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Watercolor drawing "Indians Fishing" by John White (created 1585-86). The Algonquian along the Potomac had adapted to life in the Cheasapeake region, which filled with water after the last Ice Age.
Image courtesy of the Trustees of the London Museum

The first human colonizers of the Virginia Tidewater region were American Indians. Recent archeological discoveries by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources indicate that American Indians were in Virginia at least 16,000 years ago. Archeologists divide the period 16,000 to 2,500 B.C. into the Paleo and Archaic periods. During this time, the Indians in Virginia were hunter-gatherers, moving often, staying for short periods in campsites, and leaving little evidence of their presence.

The Sedentary Forager Period (2,500 B.C. to 900 A.D.) was noted for the settlements of small hamlets that appeared in the river valleys of Virginia, with remains of fired clay pottery and bows and arrows attesting to their presence. The people of the Late Middle Woodland Period (900-1300 A.D.) were thought to disperse into small camping groups while foraging, while Late Woodland Indians (1300-1500 A.D.) probably suffered more from diseases due to living in close proximity in larger towns then their ancestors.

Once they became sedentary, settlements of the late-Middle Woodland Period tended to be near the great rivers in Virginia, because the rich soil deposits were more conducive to farming. The rivers also provided a means of transportation, and dugout canoes were created to navigate the waterways. The Virginia Indians hunted the wild animals of the region; deer, turkey, ducks, geese and possum, and fished the waters. From the Woodland Period on, squash, beans and corn (thought to arrive from the South around 900 A.D.) were parts of their diet, but corn, due to its nitrogen depletion of the soil and weather conditions in Tidewater Virginia, was not cultivated to the exclusion of all else. Dogs are the only domestic animals whose remains have been found at some archeological sites.

Scene depicting an Algonquian village in the Carolinas.
Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan Exhibit Museum


The Powhatan people of Virginia, encountered by the English, were from the Algonquian family of American Indians. The Algonquian embraced a widespread linguistic settlement pattern that stretched from eastern Quebec and Point Britain in the north and west on the plains from Saskatchewan to Colorado, and south to the Carolinas. The region occupied by the Virginia Algonquians was roughly about 100 miles long from north to south, by 100 miles wide, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean, to the “fall line” of the major rivers, and from the lower Potomac River, to the James River and further south, in an area defined as the coastal, or Tidewater, plain. By the time of the English colonization of Jamestown, the greatest power in the Virginia Tidewater region was the Powhatan chiefdom or confederacy. The Powhatan were an Algonquian speaking tribe who held prominent status over other tribes in the region. The great chief of the Powhatan confederacy, or mamanatowick, roughly meaning “great king,” was Powhatan or Wahunsenacawh, well known as the father of Pocahontas.

Europeans arrived in the Tidewater region in the second half of the 16th century, with the Spanish leading the way. After a Jesuit settlement near the mouth the James River was destroyed by the Indians in 1571, the Spanish, after retaliating, did not attempt to colonize the region again. In the 1580s English ships began entering the Chesapeake Bay region. In 1590 A Briefe and True Report of The New Found Land of Virginia was published in an attempt to lure English colonists to the New World. Published by Thomas Harriot, with 28 engravings by Theodor de Bry, the Virginian Indians were described as “people clothed with loose mantles made of Deere skins & aprons of the same rounde about their middles; all els naked;” possessing “no edge tooles or weapons or yron or steele to offend us withall,” but having “throw weapons” and “onlie bowes made of Witch hazel, & arrowes of reeds; flat edged truncheons also of wood about a yard long.”


An engraving of a Virginia Chief by Theodor de Bry, based on an illustration by John White. de Bry Europeanized White's original drawings--White had seen the Algonquians in person on the Roanoke voyages promoted by Sir Walter Raleigh.
Engraving reproduced courtesy of the Library of Congress

The English founded Jamestown in 1607 and encountered the Powhatan confederacy, 30 tribes united by Chief Powhatan. Captain John Smith estimated that "within a radius of 60 miles of James Town there were about 5000 people but only 1500 able-bodied native warriors." In 1607 Powhatan captured John Smith, where legend has it he was saved by Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas. Some later historians argued that the rescue was a ritual or a ruse meant to impress the English Captain. Under Powhatan’s direction corn was supplied to the colonists at Jamestown, but later during the winter months this ceased as Powhatan sought to starve the English out. The English retaliated against the Powhatan by attacking those in the vicinity of Jamestown.

Powhatan sent his daughter, Pocahontas, as an ambassador to Jamestown to mediate between the two peoples. By all accounts, Pocahontas fell in love with John Rolfe, an English widower who introduced Caribbean tobacco (orioncio tobacco) into the colony, which was more palatable to the English then the native Virginia tobacco. Pocahontas wed Rolfe in 1614, and in 1616 they arrived in London, with expenses paid by the Virginia Company. They were the social highlight of the season, being introduced at court. Pocahontas died in 1617 in England, but her son by John Rolfe, Thomas, survived and had numerous descendants. The successful cultivation of the tobacco John Rolfe introduced to the colony led to large-scale farming in Virginia.

"Indians Dancing Around a Circle of Posts," a watercolor by John White, created 1585-86.
Image courtesy of the Trustees of the London Museum

By 1611, the Powhatan, alarmed by the building of English forts, made alliances with their traditional enemies in the west against the new colonizers. On March 22, 1622, the Powhatan attacked the English settlements along the James River, wiping out at least 10 percent of the population. The carnage was greatest at Martin’s Hundred, location of Carter’s Grove plantation today. The English colonists waited for reinforcements in manpower and weapons from their mother country. A 10-year war followed, which slowed English settlement but also weakened the Powhatan power. Powhatan abdicated his position in favor of his brother Opechancanough in 1614, wearying of the constant warfare and diseases that were beginning to decimate his people. He died in 1618.

In 1644 war resumed when the Powhatan attacked in force again, and the new Royal Governor, Sir William Berkeley had little time to settle in when the frontier erupted. Berkeley emerged victorious, although roughly 400 colonists were slain. By 1645 the English made their way up past the Powhatan town of Menmend on the Pamunkey River, and attacked Opechancanough’s fort. Chief Opechancanough was captured and later killed by one of his jailers, and his successor declared himself a loyal subject of the English king. By 1705, only a few Powhatan-descended communities remained, all of them living in reservations by treaty—the Pamunkeys, the Mattaponi, Chickahominies, the Wiccocomicos, the Nansemonds and the Gingaskins. Some young Powhatan men attended the College of William and Mary to learn the ways of the colonists, but were excluded from religious activities by the largely Anglican society. Later, it was the Baptists and Methodists who made inroads into the Powhatan communities, the Anglicans (save for an attempt under Governor Spotswood) did not make a great attempt to convert them. Although largely subsumed by the surrounding Anglo-American culture, the Powhatan also gave place names to the Potomac (formerly Pataomeck) and Appomattox rivers. By 2002, of seven state-recognized Powhatan descendant tribes, there were roughly 1,500 Powhatans living full- or part-time near their ancestral homes. Two reservations—the Mattaponi Reservation and the Pamunkey Reservation—still exist on ancient Powhatan land in Virginia. Today, the Chickahominy Tribe remains the sole surviving American Indian community along the James River.


Jamestown Fort was rediscovered by archeologists in 1994, who proved beyond a doubt that this was the site (it was earlier believed that the fort had fallen into the river). Remains of English artifacts, including armor were found.
Photos courtesy of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities

The English: The colonizers from England were undoubtedly of the mixed heritage of the British Isles, Anglo, Saxon, Jute and Danish blood mixed with Celtic, Welsh, Irish, and other British stock. Sir Walter Raleigh was the first Englishman to take an active interest in colonizing the New World, and in 1584 commissioned two captains to explore the American coast. The captains came back with positive reports about the area, but no royal money was found to fund colonization. In 1585 a colony under the command of Sir Richard Grenville established a small settlement near the present-day Virginia-North Carolina border, but these colonists left on one of Sir Francis Drake’s ships back to England. A second colonization effort, known as “the lost colony,” also failed when the colony was abandoned to an unknown fate in 1587. Despite these failures, Raleigh’s explorations brought back valuable information on Virginia.

In the early 17th century a group of London merchants formed the Virginia Company of London, and received a grant from the king to a charter to the lands between Cape Fear and the Hudson Bay. The Colony of Virginia was financed by them and founded by 108 English settlers who built Jamestown in 1607. A high mortality rate almost wiped out the attempt at colonization. John Rolfe (1585-1622), the husband of Pocahontas, cultivated the first tobacco crop in the colony. The demand for tobacco slowly increased in Virginia as smoking houses opened in England. Since the crop could be grown cheaply in the Chesapeake region, and Virginia tobacco was cheaper than Spanish tobacco, the cultivation of tobacco stimulated the economy of Virginia and increased immigration to the colony.

Illustration from Captain John Smith's John Smith,
The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles...(London: I.D. and I.H. for Edward
Blackmore, 1632). John Smith was not adverse to using propaganda, as in this depiction of battling a much larger Virginia native to showcase his heroism. Some historians believe he largely created the legend that Pocahontas saved his life.
Photos courtesy of Penn Library


The Virginia Company eventually eased its strict control over the colonists, when in financial trouble they granted to their governor in 1618 instructions dubbed by the colonists “the greate charter” which allowed the settlers to own their own land. Using land as a valuable commodity to attract people to their colony, the company granted each man in the colony 50 acres of land for each person they paid to come over from their mother country, or if the person would pay the transportation costs themselves, from England. This created private investment in Virginia, and also caused the settler population to grow from a few hundred in 1616 to 2,000 by 1620 with tobacco exports rising to 50,000 pounds that year. The Indian uprising of 1622 claimed roughly a thousand lives, and resulted in the Virginia Company declaring bankruptcy, with far reaching results for the colony. In 1624 royal control was established in the colony. Another item from the “greate charter” also had far reaching consequences—the Virginia Company allowed the creation of a general assembly of the colonists, giving them a voice in their own matters. The first representative body in America met at Jamestown in 1619, which was the beginning of the House of Burgesses. In 1639 the English king recognized that the House of Burgesses, elected by English freemen, was an established institution in the colonial government of Virginia. By 1640 11,000 English colonists lived in the Chesapeake Bay region and the export of tobacco surpassed one million pounds.

The cultivation of tobacco impacted the colonial society, as the crop exhausted the soil after a few planting seasons and more land was always in demand. Because of the large size of the family plantations and the continual search for new land to cultivate, towns were rare in Virginia. The plantations needed to be near waterways for transportation of their product, and Virginia became settled along the James, Rappahannock and Potomac rivers. The raising of tobacco required a workforce that was first supplied by indentured servants brought over from England who pledged themselves to work for a given number of years to cover their transportation to America. By the 1660s, African slaves began to replace indentured servants.


Reenactors depicting an African American family in Virginia at the time of the American Revolution.
Photos courtesy of www.virginia.org

African Arrival: The English, finding the local Powhatan Indians resistant to the intensive agriculture labor they desired, turned to African slaves to supplement their labor. In 1619, a Dutch ship brought the first African Americans to Virginia. They were placed on tobacco plantations. Originally, the Africans were treated like indentured servants from England, who would be free of their service to their owners after a set period of years. Historically, the English only enslaved non-Christians, and not, in particular, Africans. A slave could become free by converting to Christianity.

The Africans brought to the American colonies came from West Africa and Madagascar (an island off southeast Africa), and originated in village societies, or the centralized kingdoms of Mali, Ghana and Songhai. African dialects and grammatical patterns became part of American English. “Okra” is an Akan word while “gumbo” is a Bantu synonym, and the word “jazz” derives from a West African term. Overall, the Atlantic slave trade was estimated to have removed anywhere from 9.6 million to an estimated 15.4 million Africans from West and Central Africa, representing the largest forced migration of people in history. The majority of these people made their way to Latin America or the Caribbean, only a small percentage, overall, came to the English North American colonies.

Osman, a runaway slave in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp, illustrated for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1856.The Great Dismal Swamp was a hiding places for escaped slaves.
Illustration courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


During the 1620s and 1630s, when job opportunities were scarce in the British Isles and tobacco commanded a high price, Virginia acquired its labor from England. After 1660 the Great Plague reduced England’s population, the price of tobacco fell, and the great fire which swept through London destroyed much of the capital city, which created an intense demand for labor in the home country. Since the labor supply from England fell, Virginians began acquiring African labor, following the pattern established by the Spanish and Portuguese more than a century before. Slowly the number of Africans grew in Virginia. In 1625 there were only 23. In 1650 there were about 300. Tobacco became the cash crop of the Virginia aristocracy and as the need for workers in the tobacco fields grew, the condition of permanent slavery was gradually introduced into Virginia and other English colonies. Maryland in 1640 began to institutionalize slavery and Massachusetts recognized slavery as a legal institution in 1641. By 1663, a Virginia court decided that the child of a slave was born into slavery. It was in the administration of Sir William Gooch (1727-1749) that the General Assembly passed a law denying the vote to free Africans, and excluded them from jury duty or testifying as witnesses. In 1705, the General Assembly declared all those not born into Christianity in their native lands, be they African, American Indian or mulatto, slaves. By 1700, (at which point their were an estimated 60,000 slaves in Virginia) more than a thousand Africans were being brought into the colony every year. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the free population of Virginia was 1,105,453 with 490,865 enslaved people.

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