I knew nothing about the significance of March 22, 1622 until I discovered Richard Parker in my family history. Parker is significant (to me) on two counts: first, he was an Englishman in a family tree that is almost entirely German; second, he might have been the very first of my white ancestors to come to America, in the early 1600s. Ah, the stories he could tell about his time in the Jamestown, Virginia area…
Though the ideal of an integrated society was encouraged by individuals on both sides, relations between colonists and natives (in the vicinity of Jamestown) had been uneasy. Colonists spent time in native villages. Natives spent time in the homes of colonists. Work had begun on a college for the training of indian youth. But everything changed in one day.
Massacre of the Settlers - engraving based on Theodore de Bry's depiction of 3/22/22
Chief Powhatan of the Pamunkey Indians had, for the most part, facilitated peace. Upon his death in 1618, Powhatan hostile brother Opechancanough took power and patiently plotted a coordinated attack against settlers along the James River near Jamestown.
In Captain John Smith’s History of Virginia, the author reported that braves of the Powhatan Confederacy "came unarmed into our houses with deer, turkeys, fish, fruits, and other provisions to sell us." At close range, the Powhatan grabbed any tools available and killed all English settlers they found, including men, women and children of all ages. Chief Opechancanough led a coordinated series of surprise attacks in the vicinity of Jamestown colony, killing 347 people, a quarter of the English population of Jamestown.
Writing almost 100 years after the massacre, Robert Beverley reported the events in this manner:
In the meantime, by the great increase of people and the long quiet they had enjoyed among the Indians since the marriage of Pocahontas and the accession of Opechancanough to the imperial crown, all men were lulled into a fatal security and became everywhere familiar with the Indians - eating, drinking, and sleeping amongst them, by which means they became perfectly acquainted with all our English strength and the use of our arms, knowing at all times when and where to find our people, whether at home or in the woods, in bodies or dispersed, in condition of defense or indefensible...
Thus upon the loss of one of their leading men (a war captain, as they call him) who was likewise supposed to be justly killed, Opechancanough took affront in revenge laid the plot of a general massacre of the English to be executed on the 22d March, 1622, a little before noon, at a time when our men were all at work abroad in their plantations, dispersed and unarmed. This hellish contrivance was to take effect upon all the several settlements at one and the same instant except on the Eastern Shore, whither this plot did not reach. The Indians had been made so familiar with the English as to borrow their boats and canoes to cross the rivers in, when they went to consult with their neigh-boring Indians upon this execrable conspiracy. And, to color their design the better, they brought presents of deer, turkeys, fish, and fruits to the English the evening before.
The very morning of the massacre they came freely and unarmed among them, eating with them and behaving themselves with the same freedom and friend-ship as formerly till the very minute they were to put their plot in execution. Then they fell to work all at once everywhere, knocking the English unawares on the head, some with their hatchets, which they call tomahawks, others with the hoes and axes of the English themselves, shooting at those who escaped the reach of their hands, sparing neither age nor sex but destroying man, woman, and child according to their cruel way of leaving none behind to bear resentment. But whatever was not done by surprise that day was left undone, and many that made early resistance escaped.
By the account taken of the Christians murdered that morning, they were found to be 347, most of them falling by their own instruments and working tools.
John Smith’s History of Virginia, published in 1624, described the massacre:
The Prologue to this Tragedy, is supposed was occasioned by Nemattanow, otherwise called Jack of the Feather, because he commonly was most strangely adorned with them; and for his courage and policy, was accounted amongst the Salvages their chief Captain, and immortal from any hurt could be done with him by the English. This Captain coming to one Morgan house, knowing he had many commodities that he desired, persuaded Morgan to go with him to Pamauke [chief town of the Pamunkey Indians] to truck, but the Salvage murdered him by the way; and after two or three days returned again to Morgan’s house, where he found two youths his Servants, who asked for their Master: Jack replied directly he was dead, the Boy suspecting as it was, by seeing him wear his Cap, would have had him to Master [George] Thorp: But Jack so moved their patience, they shot him, so he fell to the ground, put him in a Boat to have him before the Governor, then seven or eight miles from them. But by the way Jack finding the pangs of death upon him, desired of the Boys two things; the one was, that they would not make it known he was slain with a bullet; the other, to bury him amongst the English. At the loss of this Salvage Opechankanough much grieved and repined, with great threats of revenge; but the English returned him such terrible answers, that he cunningly dissembled his intent, with the greatest signs he could of love and peace, yet within foureteen days after he acted what followeth.
Sir Francis Wyat at his arrival was advertised, he found the Country settled in such a firm peace, as most men there thought sure and unvioable, not only in regard of their promises, but of a necessity. The poor weak Salvages being every way bettered by us, and safely sheltered and defended, whereby we might freely follow our business: and such was the conceit of this conceited peace, as that there was seldom or never a sword…most plantations were placed stragglingly and scatteringly, as a choice vein of rich ground inuired them, and further from neighbours the better. Their houses generally open to the Salvages, who were always friendly fed at their tables, and lodged in their bed-chambers, which made the way plain to effect their intents, and the conversion of the Salvages as they supposed.
Having occasion to send to Opechankanough about the middle of March, he used the Messenger well, and told him he held the peace so firm, the sky should fall or he dissolved it; yet such was the treachery of those people, when they had contrived our destruction, even but two days before the massacre, they guided our men with much kindness through the woods, and one Browne that lived among them to learn the language, they sent home to his Master; yea, they borrowed our Boats to transport themselves over the River, to consult on the devilish murder that ensued, and of the utter extirpation, which God of his mercy (by the means of one of themselves converted to Christianity) prevented, and as well on the Friday morning that fatal day, being the two and twentieth of March, as also in the evening before, as at other times they came unarmed into our houses, with Deer, Turkeys, Fish, Fruits, and other provisions to sell us, yea in some places sat down at breakfast with our people, whom immediately with their own tools they flew most barbarously, not sparing either age or sex, man woman or child, so sudden in their execution, that few or none discerned the weapon or blow that brought them to destruction: In which manner also they slew many of our people at several works in the fields, well knowing in what places and quarters each of our men were, in regard of their familiarity with us for the effecting that great master-piece of work their conversion; and by this means fell that fatal morning under the bloody and barbarous hands of that perfidious and inhumane people, three hundred forty seven men, women and children, most by their own weapons, and not being content with their lives, they fell again upon the dead bodies, making as well as they could a fresh murder, defacing, dragging, and mangling their dead carcasses into many pieces, and carrying some parts away in derision, with base and brutish triumph.
Neither yet did these beasts spare those amongst the rest well known unto them, from whom they had daily received many benefits, but spitefully also massacred them without any remorse or pity; being in this more fell than Lions and Dragons, as Histories record, which have preserved their Benefactors; such is the force of good deeds, though done to cruel beasts, to take humanity upon them, but these miscreants put on a more unnatural brutishness than beasts, as by those instances may appear….
One thing I cannot omit, that when this good Gentleman upon his fatal hour, was warned by his man, who perceiving some treachery intended by those hell-hounds, to look to himself, and withal ran away for fear he should be apprehended, and so saved his own life; yet his Master out of his good meaning was so void of suspicion and full of confidence, they had slain him, or he could or would believe they would hurt him. Captain Nathaniel Powell one of the first Planters, a valiant Soldier, and not any in the Country better known amongst them; yet such was the error of an over-conceited power and prosperity, and their simplicities, they not only slew him and his family, but butcher-like hagled their bodies, and cut off his head, to express their uttermost height of cruelty.
Another of the old company of Captain Smith, called Nathaniel Causie, being cruelly wounded, and the Salvages about him, with an axe did cleave one of their heads, whereby the rest fled and he escaped: for they hurt not any that did either fight or stand upon their guard. In one place where there was but two men that had warning of it, they defended the house against 60 or more that assaulted it. M Baldwin at Warraskoyak, his wife being so wounded, she lay for dead, yet by his oft discharging of his piece, saved her, his house, himself, & diverse others….
One more account, from A New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of Virginia, and the District of Columbia (1835):
Old Powhatan had died in 1618, honored by the esteem and respect of all who knew him, his own people, holding in grateful remembrance his prowess and policy in youth, and his mildness in age-and his English friends and brethren admiring his firm support of his dignity, his paternal affection, his mild simplicity, and his native intelligence. He was succeeded in his power by Opechancanough his younger brother, who was cunning, treacherous, revengeful and cruel. He renewed the former treaties, with every assurance of good faith, and wore the mask of peace and friendship so sucessfully as completely to lull the whites to security. But this crafty prince had always viewed with peculiar jealousy and hate the progress of the colony. He had given much trouble, and engaged in frequent hostilities, whilst he was king of Pamunkee, and it was not to be supposed that he would patiently submit to the continued and rapid encroachments of the whites upon his lands, to the entire extermination or banishment of his people, now that he possessed the empire of his brother. . But to meet them in the field was impossible, the disparity in arms was too great, and the numbers in fighting men now equal,” the attempt would be madness and desperation, and lead to that extermination of his race which he wished to avoid. His only resource was to strike some great and sudden blow which should annihilate the power of the colony at once.
He had applied to a king who resided on the Eastern Shore, to purchase a subtle poison f which grew only in his dominions, but this king being on good terms with the whites and wishing to enjoy their trade refused to gratify him. His next resource was in a general massacre, to take effect upon all of the scattered plantations on the same day. The situation of the whites favored this design, they not only placed confidence in the words of the savages which - had now been so long faithfully kept, but in their weakness and cowardice. They had extended their plantations over a space of one hundred and forty miles, on both sides of James river, and made some settlements in the neighborhood of the Potomac; in short wherever a rich spot invited to the cultivation of tobacco, there were they established, and an absence of neighbors was preferred. The planters were careless with their arms, never using their swords, and their firearms only for game. The old law making it criminal to teach a savage the use of arms was forgotten, and they were fowlers and hunters, for many of the planters, by which means they became well acquainted with the use of arms and the places in which they were kept. One great object with the settlers, and with the company, in whose instructions we find it perpetually enjoined, had been the conversion of the Indians to the christian-religion. To promote this pious object, they had always been received in the most friendly manner, they became market people to the planters, and they were fed at their tables, and lodged in their bed-chambers as friends and brothers.
Opechancanough had renewed the treaty with governor Wyatt, and took every other means in his power to avoid suspicion. He told a messenger about the middle of March, that the sky should fall ere he would violate the treaty of peace; only two days before the fatal 22nd, the English were guided in safety and kindness through the forest by the unsuspected Indians, and a Mr. Browne who had been sent to live among them to learn their language was sent safely to his friends,-nay, so well was the dread secret kept that the English boats were borrowed to transport the Indians over the river to consult on the “devilish murder that ensued,” and even on the day itself as well as on the evening before, they came as usual unarmed into the settlements with deer, turkies, fish, fruits and other provisions to sell. and in some places sat down to breakfast with the English. The concert and secrecy of this great plot is the more astonishing when we reflect that the savages were not living together as one nation, and did not have for most purposes, unity of action, but were dispersed in little hamlets containing from thirty to two hundred in a company; “yet they all had warning given them one from another in all their habitations, though far asunder, to meet at the day and hour appointed for the destruction March 22, 1622. of the English at their homes, some directed to one place, some to another, all to be done at the time appointed, which they did accordingly: some entering their houses under color of trading, so took their advantage; others drawing them abroad under fair pretenses, and the rest suddenly falling upon those that were at their labors.” They spared no age, sex, or condition, and were so sudden in their indiscriminate slaughter that few could discern the blow or weapon, which brought them to destruction.
Their familiarity with the whites led them with fatal precision to the points at which they were certain to be found, and that “fatal morning fell under the bloody and barbarous hands of that perfidious and inhuman people, three hundred and forty seven men, women and children. Not content with this destruction, they brutally defaced and mangled the dead bodies, as if they would perpetrate a new murder, and bore off the severed portions in fiendish triumph. Those who had treated them with especial kindness, and conferred many benefits upon them, who confided so much in them that to the last moment they could not believe mischief was intended, fared no better than the rest.
The ties of love and gratitude, the sacred rights of hospitality and reciprocal friendship, oaths, pledges and promises, and even the recent and solemn profession of fidelity to an all-merciful and omnipotent God, were broken asunder or forgotten in obedience to the command of their chief for the execution of a great but diabolical stroke of state policy. With one and only one of all who had been cherished by the whites, did gratitude for their kindness and fidelity to his new religion prevail over his allegiance to his king, and affection for his people. A converted Indian who resided with a Mr. Pace, and who was treated by him as a son, revealed the plot to him in the night of the 21st. Pace immediately secured his house and rowed himself up to Jamestown, where he disclosed it to the governor, by which means that place and all the neighboring plantations, to which intelligence could be conveyed, was saved from destruction; for the cowardly Indians when they saw the whites upon their guard immediately retreated.
Some other places were also preserved, by the undaunted courage of the occupants, who never failed to beat off their assailants, if they were not slain, before their suspicions were excited. By these means was Virginia preserved from total annihilation in a single hour, by this well conceived, well concealed, and well executed plot of her weak and simple adversaries. The larger portion of the colony was saved; for a year after the massacre it contained two thousand five hundred persons; but the consternation produced by it, caused the adoption of a ruinous policy. Instead of marching at once boldly to meet the adversary and driving him from the country, or reducing him to subjection by a bloody retaliation, the colonists were huddled together from their eighty plantations into eight, the college, manufactories and other works of public utility, were abandoned, and cultivation confined to a space almost too limited, merely for subsistence. These crowded quarters produced sickness, and some were so disheartened that they sailed for England.