In the dawn light of a chilly March morning in 1622, large groups of Powhatans gathered in the fields and woods near dozens of English settlements and waited patiently for the signal. When it came, they began walking toward the settlers’ houses seemingly in no great hurry. Since many of them had been trading with the English for years, dropping by when they had something to barter or perhaps to share or borrow, nothing appeared out of the ordinary.
Once inside the settlements, however, at about 8 o’clock, Chief Opechancanough’s warriors fell violently upon the English, “not sparing eyther age or sexe, man, woman, or childe,” colonist Edward Waterhouse wrote. Following initial attacks, larger running groups of warriors, anywhere from 50 to a few hundred, joined the fighting to finish off survivors, burn settlements and slaughter livestock.
The massive assault was a deadly expression of the volatile relationship between the Powhatans and English settlers. Born of his deep mistrust of European invaders, Opechancanough devised a plan using the most basic tool at his disposal — fear. The great chiefdom that he and his brother had built over the previous three decades was being eroded by waves of new arrivals. His own abduction as a youth by Spanish explorers and long sojourn in Spain and Spanish American colonies fueled his lifelong apprehension of Europeans. Little wonder, he wanted to be rid of them from his lands by whatever means possible.
A bird’s-eye view of the initial conflict would have revealed destruction and mayhem all along the James River valley: sheets of flames consuming houses, farm buildings, wharves and boats; dense columns of smoke billowing up from burning plantations. Coming into sharper focus, men were grappling with one another in desperate hand-to-hand combat, with scores of Indians racing toward the fighting and hurling themselves upon the English, killing them in their homes, yards and fields. Upriver and down, the screams of the dying and injured mingled with the yells of warriors, shouts of alarm from settlers, crack of musket fire and clash of steel.
In Henrico and lands to the west, in the heartland of Opechancanough’s chiefdom, Powhatan and Arrohattoc warriors, supported by elite Pamunkey units, swept through English settlements devastating all before them. At Falling Creek, nearly all the English, including families and industrial workers, were killed: 22 men, two women, and three children. The ironworks located there, which had cost investors several thousand pounds, was destroyed. The warriors torched the buildings and dumped equipment into the nearby creek.
At the same time, hundreds of Pamunkeys, Appomattocs, Weyanocks, Chickahominies and Quiyoughcohannocks attacked 19 settlements from the Appomattox River to the lands of the Chickahominies killing 142 settlers. At some plantations entire families were wiped out. William Farrar was not home that day, but his tenants Henricke Peterson and his wife, Alice, and her son William were slain, along with two maidservants, Mary and Elizabeth, and five men. At an adjoining plantation, Henry Milward, his wife, child and sister died, as well as two men, a boy and “Goodwife Redhead.”
Capt. George Thorpe, a high-ranking government officer and self-appointed Anglican missionary, met his end at Berkeley Hundred, a large plantation only recently established a few miles downriver from Charles City. Opechancanough and his people, in response to “the daily courtesies this good Gentleman did to one or other of them,” Waterhouse wrote, “did professe such outward love and respect unto him, as nothing could seeme more.”
But in fact the Pamunkeys despised Thorpe whom they blamed for efforts to take their children from them and place them in English families who would convert them to the Protestant religion. Warriors mutilated his body to leave a clear message to other missionaries. Thorpe died alongside 10 others at the plantation, never understanding why the Indian population had turned against him.
Jamestown, protected by its palisades and cannons, escaped destruction, but several miles downriver the large settlement of Martin’s Hundred suffered the greatest number of fatalities of any single plantation. Young Richard Frethorne, an indentured servant, wrote the following spring that of “seavenscore [140 settlers], there were butt 22 lefte alive.” He exaggerated, but nevertheless the death toll was staggering: Some 77 were killed, including 14 women and six children. Nine family groups perished, and 20 settlers, mostly women, were captured and taken hostage. Wolstenholme Towne, the principal settlement of Martin’s Hundred, was burned to the ground leaving only two houses and “a peece of a Church” standing.
So sudden and unexpected were the attacks, Waterhouse wrote, that few settlers glimpsed the weapons that brought them to their destruction. Throughout the colony, warriors killed settlers “well knowing,” he continued, “in what places and quarters each of our men were, in regard of their daily familiarity, and resort to us for trading and other negotiations, which the more willingly was by us continued and cherished for the desire we had of effecting that great master-peece of works, their conversion” to the Anglican church. Approximately 350 English men, women and children, a quarter to a third of the entire colony, died on March 22, 1622, clubbed, stabbed or shot to death with their own tools and weapons.
Opechancanough did not expect a single day’s attack, even such a well-executed one, would succeed in expelling the English from his lands immediately. Over the next couple of months, while the English were reeling at the scale of the disaster that had overwhelmed them, warriors continued to raid and plunder settlements.
Amid a scene of utter desolation, the sense of dread was palpable. “God forgive me,” William Capps, an established tobacco planter, observed, “I thinke the last massacre killed all our Countrie,” and “beside them they killed, they burst the heart of all the rest.” John Pountis informed the governor, Sir Francis Wyatt, that at Southampton Hundred, just west of Jamestown where five settlers had been lost in the attack, the area was subsequently so “often infested” by Indian warriors they had been unable to plant tobacco and were starving with “no corne for ye present to maintaine life.” Settlers began abandoning their homesteads seeking refuge at better protected plantations nearby, foreshadowing Wyatt’s general order of late April to evacuate all outlying settlements and move to eight well-fortified locations along the James River. Consideration was even given to transporting the English to the Eastern Shore, where Indians remained on good terms with the settlers, to reduce further losses.
Meanwhile, Opechancanough made his own plans. In the summer, he sent messengers with gifts to the chief of the Pat-womecks, a powerful people living on the Potomac River, urging him to join his war against the settlers, boasting that “before the end of two Moones there should not be an Englishman in all their Countries.” Left unchecked the English would keep coming and occupy their lands, piece by piece, until his people would be reduced to pitiful pensioners dependent on the settlers’ largesse. His strategy was therefore to achieve a victory so crushing that the settlers could not possibly recover. By destroying plantations and industrial sites and cutting off food supplies, he believed the English would eventually become so weakened and demoralized they would either fall victim to his warriors or be forced to flee.
Opechancanough’s approach was premised on English leaders’ unquestioning confidence in their own cultural and military superiority. He gambled that the likes of men such as George Thorpe, Sir George Yeardley and Sir Francis Wyatt would not suspect him of devising such an audacious attack. Officials of the Virginia Company, the sponsor of the colony in London, placed the blame for the disaster on Wyatt’s shoulders: “Wee have to our extreame grief understood of the great Massacre executed on our people in Virginia, and that in such a maner as is more miserable then the death it self; to fall by the hande of men [the Powhatans] so contemptible.”
Wyatt’s father, George Wyatt, a veteran of the Spanish wars in the Netherlands, noted in a letter to his son that Francis should not have been so trusting of the Indians. Had he been more on his guard, he could have avoided the decisive “Pawne mate” the great chief had set for the English, which is “soonest given where least lookt for.” If it be “hurtful” to over-estimate an enemy, his father chided, it was just as dangerous to underestimate him.
What Francis Wyatt and other English leaders could not have suspected, however, was that by 1622 Opechancanough had experienced a lifetime of resistance to European colonizers. Just a boy 60 years before, he had been kidnapped from his Virginia homeland by Spanish mariners and taken to Spain. His Indian name was rendered as Paquiquineo by a Spanish scribe, but soon after arriving at the court of King Philip II in the new imperial capital of Madrid in fall 1561, he was given the name Don Luís de Velasco in honor of the viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), who championed the well-being of Indians. Over the best part of a decade, Don Luís traveled the Spanish Atlantic, converted to Catholicism, lived in Mexico City and briefly in Havana, and accompanied Dominican and Jesuit missionaries on voyages to establish religious houses among Indians along the coast of “La Florida,” which stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to South Carolina.
Impatient to return to his own land, Don Luís nevertheless bided his time. An opportune moment finally came in 1570. A small group of Jesuits chose to establish a mission in the Chesapeake Bay region. Convinced of young Don Luís’ sincere desire to convert his people, Father Juan Bautista de Segura, the leader of the mission, recruited him to serve as a guide and translator. That fall, Don Luís led the Jesuits to a place described as “far distant from the sea and any human protection,” where within a few weeks he abandoned the mission and rejoined his own community. Several months later, he led a war party back to the mission and slaughtered all but one of the Jesuits, a boy called Alonso.
The killing of the Jesuits was calculated. As with the English years later, Opechancanough feared the ruin Spanish invaders would bring in their wake if they established themselves in his land. The same fear shaped his response to the English when they arrived. From his earliest encounter with Capt. John Smith in 1607 until his death, he was a relentless and deadly adversary of the colonists. Directly and indirectly, the massive attacks of 1622 and his last stand of 1644–1646 together led to the death of thousands of settlers, inhibited the growth of Virginia’s tobacco economy and caused the collapse of the Virginia Company in 1624.
Opechancanough came closer than any of his peers to expelling the invaders from his land. Nearly a hundred years old, following his defeat by the English in 1646, he was taken captive to Jamestown where he finally met his end, shot in the back by one of his guards.
Opechancanough’s death broke the back of massive Indian resistance to the settlers. According to a peace treaty signed at Jamestown in October 1646, the new chief, Necotowance, was forced to acknowledge his peoples’ subordination to the English and concede that he held his “kingdom” from the king of England.
The English honored the treaty for just two years. In 1648, at the annual tribute ceremony that signified the chiefs’ subservience, the governor, Sir William Berkeley, told Necotowance that the region north of the York River would shortly be opened up for English settlement, a decision which led to a massive influx of settlers who quickly took up prime lands as far north as the Potomac River. Indian peoples were pushed back into smaller and smaller parcels on their traditional lands and what was left of the once great Powhatan paramount chiefdom disintegrated.
How do we assess his legacy?
In contrast to his brother Powhatan or his niece Pocahontas, he has been largely neglected by scholars and the popular media. Numerous studies have been written about the great warrior chiefs of the 18th and 19th centuries — Pontiac, Tecumseh and Sitting Bull — but far fewer studies describe the Powhatan wars of the first half of the 17th century and Opechancanough’s role. Yet it was he, in the guise of the pious convert Don Luís, who limited the expansion of Spanish settlement in eastern North America and he who resisted English settlement on the mid-Atlantic coast for nearly half a century. He was, as he once described himself, “a great Captaine, and did alwaies fight.” His extraordinary life, by turns epic and tragic, confirms him as one of the greatest military leaders in American history.