Who Shot First at Jamestown?

 

My family descended en masse on Virginia this fall. You see, my cousin had had her first child, and while we missed out on the baby stage (there was this disease; you may have heard of it), the collected aunts were determined to get at this boy while he was still cute. So we converged on Williamsburg, Virginia. While we were there, we stopped to see the sights.

At the Jamestown settlement museum, the group stopped to watch an introductory video history. “You’re a history buff,” they said to me. “You know all this already, but the rest of us would like a chance to catch up.” Despite my prodigious memory for trivia, it had been mumblety years since my high school AP history class, and so I was glad to catch up with the rest of them. One scene in particular described the start of conflict between the Native Americans[1] and the English settlers. The movie was vague as to the question of who started it, blaming cultural misunderstandings. It showed an Indian grabbing the hilt of an unsuspecting Englishman’s sheathed sword. This led to a fight, and the movie went on to describe the war between the settlers and the locals.

“Is that really what happened?” asked my sister-in-law. I didn’t think so. Once you shift into a passive voice “tensions arose,” I start to think you’re not telling me something. The question stuck with me. After a breakneck tour through the Jamestown site museum (we were on a schedule) and later a book from my local library[2], here are the facts of the case I’ve been able to determine. Remember as you read though that these details are gleaned from people reporting on the accounts written by the only literate side in the conflict. There’s plenty of room for me to be wrong about basic facts.

What Actually Happened There?

King James of England granted a charter to the Virginia company to settle in that territory, comprising Virginia and everything west of it to the Pacific Ocean and northward to the ill-defined border of New Jersey, so long as no Christian nation got in the way. In 1607, just over a hundred English men (I’m using two words because they were all males) sailed into what they named the James River. The plan was to sail a hundred miles upriver so as to avoid detection by Spaniards (always a worthy goal), but also the leadership of the company enjoined them not to antagonize the locals.

The expedition stopped at seven points along the James River, finding each one already inhabited by Indians, before finally settling on Jamestown Island.[3] On the island, they didn’t build a proper palisade but did put up some rudimentary defenses made out of brush. Their orders also enjoined them against setting up any fortifications so as to not appear overly aggressive to the natives, but at least to this extent that order was ignored.[4]

Presently, the Indians made themselves known. The local power in the region was a king by the name of Powhatan, who commanded a coalition of tribes. I don’t know if he was present at the first meeting. The Indians came with a band of a hundred men in arms to meet the English. The Indian leader, and here my secondary source drops into quotation so I’ll do so too, “made signs that he would give us as much land as we would desire.” The parley went well enough until one of the locals grabbed a settler’s hatchet, leading to a scuffle and the Indian receiving a blow. (What kind of blow was it? With a fist or a weapon? Did it draw blood? The book is, and I suspect primary sources are, frustratingly silent.) The Indians left in anger.

Two days later, they returned with 40 men, sharing a deer carcass with the settlers. They offered to bed down inside the fort, but fearing a night ambush, the colonists refused to let them. Instead, they gave a demonstration of their military prowess; they showed an arrow punching through a leather jerkin but shattering against their good steel cuirass. This demonstration did not have the apparently intended effect. Soon after, 10 days in total after landing on that site, the Indians attacked. They were repulsed with few casualties on the colonists’ side. The colonists built a proper palisade while under siege by the locals. I could go on, but that leads into a whole different story.

Whose Fault Was It?

Well, the Indians attacked first, but were they justified? While I can’t say I know much about the Indians’ culture (and again, seeing as they didn’t leave accounts of their own, I don’t know how much can be known), there are points that are universal. The military demonstration was a threat, probably obviously so to the natives. The refusal to let them sleep in the fort could be seen as a breach of hospitality, especially after we brought you this nice deer. The blow struck in defense of the man’s hatchet was an attack made in a parley, and while there’s an outside chance that the Indians really did mean to grunt and gesture their way to “sure, take all the land you please,” I’ve got no faith they meant everything that King James had allotted the colonists.

On the other hand, look at it from the colonists’ point of view. There were 102 of them, and they were approached by a hundred natives (round numbers on that side; I doubt anyone took a census). In language that’s clear to any military man, that says, “I can whistle up enough men to take you on at a moment’s notice.” On a strictly Darwinian level, letting someone grab your hatchet without stopping him is not a successful survival strategy, and at least in the minds of the English, that’s provocation to resort to blows. Letting 40 people sleep inside your palisade is leaving yourself vulnerable to treachery. While we may say that the English threatened, the natives also threatened the English.

It may be said that the English were already trespassing by landing and settling. I don’t much care how badly the English misinterpreted the “please take our land” sign language, because they ended up taking the land one way or another. On the same token, it’s foolish to think the Indians were innocent and peaceful because they were less sophisticated at killing than the whites. Powhatan ruled a coalition of tribes; I strongly doubt they were voluntary members. He had borders and he had neighbors, and doubtless they got on just about as poorly as royal neighbors ever do. If he hadn’t thought of using a giant wooden horse to gain entry to the English camp, he was certain to have known that trick in other variants.

Herodotus wrote, “When dealing with other cultures a great latitude must be given for difference in custom.” That was ancient wisdom for the English. Powhatan had loads of other cultures nearby; the same wisdom had to have occurred to him. Just as it’s irresponsible to assume the Indians were nothing more than merciless, primitive brutes, I’m also not going to assume they were innocent, noble savages whose civilization was just too pure to stand contact with the cretinous Europeans. Although, to be fair, the Europeans were pretty cretinous. “I know; we’ll impress them by threatening them with our superior arms!” Who thought that was a good idea?

In the end, I’ve got to judge Powhatan as a person, with all of humanity’s failings. Granted that the English gave him reason, he still let himself take offense and ordered the attack. I think he was playing penny-ante realpolitik, trying to solve this one problem so he could get back to all his other problems, and dramatically misjudged the scale of this one. And the English? While I don’t think the Indians were acting entirely in good faith, that doesn’t mean I think the English were innocent. Even if we ignore the fact that King James had casually signed away all of Powhatan’s land without so much as having heard of him or his tribe, the rest of the expedition’s actions weren’t calculated to make friendly with the locals. Here, as is often in the case, I’m forced to conclude that everyone involved was a jerk. History is full of jerks.

That, unfortunately, is where I leave my conclusion. It may not be where you leave yours. At this point you have nearly all the facts that I do, and perhaps you read from them a different conclusion. What do you think? I think the video was more accurate than I gave it credit for.


[1] Once to be polite, and then I’m going back to calling them Indians, or natives, or perhaps locals. Three extra syllables is a lot to ask when the polite phrase is going to be deemed impolite and a cancellable offense any day now.

[2] The book from my local library is entitled “Jamestown The Truth Revealed” by William Kelso. You can tell he’s an archaeologist and not an English professor by the way he didn’t bother with a colon.

[3] That name keeps coming up. Almost as if some folks were trying to butter someone up. Incidentally, the locals’ name for the James River was the Powhatan River. Almost as if they had someone to butter up too.

[4] “Leave yourself defenseless in order to appear less threatening” is monumentally stupid advice.

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  1. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp


    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    : “…the collected aunts were determined to get at this boy while he was still cute.”

    Ah, the daily harvest of Ricochet delights!

    Sometimes it’s an Article, other times just a sentence…and sometimes, just an independent clause!

    [Edit:

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: it had been mumblety years since my high school AP History class

    OK fine, then.  Sometimes it’s just an adjective]

    • #1
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: Once you shift into a passive voice “tensions arose” I start to think you’re not telling me something.

    Yes!

    Also, when you switch into a passive voice: “We are told by our overlords…” 

     

    • #2
  3. Blondie Thatcher
    Blondie
    @Blondie

    I will have to see if that Virginia history book is still at the folks house. I’m going there today and will look for it. Fifth grade was more “mumblety” years ago for me, but your telling lines up with my feeble memory. 

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Good stuff, Hank.

    I get the same thing from my family.

    Cousin (doing crossword): Who was Lackland’s brother?

    Me: Lionheart or Lionhearted. It would have said Richard on his driver’s license.

    Cousin: Lionheart fits.

    Me: Also Henry. And Geoffrey.

    Cousin: They don’t fit.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    In other words, a pox on all their houses.

    • #5
  6. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: On a strictly Darwinian level letting someone grab your hatchet without stopping him is not a successful survival strategy

    Yeah, you don’t just grab a dude’s hatchet, and you don’t let another guy grab your hatchet. Unless he says “Yoink!”.

    • #6
  7. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: On a strictly Darwinian level letting someone grab your hatchet without stopping him is not a successful survival strategy

    Yeah, you don’t just grab a dude’s hatchet, and you don’t let another guy grab your hatchet. Unless he says “Yoink!”.

    See, this is exactly the kind of misunderstanding that you get in this situation. The native probably said “Yoink!” only the Englishman didn’t understand him because nobody spoke each other’s language, so he wasn’t in a position to drop an appropriate “Dude.” in response. Of course you’re going to start a war in that scenario.

    • #7
  8. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: Once you shift into a passive voice “tensions arose” I start to think you’re not telling me something.

    Yes!

    Also, when you switch into a passive voice: “We are told by our overlords…”

    The Reticulator,

    (The rest of you, talk quietly amongst yourselves about the actual content of this great article.)

    Yeah.  Also, in what became that same sentence, he had to communicate four ideas:

    • “Once you do X this happens”
    • X is
      • By class: “used (switched to) passive voice”
      • By instance of the class: “wrote ‘tensions arose'”
    • “to write ‘tensions arose'” is an instance of class “using passive voice”

    There should have been non-value-added words, punctuation, and clauses or even sentences, all of which would interrupt the flow in the reader’s mind.  One of the ideas (the last) didn’t even convey information at all: it  just forced its way in because of the second and third ideas, in order to show their relationship.

    None of that overhead appears.  How did he do this magic?

    We would have started

    “Once you shift into the passive voice”

    And then had yet to work in “tensions arose”, plus the fourth pure overhead idea about the “is_a” relationship between the two ideas.

    But he changed “the” to “a”, and successfully compressed all three ideas into the absolute minimum four words, “a passive voice tensions arose”.  Notice how this expresses the class/instance relationship with no commas, no conjunctions, no nothin’.

    [EDIT: I just read this comment.  I would like to tell you what I was trying to say.  But I can’t, and by tomorrow, I won’t be able to figure it out, myself.  So, I suggest you forget that you tried to read it, or better yet add the customary reply, “Does anyone know what Camp is talking about?”]

    • #8
  9. Gromrus Member
    Gromrus
    @Gromrus

    Fascinating post!  If the Jamestown confrontation had not happened when it did, wasn’t it still ultimately unavoidable? A stone age society was bound to be overwhelmed by the modern world, with its steel, and lose the civilizational conflict.  That is why I have spent very little thought or energy handwringing about the English colonization of the eastern seaboard.   

    It is currently de rigueur to subscribe to the notion that all Americans are descended from immigrants. Another ramification of the collapse of the native civilization in the face of the modern world, however,  is that the English settlers were not truly immigrants. Immigration has usually included not just the physical moving to a new place but a change of language, culture and laws.  The English truly were colonists and settlers rather than immigrants; they brought England here.  Language, culture and laws did not change.   Thus, I speak English handed down from several of my forefathers and mothers who arrived in Gloucester, Virginia only a generation after Jamestown, rather than English learned as an immigrant. The grit and determination to come to America and survive is a unifying trait, however, that I happily acknowledge.   

    • #9
  10. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: On a strictly Darwinian level letting someone grab your hatchet without stopping him is not a successful survival strategy

    Yeah, you don’t just grab a dude’s hatchet, and you don’t let another guy grab your hatchet. Unless he says “Yoink!”.

    See, this is exactly the kind of misunderstanding that you get in this situation. The native probably said “Yoink!” only the Englishman didn’t understand him because nobody spoke each other’s language, so he wasn’t in a position to drop an appropriate “Dude.” in response. Of course you’re going to start a war in that scenario.

    So many times in the history of mankind we have needed diplomatic tools such as “yoink” and “dude.” I suppose that’s what made the likes of Metternich so great. But these tools may not always be used properly. Chamberlain uttered the wrong intonation of “dude” in response to Germany’s inappropriate “yoink.” Such tools are dangerous in the wrong hands, as are hatchets.

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Gromrus (View Comment):
    If the Jamestown confrontation had not happened when it did, wasn’t it still ultimately unavoidable?

    It’s a good question to be asking one’s self when studying such history. It’s also good to come up with a definition of “it.” 

    • #11
  12. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I think the initial problem was that the Native American leaders demonstrate their power by the confusingly indirect method of giving gifts and putting others in their debt whereas in England there was the more straightforward rule that a demonstration of power is what you can take away from others without their being able to stop you.

    There was probably a thwarted expectation that some of those metal goodies (like the axe) would be shared.  The failure to do so meant a clash was inevitable. Time to kick those rude bearded buggers out of Tsenacommacah!

    I wonder what the history of North America would have been if Leif Erikson had landed farther south, dropped off some Old World pathogens, and given the native populations five or six centuries to recover and develop some immunity before the thoughtlessly maskless Columbus and John Smith started exhaling into American air.  It did not matter much if the Powhatans could hold their own against the colonists in battle if most of them would soon be dead from smallpox and other diseases regardless of the military outcomes.  Would there have been much more pushback against Cortes’ project if 90% of Mexico wasn’t dead within a few years of the Spanish invasion?  Would there have been enough guys to take out the genuinely awful DeSoto? 

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    • #13
  14. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Arahant (View Comment):

    This is Bull. The idea that civilization has nothing to do with the players is silly. The Chinese had gun powder how long? 

    Yes there were old world advantages, but a tiny island managed to rise to spread across the world, and its spawn still run the world (basically). 

     

    • #14
  15. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I think the initial problem was that the Native American leaders demonstrate their power by the confusingly indirect method of giving gifts and putting others in their debt whereas in England there was the more straightforward rule that a demonstration of power is what you can take away from others without their being able to stop you.

    There was probably a thwarted expectation that some of those metal goodies (like the axe) would be shared. The failure to do so meant a clash was inevitable. Time to kick those rude bearded buggers out of Tsenacommacah!

    I wonder what the history of North America would have been if Leif Erikson had landed farther south, dropped off some Old World pathogens, and given the native populations five or six centuries to recover and develop some immunity before the thoughtlessly maskless Columbus and John Smith started exhaling into American air. It did not matter much if the Powhatans could hold their own against the colonists in battle if most of them would soon be dead from smallpox and other diseases regardless of the military outcomes. Would there have been much more pushback against Cortes’ project if 90% of Mexico wasn’t dead within a few years of the Spanish invasion? Would there have been enough guys to take out the genuinely awful DeSoto?

    • #15
  16. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I wonder what the history of North America would have been if Leif Erikson had landed farther south, dropped off some Old World pathogens, and given the native populations five or six centuries to recover and develop some immunity before the thoughtlessly maskless Columbus and John Smith started exhaling into American air. It did not matter much if the Powhatans could hold their own against the colonists in battle if most of them would soon be dead from smallpox and other diseases regardless of the military outcomes. Would there have been much more pushback against Cortes’ project if 90% of Mexico wasn’t dead within a few years of the Spanish invasion? Would there have been enough guys to take out the genuinely awful DeSoto?

    I can’t get enough of that photo. The elbow out the window just absolutely makes it.

    • #16
  17. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    I would like to tell you what I was trying to say.  But I can’t, and by tomorrow, I won’t be able to figure it out, myself. 

    Seems straightforward enough; you’re using object-oriented programming as a metaphor to explain poetry.

    • #17
  18. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Gromrus (View Comment):
    Fascinating post!  If the Jamestown confrontation had not happened when it did, wasn’t it still ultimately unavoidable? A stone age society was bound to be overwhelmed by the modern world, with its steel, and lose the civilizational conflict.

    Perhaps? I’m thinking here of the, I’ve heard this is a thing, island off of India wherein the locals will murder anyone at all who attempts to make contact with them. And so India … doesn’t. I could construct a scenario in my head where England sets up a trading post and never actually invades anybody. I’m not convinced that that’d be a stable situation over time. That’s even if you drop thoroughly modern people with thoroughly modern sensibilities into that age. And ignore disease. 

    • #18
  19. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Gromrus (View Comment):
    Fascinating post! If the Jamestown confrontation had not happened when it did, wasn’t it still ultimately unavoidable? A stone age society was bound to be overwhelmed by the modern world, with its steel, and lose the civilizational conflict.

    Perhaps? I’m thinking here of the, I’ve heard this is a thing, island off of India wherein the locals will murder anyone at all who attempts to make contact with them. And so India … doesn’t. I could construct a scenario in my head where England sets up a trading post and never actually invades anybody. I’m not convinced that that’d be a stable situation over time. That’s even if you drop thoroughly modern people with thoroughly modern sensibilities into that age. And ignore disease.

    I wonder what would happen if I told the judge and jury, “Sure, I killed the guy, but what difference does it make? If I hadn’t, somebody else would have.”  

    • #19
  20. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):
    I’m thinking here of the, I’ve heard this is a thing, island off of India wherein the locals will murder anyone at all who attempts to make contact with them. And so India … doesn’t.

    It’s a thing.

    • #20
  21. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I think the initial problem was that the Native American leaders demonstrate their power by the confusingly indirect method of giving gifts and putting others in their debt whereas in England there was the more straightforward rule that a demonstration of power is what you can take away from others without their being able to stop you.

    There was probably a thwarted expectation that some of those metal goodies (like the axe) would be shared.  The failure to do so meant a clash was inevitable. Time to kick those rude bearded buggers out of Tsenacommacah!

    Thanks. The best book my local library had on the subject was all about the archaeological digging at Jamestown proper, not about this story. I hadn’t heard about the Powhatan’s having that sort of a gift giving culture, but at the same time I’m not at all surprised to learn it given the stuff I talked about in the post. 

    You also aren’t the first person to let on to me that the English had problems with diplomacy and gift giving cultures.

    • #21
  22. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I wonder what would happen if I told the judge and jury, “Sure, I killed the guy, but what difference does it make? If I hadn’t, somebody else would have.”  

    And?

    Noticing that a situation is unstable is not the same as justifying the guy who tips it over.

    • #22
  23. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I wonder what would happen if I told the judge and jury, “Sure, I killed the guy, but what difference does it make? If I hadn’t, somebody else would have.”

    And?

    Noticing that a situation is unstable is not the same as justifying the guy who tips it over.

    Indeed. 

    • #23
  24. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    This is Bull. The idea that civilization has nothing to do with the players is silly. The Chinese had gun powder how long? 

    Yes there were old world advantages, but a tiny island managed to rise to spread across the world, and its spawn still run the world (basically).

    This does not preclude other factors. It just says that killing nine-tenths of the indigenous population on this side of the pond helped.

    • #24
  25. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    This is Bull. The idea that civilization has nothing to do with the players is silly. The Chinese had gun powder how long?

    Yes there were old world advantages, but a tiny island managed to rise to spread across the world, and its spawn still run the world (basically).

    This does not preclude other factors. It just says that killing nine-tenths of the indigenous population on this side of the pond helped.

    Your video left out syphilis going the other way.  Maybe others?

    • #25
  26. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    This is Bull. The idea that civilization has nothing to do with the players is silly. The Chinese had gun powder how long?

    Yes there were old world advantages, but a tiny island managed to rise to spread across the world, and its spawn still run the world (basically).

    This does not preclude other factors. It just says that killing nine-tenths of the indigenous population on this side of the pond helped.

    Your video left out syphilis going the other way. Maybe others?

    Jared Diamond’s book didn’t list any others, as best I can remember.  

    • #26
  27. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    Your video left out syphilis going the other way.  Maybe others?

    If you watched the video, you would note how he talks about rapid spread and rapid death or immunity, and sexually transmitted spread was the slowest form and one does not die quickly or build immunity to the old spirochete. In other words, it is a slow disease, but not a plague.

    • #27
  28. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    Your video left out syphilis going the other way. Maybe others?

    If you watched the video, you would note how he talks about rapid spread and rapid death or immunity, and sexually transmitted spread was the slowest form and one does not die quickly or build immunity to the old spirochete. In other words, it is a slow disease, but not a plague.

    Try to explain that to your wife when you get home.

    • #28
  29. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Gromrus (View Comment):
    If the Jamestown confrontation had not happened when it did, wasn’t it still ultimately unavoidable?

    It’s a good question to be asking one’s self when studying such history. It’s also good to come up with a definition of “it.”

    So true! And, IIRC, back in 1998, the leader of the free world was pondering the meaning of the word “is”

    • #29
  30. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    Your video left out syphilis going the other way. Maybe others?

    If you watched the video, you would note how he talks about rapid spread and rapid death or immunity, and sexually transmitted spread was the slowest form and one does not die quickly or build immunity to the old spirochete. In other words, it is a slow disease, but not a plague.

    Try to explain that to your wife when you get home.

    Maybe that was the true source of the prejudice against people in faraway lands. Husbands kept telling the ol’ “they tied me down and forced me to” whopper.

    • #30