On March 22, 1622, warriors of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom of Tsenacommacah launched a deadly military offensive against English settlers in Virginia. English retaliation resulted in a tragic, decade-long conflict that led to destruction and suffering and redefined Powhatan-English relations in the colony. This is the tragedy of 1622.
The Build Up
The Virginia Company’s earliest English settlers viewed the Indigenous people of Tsenacommacah as desirable trading partners and fit prospects for Christianity, but potential enemies as well. In the colony’s first few years, conquering the land as well as trading with and attempting to control its inhabitants had top priority. Powhatan and his 30-odd tributary tribes welcomed the trade, but not religious conversion or encroachment on their lands.
Animosity between the two disparate groups came to a head in 1609 when both experienced a drought. The Powhatan had little extra food to trade, and the rising numbers of colonists encouraged the English to steal. Further, with a high disease rate at Jamestown, John Smith tried to move colonists into two new healthier settlements, one downriver and the other west, into the heartland of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom. Hoping to force the English out of Tsenacommacah, paramount chief Powhatan besieged James Fort, preventing colonists from hunting, foraging or gathering firewood outside its walls. He also warned the settlers to leave Virginia or at least confine themselves to Jamestown.
When the two parties called a truce in 1614, Virginia Company officials accelerated their economic and physical expansion. In 1616, the Company began granting land to deserving colonists, which encouraged them to create dispersed settlements for growing their tobacco, in turn, displacing Indigenous people from their prime agricultural lands. Simultaneously, colonists intensified efforts to control Powhatan’s people by integrating them into English society through education and conversion to Christianity. With Eurocentric attitudes and lack of respect for Virginia Indian culture, the English hoped that Virginia Indians could achieve a “civil course of life.” They even planned to create a college “for the Children of the Virginians [Virginia Indians].” Missionary George Thorpe arrived in 1620 to manage the workers at the college lands. He hoped to convert Powhatan Indians and encourage peace, but Indigenous parents did not intend to send their children away for an English education.
In 1618, paramount chief Powhatan died. New paramount chief Opitchapam and his war chief, Opechancanough, had three choices — accede to English demands, desert their tribal lands and retreat inland, or fight against English expansion and conversion efforts. As part of his strategy, Opechancanough lulled the English into a period of peace and cooperation and into the belief that his people would embrace English customs and religion. He pretended to enjoy the English house with a key that George Thorpe built for him. Meanwhile, he worked strategically behind the scenes to strengthen his relationships with tribal werowances within the paramount chiefdom and to create new alliances, such as one he forged with the Chickahominy nation in 1616.
By Summer 1621, Opechancanough had developed a plan and made his first move. He would gather tribal representatives to a traditional ceremony held to “take up” the bones of former paramount chief Powhatan and place them in a skin-wrapped bundle in a prominent temple. At the ceremony, he would distribute a poison that his people would use on the English, and then subsequently attack. Opechancanough hoped to obtain a poisonous plant from Esmy Shichans, the Accomac werowance on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, but this werowance, who traded with the English, revealed the plan and Opechancanough called it off.
That fall some English killed one of Opechancanough’s best warriors, a “chief captain” named Nemattanew, whom they called “Jack of the Feather” since he wore feathers and swan wings all over his body and looked “as thowghe he meante to flye.” Powhatan people thought Nemattanew had magical powers that protected him from English bullets. When an Englishman shot him, he asked to be buried among them so his people would not know how he died. Opechancanough feigned lack of concern for his death, saying “the Skye should sooner falle then . . . peace be broken.” Soon thereafter, however, he and Opitchapam adopted new names, an indication that they were about to take agency and, with new roles, embark on a military campaign to force the English to leave Tsenacommacah. If not, he would annihilate them.
On March 22, 1622, Opechancanough’s warriors unleashed a coordinated military offensive on settlements along the James River. Warriors appeared at settlers’ homes and fields seemingly to share a meal or trade, then attacked all ages and genders. Jamestown evaded attack when a converted Powhatan whose name is unknown informed a settler for whom he worked, Richard Pace, who then warned the settlement. Another Virginia Indian named Chauco may have warned English settlers at a different location. Most assaults occurred at the newer, upriver settlements in the stronghold of the chiefdom. However, two settlements downriver from Jamestown were hit the hardest, Bennett’s Welcome (Warrascoyack) and Martin’s Hundred, where warriors killed more than 60 settlers. Warriors captured about 20 women, some who had recently arrived to become wives for male colonists. Around 350 English died while an unknown number of Powhatan warriors fell.
The shocking March 1622 attack forced a turning point in Powhatan-English relations. The English response was fierce. Now they would wage total, unrestrained war against the people of Tsenacommacah, and as Englishman Edward Waterhouse wrote, “by right of Warre, and law of Nations, invade their Country, and destroy those who sought to destroy us.”
After the attack, colonists retreated inside eight protected, crowded settlements up and down the James River, where many soon died from disease and malnutrition. Virginia Company leaders in England lacked funds to provide food or military arms, but King James I sent some obsolete armament from the Tower of London. To ensure continued food resources, officials at Jamestown confirmed their trade alliances with tribes on the Eastern Shore and along the Potomac River, both on the periphery of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom.
English military leaders in Virginia then began a strategy of “fieringe and wastinge” tactics they would employ over the next decade – sacking Powhatan towns, raiding and burning cornfields at the late summer harvest, and breaking up fish weirs in winter and early spring. Tragically, large numbers of Powhatan people died from attack, starvation and disease. In January 1623 the English boasted, “We have slayne more of them this yeere, then hath been slayne before since the beginning of the colonie.” Both sides called for spring truces to plant their crops. However, while the Powhatan planted corn, the English planted tobacco, simultaneously determining the location of Powhatan fields and pilfering the corn when it ripened. The Powhatan leaders’ strategy consisted of brief attacks and withdrawals, hoping to lead the English away from their fields, temples and storehouses. The English described them as “an enemy nott suddenlie to be destroyed with the sworde by reasone of theire swyftnes of foote, and advantages of the woodes.”
In Spring 1623, the English, eager to recover female prisoners, agreed to a parley with Powhatan leaders. Using Opechancanough’s earlier strategy, they lulled the Powhatan representatives into thinking they would talk peace terms. After a number of speeches, the English offered toasts with wine they had poisoned, and as the poison took effect, they shot and killed about 200 Powhatan, wounding Opechancanough. Some English women were ransomed back that year, one for two pounds of blue beads.
The following year the two foes met near a Pamunkey town, in the only recorded open-field battle of the conflict. This one time, Powhatan warriors stood firm, did not withdraw, and suffered heavy casualties. The English got the upper hand and the tide turned against the Powhatan. Still, Powhatan resisters continued ambushes against unprotected English settlements.
Further, in 1624 the Virginia Company of London, the private stock company that began the colony, lost its charter from King James I. Virginia became a royal colony and the Crown strengthened its imperial control. Over the next eight years, Tsenacommacah’s warriors continued ambushes. English colonists remained vigilant, guarding their homes, tobacco fields and livestock, while sometimes raiding Powhatan storehouses and cornfields. Powhatan paramount chief Opitchapam died in 1629 and Opechancanough succeeded him.
In 1632 the conflict fizzled to an end. Governor Sir John Harvey brokered a truce with two of Opechancanough’s strongest tribes, the Pamunkey and Chickahominy. This peace proved highly unpopular with Virginia’s English elite, who served as commanders of the raids and needed the corn they pilfered to feed their labor force of indentured servants and growing numbers of unfree Africans, whose plight during the conflict is unknown. In 1634 the English symbolized their exclusion of Virginia Indians from English settlements and livestock by constructing a palisade across the Peninsula to protect English lands and livestock to the east. The settlement of Middle Plantation grew up along this wall, becoming Virginia’s second capital, Williamsburg, in 1699.
Following the tenuous peace of 1632, unresolved animosity continued between the Powhatan and English, while growing numbers of settlers expanded English settlement far north of the York River, violating the 1632 agreement. The aging Opechancanough strategically began to rebuild his military operation, making plans to attack the English again. He convinced many surviving Powhatan tribes to support him and lulled the English into complacency for a second time. His warriors attacked on April 18, 1644. Several years of war ensued, during which English forces attacked Powhatan tribes and displaced many Indigenous people from their traditional homelands. To protect English settled areas, they built several forts at the falls of the James River and headwaters of the York. Warfare continued until Opechancanough’s capture and death in 1646.
The treaty signed that year with Pamunkey werowance Necotowance, whom the English called “King of the Indians,” positioned Powhatan tribes as tributary to the English government, and stipulated that the Virginia governor would thereafter appoint Necotowance’s successors. The treaty required the tribes to pay an annual fee of 20 beaver skins to the governor and to assist the English in protecting Virginia from foreign tribes. The treaty further established enclaves of Indian lands for the tributary tribes, north of the York River.
March 1622 set forth a defining moment in Powhatan-English relations. Powhatan paramount chiefs did not succeed in ridding Tsenacommacah of the English, who stubbornly remained. However, the land’s first people tenaciously survived as well, and Powhatan descendants are among us today, promoting their history and traditional culture.
Nancy D. Egloff
Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Historian’s Note: “Subtleties of meaning…”
The first English recorders of the March 22, 1622 event described it as a “massacre” by fierce warriors against a small, poorly armed group of settlers/victims. Many historians continued with that descriptor until the third quarter of the 20th century, when some termed it a “coup” or an “uprising” by Indigenous people against a foreign invader who oppressed them. Recent historians have referred to the event as an “assault” or “attack.” Virginia Indians in the 21st century have chosen “military offensive” to describe their ancestors’ strategic attempt to rid their lands of those who hoped to conquer and control them.
Selected Sources for Further Reading
James D. Rice, “Anglo-Powhatan War, Second (1622-1632),” Encyclopedia Virginia, February 17, 2021.
Edward Waterhouse, “A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia, 1622.”
Helen Rountree, Powhatan Foreign Relations, 1500-1722, Chapter 8, 1993.
Helen Rountree, Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians Through Four Centuries, Chapters 3-4, 1990.
Martha McCartney, “A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia (1622),” Encyclopedia Virginia, December 7, 2020.
J. Frederick Fausz, The Powhatan Uprising of 1622: A Historical Study of Ethnocentrism and Cultural Conflict, doctoral dissertation, 1977.
Alden Vaughan, “Expulsion of the Salvages: English Policy and the Virginia Massacre of 1622,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 1978, Vol. 35, Pages 57-84.
William L. Shea, The Virginia Militia in the Seventeenth Century, 1983.
James Rice, “At a Given Signal: The Powhatan ‘Uprising’ of 1622” Lecture, September 4, 2014, Washington College.