THERE are few more picturesque regions in the world than the Peninsula on which the town of Hampton is situated. The wealth of water scenery is of mingled advantage and beauty. On the east, parallel to the coast line of the ocean, stretches the noble basin of the Chesapeake Bay twenty miles wide. On the north are the blue waters of the magnificent York River, and on the south is the great bay called Hampton Roads, into which the rushing James pours its yellow tide. The land is a fertile, sandy, alluvial and remarkably level, and the landscape is beautiful with the silvery windings of Back River, Hampton River, Mill Creek and Harris' Creek.
At the arrival of the first white settlers the conditions in this favored region were quite different from conditions elsewhere. While in the rest of Virginia the land was mostly covered with great forests of oak, gum, poplar, hickory and chestnut, here was an open field of two thousand or three thousand acres or more, quite ready for extensive agricultural operations. The waters around swarmed with crabs and valuable fish, and on the beds beneath the sheet of liquid blue lay great quantities of oysters, clams and mussels. Thus, the means of subsistence were abundant, and we are not surprised to hear that, some years before the English arrived, the region was sometimes the seat of as many as a thousand Indians and 300 wigwams. On account of their numbers the Indians were called Kecoughtans meaning the inhabitants of the " great town, " but the name Kecoughtan applied more to a region than a collection of buildings. As a region, Kecoughtan was pretty near identical with the modern Elizabeth City and Warwick Counties. It extended perhaps northward along the James as far as Skiife 's Creek and along the York as far as Pocoson River, averaging from East to West about fifteen miles, and from North to South, between the two rivers five miles.
These Indians were members of a Confederacy of about 34 tribes occupying Tidewater Virginia, of which Powhatan was war-chief or headwerowance. They belonged to the Algonquin race, and were far less barbarous than the wild inhabitants of the Mississippi region. Like the other tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy, they had a territory defined by natural bounds and their villages had a permanent character and place. They were composed of houses oval in shape made of bark set upon a framework of bent saplings.
On account of their strength, Powhatan regarded the Kecoughtan tribe with suspicion, which was much increased by the warnings of his medicine men. It is said by Strachey' that Powhatan was informed by them that "from the Chesapeake Bay a nation would arise that should dissolve and give end to his empire." Powhatan bided his time, and while things were in confusion by reason of the death of the old Kecoughtan werowance, he suddenly invaded the territory, killed the new chief and most of his people and settled the survivors in the remote region of the Pianketank. And it was not the Kecaughtans only that he involved in slaughter, but the Chesapeakes also who inhabited on the south side of the bay, and, therefore, "lay under the suspicion of the same phophecy." In the room of the former inhabitants Powhatan placed at these places some of his own people on whom he could rely. At Kecoughtan he made his son Pochins werowance, but the new comers there did not exceed over thirty warriors or 150 men, women and children.
This was the condition of things in the Bay region on April 26, 1607, when the famous fleet consisting of the Sarah Constant, the Goodspeed and the Discovery, under command of Captain Christopher Newport, sailed with the founders of the Nation through the broad water gateway between Cape Charles and Cape Henry into Chesapeake Bay. Anchoring three days off Cape Henry, they broke the seal of the box which contained the names of the council, explored the Country, and subsequently set up a cross, taking possession in the name of King James of England. On April 30th, they came with their ships to a long, sandy point of land which they called Cape Comfort, because of the deep water, which was found there, and which put the navi
' William Strachey, Travaile into Virginia Brittannia. Page ten
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gators in "good comfort" of being able to pass into the safe harbor beyond. Here Captain Newport caused the shallop to be manned and rowed to the mainland, where he saw an Indian village of eighteen wigwams. Captain George Percy, brother of the Earl of Northumberland, gives us this account of this first meeting of the white men and the savages:
" When we came first a land they made a doleful noise, laying their faces to the ground, scratching the earth with their nails. We did thinke they had beene at their Idolatry. When they had ended their Ceremonies, they went into their houses and brought out mats and laid upon the ground : The chief est of them sate all in a rank ; the meanest sort brought us such dainties as they had, and of their bread which they make of their Maiz or Gennea wheat. They would not suffer us to eat unless we sate down, which we did on a mat right against them. After we were well satisfied they gave us of their tobacco, which they tooke in a pipe made artificially of earth as ours are, but far bigger, with the bowle fashioned together with a piece of fine copper. After they had feasted us, they showed us, in welcome, their manner of dancing, which was in this fashion. One of the savages standing in the midst singing, beating one hand against another, all the rest dancing about him, shouting, howling, and stamping against the ground, with many Anticke tricks and faces, making noise like so many Wolves or Devils. One thing of them I observed; when they were in their dance they kept stroke with their feet just one with another, but with their hands, heads, faces and bodies, every one of them had a severall gesture; so they continued for the space of halfe an houre. When they had ended their dance, the Captain gave them Beades and other trifling Jewells. "
The curious antics of the Indians described in the above paragraph had probably a deeper meaning than Percy suspected. The religion of the Powhatan Indians consisted in a belief in a great number of devils, who were to be warded off by pow-wows and conjurations, and they were inclined to believe that Percy and his friends, if not devils, were messengers sent by devils. The pipes displayed were probably the peace pipes, which were often of very large dimensions and curiously carved.
The map of Captain John Smith and other contemporary evidence show that the site of the Indian village was very near the spot on which the present Soldiers' Home is located.
The settlers on this visit did not stay long, but sailed up the river and established themselves May 14th, on the Island of Jamestown. In doing this they made a great mistake, for the Island was very unhealthful, very accessible to Indian attacks, and was covered with morasses and huge trees centuries old. As Dr. Philip Alexander Bruce observes : " The proper site for the colony was the modern Hampton. " The action of the settlers was dictated by the London Company, who were afraid of the Spaniards, but as subsequent events proved, a nearer settlement to the sea-shore would have resulted in no real danger. The Spanish Kingdom had lost power, and the open country of Kecoughtan would have promoted health and enabled the colonists to go to work at once in providing adequate sustenance; moreover the settlement protected by wide stretches of water, could have been readily defended against Indian attacks. In the midst of such abundance as the place afforded there could have been no Starving Time as at Jamestown in 1610. It is true that a settlement at Kecoughtan however would have involved a speedy conflict with the savages, which the London Company deprecated, but this the colonists did not avoid by placing their settlement at Jamestown. They were attacked almost immediately.
In December, 1607, Captain John Smith paid a visit to these Indians of Kecoughtan for trade, and returned to Jamestown with a good supply of fish, oysters, corn and deer meat, which he obtained from them for a few glass beads. Smith stopped here again when he returned in July, 1608, after his exploration of Chesapeake Bay. The gallant captain at this time was suffering from a wound inflicted by a stingray, and one of his men had his shins bruised ; and we are told that the Indians surmised that they had had a bloody battle experience. The captain fell in with their humor, and soon the report spread far and wide, that Captain Smith had badly beaten the Massawomekes, the inveterate enemies of the Powhatans. On his departing from Jamestown for his second exploration of the Bay not long after, Smith made another stop of two or three days at
Kecoughtan, where lie was "feasted with much mirth." The next year a party, including Captain Francis West, Captain George Percy and Captain Smith spent Christmas week among these savages. Their own account was: "We were never more merry nor fed on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, and wild fowle and good breade, nor never had better fires in England than in the dry smoky houses of Kecoughtan."