Showdown in Jamestown

The United States of America is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Since its discovery, this land has been the target of people from around the world. The New World offered a new life for many, and so people set sail to stake out their piece of ground. Rulers sent their explorers westward to claim land and riches. The attention paid by the entire world to this section of North America led to settlements by many countries, and combined with the rights and freedoms granted by the United States many years later, has created the melting pot we experience today.

As a result, the history of this land is marked by difficulties in race relations. This week, we mark the 395th anniversary of one of the most infamous events in colonial America—the Jamestown Massacre.

The Virginia Company of London was founded in 1606 with the purpose of creating settlements along the mid-Atlantic coast of what is now Virginia, Washington, D.C., Delaware, and New Jersey. A sister company, The Virginia Company of Plymouth was founded with a similar objective but with a more northern territory.

The early settlers founded Jamestown in 1607 in present-day Virginia. From the beginning, Jamestown leadership under Captain John Smith struggled to build positive relationships with the natives, while also struggling to survive. The elements, the lack of resources and cooperation, and native relationships put the settlement in a precarious situation.

About five years in, settler John Rolfe was successful in creating a new strain of tobacco, allowing Jamestown to focus its economy on agriculture. The success would allow for the population to grow, which required more land. The downside to tobacco was the damage it caused to the soil. This also called for more land.

The borders of Jamestown began to expand and all of this was watched with a suspicious and hostile eye by the neighboring Powhatans. The English sought to tear down forests to claim more farm ground. The Powhatans wanted the woods preserved for hunting. Of additional concern were the colonists’ attempts to education and “civilize” the natives.

For years, Chief Powhatan had attempted to keep peace with the settlers, as his daughter Pocahontas was married to Rolfe, but by the latter part of the decade, Powhatan had been replaced as leader by his brothers Opechancanough and Itoyatan. The pair was not as interested in peace.

On March 22, 1622, the Powhatan Indians, under the leadership of Opechancanough, attacked Jamestown, slaughtering 347 people, destroying crops, and stealing supplies. The motive for the attack may not have been complete extermination of the English presence, but rather the sending of a message regarding the ever-expanding borders of the settlement. Of note is the notion that a Powhatan boy, who was living in the village, warned the townspeople of the impending attack. Some scholars believe that Opechancanough himself sent the messenger.

Many of the English settlers, rather than being deterred from growing, felt justified in their actions. When King James found out a few months later, supplies and reinforcements were sent. Settlers conducted attacks on the Powhatans. They would resume peace during the growing season and once the Powhatan corn was ready for harvest, set the fields ablaze.

In 1624, partly in response to the warring, The Virginia Company of London was dissolved and Jamestown was placed under royal control. The conflicts, combined with disease, saw the population of the Powhatans plummet from 25,000 in 1607 to a few thousand in just over 20 years.

A final attack was planned in 1644 by an, at this time, elderly Opechancanough. The attack resulted in the deaths of over 400 English settlers but also spurred a two-year war that left Opechancanough dead in a Jamestown jail. The dominance of the English settlers in the region was cemented.

  1. Jamestown: Legacy of the Massacre of 1622. (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2017, from http://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/jamestown-legacy-massacre-1622
  2. Virtual Jamestown. (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2017, from http://www.virtualjamestown.org/phatmass.html
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