How did the English and Powhatan communicate?

Pocahontas, copy of 1616 engraving by Simon van de Passe

Pocahontas, copy of 1616 engraving
by Simon van de Passe

As the Indians and English began to interact with each other for the purposes of trade or diplomacy, the ability to communicate with each other became increasingly important. Both English and Powhatan leaders realized early on the value of trading adolescent boys to learn one another’s language and culture and to act as messengers between the cultures. They could easily absorb a foreign language and were adaptable to new situations. Our language in America today still reflects these early efforts at communication. Examples of some Powhatan words that have been adopted into English are raccoon, opossum, hickory, pecan, moccasin and tomahawk.

Thomas Savage was a “gift” from Captain Christopher Newport to Powhatan in 1608, in exchange for Powhatan’s servant. Henry Spelman arrived in Virginia in 1609 and was sent to the Indians to “ensure the good behaviour” of English settlers living upriver. Robert Poole came in 1611 and was assigned to Opechancanough, Powhatan’s brother, as an interpreter in 1614. Both sides manipulated these boys as pawns in the struggle for power.

Although often mistrusted, the interpreters remained loyal to English values. Henry Spelman lived for more than a year with the Patawomekes on the Potomac River, where he was treated as a special guest and recorded his observations of their language and life ways in his Relation of Virginea. Savage and Poole became wealthy through the Virginia fur trade.

Powhatan people also served as emissaries, either willingly or unwillingly living with the English. John Smith held two as prisoners in James Fort to show the English how to plant corn. When Christopher Newport traded Thomas Savage to Powhatan in 1608, Powhatan’s servant Namontack was exchanged. Newport took Namontack to England and introduced him as the son of “the emperor of Virginia,” and he returned to Virginia with greater knowledge of English culture.

Although the English hoped to entice the Indians to send their children to the English to become acculturated, they were reluctant to do so. Only a small minority lived with settlers and accepted English life. These included Pocahontas, the daughter of the most powerful Indian leader, Powhatan. Pocahontas first met John Smith in December 1607 when he was captured and brought before her father in his village at Werowocomoco. Smith wrote that Pocahontas rescued him from death, but some historians speculate that he was part of a ritual or test Powhatan used to assert his authority over the English in Virginia. In 1613, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English to ransom English prisoners held by Powhatan and to retrieve stolen weapons. She was taken up the James River to Henrico and taught English customs and religion by the Anglican minister, Alexander Whitaker. She also met John Rolfe, the planter who introduced tobacco as a cash crop in the colony. In 1614, she was baptized with the Christian name Rebecca and married John Rolfe. The following year they had a son, Thomas. During this period there was relative peace between the Powhatan Indians and the English.

Other examples of cultural exchange were Chanco, a young Powhatan male who lived and worked with a settler on the Pamunkey River, and another unnamed boy who also lived with the English. The two Indians both warned the English about the upcoming 1622 Powhatan attack. As with the English, these intermediaries were essential to, and yet mistrusted by, both sides.