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My last column noted the good mood 400 years ago at the July 30, 1619, inaugural meeting of Virginia’s General Assembly. The assembly wanted to maintain peace with the Powhatan tribe and promote “the Conversion of the Indians to Christian Religion.”
James Horn in his book 1619 shows how settlers and natives fought for several years after the Jamestown founding in 1607, but seven years later the marriage of Powhatan princess Pocahontas and settler John Rolfe improved relations.
Churchgoers throughout England in 1616 and 1617 donated shillings to establish Virginia schools for teaching natives. Exhibit A was Pocahontas herself, who professed faith in Christ and took the name Rebecca. The Rolfes voyaged to England, where Rebecca was the guest of honor at some gatherings and a novelty item at others. She met King James I: One cleric, Samuel Purchas, wrote that she impressed London because she “carried her selfe as the daughter of a king.”
The Englishmen did not know, or did not wish to know, the true feelings of natives who had lost many of their hunting grounds.
As the Rolfes in 1617 started back for America, Pocahontas, age 20 or 21, became gravely ill and died. That harmed settler/Powhatan relations. So did mistreatment of natives by settlers such as John Martin: The General Assembly chastised him in 1619 when one of his employees forcibly took corn from Indians, giving them in return copper beads and trinkets. The assembly said “such outrages as this might breed danger and loss of life to others of the Colony.”
Virginia Company leader Edwin Sandys, who dreamed of a biracial Christian society, reported in November 1620—the month the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts—that the “noble Action for the planting of Virginia with Christian Religion” was progressing. In 1621 the company instructed Virginia Gov. Francis Wyatt to make sure the colonists did not bring any “injury or oppression” against the Indians that would disturb “the present peace” and revive “ancient quarrels (now buried).”
Wyatt in January 1622 told Londoners the settlers lived “in very great amity and confidence with the natives.” John Rolfe died that year, but Thomas Rolfe, his son by Pocahontas, was now 7. He was the biracial hope. But the Englishmen did not know, or did not wish to know, the true feelings of natives who had lost many of their hunting grounds and saw more settlers coming to take their lands.
Then came not 9/11 but 3/22. On March 22, 1622, native warriors suddenly attacked settlers’ homes and farms, killing about 350. One of the dead was George Thorpe, who had said the colonists showed “love and hearty affection” by giving the natives clothing and household items. Thorpe had said he and Powhatan Chief Opechancanough were friends. He had said the Indians were close to embracing Christ.
Thorpe misread them, and all England was angry. The Virginia Company recruited hundreds of new settlers and said giving up would be “a Sin against the dead.” The newcomers came to defeat terrorism “contrary to all laws of God and men,” since the natives had attacked “under the Color of unsuspected amity.”
Chief Opechancanough misread the settlers. He told his tribesmen that after March 22 the English would evacuate Virginia before “two Moons.” Nope: The Virginia Company ordered a “perpetual” war against the natives that would include “burning their Towns, demolishing their Temples, destroying their Canoes, … carrying away their Corn.”
King James I shipped the Virginians 1,000 muskets, 1,000 battle-axes, 2,000 helmets, and 540 coats and shirts of mail. In 1623 the natives said they wanted peace, but colonists meeting with natives under the color of amity took revenge by serving poisoned wine that at least sickened them. The Virginians then opened fire, killing about 50.
Talk of Englishmen and natives living in peace also died. The settlers enslaved some natives, but they often ran off. When a strain of tobacco John Rolfe had invented became wildly popular in England, Virginia land turned into tobacco fields tended by slaves from Africa. In 1860, a half-million slaves lived in what still called itself a commonwealth.
For a time Thomas Rolfe may have wavered between the English and native worlds. In 1641 he visited his native uncle, Opechancanough. In 1646 he apparently chose the English world and became a lieutenant in Virginia’s military, charged with suppressing his cousins.
—This article has been updated to correct the name of John and Pocahontas Rolfe’s son, Thomas.