Spotlight: First Anglo-Powhatan War

Published:April 28, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

We recently published our entry on the First Anglo-Powhatan War, which began just prior to the  Starving Time in 1609* and ended, more or less, with the marriage of Pocahontas in 1614. One interesting aspect of the entry is that it covers an event not all scholars agree even happened. Which is to say that some historians argue that, at least from the Indians’ perspective, war was an ongoing part of life and should not be thought of in English terms: as a discreet event with a beginning and an end.

I’m not taking sides here. I just love the story of Henry Spelman, “a well-heeled fourteen-year-old” who, at the war’s beginning, was presented to the Indian chief Parahunt as part of a negotiation. This happened to kids back then. The idea was that they became immersed in the alien culture, learned the language, and then served as interpreters, cultural liaisons, and even spies. Both sides did it (qv Manteo and Wanchese), although Spelman was horrified when the Indians used him to lead his fellow colonists into an ambush, which led to the gruesome death-by-mussel shell of Captain John Ratcliffe.

Spelman ran away to live with the Patawomecks on the Potomac River. And life calmed down for a few years, and he learned their language, and all was good. Then Captain Samuel Argall came calling, and Spelman was an important factor in helping him capture Pocahontas, and so end the war. As our entry puts it, Spelman “seemed to personify the blurred lines between friend and foe, native and English, war and peace. A few years later, he would just escape execution on the charge of bad-mouthing the English to Opechancanough.”

Anyway, stories like these are why I love my job …

* Our Starving Time entry, which dutifully considers the question of whether the colonists did, in fact, feast on each other, is coming soon.

IMAGE: Map of Jamestown and James Fort. (Confession: I have no idea who created this map or when. I just found it here and thought it was cool.)