Powhatan and The Algonquians

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Mysterious Murder at Jamestown

Remains of a victim were found at the archeological site. He was a male, age 17-20, of European ancestry and was killed with a lead ball. He was the first known murder victim in American history.

picture skeleton
The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities

Chief Powhatan of the Algonquin Nation, ruled a confederacy of Powhatan Indian tribes in eastern Virginia. He was the supreme ruler of the Indians in the Chesapeake area. Captain John Smith wrote of Chief Powhatan: "He is of parsonage a tall well proportioned man... his head somwhat gray.... His age neare 60; of a very able and hardybody to endure any labour. What he commandeth they dare not disobey in the least thing. It is strange to see with what great feare and adoration all these people doe obay this Powhatan. For at his feet, they present whatsoever he commandeth, and at the least frowne of his browe, their greatest spirits will tremble with feare: and no marvell, for he is very terrible and tryannous in punishing such as offend him.

More Information

The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest 
by Francis Jennings 1987
a useful book on the treatment of indigenous people in British colonial America

Love and Hate in Jamestown:
John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation
by David A. Price

incorporating much of the new information coming from the archeological site

John Smith stayed with the Algonquians for two weeks after his capture and the negotiation of the trade agreement. The food from the Indians was critical to keeping the colony alive. No farming implements have been found at the archeological site - they relied on the Indians for food in those early years.

While he was gone, over half of the settlers died of sickness. Survivors (who were enemies of Smith) blamed him for the deaths of the men who went with him. They tried him, and were about to hang him, when new settlers arrived from England. They recognized Smith's natural leadership and had the charges dropped. Smith became the leader of the colony. He instituted a policy of rigid discipline, strengthened defenses and encouraged farming - "He who does not work, will not eat."

The settlers remained on good terms with the Algonquians for several years. Pocahontas was friendly with John Smith and visited Jamestown often. She delivered messages from her father and came with Indians bringing food and furs to trade. She impressed the young boys of the colony. When they turned cartwheels for her, she imitated them. "She would follow and wheele some herself, naked as she was all the fort over." She would also talk with Smith during her visits. Several years after their first meeting, Smith described her as "a child of tenne yeares old, which not only for feature, countenance, and proportion much exceedeth any of the rest of his (Powhatan's) people but for wit and spirit (is) the only non-pariel of his countrie."

Relations with the Indians worsened. Hostility sometimes erupted openly but trade continued on a sporadic basis.

In September 1609 Smith suffered a serious injury while in Indian territory. In an attempted political assassination, someone shot his powder bag strapped to his side. It exploded injuring him so badly that he had to step down. Percy, his rival, took over. Smith returned to England to recover.

After his departure, relations with the indians deteriorated. Powhatan stopped trade with the colonists and ordered that anyone leaving the fort should be shot.

Part of The Virginia English Colony at Jamestown exhibit

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