The beginning of serious war with the Indians happened in this wise. One Sunday morning in the summer of 1675, as some of the settlers of Stafford County took their way peacefully to church, with no thought of immediate danger in their minds, they were greeted, as they passed the house of one Robert Hen, a herdsman, by the ghastly spectacle of the bloodstained bodies of Hen himself, and an Indian, lying across Hen's doorstep. Though scarred with the gashes of the deadly tomahawk, life was not quite gone out of the body of the white man, and with his last breath he gasped, "Doegs-Doegs," the name of a most hostile tribe of Indians.
At once the alarm was given and the neighborhood was in an uproar. Experience had taught the Virginians that such a deed as had been committed was but a beginning of horrors and that there was no telling who the next victim might be. Colonel Giles Brent, commander of the horse, and Colonel George Mason, commander of the foot soldiers of Stafford County,-both of them living about six or eight miles from the scene of the tragedy,- with all speed gathered a force of some thirty men and gave' chase to the murderers. They followed them for twenty miles up the Potomac River and then across into Maryland (which colony was then at peace with the Indians), firing upon all the red men they saw without taking time to find out whether or not they were of the offending tribe. In Maryland, Colonels Brent and Mason divided the men under them into two parties and continued their chase, taking different directions. Soon each party came upon, and surrounded, an Indian cabin. Colonel Brent shot the king of the Doegs who was in the cabin found by him, and took his son, a boy eight years old, prisoner. The Indians fired a few shots from within the cabin and were fired upon by the white men without. Finally the Indians rushed from the doors and fled. The noise of the guns aroused the Indians in the cabin-a short distance away-surrounded by Colonel Mason's men, and they fled with Mason's men following and firing upon them, until one of them turning back rushed up to Mason and shaking him by both hands said, "Susquehannocks-friends!" and turned and fled. Whereupon Colonel Mason ran among his men, crying out,
"For the Lord's sake, shoot no more! These are our friends the Susquehannocks!"
The Susquehannocks were an exceedingly fierce tribe of Indians but were, just then, at peace with the English settlers.
Colonels Mason and Brent returned to Virginia, taking with them the little son of the chief of the Doegs; but as murders continued to be committed upon both sides of the Potomac, Maryland (which was now drawn into the embroglio) and Virginia soon afterward raised between them a thousand men in the hope of putting a stop to the trouble. The Virginians were commanded by Col. John Washington (great-grandfather of General Washington) and Col. Isaac Allerton. These troops laid siege to a stronghold of the Susquehannocks, in Maryland. The siege lasted seven weeks. During it the besiegers brought down upon themselves bitter hatred by putting to death five out of six of the Susquehannocks' "great men" who were sent out to treat of peace. They alleged, by way of excuse, that they recognized in the "great men" some of the murderers of their fellow-countrymen. At the end of the seven weeks, during which fifty of the besiegers were killed, the Susquehannocks silently escaped from their fort in the middle of the night, "knocking on the head" ten of their sleeping foes, by way of a characteristic leave-taking, as they passed them upon the way out. Leaving the rest to guard the cage in blissful ignorance that the birds were flown, the Indians crossed over into Virginia as far as the head of James River. Instead of the notched trees that were wont to serve as landmarks in the pioneer days, these infuriated Indians left behind them a pathway marked by gaping wounds upon the bodies of white men, women, and children. They swore to have still further revenge for the loss of their "great men," each of whose lives, they said, was worth the lives of ten of the Englishmen, who were of inferior rank, while their ambassadors were "men of quality."
Sir William Berkeley afterward rebuked the besiegers before the Grand Assembly for their breach of faith, saying,
"If they had killed my grandfather and grandmother, my father and mother and all of my friends, yet if they had come to treat of peace they ought to have gone in peace."
The English held that the savages were utterly treacherous, their treaties of peace were dishonored by themselves and were therefore unworthy of being kept by others.
An investigation made by Governor Berkeley showed that neither of the Virginia officers was responsible for the shabby piece of work.
However faithless the Indians may have been in most matters, they were as good as their word touching their vengeance for the loss of their "men of quality." About the first of the new year a party of them made a sudden raid upon the upper plantations of the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, massacred thirty-six persons, and fled to the woods. News of this disaster was quickly carried to the Governor, who for once seemed to respond to the need of his people. He called a court and placed a competent force to march against the Indians under command of Sir Henry Chicheley and some other gentlemen of Rappahannock County, giving them full power, by commission, to make peace or war. When all things had been made ready for the party to set out, however, Governor Berkeley, with exasperating fickleness, changed his mind withdrew the commission, and ordered the men to be disbanded, and so no steps were taken for the defense of the colony against the daily and hourly dangers that lurked in the forests, threatened the homes and haunted the steps of the planters-robbing life in Virginia of the freedom and peace which had been its chief charm.
The poor Virginians were not "under continual and deadly fears and terrors of their lives" without reason. As a result of their Governor's unpardonable tardiness in giving them protection, the number of plantations in the neighborhood of the massacre was in about a fortnight's brief space reduced from seventy-one to eleven. Some of the settlers had deserted their firesides and taken refuge in the heart of the country, and others had been destroyed by the savages.
Not until March did the Assembly meet to take steps for the safety and defense of he colonists, three hundred of whom had by that time been cut off, and then, under Governor's Berkeley's influence, the only action taken was the establishment of forts at the heads of the rivers and on the frontiers, and of course heavy taxes were laid upon the people to build and maintain them. These fortifications afforded no real defense, as the garrisons within them were prohibited from firing upon Indians without special permission from the Governor, and were only a new burden upon the people. The building of the forts may have been an honest (though unwise and insufficient) attempt at protection of the colony, but the people would not believe it. They saw in them only expensive mouse-traps," for whose bait they were to pay, while they were sure that the shrewd Indians would continue their outrages without coming dangerously near such easily avoided snares. They declared that, scattered about as the forts were, they gave no more protection than so many extra plantations with men in them; that their erection was "a great grievance, juggle and cheat," and only "a design of the grandees to engross all of the tobacco into their own hands." In their indignation the planters vowed that rather than pay taxes to support the forts they would plant no more tobacco.
So often had the Governor of Virginia mocked them with fair but unfulfilled promises, so often temporized and parried words with them while their lives were in jeopardy and the terror-stricken cries of their wives and children were sounding "grievous and intolerable" in their ears, that those whom he was in honor bound to protect had lost all faith in him and all hope of obtaining any relief from him or his Assembly. Finally, as Sir William Berkeley would not send his forces against the murderers, the suffering planters resolved to take matters into their own hands and to raise forces amongst themselves, only they first humbly craved of him the sanction of bis commission for any commanders whom he should choose to lead them in defense of their "lives and estates, which without speedy prevention, lie liable to the injury of such insulting enemies." The petitioners assured Sir William that had no desire to "make any disturbance or put the country to any charge," but with characteristic lack of sympathy he bluntly refused to grant their request and forbade a repetition of it, "under great penalty."
The people's fears and discontent steadily increased. It seemed more and more evident that Governor Berkeley was protecting their murderous enemies for his own gain, for (they charged) after having prohibited all traffic with the Indians, he had privately, given commission to some of his friends to truck with them, and these favorites had supplied them with the very arms and ammunition tbat were intended for the protection of the colonists against their savagery. The red men were thus better provided with arms than his Majesty's subjects, who had "no other ingredients" from which to manufacture munitions of war but "prayers and misspent intreaties, which having vented to no purpose, and finding their condition every whit as bad, if not worse, than before the forts were made," they resolved to cease looking to the Governor for aid and to take the steps that seemed to them necessary for defense and preservation of themselves and those dear to them. In other words, since their petition for a commission to march against the Indians was denied them, they would march without a commission, thus venturing not only their lives, but the tyrannical old Governor's displeasure for the sake of their firesides.
With this end in view, the dwellers in the neighborhood of Merchant's Hope Plantation, in Charles City County, on James River, began to "beat up drums for Volunteers to go out against the Indians, and soe continued Sundry dayes drawing into Armes." The magistrates, either for fear or favor, made no attempt to prevent "soe dangerous a beginning & going on," and a commander and head seemed all that was needed to perfect the design and lead it on to success.
Such, then, was the condition of the little colony which had struggled and hoped and hoped and struggled again, until now hope seemed to have withdrawn her light altogether, and a despairing struggle to be all that was left.