What happened when the three cultures made contact at Jamestown?
Lack of communication among people places all parties at distinct disadvantages. This was certainly true of the attempts at communication between the local Indian population and the English. The Powhatan language was a derivative of the Eastern Algonquian group of languages, which contained many dialects and no written form of communication. Much suspicion existed among the Indian population concerning the motives of the colonists, and among the English as to how they were being received. This was verified by the attack on the colonists shortly after their arrival at Jamestown, during which, according to John Smith, 17 were wounded and one killed. This attack quickly reinforced the need for stronger fortifications, leading to the building of a fort. At almost the same time as this attack, a group of 23 men were on a voyage of discovery up the James River to explore for the Northwest Passage, following prior instructions from the Virginia Company Council, the governing body in England. During this voyage, the exploratory party was met all along the river by friendly Indian groups who were eager to trade. This dichotomy was representative of what lay ahead in the relations between these two groups.
The third group, the Africans, who arrived against their will in 1619 at Point Comfort (modern-day Hampton, Virginia), had no choice other than to adapt to the conditions in which they found themselves. This included learning new English customs and language and having their own traditions ignored or discouraged by those around them. Though Portuguese slavers had initially taken the Africans from what is present-day Angola, it is not clear whether the Africans were treated as servants or slaves upon their arrival at Jamestown. Whatever their status, it is clear, according to a Virginia Company report in 1620, that they were not completely free. They were in a condition of forced servitude in which the English extracted their labor and demanded their absolute obedience.
Few in number and living on isolated plantations, Africans were surrounded by English customs and language, to which they adapted by necessity. During the early years of settlement, it was possible for some Africans to obtain their freedom. Some free Africans bought land, purchased servants and even African slaves, farmed tobacco or raised livestock such as cattle or hogs. Anthony and Mary Johnson, who arrived in 1621 and 1622, gained their freedom and had a large farm on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. In 1677, one of the Johnson’s grandsons purchased land in Maryland and named it “Angola.”