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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 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, 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. 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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 “Leave yourself defenseless in order to appear less threatening” is monumentally stupid advice.Published in