It’s the morning of March 22nd, 1622, in the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia.
Inside a house in town, a woman named Jane Dickenson comforts her crying child. She touches the baby’s forehead. The child has a burning fever. Jane looks imploringly at her husband, Thomas, her eyes sparkling with worry.
Disease has ravaged this Virginia colony. So far, Thomas and his family have remained healthy, saved only by the grace of God. But as he watches his wife soothe their sick child, Thomas fears that God has abandoned them, too.
Thomas and his wife aren't expecting guests. The village knows their tribe is sick.
And when Thomas answers, there’s a Native American man from the Powhatan tribe standing in the doorway. Thomas knows this man well, he’s been teaching him about the gospel in preparation for his conversion to Christianity. Thomas nods and invites him inside. But Thomas' smile fades when he realizes the man isn’t alone.
Two more Natives follow him in. Thomas apologizes. He says he doesn’t have much food to offer. But there’s something in the faces of these three visitors – something dark and unfamiliar – that tells Thomas that they haven’t come for food.
Thomas jumps when he hears shouts coming from outside.
Without a word, the three Natives remove razor-sharp hatchets from their deerskin belts. Thomas backs away, his hands raised in protest. But the Natives move quickly and strike him down.
Jane stares at her bludgeoned husband, paralyzed with fear. When one of the Natives pries her baby out of her arms, Jane starts to scream.
But another of the Natives covers her mouth and drags her toward the door, away from her crying child. She will not see it again.
During the Jamestown Massacre, as this violent episode will come to be known, more than three hundred colonists are killed or captured by Powhatan Indians. Jane Dickerson survives. But her husband and child are not so lucky. This bloody affair is the culmination of years of growing hostility between English settlers and the indigenous tribes of Virginia. The chief of the Powhatans hoped the attack would persuade the surviving colonists to leave Virginia for good. But in the wake of the violence, the settlers do not flee. Instead, they seek reinforcements, return, driving out the Powhatan Indians and beginning a centuries-long campaign of conflict and native expulsion, first justified when the Jamestown Massacre occurred on March 22nd, 1622.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 22nd: The Jamestown Massacre.
Act One: Starving Time
It’s April 26th, 1607, fifteen years before the Jamestown Massacre.
Three ships enter the mouth of a wide river and sail upstream through a swamp of cypress trees and hanging moss. Eventually, the ships come to an island large enough to inhabit, with ground suitable for crop cultivation and construction.
The men on board disembark and look around at this New World.
Four months ago, these ships set sail from England, carrying about one hundred representatives of a trading firm called the Virginia Company of London. The Virginia Company had received a royal charter from King James I to establish a settlement in North America, and colonize the continent for profit.
Now, after four months at sea, the colonists have arrived here in Virginia. They name the island Jamestown, in honor of their King.
The Virginia Company has selected a governing council to oversee the construction of the settlement. Among them is a young man in his twenties, a dashing adventurer and soldier, named Captain John Smith.
Soon, Smith and the rest of the colonists get to work, building fortifications and making exploratory forays into the surrounding country. But it quickly becomes clear to the settlers that this strange land is far from welcoming.
Food is scarce and starvation threatens. There’s little clean water, forcing the colonists to drink from the stagnant swamp. Before long, dysentery and typhoid break out, and by September, more than sixty of the original one hundred colonists are dead – struck down by famine or disease.
But it’s not just the landscape that is hostile.
Despite what the colonists believe, Jamestown was not constructed on untouched soil. The region is well-known to the indigenous people whose ancestors have lived in Virginia for thousands of years. They call it Tsenacommacah, and by the time the English settlers arrive, the region is inhabited by six different tribes, grouped under one confederacy and ruled by one leader: Chief Powhatan.
Chief Powhatan and his people consider Tsenacommacah their ancestral home – entrusted to them by the gods Ahone and Okee. But now this sacred land has been occupied by English settlers and their churches and tobacco fields. Unsurprisingly, the Natives treat the colonists with suspicion, and on occasion, with violence.
For the colonists, the situation is becoming desperate. Winter is fast approaching, bringing freezing, unbearable conditions. Faced with the prospect of starvation, the colonists begin making dangerous expeditions into Powhatan territory, hunting for food on Native land. One such expedition will bring relations with the Indians to a dramatic climax.
It’s December 1607.
Captain John Smith is seeking food up the Chickahominy River when he spots something moving through the trees. A moment later, several Powhatan warriors emerge from the shadows, their faces streaked with red war paint, their bows raised and arrowheads glinting.
The Indians lead Smith to the main Powhatan settlement. The Englishman is marched through camp and presented to Chief Powhatan, who regards Smith with stony displeasure.
Chief Powhatan decrees that the white man should be clubbed to death. That night, Smith is paraded before assembly of Powhatan elders, before his head is lowered onto a ceremonial block. A warrior steps forward, armed with a wooden club.
Smith grits his teeth waiting for his demise. But then – he hears the sound of a child’s voice.
A young Native girl pleads with Chief Powhatan, urging him to spare the Englishman’s life. To Smith’s relief, the Chief’s aged face begins to soften. He listens to the girl and decides to release the captive.
Smith and Chief Powhatan negotiate a truce, and over time, a mutual respect develops between the two men. Smith is even welcomed as an honorary member of the Powhatan tribe. As for the girl who saved his life, she is Chief Powhatan’s eleven-year-old daughter, Pocahontas.
This is the story that Smith relays to his fellow colonists when he returns. The accuracy of the event is disputed by Historians. But whether or not Pocahontas saved Smith from execution, what is undeniable is that colonist-native relations improved immeasurably after Smith's release.
And upon his return to Jamestown, he is elected Governor of the colonial council. Under his stewardship, the fortunes of the colony improve. A period of peace begins, with trade and diplomacy flourishing between the colonists and the Natives.
But it won’t last.
By 1609, relations with the Natives are beginning to fracture. Food shortages have led the colonists to steal land and provisions from Indian villages. The situation isn’t improved when an accidental injury forces John Smith to return to England to recuperate in October of 1609.
With Smith gone, relations between the colonists and natives further deteriorate. In retaliation for the theft of their land, food, and supplies, the Natives begin launching raids on Jamestown – burning crops and destroying food supplies. This leads to a terrible famine, known as the “Starving Time.”
During the winter of 1609, Over 80% of the colony’s inhabitants will perish, either by famine or at the hands of marauding Natives. But for the surviving colonists, help is on the way. John Smith’s replacement as governor is en route from England, bringing with him 150 soldiers – and a determination to meet Native aggression with swift, brutal reprisals.
Act Two: Peace of Pocahontas
It’s May 1610, just under a year since John Smith left Jamestown.
A few miles off the coast of Virginia, a fleet of ships looms through the humid haze. On board are 150 English soldiers and their commander, an aristocrat named Thomas West, Lord de la Warr. West and his soldiers have been sent by the Virginia Company of London to take charge in Jamestown.
West is known to be tough and ruthless, and upon his arrival in Virginia, he institutes a policy of no compromise towards the Natives. He sanctions the theft of Native land and strengthens the military defense of Jamestown’s battlements.
For Chief Powhatan – the leader of the confederacy of the Native tribes – these new measures amount to a declaration of war. The Chief sends his braves to attack Jamestown, but the Natives are easily repelled by the English artillery.
West goes on the attack, beginning a campaign of conquest against the Indian tribes. He deploys his soldiers up the James River to drive Natives from their settlements. Entire villages are razed to the ground by the English; Native women and children are slaughtered indiscriminately; food and tools are seized and taken back to Jamestown.
Chief Powhatan responds in kind. He orders counter-raids on the English settlements, killing countless settlers. His warriors know this land better than the English and are practiced in the art of guerrilla warfare. Despite fighting with arrows against the colonists’ muskets and cannons, the Indians are able to match the English stride for stride.
It seems neither West nor Chief Powhatan are willing to back down. But in 1613, the English will gain a crucial advantage, when they take an important person hostage: the Chief’s own daughter, Pocahontas.
It’s April 13th, 1613.
The war between the English and Powhatan has been raging for three years.
English envoys have come to an Indian settlement on the banks of the Potomac River, to negotiate a trade agreement with the Patawomeck Indians who live here. Among the English envoys is Sir Samuel Argall.
Argall recently replaced Thomas West, or Lord de la Warr, as governor of the Jamestown colony. Unlike his predecessor, Argall wants peace with the Natives, and he’s prepared to achieve such a peace by whatever means necessary.
Soon, Argall learns from the elders that Chief Powhatan’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Pocahontas, is staying in the village. So the Englishman invites Pocahontas for a tour of his ship. But once she’s on board, armed soldiers surround her and lock her below deck.
The kidnapping of Pocahontas heralds a turning point in the war. She is taken to Henricus – a relatively new English colony on the James River. From there, Argall delivers his ransom demands to Chief Powhatan: in exchange for the release of his daughter, Argall requests the immediate return of all English prisoners.
Chief Powhatan complies, but Argall refuses to make good on his end of the bargain. He keeps Pocahontas in captivity, where she is taught the English language and indoctrinated with Christian beliefs. Still only seventeen, she is introduced to a man named John Rolfe, a wealthy tobacco planter. Soon, the couple get married – but only after Pocahontas converts to Christianity and changes her name to Rebecca.
Ultimately, seeking peace, Chief Powhatan gives his blessing to the marriage, and the First Anglo-Powhatan War comes to an end. The period that follows is known as the Peace of Pocahontas.
Relations improve. The colonists compensate the Powhatans with land deals, and the Natives refrain from carrying out any further raids on English settlements. The two groups begin trading again, and prosperity returns to Jamestown.
Then in 1616, John Rolfe, Pocahontas, and their newly-born son travel to England, where they give a promotional tour, attracting more investment for the Jamestown colony. A Powhatan holy man named Tomocomo accompanies Pocahontas on the tour. Tomocomo has been sent to observe the ways of the English, and report back to Chief Powhatan.
The tour is a resounding triumph. But the journey home brings tragedy. In March 1617, the party departs England in high spirits. But soon, Pocahontas falls gravely ill. Within a matter of days, she is dead – at the age of just twenty-one. The ship returns to England where her body is interred before turning around and making the journey back home.
Upon his arrival in Virginia, Tomocomo informs Chief Powhatan of the death of his daughter. Tomocomo also reveals his scathing opinions of the English, calling them untrustworthy, conniving, and ungracious people.
Chief Powhatan is furious but also heartbroken. After hearing the news of the death of his daughter, he resigns the chiefdom to his half-brother, Opchanacanough, who has long desired tougher measures against the colonists. Now, in the wake of his ascension to power, he will have free reign to exact bloody vengeance on the people of Jamestown.
Act Three: Ungrateful Savages
It’s the morning of March 22nd, 1622, in Jamestown.
Bright sunshine filters through the branches of the cypress trees, dappling the thatched rooftops with golden light and warming the faces of the colonists as they trudge toward the tobacco plantation.
As they walk, they pass by members of the Powhatan tribe, who nod their heads as they proceed into the settlement.
As far as the people of Jamestown know, the so-called “Peace of Pocahontas” still holds. And in fact, relations with the Powhatans have never been better. Inspired by Pocahontas’ conversion to Christianity, many Natives have been coming to Jamestown asking the English to teach them about the Bible. The zealous colonists are only happy to oblige.
But they have been deceived. And today, these Natives will not be seeking tutoring in the bible but will carry out the final stage of a meticulous plan, years in the making, in which they gained the trust of the colonists, only to strike when the moment is right.
Today, that moment has come. After the signal is given, the Natives produce weapons from their deerskin belts. They launch a coordinated attack, brutally slaughtering the colonists – striking down men, women, and children. Houses are burned to the ground, and before long, Jamestown lies in a smoldering ruin – the streets strewn with bodies. Some are taken hostage. Most are butchered. 347 in total. By the time the massacre is over, the few survivors of the attack have fled upriver, hastening to other settlements nearby.
But this too might have been part of the plan. The Powhatans could easily have finished off the remaining colonists. But they left them alive, hoping they will spread word of the massacre and discourage any more English from coming to Virginia. But Chief Opchanacanough has fatally misjudged his opponent. In the wake of the attack, he expects the colonists to leave his ancestral land. Instead, they re-group, call for reinforcements from England, and then launch a campaign of destruction against the Natives that will become known as the Second Powhatan War.
For years to come, colonists will invoke the Jamestown Massacre to justify a policy of expansion into indigenous lands, as they carry out atrocities against the Natives that far outweigh those committed against them. Soon, Natives will be driven from Virginia and re-settled onto reservations. Their once sacred land will entirely be given over to English tobacco interests.
Today, the site of the Jamestown Massacre is commemorated by a plaque. But the true legacy of the massacre can be seen in Native American reservations across the United States, the miserable consequence of often violent expulsion of Natives from their lands, forced removal, which began in earnest following the Jamestown Massacre on March 22nd, 1622.
Next onHistory Daily.March 23, 1806. After completing the first U.S. overland expedition to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark begin their return to St. Louis, Missouri.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Derek Behrens.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.