Jamestown: Legacy of the Massacre of 1622

views updated


On March 22, 1622, Indians of the Powhatan Confederacy in eastern Virginia killed around 347 English colonists, nearly a quarter of the entire English population in Virginia. This well-planned, coordinated attack, which the English called a "great massacre," resulted from numerous causes and had a lasting impact on the direction of English-Indian relations in colonial America.

Ever since the Virginia Company established the Jamestown colony in 1607, the settlers had sought a

moneymaking product that could be extracted from the Virginia environment. By 1613 John Rolfe (who married Pocahontas in 1614) had developed a new strain of tobacco that gave the colony its first real source of revenue and committed Virginia to a farming and plantation economy. Jamestown colonists quickly expanded their settlements to grow tobacco, but tobacco leached nutrients out of unfertilized soil in just a few years, requiring the farmers to constantly acquire and till new lands. The Virginia colonists suddenly became land hungry, putting increasing pressure on the Powhatans to sell or give up their land. In the opinion of the English, so-called empty or unfarmed land should be converted to agricultural uses, whereas the Powhatans viewed wooded and unoccupied areas around their villages as crucial hunting areas and buffer zones between villages.

Around 1616, the aging Chief Powhatan was replaced by two of his maternal brothers, Itoyatan and Opechancanough. Powhatan had committed to living at peace with the English, particularly after the capture of his daughter Pocahontas and her marriage to Rolfe in 1614, but his successors viewed the English warily and it was Opechancanough who planned and led the 1622 attack (he was also the war leader who captured Captain John Smith in December 1607, resulting in Smith's metaphorical adoption by the Powhatans via his rescue by Pocahontas).

In 1620, Virginia Company officials, especially George Thorpe, began pressuring the Powhatans to send some of their children to be educated among the colonists, a request the Powhatans found intolerable. Moreover, imported diseases such as smallpox had killed Powhatans by the dozens in the 1610s and placed stress on their traditional culture when the deaths could not be prevented by conventional healing methods. Finally, just two weeks before the 1622 attack, English settlers killed a leading Powhatan warrior and shaman named Nemattanew, providing the spark needed to inflame an increasingly edgy situation.

Scholars debate what Opechancanough and the Powhatans intended with their one-day attack. Some argue the Powhatans hoped to remove the English presence from Virginia but failed to follow up on their initial military success and eventually lost the fight to keep Virginia. It is more likely, however, that the Powhatans never planned to exterminate every English person and instead meant to send a powerful warning that the English needed to recognize Powhatan superiority, behave appropriately, and restrict their settlements to the original Jamestown area. This interpretation is supported by the actions of Opechancanough who sent a messenger to warn Jamestown of the attack and concentrated hostilities on the outlying English settlements. The English failed to heed the warning, however, and instead redoubled their efforts to secure a foothold in Virginia and gain permanent occupation of Powhatan lands.

Many of the surviving English settlers welcomed the attack as a justification for assaulting the Powhatans and driving them from their lands. Edward Waterhouse wrote after the attack, "Our hands, which before were tied with gentleness and fair usage, are now set at liberty by the treacherous violence of the savages … So that we … may now by right of war, and law of nations, invade the country, and destroy them who sought to destroy us … Their cleared grounds in all their villages … shall be inhabited by us" (Gleach, p.159). Acquiring land by right of conquest had guided European relations with Indians since Columbus first encountered the Americas, but the aftermath of the 1622 attack was the first time the English employed the notion in North America. Open warfare lasted ten years in Virginia before an uneasy truce kept the peace for over a decade.

The most important immediate impact of the 1622 attack was that in 1624 the Virginia Company lost title over the colony to the crown of England, making Virginia a royal colony. From that time onward, imperial concerns intruded into Virginia relations with Native Americans and affected the policies the Virginia government pursued. Warfare and diseases caused the Powhatan population to continue to drop from a high of around 25,000 in 1607 to a few thousand by the 1630s, and many of their villages were abandoned. On April 18, 1644, the Powhatans, still under the leadership of the elderly Opechancanough, attacked again, killing over 400 English colonists. That war ended within two years, Opechancanough died in a Jamestown jail cell, and Powhatan dominance in Virginia ended.

For the English to term the 1622 attack a "massacre" meant that their subsequent decade-long war against the Powhatan "savages" was an act of justifiable retribution, as Edward Waterhouse suggested. One group's "massacre" is often another group's justifiable retribution or "freedom fight," however; and the subjective meaning of "massacre" to make one party seem innocent in an act of violence should be examined critically. The use of the term "massacre" by Euro-Americans to describe attacks by Native Americans throughout American history automatically places the blame for such violence on Native Americans, while relinquishing Europeans or Americans of their own culpability. According to the standard narrative of American history that impacted decision making from 1622 onward, only one side in this great cultural encounter committed "massacres" whereas the other merely responded with violence out of self-defense. So-called justifiable vengeance contributed to a still-prevalent view by Americans that they only attacked other peoples when provoked and were always reasonable with their response.


Fausz, J. Frederick. "The 'Barbarous Massacre' Reconsidered: The Powhatan Uprising of 1622 and the Historians." In Explorations in Ethnic Studies 1 (1978): 16–36.

Fausz, J. Frederick. "George Thorpe, Nemattanew, and Powhatan Uprising of 1622." In Virginia Cavalcade 28 (1979): 110-117.

Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Rountree, Helen. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Rountree, Helen. Pocahontas' People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Rountree, Helen, ed., Powhatan Foreign Relations, 1500–1722. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Greg O'Brien

See also:Bacon's Rebellion; European Invasion of Indian North America, 1513–1765; King Philip's War, Legacy of; Legacies of Indian Warfare; Native Americans: Images in Popular Culture.

About this article

Jamestown: Legacy of the Massacre of 1622

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article