Jamestown through the Native’s Point of View

At Jamestown Settlement, a Native American discusses what they cook and eat.

At Jamestown Settlement, a Native American interpreter discusses what they cook and eat. (Photo by Elsa Larsen)

When we are taught about the settling of Jamestown, w are educated through the English point of view, rarely are we encouraged to see the problem the English caused for the Native Americans who had already settled here. Though we are taught to think about Jamestown as a colonial project, their story is expanded and illuminated by applying Daniel Richter’s idea of looking at the encounter to an Eastward facing perspective. This way we see that the Jamestown project only survived because of the Natives, despite our disrespect towards them.

With the story of Pocahontas, Daniel Richter points out that, “Euro-Americans have usually faced west to focus on what the narratives mean for them and their own story… Pocahontas’ main purpose was to make Jamestown survive, and thus the future development of the United States (76).” Within this narrow-minded perspective, that may be very true. However, Pocahontas’ story is so much more than helping the survival of a colony; she turned her back on her tribe and embedded herself within the colonists, acting as an intermediary between the two rivals. Robert Frost’s poem titled, “Road Not Taken” seems to fit the theme of Pocahontas’ journey because “her story conveys lessons about a road not taken, about an intercultural cooperation that should have been (Richter, 5).” However, from the Native’s point of view, she got too close with the English and abandoned her own tribe (Horowitz, 26). Pocahontas is one of the most famous stories from the settlement of Jamestown time period, and she is one of the reasons the colony survived, but from some of her descendant’s perspectives, she was a traitor (Horowitz, 36).

The winter of 1609, The Starving Time, gave the colonists a major reality check. If not for the Natives, the English would not have survived the winter and to this day, historians aren’t sure why the Indians saved the colonists (Horowitz, 23). The English, at first, believed that the Native Americans practiced cannibalism and it came as a shock when they found out they didn’t eat human flesh. The colonists thought the Indians would serve them and be ordered around by the colonists. Conversely, the Native Americans probably found it surprising that the colonists resorted to cannibalism during The Starving Time because they probably thought the English knew they would have to grow their own food and take care of themselves. Percy wrote, “Some [the colonists] have licked up the bloode which hath fallen from their weake fellows.” Percy’s accounts plus archaeological evidence supports the theory that cannibalism had taken place before the Natives stepped in to help with bread, fish, corn, and meat. Still, this raises the additional question of the Powhatans’ motives: why, after having only been met with harsh treatment from the colonists, would the Powhatan deign to help them? Whatever their motives, the Powhatans ultimately did step in to save their enemy when only a few months after the very same colonists had taken advantage of their generous hospitality. Perhaps the Natives took the high road and their own morals and ethics made them help their neighbors; they might have wanted to become trade partners with the English.

In addition to suffering starvation, colonists also faced disease in Jamestown. Typhoid, dysentery, and salt poisoning killed numerous colonists (Earle, 44). Disease seemed to attack the colonists but not many of the Natives. There was numerous shifts in population but not just from disease related death, “Indian attacks, starvation, and plague also contributed,” (Earle, 47). At one point, some of the Natives died of Small Pox (Horowitz). Before that though, the Indians didn’t get the diseases that plagued the English.

The Native Americans were forewarned of the English at first because of their previous experiences with the Spanish, so they attacked the new-found colony (Library of Congress website, Colonial Settlement). However, they realized they could use the colonists to trade, among them copper, and used gifts of food and hospitality to welcome them instead (Colonial Settlement). The Native Americans didn’t want to be relied on to supply food for the colonists because they were too busy trying to find the wealth the Spanish spoke of to plant crops, which is when the hostility between the two cultures began. The Indians shouldn’t have been treated like slaves owned by the English when they lived on the land first. It was only fair that Powhatan declare somewhat of a war on Jamestown, leading the colonists to be too afraid to leave their fort in the winter (Jamestown Island).

A poster explaining Bacon's Rebellion at Bacon's Castle.

A poster explaining Bacon’s Rebellion at Bacon’s Castle. (Photo by Elsa Larsen)

Nathaniel Bacon and his followers killed many of the friendly Native Americans who were protected by Governor Berkeley (Tartar, 105). Because of Bacon, lots of Indians were killed who had nothing to do with Jamestown or Bacon’s man getting killed, which sparked Bacon’s Rebellion. However, “Berkeley declared a war on all ‘bad’ Indians,” putting the Natives on the defense (Tartar, 107). Bacon’s Rebellion was “a power struggle between two stubborn, selfish leaders rather than a glorious fight against tyranny” (National Park Service website, Bacon’s Rebellion) which resulted in a lot of unwarranted death of the Native Americans.

The Indians kept getting pushed Westward by the English; especially when tobacco became a cash crop and used all of the Indian’s land to plant the crop, leaving the Natives stranded with no where to plant corn (Rothbard, Virginia’s Relationship with the Indians). Governor Yeardley seized the Chickahominy Indians’ corn crops leading to deteriorating relations (Rothbard). Trading with the Indians started to lessen, decreasing the Natives’ supply. The Natives were not attacking the English without being provoked, they were being cordial and hospitable, yet the colonists were stopping trade with them and refusing to communicate or cooperate. It was all very unfair to the Native Americans.

Relations between the Native Americans and the colonists was changing constantly. From Pocahontas’ rescue of John Smith to her marriage to John Rolfe, she served as an intermediary between the two clashing cultures (Richter, 5). The Indians originally wanted to create a trade agreement with the English but when they were abused and taken advantage of by the colonists, their relationship was severed. However, during The Starving Time, it was the Native Americans who came to the colonists’ rescue and shared what food they had; stunned that the people who thought so highly of themselves resorted to cannibalism. Bacon’s Rebellion tore their ties apart when under Berkeley’s governance, a civil war broke out, allowing Bacon to slaughter many friendly tribes.

At the founding of Jamestown, the Native Americans were pushed off their land, treated poorly and exploited, and attacked by the colonists all the while just trying to live their lives without the disruptions of first the Spanish and then the English. Throughout history, Indians have had a hard time.

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