The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Powhatan and his people: The 15,000 American Indians shoved aside by Jamestown’s settlers

The Native Americans had a mighty culture when the English arrived 400 years ago. Soon after, there was conflict.

Detail of a map of Virginia from the early 1600s shows Powhatan, who was known as the “chief of chiefs,” wearing a crown of feathers at the height of his power. (Library of Congress)

JAMESTOWN, Va. — The powerful American Indian chief, known as Powhatan, had refused the English settlers’ demands to return stolen guns and swords at Jamestown, Va., so the English retaliated. They killed 15 of the Indian men, burned their houses and stole their corn. Then they kidnapped the wife of an Indian leader and her children and marched them to the English boats.

They put the children to death by throwing them overboard and “shooting out their brains in the water,” wrote George Percy, a prominent English settler in Jamestown.

And their orders for the leader’s wife: Burn her.

Percy wrote, “Having seen so much bloodshed that day now in my cold blood I desired to see no more and for to burn her I did not hold it fitting but either by shot or sword to give her a quicker dispatch.”

She was spared, but only briefly. Two Englishmen took her to the woods, Percy wrote, and “put her to the sword.”

The woman was one of 15,000 American Indians living in the Tidewater area along the shores of the York and James rivers in 1607 when the first English settlers arrived in Virginia. Her violent death is symbolic of the underlying tensions that lasted for centuries between the whites and the Indians.

On Tuesday, President Trump mentioned the Native Americans in passing at the 400th anniversary of the first representative government in Jamestown. The colonists, he said in a speech, “endured by the sweat of their labor, the aid of the Powhatan Indians, and the leadership of Captain John Smith.”

Jamestown ceremony marks birth of democracy in America; black Va. legislators skip because of Trump

Jamestown is also marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans, but the descendants of Powhatan worry their place in the history is often overlooked.

“Jamestown has been the story of the birthplace of America,” said Ashley Atkins Spivey, an anthropologist and member of the Pamunkey tribe, which was among the first Indians the settlers encountered and which now has roughly 400 members.

“You can’t talk about the ‘first government’ without talking about the American Indian people and a government that were already here,” Atkins Spivey said.

“We are the first Americans,” she said. “We were here, and we still exist in Virginia today.”

‘Chief of chiefs’

The Pamunkey tribe’s reservation lies an hour from Jamestown, past fields of corn and soybeans in mostly wooded wetlands that twist along the river. Sixty enrolled tribal members live on the 1,200 acres of the reservation.

The tribe traces its roots back 10,000 years to the Tidewater area, and its reservation is said to be one of the oldest in the country. For 35 years, Pamunkey tribal leaders sought federal recognition. In 2015, they became the first tribe in the state to get it, and were followed by six others in Virginia. Now, the Pamunkey are seeking approval to open Virginia’s first casino, in the Norfolk area.

But 400 years ago, the Indians ruled the Tidewater.

When the settlers arrived in Virginia in 1607, the Pamunkeys were part of an empire of 30 tribes overseen by Powhatan, who was known as the “chief of chiefs.”

Through inheritance, war and marriage, Powhatan had built a realm that stretched about 6,000 square miles from modern-day Alexandria to the North Carolina border. The Algonquian-speaking Indians called their land “Tsenacomoco,” meaning “densely inhabited land.”

Powhatan, whose formal name was Wahunsonacock, gave the tribes autonomy under regional chiefs, and they paid him a tribute of animal hides, beads, shells and food, which he stored in warehouses. With his brother Opechancanough as his “war chief,” he could command nearly 1,500 warriors in times of battle.

Powhatan, Joseph Kelly wrote in “Marooned,” “expected deference. He expected obedience. Both were given to him spontaneously.”

Tribes lived in villages of up to 100 longhouses along rivers and tributaries, where they hunted, fished, grew crops and collected fruits and nuts as food and medicine.

They traveled for trade along the waterways in canoes dug out from massive tree trunks. Canoes were considered more valuable to an Indian than a house, historians said.

When the English arrived, Powhatan wanted to trade with them — food in exchange for weapons and more-sophisticated tools to butcher deer and to cut hides. The English also had copper, which was so valuable that Powhatan used it to pay warriors. Copper also held special religious significance; its reflective qualities allowed Indians to be in touch with the spirits of those who had died, according to some historians and Pamunkeys.

The Smithsonian Channel followed this exploration in 2018 and shared the results in a documentary in 2019. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

William M. Kelso, the premier archaeologist on Jamestown, said he thinks Powhatan “realized the English could be a lifeline to trade if they got copper and weapons to go after their enemies.”

“He thought he could show them how to stay alive and they’d have to rely on him,” Kelso said, “but he wanted them to stay contained.” Powhatan gradually realized that containing the settlers wouldn’t be possible: “They were going to grab the land.”

‘There’s nothing there for us’

At the three sprawling museums run by different entities at the Jamestown settlement and fort, the exhibits focus mainly on the English settlers. There are some references to the first enslaved Africans and to the Indians who were there at the time.

Jamestown Rediscovery, the group supporting the archaeological study of the historical site, has unearthed roughly 50,000 American Indian artifacts, including arrowheads, pottery, bone tools, tobacco pipes and shell beads. There’s an exhibit that showcases some of them called the “World of Pocahontas,” named after Powhatan’s famous daughter.

The group said it plans to launch a tour this fall to give a more detailed, nuanced view of American Indian life at the time the settlers arrived. The group hopes to make it similar to an existing tour about the first enslaved Africans.

She was captured and enslaved 400 years ago. Now Angela symbolizes a brutal history.

Telling the Native American story can be challenging, experts said, given that Indians in the 1600s did not have a written language and much of the history relies on the oral tradition passed down from generation to generation.

“It’s always going to be flawed when you’re trying to tell the Native American side from inside an English fort,” said Mark Summers, a historian at Jamestown Rediscovery. Still, he said, he’s working to incorporate the viewpoint of Virginia’s tribes to tell the most accurate story possible.

Pamunkeys have complicated feelings about Jamestown.

Atkins Spivey said her mother, the first woman to serve on the tribal council, refused to take the family to Jamestown. Atkins Spivey went once in kindergarten on a class field trip and didn’t return until she was an adult.

“There’s nothing there for us,” her mother told her.

At one of the Jamestown museums, visitors can go through an area set up like an Indian village in the 1600s, complete with reenactors in longhouses and Indian women and men making pottery and bows and arrows.

Russell Reed, an Atakapa Indian from southern Louisiana, said some visitors have never heard much about the Indian story of Jamestown and have certainly not met a “real, live Indian.”

“Most people come here expecting to see Geronimo,” Reed said.

John Smith’s capture

Four hundred years ago, Powhatan tried to understand what the English were doing as they built a fort at Jamestown and constructed houses.

In 1607, Powhatan ordered the capture of John Smith so he could learn more about their intentions and perhaps turn Smith into an ally. During his captivity, the Indians tried to “adopt” Smith in an elaborate three-day ceremony.

Smith had quite a different interpretation. At one point, when the Indians laid his head on two rocks, Smith later wrote, he thought they were going to “beate out his braines.” Then, he said, Pocahontas — Powhatan’s daughter — came to his rescue and “got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.”

His life was spared, but not for the reasons he thought. Kelly said it was all a “scripted, symbolic adoption ceremony.”

In “A Land as God Made It,” James Horn wrote that Powhatan was guaranteeing Smith and the settlers food and safety “if they acknowledged the great chief as their lord and became a subordinate people within his chiefdom.”

Smith did not take his offer, and over the next few years, he eroded Powhatan’s power by trading food for weapons with other tribes — including some of Powhatan’s enemies — and the great chief grew more suspicious.

“For many informe me,” Powhatan told Smith in one of their encounters when Smith had come looking for food, “your comming is not for trade, but to invade my people and possesse my Country.”

When the English torched some sacred Indian sites and then came looking for food, some of the settlers disappeared. Another group went looking for them and found one of the lieutenants.

“His corpse lay on the ground, stripped of all value, surrounded by the plundered bodies of every soldier who had stayed,” Kelly wrote in “Marooned.” Their mouths were stuffed full of bread, Kelly said, “another massacre deliberately meant to be found, an unmistakable message to the English.”

By 1613, both sides had faced enormous setbacks. The English and Indians had struggled through five years of battles and ambushes, starvation and disease that left hundreds dead on both sides.

The English captured Powhatan’s most beloved daughter — Pocahontas — and held her captive for a year.

The Indians made a deal: They’d return some English weapons and tools, and Pocahontas could live with the English.

Pocahontas learned English, converted to Christianity and changed her name to Rebecca, “mother of two peoples.” She married John Rolfe, an English settler, on April 5, 1614.

Powhatan had built his empire in part through marriage alliances, so he probably saw this marriage as an agreement. The English wouldn’t expand their settlements further, and the two sides would coexist on equal terms, according to Horn. Rolfe and Pocahontas had a son, Thomas. She went to England and was set to return to Virginia but died in her early 20s in 1617, probably of tuberculosis or pneumonia.

A year later, her father died.

‘The Great Uprising’

Powhatan’s warrior brother Opechancanough took over. He feigned interest in converting to Christianity but began plotting against the English.

He had gotten tribes on both sides of the river to form alliances, “united by their hatred of English settlers and their determination to be rid of them,” Horn wrote.

On March 22, 1622, the Indians attacked in what some historians call “the Great Uprising,” using the settlers’ own tools against them.

The Indian attack was so unexpected that in one day, they had killed at least 320, roughly a quarter of the 1,200 who were there. They were “bludgeoned, stabbed, or hacked to death,” according to Horn.

Horn called Opechancanough’s attack “a massive and decisive blow designed to sweep the intruders from their lands, a repudiation of English occupation and everything the English stood for.”

The English sought revenge, sailing up and down the rivers destroying Indian villages and seizing corn.

The Pamunkeys launched another attack a few years later but were beaten back by English soldiers.

“The defeat of the Pamunkeys was the beginning of the end of the Powhatan empire,” Horn wrote.

In the Treaty of 1646, the English made the Pamunkeys agree to recognize the English empire. Even today, as part of that treaty, the Indians pay tribute to the governor by bringing a deer on the day before Thanksgiving. That same treaty also established what is now the reservation.

“Old people used to say that if you don’t take the deer, they’ll come and take our reservation,” said Kevin Brown, a former two-term chief of the Pamunkey tribe. “That’s what my grandfather instilled in me.”

Debra Martin, who serves on the tribal council, laments that much of the tribe’s history has been lost. Still, she said, living on Pamunkey land is special for her.

“The spirit of my ancestors is here,” she said, standing near a hillside that holds the remains of Powhatan. “Knowing this is where they walked thousands of years ago, before it was a reservation, I can sense their presence here. It just speaks to my heart.”

Read more Retropolis:

Trump using ‘Pocahontas’ as a slur is part of her sad, 400-year history as a pawn

A Native American tribe once called D.C. home. It’s had no living members for centuries.

The day 40,000 people greeted a president for a Jamestown anniversary celebration

She was captured and enslaved 400 years ago. Now Angela symbolizes a brutal history.

The birthplace of American slavery debated abolishing it after Nat Turner’s bloody revolt