Powhatan Indians and the English

Objective: The students will understand how English biases and misperceptions of the Powhatan Indians led to a clash of cultures between the two groups.

Virginia Standards of Learning:
º This activity addresses the National American History Standards eras 1, 2, and 3 and the Virginia SOLs VUS 1, VUS 2, VUS 3, VUS 4.

Directions for teachers:
1. Read the English accounts about the Powhatan Indians and discuss the answers to the questions.

By 1607 Paramount Chief (Mamanatowick, or "great king") Powhatan (his actual name was Wahunsenacawh) ruled a chiefdom of approximately thirty-two named tribes with a population of between 13,000-14,000 people. The paramount chiefdom encompassed 6,500 square miles of Virginia's Coastal Plain with hundreds of towns and villages located along the banks of the major rivers throughout the area. The Powhatan culture, when the colonists arrived, was an evolving Stone Age society with its own government, economy, religion, and language. Englishmen originally considered the Powhatan society to be primitive. The following are examples of how the English settlers viewed the Powhatans.

Look at the modern painting depicting a Powhatan village. This painting is based upon a compilation of different images observed and reported by various Englishmen while visiting Powhatan villages. But without written records from the Powhatan Indians, our information about them has to come from sources written by biased Englishmen, and/or archaeological records.

1. Describe what you see happening in the picture. Do you see any economic activities, social activities, any types of work going on? What types of structures were built? How are the Powhatan Indians using natural resources? What are the people doing?

2. What can you conclude about the Powhatan Indians and the way they lived from this picture? Do you think the English assessment of the Powhatan's as a "primitive" society was accurate or correct? Explain you answer. Define "primitive".

William Stracheywas a member of the English Settlement at Jamestown from 1610-1611. Strachey notes that the Powhatan men wore ornaments such as:

Their ears they bore with wide holes commonly two or three, and in the same they do hang chains of stained pearl, bracelets of white bone (i.e. shell), or shreds of Copper, beaten thin and bright, and wound up hollow, and with great pride (on the part of the wearer) certain fowls' legs, eagles, hawks, turkeys, etc, with beasts' claws, bears, raccoons, squirrels, etc, the claws thrust through, they let hang upon the cheek to full view, and some of their men there be, who wear in these holes a small green and yellow colored live snake near half a yard in length, which crawling and lapping himself about his neck often times familiarly he suffers to kiss his lips and others wear a dead rat tied by the tail and such like conundrums (curiosities). (Edward Haile, Jamestown Narratives Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, page 632).

Questions for Strachey's description of the Powhatan:

1. What materials are used to create the decorative items worn by the Powhatan people?
2. What reaction do you believe the English would have had when they saw some of the Powhatan men wearing a live snake or dead rat through their pierced ear?
3. If you were living in England in 1610 and read this description of the natives of Virginia, would you be enticed to travel to Virginia or convinced to stay in England? Explain your response.
4. How do you think the Powhatans viewed the English style of clothing and ornamentation compared to their own?

George Percy, Observations of Jamestown, 1607

We coasted to their town, rowing over a river running into the main where these savages swam over with their bows and arrows in their mouths. When we came over to the other side, there was a many of other savages which directed us to their Towne, where we were entertained by them very kindly. When we came first a-land, they made a doleful noise, laying their faces to the ground, scratching the earth with their nails. We did think that they had been at their idolatry. When they had ended their ceremonies, they went into their houses and brought out mats and laid upon the ground, the chiefest of them sat all in a rank; the meanest sort brought us such dainties as they had, and of their bread which they made of their maize or guinea wheat, they would not suffer us to eat unless we sat down, which we did on a mat right against them.

After we were well satisfied they gave us of their tobacco, which they took in a pipe made artificially of earth as ours are, but far bigger, with the bowl fashioned together with a piece of fine copper.

After they had feasted us, they showed us, in welcome, their manner of dancing, which was in this fashion: one of the savages standing in the midst singing, beating one hand against another, all the rest dancing about him, shouting, howling, and stamping against the ground, with many antic tricks and faces, making noise like so many wolves and devils.
. (Edward Haile, Jamestown Narratives Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, pp. 91-92).

But yet the savages murmured at our planting in the country, whereupon this werowance made answer again, very wisely of a savage: "Why should you be offended with them as long as they hurt you not, nor take any thing away by force, they take but a little waste ground, which doth you nor any of us any good."

I saw bread made by their women which do all their drudgery. The men take their pleasure in hunting and their wars, which they are in continually, one kingdome against another.
(Edward Haile, Jamestown Narratives Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, p. 97.)

Questions for George Percy's Observations of the Jamestown:

1. How did George Percy perceive the Powhatans? How does he describe them?
2. Percy wrote his observations without being able to ask the Powhatans what they were doing or why. How does the lack of communication between the English and the Powhatans affect their perceptions of one another? Are biases being created from the very beginning and how might biases affect the later interaction between the English and the Powhatans?

As the colonists grew stronger they began to put pressure on the Powhatan's for more land. This was one reason why warfare erupted between the two cultures in two major conflicts in 1622 and 1644. These two wars decimated the Powhatan Indian population to approximately 2,000 people by the 1660s, and large tracts of their land were taken from them by the English. Various laws were enacted by the Governor, his Council and the House of Burgesses, meeting as the General Assembly, attempting to control contact and behavior between the two cultures; some laws were intended to provoke hostilities and others to prevent warfare between the settlers and the Powhatan Indians. Some of these laws (those deemed too lenient toward the Virginia Indians) were cited by some settlers as a reason for Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. Following are just a few of the laws passed by the Virginia General Assembly throughout the 17th century establishing relations with the Virginia Indians.

An Act Prohibiting the Stealing of Canoes, July/August 1619

Some colonists did not hesitate to take canoes from the Virginia Indians, which they may or may not have returned. On one occasion the King of Rappahanna demanded the return of a canoe, which was restored. Among the first laws enacted in 1619 by the first General Assembly was that for the protection of the Virginia Indians: "He that shall take away by violence or stealth any canoe or other things from the Indians, shall make valuable restitution to the said Indians, and shall forfeit, if he be a freeholder, five pounds; if a servant, forty shillings or endure a whipping." (From: Some Notes On Shipbuilding and Shipping In Colonial Virginia by Cerinda W. Evans)

Questions for an Act Prohibiting the Stealing of Canoes:

1. Why would the colonists need the Powhatans' canoes?
2. What would happen to the colonists if they stole a canoe from the Virginia Indians?
3. What does the passing of this law tell us about how the colonists viewed the Virginia Indians and the relationship between these two groups at this time (1619)?

War breaks out between the English and the Powhatans in March 1622.

An Act for Protection, March 1623

Every [English] dwelling house shall have a palisade [wooden stockade] built around it in defense against the Indians. (William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature, in the year 1619, vol. 1, p. 34).

An Act to Attack the Powhatan Indians, October 1629

The Assembly agrees that attacks will be conducted on the Powhatan Indians three times a year: November, March and July, in order to clear the settlement areas of Indians. (Hening, Statutes, vol. 1, p.141).

An Act For Constant War, February 1631

For the Indians we should hold them our irreconcilable enemies. (Hening, Statutes, vol. 1, p.176).

An Act Outlawing Trade, 1633

No one is allowed to trade arms or ammunition to the Indians. A person found guilty of this crime lost all their possessions to the colony, suffered imprisonment and became a servant to the person who turned them in to the authorities. (Hening, Statutes, vol. 1, p.219).

The Anglo-Powhatan War of 1622 ended in 1632 with the enactment of treaties between both cultures, but the English continued to expand the borders of their colony taking more land from the Powhatans, as well as segregating the Virginia Indians from English settlements as much as possible. War again broke out between the settlers and the Powhatans in 1644 and ended with an 11 article treaty in October 1646. Article three of this treaty is below followed by various laws passed by the General Assembly up to 1676.

A Treaty of Peace, October 1646, Article Three

The Indians will cede all land between the falls of the James and York Rivers down to Kequotan (present-day Elizabeth City/Hampton, Virginia). It is lawful to kill any Indian in this area unless he is a messenger from Chief Necotowance. … To keep the messenger from being killed, a badge of a striped coat is to be worn. (Hening, Statutes, vol. 1, p. 324).

An Act Outlawing the Killing of Indians, October 1649

Whereas it was Enacted at an Assemblye in October 1646 the 5th day that it should be lawfull for any person to kill any Indian within such Limmitts as the said Act is Expressed, Exceptinge such as were Imployed upon messages haveinge a Badge for the better Knowledge of them which act is thought Fill by this Assemblye to be Restrayned, the Collonye beinge Subject to manye prejujdices by Reason of the Lattitude, and gennerallitye of such allowance and that the breach of the peace may probablye be the Consequence thereof through the Rashness, and inadviceednesse of Divers persons whoe by such Act Rather vindicate some private malice, then provide for theire owne; or Public Indempnitye. It is now therefore Enacted that noe man shall hereafter kill any Indian within the lymmitts aforesaid unless such Indian shall be taken in the Act of doeinge tresspasse, or other harme, in which the oath of that partie by whome the Indian shall be discovered or killed shall be Full and sufficient Evidence. (Warren M. Billings, ed., "Acts Not in Hening's Statutes: Act of Assembly, April 1652, November 1652 and July 1653," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, LXXXIII (1975).

An Act Preventing the Kidnapping of Indian Children, October 1649

Whereas Divers Informations are taken notice of by this Assemblye of severall persons whoe by theire Indirect practices have Corrupted some of the Indians to steale, and Conveigh away some other Indians Children, and others whoe pretendinge to havebought or purchased Indians of theire Parents, or some of their great men, having violentlye, or fraudelentlye forced them from them to the great Scandall of christianitye, and of the English nation by suce theire perfidius dealinge Renderinge Religion Comtemptible and the name of Englishmen odious to them, and may be a very Dangerous, and Important Consequence to the Collonye if not timelye prevented, it is therefore Enacted that noe person, or persons whatsoever dare, or presume, after the Date of this Act, to buy any Indian, or Indians vizt. From, or of the English, and in case of Complaint made that any persone transgressed this Act, the truth thereof being proved, such persons shall Returne such Indian, or Ind within tenn days to the place from whence he was taken. And it is Fur Enacted that whosoever shall Enforme against any person for the breach of this Act, and the Information beinge found against the partie accused, offender shall pay unto the Enformer 500 tobacco to be Recovered in the Court of Justice within the Collonye. (Billings, ed., "Acts Not in Hening's Statutes" Virginia Magazine of History and Biography LXXXIII (1975).

An Act for Adopting Powhatan Children, March 1656

Indians who bring their children in voluntarily can choose the persons to entrust the care of their children to, and they are not to be slaves, but to do their best to bring them up in Christianity, civility, and the knowledge of necessary trades. (Hening, Statutes, vol. 1, p. 396).

An Act Prohibiting Illegal Buying Indian Land, March 1662

Any Englishman who cannot produce good evidence of title on Indian lands shall be removed by the sheriff, and any buildings will be demolished and burned. (Hening, Statutes, vol. 2, p. 139).

An Act for Building Fences, March 1662

Englishmen within three miles of the Indians are to assist in making a fence around the cornfields of the Indians in order to protect the crops from cattle and hogs of the English. (Hening, Statutes, vol. 2, p. 139).

An Act Punishing Crimes, March 1662

If an Englishman harms an Indian, the Englishman will be prosecuted as if the harm had been done to an Englishman. (Hening, Statutes, vol. 2, p. 140).

An Act Prohibiting Leaving Town Sites, June 1676

Indians shall be considered enemies if they have or in the future abandon their customary towns without first obtaining a license from the Governor. (Hening, Statutes, vol. 2, p. 342).

An Act Regarding Captives, June 1676

Indians taken captive in the Indian wars shall be held as slaves for life. (Hening, Statutes, vol. 2, p. 346).
Questions for Acts regarding the Powhatan Indians:
1. Why do you think these acts were passed by Virginia's General Assembly? What could be the consequences for violation of some of these laws, Powhatan Indian or English?
2. Do you think the Powhatan Indians may have had their own rules for interacting with the English? Why or why not?
3. These laws were written by the English, but they assume the Virginia Indians will abide by them. What does that tell us about English views of the Virginia Indians? Were the Virginia Indians represented in the Virginia General Assembly? Who represented their interests?
4. Based on the laws passed, can you tell when open hostilities were occurring between the two cultures? When open hostilities were not occurring? Why do you think the General Assembly attempted, at times, to establish safeguards for the Virginia Indians against English violations? How successful do you think these safeguards were for the Virginia Indians? Explain your answers.
Questions using all the documents:

1. How do the English view the Powhatans? How does their viewpoint affect their actions towards the Powhatans? How do you think the Powhatans responded to their treatment by the English?
2. How does the arrival of the English affect Powhatan society? How is the Powhatan system of trade or economy altered? How is their system of alliances with other native peoples affected? How might it change the daily life of the Powhatans? How does the treatment of the Virginia Indians by the English still affect us as citizens today?

Last updated: April 30, 2015

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