Anglo-Powhatan Wars 1607-1646

Anglo-Powhatan Wars


For over forty years, there was a series of on-and-off warfare between the English colonists of Virginia and their indigenous neighbors. The Anglo-Powhatan Wars, also known as the Tidewater Wars, were the most serious of these conflicts.

The first war occurred in 1609, with two more occurring in 1622 and 1644. All of them resulted in English victories and allowed the colonists to continue their expansion as Native American power declined.

First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614)

The First Anglo–Powhatan War, between the Powhatan and the English colonists, lasted from 1609 to 1614 when British captured Pocahontas, the daughter of the leader of Powhatan in 1613.

On August 9, 1610, tired of waiting for a response from Powhatan, De la Warr sent George Percy with 70 men to attack the Paspahegh capital, burning the houses and cutting down their cornfields.

They killed 65 to 75, and captured one of Wowinchopunk’s wives and her children. Returning downstream, the English threw the children overboard, and shot out “their Braynes in the water”. The queen was put to the sword in Jamestown.

The Paspahegh never recovered from this attack, and abandoned their town. Another small force sent with Samuel Argall against the Warraskoyaks found that they had already fled, but he destroyed their abandoned village and cornfields as well.

Following these attacks, and the offense of killing royal women and children, both sides now found themselves at war.

That fall, a party of Englishmen was ambushed at Appomattoc; soon afterward Lord de la Warr managed to establish a company of men at the falls of the James, who stayed there all winter.

In February 1611, Wowinchopunk was killed in a skirmish near Jamestown, which his followers revenged a few days later by enticing some colonists out of the fort and killing them.

In May 1611, a new governor, Sir Thomas Dale, arrived and soon began looking for places to establish new settlements; he was repulsed by the Nansemonds, but successfully took an island in the James from the Arrohattocs, which became the palisaded ‘cittie’ of Henricus, despite raids there led by the renegade warrior Nemattanew, or as they dubbed him, ‘Jack of the Feather’.

Around the time of Christmas 1611, Dale and his men seized the Appomattoc town at the mouth of their river, and quickly palisaded off the neck of land, renaming it ‘New Bermudas’.

The aged chief Powhatan made no major response to this English expansion, and he seems to have been losing effective control to his younger brother Opechancanough during this time, while the English consolidated their new footholds.

In December 1612, Argall concluded peace with the Patawomeck; while there in April 1613, he managed to capture the great chief Powhatan’s own daughter, Pocahontas, delivered into his hands by Japazaws, brother of the Patawomeck weroance.

This caused an immediate ceasefire from the Powhatan raids on the English, as they held her ransom for peace. In the meantime, English settlers had begun to expand to south of the rivers, building houses at City Point in what is now Hopewell, Virginia.

In early 1609, Jamestown Island had been the only territory under English control. By the end of this period, the Powhatan had lost much of their riverfront property along the James to the English conquest; the Kicoughtan and Paspehegh subtribes had been effectively destroyed, and the settlers had made major inroads among the lands of the Weyanoke, Appomattoc, Arrohattoc, and Powhatan proper.

Two James River tribes, the Arrohattoc and Quiockohannock are not heard from again after this, possibly indicating that they had been dispersed or merged with the other chiefdoms

Timeline of the First Powhatan War

  • Summer 1609 – John Smith unsuccessfully attempts to purchase from Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, the fortified town of Powhatan in order to settle English colonists there.
  • June 2, 1609 – The largest fleet England has ever amassed in the West—nine ships, 600 passengers, and livestock and provisions to last a year—leaves England for Virginia. Led by the flagship Sea Venture, the fleet’s mission is to save the failing colony. Sir Thomas Gates heads the expedition.
  • July 24, 1609 – A hurricane strikes the nine-ship English fleet bound for Virginia on a rescue mission. The flagship Sea Venture is separated from the other vessels and irreparably damaged by the storm.
  • August 11, 1609 – Four ships reach Jamestown from England: UnityLionBlessing, and Falcon. Two others are en route; two more were wrecked in a storm; and one, Sea Venture, was cast up on the Bermuda islands’ shoals.
  • August 18, 1609 – Two ships reach Jamestown from England: Diamond and Swallow. Four others arrived a week earlier; two more were wrecked in a storm; and one, Sea Venture, survived by making its way south to the Bermuda islands. The Diamond may have brought with it disease that will contribute to the colony’s high mortality rate.
  • Early September 1609 – John Smith sends Francis West and 120 men to the falls of the James River. George Percy and 60 men attempt to bargain with the Nansemond Indians for an island. Two messengers are killed and the English burn the Nansemonds’ town and their crops.
  • September 10, 1609 – In the absence of Governor Sir Thomas Gates and his implementation of the Second Charter, George Percy is elected president of the Council in Virginia.
  • October 1609 – John Smith leaves Virginia. The Jamestown colony’s new leadership is less competent, and the Starving Time follows that winter.
  • November 1609 – Powhatan invites a party of about thirty colonists, led by John Ratcliffe, to Orapax on the promise of a store of corn. The English are ambushed and killed; Ratcliffe himself is tortured to death.
  • November 1609 – Powhatan Indians lay siege to Jamestown, denying colonists access to outside food sources. The Starving Time begins, and by spring 160 colonists, or about 75 percent of Jamestown’s population, will be dead from hunger and disease. This action begins the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614).
  • Early May 1610 – Powhatan Indians lift their winter-long siege of Jamestown.
  • May 21, 1610 – Having been stranded in the Bermuda islands for nearly a year, the party of Virginia colonists headed by Sir Thomas Gates arrives at Point Comfort in the Chesapeake Bay.
  • May 24, 1610 – The party of Virginia colonists headed by Sir Thomas Gates, now aboard the Patienceand Deliverance, arrives at Jamestown. They find only sixty survivors of a winter famine. Gates decides to abandon the colony for Newfoundland.
  • June 8, 1610 – Sailing up the James River toward the Chesapeake Bay and then Newfoundland, Jamestown colonists encounter a ship bearing the new governor, Thomas West, baron De La Warr, and a year’s worth of supplies. The colonists return to Jamestown that evening.
  • June 10, 1610 – The Virginia colony’s new governor, Sir Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, arrives at Jamestown and hears a sermon delivered by Reverend Richard Bucke.
  • July 9, 1610 – After the colonist Humphrey Blunt is taken by Indians and tortured to death near Point Comfort Sir Thomas Gates attacks a nearby Kecoughtan town, killing twelve to fourteen and confiscating the cornfields.
  • August 10, 1610 – At night, George Percy attacks a Paspahegh town, killing fifteen to sixteen, burning houses, and taking corn. The wife and two children of the weroance, Wowinchopunck, are captured and executed.
  • November 1610 – Governor Sir Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, sends an expedition west toward the falls of the James River. After an initial defeat at the hands of the Appamattuck’s weroansqua, Opossunoquonuske, the colonists destroy the Appamattuck village.
  • March 28, 1611 – Governor Thomas West, baron De La Warr, ill with malaria or scurvy, leaves Virginia on a ship piloted by Samuel Argall and bound for Nevis in the West Indies.
  • May 19, 1611 – Sir Thomas Dale arrives at Jamestown. The colony’s marshal, he assumes the title of acting governor in the absence of Lieutenant Governor Sir Thomas Gates and Governor Sir Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr.
  • June 1611 – Sir Thomas Dale leads a hundred armored soldiers against the Nansemond Indians at the mouth of the James River, burning their towns.
  • June 22, 1611 – Sir Thomas Dale issues military regulations under which his soldiers are to act while in Virginia, supplementing civil orders released in 1610. The combined orders are printed in London the next year with the title For the Colony in Virginea Britannia. Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, &c.
  • September 1611 – Sir Thomas Dale marches against Indians farther up the James River from Jamestown and establishes a settlement on a bluff that he calls the City of Henrico, or Henricus, in honor of his patron Prince Henry.
  • April 1613 – Samuel Argall uses his extensive knowledge of the Potomac River–northern Chesapeake area and its Indian population to kidnap Pocahontas while she is with the Patawomeck—an event that ultimately helps to bring the devastating First Anglo-Powhatan War to a conclusion in 1614.
  • March 1614 – Sir Thomas Dale, Captain Samuel Argall, and 150 English soldiers—with Pocahontas in tow—paddle deep into Pamunkey territory. At present-day West Point, the Englishmen face down several hundred Indians. When, after two days, neither side is willing to fire first, the colonists return to Jamestown.
  • March 1614 – While negotiating with Powhatan over ransom for his daughter Pocahontas, the colonist Ralph Hamor records his impression that Opechancanough has quietly achieved “command of all the people” of Tsenacomoco. He, and not the ill Powhatan, finds a resolution to the stalemate.
  • April 5, 1614 – On or about this day, Pocahontas and John Rolfe marry in a ceremony assented to by Sir Thomas Dale and Powhatan, who sends one of her uncles to witness the ceremony. Powhatan also rescinds a standing order to attack the English wherever and whenever possible, ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
  • March 22, 1622 – Indians under Opechancanough unleash a series of attacks that start the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The assault was originally planned for the fall of 1621, to coincide with the redisposition of Powhatan’s bones, suggesting that the attack was to be part of the final mortuary celebration for the former chief.

Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632)

The Second Anglo-Powhatan War began on March 22, 1622, when the Powhatan confederacy’s new chief, Opechancanough, led his people in a sudden surprise attack against colonists throughout the area. Opechancanough, hoping to batter the English into submission, inflicted significant damage on the settlements, killing as much as one-third of the colonial population. Much to his surprise, the English counterattacked, reaching a climax in 1624 with the only full-scale battle of the war. It would still continue until 1632, when an unspecified peace was agreed between the two sides. By this point it had become clear that the balance of power was now skewed in the English colonists’ favor.

Timeline of the 2nd Powhatan War

  • 1618 – The death of Chief Powhatan. His younger brother Opechancanough assumed full power
  • 1621 – Sir Francis Wyatt (1588–1644) is appointed English governor of Virginia.
  • 1621 – The highly lucrative tobacco crop leads to further encroachment on the Powhatan territories
  • March 22, 1622 – Indians under Opechancanough unleash a series of attacks that start the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The assault was originally planned for the fall of 1621, to coincide with the redisposition of Powhatan’s bones, suggesting that the attack was to be part of the final mortuary celebration for the former chief.
  • Summer 1622 – Governor Sir Francis Wyatt takes refuge on the Eastern Shore for six weeks while ships are sent out to establish alliances with Virginia Indian weroances, or subchiefs, who live on the edges of Tsenacomoco and to trade for grain to feed the colonists.
  • September 1622 – Powhatan Indian warriors and English colonists skirmish. Four colonists are killed.
  • Autumn 1622–Spring 1623 – English colonists attack Powhatan Indian villages to “surprize their corne,” or steal their crops. A temporary truce is signed in the spring intended to last until the end of the harvest season.
  • May 22, 1623 – Opitchapam and Opechancanough host the English on the Pamunkey River, but they are treated to tainted wine and then ambushed. Opechancanough is apparently seriously injured and disappears from English records for seven years.
  • May 24, 1624 – Following a yearlong investigation into mismanagement headed by Sir Richard Jones, justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the Crown revokes the Virginia Company of London’s charter and assumes direct control of the Virginia colony.
  • July 1624 – In the only full-scale battle of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, Powhatan Indians and English soldiers fight to a standstill near a Pamunkey town. A contingent of Englishmen destroys the Indians’ crops in the field
  • 1630 – By this year, Opechancanough succeeds Opitchapam as paramount chief of Tsenacomoco.
  • 1632 – An agreement between the English colonists and the Powhatan Indians ends the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. There is no indication that it contains any humiliating provisions or admissions of defeat.

Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644-1646)

After twelve years of peace following the Indian Wars of 1622-1632, another Anglo–Powhatan War began on April 18, 1644,  as a last effort by the remnants of the Powhatan Confederacy, still under Opechancanough, to dislodge the English settlers of the Virginia Colony.

Several outlying settlements were struck with the Powhatan killing and/or capturing between 400 and 500 English settlers. At this time, there were 8,000 to 10,000 English colonists in Virginia.

The Powhatan, an alliance of several tribes, were led by the elderly Opitchapam who was about 100 years old at this time. From the Powhatan perspective, the coordinated attacks against settlements which had encroached in their territory were meant to send a message to the English.

Like his 1622 massacre, the 1644 coup was an attempt by Opitchapam to correct the colonists’ inappropriate behavior and to stop their expansion into Powhatan territory.

The English colonists responded to the attacks by declaring a general war against the Powhatan. All private trade with the Powhatan was terminated. The Virginia Assembly felt that the Powhatans had obtained guns and ammunition through private trade.

However, it was soon apparent that the colonists needed the trade in order to survive: without Native corn they would starve.

In 1645, the Assembly allowed authorized agents to trade with the Natives in order to obtain the badly needed grain.

The colonists attacked the Pamunkey and Chickahominy, two tribes affiliated with the Powhatan alliance. A force led by Governor Berkley and aided by Rappahannock and Accomac allies manage to capture Openchancanough between the falls of the Appomattox and James rivers.

At this time, the elderly Indian leader was unable to walk unaided. The English treated Opitchapam as a side show, displaying him to curious English colonists.

The Powhatan leader, however, maintained his dignity and upbraided the English commander for the English’s lack of respect. The English commander then ordered that Opitchapam be treated with the dignity befitting his station.

The English governor considered sending Openchancanough to England where His Majesty would be presented with a royal prisoner.

Before a decision regarding his fate could be made, one of the guards took matters into his own hands and shot the elderly leader in the back. The wound proved to be fatal.

With the death of Opitchapam, Necotowance assumed leadership of the Powhatan alliance and negotiated a new treaty with the English. This treaty was the first time Necotowance’s name appeared in the English written records and there is no indication that the English had ever had any previous dealings with him.

The peace treaty between the English colonists and the Powhattan called for the removal of the Powhatan Confederacy to an area north of the York River. Necotowance signed the treaty as “king of the Indians.”

The treaty established a pattern of removing Native nations away from the invading Europeans as a strategy to reduce the conflict between the two groups.

Hundreds of Native Americans who had been captured by the English during the Third Anglo-Powhatan War were sold into slavery in the West Indies.

Timeline of the Third Powhatan War

  • ca. 1640 – For the first time, the English population in Virginia exceeds the population of the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco.
  • Early 1640s – English colonists take up lands between the north shore of the York River and the south bank of the Potomac River, in territories still inhabited by large numbers of Virginia Indians.
  • April 18, 1644 – Opechancanough and a force of Powhatan Indians launch a second great assault against the English colonists, initiating the Third Anglo-Powhatan War. As many as 400 colonists are killed, but rather than press the attack, the Indians retire.

Conclusion

The Anglo-Powhatan Wars were the first major conflict between the new English settlers and the Native Americans who had lived for generations on the same land. Even with decades of diplomacy and trading, neither side truly understood each other.

With these wars, the Jamestown settlers started the pattern of using Natives when they needed to, spreading out into Native American territory, and then killing, relocating, or enslaving the Natives when they were no longer useful to the settlers.

The tragedy of the wars is not merely the loss of life on both sides. The true tragedy of the conflict was the fact that a pattern was started that would be repeated again and again throughout American History.

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