Anglo-Powhatan Wars Timeline

Anglo-Powhatan Wars Timeline

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  • 1610 - 1646

  • 1610 - 1614

    Wahunsenacah launches and directs the First Powhatan War in an effort to drive the English from his land.

  • 1614

    John Rolfe marries Pocahontas; union ends the First Powhatan War.

  • 1614 - 1622

    Peace of Pocahontas between English colonists and Powhatans; established by the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe.

  • 1622 - 1626

    Second Powhatan War.

  • 22 Mar 1622

    The "Indian Massacre" of the Jamestown colony when the Powhatan Confederacy fights for their land; over 300 colonists killed.

  • c. 1630 - 1644

    Peace between English Colonists and Native Americans kept by palisade built between them.

  • 1644 - 1646

    Third Powhatan War.

  • 1646

    Powhatan Confederacy dissolved by Treaty of 1646.

  • 1677

    Treaty of Middle Plantation sets up reservations for the surviving Powhatan tribes; English colonists claim Powhatan lands.

Anglo-Powhatan Wars Timeline - History

The Colonial Period in North America, which spans from the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607 to the Declaration of independence in 1776, is a period of conflict and war. The Colonial History section of the General Society of Colonial War’s website states the case well by saying that although war “signifies the breakdown of negotiation and compromise”, human history is dominated by stories of war throughout the millennia. In North America, armed conflict existed among the Native population long before the colonialists arrived. So, the history of Colonial North America is no different, and we should study the numerous colonial wars because they are crucial to understanding America as a nation.

The conflicts and wars of the Colonial period were fought among the colonialist and the Native Americans, and also among the colonialists from rival nations. One of the earliest was the First Anglo-Powhatan War fought between the Jamestown colonists and an alliance of Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians led by Powhatan (Wahunsonacock). The Encyclopedia Virginia website provides a detailed account of this conflict, which was essentially a struggle between the colonialists and Natives for land. The war starts after Jamestown is resupplied with people and material from England, with the goal of expanding the Colony’s land holdings, and ensuring its success.

Specifically, in the month of September, 1609 John Smith, Governor of the Jamestown colony, sent 120 men to the falls of the James River. The purpose of the expedition was to bargain for an island with the Nansemond Indians, one of the Algonquin alliance tribes. Two English messengers are killed, so the colonialists burn the Nansemonds’ town and their crops.

The War continues for 9 more years before concluding with a peace treaty. This blog will return to this war in subsequent posts that align with the month in question.


Complications with natives typically resulted at most of the settlements the English tried to establish from the beginning. The failed Roanoke colony marked the first contact between English settlers and Algonquian coastal tribes in North Carolina. “As early as 1585 an elder by the name of Richard Hakluyt bluntly stated the English Position for the new colony: The ends of they voyage [to America] are these: plant Christian religion Trafficke conquer”. Ώ]

The first permanent English settlement, Jamestown Virginia (May 1607), was within the territory of the powerful yet still expanding chiefdom of Wahunsunacawh (known to the English as Chief Powhatan). ΐ] The Jamestown location was less than successful, because the conditions of this swampy area were far less than desirable, including: polluted water, significant amount of insects that carried disease, and soon, the lack of food supply. Jamestown, and the other colonies to be established in the "New World" needed to be dependent on natives for a successful settlement.

Captain John Smith, a colonial leader, imagined that someday the Virginia Indians would be doing all the work for the English, Ώ] but Powhatan envisioned something different: he wanted Smith and the colonists to forsake the swamp and instead live in one of his satellite towns called Capahosick where they would make metal tools for him in exchange for full provision. Α] However, Smith underestimated the power of the Virginia Indians and what they were capable of, as they knew the land much better than the English. In December 1607, only seven months after building the fort on Jamestown Island, Smith, while reconnoitering the countryside near Orapax, one of Powhatan's capitals, was captured by a communal hunting party led by Opechancanough. Smith much later in life claimed that during his captivity, Pocahontas had dramatically saved him from Powhatan's clubs, but historians differ as to whether or not this was propaganda, or an actual native ritual. Smith's capture represented just an example of the diplomatic strategies employed by Wahunsunacawh to make the English cooperate with and contribute to his expanding control in this region. Ώ] Smith was released in time for New Year's 1608, when he promised to move the colony to Capahosick. Smith had convinced the grand chief that he was the son of Captain Newport, and that Newport was their head weroance (tribal chief).

Relations between the two peoples began deteriorating again in late 1608, when the starving colonists began to strong-arm some supplies of corn from the natives, who had likewise had a bad harvest. Smith's contacts with rival tribes around the Chesapeake Bay in the summer, and Captain Christopher Newport's military expedition to the Monacan country that fall, had not helped matters.

By spring 1609, the local Paspahegh tribe had resumed raiding the English fort at Jamestown. However, their weroance, Wowinchopunk, declared an uneasy truce after he was captured and escaped, and as a result some colonists were even allowed to board in Indian towns.

Then Smith, who had become president of the colony the preceding fall, antagonized the Powhatan further in summer 1609, by attempting to establish new forts in their territory. First he sent a party with Captain John Martin to settle in Nansemond territory. When they could not purchase the island with their temple, Martin ransacked it and the burial platforms of their weroances, and occupied it by force, which was not well received. Later he abandoned the position after 17 of his men, disobeying orders, were wiped out while trying to buy corn at the Kecoughtan village (now Hampton, Virginia). Smith also sent 120 men with Francis West to build a fort far upriver, at the falls of the James, right above the main town of the Powhatan proper (and the present site of Richmond, Virginia) Smith purchased the site from Wahunsunacawh's son, Parahunt, but this ended up faring no better.

Smith was then injured in an accidental gunpowder explosion, deposed as president, and sailed to England on October 4, 1609, and the colony began to starve. Soon afterward, the settlers succeeded in establishing a second fortification, Fort Algernon at Old Point Comfort, right beside the Kecoughtan village.

In November, the Powhatan ambushed and killed Captain John Ratcliffe, who had gone to Orapax to buy corn. Francis West sailed to the Patawomecks, a fringe group among Powhatan's subjects, for corn, but beheaded two of them, then absconded directly to England.

Unable to trade with the natives, the English began to starve to death, to the point that when Sir Thomas Gates arrived in late May 1610, he decided to evacuate Jamestown. However on their second day of sailing, they met Lord de la Warr (Francis West's older brother) coming into the Bay with the remnant of his fleet, which had left England one year earlier, but been scattered in a hurricane. They therefore returned to the fort under de la Warr's command.

The nobleman, Lord de la Warr, proved far harsher and more belligerent toward the Indians than any of his predecessors, and his solution was simply to engage in wars of conquest against them, first sending Gates to drive off the Kecoughtan from their village on July 9, then giving Chief Powhatan the ultimatum of either returning all English subjects and property, or facing war. Powhatan responded by insisting that the English either stay in their fort, or leave Virginia. Enraged, De la Warr had the hand of a Paspahegh captive cut off and sent him to the paramount chief with another ultimatum: Return all English subjects and property, or the neighboring villages would be burned. This time, Powhatan did not even respond.

Anglo-Powhatan Wars Timeline - History

Sidney King painting, "Indian Uprising, 1622"
Source: National Park Service - Sidney King paintings

Opechancanough became the paramount chief sometime after the end of the first Anglo-Powhatan War, perhaps even before Powhatan died. Another brother or cousin, Opitchipan, held the leadership role officially until Powhatan's death in 1629, but it appears that Opechancanough made the key decision to abandon Powhatan's way of dealing with the colonists through negotiations and appeasement.

Powhatan's diplomacy with the colonists failed. After the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe in 1614, the English continued to expand their settlements. They displaced Native Americans from many of their towns on both sides of the James River.

Opechancanough did not want to submit and passively allow English immigrants to occupy the towns and fields cleared by Native Americans within Tsenacommacah. He chose to use military force to get the colonists to abandon Virginia, or at least adjust their relationship with the local tribes.

By 1616, Opechancanough brought the Chickahominy into Powhatan' paramount chiefdom. He peeled them away from an alliance the tribe had signed with the English in 1614. His success in recruiting the Chickahominy indicates how English expansion was perceived as an existential threat. The Chickahominy, though surrounded by tribes controled by Powhatan, had never been part of Tsenacommacah. They had been ruled by a council of chiefs that Powhatan had no role in selecting.

Opechancanough was preparing for war.

Personally, he must have still remembered the time John Smith had embarrassed him in 1609, and Powhatan had chosen to move his capital from Werowoccomoco to Orapakes. Smith brought the Discovery and two barges up the Pamunkey River to obtain corn in 1609. When he reached Opechancanough's town of Menmend, Smith foiled an ambush. He grabbed Opechancanough by the hair and used him as a hostage. The warriors were forced to load the boats with corn, rather than fight. 1

In a culture that placed a premium upon personal capacity as a warrior, Opechancanough must have felt his treatment involved a loss of status that needed to be revenged.

In his lifetime, Opechancanough organized two major surprise assaults on the colonial settlements. The attack in 1622 triggered the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, which lasted for a decade.

by 1622, colonists had settled along the James River from the Fall Line to the Atlantic Ocean
Source: Nell Marion Nugent, Cavaliers and Pioneers Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, 1623-1800 (opposite p.224)

A year before the 1622 assault on the colonial homesteads and settlements, Opechancanough coordinated plans with various tribes at the ceremony for the "taking up of Powhatan's bones," when the Algonquian-speaking groups in eastern Virginia had assembled to relocate the great chief's bones to a final place of honor.

A chief on the Eastern Shore alerted the colonists that an uprising was being planned, and Opechancanough was planning to use poison from the water hemlock plant (Cicuta maculata) that was common on the Eastern Shore. Opechancanough realized the English had been alerted in 1621, and delayed his attack until the following Spring when the colonists had relaxed their guard.

Opechancanough had planned in 1621 to poison colonists with water hemlock (above), but his efforts to acquire a stockpile from the Eastern Shore led to revelation of his plan
Source: US Forest Service, PLANTS Database Provides Answers for Vegetative Questions

The assault finally came on March 22, 1622. Nearly 347 English settlers, roughly one-third of the colonists, were killed. Wolstenholme Towne in Martin's Hundred, east of Jamestown, suffered the greatest loss of life. Colonists in undefended farmhouses at the greatest distance from Jamestown suffered severely, and the Henricus settlement with its iron furnace at Falling Creek was destroyed.

Not everyone chose to follow Opechancanough's orders. Late on March 21, 1622 at least one Native American revealed the assault plans. In Virginia myth one person named Chanco warned Richard Pace, who lived on the south side of the James River. "Chanco" is apparently a conflation of a person named "Chauco" on the Pamunkey River together with a boy who lived near Pace's plantation, both of whom may have alerted the colonists.

Pace warned the settlement at Jamestown, which was not attacked. As John Smith later described it: 2

Pace upon this [warning], securing his house, before day rowed to James Towne, and told the Governor of it, whereby they were prevented, and at such other Plantations as possibly intelligence could be given: and where they saw us upon our guard, at the sight of a peece they ranne away but the rest were mostly slaine, their houses burnt, such Armes and Munition as they found they tooke away, and some cattell also they destroyed.

the allegiance of the supposed "Chanco" to the colonists, not to his fellow Native Americans, is honored on the interior of the reconstructed church at Jamestown

Opechancanough could not exterminate the colony, but tried instead to reset the balance of power. If Opechancanough had intended to completely expel the English from Virginia, killing all the colonists until they fled in ships, then he would have followed up with further assaults. Instead, there were no attacksfor almost six months, and then only four men were killed.

Obviously there are no written records documenting Opechancanough's war aims. Modern historian Frederick Gleach argues that attempts by the English to subvert the Native American religion was one cause for military action. The timing of the assault near Easter may have been a conscious effort to demonstrate that the English religion was not a source of power. George Thorpe, who was the most active colonists proselytizing personally to Opechancanough at Bermuda Hundred, was killed and his body mutilated.

Based on how Opechancanough directed the attack and then failed to follow up with more efforts to displace the colonists further, Frederick Gleach suggests: 3

. it seems clear that the Powhatan's goal was not to remove the English but rather to confine them in a small territory,, put a halt to their local Chiristianization efforts, and demonstrate the Powhatans' superiority over the English

schoolbooks until the late 1900's described the 1622 uprising as a massacre, and occasionally depicted the Native Americans in the dress of tribes on the Great Plains
Source: Internet Archive, A School History of the United States, from the Discovery of America to the Year 1878 (p.43)

The attack was the death knell for the Virginia Company. It had failed to generate profits for its investors, and now had failed to protect the lives of its indentured servants and other colonists in Virginia. King James I revoked the charter of the Virginia Company in 1624. Virginia became a royal colony, amf the king began to appoint the governor, Governor's Council, and other colonial officials.

The Native Americans lacked the resources to support sustained warfare after the March 22 attack. Opechancanough did not have the resources to besiege Jamestown as Powhatan had done in the first Anglo-Powhatan War of 1609-13, but Governor Francis Wyatt still fled to the Eastern Shore for six weeks. 4

engraving of 1622 uprising suggests the violence expressed against the colonists
Source: Brown University, John Carter Brown Library, Massacre at Jamestown, Virginia, 1622

The colonists had the capacity for low-level, sustained warfare they described as "feedfights." The English retaliated for 10 years with widespread destruction of Native American towns, stealing and cutting down hard-to-replace crops as well as easy-to-replace thatch buildings. There were intermittent raids in March while food reserves were low before crops were planted, in July when corn fields could be cut down, and in November when the destruction of towns would have the greatest impact. 5

There was one unusual battle in 1624, when about 800 Indians battled 60 English soldiers for two days. The mismatch between arrows and guns determined the winner. The Indians suffered heavy casualties, but just 16 of the English were wounded.

After that battle, it was the English who chose to continue the war rather than negotiate a peace. They raided at will, seizing corn when it was ripe. The members of the Governor's Council used that corn to feed their indentured servants, which resulted in more tobacco and more personal wealth for those who led the raids. A Virginia gentry developed, with an more-stratified society than before the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. 6

Colonial leaders decided in 1629 to block any Native Americans from living on the eastern end of the Peninsula. In 1630, colonial control of the northeastern edge near the mouth of the York River was increased by offering 50 acres of free land to those willing to settle at Kiskiack. That tribe's lands are now part of the US Naval Weapons Station near modern Yorktown, and the name of "Cheescake" Road is a modified version of "Kiskiack." 7

after the 1622 attack, the English settled Kiskiack (Chiskiack) and planned barricades to exclude Native Americans from the eastern portion of the Peninsula, ultimately leading to the settlement at Middle Plantation in 1634
Source: Virginia Under Charles I and Cromwell, 1625-1660

The feedfights diminished as the gentry began to trade with Native Americans for furs. While some worked with the remaining components of Opechancaough's paramount chiefdon, William Claiborne established a settlement on Kent Island to trade with the Susquehannocks at the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay.

In 1632, the colonists reached a peace agreement with Opechancanough that excluded Native Americans from the lower half of the Peninsula. To control access, the General Assembly approved building a wooden wall between the James and York Rivers and expanded the offer of 50 free acres to those willing to settle near the wall.

Expulsion of the Native Americans from the Peninsula was a purposeful objective right after the 1622 uprising. Governor Wyatt wrote back to the Virginia Company from Jamestown: 8

Our first worke is expulsion of the Salvages to gaine the free range of the countrey for encrease of Cattle, swine &c which will more then restore us, for it is infinitely better to have no heathen among us, who at best were but as thornes in our sides, then to be at peace and league with them

Behind the wall, a new community was established on the watershed divide. Middle Plantation (later named Williamsburg) was in the middle on the peninsula between Archers Hope Creek (now known as College Creek) on the James River and Queens Creek on the York River.

Using a wall for defense and defining a boundary was not new. Native American towns used palisades for protection, Jamestown had a fort with wooden walls, and before 1620 wooden barriers had been erected at Henricus and Bermuda Hundred to enclose small peninsulas.

A wall between Martin's Hundred to Kiskiack had been proposed soon after the 1622 attack. Governor Francis Wyatt noted the colony's plans to move inland from the James River near Jamestown, and to plant settlements north across the Peninsula up to Kiskiack (Chesekiacque) on the York (Pawmunka) River: 9

Our intent was after the Massacre to have seated the whole Colony, (or most part thereof) upon the Forrest, and having runne a strong Palisado from Martins Hundred to Chesekiacque to Plant Pawmunka river also, and so winne all that large extent of ground to our selve

The location of the barrier was moved further west, before approval in 1633. The extra decade of warfare had allowed the colonists to expand their control over the Peninsula by 1632, the General Assembly included two representatives elected from the area around Kiskiack. 10

a barrier between Martin's Hundred and Kiskiack was proposed in 1624 (red line), but the wall built in 1634 (blue line) enclosed more acres on the Peninsula
Source: location of 1634 palisade from Phillip Levy, A New Look at an Old Wall. Indians, Englishmen, Landscape, and the 1634 Palisade at Middle Plantation
(overlaid on map from ESRI, ArcGIS Online)

Architecturally, the wall across the Peninsula reflected the limited labor and materials available in a colony only 25 years old: 11

The builders employed a few different methods depending on the terrain they encountered. Along the flattest stretches of its run, the wall consisted of high, sturdy wooden boards braced by horizontal stringers and vertical poles set directly into the ground. Six-foot-wide ditches flanked the new wall's base, and the dirt from the trenches formed a mound.

Where the wall had to go up and down the sides of ravines, the builders set several smaller posts into the ground to hold short stretches of pales. All along its length, the palisade was a thing of earth and wood, rotting away and silting up from the very moment of its construction.

Archaeological remains indicate that there was no attempt to replace or repair the pales as they rotted away, meaning that the palisade probably lasted not much more than a decade.

approximate route of 1634 palisade across the Peninsula, cutting through modern-day Williamsburg
Source: location of palisade from Phillip Levy, A New Look at an Old Wall. Indians, Englishmen, Landscape, and the 1634 Palisade at Middle Plantation
(overlaid on USGS 7.5 minute topo, 2010)

Third Anglo-Powhatan War

For twelve years there was some peace, but the tensions were still apparent. After Powhatan died, Opechancanough became the paramount chief. Under his leadership attacks and hostilities with the colonists escalated rapidly. Then the third Anglo-Powhatan War started up in 1644. The Powhatan paramountcy, still under Opechancanough, made a last effort to remove the Europeans from the colony. The colony had grown considerably and the death of 500 settlers was devastating, yet that was just a small percentage of the entire population. The Europeans were steadily gaining land and more power.

The Anglo-Powhatan Wars devastated the Powhatan peoples and affiliated tribes. Scholars and historians believe that before the settlers came there were at least 15,000 people, possibly as many as 21,000, in the Powhatan paramountcy. Conflicts between the colonists and Indians was a constant threat for both sides. Due to deaths in the wars and infectious diseases the Indians had no immunities against, their numbers began to shrink drastically.

Three new forts were built in 1645 by the colony. With Fort Charles, Fort James, and Fort Royal established on major rivers and near falls, the English had better strongholds. In August of that year, an attack lead by Governor William Berkeley, resulted in the capture of Opechancanough. All other male captives were deported to Tangier Island. Opechancanough was killed. The major power of the Powhatan Confederacy ended with the death of Opechancanough. He was 100 years old.

Arrival of Sir Thomas Dale

The arrival of Sir Thomas Dale on May 19, 1611, marked a turning point in the history of Jamestown. Already in England the colony’s fortunes were rebounding thanks to a public struck by the miraculous survival of the Sea Venture. Perhaps the Reverend Symonds had been correct all along: rather than God’s curse, Virginia was God’s calling. In Dale, who served as acting governor in the absence of De La Warr and Gates, the colony found a leader with the stubborn ruthlessness to make it work. (Smith, undoubtedly, shared that quality, having once declared that “he that will not worke shall not eate,” but the Virginia Company would not allow him to return.) On Dale’s first day, the colonist Ralph Hamor later wrote, the governor “hastened” to Jamestown only to find his charges at “their daily and usuall works, bowling in the streetes.” Archaeologists such as William M. Kelso and historians such as Karen Ordahl Kupperman have countered frequent charges that the colonists were lazy with the observation, in Kupperman’s words, that malnutrition and disease “interacted with the psychological effects of isolation and despair and each intensified the other”—producing behavior that could be mistaken for idleness.

Regardless, the behavior did not last. Dale ordered crops to be planted, with the garrisons at Forts Charles and Henry specializing in corn, and the colonists at Jamestown and Fort Algernon, on Point Comfort, raising livestock and manufacturing goods. To instill discipline, Dale enforced what came to be known as the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, which included a law martial for soldiers as well as a strict code of conduct for civilians. The first English-language body of laws in the western hemisphere, the orders (they were not a legal code in the modern sense) were harsh enough to invite much criticism, both in Virginia and England. Convicted of stealing oatmeal, one man suffered a needle through his tongue, after which he was lashed to a tree until he starved.

In June Dale’s men faced down a Spanish reconnaissance ship at Point Comfort at the mouth of the James. They managed even to capture three of its men, including the commander, Don Diego de Molina , and a turncoat Englishman, Francis Lembry, who in 1588 had piloted a ship in the Spanish Armada. The Spanish seized one of Dale’s men, John Clark—he later served as master’s mate on the Mayflower—increasing the fear that Spain might return in force and finish off a colony that seemed perpetually to be on the verge of the abyss. But the Spanish never came, and in August Sir Thomas Gates did, along with 300 new colonists who boosted the population to about 750. In September, Dale and Edward Brewster led an expedition to the falls of the James where they managed, finally, to found a settlement outside of the by-now cramped Jamestown. They called it the City of Henrico, or Henricus, in honor of Dale’s patron and the king’s heir, Henry, Prince of Wales. In December, Henrico became the launching point for an attack on the nearby Appamattucks, whose defeat allowed for the founding of another settlement, Bermuda Hundred .

Expanding Virginia outside Jamestown was critical to its survival, but hardly solved all of the colony’s problems. By 1612, the settlers were mutinous again and the Virginia Company worried about a public-relations backlash against Dale’s stringent application of the law. Instead, in April 1613, Samuel Argall used his connections with a Patawomeck weroance to capture Pocahontas, a feat that eventually allowed Dale to negotiate an end to the long and bloody war. John Rolfe, meanwhile, who married Pocahontas in 1614, introduced to Virginia a West Indies variety of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) that eventually, and against the wishes of the king and company, transformed its economy.


The settlement at Jamestown, Virginia (May 1607) was within the territory of the powerful Chief Wahunsunacawh, known to the colonists as Chief Powhatan. [2] The area was quite swampy and ill-suited to farming, and Powhatan wanted Captain John Smith and the colonists to forsake the swamp and live in one of his satellite towns called Capahosick where they would make metal tools for him in exchange for full provision. [3]

Smith underestimated the power of the Virginia Indians and what they were capable of, as they knew the land much better than the colonists. He was reconnoitering the countryside near Powhatan's capital of Orapax in December, only seven months after building the fort on Jamestown Island, when a communal hunting party led by Opechancanough captured him. [4] Smith was released in time for New Year's 1608 when he promised to move the colony to Capahosick. He had convinced Powhatan that he was the son of Captain Newport, and that Newport was their head weroance (tribal chief).

By spring 1609, the local Paspahegh tribe had resumed raiding the fort at Jamestown. However, their weroance Wowinchopunk declared an uneasy truce after he was captured and escaped. Smith had become president of the colony the preceding fall, and he attempted to establish new forts in the territory that summer. He sent a party with Captain John Martin to settle in Nansemond territory. They abandoned the position after 17 men disobeyed orders and were wiped out while trying to buy corn at the Kecoughtan village in Hampton, Virginia. Smith also sent 120 men with Francis West to build a fort upriver at the falls of the James, right above the main town of Powhatan and the site of Richmond, Virginia. He purchased the site from Powhatan's son Parahunt, but this ended up faring no better.

Smith was then injured in an accidental gunpowder explosion and sailed to England on October 4, and the colony began to starve. Soon afterward, the settlers established Fort Algernon at Old Point Comfort, right beside the Kecoughtan village. In November, Powhatan ambushed and killed Captain John Ratcliffe, who had gone to Orapax to buy corn, and the colonists began to starve to death. Thomas Gates arrived in late May 1610 and decided to evacuate Jamestown. However, on their second day of sailing, they met Francis West's older brother Thomas coming into the Bay with the remnant of his fleet, which had left England one year earlier but been scattered in a hurricane. They therefore returned to the fort under West's command.

West proved far harsher and more belligerent toward the Indians than any of his predecessors, and his solution was simply to engage in wars of conquest against them, first sending Gates to drive off the Kecoughtans from their village on July 9, then giving Chief Powhatan the ultimatum of either returning all colonists and their property or facing war. Powhatan responded by insisting that the colonists either stay in their fort or leave Virginia. West had the hand of a Paspahegh captive cut off and sent him to the Powhatan with another ultimatum: Return all colonists and their property or the neighboring villages would be burned. Powhatan did not respond.

The First Anglo–Powhatan War lasted from 1610 to 1614 between the Powhatans and the colonists. [5] Thomas West sent George Percy and James Davis with 70 men to attack the Paspahegh capital on August 9, 1610, burning the houses and cutting down their cornfields. They killed between 65 and 75 villagers, and captured one of Wowinchopunk's wives and her two children. Returning downstream, the colonists decided to throw the children overboard and shot them in the water. The "queen" herself, whom Davis wanted to burn alive, was executed back in Jamestown. [6] The Paspahegh never recovered from this attack and abandoned their town.

A party of colonists was ambushed at Appomattoc in the fall of 1610, and West 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 avenged a few days later by enticing some colonists out of the fort and killing them. In May, Governor Thomas Dale arrived and 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 fort of Henricus.

Around the time of Christmas 1611, Dale and his men seized the Appomattoc town at the mouth of their river and palisaded off the neck of land, renaming it New Bermudas. The aged chief Powhatan made no major response to this colonial expansion, and he seems to have been losing effective control to his younger brother Opechancanough during this time, while the colonists strengthened their positions. In December 1612, Argall concluded peace with the Patawomeck, and he captured Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas. This caused an immediate ceasefire from the Powhatan raids on the colonists, as they held her ransom for peace. In the meantime, settlers had begun to expand south of the rivers, building houses at City Point in Hopewell, Virginia.

In early 1609, Jamestown Island had been the only territory under colonial control. By the end of this period, the Powhatans had lost much of their riverfront property along the James the Kicoughtan and Paspehegh sub-tribes had been effectively destroyed, and the settlers had made major inroads among the lands of the Weyanoke, Appomattoc, Arrohattoc, and Powhatan. The Arrohattoc and Quiockohannock tribes disappear from the historical records after this, possibly indicating that they had been dispersed or merged with other tribes. [7]

Peace negotiations stalled over the return of captured hostages and arms for nearly a year Dale went with Pocahontas and a large force to find Powhatan in March 1614. They were showered with arrows at West Point, so they went ashore and sacked the town. They finally found Powhatan at his new capital in Matchcot, and they concluded a peace that was sealed by the marriage of Pocahontas to colonist John Rolfe. This was the first known inter-racial union in Virginia and helped to bring a brief period of better relations between the Indians and the colonists. A separate peace was concluded the same year with the Chickahominy tribe which made them honorary "Englishmen" and thus subjects of King James I. [8] This period of peace has been called the peace of Pocahontas. [9] [10]

Opechancanough maintained a friendly face to the colony, and even met with a Christian minister to give the appearance of his imminent conversion to Christianity. Then his warriors struck without warning from where they had been planted among the settlements on March 22, 1622, killing hundreds in the Indian Massacre of 1622. [11] A third of the colony was wiped out that day, and a higher toll would have been taken were it not for last minute warnings by Christian Indians. [12]

Powhatan war practice was to wait and see what would happen after inflicting such a blow, in hopes that the settlement would simply abandon their homeland and move on elsewhere. However, English military doctrine called for a strong response, and the colonial militia marched out nearly every summer for the next 10 years and made assaults on Powhatan settlements. The Accomac and Patawomeck allied with the colony, providing them corn while the colonists went to plunder villages and cornfields of the Chickahominy, Nansemond, Warraskoyack, Weyanoke, and Pamunkey in 1622. Opechancanough sued for peace in 1623. The colonists arranged to meet the Indians for a peace agreement, but poisoned their wine, then fell upon them shooting them and killing many in revenge for the massacre. They then attacked the Chickahominy, the Powhatans, the Appomattocs, Nansemond, and Weyanokes.

In 1624, both sides were ready for a major battle the Powhatans assembled 800 bowmen with Opitchapam leading their force, arrayed against only 60 colonists. The colonists, however, destroyed the Powhatans' cornfields, and the bowmen gave up the fight and retreated.

A shortage of gunpowder in the colony delayed the colonists from going on marches in 1625 and 1626. The Indians seem not to have been aware of this shortage, and were themselves desperately trying to regroup. However, summer 1627 brought renewed assaults against the Chickahominy, Appamattoc, Powhatan proper, Warraskoyak, Weyanoke, and Nansemond. A peace was declared in 1628, but it was more like a temporary ceasefire hostilities resumed in March 1629 and continued until a final peace was made on September 30, 1632. [ citation needed ] The colonists began to expand their settlements on the Eastern Shore and both sides of the James, as well as on the south of the York, and they palisaded off the peninsula between the York and James at about Williamsburg in 1633. By 1640, they began claiming land north of the York, as well, and Opechancanough leased some land on the Piankatank to settlers in 1642 for the price of 50 bushels of corn a year. [ citation needed ]

By 1634, a palisade (stockade) was completed across the Virginia Peninsula, which was about 6 miles (9.7 km) wide at that point. It provided some security from attacks by the Virginia Indians for colonists farming and fishing. It is partially described in a letter written by Captain Thomas Yonge in 1634 from Jamestown:

Twelve years of peace followed the Indian Wars of 1622-1632 before another Anglo–Powhatan War began on April 18, 1644, [13] as the remnants of the Powhatan Confederacy under Opechancanough tried once again to drive out the settlers from the Virginia Colony. [11] Around 400 colonists were killed. [14]

In February 1645, the colony ordered the construction of three frontier forts: Fort Charles at the falls of the James, Fort James on the Chickahominy, and Fort Royal at the falls of the York. In March 1646, the colony built Fort Henry at the falls of the Appomattox, where Petersburg is now located.

In August, Governor William Berkeley stormed the village where Opechancanough resided and captured him. All captured males in the village older than 11 were deported to Tangier Island. [15] Opechancanough was taken to Jamestown and imprisoned. Very old and infirm, unable to even move without assistance, Opechancanough died in captivity in October of 1646, murdered by his English guard. [11] By this time Necotowance had succeeded him as the last Mamanatowick of the Powhatan Confederacy.

In October 1646 the General Assembly of Virginia signed a peace treaty with Necotowance, King of the Indians, which brought the Third Anglo-Powhatan War to an end. In the treaty, the tribes of the Confederacy became tributaries to the King of England, paying a yearly tribute to the Virginia governor. At the same time, a racial frontier was delineated between Indian and colonial settlements, with members of each group forbidden to cross to the other side except by a special pass obtained at one of the border forts. The extent of the Virginia Colony open to patent was defined as the land between the Blackwater and York rivers, and up to the navigable point of each of the major rivers. The treaty also permitted settlements on the peninsula north of the York and below the Poropotank, as they had already been there since 1640.

Necotowance remained Paramount Chief of what was left of the Powhatan Confederacy until his death about 1649. The tribes of the former confederacy however were scattered. When Totopotomoi succeeded Necotowance, it was no longer as Paramount Chief of the Powhatan, but as Weroance of the Pamunkey. Totopotomoi worked as an ally with the colonial government to maintain peace. In 1656 he died in the Battle of Bloody Run fighting on the side of the colonists against encroaching hostile tribes. His wife Cockacoeske succeeded him as Weroansqua of the Pamunkey. This period of time is often referred to as a time of relative peace between the colonists [ by whom? ] but it also saw the constant encroachment upon the lands designated to the Indians in the treaty of 1646. Chief Wahanganoche, King of the Patawomeck tried to work with the colonists, deeding them tribal lands, but this backfired. In 1662, colonists, wanting more, falsely accused Wahanganoche of murder. Found innocent of all charges by a specially convened session of the House of Burgesses, Wahanganoche was nevertheless murdered by colonists while attempting to return home from his trial. [16] Shortly thereafter the colonial government demanded all Patawomeck 'sell' their land and in 1666 declared war on the Patawomeck calling for their utter destruction. The tribes of the Northern Neck of Virginia were effectively wiped out, the few that escaped the genocide were absorbed into other remaining tribes. The peace was shattered further by the attacks of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. This resulted in the Treaty of Middle Plantation signed by Cockacoeske, Weroansqua of the Pamunkey, who rallied together other local tribes to sign as well. The treaty set up reservations for each tribe, and allowed them hunting rights outside their reservations. It established that all the Indian rulers were equal, with the provision that the Queen of Pamunkey was now owed the subjection of several scattered groups of Indians. [17]


1682 – From 1607 to 1682, roughly 92,000 immigrants from Europe, mostly men from England, arrived in what is now called Virginia, but also Maryland. 69,000 were the victims of human traffickers who created a system known as chattel bond laborers. These English immigrants agreed to be enslaved as security against a loan or an inherited debt. The bond laborer was supplied with food, clothing and shelter during the years of service, and the master owned everything earned by the servant. The agreement looked like employment where the worker starts with a debt to repay only to find that repayment of the loan is impossible. Then, their enslavement becomes permanent. Under this system, some officers in the colony were getting rich under a system of private enterprise, advancing the fortunes of a few and the death of many. Most of this fortune was made in farming tobacco fields.

1690 - The 1690 “Act for the Better Ordering of Slaves” codified the institution of chattel slavery in South Carolina. Among other things, slaves were required to get written passes to travel. Those who lacked permission to travel were considered runaways. Barbaric punishments under the 1690 Act included whipping, branding, nose-slitting. Runaways were subject to being branded with an R on the cheek and/or loss of an ear. Other penalties for a range of offenses included castration and the severing of a tendon.

Section III of the 1690 Act contained the travel requirements is copied below:

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It’s a lesson as old as European settlement of the present-day United States: Treating migrant workers as property for the benefit of others leads to terrible consequences. But judging from a recent immigration-reform proposal, the country hasn’t entirely learned that lesson. In a Politico piece originally titled, “What If You Could Get Your Own Immigrant?”—a headline that provoked such anger it was quickly changed—Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Law School, and Glen Weyl, an economist at Microsoft Research New England, described a plan that amounts to reintroducing a form of bonded immigrant labor to the United States. Their idea, in essence, is to give every American citizen the right to “sponsor” an immigrant, put that person to work, and then take a portion of his or her wages.

If these two scholars at elite institutions were aware of their plan’s historical precedent, they gave no indication of it. But it’s clear from American history that such a proposal would be a disaster not only for immigrants, but for American democracy. Once set in motion, any policy that creates conditions for exploitative labor practices is likely only to encourage more exploitation.

The history of how indentured servitude transformed into racialized chattel slavery in America provides a particularly vivid example of this vicious cycle. In theory, colonial Virginia’s intense labor scarcity ought to have meant favorable terms for migrating workers. But as Jane Dickenson learned, the men who governed the colonies changed market dynamics by imposing harsh laws that allowed them to control and capture laborers in new ways. Whereas contracts of indenture for agricultural workers in England typically ran to only one year, in America they stretched out to seven. And colonial authorities routinely punished servants who tried to escape—or simply displeased their masters—with whippings, split tongues, sliced ears, and extra years of service. As the late American historian Edmund Morgan put it, even before slavery took root, Virginia’s masters were moving “toward a system of labor that treated men as things.”

This still wasn’t enough. As free subjects of the English crown, servants who managed to outlive their indentures could eventually obtain property and some measure of political clout. As former servants increased in number, they indeed began to challenge their former masters’ authority, most famously in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. Enslaved Africans provided a dual solution to this problem. First, the importation of already enslaved laborers allowed masters to more easily treat servitude as a lifetime, hereditary status, preventing the growth of a troublesome population of the formerly unfree. Second, it made whiteness the mark of freedom, ensuring that “ordinary” English settlers identified with their social betters instead of making common cause with the new arrivals.

Still, the transition to a slave society was gradual. For several decades, Africans forcibly transported to the American colonies were not necessarily treated very differently from English indentured servants, and some achieved not only freedom but significant local prominence. The “black patriarch of Pungoteague Creek,” Anthony Johnson, for example, was brought to Virginia in chains, but he was able to purchase liberty for himself and his wife, accumulate extensive land holdings, and have his testimony accepted in court. According to the historians T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, through much of the 17th century, Johnson and other free blacks in his Eastern Shore community “experienced a kind of rough equality with their poor white neighbors.”

Over time, however, and increasingly after 1700, legal codes hardened racial boundaries and entrenched chattel slavery, so that society came to be based on the principle of white supremacy. It was in this context that whiteness served to unite one portion of the population in the unmitigated exploitation of another. “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery,” wrote Eric Williams, a pioneering historian and the first prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago, in his seminal analysis Capitalism & Slavery. Although the economic benefits of enslaved labor flowed almost entirely to slave owners, the racialization of bondage gave every white person a social and political interest in the subordination of Africans and their descendants. In this way, the “wages of whiteness” were generalized to the majority in the white republic that emerged from the American Revolution.

The story doesn’t end here. By the turn of the 19th century, gradual abolition in the North alongside slavery’s massive expansion in the South opened up a fissure among whites. In 1852, the increasingly acrimonious debate over the institution’s future led The New York Times to advocate the importation of indentured Chinese laborers—so-called “coolies”—as a “happy medium” between “forced and voluntary labor.” These foreigners from supposedly backward places would occupy a new position on the lower rungs of the American racial hierarchy—between slavery and freedom, black and white. To moderate Northerners, the indentured workers seemed like a solution to the nation’s problems.

The practice of trafficking Asian workers began in the 1830s in the British Empire. British leaders sought to alleviate labor “shortages” in the Caribbean colonies—the result of newly emancipated slaves’ withdrawal from the plantation complex—by importing “excess” South Asian labor. During the 1840s, American shippers expanded the trade, transporting indentured Chinese workers throughout the Americas—but not the United States—to provide cheap labor in mines and plantations. Indenture contracts, and the bodies to go with them, were auctioned off upon arrival at port.

In 1856, the U.S. commissioner to China, Peter Parker, declared that the traffic was so “replete with illegalities, immoralities, and revolting and inhuman atrocities,” that its cruelty at times exceeded the “horrors of the ‘middle passage.’” Working conditions at labor sites in the Americas were no better. On the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru, trafficked Chinese workers mined guano, a fertilizer used on American farms and plantations. They labored up to 20 hours per day in a toxic environment, while bosses applied whippings and attacks by dogs as punishment for insubordination. Suicide at the camps was common. On plantations in South America and the Caribbean, experienced observers reported migrants were “treated as slaves,” sometimes “worse than brutes.”

By the eve of the Civil War, media exposés and government reports had publicized these abuses sufficiently to convince most Americans that the traffic was “only another form of the slave-trade,” which had been banned decades before. In 1862, Congress banned the carriage of “coolies” on American vessels. The act was one of many reforms intended to fundamentally restructure American society around a liberal notion of free labor.

But while intended as a humanitarian act, the law helped solidify white Americans’ prejudice against Chinese migrants of all kinds, who came to be understood as “naturally” servile because they had supposedly “allowed” themselves to be trafficked—a prejudice later deployed to justify the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and subsequently transferred to other Asian migrants. Meanwhile, the trafficking of contract laborers worldwide continued well into the 20th century. The unfree conditions it produced has no shortage of modern analogues—as historians have often noted. In 2016, for instance, the UN warned Qatar to end “migrant worker slavery,” a system in which sponsoring employers wield nearly absolute power.

Common to all of these stories is the subordination of a minority group—usually made up of foreigners and other marginalized people—for the economic and social benefit of the majority, using the tools of political disenfranchisement and the impairment of legal rights. This is what makes the immigration proposal put forward by Posner and Weyl last month so alarming. Their plan aims to cut through the current immigration-policy impasse by giving working-class Americans—presumably, the white ones concerned about “illegal aliens”—a contracted property right in the labor of immigrants. It would “achieve the goals of both sides of the immigration debate,” they write, by allowing immigrants into the country to the economic benefit of those already here.

But their plan seems more likely to produce an effect similar to that achieved when Virginia’s colonial governors interposed whiteness between indentured English servants and enslaved Africans: That is, it would gradually establish an impenetrable social barrier between ordinary American citizens and outcast immigrant workers. Bit by bit, the United States would transform as legislators, judges, and administrators adjudicated countless matters pitting the interests of sponsoring citizens (who could vote) against the interests of immigrants (who could not). The deepening divide would corrode democracy twice over: first, by excluding immigrants from having a political voice and rights, and second, by encouraging a social hierarchy that would inevitably intensify class distinctions among citizens, too.

Personal familiarity poses no barrier to this process. Posner and Weyl naively misread history when they wrote that “it is hard to demonize the person who lives in your basement, or the basement of your neighbor, and has increased your income greatly.” It may seem like common sense that proximity breeds understanding, but when a property right in others’ labor is at stake, just the opposite is often the case. For most of American history, family members’ labor was under the legal control of male heads of household. Abuse without redress was pervasive, despite bonds of affection.

And in regimes premised on indentured servitude and slavery, affection was no protection at all. Indeed, intimacy can make exploitation all the more oppressive. Far from treating the people living in their “basements” with care, slaveholders—who liked to call their human property “family”—regularly raped enslaved women and “unblushingly reared” their own children “for the market,” as Harriet Jacobs, who escaped slavery, recounted in her 1861 autobiography.

Immigrants subordinated both economically and politically—and this, at bottom, is what Posner and Weyl unwittingly propose—would be defenseless against abuse. Like the millions indentured, enslaved, and trafficked before them, they would be despised for their very inability to resist, then abused all the more for being despicable. Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder himself, described this dynamic clearly: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” he wrote in the 1780s. “Our children,” he added, “see this, and learn to imitate it.”


In 1618, a faction within the Virginia Company pushed through a series of reforms resulting in the “Great Charter,” a set of instructions sent to George Yeardley, who was set to begin a term as governor in 1619. Officials authorized Yeardley to oversee the selection of two male settlers from each of the eleven major settlement areas to attend a “General Assembly” with the purpose of passing laws and hopefully improving management in the colony.

This new form of government divided political and judicial power between the governor, a council appointed by the Virginia Company, and the new General Assembly. The representatives, called burgesses, sat with the governor and his appointed council as the Assembly. The governor could veto legislation or dissolve the Assembly.

The meeting of the first General Assembly took place from July 30 through August 4 in the church in Jamestown, probably because the church was the largest building at the time. John Pory, Secretary of the Colony, served as Speaker of the Assembly. Six appointed council members attended along with 20 selected burgesses. The two burgesses selected from John Martin’s plantation (located in present day Prince George County) were not allowed to sit because of a problem with Martin’s land patent. Members of the General Assembly were formed into several committees, tasked with reviewing aspects of the Great Charter sent from the Virginia Company, as well as working on new laws based on concerns brought by the burgesses to the Assembly. All laws passed by the Assembly were subject to the approval of the Virginia Company in England.

The General Assembly also acted as a high court of justice and heard complaints of a judicial nature. Later, in 1634, courts would be established for minor offenses, but major cases were brought before the Assembly.

After 1619 the General Assembly met only sporadically, and formal recognition of the Assembly by the English crown did not come until 1627. The Virginia Company continued to appoint governors and issue instructions, but representation of the will of the people had begun. The concept of parliamentary government was brought to Virginia, and the General Assembly gradually evolved into a two-house form of government (1640s). This bicameral legislature continues today as Virginia’s General Assembly. It became the model for other English colonies and eventually the basis for the democratic government of the United States of America.


In August 1619, a privateering vessel flying the flag of the Dutch Republic arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia (in present-day Hampton). According to John Rolfe, the ship held no cargo but “20 and odd” Africans, who were traded to Governor George Yeardley and Cape Merchant Abraham Peirsey in exchange for provisions. These individuals, originally captured by Portuguese slavers in West Central Africa (likely modern-day Angola), were the first recorded Africans to arrive in English North America.

While the White Lion, which carried the first Africans to Virginia, did fly a Dutch flag, modern research has revealed that both the ship and its captain, John Jope, were English. Jope held a letter of marque from Vlissingen, a notorious privateer haven in the Netherlands, which allowed him to legally plunder Spanish and Portuguese vessels. He could not have done so under English authority, as England and Spain were at peace in 1619. While patrolling the Gulf of Mexico in late July or early August 1619, Jope encountered the Treasurer, another privateering vessel captained by Daniel Elfrith. Sailing in consort with one another, the White Lion and the Treasurer managed to capture a Portuguese slave trading vessel, the São João Bautista (Saint John the Baptist), which was bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico.

Jope and Elfrith soon discovered that the São João Bautista, which departed from the Angolan port city of Luanda, was carrying approximately 350 enslaved Africans. Luis Mendes de Vasconcellos, the Portuguese governor of Angola, enslaved approximately fifty thousand Africans between 1617 and 1621, sending them from Luanda to colonies in Spanish America. It is likely that many of the enslaved Africans onboard the São João Bautista were skilled laborers from West Central Africa’s urban centers, and many were likely Christians as well, converted by the Portuguese before or after their capture. After taking on as many captive Africans as their ships could carry, Jope and Elfrith chose to sail north to the Virginia colony.

While John Rolfe’s account confirms that the enslaved Africans aboard the White Lion were left in Virginia in 1619, the same cannot be said of those aboard the Treasurer. After receiving word that representatives of the Governor were heading to Point Comfort, the Treasurer abruptly departed Virginia, heading for Bermuda. As John Rolfe knew, the reason for this swift departure was because Governor Yeardley questioned the validity of the Treasurer’s letter of marque, and had planned to question Captain Elfrith about his acts of alleged piracy against the Spanish. The Treasurer did not return to Virginia until February 1620.

Despite the fact that slavery was not officially acknowledged in the laws of Virginia until 1661, there can be no mistaking that the first Africans brought to the colony aboard the White Lion were treated much as slaves were in other European colonies, regardless of age or gender. Scattered amongst a variety of plantations, including those owned by Governor Yeardley, they were immediately treated as commodities by the colonial elite. In rare instances, some Africans were allowed to work their own land, earn an income, and eventually purchase their freedom, but most were assigned to heavy labor in fields, kitchens, and outhouses. The African population in Virginia remained quite small for the next several decades, with only 300 Africans residing in the colony by 1650. By 1680, however, that number had increased to 3,000 and by 1704, to 10,000.


When the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery arrived in Virginia with a group of 104 settlers in 1607, women were not among them. Despite the references to habitation and plantation in the Jamestown colony’s charter, the Virginia Company sent men to Virginia primarily to explore the region and discover how to best exploit its natural resources for commercial profit. These men did not initially expect to settle permanently in Virginia, and thus they rarely traveled with their families.

The first English women to come to Virginia, Mistress Forest and her maid Anne Burras, arrived as the only two women amongst Jamestown’s second supply of colonists in 1608. Other women followed in subsequent years but were not sent in any systematic fashion.

After many years of hardship, Virginia Company officials recognized that they would need to establish a family structure in the colony if they wished to bring stability to Virginia and ensure that Jamestown became a permanent settlement. They viewed the family as the basic building block of society and government, and argued that “The plantation can never flourish till families be planted and the respect of wives and children fix the people on the soil.” In November 1619, under the leadership of Sir Edwyn Sandys, the Virginia Company declared its intention to recruit “a fit hundredth . . . of women, maids young and uncorrupt to make wives to the Inhabitants and by that means to make the men there more settled and less movable.” 90 women arrived in Jamestown in May 1620, followed by another 57 women in 1621.

In Virginia, as in England, women were subject to the doctrine of coverture, meaning that their legal rights were surrendered to their husbands. They could not vote, hold public office, or control their own property. Upon the death of their husbands, some widows obtained freedom from the legal and economic control of men, and were able to consolidate wealth and property of their own, engage in trade, and protect their interests in court.

Long before English women arrived in the colony, some Native American women lived amongst the English settlers at Jamestown. Women held an important role in Native American society. Amongst the Powhatan people of Virginia, the position of chief was inherited through the female line, and women could hold positions of significant authority, although few ever did. The daily responsibilities of Powhatan men and women were also divided along gendered lines. Women were responsible for farming, foraging, home construction, and child care, giving them a great deal of influence through their control of the tribes’ primary food supply. Men were responsible for hunting, fishing, and managing political or military councils.

The first documented African women in Virginia arrived in 1619 after having been held as slaves aboard a Portuguese trade vessel. In the colony’s early years, some African women were treated as servants, able to earn their freedom after five to seven years of bondage. Mary, an African woman who arrived in Virginia in 1623, was able to obtain her freedom and marry Anthony Johnson, a former servant. The couple started their own tobacco plantation on the Eastern Shore, eventually owning 250 acres of land. Some African women were also held by planters as lifelong slaves, despite the lack of any law guaranteeing their right to do so until the 1660s.


In the 16th and 17th centuries, European settlers and explorers in America frequently gave thanks to God after experiencing good fortune or completing an arduous journey. Before Europeans arrived in the New World, Native American peoples marked successful harvests with feasts and communal celebration. While these events are reminiscent of America’s modern Thanksgiving, they were traditionally spontaneous affairs, as opposed to regularly scheduled celebrations.

In February 1619, the Virginia Company granted four investors 8,000 acres of property for the settlement of a plantation along the James River, to be called Berkeley Hundred. These investors soon invited Sir George Yeardley, Governor of the Virginia colony, to join in their endeavor, and recruited 38 men to send to Virginia as tenants and servants aboard the ship Margaret. Captain John Woodlief was also chosen to act as the plantation’s commander. Before leaving England in September 1619, Woodlief was given written instructions from the plantation’s investors, including instructions which stated:

That the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon (plantation) in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god.

While no documentation survives to confirm whether or not the settlers of Berkeley Plantation followed the Virginia Company’s instructions after arriving in Virginia on December 4th, 1619, it is reasonable to assume that they would have followed such an official order. Given the lack of any permanent structures at the landing site and the crew’s presumed lack of supplies after traveling across the Atlantic, the first Thanksgiving at Berkeley would not have included a grand feast. Instead, the plantation’s settlers would have held a formal religious observance, thanking God for their safe arrival in Virginia.

Unlike earlier expressions of thanksgiving which took place in the New World, the observance at Berkeley Plantation was unique because it was both the first officially sanctioned Thanksgiving in America as well as the first Thanksgiving designed to become part of an annual tradition.

In 1620, 50 more settlers arrived at Berkeley, including several women and children. The plantation enjoyed a period of peaceful development until March 1622 when the Second Anglo-Powhatan War began. Eleven of Berkeley Plantation’s citizens, including investor George Thorpe, were killed in the conflict, and the survivors were forced to evacuate to safer plantations. Berkeley Plantation remained empty for several years, as evidenced by the plantation’s absence in the 1625 Virginia census.

The history of America’s first Thanksgiving holiday was lost for centuries until Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, son of President John Tyler, discovered the records of Berkeley Plantation investor John Smyth in 1931. In 1962, Virginia Senator John J. Wicker contacted the White House to chastise President John F. Kennedy for neglecting to mention Virginia in his annual Thanksgiving Proclamation. He received a response from prominent historian and Special Assistant to the President Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who admitted that Virginia was indeed the site of the first Thanksgiving and that Kennedy’s failure to include Virginia in his annual proclamation was a result of “unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff.” In 1963, President Kennedy appeared to amend for his earlier mistake by crediting “our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts” for their role in the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday.


From its inception in 1607, the entire Virginia enterprise was an expression of corporate entrepreneurialism, a private joint stock trading company. Originally, all land was owned by the Virginia Company and all work was done for the Company, with the idea of turning profits for the Company stockholders. There was no individual private enterprise or encouragement for private entrepreneurs. Technically, this system lasted until the demise of the Company in 1624.

However, around 1614 the first semi-private land grants were made to colonists, allotting three acres of land upon which settlers could plant tobacco as long as they also planted corn for common use. In 1616 the Company had realized no profits to pay those who had purchased stock in 1609 under a seven-year term. In order to compensate investors, Company officials began a land distribution system under the 1618 “Great Charter” and accompanying “Instructions,” with provisions for reforming the colony politically, economically and socially. The Company’s goal was to create an orderly government and society and to control who would get land and how. This system rewarded individuals with 100 acres of land in Virginia for every share of stock they had purchased or 50 acres if they paid the transportation costs of themselves or others to the colony. They could send over servants and supplies to establish “particular plantations” upon which most would grow tobacco.

In 1618, the Company’s new leader, Sir Edwin Sandys, sought new ways to economically diversify the colony and increase population. In 1619, Company officials sent instructions indicating the ways they hoped to create profits from pursuits other than tobacco. The list was adopted during the meeting of the first General Assembly in July 1619.

The Company, acting as the entrepreneur, enacted legislation that every man, seated upon his land division or grant, should plant and maintain a specified number of mulberry trees (on which silkworms feed, which then produce silk), grow hemp and flax, and plant and maintain vines. They ordered colonists to experiment with different plants in a new environment. The Assembly also regulated how settlers traded with the Indians and established prices for the tobacco cultivated by private landowners. Finally, they allowed tradesmen and artisans to come to Virginia, rent a house and some land, and be paid for their work, upon condition that they continue to perform their trade.

Because of regulation and controls set by the Company, the spirit of free enterprise was not realized for individuals during the Company period. The Company was the innovator, the corporate entrepreneur that decided how to diversify the attempts at profit-making. Unfortunately, most of their attempts failed to produce the profits they sought. Even later ventures into ironworks and sawmills did not help produce profits. In May/June 1623, Virginia Company officials noted in despair: “The many wilde & vast projects set on foot all at one time, viz 3 Iron works, saw mills, planting of silkgrass, vines, mulbury trees, potashes, pitch, tarr and salt &c … by a handful of men that were not able to build houses, plant corne to lodge & feed themselves & so came to nothing.” Most entrepreneurial attempts at diversification by the Virginia Company would ultimately fail with the failure of the Company in 1624. Tobacco would still produce the largest profits.

Since the first General Assembly of 1619, when entrepreneurship began taking root, Virginia has been at the vanguard of what has become the free enterprise system in the United States of America. Virginia continues to lead the advancement of entrepreneurship in sectors such as technology.

Watch the video: Jamestown - the impact of tobacco (February 2023).

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