We all know the story of Pocahontas, the young Indian princess who saved Jamestown's leader, John Smith, and married another English settler, John Rolfe. The legend of Pocahontas has been a part of American and English folklore since 1616, when Smith recounted her heroics in a letter to Queen Anne of England. Not only did she save his life, he said, but by intervening on behalf of the English with her powerful father Powhatan, Pocahontas saved the entire colony on numerous occasions from 'death, famine, and utter confusion.'11
There are reasons to be skeptical of the details of Pocahontas's story. John Smith's account is the only one we have of her heroism in saving his life. According to Smith, after being taken prisoner by Powhatan, he was stretched across a large rock as the chief raised an axe as though to smash Smith's skull. But Pocahontas threw herself across the young settler and pleaded for his life. Some scholars have suggested that Smith either misunderstood, or with a flair for the dramatic, misrepresented a scripted adoption ceremony. After all, they point out, shortly after Smith's deliverance, Powhatan offered the young Englishman his own territory to rule; he made Smith, in effect, a werowance, or sub-chief, within his government. Others have suggested the gallant princess was a stock figure in Smith's storytelling repertoire. (On an earlier occasion, he had attributed his rescue from Turkish captors to another beautiful princess.)
However we explain the famous episode in Powhatan's village, there is a great deal of importance within the figure and story of Pocahontas. She played a critical role in the history of the young colony. Her life reflected the ambitions of both the Indians and the English settlers—and the possibilities as well as the problems within their relationship.
John Smith and the other Jamestown settlers who landed in 1607 were not the first Englishmen Powhatan and the Chesapeake Indians had ever seen. Other ships had sailed up the Chesapeake before; an English vessel had visited as recently as 1603. And according to some scholars, the remnants of the failed Roanoke colony had been absorbed by the Croatoans—a tribe that lived just south of Powhatan's Pamunkeys. Powhatan's people were therefore not shocked by the appearance of the white-skinned settlers, nor were they particularly impressed by them. After all, the first Jamestown colonists were a small party; only 108 settlers arrived in 1607. Powhatan, on the other hand, governed a federation of roughly 30 communities and 9000 people. Nor did the English seem likely to establish any sort of permanent community. For starters, there were no women among them. And the men did not seem to be a particularly hardy group. Within weeks of their arrival, sickness raced through the settlement, and over the first winter, more than sixty percent of the settlers died.
Initially the Indians were somewhat unnerved by the muskets carried by the English; they made a tremendous amount of noise. But the Indians quickly learned that they took forever to load—an Indian could shoot four or five arrows in the time it took an Englishman to reload a musket—and at distances of more than a few yards the muskets were terribly inaccurate. Even the English recognized the gun's greatest threat lay in its mystery, recommending that only the best marksmen be allowed to shoot in front of the Indians—otherwise they would quickly learn 'the weapon is not so terrible.'12
In short, there were reasons not to be too alarmed by the arrival of the English settlers—and plenty of reasons to believe that they could be absorbed within the Chesapeake confederation just as other communities had been absorbed in the past. Given the strength of the Indians and the weakness of the English, Powhatan believed that trade could be established, the two peoples could intermarry, and a proven leader like John Smith could be offered a territory to govern.
The problem, of course, was that the English saw things differently. They carried to the New World a bundle of assumptions about European superiority, and they assumed that the Indians would quickly cower before English technology and power. Just as Powhatan had offered Smith a subordinate position, therefore, the settlers attempted to make Powhatan a vassal of King James. But the Indian king quickly recognized the political significance lying behind the settlers' invitation to come to the English fort to receive a scepter and crown. 'Your father is to come to me, not I to him,' he told the English delegation sent to retrieve him.13 The English did agree to take the ceremony to him—but the awkward ritual at Powhatan's village spoke volumes about the conflicting perceptions of the English and the Indians. Powhatan refused to stoop to receive the crown; only by pushing down heavily on his shoulders were the English able to get him to bend enough to appease their egos.
Over the next several years, the relationship between the two groups was an uneasy one. The Indians held virtually all of the power; they had numbers and an orderly government, and they had mastered the environment sufficiently to carve out a fairly comfortable existence on the peninsula. Jamestown, on the other hand struggled at every level. Unorganized, filled with dissent, unable to find the resources that would make the colony a profitable enterprise, the English settlement faced pressure in Virginia and from investors back in England. Most fundamentally, for almost a decade the colonists were unable to figure out how to feed themselves—without periodic resupply from England and the corn provided by the Indians, they all would have starved. Even with this help, mortality rates at Jamestown were horrific. During the winter of 1609-10, all but 60 of the 500 settlers died.
Still the English clung to a certain presumption of superiority. And they expressed it by the only means left to them when politically and economically they failed—they attacked the Indians. In 1611, Jamestown's governor, Thomas Dale, was embarrassed to discover a number of settlers had run off to live with the Indians. His embarrassment turned to outrage when Powhatan refused to turn the men back over to him. So Dale dispatched an armed patrol to the closest Indian village to punish the uncooperative Indians. The patrol killed about fifteen Indians on the spot and took the chief's family prisoner, only to decide to drown them in the river on the way back to Jamestown.
Powhatan responded somewhat incredulously to English attitudes. He reminded them frequently that all he had to do was leave; without his corn the English would never survive. And on occasion he met English aggression with violence of his own.
In the midst of all this, Pocahontas served as something of a liaison. Only about eleven years old when the English arrived, she frequently carried food and messages from her father to the English fort—and struck up a friendship with the younger boys in the settlement. John Smith described her teaching the boys to turn cartwheels, and in more grand fashion he characterized the child as a 'nonpareil' in her 'wit and spirit.' Over the first several years, when the two communities were separated by their conflicting perceptions of one another and while the leaders of the two communities jostled for position, Pocahontas appears to have provided something of a meeting ground—a youthful and hope-filled point of convergence for the two communities.
It would be nice to say that the marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe represented a flowering of the possibilities lying within her youthful innocence—but the true story was somewhat less romantic. Pocahontas met Rolfe while she was held captive in the camp in 1613. The 'nonpareil' was taken prisoner by the English in order to secure the release of some settlers held by Powhatan; the settlers also demanded the return of some tools and weapons they claimed had been stolen. Held for over a year, Pocahontas was tutored in English and introduced to Christianity. By 1614, the young bargaining chip had become far more valuable to the English as a symbol of the messianic possibilities of the colony, an example of the great good that England could achieve in America. And when Pocahontas was baptized in 1614, the English offered her up as their first real success in the New World—a triumph of civilized over primitive religion, and a demonstration of European superiority.
In 1614, John Rolfe and Pocahontas—now renamed Rebecca—were married. In 1616, they traveled with their baby son, Thomas, to England, where the exotic but 'civilized' Indian princess fascinated the public. She was introduced to the King, and an engraving of Pocahontas was rushed into print. Dressed in English clothes, the image offered to a nation that had watched the colony struggle for years evidence of the grander possibilities of the Jamestown enterprise.
In 1617, the Rolfe family left England. But soon after departing, Pocahontas, who may have contracted pneumonia or tuberculosis in England, died aboard ship. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, even in death, she seems to have inspired a certain rapprochement between the Indians and the English. In London, a fund was established for building a mission to evangelize the Indians. Entrusted to Virginia Company Treasurer Edwyn Sandys, a narrowly conceived but well-intentioned effort was made to educate the Pamunkey children. When Indian parents resisted the suggestion that their children come alone as boarders in Jamestown in order to receive this education, entire families were invited to move into the town. And in 1621, an 'Indian college' was built at Henrico—a symbol of the English colonists' ethnocentric but well intentioned ambitions.
Unfortunately, however, these efforts coincided with the discovery of tobacco and the explosion of Jamestown's economy. Settlers migrated to Jamestown in increasing numbers and, desperate for more land upon which to grow tobacco, they ignored pleas of Indians and colonial officials to respect the colony's boundaries. Opechancanough, Powhatan's brother and successor after the chief's death in 1618, watched anxiously as the colony grew. Then, in March 1622, he ordered a raid on Jamestown that killed 347 settlers—more than one-third of the colony's total population.
Some town leaders may still have nursed visions of an integrated community, but land-hungry settlers tossed off all restraint in the years following Opechancanough's attack. English retaliatory raids killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, and forced the Pawmunkeys and the other tribes within the federation to retreat into the interior.
In 1644, the Pamunkeys launched another attack on the growing Virginia colony. More than 500 colonists were killed before colonial forces organized by Governor William Berkeley suppressed the rebellion. The treaty Berkeley negotiated in 1646 forced the Indians to acknowledge boundaries deep in the interior, and they were forced to pay an annual tribute of twenty beaver pelts to the governor. In addition, Berkeley demanded that all Indian leaders be approved by him.
Though Berkeley appeared dominant in his relations with Jamestown's Indian neighbors, his position was actually complex and somewhat precarious. While he was willing to crush Indian resistance when necessary, he was equally anxious to retain a friendly, pacified Indian presence on the colony's western edge. He believed that the Pamunkeys and their allies, once reduced to tribute paying client-tribes, would insulate the Virginia settlement from more dangerous Indian communities to the north. These 'tribute tribes' also provided other services—for example, the colony paid them bounties to control the wolf population that threatened English livestock.
In order to preserve this pacified presence, Berkeley was even willing to reduce English pressure on Indian lands. For years, he tried to get the Virginia assembly to substitute a land tax for a head tax. Berkeley realized that a tax on land would encourage land speculators to sell off the idle land they were holding. This would bring more land to the market and allow recently freed servants and new immigrants to avoid encroaching on Indian lands farther in the interior. But Virginia's assembly repeatedly resisted this proposal, no doubt because there were multiple land speculators among the legislators.
Berkeley's Indian policy was thus operating on borrowed time. While the preservation of a cooperative Indian presence on the colony's western border made a great deal of sense, Virginia's growing population placed the acquisition of land above all other considerations. Therefore despite Berkeley's efforts, his reasonable set of policies eventually gave way to the demands of the tobacco economy. On the other side of the shifting colonial frontier, Indians began to question the value of a tributary status that did not provide many compensatory guarantees. As a result, by 1670 frontier skirmishes had become common, and in 1675 one of these grew into a major confrontation known as Bacon's Rebellion.