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Coronation of Powhatan

The Coronation of Powhatan
“The Coronation of Powhatan,” by the American artist John Cadsby Chapman, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Greenville Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina.

In the ensuing September, Smith was formally made president of the colony at Jamestown, and set himself promptly to correct abuses and perfect the company in the military exercises so suited to his own inclinations, and so essential in their isolated and dangerous position.

The wandering savages would collect in astonishment to see these performances, standing “in amazement to behold how a file would batter a tree, where he would make them a mark to shoot at.”

Newport, soon after, made his appearance, bringing out from England many adventurers ill-suited to the life before them in the new country: “thirty carpenters, husband men, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees roots,” says Smith, would have been worth a thousand of them. By the same arrival, came a large boat, brought out in five pieces, to be used in further explorations in search of the South Sea, and a crown, with brilliant trappings and regalia, for the solemn coronation of Powhatan. Smith speaks with great contempt of this transaction: the “costly novelties had been much better well spared than so ill-spent,” for they, had the king’s “favor much better only for a plain piece of copper, till this stately kind of soliciting made him so much overvalue himself that he respected us as much as nothing at all.”

Smith’s Visit To Werowocomoco For Supplies

The captain, with four companions, volunteered to go to “Werowocomoco, and invite Powhatan to come to Jamestown and receive his presents. Arriving at the village, they found that the chief was thirty miles away from home; but a messenger was dispatched for him, and, meanwhile, his daughter Pocahontas exerted herself, to the best of her ability, to divert and entertain her guests. This was done after a strange fashion. A masquerade dance of some thirty young women, nearly naked, was ushered in by such a ” hideous nowise and shrieking,” that the English seized on some old men who stood by, as hostages, thinking that treachery was intended. They were relieved from apprehension by the assurances of Pocahontas, and the pageant proceeded. The leader of the dance was decked with a “fair pair of buck’s horns on her head, and an otter’s skin at her girdle.” The others were also horned, and painted and equipped, “every one with their several devices. These fiends with most hellish shouts and cries, rushing from among the trees, cast themselves in a ring about the fire, singing and dancing with most excellent ill variety.” Afterwards, when Smith had entered one of their wigwams, “all these nymphs more tormented him than ever with crowding, pressing and hanging about him, most tediously crying, Love you not me? love you not me?”

Treachery Of Powhatan

Upon Powhatan’s return, he proudly refused to go to Jamestown for his presents, standing upon his dignity as a king; and the robes and trinkets were accordingly sent round to Werowocomoco by water. The coronation scene must have been ludicrous in the extreme: “the presents were brought him, his basin and ewer, bed and furniture set up, his scarlet cloak and apparel with much ado put on him, being persuaded by Namontack, they would not hurt him: but a foul trouble there was to make him kneel to receive his crown, he neither knowing the majesty nor meaning of a crown, nor bending of the knee, endured so many persuasions, examples and instructions as tired them all; at last, by leaning hard on his shoulders, he a little stooped, and three having the crown in their hands, put it on his head, when, by the warning of a pistol the boats were prepared with such a volley of shot, that the king start up with a horrible fear till he saw all was well.”

After this, Newport, with one hundred and twenty men, made some unimportant explorations, above the falls, among the Monacans. Their continual greedy search for mines of the precious metals interfered with useful operations and discoveries.

The Indians now became unwilling to trade, and Powhatan seemed to have adopted the policy of starving out the colony. We can hardly justify the course of Smith in enforcing supplies, on any other plea than that of necessity; but certain it is, that he alone seemed to have that power and influence over the simple savages which could secure at once their love and fear.

Powhatan having at last agreed to furnish a ship-load of corn, if the English would build him a house, and furnish him with a grindstone, a cock and hen, some arms, copper and beads, five men were sent to Werowocomoco to commence operations. Three of these were Dutchmen.

To carry out this contract, and procure the promised corn, Smith started for the camp of Powhatan towards the last of December, (1608,) accompanied by twenty-seven men in the barge and pinnace, while a number of others crossed the country to build the proposed house. At Warraskoyack, the friendly king cautioned him against being deceived by Powhatan s expressions of kindness, insisting that treachery was intended.

Christmas was spent by the party at Kecoughtan, on the left bank of James River, near its mouth; and merry cheer was made upon game and oysters. They reached “Werowocomoco on the 12th of January, and landed with much difficulty, as the river was bordered with ice, to break through which they were obliged to wade waist-deep, “a flight-shot through this muddy frozen oase.”

Powhatan gave them venison and turkeys for their immediate use, but when the subject of the corn was broached, he protested that he and- his people had little or none, and demanded forty swords in case he should procure forty baskets. Smith replied sternly, upbraiding him for duplicity and faithlessness, and cautioning him not to provoke hostilities where friendship only was intended. The wily chief, on the other hand, made many deprecatory speeches, continually urging Smith to direct his men to lay down their arms, that the conference should appear to be peaceful, and the Indians feel at ease and in safety, while bringing in their corn.

After much bargaining and haggling, a small quantity of corn was procured, and Powhatan made a most plausible and characteristic speech to persuade Smith that nothing could be farther from his intention than hostility. Can you suppose, said he, that I, a man of age and experience, having outlived three generations of my people, should be ” so simple as not to know it is better to eat good meat, lie well and sleep quietly with my women and children, laugh and be merry with you, have copper, hatchets, or what I want being your friend: than be forced to fly from all, to lie cold in the woods, feed upon acorns, roots, and such trash, and be so hunted by you that I can neither rest, eat, nor sleep; but my tired men must watch, and if a twig but break, every one crieth, there comes Captain Smith?”

Smith A Second Time Preserved By Pocahontas

Thus the time was spent in useless discourse, and Smith, perceiving that the Indians were only watching for an opportunity to attack him unawares, ordered the barge to be brought to shore, and the pittance of corn to be stowed on board. Powhatan then disappeared, but immediately sent his warriors to surround the house and cut off Smith while the body of the English were engaged with the barge.

Aided only by one companion, the valiant captain rushed forth, “with his pistol, sword and target,” and “made such a passage among these naked devils, that, at his first shoot, they next him tumbled one over another.” Seeing that Smith had rejoined his company, Powhatan pretended that he had sent his people to guard the corn from being stolen, and renewed his protestations of friendship.

The boats being left ashore by the tide, the captain was obliged to spend the night on shore. Powhatan now conceived himself sure of his victims, and gathered all his people, with the intention of surprising Smith under cover of the night. “Notwithstanding the eternal all-seeing God did prevent him, and by a strange means. For Pocahontas, his dearest jewel and daughter, in that dark night came through the irksome woods, and told our captain great cheer should be sent us by and by; but Powhatan and all the power he could make, would after come and kill us all, if they that brought it could not kill us with our own weapons when we were at supper. Therefore if we would live, she wished us presently to be gone. Such things as she delighted in he would have given her; but with the tears running down her cheeks, she said she durst not be seen to have any; for if Powhatan should know it she were but dead, and so she ran away by herself as she came.”

One can readily imagine the distress of the poor child at feeling thus compelled, by her affection for her English friend, to become unfaithful to her father and her own people.

The feast was sent in shortly after, by a number of strong warriors, who were very earnest in their invitation to the party to lay down their arms and fall to. The matches which the English kept burning met with their decided disapproval, the smoke, as they averred, making them sick. Smith, being forewarned, did not fail to spend the night in vigilance, and sent word to Powhatan that he felt well convinced of his villainous intentions, and should be prepared for him. The Dutchmen, who were with the king, were all along supposed to be implicated in his treachery, being inimical to Smith, and glad of an opportunity to destroy him. After his departure from Werowocomoco, two of them hastened to Jamestown, and, by various pretenses, obtained a quantity of arms, which, with the assistance of some Indian companions, they carried off to Powhatan. In return for this assistance, he promised them immunity from the havoc that should overtake the colony, and high office and power in his own service.

Visit To Pamunky

Continuing his search for provision, Smith arrived at Pamunky, where Opechancanough received him with apparent kindness, but showed no readiness to trade. Smith reminded him of former promises and injuries, and ex pressed a determination to obtain supplies; proffering just payment. The chief managed to decoy the captain and his “old fifteen” into his house, exhibiting some baskets of corn, which he alleged were procured with great difficulty, but in the meantime some seven hundred armed warriors, by his orders, surrounded the building.

Fight With The King Of Paspahegh

1910 photo of Pamunkey Indians re-enacting the story of Pocahontas.
1910 photo of Pamunkey Indians re-enacting the story of Pocahontas.

Our brave captain, first exhorting his men to show no signs of fear, now sternly addressed the king, challenging him to single combat, with equal arms, upon an island in the river. Opechancanough still pretended good will and friendship, and attempted to entice Smith out at the door, by promises of munificent presents: ” the bait was guarded with at least two hundred men, and thirty lying under a great tree (that lay thwart, as a barricado) each his arrow nocked ready to shoot.”

Smith, perceiving that prompt action was now necessary, sprang upon the king, and, holding him by the fore-lock with one hand, while, with the other, he held a cocked pistol to his breast, he led him forth among his people. Opechancanough, completely cowed, delivered up his arms, and all his warriors, amazed at the Englishman s audacity, laid theirs upon the ground.

Still keeping hold of the chief s hair, Smith made a brief oration, threatening terrible vengeance if a drop of English blood should be spilt, and declaring that if they would not sell him corn he would freight his ship with their carcasses. He promised, moreover, continued friend ship if no further cause for complaint were given. All now made friendly protestations, and brought in abundance of provision; but, as Smith lay down to recruit himself with a little sleep, a great number of the savages rushed in to overpower him. This attack was repelled as successfully and promptly as the first. The king in a lengthy speech excused and explained the movement, and the day ended in peaceful trade and barter.

At this time arrived one Richard Wyffin, who had venturously made his way alone through the wilderness to announce to Smith a great loss which the colony had met with in the death of Gosnoll and eight companions. They had started in a skiff for the Isle of Hogs, and were upset by a gale “(that extreme frozen time)” and drowned. Wyffin had stopped at Powhatan’s head-quarters, and only escaped destruction by the kindness of the Englishman s fast friend Pocahontas. She “hid him for a time, and sent them who pursued him the clean contrary way to seek him.”

Captain Smith Subduing the Chief
Captain Smith Subduing the Chief

Concealing this disastrous intelligence from his followers, Captain Smith set Opechancanough at liberty, and again embarked, intending, ere his return to Jamestown, to se cure the person of Powhatan. That chief had issued general orders for the destruction of Smith, and every where, as the boat passed along the river bank, crowds of Indians would appear, bringing corn in baskets, and offering it to the company if they would come for it unarmed. Their intention was evidently to draw the English into an am buscade. The captain succeeded in surprising one of these parties, and obtaining their provision.

Some of them, who consented to trade, supplied the English with poisoned food, which was eaten by Smith and others, but the poison did not prove sufficiently potent to destroy their lives. Suspicion fell upon a vigorous young warrior named Wecuttanow, as the author of this treachery; but he, having forty or fifty companions with him, “so proudly braved it as though he expected to encounter a revenge.” Which the president (Smith) perceiving in the midst of his company, did not only beat, but spurned him like a dog, as scorning to do him any worse mischief.”

At other places where provision was sought, it was plain that the Indians were themselves in want, and ” imparted that little they had with such complaints and tears from the eyes of women and children as he had been too cruel to have been a Christian that would not have been satisfied and moved with compassion.”

Powhatan, cautioned by “those damned Dutchmen,” had left Werowocomoco, with all his effects, before Smith arrived there, and the plan of making him prisoner was therefore abandoned. Here Smith breaks out into a spirited justification of his conduct and purposes, complaining that fault had been found with him, by some, for cruelty and harshness, and by others for want of energy and determination. He draws a strong contrast between the proceedings of the English colony and the manner in which the Spaniards usually followed up their discoveries. It was not pleasing, he says, to some, that he had temporized with such a treacherous people, and ” that he washed not the ground with their bloods, nor showed such strange inventions in mangling, murdering, ransacking, and destroying, (as did the Spaniards,) the simple bodies of such ignorant souls.”

The renegade Dutchmen had a place of rendezvous near Jamestown, known as the “glass house,” whither they resorted, with their Indian associates, to carry on their system of pilfering arms and other articles from the colony. Captain Smith making a visit to this spot, with the intention of arresting one of them, named Francis, whom he had heard to be there, was set upon, as he returned alone, by the king of Paspahegh, “a most strong stout savage,” and a terrible personal encounter ensued. The Indian closed upon him, so that he could make no use of his falchion, and, by sheer strength, dragged him into the river. After a desperate struggle, Smith succeeded in grasping the savage by the throat, and in drawing his weapon.

“Seeing how pitifully he begged for his life, he led him prisoner to Jamestown, and put him in chains.” His women and children came every day to visit him, bringing presents to propitiate the English. Being carelessly guarded, the king finally made his escape. In attempts to recover him, some fighting and bloodshed ensued, and two Indians, named Kemp and Tussore, “the two most exact villains in all the country,” were taken prisoners. Smith, with a corps of soldiery, proceeding to punish the Indians on the Chickahominy, passed by Paspahegh, and there concluded a peace with the natives. They at first ventured to attack him, but unable to resist the English weapons, they threw down their arms, and sent forward a young warrior, called Okaning, to make an oration.

Ascendancy Of The English

He represented that his chief, in effecting an escape, had but followed the instincts of nature; that fowls, beasts, and fishes strove to avoid captivity and snares, and why should not man be allowed so universal a privilege? He added that, if the English would not live at peace with them, the tribe must abandon the country, and the supplies which the colony had heretofore obtained from them be thereby cut off.

The power and influence of Smith among the savages was infinitely increased by a circumstance, which occurred immediately after his return to Jamestown. A pistol had been stolen by a Chickahominy Indian, and his two brothers, supposed to be privy to the theft, had been seized, to secure its return. One of them was sent in search of the missing article, assured that his brother should be hanged if it was not forthcoming within twelve hours. Smith, “pitying the poof naked savage in the dungeon, sent him victuals, and some charcoal for a fire; ere midnight, his brother returned, with the pistol, but the poor savage in the dungeon was so smothered with the smoke he had made, and so piteously burned,” that he appeared to be dead.

His brother, overwhelmed with grief, uttered such touching lamentations over the body, that Captain Smith, although feeling little hope of success, assured him that he would bring the dead Indian to life, provided he and his fellows would give over their thieving. Energetic treatment restored the poor fellow to consciousness, and, his burns being dressed, the simple pair were sent on their way, each with a small present, to spread the report, far and near, that Captain Smith had power to restore the dead to life. Not long after, several Indians were killed by the explosion of a quantity of powder, which they were at tempting to dry upon a plate of armor, as they had seen the English do. “These, and many other such pretty accidents, so amazed and frighten both Powhatan and all his people,” that they came in from all quarters, returning stolen property, and begging for favor and peace: “and all the country,” says the narrator, “became absolutely as free for us as for themselves.”


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MLA Source Citation:

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 2 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/indians-of-virginia.htm - Last updated on Feb 19th, 2013


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