On March 22, 1622, Powhatan fighters killed 347 English colonists in Virginia. The English quickly called it a “massacre.” The colony, founded in 1607, could have collapsed. Instead, the survivors, supported by reinforcements and new weapons from England, launched a deadly series of reprisals. By the time active hostility ended in 1624, colonists and new recruits from England had likely killed more Natives than the number of colonial victims in 1622.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the bloody encounter that shocked colonists and English policy makers and investors abroad. There have been other notable colonial-era anniversaries in Virginia recently: the arrival in August 1619 of the first enslaved Africans and the establishment in July 1619 of a locally elected colonial assembly (later known as the House of Burgesses), the first English self-government in North America.
As an historian who has written about the difficulties that the English faced trying to establish a presence in North America, I believe that the violence that began on March 22, 1622, represented a decisive turning point in American history. Before that fateful day, the records show that English colonists had hoped to coexist with Indigenous Americans around Chesapeake Bay. While there had been violence from 1609 to 1614 in what historians call the First Anglo-Powhatan War, English in Virginia believed that they eventually established good relations with the Powhatans, a confederacy of about 30 communities linked to a headman named Wahunsonacock—or Powhatan to the English.
On April 5, 1614, Wahunsonacock’s daughter Pocahontas (also known as Matoaka) famously married John Rolfe, a colonial official who had been active in the war. She was probably 17 or 18 at the time. The marriage was more than the joining of two souls. The Powhatans and the English alike believed the union might cement an alliance between them.
In January 1615, Pocahontas gave birth to their son Thomas. Soon after, the family sailed for England. Pocahontas converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. In 1616, she sat for a portrait by the engraver Simon van de Passe, who depicted her dressed like an elite English woman in a classic Renaissance-stye pose. While it may be tempting to see her adoption of European clothing and customs as a form of oppression, contemporary English observers believed that the transformed Pocahontas proved that the English could convert Indigenous Americans to their vision of civilization.
But colonial promoters’ dream of conversion and coexistence proved fleeting. Before sailing home in 1617, Pocahontas became ill and passed away, felled by an unknown European disease. The next year Wahunsonacock died. Control of the Powhatan confederacy passed to his brother Opitchapam (also known as Itoyhatin), who worked closely with another brother, Opechancanough. As the historian James Horn has recently argued, Opechcancanough was probably Paquiquineo, who as a boy had been kidnapped by Spaniards around Chesapeake Bay. His captors took him to Spain, where he seemed to convert to Catholicism and became Don Luís de Velasco. In 1570, he returned home on an expedition to establish a Jesuit mission on the bay. The next year, Paquiquineo joined with other local Natives to kill the priests.
Wahunsonacock’s brother had deep suspicion of the English. Unlike Wahunsonacock, who perhaps believed that the English would become subordinate to the Powhatans, Opechancanough and his allies watched the growth of the English population with alarm. The spread of tobacco cultivation, which began in earnest in the mid-1610s, encouraged English colonists to seek out fresh soil for their fields. Their desire for land to meet the insatiable European demand for tobacco created constant friction with the Powhatans. The growing influence of Opechancanough and the relentless colonial desire for new tobacco fields prompted the violence of 1622.
The English reacted to the news of the uprising with horror. A printer published the names of every woman, man, and child who died that day. One observer described the attack with gusto, decrying a surprise attack on families and the subsequent desecration of their bodies. In 1628, engravers in a workshop in Frankfurt-am-Main illustrated an account of the war with an attention-grabbing tableau of unmitigated violence unleashed upon unarmed colonists.
The rebellion of 1622 shocked the English. Less than two years earlier, the Pilgrims had arrived at the Wampanoag community of Patuxet (modern Plymouth). While the newcomers fared poorly the first winter when almost one-half of them died, they benefited from an earlier epidemic that had killed many Natives in coastal New England. For a time, at least, English believed they could live among the remaining Indigenous of the region, at least in part because there was less competition for resources.
Colonists had no similar advantage along the Chesapeake. Indeed, the disappearance in the 1580s of the small community at Roanoke (in modern North Carolina) lingered in their imaginations: even in a fertile land, the English might not survive. That fear of failure remained during the first years at Jamestown when the earliest colonists succumbed at a frightening rate to local diseases made more virulent by a lack of food.
But the conversion and marriage of Pocahontas and the profits from tobacco seemed to suggest that, at last, the English could create a durable colony along the Chesapeake. That hard-won sentiment collapsed on March 22, 1622. The sense of betrayal and the anger at losing their access to tobacco drove two years of reprisals—including, in one possible incident, a mass poisoning of hundreds of Powhatans, an episode of violence that the English had never before perpetrated in North America. An outraged King James I contributed weapons to facilitate the colony’s response.
As we wrestle with the meaning of 400 years of captivity and enslavement in territory that became the U.S., it is worth recognizing that 1622 was the year when an Indigenous alliance stood against European colonizers in North America. Rather than adjust their plans, the English pushed ahead in pursuit of economic gain regardless of the cost for Natives. Modern-day tensions between some Indigenous communities and other Americans contain echoes of the kinds of fears and suspicions that exploded on that fateful day in March 1622.
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