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Powhatan People and the English at Jamestown

Primary Source Set

In 1607, a party of Englishmen landed in a place they called Virginia. They followed in the footsteps of Sir Walter Raleigh, who had visited Virginia (which, at the time, included North Carolina) with a party of settlers in 1585. The colony founded by Raleigh’s party failed, weakened by lack of supplies and irregular contact with England.

To the people who already lived in the area, this was the land of the Powhatan Confederacy, a vast regional network of allied communities living under the leadership of Wahunsenacah (also known as Powhatan). Contact between the English and the people of the Powhatan confederacy was fraught with misunderstanding and conflict. This owed a great deal to the fact that the English were in the Americas to form a colony and make money for the Virginia Company of London, the corporation that had launched them on their voyage west. The Powhatan, on the other hand, lived out their values of kinship, allyship, and reciprocity in a way that was at first incomprehensible to the English, and that later they firmly rejected.

The English made their first settlement at Jamestown, a swampy post a short distance from the main villages of the Powhatan confederacy. One of their leaders was John Smith, who infamously recounted a story of being saved from certain death at Wahunsenacah’s hands by his daughter, Matoaka (more commonly known in US culture as Pocahontas). The real story is more complex, and likely Smith misunderstood a ceremony intended to adopt him into the community—he was not, at that moment, at risk of dying.

This primary source set explores contact between the Powhatan and the English in the first years after English settlement.

Additional resources for research

  1. The First Residents of Jamestown,” National Park Service.
  2. Archaeology, Historic Jamestowne.
  3. Virtual Jamestown.

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