The Collision of Cultures at the Virginia Colonies

Before the arrival of English to the area that would eventually become known as the colony of Virginia, the Powhatan Indians, as well as other tribes, had occupied the land for centuries and possessed distinct cultural practices and world outlooks. When the European settlers landed in 1609 at what would become Jamestown, the world of the English colonists and the Native Americans collided in a confrontation of interests and practices. While both the Virginia Indians and the European settlers possessed worldviews based on traditional practices and customs, the focus of the European settlers on profitable goods and monetary gain led to a violent conflict between them and the Native Americans, which ultimately culminated in the failure of collaboration between the two groups.


Bacon’s castle, an example of fashionable English style architecture being transplanted into the New World. Photo taken by myself


The cultures of the Virginia Indians and the Europeans, though seemingly vastly different, shared many similarities and common interests. For example, both the Native Americans and the colonists lived in societies guided by traditional beliefs and practices, as evidenced in the replication of English style structures in the fort of Jamestown done specifically to mimic what had been left behind in the Old World (Jamestown Fort). For the English colonists, the New World was an outlet through which to expand and spread their culture, such as religion and architecture, as well as their economic interests and exploits. In the case of the Native Americans however, the traditions of their society were what had shaped their worldview for generations before the arrival of the colonists. Their traditional organizations and ways of life are evident in the very ground itself, where their needs and societal structure “became suffused in landscapes” (Gallivan, 86). Both cultures also contained soldiers, families, and a hierarchy from which executive decisions were made, giving the two an opportunity to collaborate and forge agreements between the leaders in positions of power. While similarities are not necessarily a guarantee of cooperation, the structurally similar cultures of the Native Americans and the Europeans seemingly should have been enough to prevent the warfare and strife that later developed between the two.

Despite the societal similarities however, the vast divide of culture, perspective, and objectives led to tension between the two groups as they attempted and repeatedly failed to bridge the cultural gap between their societies. The colony lacked family units and the knowledge and respect of the land that the Indians held. Additionally, they made little attempt to assimilate to the strategies or culture of the Native Americans. In one instance, John Smith became “stuck fast” in a bog he had attempted to cross, an incident which could have been easily avoided had the English followed the lead of the Pamunkey, whose understanding of distribution of weight allowed them to cross the bogs and marshes unharmed (Horwitz, 359). The Native Americans, specifically the Powhatans, did not at first regard the colonists with fear or loathing, but rather as a people that could be included in their expanding empire. However, attempts by the Indians to collaborate with the colonists, such as John Smith’s mock execution as part of his “adoption” into the tribe, were often misinterpreted by the English as threats or expressions of malice (Horwitz, 336).

The primary difference between the two societies, however, was the fact that the English settlers viewed the land and colony as but a means to an end; the “end” in this case being wealth. The initial scouts had discovered that Virginia was seemingly hospitable for economic endeavours and soon, word spread via propaganda throughout he old world brought an influx of young men looking to “reap more fruits and profits with half the labour” (Breen, 344). However, the colonists wasted precious time and energy attempting to produce goods to profit from, such as glass, indigo, rice, and sassafras (all of which failed to get desired results), and neglected to ready themselves for the harsh winter that would soon be facing them. Following John Smith leaving the colony’s governance in new hands as he left back home for England, violence with the Native Americans, something Smith had discouraged, returned in force. The colonists went on a rampage “burning villages, looting the tombs of “dead kings,” and cutting off native’s heads” (Horwitz, 338). Some of the violence was intended to gain land for the colonies, but some was simply prompted by the prejudice and dislike of the colonists towards the Indians. The colonist’s continued requests for assistance and food from the Powhatans combined with spontaneous outbursts of violence that could not be curbed by the colonial government soon tore the already terse relationship between the groups, leading to a refusal of aid and eventual barricade of the settlers within the Jamestown fortress throughout the winter that would become known as the Starving Time (Horwitz, 339).

The graves of the many casualties of the Starving Time litter the grounds within the Jamestown Fort

The graves of the many casualties of the Starving Time litter the grounds within Jamestown Fort. Photo taken by myself

The Starving Time, a period of suffering, starvation, and diseases including “swellings, flixes, [and] burning fevers,” decimated the colony (Earle, 97). As the colonists were not able to obtain food through either trade or gathering outside of their fort, they resorted to eating first their horses, “followed by ‘vermin’ such as ‘doggs, Catts Ratts and myce,” (Herrmann, 55). In several sources, cannibalism is also mentioned in the colony during the desperation of the Starving Time, however it was not until recently that such claims had forensic evidence to support it (Jamestown Museum). Had the colonists maintained a mutually beneficial relationship with the Powhatan instead of alienating and angering them to the point of siege warfare during the winter, it is not hard to imagine a situation in which more than 60 from the 500 colonists would survive the brutal season (Horwitz, 339). The chance for collaboration and a mutually beneficial system of survival was evident, however it was due to the colonists’ greed, fear, and ignorance that they remained unaided throughout the terrible winter.

The cultural differences between the Native Americans and the European settlers of Jamestown were the causes of many conflicts. While some similarities can be seen between the two cultures, the similiarties tend to be overarching themes and concepts rather than specifics that the peoples of the time could find. From religion, to customs, to respect for land, the settlers and the Native Americans had little they could find in common between them and the attempts of the Native Americans to forge alliances were often overlooked due to the settlers’ goals of exploitation of the land. The colonists had an ample chance for alliance and survival through a mutually beneficial relationship with the Virginia Indians, however their greed and focus on purely monetary gain was a detriment to the colony and the opportunity for allies and assistance was lost.




United States. National Park Service. “The Powhatan Indian World.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 11 July 2014. Web. 19 July 2014. <>.

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