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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Indian Massacre in Virginia
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[No sooner had Captain Smith departed from the Jamestown colony than all order and subordination ceased. His energy and good sense had alone held the reckless colonists in check, and they quickly consumed all their provisions, and provoked the hostility of the Indians, who refused to furnish them with supplies. Famine succeeded. Within six months, vice, anarchy, and starvation reduced the colony from four hundred and ninety to sixty persons, and these so feeble and miserable that had not relief come all must soon have perished. This period was long remembered under the name of the starving time.

Soon after, Sir Thomas Gates arrived, but without supplies, and as the only escape from starvation he took the surviving colonists on his ships and set sail for Newfoundland. Fortunately, when they reached the mouth of the river they met Lord Delaware, who had been sent out as governor of the colony, with supplies and emigrants. The colonists were induced to return, and order and contentment were soon regained under the wise management of the new governor. Shortly afterwards seven hundred more men arrived, and the land, which had been held in common, was divided among the colonists, much to the advancement of agriculture. In 1613 occurred the marriage of John Rolfe, a young Englishman, with Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan, an event which improved the relations between the colonists and the Indians. Pocahontas was taken to England in 1616, and died in 1617, leaving one son, from whom are descended some of the most respectable families in Virginia. In 1613, Captain Argall sailed from Virginia for the purpose of protecting the English fishermen on the coast of Maine. He broke up a settlement which the French had made on Mt. Desert Island, near the Penobscot, reduced the French settlement at Port Royal, in Acadia, and entered the harbor of New York, where he compelled the Dutch traders to acknowledge the sovereignty of England. The effect of the last two operations, however, continued only till the disappearance of his ship. In 1615 the colonists went eagerly into tobacco-culture, which soon became a mania; the culture of corn and other grain being so neglected as to threaten renewed scarcity. In 1617 it is said that the yards, the market square, and the very streets of Jamestown were full of the plants of this new article of commerce, to which the soil and climate of Virginia proved well adapted. In 1617, Captain Argall was made governor, and at once established a system of strict military rule which, in time, became almost a reign of terror. He was removed in 1619, and Sir George Yeardly sent out, under whose administration the colony flourished. In 1619 a representative body was organized, and met in Jamestown, where it adopted a colonial constitution. This was the first legislative action in America, and the first step towards American liberty. In the succeeding year (1620) a Dutch man- of-war sailed up the James and landed twenty negroes, who were quickly sold to the colonists. A happier introduction than this of African slavery was effected the same year, in the sending over of ninety young women, who were also sold to the colonists - as wives; the price paid for each being one hundred and twenty pounds of tobacco. Sixty others were soon after sent, and the price rose to one hundred and fifty pounds of tobacco.

But the Virginian colonists were now to pass through a danger as threatening as that of the "starving time." The death of Powhatan had removed their best friend among the Indians. The rapid increase of the colonists, and the spread of their settlements, alarmed the savages, who, in 1622, formed a conspiracy to destroy the whole colony. The story of this thrilling event we extract from Howison's "History of Virginia."]

Since the marriage of Pocahontas with John Rolfe, the Indians had preserved the most peaceful relations with the settlers, and hopes were entertained that permanent friendship would be established between them. The dominion of Powhatan had descended to his brother Opitchapan, a feeble and decrepit chieftain, who was neither dreaded by the whites nor respected by his own subjects. But there was one mind among the natives which now exercised all the sway of superior genius and courage. Opecancanough has heretofore been mentioned. It is doubtful whether he was in any manner related to Powhatan, though he is often spoken of as his brother. Among the Indians and some of the whites prevailed a belief that he came from a tribe far in the southwest, perhaps from the interior of Mexico. But in talents and influence he was now the ruling power among the savages. Profound in dissimulation, cruel by nature and habit, patient of suffering, skilled in every species of treachery, and possessed of a ready eloquence, always at his command, he soon gained over the minds of his inferiors an ascendency as resistless as it was dangerous..

The English had become careless and unsuspecting. Believing the natives to be their friends, they admitted them freely to their houses, sometimes supplied them with arms, employed them in hunting and fishing for their families, and in all respects treated them as faithful allies. As habits of industry and steady labor gained ground, the colonists relaxed their martial discipline. The plough was a more useful implement than the musket, and the sword had given place to the hoe and the pickaxe. Seduced by the present tranquillity, and by the fertile soil found in belts of land upon all the rivers running into the bay, they had extended their settlements until they were now nearly eighty in number and spread in scattered plantations over a space of several hundred miles. They were lulled into complete security by the demeanor of the natives, and those who were most zealous for religion were beginning to hope that the seeds of the truth were taking root in many untutored minds, and would, after a season, produce fruits of joy and peace. Some were not thus sanguine; and among those who looked with most suspicion upon the Indians we mark the name of Jonas Stockam, a minister, who has left on record an open acknowledgment of his distrust. His strong common sense, his knowledge of human nature, and his observations upon the natives around him, all confirmed his belief that they were yet highly dangerous, and that until their priests and "ancients" were destroyed no hope of their conversion need be entertained. But his warnings, and slight proofs of enmity in the savages, were alike disregarded. The colonists remained immersed in unruffled security.

In the mean time Opecancanough was preparing the actors in his infernal drama. Either in person or by his emissaries, he visited all the tribes composing the confederacy over which Powhatan had held dominion. He roused them to revenge; represented their wrongs; wrought their passions to intensity by mingled promises of blood and of rapine; pointed to the defenceless state of the colonists, and established a complete organization for the work of death..The savages of Virginia were now embodied for their fatal purpose, and awaited but the signal from their leader to fall upon the unsuspecting colonists..

On Friday, the 22d day of March (1622), the tragedy began. So perfect was the confidence of the settlers that they loaned the savages their boats to cross the rivers for their deadly purpose; many of them even came in to take the morning meal with the whites, and brought deer, turkeys, fish, and fruits, which they offered for sale in the usual manner. But at mid-day the scene of blood was opened. Instantly, and as if by magic, the savages appeared at every point, and fell upon their victims with the weapons which first presented themselves. Neither age nor sex was spared. The tender infant was snatched from the mother to be butchered before her eyes; wives were left weltering in blood in the presence of their husbands; men helpless from age, or wholly without defence, were stricken down ere they could see the foe who assailed them. In one morning three hundred and forty-nine settlers were slain upon the several plantations. The murderers were lashed into frenzied excitement by their own passions; and, not content with the work of death, they mutilated the corpses in a manner so revolting that the original recorders of this massacre shrink from the task of describing them..

It is remarkable that wherever resistance was made to these fiends it was entirely successful. Too cruel to be brave, they fled from the first vigorous onset; and had the colonists received one hour's warning, no life would have been lost that was not dearly atoned for. An old soldier who had served under John Smith, although surrounded by Indians and severely wounded, clove the skull of one assailant with a single stroke of an axe, and the rest instantly took to flight. A Mr. Baldwin, whose wife was lying before his eyes, profusely bleeding from many wounds, by one well-directed discharge drove a crowd of murderers from his house. Several small parties of settlers obtained a few muskets from a ship that happened to be lying in the stream near their plantations, and with these they routed the savages in every direction and dispersed them in great alarm.

[Jamestown was saved through information given by a young Indian convert. Preparations for defence were hastily made, and the savages did not venture an assault.]

The immediate effects of this blow upon the colony were most disastrous. Horror and consternation pervaded every mind; nearly one-fourth of their whole number had, in a single hour, been stricken down. The rest were hastily drawn together around Jamestown. Distant plantations were abandoned, and in a short time eighty settlements were reduced to six. Some few bold spirits (and among them a woman) refused to obey the order, and remained in their country-seats, among their servants, mounting cannon at weak points, and preparing to meet the treacherous foe with becoming courage. But they were compelled by law to abandon their strongholds and to unite their resources in the common fund.

A terrible reaction in the feelings of the colonists immediately took place.. A war ensued, in which the fiercest impulses that man can feel were called into being. No truce was ever declared. The Indians were shot down at any time and in any place in which they showed them-selves. When seed-time approached, hostilities declined from absolute necessity. The English resorted to a stratagem which cannot be justified. Offering peace to the savages, they seduced them from their places of concealment; but in the midst of their labor they rushed upon them, cut down their corn, and put to death a large number, among whom were several of their greatest warriors and most skilful chieftains. So embittered and so deep was the feeling of hatred thus engendered between the races that for many years it was transmitted from father to son. The colonists looked upon the Indians as their hereditary foes, and the unhappy natives never spoke of the "long knives" without fear and execration.

[During the immediately succeeding period no events of any marked importance occurred in Virginia. In 1624 the London Company was dissolved, and Virginia became a royal government. But the rights of trial by jury and of a representative Assembly, which had been granted by the Company, were retained, and all succeeding colonies claimed the same, so that from the formation of the colonial Assembly of Virginia we may date the beginning of the evolution of American liberty. In 1643 another Indian massacre took place, instigated by the same implacable chief.]

The Indians were now inveterate enemies. Peace was never thought of. Successive enactments of the Assembly made it a solemn duty to fall upon the natives at stated periods of the year, and heavy penalties were visited upon all who traded with them or in any way provided them with arms and ammunition. The whites were steadily increasing both in moral and physical strength; the Indians were as rapidly wasting away before the breath of civilization. A few incursions,--a few convulsive efforts, always attended by heavy loss to themselves,--one final struggle,--these will complete their history in eastern Virginia.

The illegal grants favored by Sir John Hervey had provoked the natives into active hostility. They saw their hunting-grounds successively swept away by a power which they were unable to resist, and all the passions of the savage arose to demand revenge.. Among the natives there still lived a hero who had proved himself a formidable adversary even when encountered by European skill. Opecancanough had attained the hundredth year of his life. Declining age had bowed a form once eminent in stature and manly strength. Incessant toil and watchfulness had wasted his flesh and left him gaunt and withered, like the forest-tree stripped of its foliage by the frosts of winter. His eyes had lost their brightness, and so heavily did the hand of age press upon him that his eyelids drooped from weakness, and he required the aid of an attendant to raise them that he might see objects around him. Yet within this tottering and wasted body burned a soul which seemed to have lost none of its original energy. A quenchless fire incited him to hostility against the settlers. He yet wielded great influence among the members of the Powhatan confederacy; and by his wisdom, his example, and the veneration felt for his age, he roused the savages to another effort at general massacre.

The obscurity concerning the best records which remain of this period has rendered doubtful the precise time at which this fatal irruption occurred; yet the most probable period would seem to be the close of the year 1643. The Indians were drawn together with great secrecy and skill, and were instructed to fall upon the colonists at the same time, and to spare none who could be safely butchered. Five hundred victims sank beneath their attack. The assault was most violent and fatal upon the upper waters of the Pamunkey and the York, where the settlers were yet thin in number and but imperfectly armed. But in every place where resistance was possible the savages were routed with loss, and driven back in dismay to their fastnesses in the forest.

Sir William Berkeley instantly placed himself at the head of a chosen body, composed of every twentieth man able to bear arms, and marched to the scene of devastation. Finding the savages dispersed, and all organized resistance at an end, he followed them with a troop of cavalry. The aged chief had taken refuge in the neighborhood of his seat at Pamunkey. His strength was too much enfeebled for vigorous flight. His limbs refused to bear him, and his dull vision rendered him an easy prey. He was overtaken by the pursuers, and carried in triumph back to James-town.

Finding the very soul of Indian enmity now within his power, the governor had determined to send him to England as a royal captive, to be detained in honorable custody until death should close his earthly career.. But a death of violence awaited him. A brutal wretch, urged on by desire to revenge injuries to the whites which had long been forgotten or forgiven, advanced with his musket behind the unhappy chieftain and shot him through the back..

The wound thus given was mortal. Opecancanough lingered a few days in agony; yet to the last moment of his life he retained his majesty and sternness of demeanor. A crowd of idle beings collected around him to sate their unfeeling curiosity with a view of his person and his conduct. Hearing the noise, the dying Indian feebly motioned to his attendants to raise his eyelids, that he might learn the cause of this tumult. A flash of wounded pride and of just indignation, for a moment, revived his waning strength. He sent for the governor, and addressed to him that keen reproach which has so well merited preservation: "Had I taken Sir William Berkeley prisoner, I would not have exposed him as a show to my people." In a short time afterwards he expired..

After the death of this warrior, the celebrated confederacy of Powhatan was immediately dissolved.. It was without a head, and the members fell away and speedily lost all tendency to cohesion. The Indians had learned, by fatal experience, that they contended in vain with the whites. They have faded away and gradually disappeared, never more to return.

Robert R. Howison

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