February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
As they rose and began their chores on the morning of March 22, settlers along Virginia’s James River had reason to be optimistic about the future. After the harrowing first few years that followed its founding in 1607, the colony was starting to prosper from the cultivation of West Indian tobacco. It enjoyed a measure of self-government, and ships regularly brought new settlers, indentured servants, and marriageable women. Moreover, the Powhatan Indians, second only to disease as a threat to the early colonists, had been rendered friendly and docile. The two races mingled so freely, in fact, that the Powhatans often ate and slept in whites’ houses and borrowed their possessions—even firearms. So when Jamestown and its surrounding plantations began to stir that Good Friday morning, the presence of Indian guests and traders drew no particular attention.
Then, at the prearranged hour of eight o’clock, Indians throughout the widely spaced settlements suddenly attacked their hosts with clubs, tomahawks, and the whites’ own fowling pieces. Others descended from the woods to join the slaughter and cut off escape routes. The Powhatans massacred men, women, and children indiscriminately, mutilating many of their corpses. In the end some 350 whites were slain, about a quarter of the population. Most of the outlying settlements were completely destroyed. Only a timely warning from a Christianized Indian saved the town of Jamestown from destruction.
Although the survivors were shocked at the treachery of their supposed neighbors, a decade and a half of hatred had lain beneath the Indians’ veneer of amiability. Consider, for example, one early settler’s account of his punitive raid on an Indian village: “I dispersed my soldiers to burn their houses and cut down their corn … we marched out with the queen and her children to our boats, [and] my soldiers began to complain because these Indians had been spared. … It was agreed to put the children to death. This was done by throwing them overboard and shooting out their brains in the water.” For their part, the whites could cite equally barbarous and (to them) unprovoked atrocities by the Indians.
The massacre dealt the colonists a terrible blow, but not terrible enough to drive them away. Soon they were inflicting massive retaliation on the Powhatans. One Virginian wrote that “now we have just cause to destroy them by all meanes possible,” adding, “it is more easie to civilize them by conquest then faire meanes.” The settlers and Indians continued their mutual butchery for a decade before agreeing to a shaky cease-fire in 1632. By that point, however, it was impossible for either side to trust the other. In April 1644 the Powhatans struck again, killing several hundred whites in another surprise attack. Two years later the Powhatans surrendered, but the bloody struggle between red and white would continue following the frontier west for another two and a half centuries.