to something of imperial dignity and power. He had two places of abode, one called Powhatan, where Richmond now stands, and the other at Werowocomoco, on the north side of York River, within the present county of Gloucester. He lived in something of barbaric state and splendor. He had a guard of forty warriors in constant attendance, and four sentinels kept watch during the night around his dwelling. His power was absolute over his people, by whom he was looked up to with something of religious veneration. His feelings towards the whites were those of implacable enmity, and his energy and abilities made him a formidable foe to the infant colony.

Besides the large confederacy of which Powhatan was the chief, there were two others, with which that was often at war. One of these, called the Mannahoacs, consisted of eight tribes, and occupied the country between the Rappahannoc and York rivers; the other, consisting of five tribes, was called the Monacans, and was settled between York and James rivers, above the Falls. There were also, in addition to these, many scattering and independent tribes.

The colony, owing to gross mismanagement and improvidence in the council in England, were very inadequately furnished with provisions. Soon the sufferings of the colonists reached their utmost extent. Their provisions were consumed, no prospect of relief appeared, and they were in hourly expectation of an attack from the Indians, to whom they could have offered no effectual resistance, in their present enfeebled condition. But they, so far from doing them any violence, supplied them liberally with provisions; a treatment so welcome and unexpected, that the grateful piety of Smith ascribes it to a special interposition of divine Providence.

The first documented European contact with Indians living along the Potomac River came shortly after the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607: on June 2, 1608, Captain John Smith undertook an exploration of the Chesapeake Bay and its associated rivers. His writings have proven to be invaluable to ethnographic, ethnohistorical, and historical research. His detailed map was to serve as the map for some time to come, and still serves today as an invaluable aid in understanding the nature of Indian OCCupation, population density, and probable tribal affiliation.

However, Smith's explorations and writings did more. They heralded the dawn of the historical era and transcended the archeological past with the historical, adding the human element to the prehistory, allowing a glimpse of the Indian behind the artifact. The "Potomac Creek People," an archeological construction, came to life in the form of villages, tribal groupings and chiefdoms, interactions and intrigue, life and death, continuity and change. The English would soon discover that the stretch of settlements on the Maryland shores of the Potomac were subservient to the supreme chief (Tayac) of the Piscataway. Moyaone was the name of the principal village of the Piscataway. Thus, the "Moyaones" were the Piscataway proper. The Tauxenent were historically known as Tauxenent, Taux, Toag, and, finally Doag. They lived in what is now Fairfax County and are generally viewed as having been part of the Powhatan chiefdom of Virginia.

The arrival of the English colonists at Jamestown led quickly to profound changes for Native Americans throughout eastern North America. The impact spread far beyond the actual reach of the white men as European diseases and warfare over the fur trade led to the disappearance of many tribes and the displacement of others. A few Indian groups, such as the Five Nations Iroquois, took advantage of the changes to expand their wealth and power, but for most the seventeenth century was a time of shrinking populations, loss of territory, and political uncertainty.

Powhatan, emperor of the Indians in Virginia, at the time of the settlement of that colony in 1607, was the most powerful of the Indian kings. He was deeply versed in all the savage arts of government and policy, and was insidious, crafty, and cruel. Colonial relations with the Powhatan chiefdom of Virginia were not cordial.

The first summer, starvation and disease more than military assault, threatened to destroy the colony until Powhatan sent his people with food to trade. In directing the exchange of corn, fish, and venison in exchange for iron tools, copper pots, and glass beads, Powhatan preserved authority that previously depended in part on his ability to collect and redistribute copper, poccoon [red dye], roanoke [shell beads], and other native wares.

In the winter of 1608-1609, John Smith drastically reduced the rate of starvation and disease among the settlers by dispersing them to sites along the James River. But doing so antagonized Powhatans' people. Forced back to Jamestown and confined there by Indian retaliatory raids, unable to plant and ill supplied, 120 of the 220 remaining settlers died during the next winter (1609-1610) — a period infamous as the "Starving Time."

Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, emperor of the Indians of Virginia, was born about the year 1595. When capt. Smith was taken prisoner in 1607, and it was determined, that he should be put to death, his head was placed upon two large stones at the feet of Powhatan, that a number of Indians, who stood ready with clubs, might beat out his brains. At this moment Pocahontas rushed to the spot and placed her own head upon his. From regard to his daughter the savage king spared his life. In 1609, when but 14 years of age, she went to James Town in a dreary night and unfolded to captain Smith a plot, which the Indians had formed for the extermination of the English, and thus at the hazard of her life saved them from destruction.

After Smith was forced to return to England due to an explosion which gave him deep burn wounds during a trading expedition, the colony was led by George Percy, who proved incompetent in negotiating with the native tribes.

The first Powhatan war erupted in 1609. As a consequence, the Virginia Company advised Sir Thomas Gates, the Knight Governor of Virginia, to warn the colonists to befriend distant Indians and make enemies of those nearby. Although the Nacotchtanke living at Namoraughguend do not seem to have been involved in this conflict, they were to be influenced by the new colonial policy. By 1610 Captain Argall had established a trade network with the Patawomeke. There is little doubt that some of these trade goods filtered their way to the Nacotchtanke, the Piscataway proper, and other neighboring groups.

Soldiers were never to allow Indians to examine or even hold guns, lest they "run from you with your shot." To enhance the Natives' awe and fear of their muskets' killing power, the leaders could let only those settlers "Chosen out of your best Marksmen" shoot in front of the Indians. Otherwise, "if they see Your Learners miss what they aim at they will think the Weapons not so terrible and will be [boldened] to Assailt You."

Two weeks after arriving in Jamestown, another band of Indians (probably Paspaheghs) mounted a "very furious Assault" on the English. Only fire from the ships anchored nearby drove the Indians off. Early victory eluded the Powhatans in June 1609 when the arrival of ships bearing new supplies, arms, and settlers narrowly prevented desperate survivors from burning the fort and abandoning the colony. The ships also brought the new governor, Thomas West, the Lord De La Warr, one of a succession of militaristic leaders who replaced Smith after a wound from a gunpowder explosion forced him to return to England.

Powhatan's people wiped out an English blockhouse that guarded the approaches to Jamestown and later attempted to lay siege to the main settlement. More often they had to fall back before better-armed and better-armored English troops and hope that disease, hunger, and the occasional military victory would deplete the settlers faster than supply ships could replenish them.

The colonists had a difficult time bringing the swift-moving Indians to decisive battle, and the real objective of colonial strategy became the Indians' villages and food supplies. Shepherded by Indian scouts, often guided by Indian informers, and invariably accompanied by Indian warriors, colonial forces struck at Indian villages, killing old men, women, and children, burning homes, and destroying crops and food caches. Men who believed they were fighting to protect their own homes and families from savage heathens eagerly torched Indian dwellings, slaughtered noncombatants, and starved survivors by destroying food supplies. Colonists from outlying areas were ordered into fortified settlements, where severe food shortages occurred and contagious diseases spread. The settlers retaliated, burning Indian villages, taking their corn in “feed fights”, and killing the inhabitants.

Waging war against society rather than against warriors was new and shocking to the Indians. Captain Underhill, who was so condescending toward the gentleness of Indian warfare, recorded the reaction of native allies who watched the English destroy an enemy Indian community The Indians expressed astonishment at the way the English fought, crying out that it was wicked "because it is too furious, and slays too many men."

Nevertheless, when Indian and European military cultures collided, an acculturation process took place as the adversaries adjusted to each other's technology and methods. By the late 1600s the colonists had shed their cumbersome technology such as armor, pikes, and swords. And while formal militia training had not changed, some expeditionary forces began to employ Indian guerrilla techniques, including cover and concealment and aimed fire. Meanwhile the Indians embraced certain aspects of European technology, including the flintlock, and quickly accepted the colonists' "war to the death" mentality. Although Indians had fought with each other long before whites arrived in the New World, the newcomers taught them how to wage war more ruthlessly.

The Anglo-Powhatan War lasted until Samuel Argall captured Wahunsenacawh's daughter Matoaka, better known by her nickname Pocahontas, after which the chief accepted a treaty of peace. On or about April 5, 1614, Pocahontas and John Rolfe [not the John Smith whose life she had saved a few years earlier] married in a ceremony assented to by Sir Thomas Dale and Powhatan, who sent one of her uncles to witness the ceremony. For both sides the marriage offered a face-saving way of avoiding a final, mutually destructive confrontation between the closely matched Powhatans and the English. Powhatan also rescinded a standing order to attack the English wherever and whenever possible, ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War. After the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614), the English colony began to grow. The headright system begun in 1618 granted land to new immigrants who, in turn, sought to make their fortunes off tobacco.

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Page last modified: 10-07-2020 19:04:21 ZULU