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The Indian Massacre of 1622 occurred in the Virginia Colony on Friday, March 22, 1622. As John Smith relates in his History of Virginia, the Indians “came unarmed into our houses with deer, turkeys, fish, fruits, and other provisions to sell us”. Suddenly the Indians grabbed any tools or weapons that were available to them and killed any English settlers that were in sight, including men and women of all ages and children. When the Indians were through, 347 people, or a fourth of the English population of Jamestown, were killed by a coordinated series of surprise attacks of the Powhatan Confederacy under Chief Opechancanough.

Jamestown was the site of the first successful English settlement in North America in 1607, and was the capital of the Colony of Virginiamarker.Although Jamestown itself was spared due to a timely last-minute warning, many smaller settlements had been established along the James River both upstream and downstream from it and on both sides. The attackers killed men, women, and children, and burned homes and crops.

Henricus was one of the most progressive of the small communities which bore the brunt of the coordinated attacks and many were abandoned in the aftermath. One of the highest death tolls occurred at Wolstenholme Towne, the site of a recent archaeological dig which was 7 miles downriver from Jamestown at Martin's Hundred, now part of Carter's Grove Plantation.


At first, the natives had been more than happy to trade provisions to the colonists for metal tools, but by 1608, the colonists had created a bad reputation for Englishmen among the Indians, as they tried to prove their superiority and civilization by isolating the Indians and burning down houses and destroying food supplies. Such acts of violence that the Englishmen performed against the Indians resulted in a lack of food supply among the English colony, as the number of natives willing to engage in trade with them quickly diminished.

The London Company's primary concern was the survival of the colony, so in England's best interest, the colonists would have to remain civil with the Indians. The Indians and the English realized that they could again benefit from each other through trade once peace was restored between these two groups. In exchange for food, the chief again asked the colonists to provide him with metal hatchets and copper. However, John Smith, Thomas Dale, Thomas Gates, and other early leaders of Virginia acted on a different notion because they were military men and saw the Indians as essentially a military problem”.

Chief Powhatan had soon realized that the Englishmen did not settle in Jamestown in order to buy and sell with the Indians. The English wanted more; they wanted control over the land. As Powhatan stated, “Your coming is not for trade, but to invade my people and possess my country.” But Powhatan wanted peace among the English and Indians; he also stated, “Having seene the death of all my people thrice… I knowe the difference of peace and ware better than any other Countrie. [If he fought the English, Powhatan predicted], he would be so haunted by Smith that he can neither rest eat nor sleepe, but his tired men must watch, and if a twig but breake, everie one crie, there comes Captain John Smith; then he must flie he knowe not whether, and thus with miserable fear end his miserable life”.

The London Company in 1610 had given instructions to Sir Thomas Gates, the new appointed colonial governor, to Christianize the Indians and absorb them into the colony. As for Wahunsunacock, he was told “If you finde it not best to make him your prisoner yet you must make him your tributary, and all the other his weroances [subordinate chiefs] about him first to acknowledge no other Lord but Kinge James”. However, when Gates arrived at Jamestown in 1610, this plan seemed so unfeasible that he decided to pack up everyone left alive on board and sail out, abandoning the fort. As they were about to leave the Bay and head out into the open sea, they were met by the incoming fleet of Lord de la Warre. Taking command as governor, de la Warre ordered the fort reoccupied and began plotting revenge and conquest against the surrounding tribes. In July 1610 he sent Gates against the Kecoughtanmarker. “Gates lured the Indians into the open by means of music-and-dance act by his drummer, and then slaughtered them”.

These acts of violence are known as the First Anglo-Powhatan War. Then the English happened to capture Pocahontas and hold her hostage until the chief obeyed the colony’s demands. “English demanded that all Powhatan captives be released, return all English weapons taken by his warriors, and agree upon a lasting peace”. In the meantime Pocahontas would remain a prisoner. It was during this time that she met John Rolfe. While in captivity Pocahontas was taught the English language, manners and religion. She was then baptized as a Christian and took the name Rebecca. The only way to maintain peace between the Indians and the English, Rolfe stated, was to marry Pocahontas, not “with the unbridled desire of carnal affection but for the good of the colony and the glory of God. Such a marriage might bring peace between the warring English and Indians, just as it would satisfy Pocahontas’s desire”.

After the marriage began a period of more peaceful relations between the English colonists and the Indians of the Powhatan Confederacy. In 1618, after the death of Wahunsonacock, his brother Opechancanough became leader of the Powhatan, after a brief succession by Opitapam. Opechancanough did not feel that peaceful relations with the colonists could be maintained. Having recovered from the defeat of his earlier command of the Pamunkey warriors at the end of the First Anglo-Powhatan War, he planned the eventual destruction of the English settlers. In the spring of 1622, after the murder of his adviser, Nemattanew, by an Englishman, Opechancanough seized his moment, and launched a campaign of surprise attacks upon at least thirty-one separate English settlements and plantations, mostly along the James River.

Jamestown forewarned

Jamestown, the capital and primary settlement of the colony, was saved when an Indian boy named Chanco, who was assigned to slay his employer, Richard Pace, woke Pace during the night and warned him of the imminent attack. Pace, who lived across the James River from Jamestown, secured his family and then rowed across the river to Jamestown in an attempt to warn the rest of the settlement. As a result, some preparations could be made for the attack in Jamestown. Outlying settlements, however, had no forewarning.

Destruction of other settlements

During the one-day surprise attack, many of the smaller communities, which were essentially outposts of Jamestown, were attacked, including Henricus and its fledgling college for Indian children and those of colonists. At Martin's Hundred, over half the population was killed at its principal development of Wolstenholme Towne, where only two houses and a part of a church were left standing. In all, about four hundred colonists (a third of the white population) were killed and around twenty women captured, taken to live and work as Powhatan Indians until their death or ransom. Both the Falling Creek Ironworksmarker and the settlement of Smith's Hundred were abandoned.

Date of the Attack

Julian Calendar Dates

Note that under the Julian Calendar, under which England and her colonies were still operating at the time, New Years Day fell on March 25 (Lady Day or the Feast of the Annunciation). The attack technically took place on March 22, 1621 as reckoned by the colonists, three days before New Years Day, 1622. To avoid confusion, it is common practice among historians, genealogists, and others who work with dates in this era to denote Julian calendar dates in the interval between January 1 and March 24 with the 'Old Style' suffix (OS) when presenting these dates with their original year value, or to use a mixed-style date syntax which combines original and adjusted values. For example, the date of the attack on Jamestown can be unambiguously denoted as March 22, 1621(OS), or March 22, 1621/22. The common practice of showing the date as March 22, 1622 is technically inaccurate, but less confusing for those who are unacquainted with the differences in calendaring systems.

The "Good Friday" Fallacy

It is not uncommon to find more recent accounts of the attack which indicate that it took place on Good Friday. This is incorrect. No contemporaneous accounts of the attack mention Good Friday, but rather "on the Friday morning (the fatal day) the 22 of March." March 22, 1622 was indeed on a Friday. The nearest occurrence of Good Friday to this date is almost a month after the attack, on April 19, 1622. The idea that the attack fell on Good Friday seems to have been added much later, and has been mentioned with such frequency as to be accepted as conventional wisdom, despite being demonstrably incorrect.


Opechancanough did not engage in any major followup to finish off the colony. The Powhatan instead withdrew since they believed that the colonists would react as would an Indian tribe that had been defeated-pack up and leave or learn their lesson and respect the power of the Powhatan. Following the event, Opechancanough told the Patawomecks, who were detached from the Powhatan Confederacy and remained neutral throughout this time, that he expected "before the end of two Moones there should not be an Englishman in all their Countries.". However, this proved to be a serious miscalculation regarding the mindset of the English colonists and their backers overseas.

The March 22 attacks also destroyed many of the colonists' spring crops and caused some of the outlying settlements to be abandoned. The English settlers were in shock, and it took quite a while for the colony to regain its composure. As the colony began to settle down, a plan of action was established. “By unanimous decision both the council and planters it was agreed to draw people together into fewer settlements” for better defense. The colony also intended on gathering men together in order to plan on attack on Opechancanough, but this was difficult because of the survivors of the massacre “two-thirds were said to have been women and children and men who were unable to work or to go against the Indians”.

John Smith, in England when the massacre occurred, believed that the English settlers would not leave their plantations to defend their colony and so devised a plan of returning to Virginia with a ship filled with soldiers, sailors, and ammunition, to establish a “running Army” willing and able to fight the Indians. Smith’s goal was to “inforce the Salvages to leave their Country, or bring them in the feare of subjection that every man should follow their business securely”. Smith, however, never returned to Virginia.

The English sought revenge against the Indians by “the use of force, surprise attacks, famine resulting from the burning of their corn, destroying their boats, canoes, and houses, breaking their fishing weirs and assaulting them in their hunting expedition, pursuing them with horses and using bloodhounds to find them and mastiffs to seaze them, driving them to flee within reach of their enemies among other tribes, and ‘assimilating and abetting their enemies against them”.

At Henricus, one of the most distant outposts from Jamestown, where a well-planned school for Indian boys and college for the sons of colonists was in its infancy, the progress and the new town there were destroyed. Another effort to establish such a school would wait over 70 years until plans for the College of William and Marymarker were successfully presented to the monarchy in England by the rector of Henrico Parish, James Blair, and a royal charter issued. Apparently taking no chances of the new school being at risk of another devastating attack, in 1693, the new school was established at Middle Plantation, a well-fortified location a few miles from Jamestown. A few years later, the capital of the colony was relocated there, and the name changed to Williamsburgmarker.

Indian poisoning

Colonists who survived the attacks raided the tribes and particularly their corn crops in the summer and fall of 1622 so successfully that Chief Opechancanough decided in desperation to negotiate. Through friendly Indian intermediaries, a peace parley finally took place between the two groups. However, some of the Jamestown leaders, led by Captain William Tucker and Dr. John Potts, poisoned the Indians' share of the liquor for the parley's ceremonial toast. The poison killed about two hundred Indians and another fifty were then killed by hand. However, Chief Opechancanough escaped.

Indian decline and defeat

Virginia became a royal colony of Englandmarker two years later in 1624. The change meant that the English crown had direct authority over the colony instead of through the Virginia Company of London. This meant that royal favorites could now profit from the colonies, as the Virginia Company had attempted to. As in most Colonies, the colonists there continued to be exploited for the personal profit of those few in charge, and the interests of the Powhatan were even less considered. Expansion into Indian land and breach of agreements continued to be the general relationship, leading to an increasing level of frustration amongst the tribes.

The next major confrontation with the Powhatan Confederacy would occur in 1644 when around five hundred English colonists would perish. By then, this loss represented less than ten percent of the population, and had far lesser impact upon the colony. This time, Opechancanough who was quite old and had to be transported by litter, was captured. Imprisoned at Jamestown, he was killed by one of the colonists appointed to guard him.

The death of Opechancanough clearly marked the beginning of the continual and increasingly precipitous decline of the once powerful Powhatan Confederacy, whose members were eventually left to either leave the area entirely, gradually intermix their residential communities with the colonists, or live on one of the few reservations established in Virginia, although even these were subject to incursion and seizure of land by the ever expanding white population.

In modern times, only seven tribes of the original Powhatan Confederacy are recognized in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The two longstanding reservations are those of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, both located between the rivers of the same name within (but technically independent of) King William Countymarker.

See also


  1. James Mooney, " The Powhatan Confederacy, Past and Present," American Anthropologist 9, no. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1907), 129–52.
  2. Michael J. Puglisi, " Capt. John Smith, Pocahontas and a Clash of Cultures: A Case for the Ethnohistorical Perspective," The History Teacher 25, no. 1 (Nov., 1991), 97–103.
  3. Jay B. Hubbell, " The Smith-Pocahontas Story in Literature," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 65, no. 3 (Jul., 1957), 275–300.
  4. Glenn, Captain John Smith and the Indians, 228–48.
  5. Alden T. Vaughan, " Expulsion of the Salvages": English Policy and the Virginia Massacre of 1622," The William and Mary Quarterly 35, no. 1 (Jan., 1978), 57–84.
  6. Helen Rountree, Pocahontas's People, p. 54.
  7. Susan Myra Kingsbury, editor. "A Relation of the Barbarous Massacre" Records of the Virginia Company, 1606-26, Volume III: Miscellaneous Records, pp. 550-551
  8. Fred Fausz, "Jamestown at 400: Caught Between a Rock and a Slippery Slope" George Mason University's History News Network, May 7, 2007
  9. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia's Powhatans and Their Predecessors by Helen C. Rountree and E. Randolph Turner III
  10. Helen Rountree, Pocahontas's People p. 75, citing John Smith's 1624 Generall Historie.
  11. "“to quitt many of our Plantacons and to vnite more neerely together in fewer places the better for to Strengthen and Defende ourselve.", Gov. Francis Wyatt, quoted in At the Edge of the Precipice: Frontier Ventures, Jamestown’s Hinterland, and the Archaeology of 44JC802, Seth Mallios, APVA Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities July 2000
  12. William S. Powell, " Aftermath of the Massacre: The First Indian War, 1622–1632," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 66, no. 1 (Jan., 1958), 44–75.

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