OPowhatan rebels murdered 347 English colonists from Virginia on March 22, 1622. The English quickly called it a “massacre.” The colony, founded in 1607, could have collapsed. The survivors launched deadly reprisals, with the support of reinforcements from England and new weapons. The colonists, as well as new recruits from England, had probably killed more Natives by the time that active hostilities ended in 1624.
It is the 400th year since the tragic encounter which shocked both colonists as well as English policymakers and investors. Recent colonial-era milestones in Virginia include: August 1619’s arrival of the first African slaves; July 1619’s establishment of a colonial assembly locally elected (later the House of Burgesses), and North America’s first English self-government.
An historian who had written extensively about the challenges faced by the English in trying to establish their presence in North America, the March 22nd 1622 violence was a pivotal moment in American history. The records reveal that English colonists had sought to live alongside Indigenous Americans in Chesapeake Bay before that tragic day. While there had been violence from 1609 to 1614 in what historians call the First Anglo-Powhatan War, English in Virginia believed that they eventually established good relations with the Powhatans, a confederacy of about 30 communities linked to a headman named Wahunsonacock—or Powhatan to the English.
On April 5, 1614, Wahunsonacock’s daughter Pocahontas (also known as Matoaka) famously married John Rolfe, a colonial official who had been active in the war. It is likely that she was 17 or 18. Marriage was not just the union of two people. English and Powhatans believed they could form an alliance by joining hands.
Pocahontas was the mother of Thomas in January 1615. The family soon set sail for England. Pocahontas converted and became Christian, taking the name Rebecca. She was photographed by Simon van de Passe in 1616. He depicted her looking like an English elite woman with a Renaissance-stye look. Although it might be easy to view her adopting European clothes and customs as oppression, English historians believed that she was demonstrating that English can convert Native Americans to their ideal of civilisation.
But colonial promoters’ dream of conversion and coexistence proved fleeting. Pocahontas fell ill shortly before sailing home, in 1617. Wahunsonacock passed away the next year. His brother Opitchapam, also known as Itoyhatin, took control of the Powhatan Confederacy. He worked closely with Opechancanough. James Horn, a historian, recently suggested that Opechcanough may have been Paquiquineo who was kidnapped as a child by Spaniards in Chesapeake Bay. His captors took him to Spain, where he seemed to convert to Catholicism and became Don Luís de Velasco. After returning home in 1570 to start a mission for Jesuits on the bay, he set out again. Paquiquineo, along with several Natives, joined the expedition to eliminate the priests.
Wahunsonacock’s brother had deep suspicion of the English. Opechancanough, his friends, and Wahunsonacock believed the English would be subordinate to Powhatans. Opechancanough was not so sure. English colonists were encouraged to search for new soil by the spread of tobacco cultivation. This was in the middle-1610s. The Powhatans were constantly at odds with them as they sought land in order to satisfy their European thirst for tobacco. The violence that erupted in 1622 was a result of Opechancanough’s growing power and their constant colonial quest for more tobacco fields.
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English responded with terror to the reports of the rebellion. Every woman, child, and man who had died on that fateful day was published by a printer. The attack was described by one observer with great gusto. He criticized the surprise attack on families, and their subsequent destruction of their bodies. The war was described by engravers at a Frankfurt-am-Main workshop. They created an eye-catching tableau that depicted the unarmed colonists being ravaged with unrelenting violence.
English were shocked by the 1622 rebellion. The Pilgrims, arriving at Patuxet (modern Plymouth), less than two years before the rebellion of 1622 shocked the English. Although the Pilgrims suffered a poor first winter, where nearly half of them were killed, the survivors survived an earlier epidemic which had claimed many Natives from coastal New England. English thought they would be able to live with the Indigenous peoples for a while, at the least because of less competition.
The Chesapeake was not a favorable place for colonists. In fact, colonists were still haunted by the loss of Roanoke, a small North Carolina community, in 1580s. This was despite the possibility that the English could not survive in fertile areas. The fear of failing remained in Jamestown during its first years. The colonists who arrived at Jamestown succumbed to local diseases and were more severe due to a shortage of food.
However, Pocahontas’ conversion to marriage and profits from tobacco suggested that the English might finally be able to establish a colony on the Chesapeake. On March 22, 1622, that hard-won sentiment crumbled. The sense of betrayal and the anger at losing their access to tobacco drove two years of reprisals—including, in one possible incident, a mass poisoning of hundreds of Powhatans, an episode of violence that the English had never before perpetrated in North America. An outraged King James I contributed weapons to facilitate the colony’s response.
While we struggle to understand the 400-years of slavery and captivity in the territory that would become the United States, it’s worth remembering that in 1622 an Indigenous alliance stood up against European colonizers of North America. The English continued to pursue economic gains regardless of what it meant for Natives, rather than adapting their plans. Today’s tensions among Native Americans and Americans are reminiscent of those that flared on the fateful March 1622.
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