Powhatan had inherited control over just four-six tribes, but dominated over thirty by the time the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in 1607. Until soon after the English arrived, he was successful in expanding the territory in which subordinate chiefs acknowlwdged his authority.
Powhatan's territory was called Tsenacommacah. It was roughly 80 miles long from Virginia Beach to Potomac Creek (in modern Stafford County), and extended 40 miles inland from the Eastern Shore to the Fall Line. His control on the southern edge of the James River was limited to essentially the watershed boundary, east of the Fall Line. He controlled the mouth of the Appomattox River, but not the headwaters.
Almost all of Tsenacommacah was in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Nansemonds and other tribes on the watershed divide would hunt and gather in the Blackwater/Nottoway watershed, and a small slice of the Eastern Shore and modern-day Virginia Beach drained into the Atlantic Ocean without going through the bay, but Tsenacommacah was centered on Tidewater rivers draining into the Chesapeake Bay.
Powhatan's "paramount chiefdom" was not isolated from other tribes. His emissaries interacted with other tribes to obtain status goods, including puccoon used to tattoo/dye the skin and copper from as far away as the Great Lakes. When relationships with the Siouan-speaking Mannahoacs and Monacans in the Piedmont soured, Powhatan could trade with Iroquoian-speaking tribes living in the Nottoway and Meherrin watersheds. Those tribes owed no allegiance to Powhatan, but business was business.
Iroquoian-speaking Cherokee traders from as far away as the Tennessee River would travel the Occoneechee path, with business transacted often at the Occoneechee town on the shore of the Roanoke River near modern Clarksville, Virginia. It is possible that Powhatan could have enlisted help from those groups to expel the English immediately in 1607, if that had been the paramount chief's war aim.
It is also possible that Powhatan was primarily concerned about the other tribes west of the Fall Line and southwest of the James River watershed. The danger from one community of 104 settlers, who quickly revealed that they could not even feed themselves and died regularly from disease on Jamestown Island, may have paled in comparison to the threat from non-Algonquian tribes. As one scholar described it:1
in 1672 John Lederer mapped the Occoneechee Path, headed southwest from Powhatan's territory at Appomattox River across the Roanoke/Chowan river and through the Piedmont towards the Tennessee River
(map rotated 90° to put north at the top - and note "Powhatan R" (James River) above Appomattox)
Source: map from The Discoveries Of John Lederer, University of North Carolina
Powhatan's span of control, his "paramount chiefdom," was established by force as well as by diplomacy. He permitted some tribes to maintain a high level of independence, but he attacked and physically eliminated the tribes occupying the tip of the Peninsula (site of the modern city of Hampton) and South Hampton Roads (Portsmouth/Norfolk/Virginia Beach ).
He destroyed the independent tribe on the Peninsula and placed his own son in charge of the town of Kecoughtan about 15 years before the English arrived. Powhatan purged the Chesapeake tribe around the time the English arrived, ensuring his control over the Elizabeth River watershed.2
Powhatan may have attacked the Chesapeakes because his priests had warned him that his control would be threatened from that location. On the other hand, he may have been thinking ahead and protecting the flank of his paramount chiefdom against some anticipated European threat. The Native Americans living along "Powhatan's flu" (today's James River) and Pamunk flu to the north (today's York River) would have known stories of the Spanish Jesuits arriving in 1570. In addition, the tribal leaders in Tsenacommacah (if not everyone) would have known about English colonization attempts on the Outer Banks in the 1580's - and known that, in both cases, the Native Americans had destroyed the colonies.
The Algonquian-speaking tribes in eastern Virginia lacked over-the-horizon sensors to know exactly when European ships were headed towards Virginia, but Powhatan must have considered the possibility that ships from Europe could arrive in his territory again. By seizing control of the territory around Hampton Roads, he may have planned to keep the English on the Atlantic Ocean shoreline at the periphery of his area of control.
when the English arrived and intruded into the core of Tsenacommacah, Powhatan had already secured control over the Hampton Roads area by conquering and displacing the tribes at Kecoughtan and Chesapeake
Source: John Smith map, from the Library of Congress
Powhatan lacked the technology to block access to lands in the middle of his territory (Tsenacommacah), once the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery arrived. To the Algonquians, the English were "tassantassas" or trespassers in Tsenacommacah - but the Europeans were able to use their advanced technology (sailing ships) to go up Powhatan's Flu (James River) and settle right in the center of Powhatan's turf.
From the English perspective, Tsenacommacah was completely within the area claimed by the London Company through the First Charter issued in 1606. By right of discovery of lands unoccupied by Christians (and soon by right of conquest), the English could assert their ownership of Virginia. There was no need, from the English perspective, to buy a deed to the land from Powhatan.
In response to the English trespass, Powhatan practiced both crafty diplomacy and limited war. He carefully orchestrated his meetings with the English to establish his authority and to gain tactical advantages during negotiations. He did not mass his warriors and try to expel the English as soon as they arrived. He sought to take advantage of the new arrivals, and make the foreigners subordinate to his control.
One reason Powhatan did not try to destroy the Jamestown colony immediately: he saw value in having access to the European technology. He thought he could mitigate the dangers of having an independent power within his area of control, while gaining prestige and power within the Native American communities through acquisition of English weapons and trade goods. The Algonquians valued shiny objects, which were rare in their culture, while the English had polished copper and glass. In addition, the iron tools of the English were far more efficient than the stone/bone tools of the Native American culture.
Accommodation rather than direct conflict was not a new strategy for Powhatan. He had allowed the Chickahominy tribe to operate with semi-independent status in essentially the same area as where the English settled.
Powhatan tried to isolate the English from other tribes. If he could not expel the English from the banks of the James River, he could at least eliminate any possibility that they would find allies nearby. Most of what the English learned about the Manahoacs and Monacans came from Powhatan's people, and English explorations west of the Fall Line were very limited.
Powhatan's efforts to isolate the English were partially successful. John Smith and later Jamestown leaders were never able to build an effective alliance with the Monocans and Manhoacs. The colony remained heavily dependent upon supplies from England, both food and manufactured goods (guns, ammunition, clothes, etc.).
Most of the English trade with the natives was limited to other Algonquian-speaking tribes who lived on the banks of the navigable rivers, where the English could use their ships to reach a town and carry away a heavy product such as corn. Only after the Powhatan paramount chiefdom was destroyed did the English establish a long-distance fur trading business beyond the Fall Line. The key trading centers were located at Fort Henry (modern Petersburg) and Occoneechee (modern Clarksville), duplicating the key trading centers when Powhatan was in power.
Powhatan lacked guns and sailing ships, though Indian arrows were an effective weapon in the early 1600's. Native Americans could launch arrows faster than the first colonists could reload their guns, and the arrows penetrated the shields used by the English.
The Algonquians practiced what today we call asymmetric warfare. Powhatan knew the cultural as well as the physical territory, and struggled to shape the behavior of nearby tribes so the English remained dependent upon Powhatan's willingness to provide food. When the supplies from England did not arrive as planned, Jamestown settlers were unable to feed themselves. What Powhatan lacked in technology, he could make up for by controlling acess to corn and deer meat.
One possibility: Powhatan may have imagined the English to be equivalent to a subordinate tribe, part of the "family" after a ritualistic ceremony that John Smith described as a "rescue" by Pocahontas before his brains were bashed in. Perhaps Powhatan made calculations of the pros/cons for expelling the English according to Western European thoughts, but he may also have applied Algonquian values and culture to the conflict. After the adoption ceremony/rescue, John Smith was no longer a foreign invader, but a lesser werowances who owed loyalty to the paramount chief. "Bringing the English tribe back into the fold" could be accomplished by pressure that demonstrated displeasure, and did not require sustained warfare.
In Jamestown, those willing to actually plant and work the fields were exposed to Indian attack. A war of attrition was to Powhatan's advantage, in the early years of English occupation. Algonquian warriors numbered in the thousands, while the English population in the colony rarely exceeded 100 for very long.
In actual battle, Powhatan and his successors relied upon swift surprise attacks. Those killed a few people, but rarely forced a wholesale retreat by other English settlers. The English relied upon larger search-and-destroy maneuvers, burning cornfields and towns to starve the assailants that they could not see. The English had no difficulty in destroying the traditional reed- or bark-covered huts in the Native American towns, but rarely were able to surprise and kill the residents. By blocking food production, the English could prevent the Algonquians from organizing a large number of warriors for attacks and ultimately force the tribes to abandon their territories.
Random assaults between Native Americans and the colonists had occurred since their very first meeting at Cape Henry. However, all-out war was not inevitable. Powhatan and John Smith might have reached a mutual agreement where they benefitted each other, at least in the short run. As described in a Richmond Times-Dispatch column 400 years later:3
The English and Native American cultures were unable to establish a basis for peaceful coexistence in the areas occupied by English settlers. Cultures who can't cooperate... fight. Since it was the colonial settlements that changed conditions by pushing into Native American territory, it's fair to say that the English precipitated the conflicts.
The English and Native Americans had dramatically different concepts of "appropriate land use," in areas occupied by both groups. English pigs and cattle were perceived as "game" to be harvested by some Native Americans, while the English considered themselves entitled by their charter and English law to appropriate land in Virginia without compensating the Algonquian inhabitants.
Native American town sites and cornfields were the most convenient areas to grow tobacco. The land was fertile and flat, and the trees had already been cleared - so the tobacco could grow in plenty of sunlight. On the other hand, the Native Americans could also trigger a fight. Killing English cattle was easier than hunting deer. Some of the English probably blamed every lost cow on the Native Americans, while some of the Native Americans probably blamed every hungry day on the English.
From Powhatan's point of view, the English were too hard to control. They kept trying to contact other tribes, evading Powhatan's schemes to steer all trade through him. In 1608 John Smith led two expeditions around the Chesapeake Bay, up the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers to contact rivals of Powhatan. That same year, Christopher Newport led an exploration party upstream of the falls on "Powhatan's flu" (site of Richmond) to visit with the Monacans. Powhatan's son Parahunt sold the English the right to occupy the land next to his village at the falls of the James, but the expansion of English occupation was a growing threat to Powhatan.
While most of the early colonists died from disease, more kept coming from across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1609, most of the ships in the Third Supply arrived at Jamestown with 200-300 new colonists - but without Sir Thomas Gates, because the new governor had sailed on the Sea Venture. As the result of a hurricane, it was separated from the convoy and wrecked on Bermuda.
The new colonists in the Third Supply who made it through the hurricane to North America arrived in the Fall. They brought minimal supplies to feed them during the winter before new crops could be raised.
In a strategic decision, John Smith determined after the new colonists arrived that too many people were concentrated at Jamestown. The English were overwhelming the capacity of local tribes to raise surplus corn and to hunt enough deer to feed both the Native Americans and the colonists. Rather than just expand Jamestown, Smith decided to spread out and create new settlements up and down the James River, starting with territory controlled by the Nansemond tribe south of the James River.
as portrayed on John Smith's map, Powhatan was a man of strength and authority
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia Discovered and Discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606
In every war the other side can claim "he started it." The first Anglo-Powhatan war, starting in 1609, is no exception. Powhatan sought to achieve domination by starving the colony, once it became clear to him that Smith's strategy to shift the population out of Jamestown was incompatible with Powhatan's strategy of restricting settlement.
After John Smith was incapacitated by a gunpowder bag catching fire and burning his thigh, he sailed back to England. John Ratcliffe assumed the presidency, and led an expedition to Powhatan's new capital at Orapakes that ended in disaster for the English. Powhatan maneuvered Ratcliffe so the English were scattered and vulnerable on land, then killed 34 of the 50 in the party. Ratcliffe himself was captured and tortured to death, and the ship returned to Jamestown without food.
During the winter of 1609-10, known now as the "Starving Time," all but about 60 colonists staying at Jamestown died. Ratcliffe's replacement, George Percy, failed to move enough settlers away from Jamestown. He had Fort Algernon built at Kecoughtan (Point Comfort) and staffed that fort, where fish, oysters, and crabs were plentiful. The colonists there survived the Starving Time, but Percy failed to disperse enough colonists to other places besides Jamestown where food was available.
The arrival of Sir Thomas Gates from Bermuda in May, 1610 led to a major decision. In early June, 1610, the English abandoned Jamestown and started to sail home. After three years, Powhatan had won the first round, but it was a short-lived victory. Before the retreating English ships reached the Atlantic Ocean, they met Lord de la Warre leading a relief mission from England, and returned to Jamestown within two days under new leadership with new resources.
After the re-establishment of Jamestown, the English sought to trade with and then bluntly attacked the Nansemond tribe on the south bank of the James, downriver from Jamestown. After wrecking their shrines and villages, the English returned to Jamestown. In response, colonists living at Kecoughtan were killed. Thomas Gates then led an expedition that slaughtered the Kecoughtan tribe, and established a new settlement at the Kecoughtan village site on "Poynt Comfort." The City of Hampton can claim to be the oldest continuosly-occupied English settlement in North America.4
Powhatan could not win a stand-and-fight battle, but he still had corn, furs and information to trade. His decision to allow the Chickahominy tribe its independence caused a setback, however.
The Chickahominy reconsidered their semi-independent status with Powhatan after the English arrived. The Chickahominy saw the English displace the Paspaheghs from their territory, and chose to become allies with the English in 1613. As described by John Smith:5
The Chicahamanias desire frienship.
Besides this, by the meanes of Powhatan, we became in league with our next neighbours, the Chicahamanias, a lustie and a daring people, free of themselves. These people, so soone as they heard of our peace with Powhatan, sent two messengers with presents to Sir Thomas Dale, and offered him their service, excusing all former injuries, hereafter they would ever be King James his subjects, and relinquish the name of Chickahamania, to be called Tassautessus, as they call us, and Sir Thomas Dale there Governour, as the Kings Deputie; onely they desired to be governed by their owne Lawes, which is eight of their Elders as his substitutes. This offer he kindly accepted, and appointed the day hee would come to visit them.
When the appointed day came, Sir Thomas Dale and Captaine Argall with fiftie men well appointed, went to Chickahamania, where wee found the people expecting our comming, they used us kindly, and the next morning sate in counsell, to conclude their peace upon these conditions:Articles of Peace.
All this they concluded with a generall assent, and a great shout to confirme it: then one of the old men began an Oration, bending his speech first to the old men, then to the young, and then to the women and children, to make them understand how strictly they were to observe these conditions, and we would defend them from the furie of Powhatan, or any enemie whatsoever, and furnish them with Copper, Beads, and Hatchets; but all this was rather for feare Powhatan and we, being so linked together, would bring them againe to his subjection; the which to prevent, they did rather chuse to be protected by us, than tormented by him, whom they held a Tyrant. And thus wee returned againe to James towne.
The edges of Powhatan's authority had been mapped by John Smith as he explored the Potomac River in 1608, and the Europeans understood the limits of Powhatan's power. Throughout the first Anglo-Powhatan War, the English evaded Powhatan's constraints and traded for corn with tribes willing to risk the displeasure of their paramount chief.
Trade with the Potowomacks, located at the mouth of Potomac Creek in today's Stafford County, helped the English evade Powhatan's efforts to starve the Europeans. In 1613, one leader of the Potowomack Tribe, Chief Japasaws, even went to far as to seize Powhatan's daughter when she was there on a "state visit" to strengthen Powhatan's control on the periphery of his area of control. Japasaws traded Pocahontas to an English sea captain, Samuel Argall, for a copper kettle.
At that point, Powhatan's daughter became a pawn in peace negotiations. Had Virginia been completely dominated by Powhatan, with the power to block the English from crossing outside his political boundaries, then Pocahontas would never have been captured or held captive.
Powhatan refused to trade for the hostage, even though Pocahontas was supposedly his favorite daughter. Her imprisonment in Virginia/English culture led to her decision to marry an Englishman, John Rolfe, in 1613. That marriage led to peace talks, and the end of the first Anglo-Powhatan War in 1609-13.
top of bluff
view of Grays Creek
shell layer in bluff