8. Powhattan, Jamestown and Tobacco

The ‘Great Canoes’ on the Chesapeake

Powhattans trading with the English at Jamestown.

In 1607, three English ships– Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery—made landfall in a country called Tsenacommacah. They picked a spot on a river, now called the James, that flowed into a bay, now called the Chesapeake.

Tsenacommacah was about 100 miles by one hundred miles in area and the home to six tightly united indigenous tribes, loosely aligned with about 30 more tribes. Collectively, they were called the Powhatan, and their chief leader also went by that name. (His given name was Wahunsenacawh). They numbered around 15,000 in 1607 and were a subset of eastern-Algonquian speakers.

They had been visited earlier by the Spaniards, who called them the ‘Ajacan.‘ The Spaniards staked out a claim for the Chesapeake area they called the ‘Province of Axacan’ from 1560-70, but the Spanish effort failed to take root.

Coastal Native peoples left few records of their thoughts about the Europeans during early encounters. One thing reasonably common, though, is their noting that the Europeans smelled very bad. The Native peoples were in the habit of bathing regularly, sometimes daily. (For some reason, the Europeans thought an overall washing of one’s body ‘unhealthy’ and only did it twice or thrice a year). The Natives also found them rather ugly, with unruly facial hair, beards, and sickly wan skin. They were also puzzled by the seeming inability of some of them to work, while others had few skills in how to provide proper food for themselves.

No matter. They also had an upside view. They admired the ‘great canoes,’ one tribe even naming their builders ‘the wood-eating people’ for the amount of timber that went into a ship. They desired nearly everything made of European metal. Even teapots could be cut up for arrowheads. Brightly colored cloth and bead wares were also big pluses, as was alcohol. Guns and horses were awe-inspiring. Since all groupings of Native peoples had friends and adversaries in other groups, the weapons, and the Europeans themselves, were often viewed as a ‘new tribe’ one might use in alliances against others.

From the English viewpoint, all of the Chesapeake areas belonged to them due to their 1606 Royal Charter for the Virginia Company. The people living there were to be made royal subjects, removed, or killed. The problem was the English only numbered 100 or so and were often on the verge of starvation. Captain John Smith had to put a gun to the head of the ‘gentlemen’ among them who thought work was beneath them. They would be shot unless they worked at least six hours a day growing food. The ‘gentlemen’ had assumed their main task was to stroll about gathering up gold and enslaving natives as servants. What food the settlers couldn’t buy from the Natives, they stole. A few times, the Natives helped them out of pity.

In the early years of Jamestown, Powhattan could have readily wiped them out. Instead, he opted for an on-and-off-again war of accommodation called the First English Powhattan War. He would fight in self-defense and punish the English for killing his people when they encroached on Native lands. But he wanted to keep them as a source of rare goods and as a potential ally. This is the context of the famous half-myth, half-truth story of Powhatan’s daughter or granddaughter, Pocahontas, taking pity on Capitan John Smith and her later marriage to John Rolfe. Powhattan saw this as a linkage of two tribes and ended the state of war. At Rolfe’s instruction, Pocahontas converted to Christianity, changed her name to Rebecca, and moved to England, where she born him a son, Thomas Rolfe, in 1615. She died of disease and never returned to Virginia, but her son did.

John Rolfe’s main contribution to the colony was to help its economy. Always near collapse since its main crop was a lousy version of tobacco, Rolfe stole some seeds of a premium, sweeter variety from Trinidad. It thrived in Virginia soil and was quickly in high demand in Europe. But growing it took some care, and hence there was a high demand for labor.

We’re now at 1619. Powhattan had died the year before, and an English privateer ship had arrived nearby with ’20 and odd’ Angolans stolen from a Portuguese slave ship. The Angolans were purchased and put to work in the tobacco fields alongside the indentured servants. The next decades are fairly well known. With more slave and indentured labor, the tobacco economy boomed. Two more wars were fought with the Powhattan tribes (often including Jamestown alliances with other rival tribes), pushing the Powatan back from all the shore areas and fertile land. ‘War capitalism’ gave birth to a more advanced and even more deadly version. More to come.

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