March 22, 1622 – Powhatan Indians launched a devastating surprise attack on the English colonies in Virginia, killing 1/4 of the entire English population in the New World and launching the Second Anglo-Powhatan War.
England’s first permanent colony in the new world – Jamestown – did not exactly receive a warm welcome by the local Powhatan Indian Confederacy. From its inception in 1607, the colony engaged in low-level hostilities with the local natives perturbed by colonial encroachment onto Powhatan land, until a full scale war (the First Anglo-Powhatan War) broke out in 1610 with the arrival of Governor De La Warr and his successor, Thomas Dale. That conflict lasted until 1612 when Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan Chief Wahunsunacock (simply called Chief Powhatan by the English), was captured by English forces and held hostage.
Soon thereafter the fighting ended; while in captivity Pocahontas converted to Christianity, took the English name Rebecca, and in 1614 married Englishman John Rolfe in a ceremony that cemented the peace between the two sides.
Over the course of the next 8 years the Jamestown colony expanded along the Chesapeake, creating new settlements on what had been Powhatan land. Chief Powhatan, then in the twilight of his life, was too tired of fighting what he had come to see as a losing battle against English expansion. Colonists took his acquiescence to mean that the Indians would soon abandon their “savage” ways and adopt the English culture and religion, as Pocahontas had done.
After Powhatan’s death in 1618 his brother, Opechancanough, became Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy. Although Opechancanough publicly claimed to be friends of the colonists, he had always been opposed to the English settlements. Opechancanough clearly understood that eventually all of the Powhatan lands would be overrun with English colonists if the Virginia settlements were allowed to continue. He was determined not to let that happen.
Besides the colonists’ encroachment onto native land, several other factors were increasing tensions between the Virginia colonists and the Powhatan. For one, Jamestown officials began pressuring the Indians to adopt English customs and religion, which the Powhatan naturally found intolerable. Moreover, European diseases, such as smallpox, were killing slews of Powhatan, and the Powhatan rightly associated the English as the cause of these epidemics.
Opechancanough decided that he needed to rid Virginia of the English once and for all or, at the very least, push the colony back to its original settlement in Jamestown. In secret, he spent at least a year planning his attack on the colony. His strategy was to lull the English into a false sense of security by proclaiming love and friendship and then strike without warning.
On the morning of March 22, 1622 (coincidentally, a Good Friday), Opechancanough led a well-coordinated series of surprise attacks on most of the English settlements along the James River. That morning, at nearly all English settlements, Powhatan Indians arrived with baskets of trade goods, as was normal. After settling in among the colonists and in some locations joining them for breakfast, they suddenly drew out weapons or grabbed whatever tool or weapon was available and began hacking at the unsuspecting English.
Jamestown itself, however, was spared from the assault; an Indian Christian convert warned the settlement that morning of the impending attack, and the colonists were therefore on their guard. Seeing this, Opechancanough’s warriors decided not to attack. Still, the attack was brutally effective. At least 347 men, women, and children – more than 1/4 of the entire English population in North America – lay dead. Several settlements were completely destroyed.
If Opechancanough expected the English to react by abandoning their colonies and leaving Virginia, he sorely misjudged. The colony’s “owners,” the Virginia Company, saw the “Massacre of 1622” as a convenient excuse to wipe out the Powhatan and take all of their land. Virginia Company policy, which had originally insisted on peaceful relations with the natives, now openly called for exterminating them.
After getting over the initial shock of the massacre, the English sought bloody revenge. Well-armed colonial militia attacked Powhatan villages, indiscriminately slaughtered men, women, and children, and burned Indian settlements and crops to the ground. Opechancanough’s men ruthlessly attacked the colonists as well. This Second Anglo-Powhatan War continued without respite for a year, with great loss of life on both sides.
In 1623 Opechancanough proposed a truce. The English accepted, but only as a ruse; instead, they intended to use the opportunity to kill more Indians. On the day the truce became official, large groups from both sides met to celebrate. At the ceremony the English served the unsuspecting Indians wine laced with poison. Opechancanough was not present and so was able to continue to fight on, but 200 of his best warriors died from the poison, and 50 more who survived the drink were run through with English swords. Of course, the English never referred to their deceit as a “massacre;” on the contrary, they celebrated their cleverness.
The war continued for a decade, with the better-armed colonists increasingly gaining the advantage. English settlers killed Powhatan men and women, captured children to be sold as slaves, and systematically razed villages, seizing or destroying crops. When the English finally offered a real peace treaty in 1632, which required the Powhatan to cede huge tracts of native land, Opechancanough was forced to accept it.
The cycle of warfare and European diseases caused the Powhatan population to drop from a high of around 25,000 in 1607 to a few thousand by the 1630s, while the English numbers steadily increased. As a result, in the 1630s and early 1640s many Powhatan villages were abandoned, and the English continued to expand their settlements onto these former native lands. Those that were not abandoned the English took anyway. Finally, the Powhatan fought back one last time.
On April 18, 1644, the Powhatan, still under the leadership of the nearly 100 year old Opechancanough, struck again, killing over 400 English colonists. This time, however, because the English population had increased to about 10,000, the number of casualties was not nearly so devastating. The response, however, was.
Following the attack the English once again consolidated their forces and set out to annihilate the tribes thought to have taken part. During the summer of 1644 attacks were made against all of the local tribes – even those not involved in the “massacre.” Hundreds of men, women and children were killed, and many of the natives who survived were taken prisoner to be sold as slaves. In some cases, whole native settlements were destroyed.
The renewed hostilities (the Third Anglo-Powhatan War) lasted for two years until the late summer of 1646, when Opechancanough was taken captive. While a prisoner at Jamestown fort, he was shot through the back and killed by a guard. Thus, Powhatan resistance to English settlement finally ended, with all of their land eventually lost. English tenacity, arms, brutality, and germs had won.