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A War by Any Other Name



When the English landed at Jamestown, Virginia was in the middle of a seven-year drought and the worst dry spell in 770 years.[1] The Indians cautiously sussed out the newcomers, helping them a little, while also testing them militarily. Eventually, though, competition over a limited food supply led to war.


Or did it?


The answer to that question—a war or not a war?—goes beyond mere semantics. It is at the heart of how historians understand this crucial moment and how educators help, or sometimes fail to help, students make sense of history.


First, though: the "war."

Nova Virginiae Tabula

Henricus Hondius (1630)


It's true, there were raids and battles. Late in the summer of 1609, for instance, an English attempt to negotiate for Nansemond land resulted in the deaths of two English messengers and the destruction of a Nansemond town—with houses ransacked, temples destroyed, and corpses defiled.[2] A few months later, the Indians retaliated with an ambush that killed about thirty-three colonists, including the horrifying death-by-torture of Captain John Ratcliffe.[3]


That winter the Indians made it nearly impossible for the English to safely leave their fort at Jamestown—what at least one historian has described as a classic military siege[4]—which prevented the settlers from hunting or raiding Indian fields for food. This led to the famous Starving Time, during which about three-quarters of the English population died.


The colony managed to survive, but barely. The next summer, "desyreous for to be Revendged," in the words of George Percy, the English unleashed a series of brutal attacks that included the killing of a chief's wife and children.[5] More of the same followed over the next several years. Employing tactics perfected in the Irish wars, the English engaged in deception, random slaughter, the killing of women and children, and the destruction of whole towns.[6] They even invoked martial law at Jamestown.[7]


Then, with the help of an Indian leader, the English captured Pocahontas.[8] Using her as leverage, they sailed 150 soldiers—with their prisoner plainly in view—up the York River, deep into Indian-held territory. Stopping near present-day West Point, Virginia, they confronted several hundred Pamunkey warriors in what must have been a highly dramatic scene.


Except that no one on either side fired a shot.[9]




Copper engraving

by Johann Theodore de Bry, 1618


A few weeks later, Pocahontas received permission from her father, the paramount chief Powhatan, to marry John Rolfe, and just like that, the war ended.


If we want to call it a war, that is.


Many scholars have been reticent about using that word. Some, like the anthropologist Frederic W. Gleach, have argued that, for the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Virginia, the concept of war involved something else entirely. They had traditionally engaged in low-level conflict that was nearly constant; it did not begin or end as clearly as European wars did. To call this Anglo-Indian fighting a war, in other words, would be to understand it only from a European perspective.[10]


Other scholars, though, have argued that it doesn't quite make sense from that perspective, either. They have long noted, with Nancy Oestreich Lurie, that "armed clashes occurred frequently, but there were not organized hostilities."[11]


Where are the armies? Where is the coordination and the long-term strategy? these historians have wondered.


J. Frederick Fausz was the first to dub the period of fighting that lasted from 1609 until 1614 the First Anglo-Powhatan War. That was back in 1977 and then again, in more detail, in 1990.[12] Over the next several decades historians slowly warmed up to his conclusion that, with attacks, counterattacks, a siege, and prisoners, this must have been a war. Besides, Fausz pointed out, the English themselves called it a "warre."[13]


Such a debate matters because labeling this fighting a war, and giving that war a beginning and an end, helps historians to make sense of why, for example, so many English men and women died during the Starving Time. Or why the marriage of Pocahontas constituted a shrewd diplomatic move for both sides. And yet, even as the terminology has found its way into classrooms, the meaning of the First Anglo-Powhatan War has been more difficult to grasp.


Mention of the war, for instance, appears in the widely used history textbook The American Pageant.[14] Something crucial is missing, though. While the textbook's authors note when the war ended, they neglect to say when it began. Was it in the autumn of 1609, as Fausz has argued? Apparently not, as the book describes this as a time marked by "a shaky peace" during which Pocahontas helped "to provide needed foodstuffs" for the English.


The very next sentence, however, describes the onset of the Starving Time. One might be inclined to ask why the English were forced to subsist, as George Percy reported, on "doggs Catts Ratts and myce" when Pocahontas was helping to provide them with food.[15] The textbook does not, and perhaps cannot, say.


The authors go on to describe the so-called Irish tactics used by the English, but there is no suggestion that such violence was ever either provoked or reciprocated during the First Anglo-Powhatan War. Instead, the Indians are rendered passive. Fausz has speculated that many scholars are squeamish about Indian violence lest they fall into stereotypes of the Indian as "savage."[16] And yet the only time the Indians act in this section of American Pageant—they "struck back in 1622," to begin the Second Anglo-Powhatan War—it is in the context of an attack that for hundreds of years has been described by historians and the general public only as a "massacre."[17]


Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOL), developed by the state Department of Education to guide social studies curriculum, fall into another trap. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid both the stereotype of the Indian as a savage and the Indian as a passive actor, the SOLs fail to mention any war or violence at all. In the standards for fourth-grade Virginia Studies, for instance, teachers are instructed to emphasize "the interactions between the English settlers and the native peoples, including the contributions of Powhatan to the survival of the settlers."[18]


This has led to incoherence, such as what can be found in Our Virginia: Past and Present, a fourth-grade textbook that follows the SOLs closely. On page 55, the author Joy Masoff describes Pocahontas as having "bridged the Indian and English worlds, serving as a contact when the Indians brought food to the starving settlers." And yet one page later, the settlers are reduced to eating their horses and dogs, their belts and boots.




Without violence, without war, Masoff is helpless to explain. She writes that "in their excitement to do well, [the English] failed to stow away enough food for their own needs." But even a fourth-grader ought to be smart enough to wonder, What in the world happened to Pocahontas? Later, when Pocahontas is married, Masoff writes that "an uneasy peace settled over Virginia"—without having once suggested there had been anything but peace![19]


One need not fully adopt Fausz's insistence on  the word "war" to understand that the discussion is important. It helps historians to better understand relations between the Indians and the English at Jamestown. And it helps teachers make sense for their students of a confusing but critical time in American history.



First Published 6/30/2015



[1]  D. W. Stahle, et al., "The Lost Colony and Jamestown Droughts," Science, 280/5363 (April 24, 1998): 564–567.


[2]  George Percy, "A Trewe Relacyon," in Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America, James Horn, ed. (New York: Library of America, 2007), 1095–1097.


[3]  Henry Spelman, "Relation of Virginea," in Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America, James Horn, ed.,  (New York: Library of America, 2007), 967–969.


[4]  J. Frederick Fausz, "An 'Abundance of Blood Shed on Both Sides': England's First Indian War, 1609–1614," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 98/1 (January 1990): 26.


[5]  Horn, ed., 1103.


[6]  Fausz, 33.


[7]  William Strachey, comp., For the Colony in Virginea Britannia. Lawes Divine, Marall and Martiall, &c. (London: printed for Walter Burre, 1612).


[8]  "A Letter of Sir Samuell Argoll touching his Voyage to Virginia, and Actions there: Written to Master Nicholas Hawes. June 1613," in Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes, Samuel Purchas, ed. (Glasgow: James McLehose and Sons, 1906), 19:90–94.


[9]  Ralph Hamor, A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1957; reprint of London edition, 1615), 6–9.


[10]  Frederic W. Gleach, Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 5.


[11]  Nancy Oestreich Lurie, "Indian Cultural Adjustment to European Civilization," in  Seventeenth-Century America: Essays in Colonial History, James Morton Smith, ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 48. Quoted in Fausz (1990), 5.


[12]  Fausz, The Powhatan Uprising of 1622: A Historical Study of Ethnocentrism and Historical Conflict. PhD dissertation, College of William and Mary, 1977. Cited in Gleach, 5.


[13]  "A Breife Declaration of the Plantation of Virginia duringe the first Twelve Yeares, when Sir Thomas Smith was Governor of the Companie, & downe to this present tyme. By the Ancient Planters nowe remaining alive in Virginia," in  Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia 1619–1658/59, H. R. McIlwaine, ed. (Richmond, 1915), 32. Quoted in Fausz (1990), 3.


[14]  David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, Thomas A. Bailey, The American Pageant. Volume I: To 1877 14th edition (Boston: Wadsworth, 2010), 32.


[15]  Horn, ed., 1099.


[16]  Fausz (1990), 5.


[17]  Kennedy, et al., 32. Until very recently one of Virginia's most popular textbooks, Virginia: History, Government, Geography, by Frances Butler Simkins, Spotswood Hunnicutt Jones, and Sidman F. Poole (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964), describes "the Great Massacre" as a "plot" by Indians as "clever" as they were "treacherous" (97).


[18]  Virginia Department of Education, History and Social Science Standards of Learning: Curriculum Framework 2008: Virginia Studies. The SOLs are in the process of being revised.


[19]  Joy Masoff, Our Virginia: Past and Present 2nd edition (West Palm Beach, Florida: Five Ponds Press, 2011), 55–57. For more, see Brendan Wolfe in "New problems found in 4th-grade Virginia history textbook," by Valerie Strauss, The Answer Sheet, Washington Post Online, January 19, 2012.

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Obscure Histories 1/1 (June 2015).


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1622 Jamestown Massacre 

1628 woodcut by Matthaeus Merian






Knowledge of the terrain important when trying to survive in the early Colonial period, especially knowing the boundaries of a new and potentially dangerous environment, the Americas. Carographers skirted the coasts and relied on sextants, the stars, and other navigation equipment to accurately trace the coasts of an unknown territory. Of particular importance to early ships was knowing exactly what time it was. This was known as the "longitude problem" and there was a prize at stake for solving it. John Harrison was eventually declared the winner. Because Longitude was calculated with the assistance of observations from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, time is now standardized based on the "Greenwich Mean." 


Coastal boundaries were important, but surveying the interior for "claim" minded individuals hoping for their own piece of land was of the upmost importance. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were early surveyors, which was a very profitable skill in the New World. 




The Map that Named America, Library of Congress


Map Making in Colonial America

Colonial Williamsburg


Newberry Library Colonial Map Collection


Library of Virginia Mapping Exhibit


Library of Congress: George Washington, Surveyor


Colonial Williamsburg, Surveyor to the King


Reproductions of Antique Surveying Equipment


Smithsonian Mag: Naming of America

History of Surveying

Bureau of Land Management

The Longitude Problem

Simon Schaffer,

Cambridge University

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