Opechancanough, the massacre of 1622

When Sir Francis Wyatt came to Virginia, bringing with him the new constitution, he was pleased with the aspect of everything around him; and the colonists rejoiced in the prospect of long years of peace and prosperity before them. The atmosphere of their daily life appeared perfectly serene. There was no cloud in the firmament. But at that moment a fearful tempest was brooding, in restraint, in the forests around them. Powhatan, the friend of the English, was dead, and his younger brother, the subtle, treacherous and truly Indian Opechancanough (the captor of Smith in the forest), was then wielding the sceptre of his empire. He could command fifteen hundred warriors to do his bidding. He hated the English intensely, and inspired his followers with the same passion; yet he feigned the warmest friendship for them, and deceived them with Satanic smiles. He believed that the English intended to seize the lands of his empire and exterminate his race, and his patriotism impelled him to strike a blow for his country and countrymen.

Opechancanough used various arts to inflame the anger of the Indians against the English. He had a rival in the admiration of his people, who had shown himself to be a bitter enemy of the colonists. For the double purpose of ridding himself of this rival and exciting the anger of his nation against the English, the emperor sent word to Governor Wyatt that he gave him liberty to cut that man's throat. Such an act would surely have aroused the Indians into furious war. It was not done; but, unfortunately, in an affray with a settler, the man was shot. The wily emperor pretended to bewail his loss, and so he fired the resentment of the Indians against the English. Then he went secretly to the governor, half-clad in skins, his head plumed with eagle's feathers, and bearing in his belt a finely-wrought hatchet. After making warm professions of friendship, he demanded in a haughty tone, some concessions to his incensed people. His demand was refused, and forgetting himself for a moment, he snatched the hatchet from his belt and struck its keen blade into a log of the cabin, uttering a curse upon the English. His words fell like a fearful revelation upon the mind of the governor. Instantly recovering himself, the Indian smiled, and said blandly: "Pardon me, governor; I was thinking of that wicked Englishman [Argall] who stole my niece [Pocahontas], and struck me with his sword. I love the English who are the friends of the family of Powhatan. Sooner will the skies fall than my bond of friendship with the English shall be dissolved."

Sir Francis warned his people that there was treachery abroad. They were slow to believe it. There had never been a war with the Indians. Their settlements were scattered-some of them in solitary places-and yet no one had ever been disturbed by the Indians since the happy marriage of Pocahontas. So secure had they felt, that they had broken a law which forbade the teaching of the use of fire-arms to the Indians, and had employed them to hunt with the musket. In the midst of this calm of confidence, the tempest suddenly burst upon the colony. At mid-day, on the 1st of April [the 22d March, old style], 1622, the Indians rushed from the forests upon all of the remote settlements at a pre-concerted time, and in the space of an hour three hundred and fifty men, women and children were slain. Even the devoted missionary at Henrico, who had instructed the children of the Indians and tenderly nursed the young and old in sickness, was not spared. Among the victims were six members of the council and several of the wealthier inhabitants. On the very morning of the massacre, the treacherous Indians were in the houses and at the tables of those whom they intended to murder at noon.

The people at Jamestown were saved by Chanco, a Christian Indian, who heard of the conspiracy in the evening before the massacre. He hastened to Jamestown to warn a friend of impending danger. The alarm spread, but it was too late to reach the more remote settlements. The people at Jamestown were prepared to meet the assassins, and so averted the blow which might have extinguished the colony. Those at a distance, who survived the carnage, beat back the Indians and then fled to Jamestown. In the course of a few days, eighty inhabited plantations were reduced to eight. But a large part of the colony was saved.

The people thus gathered at Jamestown by a terrible necessity prepared for vengeance. A vindictive and exterminating war was immediately waged. Every man capable of bearing arms appeared in the field, and fearful retaliating blows were given. The English spread death and desolation over the peninsula between the York and James rivers. The Indians were slaughtered by scores, or driven far back into the wilderness. Opechancanough fled for his life to the land of the Pamunkeys, and lost much of his influence by a show of cowardice. His power was broken, and the strength of his people had departed. Before the war, there were about six thousand Indians within sixty miles of Jamestown, occupying a domain eight thousand square miles in extent; at the close of the war, there were probably not a thousand within that territory.

The blight of war, pestilence and famine fell upon the colony. Sickness prevailed among the people, who were gathered into a narrow space for mutual protection. Large areas of land were left uncultivated; and many of the settlers, discouraged and terrified, returned to England. The colony of almost four thousand souls was soon reduced to twenty-five hundred; and these never retired at night with an assurance that they would not hear the Indian war-whoop before the dawn.

Return to Our Country, Vol. I