Literature Review

Literature Review

Kasey Mayer

HIST 298

Literature Review

Powhatan Indians and the Jamestown Colonists


From the beginning, the relationship between the Native Americans in Virginia and the settlers from Virginia was a wary one. The natives were like nothing the colonists had ever seen. They desired to understand their neighbors in the new world to which they had traveled and build relationships. These relationships evolved over time and, depending on the author’s analysis, the literature on this topic discusses the different and very complex relationships between the Natives and the colonists. Their relationship evolved from one where the Native Americans acted as a guide for the colonists who were new to the land to a trading relationship between the two groups. Another topic of discussion is the “us” vs “them” mentality that is often applied to the study of Native Americans and colonists. Generally, when colonists first reached Virginia in 1607 and established Jamestown, the relationship between the two groups, although new, was mostly civil. As they became more settled, their relationship changed. Historians have described several views on the relationship between the Powhatan Indians and the colonist. Some have described their relationship as civil, some as hostile, and some described relationships that were both friendly and hostile.

Something important to note with the interpretations of the relationships between the colonists and Powhatan Indians is that in the seventeenth century, Native Americans were not keeping a written record. Authors who research the relationship between these groups have had to take this into account during their analysis. Most of our written history on the colonist and Native Americans comes from the Virginia colonists and interviews of people who lived in Virginia.[1] While there have been oral histories and written history by Native Americans since then, most of the information available still comes from the writing of the colonists who came to Virginia. Historians must dissect the writings of the Virginia colonist and look at the other accounts of that time period to ensure that any biases within the writings from the colonists do not affect their analysis of the relationship between the two groups. This makes analyzing Native Americans slightly difficult, however, that does not mean that the analysis of colonist and Powhatan Indians is one-sided. Other information, such as research from historians and archeologists along with the oral histories of the Powhatan Natives, is also used to analyze early colonial interactions between the Native Americans and colonists. This can be used to form a well-rounded argument with many different facets and opinions.

Helen Rountree is a historian who specializes in Native American history, specifically the history of southeast tribes and is one of the leading historians on this topic. She has written many books about Native Americans in the southeast and several on the Powhatan Indians alone. She notes that in the seventeenth century, the regulations on scholarly writings were much looser. One example she gives is some writings by John Smith. In one of her books, she notes that Smith would often rewrite history in order to shine a light on himself when there may not have been one otherwise. [2] While it is difficult to tell in his revised works what is true and what his personal edits are, it is important to know that he edited his work so that his books should be taken with a grain of salt.

Many texts define the relationship between early colonists and the Powhatan Indians as a mutually beneficial relationship. The colonists were unfamiliar with the land and the Natives wanted the goods that the colonists had to offer. William Boelhower, who has several works focusing on Atlantic studies, follows this view by discussing the economic relation between the colonists and the neighboring tribes, the Powhatan among them. He notes that one of the first things that the colonists would do would be to create “friendly ties” with the other tribes in the area.[3] Not only would this create positive relationships with the tribes from the start, but it also allowed for a mutually beneficial relationship. Boelhower discusses the relationship as one where the colonists provided goods of value to the Native Americans and the Natives helped the colonists survive.  This relationship is more positive than one may see in writings about later interactions between the two groups.

The benefit of an economic alliance was not lost on other authors either, at least for the first part of Jamestown’s history. Alfred Cave is a historian who specializes in the ethnohistory of Colonial America and Native Americans. Cave discusses the instructions that were given to the colonists in order to know how to best set up their city. One of the directions in these instructions was to set up a trade relationship with the Native Americans until they were able to become self-reliant for obtaining food. The colonists were instructed to trade glass beads and pieces of copper-which were valuable to the natives-for food.[4]  Cave presents these exchange relationships as constructive to society and representative of a peaceful relationship. However, not all historians share this view.

There are also authors who describe the relationship between the two groups as more hostile and focus on the tension between the two groups rather than the times of peace. Rountree supports this idea and adds a deeper layer to it. She goes through point by point breaking down where the colonists’ relationship changed and they became an enemy of the Natives rather than an ally. She attributes most of their “mistakes” to them not understanding Native customs.[5] She proposed that these small mistakes caused growing tensions between the Native Americans and the colonists. While some tribes remained unbothered by the lack of understanding from the colonists, others became hostile and violence broke out between the two groups.

There were other points of tension between the Natives and the colonists. While early interactions seemed stable, one act was quick to change the relationship between these two groups. Frederic Gleach is an anthropologist who specials in relationships between Native Americans and Europeans. He describes an event when Christopher Newport forced the Powhatan chief to kneel and be crowned and the chief became very angry. [6] He states that by forcing the chief to succumb to a British custom that did not agree with his own, Newport caused a strain in the relationship and caused it to take a violent turn. This interaction would cause many deaths on both the colonist and Native American sides.[7] Gleach identified this as a turning point that led most of the hostility between the two groups. While historians have differing views on how the Natives and colonists became hostile, a majority agree that their relationship was more contentious than peaceful.

Another viewpoint focuses not on the peace or tension between the groups, but the “us” and “them” mentality that is often applied when analyzing the relationship between natives and colonists. This viewpoint, discussed by Michael Puglisi, argues that the two groups cannot be split so cleanly. He believes that there are people who jumped from side to side and those that hovered between the two groups.[8] In the late seventeenth century, colonists were already forcing the local tribes to follow their rule. They had made a treaty that put some of the local tribes under their rule. When the Native Americans were no longer happy with this, they tried to rebel. However, they were met with opposition by the colonists and were forced down, creating greater tension between the two groups.[9] Although this idea still follows the idea of hostile relations between Native Americans and colonists, it provides a new angle that was not seen in other works on this topic.

While most historians chose to either focus on the peace or the hostility, there are some who chose a more nuanced interpretation. Margaret Williamson, an anthropologist, discusses pretty equally the times of peace and the violence between the groups. Chief Powhatan had several tribes under his control; of those tribes, some had a peaceful relationship with the colonists while others had a vicious relationship.[10] She suggests that these varying relationships revealed that the Powhatans may not have been as amicable as other historians believed. Despite the fact that he had control over these tribes, she states that it does not seem that Powhatan tried to stop the tribes from fighting with the colonists.[11] While the Natives tried to have an alliance with the colonists, that alliance did not go far enough to visibly show their peace and stop other tribes from harming the colonists.

Historians have found that the relationship between Native Americans and Virginia Colonists can generally fit into one of three categories: one where they are civil, one where they are hostile, or one where they are both cordial and contentious. When the colonists came to the New World, they settled on the land of the Powhatan Indians. Their location forced them to interact with the local Natives. Most of the literature we have available is written from the point of view of a colonist, potentially causing a bias against the Natives in the telling of Virginia’s colonial history. The “us” vs “them” mentality is also a characteristic that can be seen in the study of the Native American and colonist interactions. However, historians are able to use other sources to create their own analysis of the relationship between the Natives and Virginia Colonists that fit into one of the three categories.



[1] Helen Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), 3. Rountree

[2] Helen Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia, 4.

[3] William Boelhower, “Mapping the Gift Path: Exchange and Rivalry in John Smith’s A True Relation.” American Literary History 15, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 656.

[4] Alfred A. Cave, Lethal Encounters: Englishmen and Indians in Colonial Virginia: Englishmen  and Indians in Colonial Virginia, (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2011), 24. Praeger is an imprint of the ABC-CLIO publishing company and is a publisher of scholarly sources.

[5] Helen Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 55-59.

[6] Frederic W. Gleach, Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 126-127.

[7] Ibid., 129.

[8] Michael J. Puglisi, “`Whether they be friends or foes’: The roles and reactions of tributary native groups caught in,” International Social Science Review 70, no. 3/4 (June 1995): 76.

[9] Ibid., 78.

[10] Margaret Williamson, Powhatan Lords of Life and Death: Command and Consent in Seventeenth-century Virginia, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 61. Williamson was a professor at the University of Mary Washington.

[11] Ibid., 64.





Boelhower, William. “Mapping the Gift Path: Exchange and Rivalry in John Smith’s A True Relation.” American Literary History 15, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 655-682.

Cave, Alfred A. Lethal Encounters: Englishmen and Indians in Colonial Virginia: Englishmen and Indians in Colonial Virginia. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2011.

Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Puglisi, Michael J. “`Whether they be friends or foes’: The roles and reactions of tributary native groups caught in.” International Social Science Review 70, no. 3/4 (June 1995): 76-86.

Rountree, Helen. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.

Rountree, Helen. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,  1989.

Williamson, Margaret. Powhatan Lords of Life and Death: Command and Consent in Seventeenth-Century Virginia. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.