Race War in Virginia
Digital History ID 78
Lacking valuable minerals or other products in high demand, it appeared that Jamestown was an economic failure. After ten years, however, the colonists discovered that Virginia was an ideal place to cultivate tobacco, which had been recently introduced into Europe. Since tobacco production rapidly exhausted the soil of nutrients, the English began to acquire new lands along the James River, encroaching on Indian hunting grounds.
In 1622, Powhatan's successor, Opechcanough, tried to wipe out the English in a surprise attack. Two Indian converts to Christianity warned the English; still, 347 settlers, or about a third of the English colonists, died in the attack. Warfare persisted for ten years, followed by an uneasy peace. In 1644, Opechcanough launched a last, desperate attack. After about two years of warfare, in which some 500 colonists were killed, Opechcanough was captured and shot and the survivors of Powhatan's confederacy, now reduced to just 2,000, agreed to submit to English rule.
Edward Waterhouse, a prominent Virginia official, offers a first-hand account of Opechcanough's attack, and suggests how the attack removed all restraints on the Virginians' quest for revenge.
And such was the conceit of firm peace and amity as that there was seldom or never a sword worn and a piece seldomer, except for a deer or fowl.... The houses generally sat open to the savages, who were always friendly entertained at the tables of the English, and commonly lodged in their bed-chambers...to open a fair gate for their conversion to Christianity....
Yea, such was the treacherous dissimulation of that people who then had contrived our destruction, that even two days before the massacre some of our men were guided through the woods by them in safety.... Yea, they borrowed our own boats to convey themselves across the river (on the banks of both sides whereof all our plantations were) to consult of the devilish murder that ensued, and of our utter extirpation, which God of his mercy (by the means of some of themselves converted to Christianity) prevented....
On the Friday morning (the fatal day) the 22nd of March, as also in the evening, as in other days before, they came unarmed into our houses, without bows or arrows, or other weapons, with deer, turkeys, fish, furs, and other provisions to sell and truck with us for glass, beads, and other trifles; yea, in some places, sat down at breakfast with out people at their tables, whom immediately with their own tools and weapons either laid down, or standing in their houses, they basely and barbarously murdered, not sparing either age or sex, man, women or child; so sudden in their cruel execution that few or none discerned the weapon or blow that brought them to destruction....
And by this means that fatal Friday morning, there fell under the bloody and barbarous hands of that perfidious and inhumane people, contrary to the laws of God and man, and nature and nations, 347 men, women, and children, most by their own weapons. And not being content with taking away life alone, they fell after again upon the dead, making, as well as they could, a fresh murder, defacing, dragging, and mangling the dead carcasses into many pieces, and carrying away some parts in derision....
Our hands, which before were tied with gentleness and fair usage, are now set at liberty by the treacherous violence of the savages...so that we, who hitherto have had possession of no more ground than their waste and our purchase at a valuable consideration to their contentment gained, may now by right of war, and law of nations, invade the country, and destroy them who sought to destroy us; whereby we shall enjoy their cultivated places.... Now their cleared grounds in all their villages (which are situate in the fruitfulest places of the land) shall be inhabited by us, whereas heretofore the grubbing of woods was the greatest labor.
Susan Kingsbury, ed., The Records of the Virginia Company of London, 1933, 550-51, 556-57
Source: Susan Kingsbury, ed., The Records of the Virginia Company of London, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1906-1985), pp. 550-51, 556-57.
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