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First Tidewater War / Second Powhatan War - 1622-1632

A transaction which occurred in 1616 furnishes the best comment upon the character of Opechancanough. It appears, that President Yeardly at that time undertook to relieve the necessities of the colony by collecting tribute of the Chickahominies. But, for some reason or other, that warlike people refused to pay it; and even sent him an answer to his demand, which he construed into an affront. He therefore called upon them, soon after, with a company of one hundred soldiers, well armed. Some threatening and bravado ensued on both sides, and a regular battle was the speedy consequence.

The Indians were defeated, and as Yeardly was returning to Jamestown with his spoil, Opechancanough met him, and artfully effected an agreement with him, that he (Yeardly) would make no peace with the Chickahominies without his consent. He then went to that tribe, and pretended that he had, with great pains and solicitation, procured a peace for them. To requite this immense service, as it was now considered, they cheerfully proclaimed him King of their nation, and flocked from all quarters with presents of beads and copper. From this time he was content to be entitled the King of Chickahominy; and thus was subjected to him, with their own free consent, a brave and resolute people, who had successfully resisted, for many years, the power of every savage and civilized foe.

The English bistorians generally agree in representing Opechancanough as an inveterate enemy of the English from first to last. Such may have been the case; and he might have had what appeared to him reason and occasion enough for his hostility. The character of many of the colonists was but too well calculated to thwart the best intentions on the part of the government, however peaceable and just might be their theory of Indian intercourse. The discontent of Tomocomo might have its effect, too, and especially among the mass of his countrymen. The pledge of harmony which had existed in the person of Pocahontas was forgotten.

On the death of Powhatan, in 1618, his royal brother Opitchipan renewed the ancient league of Powhatan with the English; under the protection of which, it was said, every man peaceably followed his building and planting, without any remarkable accidents or interruption.

By 1622, Powhatan and Pocahontas were dead, and the English had spread deep into Powhatan territory. The English forced the Indians to move inland away from their traditional river valley homes. Native leaders under Opechancanough, Powhatan’s half-brother and successor, had privately adopted a more militant attitude toward the English. Opechancanough took the trouble to send some of his men to a sachem on the eastern shore in 1621, for a quantity of poison, peculiar to that region, and which he wished to use in his operations against the English. This may have been the true object of the embassy ; and it may also have been but a cover for sounding the disposition of the eastern tribes towards the colony.

In 1622 the Powhatan nation made war upon Virginia. So severe was the fighting that she lost about nine percent of her population. On the 22d of March, three hundred and forty seven of the colony, men, women, and children, were butchered almost in the same instant. Choosing to attack when stockpiles of food were exhausted from the winter put the tribes at risk of another "feedfight," with English creating hunger by cutting down ripening corn in the fields in the harvet season known to the Native Americans as "nepinough." On the other hand, an assault in April allowed Opechancanough to keep the Native Americans dispersed on their seasonal round of wintertime hunting and less vulnerable to revenge attacks.

The storm which had been gathering ever since the death of Powhatan, at length burst upon the devoted colony. Opechancanough had completed every preparation which the nature of things permitted on his part ; and nothing remained, but to strike the great blow which he intended should utterly extinguish the English settlements forever. The twenty-second day of March, 1622 an era but too memorable in Virginian history-was selected for the time; and a certain hour agreed upon, to ensure a simultaneous assault in every direction. The various tribes engaged in the conspiracy were drawn together, and stationed in the vicinity of the several places of massacre, with a celerity and precision unparalleled in the annals of the continent.

The hour being come, the savages, knowing exactly in what spot every Englishman was to be found, rose upon them at once. The work of death was commenced, and they spared neither sex nor age, man, woman nor child. Some entered the houses under color of trade. Others drew the owners abroad upon various pretences; while the rest fell suddenly on such as were occupied in their several labors. So quick was the execution, that few perceived the weapon or blow which despatched them.

This event is often incorrectly reported to have occurred on a Good Friday. Sir Thomas Dale’s progressive development at Henricus, which was to feature a college to educate the natives, and Wolstenholme Towne at Martin’s Hundred, were both essentially wiped out. Jamestown was spared only through a timely warning by a Virginia Indian employee. There was not enough time to spread the word to the outposts. Of the 6,000 people who came to the settlement between 1608–1624, only 3,400 survived. The second Powhatan war, started in 1622, lasted for ten years. A war of extermination soon succeeded, which not long after was followed by a famine. The losses of the colony, however, which these calaniities had brought upon them, were soon in a measure repaired, by the arrival of new adventurers. Early in the war, in an effort to capture corn for the Virginia colony, the English joined forces with the Patawomeke and attacked the Nacotchtanke. Hostilities were to continue for some time; in response to the English/Patawomeke raid, the Nacotchtanke killed Henry Spelman and nineteen of his twenty men. The loan survivor, Henry Fleet, was taken prisoner. He lived with the Nacotchtanke for five years, later becoming prominent in the areal fur trade. While no record specifically naming the village of Namoraughguend has been located, it is logical to assume that they were not spared in the hostilities.

For several years after the massacre, a war was waged between the colonists and the savages, so inveterate and ferocious as to transmit a mutual abhorrence and prejudice to the posterity of both. The former obtained at this period the name of the LONGKNIVES, by which they were distinguished to a very late day in the hieroglyphic language of the natives. Every precaution and preparation was taken and made upon both sides, in view of a desperate conflict.

The remnants of the settlements were drawn together into a narrower compass. Of eighty plantations all were abandoned but six, which lay contiguous at the lower part of James river; and three or four others, of which the owners or overseers, refusing to obey public orders, intrenched themselves, and mounted cannon for their own separate defence.

A considerable space of territory between the Virginians and the savage tribes, was wasted with fire, for the sole purpose of laying bare the stealthy approaches of the enemy, who, under cover of the long grass and underwood, and the gigantic shield of the oak and cypress, had heretofore been able to advance unperceived, and rise up in attack almost from under the very feet of the English. But even a boundary of fire could not always restrain the fury, nor elude the skill, of the Indians. Wisely content with short and sudden incursions, for plunder and revenge rather than conquest, they frequently succeeded in carrying off the corn and cattle of the colonists, and sometimes their persons into captivity. They were themselves, on the other hand, hunted like beasts of prey. No prisoners were made ; no quarter was given.

After this, the colonists had their season of success; and more Indians are said to have been slain during the autumn and winter of 1622-3, than had ever before fallen by the hands of the English, since the settlement of Jamestown. But the course adopted by the civilized party sufficiently indicates the desperate state of their affairs. They availed themselves of a stratagem worse than barbarous in its principle, however circumstances might be supposed in this case to justify it. A peace was offered to the enemy and accepted; but just as the corn which the latter were thus induced to plant, was beginning to grow ripe, the English fell upon them in all directions at a given hour of an appointed day, killed many, and destroyed a vast quantity of provisions. Several of the greatest war-captains were among the slain ; and for sometime Opechancanough himself was reported to be one. This rumor alone, so long as believed, was equal to a victory; "for against him," says the historian, “was this stratagem chiefly laid.”

Such language furnishes evidence enough of the apprehension which his movements and reputation had excited. But he gave more substantial reasons for the respect which he still wrested from his enemy, by his prowess. A battle took place at his own village of Pamunkey, in 1625, in which the main body of the savages numbered eight hundred bowmen, independently of detachments from remote tribes; and though the English, led on by Governor Wyatt in person, succeeded in driving the enemy from the field, they were unable to pursue them even as far as Matapony. That town was their principal depot and rallying point, and the acknowledged inability to reach it, though but four miles distant, proves that the battle was by no means decisive. It appears from this affair, too, that all the efforts of the English, during an inveterate war of three years, had not driven the tribes even from the neighborhood of their own settlements. What was more discouraging, Opechancanough was not to be deceived a second time by the arts of diplomacy. In 1628, the governor's proclamation, which announced the appointment of commissioners to negotiate with the enemy, declared expressly an intention to repeat the stratagem of 1622; * but the plan failed of success, and the Pamunkies and Chickabominies—most immediately under the influence of Opechancanough --were more troublesome at this period than ever before.

Three Powhatans probably gave their lives in payment of every life that they took. The terms of peace were dictated by Virginia, and a treaty was made between the two nations. The war also promoted the expansion of English settlements and tobacco production, to the point that by early in the 1640s the colonists were once again encroaching on Powhatan communities. By then the Powhatan Indians, still numerous, independent, and led by Opechancanough, were prepared to fight another war against the English: the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646).

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 18:29:42 ZULU