Opechancanough c. 1545–c. 1646

In order to understand the impact of Opechancanough’s rise to power, one must first have an understanding of the relationship that existed between the native peoples and the colonists in the early Virginia colony. When Powhatan decided to retire, he assigned the leadership role of the Algonquin to Opechancanough, his brother. Powhatan’s timing was most prudent, since he made this decision as the Virginia colonists were succeeding in the cultivation of the only crop that they were willing to work at tobacco. Powhatan’s confederacy took on a different demeanor, which strained the already tenuous interaction between the colonists and the natives. Their contacts began as a broad exchange of information and trade, but they were always marked by tension. The colonists had arrived in the New World with the attitude that they were special, and they fully expected friendliness and help from the native population.

The early Virginia colonists depended heavily on Native American support as they struggled to establish themselves and become acclimated to a new world. What the colonists did not realize was that they had begun to settle in the middle of one of the most powerful Native American tribes on the continent the Powhatan, a confederacy of Algonquin tribes.

The first years at Jamestown were brutal for the English, even though the natives had taught them how to cultivate food crops as well as medicinal herbs. With disease and starvation running rampant in the colony, limiting the number of those able and willing to work the fields, the colonists were forced to depend heavily on the Powhatan. The English demanded food from them food that the Powhatan knew the colonists could easily have grown themselves, had they not been preoccupied with the constant search for riches with as little labor as possible. This pressure forced the Native Americans both to produce food for themselves and to try to meet the demands of the colonists. Resentment grew as this reliance became expectancy; this, in turn, provided the fuel not only to ignite the anger of the natives as a group but also to damage the previously amicable relationship between John Smith and Powhatan. This animosity made Jamestown a dangerous place for both Native Americans and English.

In 1613, the English unwisely captured Pocahontas, Powhatan’s favorite daughter, and brought her back to Jamestown as a captive. In a short period of time, John Rolfe, a most influential colonist, fell in love with her and asked the English authorities and her father for permission to marry her. Both the authorities and Powhatan reluctantly agreed, and the first Anglo-Native American marriage in Virginia’s history took place. This union of two people would not be enough to unify the natives and the colonists. Still, cultural interaction continued and was facilitated by native people living among the English as day laborers. This exchange worked both ways, as settlers, in turn, fled to outlying Native American villages, seeking to escape autocratic English rule and the demands of tobacco planters.

Opechancanough’s rule saw a new period of increased violence, as the tobacco planters demanded more and more land to cultivate their crop. A growing population placed more pressure on the Native Americans, as more and more people moved up the Chesapeake, pushing the natives off the land they had held under Powhatan’s rule. The newcomers also introduced diseases that the native people were ill equipped to cope with, thus decimating their population. Opechancanough quickly realized that he would have to employ a different strategy in order to save his people. Opechancanough now embarked on a program of aggression and spiritual renewal within his tribe. He depended heavily on Nemattanew, a war captain and religious prophet, who also provided a humorous interlude for the English, as he dressed up with feathers as though he fully intended to fly. Nemattanew proved dangerous to some of his people, as he managed to convince them that he was immortal and, if they rubbed their bodies with a special ointment, they would be immune to musket fire.

March 1622 saw Opechancanough preparing for a unified attack on the Virginia settlements. Plans were accelerated as the English, in retribution for a settler’s death, murdered Nemattanew; his murder was the trigger that set off the combustible atmosphere that came from years of white expansion and pressure on native hunting lands. Two weeks later, the famous Native American assault took place and dealt the colony a staggering blow. One of the casualties was John Rolfe, and his death proved the final blow for the Virginia Company of London, which declared bankruptcy and turned over control of the colony to the English Crown. By 1640, Virginia had grown to over 8,000 residents. The colony continued to grow, and, by 1662, the population had swelled to 25,000. This force had the ability to reduce the Native American population to numbers that would no longer be considered dangerous to the Virginia colonists and the everincreasing number of people desiring Virginia as their new home. Penny M. Sonnenburg See also: Jamestown; Native American-European Conflict; Native American-European Relations; Native Americans; Powhatan; Powhatan Confederacy. Bibliography Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1972. Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1975.

Opechancanough c. 1545–c. 1646 Photo Gallery



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