Jamestown - Whiteman's Account
Jamestown by Mark Whiteman
A group of Europeans, headed by Bartholomew Gosnold, began planning a possible business venture that would send a group of colonists to what was already known as Virginia. Gosnold was apparently the driving force behind getting this operation in place. Gosnold was referred to as "the first mover of this plantation" by Captain John Smith."(Ward) Merchants from London, Bristol and Plymouth sponsored the voyage and persuaded King James to grant a charter and letters of patent to create the Virginia Company. A strange twist to the story was that the man who worked so hard to get this Company started, Gosnold, was unable to become a member but he did manage to become appointed to the resident council. Their job was to work with Virginia associates and be involved in local affairs for the new colony.
The Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed were the three ships that set sail for Virginia, from England in February of 1606. The commander of the three ships was Christopher Newport and not John Smith. "In the early evening of May 13, the expedition reached a narrow pear-shaped peninsula about sixty miles up the river, here on the 1500-acre peninsula, it was decided to erect a fortified town to be called Jamestown."(Ward) They decided to give it the name Jamestown in honor of their king. As soon as they landed they began to build a fort in the form of a triangle. They constructed the fort in this manner for purposes of safety against the natives. A triangular fort gave them one less side that they could get attacked from.
The land that they decided to build Jamestown on came with many problems. "They could hardly have made a worse selection. The situation was extremely unhealthful, being low and exposed to the malaria of extensive marshes covered with water at high tide."(Pryor) The tide would come in and cover almost half of the peninsula, the land was extremely swampy, mosquitoes invested the area, and it was in the middle of Indian country. Certainly the English could have found a better area to build their first permanent settlement in North America. The expedition spent nearly three weeks sailing up and down the river searching for a place to settle. The reason they picked the area they did was because the water was deep enough, near the banks of the river, for the ships to come right up close to the land. This was an extremely important benefit. It allowed them to transport cargo off the boat with ease.
Not many days after settling, Captain Newport, Smith, and twenty others decided to explore the land further up the river. When they reached what would now be the present site of Richmond, they came across a tribe of Powhatan Indians. Amazingly the Indians accepted the colonists and they had a huge fiest. The Powhatan Indians consisted of close to 35 tribes, which were separated into 160 villages. The villages were scattered all along the banks of the major rivers. The leader of all these tribes and and villages was Powhatan himself. This shows the power of the man Powhatan. The people he ruled were named after him.
At this point, the clash between the English culture and the Powhatan culture begins. The English planned on Christianizing these savages in the new world. They did not take into account the fact that the Spainish had landed, years before, near the site of Jamestown already giving the Indian people of this area an understanding of these Christians from a far away land. The Native Americans had already had experience dealing with white man Christians traveling on tremendous ships and they did not trust them. "From the very beginning these uninvited strangers never understood the extent of the hazard involved in the confrontation of the two races."(Bridenbaugh)
Not only was the Christian religion associated with the mistrust of the white people it was also up against the religion of the Powhatan people. Their lives revolved around their religion and there was not much of a chance that a Powhatan would be converted. In every territory of the Powhatan land there were temples and priests. A "werowance" governed each territory. Powhatan had appointed a kind of spiritual advisor to each "werowance." These religious leaders had supernatural powers, believed by their people, because of their knowledge of sacred mysteries and ability to interpret spiritual matters. They kept the skeletons of ancient leaders wrapped in skins in their temples. Their religion consisted of many supernatural beings or gods. The two main gods were Okeus and Kiwassa. Kiwassa was a peaceful god. It was unnecessary to make sacrifices to him because of his goodness but he was not nearly as powerful as Okeus. Okeus forced the Powhatan to sacrifice their children to him. He held the scales of justice in his hands. If Okeus was not obeyed, crops would be destroyed, enemies would conquer them, or any other disaster could occur. Okeus always prevailed and there was no escaping him. Because of their faithfulness to Okeus, he had preserved and blessed them over the years and given them victory over their enemies. It was also long known by the Powhatan people that "no sacrifice would avert his wrath if a nation despising the ancient religion of their forefathers was permitted to inhabit among them."(Pryor) The principle temple of the Powhatan was called the Uttamussac. "The trembling Indian in his canoe hurried past it with bated breadth, solemnly casting into the water pieces of precious copper, puccoon, and strings of pearls. In this temple were images of devils. The place was so holy that none but priests entered it. The chief priests head was wreathed, Medusa like, with stuffed serpents and lead chants that were often interrupted by passionate gestures and ejaculations."(Pryor) They believed in immortality for the faithful people and simply death to the unfaithful.
Conversion to Christianity for the Powhatan was about as likely as the English converting to the religion of the Powhatan. Both cultures ardently believed in their religion. The existence of Okeus was not even a question. They had to sacrifice their children to their evil god and they did. The collision of these two cultures is one of the most interesting in all of history. These two societies could never be at peace. "The pious men who emigrated to Virginia within the first twenty years of its settlement firmly believed that Satan had here established his kingdom; that the priests were his ministers."(Pryor) The English Christians saw the Powhatan religion as the worship of Satan, in Okeus. The Powhatan believed that they would be destroyed if they allowed any people to live in their land if they did not believe in their religion. This is surely a recipe for disaster.
In December 1607, Captain John Smith led a crew on the Chickahominy River to search for provisions. It was then that he encountered Opechancanough and his warriors. Opechancanough was Powhatan's brother and was basically second in power among Powhatan society. A battle ensued between the two parties, which lead to Opechancanoughs capture of Smith. Rather then kill Smith on the spot, Opechancanough decided to take him before Powhatan so he could decide his fate. This is the point where much debate incurs about what actually happened. According to one story, Powhatan had decided to have Smith executed. Powhatan was just about ready to have Smith clubbed to death when his beloved daughter, Pocahontas, of ten or twelve years old, "flew to the side of Captain Smith, took his head in her arms and laid her own upon his to save him from death."(Eggleston) Powhatan was moved by his daughter's actions and spared Smith's life. Others argue that Smith's "deliverance" from Pocahontas never really happened and that part of the story is just a myth conjured up by Smith years later when Pocahontas became famous. This issue will be discussed in more detail later in the paper.
In 1608, Captain Newport returned to England and brought back to Jamestown more settlers and needed provisions. Despite Newport's efforts, conditions in Jamestown were getting worse. Settlers were more interested in producing an exportable commodity then they were in agriculture. The major problems for the colony were the high mortality rate and the apathetic attitude of the people. In 1609, a weary and injured John Smith decided to return to England. "Edmund Morgan attempts to explain the mysteries of why there was so much idleness when the colonists faced starvation. There was much idleness and underemployment in sixteenth and early seventeenth century England. Low wages brought low productivity. Work habits that they brought from England were a serious issue."(Ward) Another tremendous problem was that most of the population was suffering from various diseases. Typhoid, dysentery and pellagra are a few that they suffered from. Pellagra results from malnutrition and it's victims become anorexic and apathetic. This was certainly the state the colonists were in.
In the summer of 1609, 500 newcomers came to Jamestown from England. The winter of 1609-1610 became known as the "starving time" when the population of close to 1000 dwindled to 60. Lack of food, though they did not have much, was not the major contributor to the death of these people. The newcomers of the summer brought the plaque and typhus with tem and this is the main reason why so many died. In the Spring of 1610, the remaining survivors were making arrangements to return back to England when newly appointed governor Lord De la Warr and 150 more colonist arrived. De la Warr declared martial law but not much longer after he got there he decided to go back to England and put Sir Thomas Dale in charge. Dale gave settlers no choice but to work because punishments for idleness were severe. Dale sought to expand the population of the colony. He knew that both for survival and for defense against the Indians the population should be distributed over a wider area. Once the colonists began to expand, the Powhatan became seriously concerned. When the colonists were confined to a certain area and relatively few in numbers, they limited their aggression on them. When colonists began to expand so did conflict between the two societies.
1612 proved to be a very important year for the colonists of Jamestown. This was the year that "John Rolfe, by setting out a small crop and curing it to the best methods, produced tobacco. Immediately the colonists turned to the cultivation of the plant and at one time tobacco was seen growing on the very streets of Jamestown. The planter calculated he could do six times as well with this crop as with any other."(Wertenbaker) The colonists had found a profitable export commodity, which gave them reason for being there, not only to them, but for the powers back in England. This is also the reason why many English would decide to travel to Virginia and cause tremendous upheavel in Powhatan life.
In 1613, Pocahontas was staying with the Potomac Indian tribe. Captain Samual Argall was sent out to trade with the Potomac when he found that Pocahontas was with them. He managed to kidnap her and bring her back with him to Jamestown. While in captivity, Pocahontas converted to Christianity. She also changed her name to Rebecca and fell in love with John Rolfe. These actions were a very important point between the relations of the Powhatan and the English. Thomas Dale began negotiations with Powhatan for Pocahontas. Dale demanded peace along with food and stolen fire arms. "Opechancanough apparently persuaded his brother to bow to the English ultimatum because the time was not yet ripe for resistance. He also allowed Pocahontas to return to Jamestown and marry John Rolfe."(Bridenbaugh) The entire Pocahontas deal brought peace between the two groups for a few years. The Powhatan were beginning to understand that their enemy could and would overtake them if they did not deal with them in the proper manner. Opechancanough attended the marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe.
In 1616, Rolfe and Pocahontas traveled to England where news of Pocahontas back in London had made her an instant celebrity. When John Smith found out that Pocahontas was coming to England, he wrote Queen Anne a letter to make sure she got the special reception that she deserved. He said, "she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown."(Smith) This was the first occasion when Smith announced that Pocahontas had saved his life. Smith had managed to get two other works published, one in 1608 and the other in 1612 and he makes no mention of being saved by Pocahontas. Many historians have interpreted this as meaning that it did not happen and Smith was only taking advantage of the popularity of Pocahontas. The truth is that no one really knows if it happened or did not. The Virginia Company was trying to recruit settlers for Virginia. Would they have had a motive to keep Smith's tale of a brush with death quiet?
Another point is that Pocahontas always was willing to help the English. She even voluntarily converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe. "She was especially devoted to Smith, and when she married Rolfe she had been made to believe that Smith was dead. When she met Smith in England, she was much moved.(Eggleston) Unless any new evidence is discovered, it is impossible to know whether or not this occurred. However, it is safe to say that Pocahontas lived an extraordinary life, though it was a short one. On the way home to Virginia, from England, Pochontas died of a pulmonary ailment. She was estimated to be 21 years old. Her father, the great Powhatan, died a year later. Pocahontas deserves credit for bringing peace to the English and Powhatan, although it was sort of a forced and short-lived peace. She also created a big stir in England, which picked up a lot of support for the Virginia Company. She was an example of one of the very few Powhatan who assimilated into the English society. She was a hero in English society but surely a disgrace to her former society.
"Between 1618 and 1622, the Virginia Company sent 4,500 colonists to Virginia but by 1621 the colony was faced with difficult times."(Ward) The reason for these difficult times was that the mortality rate had gone up. Possibly the reason for this was the diseases being brought over by the new settlers but no sources really know. After the death of Powhatan in 1618, Openchancanough took over as leader of the Powhatans. Openchancanough knew that the English population was rising and something was going to have to be done to stop them. Finally, on March 22, 1622, he attacked the English with everything he had. "His plan called for the extermination of all of them and it would have succeeded if an Indian servant named Chanco did not disclose the plot to his master Richard Pace."(Bridenbaugh) Pace managed to alert Jamestown of the attack but not in enough time to save everyone. By the end of the attack, close to 350 English men, women, and children were dead. "All thing considered, the massacre of 1622 was probably the most brilliantly concieved, planned, and executed uprising against white aggression in the history of the American Indians.(Bridenbaugh)
In 1624, the King took away the Virginia Company's charter and made Virginia a royal colony. The 1622 massacre had assured that these actions would take place. The rest of the 1620's and 1630's were a time of transition to royal control and also a time when the economy began to take off. The royal power in charge of the colony wanted to limit expansion to protect themselves from the Native Americans. As a result, tobacco production was limited to certain areas and demand for Virginian tobacco was rising in Europe. "The tobacco market, lead to a rip roaring society, similar to that of the later American Western Frontier."(Ward) By the end of the 1630's the economy began to slow down. Tobacco production had to be regulated and the quality of the tobacco being produced came into question. By 1640, the colony's population exceeded 8,000. Colonists were soon allowed to expand their borders probably because the Powhatan threat was coming to a close. After the massacre of 1622, the English had devoted themselves to killing as many Native Americans as they could. Constant small battles were being fought and the English were consistently winning because of their superior weapons.
In 1644, Opechancanough organized another mass attack, which would be his last attempt to drive the English away. 500 settlers were killed but the English, in effect won the war. Opechancanough was captured and killed. The Powhatan villages were literally whipped out. "By 1700, the Powhatan tribesman numbered only 1200 when in 1607 their population was estimated at 9000"(Ward)
Works Cited: Pryor, Roger. (1907). The Birth of the Nation. New York, New York. The MacMillan Company. Ward, Harry. (1991). Colonial America, 1607-1763. Englewood, New Jersey. Prentice Hall, Inc. Bridenbaugh, Carl. (1980). Jamestown 1544-1699. Oxford. Oxford University Press. Wertenbaker, Thomas. (1929). The First Americans. New York, New York. The MacMillan Company. Eggleston, Edward. (1930). Pocahontas. New York, New York. Dodd, Mead and Company.