Helen C. Rountree: Jamestown, from the Powhatan's perspective





[Rountree, an anthropologist, is the author of Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown.]

The view of the people who met the ships was very different from that of the newcomers aboard them--and that of most historical writings since. The native people (collectively called the Powhatan) did not write it because their society was nonliterate, but it can be reconstructed from their actions, recorded by the English. The task is not an easy one, for the new arrivals had blinkers on. The "Strangers," as the Powhatan called them, assumed that their lies about being mere visitors driven into Chesapeake Bay by the Spanish were taken seriously by credulous native people lacking experience with Europeans. That belief led all of them, including the usually canny John Smith, to underestimate the people they intended to colonize.

Most long-held historic narratives have the Jamestown colony threatening the Powhatan from the outset, making them unremittingly hostile in turn, but that was not the case. The Powhatan hoped to make the Strangers into allies, and even absorb them, not realizing until too late that the English intended to do the same to them. Chief Powhatan's people knew they had numerous advantages over the foreigners in the first few years after 1607. First and foremost, the native people outnumbered them by more than 500 to 1 in the colony's first two years. Not until the 1620s would the numbers be even. Part of this imbalance was due to the fact that there were local bugs, now unidentifiable, to which the local people had immunity but Europeans did not. The locals had long since learned to drink springwater rather than river water to stay healthy. The newcomers didn't look for springs and didn't bother to dig a well until early in 1609 and instead drank James River water, which was both brackish and polluted. Most important, in the colony's early years, which were especially dry, the Powhatan knew how to live directly off the land and waterways as expert foragers.

The Powhatan had multiple military advantages over their guests too. European firearms had serious drawbacks in anything other than open-field fighting. Muskets were so heavy that they had to be set on a tripod before they were aimed. Guns of all sizes, including pistols, were muzzle-loaded, which meant that for every shot an Englishman took, a Powhatan man could loose off five arrows with deadly accuracy while darting from tree to tree for cover.

But five years after the settlers arrived, the weaknesses of the Powhatan started to show. For one thing, after 1610, Chief Powhatan began to feel his age. He became less decisive and more wishful for peace in his last years (he died in 1618). Meanwhile, the English population advantage back home began to take effect after 1610, when a reorganized Jamestown colony with better supply lines began to establish satellite settlements on Powhatan farmland. The squatters, as the Powhatan saw them, became so numerous that they could not be repelled. Even all-out war, which raged twice, did not stanch the flow of invaders....




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