The English colonization of North American began in the early seventeenth century with the establishment of Jamestown in Virginia in 1607. English colonization of the Americas was in part a response to demographic changes in England. Farming was declining there, and the cities were growing at a rate that resulted in high unemployment. Colonization was thus a solution to the unemployment problem: it was a way of getting rid of unwanted people, often labeled as “rogues,” “vagabonds,” and “beggars.”
North America prior to the European invasion had been densely populated but the English government and its colonists had little concern for the Aboriginal inhabitants of the land they renamed Virginia. Historian Wilbur R. Jacobs, in his chapter in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 4: History of Indian-White Relations, writes:
“Native American people were seen as temporary owners of the North American continent rich in minerals, furs, fish, agricultural produce (maize, squash, and other food plants domesticated by Indians).”
Wilbur R. Jacobs also says:
“Overall policy allowed no special place for the American Indian, who was regarded as a kind of nonperson.”
Concerning the English colonists, historian Frederick Fausz, in his chapter in Cultures in Contact: The European Impact on Native Cultural Institutions in Eastern North America, A.D. 1000-1800, writes:
“Emerging from a European world torn asunder by religious and dynastic warfare, and influenced by the plots of Spain and the atrocity-ridden Irish rebellions, the early English colonists based their hopes for their nation’s success on founding military bases along the mid-Atlantic coast and for their own survival on establishing relations with friendly or pacified native populations.”
One of the conflicts between the English colonists and the Indians centered around different cultural views regarding land. In their book Native American Heritage, Merwyn Garbarino and Robert Sasso write:
“To the Indian, land was a free good, to be used but not owned. But for the English, owning their very own land was the goal that drew many, perhaps most, across the ocean. Most of the British immigrants were the poor, the dispossessed, and the younger sons of nobility who had no rights in land back home. They had dreamed of finding cheap real estate subject to complete private ownership, and that was what they came after.”
While the English came prepared to offer peace, they were also prepared to subjugate natives who would reject either their physical presence or their cultural imperialism. Frederick Fausz notes that:
“…the Protestants from England were determined to have their American outposts either by the gloved hand of peaceful cultural coexistence or by the armored fist of military conquest.”
The legal philosophy which guided English colonization was the Discovery Doctrine which declared that Christian monarchs have the right, and perhaps even the obligation, to rule over non-Christian nations. Thus, American Indian nations were viewed as subservient to the English Crown.
Setting the Stage
The English colonization of North America was not undertaken by the British Crown, but by a joint-stock company which was given a Royal Charter by King James I. This joint-stock company, officially known as the Virginia Company of London, was made up of “adventurers,” a term used for both investors and the actual settlers. The Royal Charter gave the Virginia Company the right to develop a market in the New World for English commerce and for “propagating of Christian Religion to such people, as yet live in darkness.” King James authorized the company to settle on the American coast between 34- and 40-degrees latitude.
In a joint-stock company, investors pooled their resources to fund the colonization efforts and, if the colony was successful, they would share the profits. The Virginia Company of London was founded and directed by a group of merchants and gentry who were motivated in part by the promise of strong economic returns for their investment. In their book The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast, Theda Perdue and Michael Green report:
“Armed with royal authorization to exploit the riches of Virginia, the company intended to plant a trading post, acquire furs and other valuables from the Indians, sell them manufactured goods and textiles, search for gold and silver, and begin the development of industries, such as the production of naval stores and the manufacture of shingles.”
Their Royal Charter gave them permission to exploit the riches of Virginia with little or no concern about ownership of these riches by Indian nations.
In the Royal Charter, Indians were characterized as living “in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God.” The Company was to seek the conversion of the heathen (that is, conversion of Indians to Protestant Christianity). In their book Indian Wars, Robert Utley and Wilcomb Washburn report:
“A few pious remarks were made about introducing the Indian to Christianity, but there was little real missionary zeal.”
In addition to seeking profits and converting Indians, the Company was to expand of the English empired, increase revenues for the King, and provide employment for the English vagrant poor.
Initial settlement in 1607
In 1607, three English ships brought into Chesapeake Bay 120 British settlers who established a colony at Jamestown (named for King James I). At this time there were an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Indians living in the area that would become Virgina. The major tribal confederacy in the area was the Powhatan (also spelled Powhattan), an Algonquian-speaking confederacy of about 30 tribes (some sources indicate as many as 43 tribes). These tribes included the Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Rappahannock. The alliance of these tribes had formed in the late 1500s, just prior to the English invasion, by a Pamunkey chief named Wahunsonacock. His capital was located at the falls of the James River in Virginia. This was called Powhatan which means “Falls of the River” and thus the allied tribes were known as the Powhatan. To confuse the matter a bit, Wahunsonacok was also called The Powhatan or simply Powhatan.
While English writers often describe the Indians as hunters, they were actually farmers who had been planting crops in the region for several centuries. The English were delighted by some of the Indian crops, including strawberries (which were described as being larger and tastier than those in England) and persimmons. Persimmon bread was a common Indian gift.
The English looked upon the land as vacant, even when it had been cleared and planted with the Indian crops of maize (corn), beans, and squash. For the English, land was occupied only when it was laid out in neat rectangles, fenced, and used for a single crop. Since the Indians cleared their lands by burning and used intercropping—the practice of planting crops together—their lands did not look “neat” and “occupied” to English eyes. The English also seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the park-like wilderness was, in fact, a well-managed ecosystem which the Indians maintained by regularly burning it.
With regard to the English view of the land and its ownership, Charles Mann, in article in National Geographic, writes:
“To them, the Indians’ unfenced land look unused—no matter that it was purposely kept open by burning, and constantly traversed by hunting and gathering parties.”
English colonists in 1608
In 1608, the English colonists at Jamestown found that most of their food supply was rotten or had been eaten by rats. The countryside around them was abundant with game, and John Smith encouraged the colonists to live off the land. Smith sent groups to different places to gather food resources. Anthropologist Margaret Holmes Williamson, in her book Powhatan Lords of Life and Death: Command and Consent in Seventeenth Century Virginia, reports:
“Still, many of the colonists preferred to trade with the Indians for these foods rather than gather them for themselves, with the result that the fort was becoming stripped even of its weapons and the price of food rose considerably.”
Some colonists deserted to live with the Indians whose way of life they preferred.
The English introduced a new trade item to the Powhatan: sky blue Venetian glass beads. The traders told the Indians that these were a rare substance and that they were worn only by kings.
The English soon realized that Powhatan led a confederacy of about 30 different groups and his cooperation would be vital to their continued existence. From a European perspective, leaders such as Powhatan needed to be kings, so they decided to conduct a coronation ceremony for him which would make him a king with loyalty to the British Crown. The ceremony was a comedy of cultural misunderstandings as the English attempted to choreograph a feudal ceremony in a society in which two key elements of the ceremony – the crown and the act of bending the knee – were unknown.
Captain John Smith (1580-1631) attempted to obtain corn from the Pamunkey who were under the leadership of Opechancanough (ca. 1545-1644). When the chief indicated that he was unwilling to trade, the captain held a gun to the chief’s breast and threatened to kill him unless the English boats were filled with twenty tons of corn. He also told the Pamunkey that if they did not fill his boats with corn, he would fill it with their dead carcasses.
English Exploration in 1607
Captain John Smith led a small party up the Chickahominy River. The English were attacked by about 200 Pamunkey warriors who captured Smith and killed his companions. The Pamunkey, under the leadership of Opechancanough, were a part of the larger Powhatan Confederacy. Smith was taken before the dominant chief, Powhatan, and was eventually released. Smith, described by his contemporaries as a self-promoting mercenary, reported that he had been kept in a comfortable and friendly fashion. Many years later he would tell a story about being on the verge of being clubbed to death when a prominent woman intervened and saved his life. In one version of the story, he named Pocahontas (a nickname meaning the “spoiled child”) as the woman who saved his life (she was about 10 years old at the time). He told this story only after the death of Pocahontas and after she had gained some fame among the English.
An English exploring party led by Captain Christopher Newport from the Virginia Company at Jamestown traveled up the James River, crossing into Arrohattoc territory. When the group encountered some Indians in a canoe, Christopher Newport asked them for directions. One of Indians sketched a map of the river, its falls, and two native kingdoms beyond the falls. When the English party reached the falls, Newport wanted to continue exploring on foot, but was told by Pawatah, a local village leader, that the Monacan would attack them for entering their territory.
While among the Arrohattoc, the English encountered a native boy of about ten years old who had yellow hair and white skin. The English were amazed at this sight, yet they did not ask the Arrohattoc about this strange boy.
English exploration in 1608
John Smith led a small group south on Chesapeake Bay and up the Patuxent and Rappahannock Rivers. They had a short battle with the Mannahoac in which they wounded and captured Amoroleck. Amoroleck reported that there were four Mannahoac villages on the Rappahannock, each of which had its own leader. When asked what lay beyond the mountains, Amoroleck indicated that he did not know as the woods had not been burnt, which would have provided for easy travel.
In an article in Archaeology, Marley Brown reports:
“Smith recorded that the Rappahannock peoples, who inhabited both sides of the eponymous waterway, were divided among eight communities, each with a leader or werewance. Smith mapped or described 43 of their villages, reporting friendly encounters with some groups and hostility from others.”
The larger settlements include Wecuppom, Matchopick, and Pissacoack. These communities sat atop Fones Cliffs, a four-mile sandstone cliff on the north bank of the Rappahannock River.
The English explorers made contact with an Algonquian-speaking group whom they called Tockwogh (possibly the Nanticoke?). With the help of the Tockwogh, the English then contacted an Iroquoian-speaking group, the Susquehannock, and exchanged gifts with them. The English described the Susquehannock as a “giant-like people” because they were significantly taller than the English.
Later, a group of about 60 Susquehannock visited Captain John Smith and the English colonists.
English colonists heard rumors about an Indian mine in the interior. Lured by the possibility of gold, John Smith and six others set off to verify its existence. They employed Potomac guides who they placed in chains during their march. They found a great hole which had been dug with shells and hatchets. The mine, developed by the Indians to obtain minerals for making body paints, failed to yield any gold.
The establishment of the English colony of Jamestown set the stage for ongoing conflicts with the American Indian nations in the region. Without Indian support in terms of agricultural products, food supplies, and knowledge of the ecology, the colony would not have survived. The English sense of superiority, however, was a barrier to understanding and friendship. In looking at the causes of the Anglo-Indian wars in Virginia, Wilcomb Washburn, in his chapter in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast, writes:
“All the wars of Virginia could have been avoided and the conspiracies made unnecessary if English conduct toward the Indians had equaled the standards of honorable dealing that the Virginia Company and the royal government sought to uphold.”
More American Indian histories
Indians 101: The 17th Century Wampanoag
Indians 101: New Sweden and the Indians
Indians 101: English religion and American Indians in the 17th century
Indians 101: The English and Indian land in the 17th century
Indians 101: The English right to rule Indians in the 17th century
Indians 101: The First Anglo-Powhatan War
Indians 101: The Second Anglo-Powhatan War
Indians 101: The Third Anglo-Powhatan War