The First Anglo-Powhatan War

1609–1614

The First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614) was fought between Jamestown and the Powhatan Confederacy in the area known to the Powhatans as Tsenacomoco and Virginia to the colonists. The war was a series of skirmishes that ended with the “Peace of Pocahontas.” It is considered to be the first Anglo-Indian War in North America and essentially ended in a draw.

Sir Thomas Dale, Painting

Sir Thomas Dale, Governor of Virginia. Image Source: Henricus Historical Park.

First Anglo-Powhatan War Summary

The First Anglo-Powhatan War took place from 1609 to 1614 in and around Jamestown, Virginia. It was fought between the English settlers living in Jamestown and the surrounding settlements and the Native American Indians of the Powhatan Confederacy, led by Chief Powhatan. The war was started over English encroachment into Tsenacomoco — the land of the Powhatans, along with misunderstandings created by cultural differences.

At first, the Powhatans, armed with bows and arrows and possessing superior knowledge of the land, held the advantage. However, the English sought retaliation and engaged in raids on native villages, burning homes and crops. The war involved raids, skirmishes, and kidnappings, but there were no major battles. 

The exact number of casualties remains unknown. Eventually, a political solution was reached when John Rolfe, a wealthy settler, married Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter, sealing a peace agreement. The treaty required Powhatan to release English captives, return runaways, and surrender tools and firearms that had been traded to the Indians, or stolen by the Indians.

Jamestown, Chief Powhatan, Illustration
This illustration depicts Chief Powhatan. Image Source: Captain John Smith by Tudor Jenks, 1904, Archive.org.

First Anglo-Powhatan War Facts

  1. The First Anglo-Powhatan War took place from 1609 to 1614.
  2. It was fought between English colonists living in Jamestown and other settlements in Virginia and the Powhatan Confederacy.
  3. After the English established Jamestown, they often pressured the Powhatans to trade food with them, sometimes through the use of force.
  4. In 1609, Chief Powhatan ordered his warriors to lay siege to Fort James, which contributed to the “Starving Time” in Jamestown.
  5. The colonists survived and more arrived in 1610.
  6. Colonial soldiers attacked Powhatan villages, burning buildings and crops.
  7. The Powhatans retaliated with raids and ambushes of their own.
  8. The English were able to subdue the Nansemonds and Kecoughtans, which reduced the power of the Powhatan Confederacy.
  9. In 1613, Captain Samuel Argall captured Chief Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas.
  10. Pocahontas eventually married John Rolfe, which created the “Peace of Pocahontas” and ended the war.

First Anglo-Powhatan War History

The First Anglo-Powhatan War started in 1609 and ended on April 5, 1614. It was the first conflict between English colonists in Jamestown and Native American Indians, who were part of the Powhatan Confederacy tribe. The primary cause of the war was the encroachment of Europeans into traditional Powhatan hunting grounds, provoking a violent response from the Powhatan people. Although peace was achieved in 1614 with the marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, the colonists continued to expand their territory, which led to more hostilities in 1622.

Jamestown, Trading with Indians, Painting, King
This illustration depicts the Jamestown colonists trading with Native American Indians. Image Source: National Park Service.

A Tense Relationship Between Jamestown and the Powhatan Confederacy

Jamestown was established in 1607 and from then until 1610, there was sporadic fighting between the colonists and the Powhatans. However, the leaders of both sides, primarily Captain John Smith and Chief Powhatan, tried to maintain somewhat peaceful relations with each other. Many accounts indicate Chief Powhatan believed the colonists would eventually abandon Jamestown and return to England. On the other side, the colonists were wary of trusting Chief Powhatan, because they believed he was behind the disappearance — and likely death — of the colonists on Roanoke Island.

At the center of the dispute was the difference in how the Indians and the English viewed land ownership. The Indians did not practice land ownership in the same way the English did. Instead, the Indians viewed the usage of the land as hunting grounds as possessing it, whereas the English viewed buildings, fences, and flags as indicating possession. 

Further complicating the situation was the fact the colonists were often focused on searching for gold and failed to successfully grow their own food. As a result, they relied on trade with the Indians for food. Unfortunately, when the colonists were unhappy with the amount of food that was offered, they often turned to using military force.

The First Anglo-Powhatan War Begins

Late in the summer of 1609, the President of Jamestown, Captain John Smith, sent foraging parties out into the wilderness. One group was led by George Percy and John Martin. The other was led by Francis West. Both groups traveled to Powhatan villages, and both meetings ended in violence.

Percy and Martin visited the Nansemond Indians. While they were there, some of their men disappeared. The Englishmen suspected foul play on the part of the Nansemonds and attacked the village. According to Percy, they “burned their howses, ransacked their Temples, Tooke downe the Corpses of their deade kings from their Toambes, and Caryed away their pearles Copper and braceletts, wherewith they doe decore their kings funeralles.” Of course, the Nansemonds retaliated and most of the men in the party were killed. The survivors limped back to Jamestown.

The group led by West went upriver to the Falls of the James River and visited Powhatan Village, the capital of the Powhatan Confederacy. West tried to use force to take corn from the Indians, but they resisted. Half of the men in West’s group were killed. Peace was restored when West agreed to leave 14-year-old Henry Spelman to live with Chief Powhatan’s brother, Parahunt.

Captain John Smith,Illustration
This illustration depicts Captain John Smith. Image Source: Captain John Smith by Tudor Jenks, 1904, Archive.org.

Chief Powhatan Warns Jamestown and Lays Siege to Fort James

By 1610, John Smith returned to England and Chief Powhatan came to understand the colonists were not leaving. Further, he saw their passion for expanding their plantations and acquiring more land. Chief Powhatan warned the colonists to limit their settlements to Jamestown, but the colonists ignored him. Eventually, he decided to wage war on Jamestown. It was a risky move, because the colonists had superior weapons, but the Indians were more familiar with the territory and terrain.

Smith’s replacement, John Ratcliffe, led an expedition to Orapakes to meet with Chief Powhatan and trade for food — at the invitation of Powhatan. However, Ratcliffe and his men were ambushed and 35 of the 50, including Ratcliffe, were killed. The survivors returned to Jamestown, empty-handed.

Chief Powhatan ordered the tribes in the Powhatan Confederacy to cut off trade with Jamestown and then laid siege to Fort James. Colonists who dared to venture outside of the safety of the fort’s walls were often killed. Chief Powhatan intended to starve the colonists to death, rather than fight them.

The Starving Time

George Percy replaced Ratcliffe and had Fort Algernon built at Point Comfort, where seafood — fish, oysters, and crab — were plentiful. However, Percy kept many of the colonists in Jamestown, where they suffered from starvation and disease over the winter, known as the “Starving Time.” By the next spring, there were only 60 colonists alive in Jamestown.

Deputy Governor George Percy, Virginia, Painting
George Percy. Image Source: Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

English Reinforcements Arrive

When Sir Thomas Gates arrived from Bermuda in May 1610, he decided to abandon Jamestown. However, as he left, a new Governor arrived, Thomas West, Lord De La Warr. West ordered Gates to stay and then put the colonists to work repairing and fortifying Jamestown and Fort James.

Despite the warning from Chief Powhatan to remain in Jamestown, Governor West decided to send an expedition up the James River to search for gold and silver. When the men reached an Appamattuck village, the Indians ambushed them and killed them. Jamestown retaliated with an attack on the Kecoughtan Indians near Point Comfort on July 9.

Raids, Skirmishes, and Ambushes

The Pasapehegh Indians attacked the blockhouse near Jamestown and West decided to retaliate. He organized an expedition to attack the Paspahegh Village. On August 9, 1610, George Percy led around 70 men in the attack. They killed some of the inhabitants and took the wife and children of the village chief, Wowinchopunck, as captives. After leaving the village, Percy and his men killed all of them. Then they proceeded to plunder and burn villages where the Warraskoyacks and Chickahominies lived. Whatever crops the Englishmen did not burn, they took and carried it back to Jamestown.

Wowinchopunck was furious and vowed to take his revenge and the conflict escalated, which led to his death in 1611. Powhatan warriors, led by Chief Powhatan’s brother, Opechancanough, retaliate by carrying out attacks on the colonists at Jamestown. The colonists responded with their own attacks, and the back-and-forth carried on for three years. 

In June 1611, the new Governor of Jamestown, Sir Thomas Dale, led an attack against the Nansemonds and destroyed their villages, which paved the way for the settlement of Henricus. As the war continued and the English gained more territory, they expanded and established more settlements.

No significant battles took place during the war, it was primarily a series of skirmishes, raids, and kidnappings, which was the typical fashion in which Euro-Indian wars were conducted in Colonial America.

The Kidnapping of Pocahontas

Throughout the war, Captain Samuel Argall explored the northern regions beyond Jamestown and was able to establish trade with the Patawomecks. In April 1613, Argall visited the Patawomeck village called Passapatanzy. 

He quickly learned that Chief Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, was visiting the village chief, Japazaws, and he devised a plan to kidnap the girl. He believed the colonists at Jamestown could use her as leverage in negotiations with Chief Powhatan.

Argall convinced Japazaws to bring Pocahontas to his ship, the Treasurer, where they dined and stayed overnight. Some accounts say Argall threatened Japasaws, others say Argall traded a copper kettle and small gifts for Pocahontas. Either way, when morning came, Argall would not allow her to return to the village.

This painting depicts Captain Argall (left) delivering Pocahontas to Jamestown. Image Source: Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

The Peace of Pocahontas

Pocahontas was kept at Henricus, where she was taught Christianity, and met John Rolfe, who famously introduced the sweet tobacco that became Jamestown’s cash crop. During that time, she also converted to Christianity.

In March 1614, Governor Dale and a contingent of around 150 soldiers, sailed to meet with Chief Powhatan and took Pocahontas with them. Some accounts say Chief Powhatan was not present, and Pocahontas announced she wanted to stay with the English. Dale and his expedition returned to Jamestown. On April 5, 1614, Rolfe and Pocahontas were married in Jamestown. The “Peace of Pocahontas” reduced tension between the Powhatan Confederacy and the Virginia Colony.

Jamestown, Wedding of Rolfe and Pocahontas, Illustration
The wedding of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

First Anglo-Powhatan War Significance

The First Anglo-Powhatan War is important to United States history because it was the first prolonged conflict between English colonists and Native American Indians. Over the course of the war, the colonists living in Jamestown destroyed villages of tribes in the Powhatan Confederation, claimed the land, and established new settlements, including Henricus.

The First Anglo-Powhatan War was followed by the Second Anglo-Powhatan War.

First Anglo-Powhatan War Video — From 1607 to the Indian Massacre of 1622

This video from Native American History explains the events that shaped the First Anglo-Powhatan War and led to the Second Anglo-Powhatan War.

Pictures of Jamestown During the Time of the First Anglo-Powhatan War

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The First Anglo-Powhatan War
  • Date 1609–1614
  • Author
  • Keywords First Anglo-Powhatan War, Jamestown, Powhatan Confederacy, Captain John Smith, Powhatan Confederacy, John Rolfe, Pocahontas, Peace of Pocahontas
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 11, 2024

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