Powhatan Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the death of Powhatan, who had worked to maintain peace between his people and the English colonists in Virginia, the tensions between the Virginian Indians and European settlers erupted into all-out war. The tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy were greatly reduced by the wars, after which they ceased to represent a serious obstacle to European expansion in Virginia.

Summary of Event

In 1607, the twenty-eight horticulturally based, egalitarian Powhatan tribes residing between the Potomac River and the James River of the Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia were the first American Indians to interact with the settlers at Jamestown. Jamestown Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the New World. The Powhatan Confederacy was composed of approximately nine thousand individuals who resided in perhaps two hundred palisaded, sedentary villages along the Chesapeake Bay. The leader of the confederation was Powhatan Powhatan , a high priest and paramount chief, described by Captain John Smith Smith, John as a tall, well-proportioned man. Powhatan had inherited the office of chief upon his father’s death, probably in the mid-1570’, and he began to expand his own power and authority through intimidation and force over nonaligned contiguous tribal groups. Some Europeans considered Powhatan to be a king, while others referred to him as an emperor. The English addressed his daughter Pocahontas Pocahontas as “empress.” [kw]Powhatan Wars (Mar. 22, 1622-Oct., 1646) [kw]Wars, Powhatan (Mar. 22, 1622-Oct., 1646) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 22, 1622-Oct., 1646: Powhatan Wars[0900] Colonization;Mar. 22, 1622-Oct., 1646: Powhatan Wars[0900] Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 22, 1622-Oct., 1646: Powhatan Wars[0900] American Colonies;Mar. 22, 1622-Oct., 1646: Powhatan Wars[0900] Powhatan Wars (1622-1646)

Although the success of the Jamestown colony was dependent upon the accommodation and often-needed assistance of the Powhatans, conflict commenced almost immediately and continued in varying degrees, ultimately resulting in a sustained sense of tension and even hostility between the two very different cultures. There is no indication of why the powerful Powhatan chief did not simply annihilate the small group of early colonists, but he chose rather to save the English from famine Famine;settlers in the Americas on several occasions with generous contributions of food. In fact, Powhatan had his people teach the early settlers how to farm, hunt, and fish successfully in the unfamiliar terrain of Virginia.

Despite continual encroachment by the settlers and a swelling of their numbers as more and more British subjects immigrated to Virginia, the Powhatans continued to refrain from exercising any concerted military power against the English. Even Powhatan’s half brother, Opechancanough Opechancanough , who had captured Captain John Smith, chose not to kill the Englishman, indicating Powhatan’s respect for the settlement leader. There has been speculation that Powhatan may have believed the British would later assist him in absorbing other tribes of the area into the Confederacy. It soon became apparent to Powhatan and certainly to others of his tribe that the primary intent of the English was to possess and control their lands.

The uncertain relationship between the Powhatan tribes and the English settlers was exacerbated by several factors, including intermittent armed conflict, the dire effects of newly introduced diseases and alcohol upon the natives, a general sense of deprivation resulting from white encroachment, and the increased immigration of Europeans to Virginia. Because of intermarriage, it also was apparent that many English were attempting to assimilate the Powhatans into the Anglo culture. Migration;English into Virginia Virginia;migration of English into

In 1614, Pocahontas, who had converted to the Anglican religion and been baptized as Lady Rebecca, married the very literate entrepreneur John Rolfe, Rolfe, John who first introduced West Indian tobacco to the colonies in 1612. This celebrated marriage probably helped to ameliorate overt hostility, as did the realization that the number of Powhatan warriors had been reduced through armed conflict. Consequently, for eight years prior to the Powhatan Wars, relative peace existed between the English and the Powhatan people, undoubtedly a reflection of Powhatan’s policy of accommodation. As early as 1609, he realized the potential threat posed to his people by the English, with their firearms and edged steel weapons. Nevertheless, from 1609 to 1614 relations with the settlers generally deteriorated, and warfare intensified. However, Powhatan claimed he wanted to live in peace, and he managed to maintain peaceful relations between his people and the colonists from 1614 until April, 1618, when he died and his half brother, Opechancanough, succeeded him.

As paramount chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, Opechancanough attempted to continue the policy of accommodation, despite the colonists’ increasing refusal to respect the Powhatans’ unqualified sovereignty. However, with the realization that the English settlers were expanding their claim to and use of lands, as well as their constant attempts to proselytize and assimilate his people, Opechancanough began to resent these incursions and planned to drive the English from Powhatan territory with a major uprising. His plan required that he convince the thirty tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy to join with him in expelling the English. The plan was implemented on March 22, 1622, when the highly regarded prophet and warrior Nemattanow Nemattanow was murdered by the British, who suspected he had killed a white trader. Opechancanough took advantage of his people’s anger and organized an attack on the colonists.

The surprise Indian attack annihilated 347 settlers, nearly a third of the English settlement in Virginia. It is believed that more would have died had they been completely unprepared for the attack. However, a Pamunkey servant forewarned his master, who was able to alert some of the other settlers of Jamestown and the surrounding communities in time. Thus, many settlers were able to coordinate a defense. Even more devastating, however, was the counterattack by the English, who conducted military expeditions against many Powhatan villages, which they burned, destroying crops and great quantities of stored foodstuffs.

The London Company London Company , holders of the Virginia colony’s charter, took advantage of the massacre, using it as an excuse to dispossess of their land most Powhatans who lived in and near the various settlements. The company even encouraged the enslavement of young girls and boys. In fact, the assembly and the governor, Sir Francis Wyatt, Wyatt, Sir Francis initiated a policy of extermination, writing, “Wee have anticipated your desire by settinge uponn the Indiyans in all places.” After a decade of almost continual fighting, a treaty was negotiated in 1632, ending the Powhatan Wars, but even during the peace ceremony, poison was placed in the Indians’ wine.

The truce was effective for approximately twelve years, until Opechancanough, now nearly one hundred years old and quite debilitated and feeble, was able to persuade the Powhatan Confederacy tribes again to wage war against the English. On April 18, 1644, the combined tribes staged a coordinated attack against the English, killing nearly five hundred. The Indians’ efforts to expel the English were futile, however, for the settlers in Virginia now numbered approximately eight thousand. The renewed fighting continued for another two years. Warfare ceased in October, 1646, when the colonial assembly joined in a peace agreement negotiated by Governor Sir William Berkeley Berkeley, Sir William and Necotowance Necotowance , Opechancanough’s successor. Treaties, Native Americans and Europeans Native Americans;treaties with Europeans


The treaty between Berkeley and Necotowance recognized the York River as the line of demarcation separating the Powhatans and the English, and only with the colonial governor’s permission could a member of one group enter the other group’s territory. Despite this recognition of Powhatan sovereignty within their own lands, however, the Powhatan Wars conclusion spelled the end of the Powhatan Confederacy’s ability to stand in the way of English colonial expansion in Virginia. Two decades of conflict, along with introduced diseases, had greatly reduced the Powhatan population at the same time that immigration caused the English population to increase every year. The English would ultimately take control of Powhatan lands and resources, and the indigenous people of Virginia began a difficult period of deculturation as a result.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craven, Wesley Frank. White, Red, and Black: The Seventeenth Century Virginian. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1971. A comprehensive study of different groups resident in Virginia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Outlines the cultural differences between the Powhatans and the British colonists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. Five Hundred Nations: An Illustrated History of the North American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Chapter 4 covers the conflict, placed in the context of European colonization. Lavishly illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowe, William C. “Powhatan Confederacy” and “Powhatan Wars.” In Ready Reference: American Indians. Vol. 2. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1995. Brief but informative accounts of the development of intertribal internal functions and tribal conflict with white settlers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paredes, J. Anthony, ed. Indians of the Southeastern United States in the Late Twentieth Century. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992. An excellent ethnographic compendium of the effects of Euro-American socioeconomic and political policies upon Native Americans of this area.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. A thorough, well-presented ethnographic history of the Powhatan Indians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rountree, Helen C., and E. Randolph Turner III. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia’s Powhatans and Their Predecessors. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. A comprehensive history of the Powhatans from their earliest contact with Europeans to the present. Includes a chapter discussing the Jamestown colony from a Powhatan perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Townsend, Camilla. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. Depicts Pocahontas and Powhatan not as naive or innocent but as people who were able to confront British colonists with sophistication, and diplomacy, but also violence.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Opechancanough; Pocahontas; Powhatan; John Smith. Powhatan Wars (1622-1646)

Categories: History