The Native Powhatan Massacree with Full Orchestration and Five-Part Harmony

Published:June 1, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Yesterday’s post on an epic article in the Washington Post about the “sorry fate” of Carter’s Grove, the old James River plantation built in 1750, contained this paragraph:

Before the house, the land was the site of Martin’s Hundred plantation and Wolstenholme Towne, an ill-fated English settlement founded in 1620, just a few years after the establishment of Jamestown five miles upriver. Wolstenholme was destroyed during a native Powhatan massacre of English settlers in 1622.

That phrase “a native Powhatan massacre” stopped me short. As much as the next guy, I resist people policing my language, but here at the encyclopedia we have resisted using the word “massacre” to describe Opechancanough‘s attack. Why? After all, it fits the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of the “indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people.” I think it’s fair to say that the connotative meaning of “massacre,” i.e., an unjustified atrocity (as reflected in Merriam-Webster’s definition), has outpaced its denotative meaning. Massacres are what savages perpetrate. You’ll see that reflected in this excerpt from our Opechancanough entry:

In any event, the assault took place on the morning of March 22, 1622, and resulted in the deaths of perhaps as many as 347 colonists […] Opechancanough’s warriors insinuated themselves into English homes and, according to Edward Waterhouse, suddenly and “barbarously murdered, not sparing eyther age or sexe, man, woman or childe.” Intended not as a genocidal measure but simply as a warning for the English to leave, the attack did not succeed and instead initiated the Second Anglo-Powhatan War.

Waterhouse was upset in part because he thought that the Powhatans wanted to become Christians. Pocahontas had accepted baptism. Opechancanough was taking Bible lessons. And then the Indians attacked! You can read Waterhouse’s vituperative report of the attack here; it essentially calls for genocidal war against the Indians. It uses the attack—described as a massacre and, as in the engraving above, depicted in monstrous terms—as a pretext. It certainly doesn’t consider a world in which native resistance to English occupation or Christian conversion would be justified. Or, for that matter, a world where attacks like this one, perpetrated by George Percy, might also be termed massacres.

All of which is to say, the Powhatans’ land of Tsenacomoco was nearly gone in 1622. And the Post‘s use of language, even four hundred years later, helps to explain why.

PS: You might have heard this before.

IMAGE: The Massacre of the Settlers by Matthaus Merian, 1634 (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)