Foremost among Captain John Smith’s interactions with Chesapeake Indians were his dealings with Powhatan, the most powerful leader in the region. The relationship started with his capture by Powhatan, grew into an alliance that saved the colony, but then deteriorated into hostility.
The term “Powhatan Indians” is used to encompass all of the tribes who were part of the leader Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom. These tribes are sometimes mistakenly called the “Powhatan nation” or “Powhatan tribe,” but there were as many as 30 separate tribes paying tribute to the great paramount chief when the English arrived in 1607. The only “Powhatan tribe” was the tribe based about a mile below the falls of the James River, near present-day Varina in Henrico County, said to be the birthplace of the paramount chief. In 1607 the chief of that tribe was Powhatan’s son, known as Tanx Powhatan or Parahunt. The similarity in names created some early confusion among the Jamestown colonists.
Other tribes, such as the Chickahominy and the Rappahannock, that were also Algonguian speaker successfully resisted becoming part of Powhatan’s polity, although they were usually allies of the Powhatan tribes.
Today there are seven state-recognized tribes in Virginia who are descended from those 17th-century Algonquian-speaking tribes: the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Nansemond, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, and Upper Mattaponi.
When the English arrived in Virginia in 1607, Powhatan, whose informal name was Wahunsunacock, was the acknowledged paramount chief of as many as 30 tribes, with more than 150 towns. These tribes ranged from the Rappahannock River in the north to just south of the James River in the south, and from the fall line of the rivers in the west to the Atlantic Ocean. Powhatan, who was probably in his 60’s when he first met the English, had acquired leadership of these tribes through inheritance and coercion that was frequently reinforced with family or marriage ties. He held his position not only through military strength, but also through great personal and spiritual charisma, as well as a complex system of social rules not fully understood by the English.
The tribes under Powhatan’s leadership paid tribute to his treasury in food and goods, which were then used for redistribution, trade, rewards, and ceremonial display. In the early years of the English colony, Powhatan’s first intent was to incorporate the English into his polity as another tribe. Thwarted by the English, who had another agenda, he retired from leadership around 1616 and died in April 1618.
Powhatan captured and imprisoned Captain John Smith in late 1607 and according to one account, threatened to kill him. However, within a month, Smith was free, back in Jamestown, and had concluded a deal by which Powhatan would provide the colonists with food.
This is what likely happened: In December 1607, 200 of Powhatan’s men--led by Opechancanough, a leading chief or werowance of the Pamunkey nation and a relation of the paramount chief, Powhatan--captured Captain John Smith when he was exploring the Chickahominy River. They marched Smith from village to village and then presented him to Powhatan.
In one account, Smith claimed that Powhatan threatened to kill him but then decided not only to spare him but also to trade with the English. Smith also claimed that Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, intervened to rescue him, but scholars consider this unlikely.
It is likely that Powhatan saw Captain John Smith as a leader of the Englishmen and wanted to incorporate the English into his group of tribes, making the Jamestown colony one of the tribes under Powhatan’s sphere of influence. Or perhaps, the charismatic Captain John Smith may simply have talked his way out of a difficult situation, just as he did so many other times in his life, according to his other tales.
For Captain Smith, the weeks spent in Powhatan’s custody provided an unprecedented glimpse of American Indian life. The language skills and insights he gained undoubtedly helped him in other dealings with Indians he encountered.
Captain John Smith gave different accounts of his 1607 captivity by Powhatan. His original journals did not mention a rescue by Pocahontas, but later accounts did. Some scholars think that the Pocahontas story was a complete fabrication, while others believe that it may have been true but that he misunderstood the situation. Since there were no other English witnesses, and Powhatan left no account, the controversy is unlikely to be resolved.
Much of what we think we know about Pocahontas is legend that grew up long after she died. Read what historians have pieced together about Pocahontas and the English.
Listen to a podcast of historians Helen Rountree and Camilla Townsend in a lively discussion of the legends of Pocahontas.
Powhatan and the English became allies and trading partners in early 1608. Both sides exchanged youths to learn the other’s languages and ways. Trading began with the Powhatan providing food in exchange for metal and manufactured goods.
There is no doubt that the food and assistance provided by the Powhatan allowed the colony to survive its first winter. Before the food relief, the colony was in dire shape. More than 60 of the 104 men had died.
The importance of the alliance to the English is demonstrated by their attempt to stage a coronation ceremony for Powhatan in the fall of 1608. By that time, ships had carried news of the colony’s progress to the Virginia Company owners in London and to King James I. Orders came back to formalize the understanding.
The English colonists invited Powhatan to Jamestown offering him gifts and proposing to crown him (and have him swear allegiance to King James I). Powhatan refused to come. Captain John Smith writes that Powhatan’s response was: “If your king have sent me presents, I also am a king, and this my land…. Your father is to come to me, not I to him, nor yet to your fort.”
The English did go to Powhatan, exchanged gifts, formalized trade, and forced a crown on Powhatan’s head, but the ceremony marked the start of a power struggle.
Over the late fall and winter of 1608, the Powhatan tribes became uncooperative and refused to trade corn. The region was in the midst of a drought and corn was in short supply. Jamestown colonists were again on brink of starvation.
In January 1609, Captain John Smith visited Powhatan personally but negotiations failed. Contact with another chief, a kinsman of Powhatan, led to some trading but ended in combat and a quick escape by Captain John Smith and his men.
After that, relationships between the tribes in the Powhatan paramount chiefdom and the English were strained. There was no outright war, but there were hostilities and a lack of cooperation.
Opinions differ on why the alliance between the English and Powhatan failed.
During the course of 1609, relationships further deteriorated. The Indians all around the Chesapeake were hostile; the English changed their policies and aimed to overthrow Powhatan and impose English rule.
The role of Captain John Smith in this breakdown was ambiguous. He encouraged cooperation, and the other English colonists accused him of favoring Powhatan.
Captain John Smith was injured in the fall of 1609 and returned to England. After his departure, open conflict between the colonists and the American Indians intensified.
There is no doubt that Powhatan could have easily wiped out the Jamestown colony in its first years. There is sometimes speculation by scholars on why he did not do so.
When the English arrived, tribes to the north and west were challenging Powhatan’s rule. Some people think that Powhatan may have seen these as a greater threat than the English. Perhaps he saw Captain John Smith as a new sub-chief who could provide useful weapons. Or perhaps, he simply believed that the English were just a harmless nuisance who would leave soon.
Those knowledgeable on Algonquian cultures point out that it would have gone against custom for Powhatan to have destroyed a visiting group of people. From the Indian perspective, the English showed some talents and knowledge that would have been useful if they could be brought under Powhatan’s leadership or if they remained as allies.
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