Indians and Smith

Two worlds collided when Captain John Smith met Powhatan and other natives of the Chesapeake. History does not record what the Indians thought of the strangers from England. But Captain John Smith's stories provide insight into the first contacts between English settlers and the American Indians.
During his time at Jamestown and on his Chesapeake voyages, Captain John Smith and his men met people from many different Indian tribes. Most tribes welcomed the English newcomers and helped them on their journey, but a few tried to drive them away. This may have been because of previous encounters with Europeans. Find out more about European encounters by clicking the following link: English Newcomers.
Powerful Powhatan
Of all the encounters between Captain John Smith and the Indians of the Chesapeake, none was more important than his contact with Powhatan, the paramount chief of many tribes in the vast area of Tsenacomoco, which his people called their part of Virginia. After being captured by Powhatan in 1607, Captain Smith negotiated an alliance that helped the colony survive its first year. However, his subsequent dealings with other tribes led to the collapse of this alliance. By the time Captain John Smith left Virginia, there was open conflict between Powhatan and the English.
Early European Contacts
The English were not the first Europeans to visit the Chesapeake Bay. The Spanish preceded them. Spanish vessels had likely sailed into the Bay several times in the 1500s. A map by Spanish explorer Diego Gutierrez was the first to record the Chesapeake Bay, although he called it "Bahia de Santa Maria."
The English were the first Europeans to come to Virginia with the intention of staying. But the Indians would not have known that. They may have thought the English would stop for a short time, but soon they discovered the real intention.
John Smith's Diplomancy
Compared to other Europeans of the early 1600s, Captain Smith seems to have been open-minded towards native peoples. He described them in glowing terms as comely and civil and referred to their chiefs as kings and emperors.
Smith learned the local language, and was able to carry on most of his negotiations without an interpreter. He must have been a persuasive speaker and a man of considerable charm and diplomacy, as he was frequently able to turn initial hostility into a warm welcome. It is likely that his positive attitude towards native peoples, his talents for diplomacy, and his practive of treating them as equals that led to his successes in Jamestown and on his voyages.
The detailed observations of the Chesapeake's American Indians in Smith's journals and map provide a treasre-trove of information rarely available for the time period.
Friends and Enemies
In addition to his dealings with Powhatan, Smith encountered many other tribes during his voyages.
Most encounters were positive: "...they boldly demanded what we were, and what we would; but after many circumstances they seemed very kinde..."
Others less so: "There was about an hundred numble Indians skipping from tree to tree, letting fly their arrows so fast as they could."

Read more descriptions of the American Indians in Smith's own words in his journals.
Did You Know?
  • Smith thought the Indians of the Chesapeake were tall and referred to a Susquehannock man as a giant. In fact, archaeological research has shown that on average the Indians were only an inch or two taller than the Europeans. The average height of an English man at the time was five-foot, five-inches.

Last updated: January 21, 2021

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