Virginia Indians in Jamestown and Williamsburg

What happened to the Powhatan after the clash of cultures in the early 17th century? This is one of the things I came to Williamsburg to find out. I attended two programs in the Colonial Williamsburg historic area to learn more about the Virginia Indians and how they have managed to survive.

First, we return to 17th-century Jamestown. The indoor museum at the Jamestown Settlement does a great job of explaining and examining the lives of the Virginia Indians and what happened when the English arrived. Unfortunately, the museum doesn’t allow photography. This post will be long and cobbled together from the museum exhibits, blog and other sources.

In 2018 I saw a great exhibit on Pocahontas at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Not only did the exhibit share the true story, it also sought to examine the meaning of the story and how Pocahontas has become a cultural icon.

Disney memorabilia wall

The image of Pocahontas is deeply embedded in American culture. Here an exhibit of Disney movie memorabilia at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, shows just how popular Pocahontas has become over the last four centuries.

What we think we know about Pocahontas is all wrong. For starters, she was a little girl of about 12 when the incident with John Smith happened. Or did it? John Smith wrote about his rescue from death long after anyone who was around at the time could refute the story. Historians think the incident may not have happened or it was an elaborate Powhatan adoption ritual and John Smith was never in danger.

Pocahontas saves John Smith engraving

Captain Smith is saved by Pocahontas

However, Pocahontas may have visited the English fort with her father as a show of peace. Surviving documents show John Smith and Pocahontas spent time together learning each other’s languages.

In 1613, during the Anglo-Powhatan war, a sixteen-year-old Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English in order to ransom English prisoners held by Chief Powhatan. Pocahontas was also held for the ransom of tools and weapons stolen by the Powhatan Indians. Powhatan waited for three months after his daughter’s capture to return seven English prisoners and some stolen guns. Other demands were refused. Powhatan gave up his daughter to the English, forming a tenuous peace. Pocahontas stayed with the English and became a baptized Christian, taking the name Rebecca.

The Abduction of Pocahontas engraving

he Abduction of Pocahontas, copper engraving by Johann Theodore de Bry, 1618 Plate no. 7 in book ‘America’ (Part 10, translation of ‘A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia’ by Ralph Hamor)

Her marriage to the wealthy planter John Rolfe brought about peace and prosperity to Jamestown. As her husband, he became a member of her family. They were a 17th-century power couple representing a unification of cultures, temporarily at least. Rolfe’s strain of tobacco made the new colony rich and showed the investors back in England that the colony was successful. When Pocahontas traveled to London with her husband, she was introduced as the daughter of the Emperor of Virginia and put a face on the indigenous peoples of the New World. I’ll write more about this exhibit later, complete with pictures.

Pocahontas Portrait

Pocahontas, by Unknown , English School, after the 1616 engraving by Simon van de Passe (1595 ca.-1647), National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

By 1622, the Pohowtan and English were at war again. New immigrants seeking to make a fortune from tobacco settled too close to Indian territory for the comfort of Opitchapam and his brother (or close kinsman) Opechancanough.

Nearly a third of the English population was killed in the conflict. Over the next ten years, the English repeatedly attacked the Indian food supply. Following the end of the conflict in 1632, daily life for the Powhatan did not change very much.  There were still more Powhatan than English and their territory was larger above the James River. Their economy, religion, and political system did not change, however, the balance of power shifted towards the English. The English kept encroaching on Indian land with farms along both banks of the James River below the falls and across the Peninsula to the south side of the lower York River. By the end of the decade, the English population outstripped the Powhatan for the first time.

In 1644, relations with the English were once more strained. The English settlements had spread into Powhatan territory by this time. Powhatan’s half-brother, Opechancanough led an uprising against the colonists in April 1644. More than 400 colonists were killed in the attack. The English retaliated with raids destroying villages and cornfields. The Indians took to forests. In 1646 Opechancanough was captured and taken to Jamestown, where he was shot and killed. The remaining Powhatan people were defeated.

16th century drawing of an Indian warrior

a Chesapeake Bay warrior by John White 1585

In 1646 the Powhatan allied with the English to fight in the Battle of Bloody Run to fight off invaders from the Iroquois nation. The chief and 200 warriors were all killed. In 1646, Necotowance, Opechancanough’s successor, made a formal peace treaty with the Virginia government. Indians were now required to pay tribute, in skins, to the King’s representative in Virginia, the royal governor in Jamestown. The initial tribute consisted of 20 beaver skins (beaver being the most valuable fur) and 3 arrows from each of the signers and all signers agreed to a military alliance.

All the land north of the York River, north of the Pamunkey River to the Potomac was set aside as Indian land. Three mile bumpers between Indian land and English land separated the two cultures. A loophole in the treaty was one small creek. The English were allowed to settle north of the creek. Some of the settlers did so legally but others were squatters. The English settlers infringed on the Indians’ freedom to hunt, fish and farm.

17th Century Map of Virginia

Hondius, Hendrik, Cartographer. Nova Virginiae tabvla. [Amsterdam: ex officina Henrici Hondii, ?, 1642] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

In 1656, Cockacoeske, a female descendant of Powhatan and Opechancanough became wereowance of the Powhatan and governed for thirty years. A shrewd leader, she worked within the system of English law to try to regain some of the earlier dominance held by her people. She led her people through another conflict with the English. In 1675-1676 the Powhatan and the English went to war again, in a conflict known as Bacon’s Rebellion, after the hot-tempered young settler who ignored the governor and lead a group of volunteers to attack the Indians, reportedly in revenge. The rebellion soon spread throughout Tidewater Virginia and the Indians sustained heavy losses.

A Chief Lady of Pomeiooc

A Chief Lady of Pomeiooc by Theodore deBry

Warren Taylor is a citizen of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, and American Indian interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg shared the stories of his people into the 18th-century.

Weroance Cockacoeske fought for the rights of her people. On February 20, 1677, Cockacoeske petitioned the Virginia assembly for restoration of her belongings and the land she abandoned during Bacon’s Rebellion. While the assembly agreed to allow her to reclaim what she could prove was hers and return all else, the King’s Commissioners were more sympathetic, adding the Queen of Pamunkey’s name to their list of those who had suffered during Bacon’s Rebellion. They recommended that she be given a gift to compensate for her sufferings and the loss of her belongings. The King’s Commissioners were eager to have the Pamunkey on their side as allies against the more hostile western tribes. By Cockacoeske’s request, several outlying tribes were reunited under her authority.

The Treaty of Middle Plantation, signed on May 28, 1677, was an agreement between Charles II of England and representatives from various Virginia Indian tribes including the Nottoway, the Appomattoc, the Wayonaoake, the Nansemond, the Nanzatico, the Monacan, the Saponi, and the Meherrin. The signers became known as “tributary tribes.” The treat guaranteed them their homeland territories, hunting and fishing rights, the right to keep and bear arms, and other colonial protections as long as they maintained obedience and subjugation to the English Empire. Thus Middle Plantation, what is now Williamsburg, came a part of the United Kingdom much like Ireland and Scotland.


Peace treaty between Charles II and Indian Kings and Queens 29 May, 1677

Articles of Peace

England sent gifts to the chiefs and badges of authority to the chiefs. The Indians who lived there had to show a badge to get in or be shot. The Virginia Indians became equals under the law, able to appear in court. This allowed the two cultures to settle disputes without violence. The Pamunkey and other tribes were able to use the court system to try to hang on to their lands. They petitioned the governor, appeared before council and invoked the terms of the 1677 peace treaty.

It became increasingly difficult for the Powhatan to retain their traditional way of life on the reservation lands in Virginia. Some stayed, while others left the English part of Virginia and moved west, joining non-Powhatan tribes beyond English control. Others left the reservations and intermingled with the English, living together within small, isolated Indian communities.


Cockacoeske successfully renegotiated the treaty with Governor Spotswood. Instead of the tribute, each tribe would send three or more boys to the Indian school (now the College of William & Mary). Most tribes were in agreement. The Pamunkey sent four boys, the Chikahominay three, and the Delaware, Cherokee and other tribes all sent at least three. Western tribes had their own school. The purpose of the Indian school was to educate Indian boys on how to be “proper” Englishmen with a “proper” English education including converting them to Christianity so they may become missionaries to their people. The school was unlike later Indian schools because the boys were allowed to bring a male servant with whom they could speak their own language and maintain ties to their culture. The graduates returned home and to their roots. Some used their education to help promote the welfare of their people and others never returned home. By 1721 there were no students. When a dedicated building was constructed in 1723, attendance rates went up until 1775.

The charter for the school took lands from the Indians not included in the treaty. 20,000 acres of land were taken.

“Queen Ann”, Pamunkey chief and a successor to Cockacoeske, also worked to help her people. She firmly wanted the English settlers on Indian land removed and ownership of tribal lands be confirmed. When she realized beaver were nearly gone from the area due to over hunting and the Pamunkey could no longer afford their tribute, Queen Anne petitioned against using solely beaver skins as tribute. She also requested that young Indians working away from the reservations bee returned to their people and that strong liquor be kept out of Indian towns.

Over time there became less unclaimed land available for hunting and gathering. As Powhatan participation in the fur trade declined, other outside tribes took over the trade. Still, the Virginia Indians continued to fish in the spring and hunt waterfowl. Others became tenant farmers on English owned land. As their land dwindled, the Powhatan turned their attention to animal husbandry. Their method of dress changed as they adopted parts of English style dress. They bought European cloth on credit, thus getting into debt.

Virginia Indian Man in European Cloth outfit

Virginia Indian man wearing an outfit made from European cloth. Video presentation at the art museums of Colonial Williamsburg


The debt was paid using traditional arts to make “colonoware,” items such as chamber pots, dishes, and household objects that were used heavily. These ceramic items were cheap and expected to break. By 1676, there were regular markets set up by the Virginia government where Indians could sell items like clay pots, tobacco pipes and woven mats to the English.

The men went around to the English towns to sell rockfish, an English delicacy. Many other Indians combined their traditional economic activities with part-time work for the English in a variety of different jobs. The Virginia Indians then fell into debt again but were able to maintain their way of life. The Pamunkey and other tribes lived in longhouses with doors and windows through the 1770s.

The period of Indian autonomy grew to a close as the 18th-century went on. The English introduced laws in the 18th-century regarding native peoples. In 1705, the Acts of Assembly (“black codes”) banned Indians and people of color from holding civic or military office unless appointed by the queen. Nor could they take white person to court or testify against him. Tribes were not allowed leave Virginia or make treaty with foreign Indians without a Virginia representative present. The laws codified slavery including Indian enslavement for life. However, tributary Indians were still protected under English law for a time.

Warren Taylor mentioned how the murder of an Englishman in Fredericksburg, Virginia resulted in 40 Indian men hanging and many women and children sold into slavery. Following this incident, natives began to limit interactions with other people.

During the time frame represented by Williamsburg, the natives still came to town to sell. Some tribes disappeared or were blended into other tribes. Two 16-year-old Indian boys from the school enlisted in the Continental Army. Three tribes took the American side. Fourteen Pamunkey men were killed during the Revolution. Their widows received a pension. Robert Mursh, a Pamunkey Indian from King William County became a pastor after the Revolutionary war. More and more Indians became Christians; women took domestic jobs while men farmed. It was during this time that the Virginia Indians changed from a matrilineal society to patrilineal.

Virginia Indians managed to hold on to their culture and survive. They are here today to share their stories and culture with us. Two other men joined Mr. Taylor for Colonial Williamsburg’s Indian Delegation program. They shared some of the above information again as well as showed off objects important to native peoples in the 18th-century. They discussed how Virginia Indians participated in the Revolutionary War and patiently answered guests’ questions. It was too cold to take out my pencil and take notes but it was very interesting to learn more about the Virginia Indians and their daily lives during the time frame represented by Colonial Williamsburg.

Check out the following sources to learn more.



“John Rolfe,”

Townsend, Camilla.  “The True Story of Pocahontas,” Smithsonian Magazine,

Stebbina, Sarah J. “Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend.” Historic Jamestowne, 2010,

Apps, Kerry. “Alias, Rebecca,” Made by History, 5 May 2020,.

Ganteaume, Cécile R.  “Marking the 400th Anniversary of Pocahontas’ Death,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2017,

Davidson, Thomas E.  “What happened to the Powhatan culture by the end of the 17th century?” Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation,

Rice, James Douglas. “Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 30 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 May. 2020.

“How did the English Powhatan Wars End?”,

McCulley, Susan and Jen Loux. “Bacon’s Rebellion.” Historic Jamestowne, 1995,

McCartney, Martha. “Narrative History” in Colonial: A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century. Colonial National Historical Park, Dec. 2005,

McCartney, Martha and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. “Cockacoeske (d. by July 1, 1686).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. 20 May. 2020.

“Queen of the Pomonky,”

“The Indian School at William and Mary,”

“The Brafferton School,” American Indian Education in Virginia (exhibit), The Virginia Indian Archive,—indian-schools/the-brafferton-school

Deitrich, Tamara. “We used to be there”: The lost history and legacy of America’s Indian School.” Daily Press, 25 Dec. 2019,

Rountree, Helen C. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. “Ann (fl. 1706–1712).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. 20 May. 2020,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s