A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century
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Decoding the Documents: "Indians" in Selected Seventeenth Century Documents & Secondary Sources

Danielle Moretti-Langholtz

By the mid-seventeenth century thousands of English men and women crossed the ocean to seek their fortune in North America. Out of this effort came the foundation of the United States and with it the destruction of the lifeways and traditional cultures of the Native peoples of the eastern woodlands. Mancall (1995:v) suggests the success and dominance of the English culture and the loss and decline of Indian culture was not a inevitable outcome of the colonial encounter. An examination of the entries that follow permit us to see more closely the unfolding of the story from the perspective of the Indian populations. Native control of the landscape continued for a time as the Powhatan tribes attempted to exert their control over the invading Europeans, first through trade and later through conflict. The early records show us that there was no single response by Native peoples. Some fought, some negotiated and traded, some fought and then quickly negotiated and traded. Native responses were fluid and varied as Native leaders tried their best to maintain the integrity of their communities during the early years of the colonial encounter.

The lens through which the story of the initial years of the colonial encounter is filtered through the writings of the English thus our understanding of Native responses to the settlement at Jamestown and the impact of that settlement on Virginia's indigenous tribes is too often one dimensional. These earliest accounts may be found on-line as the "Personal Narratives from the Virtual Jamestown Project, 1575-1705" <> sponsored by the University of Virginia Library's Electronic Text Center. The comprehensive nature of the Virtual Jamestown Project provides the opportunity to review these often cited works for information on early contacts with Virginia Indians. Richter (2001:9) suggests that we not so much seek to "uncover new information" but rather learn to read old documents in a fresh manner and to "reorient our perspectives on the continent's past." The history of Virginia Indians is not contained solely within the initial contact period documents. Native people continued to be part of the story of Virginia although after the Indian uprisings of 1622 and 1644 the Native narrative is harder to follow in the primary documents.

What follows is a chart containing an extensive compilation of primary source data pertaining in some manner to Indians from James City, Charles City, Isle of Wight, and York Counties. The chart was compiled not as an academic exercise but to begin the process of reading old documents with fresh eyes. While the entries are mere fragments of information we are able to glimpse the shadows of individual Native lives during a period of enormous socio-political change in the Native world. Some Indian names in the records are known to us previously, such as "Opochancano" while others such as "Jamey" and "John the Indian" are less familiar. These records speak of trade and commerce, slavery and captivity ( both Indian and non-Indian), peace and conflict, and reveal the words of known personages, such as the Queen of Pamunkey, who petitions for aid on behalf of her tribe after Bacon's Rebellion. In the space of a few generations Native people move from a position of prominence to petitioning the English for land patents on a continent that was once theirs alone. Documents indicate some Native people seek to live among the English, such as Robin of Pamunkey, while other Natives deemed dangerous are rounded up and sold to plantation owners in the Carribean. Indian access to colonial settlements becomes restricted and the colonists institute a system of metal identity badges for purposes of limiting the entry of Indian into the Jamestown environs.

U.S. government policy was formulated and built upon the English experience with Native peoples (Prucha 1984). It is therefore necessary for us to examine more closely the interactions of the two cultures during the seventeenth century to see the roots of this policy formation. The entries in the chart show us that Native people sought redress for wrongs committed against them through the colonial legal system. The Colony of Virginia attempts to avoid conflicts with tribes and to protect the land base of the extant tribes in the second half of the seventeenth century by setting up definable boundaries around Native lands but the colonial government has difficulty keeping settlers away from Native lands. Colonial officials seek to regulate trade with the Indians and attempts to force subdued tribes to serve as buffers against more aggressive Indian nations thus fostering inter-tribal hostilities under the guise of securing peace for the colonists. During the first century of the colonial encounter a policy of "guilt by association" toward Native people emerges. If a colonist maintains he has been wronged by a Native person retaliation against any Native person of the tribe of the perpetrator is sanctioned and legal.

Fear of Native peoples ebbs and flows throughout these records. The colonists attempt to control Native access to English weaponry, while they build fortifications around settlements and respond to their fears with a growing militarism. Permission is required to "entertain" Native people. Yet by 1699 colonist George Ivie at James City asks for the repeal of the Act of Assembly against the English marrying Indians thus pointing to issues surrounding early attitudes regarding race and ethnicity.

A careful reading of these entries suggests that the indigenous languages were extant throughout the seventeenth century thus the need for the paid interpreters appearing in the records. Moreover, we may assume that the political integrity of the tribes, while weakened by conflicts with the English, is nevertheless intact. Evidence for this appears in the terms of address for individual leaders (as Kings and Queens) when these individuals are brought before colonial officials to answer complaints against their tribes or when they appear as petitioners. Additional evidence for tribal integrity is seen in the Charles City documents when the "Drammacho Mongy a chief ruler" of the Chickahominy is mentioned in 1699. Other tribes are mentioned by name (although with various spellings) Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nansemonds, Tappahannes, Wayonoke, Potomeck, Nanzaatico, Appamauck, Nottoway, Accomack, Pasbehays, Tuscororas, etc. The system of tribute, formerly an internal tribal flow of goods, is redirected to the colonial political hierarchy thereby suggesting that tribes are functioning political units. Even the Paramount Chiefdom maintains some integrity through the Queen of Pamunkey. Throughout the century the amount of tribute being paid by tribes (primarily the Pamukey) is reduced. This reduction is likely due to the diminished economic circumstances of the tribes; but the colonial government would hardly require tribute payments from non-existent tribes. In fact the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Tribes present tribute to the Governor of Virginia annually to this day.

These entries suggest the settlers' preference for obtaining the rights to "Indian fields" (lands previously cleared for planting by Natives) continues throughout the seventeenth century. Conflicts over the killing of hogs by Indians and the restitution given to colonists suggests the process of subsuming Native subsistence and hunting practices under a colonial system founded upon private property. Variances in the colonial laws regarding trade frequently reflect the degree of tension and hostilities between the two cultures, whereas changes in the primary currency of the colony were linked closely with trade and the availability of food. Trade, currency, Anglo-Indian relations, economics, as well as other aspects, such as environmental and cultural differences, are all intertwined during the period presented in the records.

Trade restrictions within the colonial records reflect the degree of peace or hostilities between the colonists and Native people. Although the colonists were generally opposed to trading any type of weaponry or accessories to Indians trade between the English and the indigenous population was generally free and open in the first decade of the seventeenth century. The records from James City County on 4 August 1619 support this view. The uprising led by Chief Powhatan's successor, Opechancanough, in 1622, altered the trading relationship between the colonists and the Indians for years. Although tobacco, crops, and the food supplies of the colonists were devastated as a result of the attack the Assembly at Jamestown quickly prohibited the trading for corn with the Indians. The colonists vowed there would be no peace with the Indians after the 1622 uprising. In 1633 only the Governor was permitted to issue licenses to trade cloth with the Indians. Despite the signing of a Treaty of Peace in October of 1646 colonial statutes in 1660 indicate special licenses were required for the Indian trade. During Bacon's Rebellion only Indians fighting along with the English were allowed to possess guns and ammunition. However, with the signing of the Treaty of 1677 total prohibition of trade between Indians and colonists was deemed to be harmful by the Assembly. Free trade with all friendly Indians resumed, including trade for arms and ammunition (James City County, Acts of Assembly, February and October 1677). However, as late as 1700 Indians were not allowed to carry guns except while fishing or foraging for oysters; both activities requiring a permit.

The colonial records reveal the adoption and use of Native crops, skins and shell beads as currency in the nascent colony. Tobacco becomes a primary currency among the colonists in the years following John Rolfe's success at growing a West Indian variety of the plant. The English pay their taxes and many of their fines with tobacco during most of the seventeenth century. Corn and animal skins are also used as currency in numerous instances. Initially, there is scant mention of the use of English currency in Virginia. Indigenous currency, such as shell beads: peake and roanoke, are more prevalent than English coinage. The value of tobacco, corn and shell money fluctuates during the seventeenth century. In times of food scarcity corn is more valuable than shell money. By 1650, an entry in Surry County shows that peake is deemed more valuable than corn. Although, there is a gradual increase in the use English currency tobacco remains a dominant source of monetary exchange through out the first century of the colonial encounter. 

Indian slavery and servitude is probably the single most understudied aspect of Anglo-Indian relations following the establishment of James Fort in 1607. The story of the African-based Atlantic slave trade has held center stage in recent decades. The importation of Africans into the colony of Virginia had an enormous and lasting impact on the lives of millions and is not to be minimized. However, discussions of Indian slavery are typically limited to the history of the involvement of the Spanish and are superficial at best. English participation in the slave trade is generally limited to the so-called "arrival" of enslaved persons from Africa to the colony of Virginia in 1619. Typically the English colonists are portrayed as passive in the face of slavery rather than as active participants in the buying and selling of human beings. Rarely are the English implicated in the Indian slave trade. Colonial records tell a different story. Virginia Indians are kept as slaves, servants, sold and traded by English colonists. We see also that North American tribes participated in the slave trade to some degree as owners of slaves and enslavers as well. A careful search of the early records may shed light on the Indian slave trade in Virginia and create a more balanced presentation of English involvement in this practice. The documents also indicate that colonial policy encouraged a "civilizing" process predicated on the raising of Indian children in the households of the settlers with an eye toward conversion of the Indians to Christianity. However, conversion to Christianity was not the primary feature of English colonialization, nor was the goal the assimilation of Indians into English society. The primary goal of the English was to take and control Indian land (Prucha 1984). In this effort the English were completely successful, and this is abundantly clear in documents from the period.

Virginia Indians, once in control of their own destinies, are by the close of the seventeenth century no longer self-sufficient but exist in a condition of dependency. Once rulers of their own societies they are subject to the laws and rules established by the newcomers. However, the story of Virginia Indians does not end in 1700. The descendant communities of Virginia's indigenous tribes live among us still. The story of the Indians and the English during the seventeenth century creates the foundation for the formulation and implementation of U.S. Indian policy up to the current day. The time has come to present a more complete, accurate and Native-centered history of the first century of relations between Virginia Indians and the colonists at Jamestown.

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Last Updated: 22-Nov-2006