Saturday, April 2, 2016

Native American Biographies: Pocahontas, Powhatan and Openchancanough: Jamestown

U.S. stamp featuring Pocahontas in English attire
When the English first came to Jamestown, they were very vulnerable.  True they had more sophisticated weaponry than the native Americans.  However Powhatan had 9000 people under his leadership which extended through the James river area.  He ruled not only the Algonquin speaking people, but also others in the region.  His was the decision as to whether the Jamestown colony would survive.  He took a wait and see attitude.  His decision was influenced by his  daughter Pocahontas.  John Smith writes about being saved from execution at the hands of Powhatan and his followers.  In this case legend and myth are likely accurate descriptions.  The only other plausible interpretation of events is that Pocahontas was his sponsor in adopting him into the tribe.  At any rate, Powhatan befriended the people at Jamestown, and often resupplied them.  He was hoping to trade for muskets, but the English offered trinkets and beads instead.
At one point Pocahontas was kidnapped by the whites, and held for ransom of kidnapped whites and stolen muskets.  Powhatan ignored the situation knowing that the whites respected Pocahontas and would not harm her.  Pocahontas was baptized, and married John Rolfe.  Powhatan sent two of his sons with gifts to the wedding.  This union resulted in further peaceful relations between the Powhatan people and the Jamestown colonists.
It wouldn't be until after Powhatan's death, that relations would become violent.  Openchancanough, a brother of Powhatan became leader of part of the tribe, and with this power started to oppose the British.  It had been Openchancanough who had captured John Smith when he was almost killed.
Openchancanough was alarmed at the rapid growth of the colony.  This was not really a problem while Powhatan lived as the colonists were still small in number.  He was also alarmed at efforts to assimilate Native Americans into white culture.  His first attack took almost 350 English lives, about a third of the population at the time.  From this time the Virginia declared was and the Native Americans were driven deeper into the forest.  Openchancanough did spearhead another attack, taking 400 lives, but by this time the colonist numbered over 8000.
Perhaps some of the attitude of Openchancanough was the result of things that happened to Pocahontas.  Governor Dale saw a promotional opportunity, and insisted on Pocahontas traveling to England with a few other Indians.  Pocahontas was well accepted.  She always intended to return to her people, but succumbed to small pox.  She would die in England at the tender age of 21.  She was only twelve when she saved John Smith.
So we decide.  Is the story of Jamestown one of Whites misusing their power, and insisting on assimilation.  Or is this a story of how Natives and newcomers could coexist peacefully.

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