Research Paper

Research Paper

Powhatan Indian and Jamestown Colonist Interactions

            The Jamestown settlers came to America in 1607. It is with the arrival of the colonists that the written history of the Powhatan tribe began, but from the colonist’s perspective rather than from the Powhatan’s. The main sources of early colonist history are the works of John Smith. He wrote several books on the interactions between the colonists and Native Americans as well as recorded some of the history of Native Americans. Traditionally, Native Americans passed down their histories orally within their own tribes. The lack of written history makes it very difficult for people outside of the tribe to research their histories. The colonists wrote down what they believed to be true of the tribe based on their interactions and their base understanding of Native American customs. However, the colonists’ understanding of Native American customs were usually too limited to truly understand their society and its history. Additionally, these writings often told only their perspective of events and did not generally include accounts from Native Americans. Looking back at primary sources, one will find a perspective that said that the colonists and the Native Americans had a trading relationship with little fighting. However, future analysis through ethnohistory and archaeology found that the relationship described by John Smith was not completely accurate. Early colonial writings about Native Americans’ and Jamestown colonists’ interactions were used to create an image that benefitted the colonists, however, many interactions in the writings can be disproved when the interactions are analyzed today.

The Jamestown colony was establish in America as part of the first charter of the Virginia Company of London. King James created the charters with the goal of colonizing America, specifically in the area known as Virginia.[1] There were three charters that were sent out, the first in 1607. There were three ships that were part of the fleet sent to establish a colony in Virginia. These ships carried the Englishmen that were to colonize America for England.  Prior to the charter leaving, the Company of London establish a governing system for the colonists to follow. They also included directions on how they should interact with the local Native Americans. These directions included establishing a trading relationship right away to help them get food until they could build up their own food storage.[2] The development of a trading relationship was meant to ensure that the colonists were able to build up their colony and establish a settlement in the name of King James and England. The charter also included a plan to expand and make two settlements with the first charter and more with the second and third.

There are several letters and journal entries from the colonists of Jamestown, however, the main work that people reference when researching the colonial time period are the works of John Smith.[3] He wrote several books such as The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles; New Englands Trials; A Description of New England; and A Map of Virginia. Smith’s works were likely so well regarded because of his deep connections with the Native Americans. Smith was given the duty of being the main tradesman with the Powhatans, allowing him to interact with the Powhatans often and with many different villages.[4] In addition to being in charge of trade, Smith was also creating a map of Virginia. To create his map, he traveled along the river to very far distances, much further than many of the Jamestown settlers ever went. During his travels, Smith was also able to interact the many villages that were under Chief Powhatan’s rule.[5] His unique position within the Jamestown colony gave his works an authority of that of other colonists.

The trading relationship with the Native Americans described by Smith and other colonists began early on. The colonists used the instructions from the charter to trade with the Powhatans at the beginning of their settlement.[6] However, it is John Smith who is credited with truly establishing lasting trading relationships with the villages around them. He was the appointed tradesman who most often went to the other villages. As he was making a map of Virginia, he was also meeting and interacting with all the villages along the way.[7] He made friendly ties with the other Native Americans and secured relationships that would help the colony. Smith describes an incident where his relationship with the local tribes is what saved the colonists during their starving period.[8] He stated that it was those relationships that allowed him to trade with the nearby tribes to get corn, saving the colonists from what could have been an extinction.

Early Native American history was primarily passed down through generations as an oral history. Oral histories are not easily accessible and make it difficult to get Native American’s perspective on events such as the Jamestown colony. Additionally, it can be very difficult to figure out the Powhatan perspective of those early interactions because there is so little material available that tells historians what Powhatan culture was like in the 1600’s.[9] Historians have found that a reliable way of analyzing history involving Native Americans is through ethnohistory. Ethnohistory is the study of cultures and people. Ethnohistory can be studied through more than just written records, making it an appropriate method of analysis for the interactions. Archaeology is one additional method used within ethnohistory to analyze people and find out what their society may have been like.[10]  The Powhatans were an Algonquian people located in the southeast expanding over the area known as Virginia. Within the Powhatan territory, there were approximately thirty-two villages that were a part of the Powhatan tribe.[11] While these tribes were under the authority of Chief Powhatan, it is important to note that their system was not like that of a monarchy. The tribes were mostly autonomous in regards to politics, however, they paid taxes to Chief Powhatan and had an alliance with him, making him chief and highest power within their society.[12] Information on the tribe such as location and organization can help historians determine what the culture of the Powhatans may have been like in the 1600’s.

There are many things to consider when using ethnohistory as a method of analysis. The first, as previously stated, is finding evidence to create a sense of the culture being studied. While this can be written texts, there are many other sources that could be used such as archaeology, oral histories, and anthropology. Also within the field of history, historians must make sure that they are analyzing the culture through the correct lens. It is very easy to analyze a culture from today’s perspective. However, to have an accurate interpretation, historians must ensure that they are looking at the event through that time period and that location.[13] Additionally, historians must ensure that they are analyzing the right groups. With the example of Powhatans that interacted with the Jamestown colonists, there were many tribes within the tidewater area. However, not all of the tribes were a part of the Powhatan nation and not all interacted with the colonists.[14] Historians must try to deduce which tribes they should be studying to ensure their interpretation is not affected by analyzing tribes separate from the events in question. Archaeology is used to help determine if the tribe was connected by looking for specific artifacts that tell historians if the tribe was a part of the contact-period.[15] If these are ignored then the analysis by historians will not be accurate and would lead to an incorrect analysis of the interactions of the Powhatans and Jamestown colonists.

As historians analyze John Smith’s works, they find many problems within his writing. It is believed that John Smith altered stories create a certain image of Jamestown and himself as well as shape the public views of Native Americans.[16] He may have wanted to create an image where Smith was the hero and the Native Americans were savages. These images can be seen in his telling of the famine and how he described instances in which the Native Americans attacked their own.[17] There are inconsistencies that can be found within John Smith’s works that also help to support the argument that he may have altered the true to make himself seem like a hero. In an early description of the Matchotic tribe, he stated that they had approximately one hundred people within their tribe. However, when he discussed the tribe again later in regards to an attack he faced, he said there were three thousand Machotics.[18] This enormous increase in population was likely to make the situation seem much dire. These, along with other stories, created an image of Jamestown where the colonists came and tried to form a mutually beneficial relationship with the Powhatans, but were met with hostility from people they described as savages.

The story of Pocahontas is a famous one. She is described as the beloved daughter of chief Powhatan and is often believed to have saved John Smith from being executed. However, the truth of the “Pocahontas saves John Smith” story is widely debated. There is already a fair amount of doubt regarding this particular story in John Smith’s works as it was written well after the event supposedly happened.[19] Through the study of ethnohistory, several problems with the story of John Smith and Pocahontas can be found. Although it is possible that Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of chief Powhatan; that does not mean that she would be in a significantly higher status compared to other girls at that time. In the 1600’s, thirteen year old girls did not have political authority within the tribes, making the likelihood of Pocahontas being able to change the chief’s mind extremely unlikely.[20] Additionally, the method of execution does not fit the type usually used at that time. Smith even stated in one of his own books that the Native Americans would either club a person to death or torture them. But in the case of John Smith, he said that they were going to kill him with a stone.[21] There are other smaller aspects to his writings that cause even more doubt. In his retelling of the story, Smith said that he was brought to one of the tribes to be kept there until his execution.[22] However, the way he described his imprisonment does not fit the usual treatment of prisoners as he said he was fed and cared for. Analysis of the Pocahontas event through an ethnohistorical lens leads one to doubt this story from John Smith.

The relationship between the Powhatans and Jamestown colonists began with trade. Each group had something that the other desired creating a mutually beneficial relationship. In writings from the colonists, Native Americans were described as savages despite the will of the colonists to build a relationship with them. However, historians have found that is not the case. The hostility between the two groups seems to have begun due to a misunderstanding of each others cultures and a desire to show preeminence over the other. A specific example of one of these desires for power involves Christopher Newport crowning Chief Powhatan and bringing the Powhatans symbolically under the British rule. Chief Powhatan understood “the significance of being given a crown.” [23] As a ruler himself he did not want to bow to someone else’s rule. The force crowning incident is marked as one that truly began the aggression displayed by the Powhatans. Colonist writings often describe Native Americans as naturally aggressive, however, evidence does not support that claim with aggression being tracked back to certain interactions between the two groups. While the Powhatans did become hostile towards the colonists, there was likely reason behind the change in behavior.

As was already stated earlier, the colonists of Jamestown based their interpretations and early actions in America based on other European interactions with Native Americans. These earlier accounts caused the colonists to be wary. They had preconceived ideas of Native Americans and their perceptions shaped how they interacted with the Powhatan tribes they encountered. The same can also be said for the Powhatans themselves. There were some instances of attack towards the colonists that may have seemed unprovoked, however, that was likely not the case.[24] Just as the colonists had heard tales of the Native Americans, the Powhatans had heard tales as well as had previous experiences with European colonists themselves where they were met with hostility. These experiences may have caused a mentality within some of the tribes to attack first in the hopes of driving the colonists away for fear of what would happen if they were to stay. While from the colonists’ side the attacks on them may have seemed to simply be actions of a savage people, they may have been the reactions of a people who had already faced people such as the Jamestown colonists and suffered loss.

Studies from historians have also found some truth in the primary sources. In the Virginia Charter, as well as John Smith’s books, the importance of trade is expressed often. Archaeological digs have found evidence that supports the trading relationship between the colonists and Native Americans. These trading relationships mainly began to supply the colonists with food until they could build up their own stores. Large pieces of deer bone were found within the Jamestown colony.[25] However, deer were usually hunted by Native Americans in the 1600’s.[26] While it is possible that the colonists hunted the deer, it is more likely that the colonists traded with the Powhatans to get the deer. Historians believe that the deer was a part of a food trade because of the size of the bone. Deer bones found in territories that were occupied by Native Americans are usually small because the bones were utilized to make tools, while in the colony the bones were most likely large because they had their own tools to do what the Native Americans used the bones for. [27] These bones are evidence of the trading relationship between the Powhatan Indians and Jamestown colonists.

The use of beads in trading is also a well-known concept between Native Americans and colonists. During an archaeological dig at Jamestown, beads were found within the fort. [28] These are evidence of the trading relationship that the colonists were told to build with Native Americans. The charter is most likely the reason for the beads as it was mentioned in the Virginia Charter as a form of trading and they did not look like any jewelry worn by the colonists. Beads were highly valued in the Native American tribes, making it the perfect item of trade for the colonists as they could make them and it was small enough to easily bring across an ocean and to the different villages that the colonists visited once reaching America. There is also evidence of colonist’s beads in the tribes as well. Beads made of English copper and necklaces made from beads identified as part of the glass bead trade were found in areas that had been occupied by Native Americans in the 1600s.[29] These beads are evidence of the trading relationship that began in the colonists’ and Native Americans’ early interactions.

Within the Virginia Charter, the need for defense against the Native Americans was also mentioned, stating they must begin building their fort immediately. Defense was stress not only with the first charter, but with every colonial expansion made by the British. One of their first actions when settling in a new area was to create a defense system, usually by building a palisade, or a wall made of tree trunks. Evidence of colonists making a defense system can be found through archaeology study. There was evidence of a palisade around the Jamestown colony.[30] Information from other people’s interactions with colonists were used when creating the plan for the Virginia Charter. The charter shaped the beginning of the colonist’s relationship with Native Americans, making them wary of the Powhatans. Despite the early trading relationship built between the Native Americans and colonists, the wall demonstrated the distrust of Native Americans from colonists as it was built before they truly began interacting with each other.

The charter developed for the Jamestown colonists took into account previous interactions between Europeans and Native Americans.[31] It was those earlier interactions that made the colonists wary of the local tribe and view them as savages. However, an account from George Percy, a colonist of the first charter, did not reflect the savage native described. He described the Jamestown colonist first interactions with the Powhatans with good relations. He stated that they “were entertained by them kindly” as well as fed them and gave them tobacco. They were welcomed with feasts and dances.[32] There are also accounts from Gabriel Archer, another colonist of the first charter, noted that the Powhatans did not seem hostile during their early interactions.[33] These kind description of events by the Jamestown colonists do not fit the savage stereotype that Smith often associated with the Powhatans in his own work as well as the writings of some of the other colonists. This inconsistency leads to further doubt of early colonists writings as claims made by other colonists are faced with opposition not only through modern historical research, but through less famous writings from the same time as well.

Written accounts from the Jamestown colonist settlement are from the perspective of the colonists, with John Smith being the main source of information. These writings included the colonist’s personal experiences and their interactions with their Powhatan neighbors. The lack of written history from the Powhatan perspective has created a very one sided account of their history. The colonists wrote their history through their interpretation of Native American customs and events. These writings have shaped much of the later writings on their interactions that only truly became unraveled as historians began to examine the ethnohistory and archaeological information from the Powhatan Indians, allowing them to bring the Powhatan Perspective further into the analysis. While historians are beginning to understand the true relationship between the Native Americans and colonists, the effects of the one-sided beginnings can still be seen today.



[1] Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corporation, The Three Charters of the Virginia Company of London With Seven Related Documents; 1606-1621, (Project Gutenberg, 2011): 1-12.

[2] Ibid., 1-12.

[3] I do not believe I came across a single source in all of my research that did not mention one of John Smith’s works at least one.

[4] 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.

[5] Ed Southern, ed., The Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1607-1614, (Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 2004): 64-65.

[6] Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corporation, 1-12.

[7] Boelhower, 658.

[8] Southern, 60-64.

[9] Frederic W Gleach, Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997): 2.

[10] Margaret Williamson, Powhatan Lords of Life and Death: Command and Consent in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003): 1.

[11] Ben McCary, Indians in Seventeenth Century Virginia, (Williamsburg: Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corporation, 1957): 1.

[12] Williamson, 48.

[13] Ibid., 2.

[14] Stephen Potter, Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs: The Development of Algonquian Culture in the Potomac Valley (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993): 199.

[15] Potter, 200.

[16] Gleach, 2.

[17] John Smtih, “A Map of Virginia: With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion,” in Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625, edited by Lyon Gardiner Tyler, 75-204(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907): 116.

[18] Potter, 9.

[19] “Pocahontas,” Dawn 12 (May 31, 1996): 10.

[20] Helen Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005): 78.

[21] Ibid., 79 .

[22] Ibid., 79.

[23] Gleach, 125-2016.

[24] Potter, 180.

[25] Helen Rountree and E. Randolph Turner III, Before and After Jamestown (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002): 129.

[26] McCary, 20.

[27] Rountree and Turner, 129.

[28] Ibid., 135.

[29] Ibid., 115-116.

[30] Ibid., 140.

[31] Alfred A. Cave, Lethal Encounters: Englishmen and Indians in Colonial Virginia: Englishmen and Indians in Colonial Virginia (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011): 23.

[32] Southern, 25.

[33] Cave, 25.



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: Praeger, 2011.

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

McCary, Ben. Indians in Seventeenth Century Virginia. Williamsburg: Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebrarion Corporation, 1957.

“Pocahontas.” Dawn 12 (May 31, 1996): 1.

Potter, Stephen. Commoners, Tribute, and Chiefs: The Development of Algonquian Culture in the Potomac Valley. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

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

Rountree, Helen and E. Randolph Turner III. Before and After Jamestown. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Smith, John. “A Map of Virginia: With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion,” in Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625, edited by Lyon Gardiner Tyler, 75-204. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907. [accessed February 7, 2017].

Southern, Ed, ed. The Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1607-1614. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair. 2004.

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

Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corporation. The Three Charters of the Virginia Company of London With Seven Related Documents; 1606-1621. Project Gutenberg, 2011.