Breaking the House of Pamunkey

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Chapter 4. Fearful Flames: The Great Assault of 1644

     1644 dawned with increasing conflict in both England and America. As Opechancano looked for the right opportunity to reclaim Tsenacomoco, news of the battles between the King’s army and Parliament forces trickled into Virginia, and dissenstions between factions over issues of politics and religion were quickly reaching the boiling point. Puritans who more often than not supported Parliament were thought treasonous by Sir William Berkeley, and he may have feared a rebellion of his own. Robert Beverley, a historian of the next generation who fought for Berkeley during Bacon’s Rebellion, gives the impression that Berkeley was loved by all the people during this time and corrected all the shortcomings brought by former governor Harvey. However, Puritan letters and narratives written to their brethren in New England and London discredits this notion and reveals that Berkeley antagonized the Puritans and used intimidation tactics to force submission.[1]

      Besides the issues surrounding the English Civil War and religious factions, rumblings of Indian war were beginning to increase along the seaboard. Besides Maryland’s ongoing troubles with the Susquahannockas, the Lenape Algonquian-speakers surrounding the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam at today’s Manhattan Island were having increased friction with the government there by late 1643. Unfortunately for them, Governor Keift was completely without understanding or common sense, ordering the murder of over one hundred Indian men, women and children as they slept. David DeVries, then resident of New Amsterdam and friend of the Indians captured every detail:

“The soldiers… massacred eighty Indians… murdering so many in their sleep, where infants were torn from their mother’s breasts and hacked to pieces in the presence of their parents and the pieces thrown into the fire and into the water, and other sucklings who were swathed and bound to small boards were then cut, struck and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some papooses so wrapped and bound were thrown into the river, and when the father and mother endeavored to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land, but made both parents and child drown… when it was morning, [some] came out to beg a piece of bread and to be permitted to warm themselves, but then were murdered in cold blood and tossed into the water. Some came… with their hands cut off, some with their legs cut off and some holding their entrails in their arms…”[2]


     This shocking action galvanized the Native Algonquians to unprecedented unification against the Dutch. DeVries tried to make peace, but it was too late, and war exploded. With a heavy heart, he quit the colony altogether as warfare spread, coming south to Virginia. This new Dutch war, as well as Maryland’s ongoing Susquahanna War, was probably something Opechancano soon became apprised of himself, and joining this momentum was one more reason to strike at Virginia.[3]

     Regardless of what Opechancano knew or didn’t know about goings on to the north, he certainly retained a vigilant watch over Virginia’s activities at his immediate borders. For one thing, these borders were porous, with intrusive English settlements surrounding and intertwining amongst established Powhatan towns. Interaction was inevitable, despite decrees from the governor’s council discouraging such social contact. The colonists, who usually did not grow enough corn for themselves (preferring their tobacco cash crop) would hire Powhatan hunters to bring in fresh game to supplement their food stores. They would go so far as to “loan” firearms and ammunition for this purpose, from which Opechancano was able to siphon off an increasing arsenal of deadly weapons. This black market trade allowed him to keep his finger on the pulse of Virginia affairs. It would appear that Opechancano was employing a similar intelligence gathering method as his brother Wahunsenaca, as William Strachey recorded in 1612:


“Watchfull he [Wahunsenaca] is over us, and keeps good espyall upon our proceedings, concerning which he hatch his sentinels that at what time soever any of our boats, pinacies, or shippes, come in, fall downe, or make up the river, give the alarm, and take it quickly on from the other, until it reach and come even to the court or hunting howse, wheresoever he and his eronoccocs, that is, his councellors, and priests, and then he… gives out direccions what is to be done, as more fearing then harmed, at any tyme, with the danger and mischief which he saith we intend unto him, by taking awaye his land from him and conspiring to surprize him…”[4]


     In March, a group of Parliamentary commissioners arrived in Jamestown’s harbor. Lord Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick and Lord Admiral of Parliament’s naval forces, sent a panel of commissioners to represent Parliament. Sir Richard had a long history with Virginia, being a member of the old Virginia Company, and owning the Richneck plantation in Warwick County in what is now near Newport News. Berkeley, the staunch royalist that he was, hated him. He had good reason to. The commissioners made an enticing offer to the people of Virginia to ensure their loyalties to Parliament. Reading their proclamation, Parliament desired to “free them from all former taxations and occasions, and gave them liberty to choose their own governor; and sent command to all English ships there (which were then to the number of sixteen, most of them great ships) to assist them if need were.” No taxes, and they could choose their own executive leader. Such a prospect was obviously an attractive offer.[5]

     Berkeley, of course, chaffed at this. The people, however, through the burgesses and governor’s council, could possibly overrule him and accept the commissioners’ offer, and thus he was vexed. Fortunately for him, however, King Charles caught wind of the commissioners and sent a countermand of his own, which arrived at about the same time as Parliament’s representatives. Having this royal backing, Berkeley “withstood parliament’s commissioners, and drew most of the other magistrates to take oath upon sacrament to maintain the king’s authority, etc., so that the whole country was like to rise in parties, some for the king and others for the parliament,” and factionalize they would.[6]

     Later that March, Governor Berkeley and his council (who included some Puritans, to his credit) took an oath of allegiance to the King of England.[7] Perhaps he hoped that by the example of the Puritan council members taking such an oath it would be an example emulated by the rest of the populace. Accordingly, Berkeley required all the people to take the same oath. It did not go over well. One Puritan man recounted that there was a “great mischief that was growing among us by Sir William Barclay’s courses, for divers of the most religious and honest inhabitants, were mark’d out to be plundered and imprisoned for the refusal of an Oath that was imposed upon the people, in reference to the King of England.” Going from house to house, Berkeley’s men tendered the oath, but, “the people murmured, and most refused to take it: Those few that tooke it did it more for feare than affection.”[8] Thus with government thugs ransacking and imprisoning those who refused, the Puritans were near the point of taking up arms themselves against Berkeley. As Robert Beverley later admitted, “the whole Colony was in Confusion.”[9]

      All sources agree that Opechancano was well apprised of these dissensions and could see that they English were segregating themselves into confused factions. He already knew of the war in England from English informants the last year or the year before, and knew that procuring reinforcements and supplies would be difficult (he hoped, impossible) to obtain. His network of loyal Powhatans, many of whom spoke English and even worked on plantations, were able to give fairly consistent and speedy intelligence as to the inner workings of the Virginia colony. Secret preparations for the greatest assault yet had been made for some time now, but the indication he needed to confirm that the time was right occurred when the war in England reached the shores of Virginia. David DeVries, who had arrived in Virginia from war-torn New Amsterdam, observed:


“Two large, strange ships sailed up the river with the flood and came along one on each side of the Bristol ship [loyal to the King], breaking out their ensign of Parliament, firing broadsides at the royalist and attempting to grapple for boarding. Their fire brought down some spars and blocks, but the surprised royalist captain managed to cut his cable. With the aid of the current, he worked his craft out of reach, and by poling and rowing he pushed well up into the shallow creek beyond Blanck Point, where the deeper draft of the attackers prevented their reaching him. Lying there out of musket range, the royalist plied a gun so smartly that his foes could not launch their small boats to board him, nor avail themselves of further broadsides. Both parties kept up a desultory fire by single cannons which, however, did considerable damage to all three, and caused many casualties. At dusk the London ships, realizing that their surprise attack had failed and that the countryside was now aroused, dropped far into the river, where they anchored.”[10]


      DeVries boarded both ships the next day to investigate, and found that the Parliament vessels had attacked in desperation, not being able to find a cargo among the royalist plantations and needed a way to compensate their loss. He also found that a Virginian man, trading on the Bristol ship, was among the dead, the only recorded Virginian casualty as a direct result of the English Civil War. DeVries was already on his way out of Virginia, leaving that very day for Holland. This was fortunate, for what DeVries didn’t know was that among the “aroused” countryside that had gathered to watch the battle were several wide-eyed Powhatans, probably engaged in trading themselveseither trading, spying, or working on a plantation, who reported everything they saw to the delight of Opechancano. This was exactly the sign he was looking for. Now, with the Colonists at each other’s throats, it was time to prepare for anfor his preparations to move toward a specific date for immediate strike in what he knew would be the last war he would ever fight. To determine this, he required immediate counsel meetings to consult with his trusted advisors and especially his priests who would have divined the approval and exact date from the Okeus deities. It was finally happening. Opechancano was going to war one last time.[11]

      Because of the comparatively small body of documentation that has survived concerning the Powhatan attack of 1644, little scholarship has gone into analyzing it. As earlier stated, many histories mention this conflict but most list the entire war as a paragraph or two of information that is largely similar to each other in content.[12] The few that have put any effort into understanding this conflict were including it as a part of a larger historical scope and therefore weren’t able to dedicate a great deal of space to it. The biggest question about this second assault is, why? Did Opechancano truly believe he was going to be successful? Were the factors stacked against him not as obvious then as they appear to us now? Anthropologist Frederick Gleach suggests that Opechancano was tired of being considered an inferior power and that these encroachments on his people’s land was a violation of their sovereignty. The attack and following war, therefore, would be an attempt to punish the Virginians for their wrongs and reclaim some Powhatan territory, but was not an attempt to completely eradicate the English since they were valued for trade goods.[13] Dr. Helen Rountree confirms that Opechancano’s major motivation was the land loss that was cutting out whole swaths of territory without compensation or permission. [14]While Gleach compared this attack as being similar to the first coup of 1622, historian Frederick John Fausz admitted that Opechancano tried to take advantage of the English Civil War but also stated:


“The Indian rebellion of 1644 cannot truly be equated with that of 1622. The 1644 attack was a desperate, futile effort against only a few English settlements; it was an outburst of frustration, not a potentially successful cultural war of annihilation. The Powhatans had silently and gradually become a remnant culture even before they attacked in 1644. The strength of the tribes, the confidence of victory, and the startling fear instilled in the English—all had made Mangopeesomon’s [Opechancano’s] 1622 uprising unique and different in intent and effect. In 1622, the Powhatans had launched a revolution for cultural sovereignty; in 1644, they carried out raids for cultural survival. The earlier uprising had attempted to give the Indians back their Virginia; the later attack tried to give a little of Virginia back to the Indians.”[15]


      Both have good points, and are true in some respects, but it is not true to say that Opechancano only wanted to partially reclaim territory or that it was an “outburst of frustration.” While they were certainly frustrated, this second attack was carefully planned and executed with the expectation of victory. It was the most devastating and well organized assault ever carried out by any Indigenous American group against any European target, requiring several years of preparation. Outbursts of frustration do not include such careful planning. Modern Mattaponi oral history states that Opechancano, in this attack and following war, was attempting to eliminate all the English from Virginia, in essence stating that “We are going to have to push them out before they kill us all,” and that the motivation was the same in both conflicts.[16] What has survived of historical documentation confirms this. During the war Indian Indigenous prisoners were interviewed and told the Virginians what Opechancano had planned, why he planned it and what he hoped to accomplish. Letters describing these interviews made their way to England and were referred to in the anonymous author’s A Perfect Description of Virginia in 1649. Thus a rare glimpse into Powhatan motivations and intentions can be inquired of 17th-centurycontemporary Powhatan people themselves. According to one description of these Powhatan prisoners of war:


“… some of them confessed, That their great King was by some of the English informed, that all was under the Sword in England, in their Native Countrey, and such divisions in our Land; That now was the time or never, to roote out all the English [italics mine]; For those that they could not surprise and kill under the feigned masque of Friendship and feasting, and the rest would be by wants; and having no supplies from their own Countrey which could not help them, be suddenly Consumed and Famished. The Indians Allaruming them night and day, and killing all their Cattell, as with ease they might doe, and by destroying in the night, all their Corne Fields, which the English could not defend.”[17]


      Another reference to a Powhatan prisoner, probably among the same ones, was made by New England leader John Winthrop, who had heard of Virginia’s troubles and wrote about it in his journal:


“A ship coming from Virginia certifies us of a great massacre lately committed by the natives upon the English there… and that an Indian whom they had since taken confessed, that they did it because they saw the English took up all their lands from them, and would drive them out of the country, and they took this season for they understood that they were at war in England, and began to go to war among themselves, for they had seen a fight in the river between a London ship which was for parliament and a Bristol ship which was for the king. He confessed further that all the Indians within 600 miles were confederate together to root all strangers out of the country [italics mine].”[18]


      In other words, both contemporary 17th century Powhatan people and oral history of modern Powhatan people confirms that this was a war that they expected to win. And it was a good plan. It is obvious that Opechancano was truly attempting to reclaim the whole of Virginia. It is true that he was outnumbered three to one, but not being able to go among the English plantations as they used to do in the past, he probably didn’t realize the extent of the English population. Even if he had known, however, it is doubtful that he would have changed his plans. His tactics are clear. The only way a small and less powerful people can bring down the emerging giant of Virginia was to cut off their resources and let them starve. As open battle was impossible, it was the only way. Since they perceived the Virginia colony to be cut off from itstheir motherland, all Opechancano had to do was attack in such a way as to force them colonists to group together, take control of their cattle and hogs in the confusion, and slash their corn fields at night. The dissensions among them now would surely continue when they were in close quarters with each other, and they might continue to fight amongst themselves as well. This differed from the attack of 1622, in which no follow-up was attempted after the initial attack. Opechancano had learned his lesson, and Virginia was about to be under siege.[19]

      As has been seen with other conflicts with the Algonquians of the Middle Atlantic, droughts, comets, eclipses and other natural signs were seen by the Indians (and the English, for that matter) as a premonitions of grave incidents to come. They were always disrupting and negative. The Algonquians surrounding the North Carolina Roanoke Colony observed a giant comet and eclipse just before violent conflict and devastating epidemics altered their way of life forever. The worst droughts in decades always seemed to prevail at the very time a new colony would come (i.e. the Spanish Jesuit Mission, Roanoke and Jamestown). Strange animal migrations and another giant comet were taken as ominous signs just before the violence of Bacon’s rebellion of 1676.[20]

      Knowing this broad spectrum of consistent interpretation of natural signs as premonition of things to come, it would be surprising if the same did not happen in the case of the Third Anglo-Powhatan War as well. Although documentation is incomplete, that is nonetheless exactly what is found. Such signs were likely taken as confirmation by Powhatan priests that the time was right and that they would be successful, whereas similar signs were taken by Virginian colonists (especially Puritans) as a divine warning of coming disaster.[21]Just two and a half weeks before the assault would occur, one unnamed Puritan man wrote that “Gods goodnesse hath beene lately very eminent in delivering me and my family from the Indian massacre.” On the morning of April first:


“my wife was washing a bucke[t] of clothes, and of a sudden her clothes were all besprinkled with blood from the first beginning to the rincing [sic] of them at last in such abundance as if a hand should invisibly take handfuls of gore blood and throw it upon the linen. When it lay all in a heape in the washing-tub, she sent for me in, and I tooke up one gobbet of blodd as big as my finger and, stirring it in my hand it did not stain my fingers or the linen: Upon this miraculous premonition and warning from God having some kind of intimation of some designe of the Indians (though nothing appeared till that day) I provided for defense…”[22]     


       This was apparently not a singular occurrence, for stories about such signs persisted among Virginian colonists for decades. From narratives surrounding Bacon’s Rebellion decades later, it was recorded that there were three signs in particular that troubled the Virginians, and probably the Powhatans as well. It was recorded by colonist Thomas Mathew that:


 “the one was a large comet, every evening for a week or more, at south-west, thirty-five degrees high, streaming like a horse’s taile, westwards, until it reach’d (almost) the horrison, and setting toward the northwest. Another was, flights of pidgeons, in breadth nigh a quarter of the midhemisphere, and of their length there was no visible end; whose weight brake down the limbs of large trees whereon these rested at night, of which the ffowlers shot abundance and eat ‘em; this sight put the old planters under the more portentous apprehensions, because like was seen as they said in 1640 [1644] when th’ Indians committed the last massacre,[italics mine] but not after, until that present year 1675.”[23]


     More premonitions than what has been recorded were likely perceived by both the English and the Powhatans, but there also was more to planning the attack than just the signs. Practically speaking, the early spring was a time of dispersal for the Powhatans, as Rountree states:


 “The worst of the winter would be over, to make travelling a bit less rigorous. The summer, with its heat and foreign epidemics, would not yet have begun. A more cogent reason was that the season of cattapeuk [spring] was a time when the enemy could not retaliate against the warriors’ loved ones. Powhatan families dispersed out of the towns in the early spring to take advantage of fish runs and to forage for other wild foods. They made visits back to plant crops and, at intervals, to weed them, but that was all… What safer time, for women and children, to attempt a general attack and escape angry survivors with ease?”[24]


      While the detailed narratives that were written concerning the first attack of 1622 are not available for the assault of 1644, several accounts survive to give an outline of the actions and effects of the Powhatans. Robert Beverley’s brief comments, along with several anonymous authors, have been well known for years. However, two additional narratives from Puritan leaders in New England give excellent detail not found elsewhere and have inexplicably been virtually ignored in the historical narrative thus far. In addition, records from the June, 1644 Virginia Grand Aassembly meeting provide additional details, so that a basic reconstruction is possible. Enough of the tactics and warfare from Powhatan culture have been demonstrated to show that the strike largely took on the same strategy as the first one, which was a traditional attack used by the Indians of this region. Phase one is to gain the enemy’s trust and intermingle with them. Phase two is a sudden, startling, simultaneous attack, completely taking the enemy by surprise. Examples of this are seen from, of course, the attack of 1622, but also in intertribal conflicts observed by the English, as noted above..

      For example, in the early 1600s, Chief Wahunsenaca (Powhatan) had reason to mistrust or otherwise have enmity with the small Piankatank nation on the coast of the Chesapeake Bay. A large contingent of warriors entered the town, pretending that Wahunsenaca wanted them to come along for a communal hunt, but when their guard was let down, they instantly produced their weapons and killed most of the men, taking the women and children as captives. A similar scenario may have befallenbefell the Kekoughtans.[25]  In another incident among culturally similar Algonquians in North Carolina, the Coree and Matchapunga nations had been in enmity for a very long time, but had concluded a peace. The Coree came, seemingly unarmed, to a great feast where they celebrated with their new “friends” until some signal was given, and each grabbed a hidden tomahawk from under their robe and killed a great deal of the Matchapunga men.[26] In the 1622 attack on the English, familiar Powhatans came and ate with the English, worked alongside them and traded them until the appointed time, when they grabbed the closest bludgeon at hand and clubbed the nearest Englishman. At that point a larger contingent of warriors hidden in the woods charged and helped to finish them off.[27]

     In April 1644, the situation was somewhat different than in 1622, in that “the Indians were not so frequently suffer’d to come among the inner Habitations of the English,”[28] and the most important settlements government centers were wholly off-limits as the eastern half of the Lower Peninsula was blocked off by a stockade. This was where most of the English population was, and where the most important government centers were. Only the frontier areas, those places near the heads of the river, at the falls, and the uppermost and lowermost points of the colony, had enough contact with the Powhatans to admit a large number of them amongst them. Also, Opechancano may have had trouble gaining enough support from the increasingly independent nations under his influence. It seems that the nations most effected by land encroachment readily joined him, but others that were relatively unaffected or enjoyed a good trade relationship, such as the Rappahannocks and Accomacs, abstained, probably to Opechancano’s frustration.[29]

     On Wednesday, April 17th, Opechancano finally gave the signal the attack would begin. Messengers were had already been sent out to the towns loyal to him to prepare for battle. Opechancano’s Pamunkey warriors would converge with the Mattaponis and possibly Opachisco’s Chiskiacs to form about a one hundred and seventy-five man force, ready to attack those who dared to plant on the York River.[30] The Chickahominies, of whom Herquapink may have been war captain, Ascomowet’s Weyanokes, the Appamattocks, and Powhites amounted to approximately one hundred  and ninety warriors, and were to attack the settlements near the falls of James River and its tributaries in Charles City and Henrico counties. The Nansemonds, with about a hundred warriors of their own, were poised at those in their vicinity in an effort to reclaim their river, though the possible recent division in the tribe may have halved this number.[31]

     The first difficulty was keeping it a secret. English traders and other visitors were frequently living in the Powhatan towns. These traders were not altogether friendly toward the Powhatans, though they were “as familiar in their houses as those of the family.” References to traders such as these in later times describes them as those who would cheat Indians in trade, run them into debt and take advantage of Indian women. If resident tradersthey caught wind of the plan, the Powhatans would lose the element of surprise. They had to be silenced. As many as possible were likely hustled out of down discreetly in advance, but apparently some traders remained. Business went on as usual, until a time when the traders least expected it. Perhaps they waited until  when they were sleeping that night, or perhaps they saw it coming but “they killed all, by sudden surprisal, living amongst them,” as the first act of reclaiming their land and their sovereignty. There was no going back after that.[32]

      It is doubtful that anyone slept that night. With the traders gone the warriors were free to dance and receive the blessings of protection from their priests. Communications probably continuously raced back and forth as runners coordinated between weroances. In the night and early morning, well before dawn the war chiefs led their contingents into the dark forest, silently approaching the plantations. Getting into position, the warriors would have had to keep perfectly still. Though the temperature would have fallen into the forties, they were well trained to handle all discomforts, and they were ready.[33]

     At about 6:00, when the sun was not yet risen and the lightening sky cast a dim, grey light through the trees, the outlines of the small houses became visible to the waiting Powhatans. They were unimpressive structures, not at all the fine white plantation homes of later centuries, with “most of it being seated scatteringly in wooden clove board houses.” These simple wood frame houses were single-level little cabins with a chimney, only three or four rooms at most and a storage loft. The warriors stayed hidden, and may have one or two posted near the doorway, who “beset the English houses a little before break of day, waiting for the first person that should open the doore and come forth.” They got ready as they heard stirrings in the house. Soon, the door opened and the first person walked out into the open. The warrior behind the door made a quick club strike to the head, killing him instantly, “beating out their brains,” or else an arrow sailed out from the woods. Then they rushed into the house, going from room to room, using edged weapons and bludgeons “and slew all they found within,” except women and children that they took prisoner. They worked quickly, taking scalps, arms, ammunition and other supplies. Usually they would then destroy the plantations by “firing the houses… in fearffull flames.” Others, if they didn’t have time to remove all the goods, they left remained standing until they could revisit it later. As one traveler later observed, “many by fire were undone.”[34]

     One such family undone by the assault was the Worleigh household on the York in Charles RiverCounty, bordering on Pamunkey territory. Little is known about the specifics, but Mrs. Margaret Worleigh was one of the women to be captured and marched back to the Pamunkey capital town of Menmend. The Worleigh surname was very uncommon in Virginia at this time, so she was probably the wife of George Worleigh, a former burgess who lived in Charles River County [now York and New Kent Counties]. He died during the course of the war, probably in April 18 attack that saw his wife taken captive. Margaret would have been bound and grouped together with other women and children captives under a guard of warriors to be taken back to Pamunkey territory.[35]

     Firearms probably weren’t used at the outset as they would serve as warning to other plantations. From farm to farm, the war parties worked as quickly as they could in a massive assault that stretched from the “South-side of James River,” to the “Heads of the other Rivers; but chiefly the York River, where Emperor Opechancanough kept his Seat of his Government.”[36] The first attacks probably didn’t take as many prisoners because it would be cumbersome to carry them along while the element of surprise was still necessary. The farms were usually widely spaced from each other, so this element of surprise was probably maintained throughout the morning, and maybe into the afternoon. Eventually, however, the plantations became acutely aware of what was taking place as piercing screams reverberated through the trees, an occasional shot was futilely squeezed off by a defending Englishman and the smoke of burning houses rose in the air. Settlers then made a panicked retreat to escape the onslaught. Frightened survivors would shoot three shots in quick succession as a warning signal to neighboring settlements and attempt to flee with their servants and families through the woods to larger plantations that had more people and were better defended.[37]

     One bedraggled group was scrambling through the woods and reached a plantation they thought might be safe, only to discover that it was already ablaze and the Powhatans had moved on. Discouraged, they began to leave, but stopped in their tracks when they “heard a pitiffull out-cry of a poor Child, crying, I burn, I burn!” The girl had probably hidden from the warriors while her family was under attack. The survivors knew they were behind enemy lines and taking even a few extra moments could be their death. None could leave the girl, however, and “although they could have willingly made haste away, yet the miserable out-cry of this poor babe, caused them to hast to the house, and rescure [sic] it forth the flames, that was even almost ready to scorch it.” They carried her to the rest of the group, where they continued on their way, eventually finding safety.[38]

      All day this went on, the Powhatans pushing their advantage. The Pamunkeys, along with their allies, apparently dealt out the worst assault on York River, “cutting them off by whole Families” and burning houses as they went. The Chickahominies, Weyanokes and Appamattocks worked together to inflict massive casualties, especially at the falls of the James near present day Richmond, where they “surprise[d] and kill[ed] under the feigned masque of Friendship and feasting,”[39] all the English that could be found. Henrico and Charles City counties were severely depopulated so as to be of little use in later counter-attacks. These attacks, though most severe at the falls of the rivers, stretched for nearly the entire length of the riverbanks, stopped only at the eastern half of the Lower Peninsula, where government buildings and prominent plantations were well-protected by palisades.[40]

      According to tradition, one family managed to save themselves from the impending attack of the Appamattocks. Sarah Woodson and her two children were at home with a local shoemaker named Ligon as a houseguest. Her husband, John Woodson, was a doctor, and was making his medical rounds when the Appamattocks attacked. Mrs. Woodson quickly barred the door and handed Ligon an old musket that hung over the door. Ligon moved to a firing position while she stoked the fireplace to prevent entry from there. As she did this, her husband rode in from the woods, whom the Indians quickly dispatched as she watched in horror. Quickly, she grabbed her children and hid them, one in a wash tub and the other in a potato hole in the floor. Ligon by this point had managed to squeeze off several shots with deadly effect, but two warriors managed to come down the chimney. Mrs. Woodson dumped scalding water on one and used a roasting spit to inflict a deadly blow to the other. Having encountered resistance, the Appamattocks moved on, but Ligon killed two more as they retreated.[41]

      The success of the different war parties varied. Though settlements at the falls going inward the frontier “crumpled inward [eastward],” these attacks on them were less severe and more sporadic as they went downriveras they approached the inner English plantations. In one case, the assault appears to have been discovered beforehand and prevented almost altogether. On the south side of the James, the Nansemond Indians were a divided people. The pro-English faction and the traditionalists may have had a disagreement over the assault. The Pochicks, as the traditionalists would call themselves, remained loyal to Opechancano while the pro-English group were more acculturated to English society.[42] The Pochicks went ahead with the assault, but the Puritans living on Nansemond River caught wind of it before it fell out. As Edward Johnson described, “in this massacre, when it came toward the place where Christ had placed his little flock [Nansemond River and eastward toward the coast], it was discovered & prevented from further proceeding.”[43]One wonders if it was the pro-English Nansemonds group  who that were the informants. The Pochicks were repulsed, as described by the man who earlier had seen a sign from God when his wife’s wash water turned into blood. He described that, “having some kinde of intimation of some designe of the Indians… I provided for defence, and though we were but five men and mistrusted not any villany towards us before: yet we secured our selves against 20 savages which were three houres that day about my house. Blessed be the name of God.”[44]

      The day finally ended with survivors banding together for defense and building making makeshift defensive works around larger plantations while as more settlers people likely filtered in through the woods during the night. Others were not as lucky and had to spent the night alone and shivering in the woods. Those few older planters who had lived through the assault of 1622 probably told the others of their experiences, namely, that the last attack was bad, but lasted only one day, and then the Powhatans had retreated. Hopefully, this time, too, they would find the morning free of attacks so they could begin to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.[45]

      Dawn finally came. It was Good Friday, the day that Christ was crucified as a sacrifice for their sins. They wistfully remembered that Berkeley had appointed a colony-wide fast that day, and to pray for the good success of the King. Well, the fast they would likely be keeping, though the King’s problems now seemed a very distant concern. Gazing out into the dark forests, they hoped that the attack had run its course. It had not. The crackling of muskets soon erupted as Opechancano revealed the hidden weapon that had long been feared: a stockpile of arms and ammunition that he had been building up for some time. The sounds of gunfire, both near and distant, signaled a renewed assault as warriors chased down those unfortunate enough to still be trapped in the forests. Though firearms were used to an extent by Powhatans previously, by the 1640s the black market trade made their use fairly widespread among the chiefdoms and individual Powhatans were better trained in their use than ever before. Now, the Powhatans had a full-fledged arsenal. A general assembly meeting later that year recognized that “the Natives have beene furnished both wth Gunnes Powder and shott with other offensive Instruments [knives and swords] thereby tending to our utter ruine.”[46] It was apparent that Opechancano’s orders were being carried out to the letter as the Powhatans continued to press in, this time on a level playing field with the English. Though specifics are lacking, it is clear that the second day was just as deadly as the first, and instead of a general massacre, it became a massive, disorganized battle as firefights erupted between bands of survivors and armed warriors. Eventually, most of the English who were left behind in the forests had either made it to the garrisons or were killed. Some sorties were apparently made by the English against Powhatans as well that day, for several prisoners were able to be taken, and reference was made to the English expending more ammunition than was expected.[47] No doubt there were those who wanted to kill the captives right then and there, but control was maintained and the prisoners were kept alive for later questioning. It is doubtful that frontal assaults of the garrisons took place other than sniping, and it eventually became apparent to Opechancano that his assault truly had run its course and they would get no further.[48]

      Governor Berkeley was likely in a state of shock as the reports continued to come in to Jamestown. It was difficult to separate fact from rumor as passions flared and panic reigned. One thing was clear. The frontier of the colony “had upon this second Massacre beene utterly deserted and ruinated.”[49] He needed more information, but communication between Jamestown and the survivors was nearly impossible. He didn’t even know yet where they were all located. As he tried to untangle the mess from Jamestown, the exhausted Powhatan warriors returned to the unburned farm houses to finish plundering the goods before returning to their families, who were then living in dispersed camps as they always did during the early spring. They had done it. They had won. There can be little doubt that they reveled in their victory in celebrations and feasting on English stores, as well as mourning over those warriors who had lost their lives in the assault. Having hardly slept in days, the men y needed a long rest to recuperate. They couldn’t rest too long, however, because though the English were boxed in, they were still a lethal enemy who would surely seek vengeance. Care needed to be taken if Opechancano’s plan was to work.

      Many in the garrisons, and even in the areas that didn’t receive an attack, began to have a different perspective of things in the wake of the assault. In one instant, most feelings of distrust toward one another, whether Puritan or Anglican, Londoner or Royalist, dissipated. As one Puritan said, “We are at peace among our selves and have beene so ever since the massacre,” whereas they were at the point of open armed rebellion a week earlier. It was his opinion that “the massacre (though a judgement) did divert a great mischief that was growing among us by Sir William Barclay’s courses… so that it is the opinion of judicious men that if the Indians had but forborne for a month longer, they had found us in such a combustion among ourselves that they might with ease have cut of[f] every man if once we had spent that little powder and shot that we had among our selves.”[50] That is not to say that the preexisting issues disappeared, but having a common enemy put these on hold for the moment.

A great manycattle and hogs were left out in the open as their owners either died or retreated. As Opechancano ordered, many Indians took advantage and killed or led off a lot great deal of cattle in the wake of the attack; the hogs could be hunted later, like wild animals. All through June the Powhatans would be “fed and encouraged” by this new food supply. The cutting of English families’ growing corn may also have been successful. By June the colony anticipated a future want of corn and “by woeful experience” knew that if they didn’t do something the colony would starve. At that point they also enacted a resolution to keep night watches and sentinels, indicating there may indeed have been successful nighttime corn slashing attacks by the Powhatans. Indian ambushes in the woods were generally feared for months, so that few dared “to goe over the forrest alone.”[51]

     The wide ranging estimates of the casualties inflicted that day may give some sense to the kind of unsure intelligence Berkeley was receiving from the field. In New England, John Winthrop had heard that “300 at least,” had been killed, while his peer Edward Johnson thought it was “five or six hundred.” Robert Beverley would later guess “near Five Hundred Christians,” an anonymous contemporary Puritan letter thought that “400 of our people,” had fallen, and the June 1644 assembly meeting estimates “neare fower hundred,” with an unknown number of wounded and captured. The anonymous Puritan letter-writer and the aAssembly meeting estimates are the most reliable, since they are the earliest and closest to the events.[52]Interestingly, this is more people killed than in the first assault of 1622, when about 350 colonists lost their lives.[53] That was at a time when the Powhatans outnumbered the English. It is remarkable in 1644 that even though weaker, outnumbered, and only able to enter the plantations at certain points, they were still able to inflict casualties worse than nearly any other time in American Indian history. Firepower certainly had something to do with it, rage being another. They knew that they had to give it everything they had, for if the attack was ineffectual, the English would retaliate quickly and their offense would amount to nothing.

     In October, the new communities at the plantations of the “great families” who gathered together for defense were addressed by the Assembly and allowed to exist as such, but only “in places of danger,” with at least ten men sufficiently armed at each small community.[54] Likely, these groups of families of varying size built some kind of defensive works, and also planted corn and tobacco communally. Few dared to go out into the forest alone and increasingly relied on each other for support. It was an interesting social dynamic for a rather anti-social society that valued individual estate-building over community interests.

     Banding together, however, came both instinctively and by royal order. Berkeley’s instructions from King Charles specifically stated that in case of Indian attack people were to give out a signal of three successive shots to alert the community and seek each other out for defense. How this exactly played out on the day of April 18 is difficult to say, but mention of the three successive shots to be fired is mentioned in laws passed soon thereafter and specific mention is made of people settling by groups for better defense, so it would seem that King Charles’s orders were in fact implemented and may have saved lives.[55]

     As the days went by, colonists who had formerly despised each other began to think more about what happened in a religious context. The Puritans had been saved. They had been given divine signs from the Almighty before the attack occurred. The Anglicans had been slaughtered. Perhaps the Puritans had been right all along. Soon, Puritan leaders and pastors began preaching this message to attentive ears, and their churches began to swell in numbers. Over a hundred people were turning out on Sunday services at the Nansemond church under the Rev. Mr. Harrison, whom Berkeley despised. In Berkeley’s trips around the colony to organize his people, he made sure to visit the church at Nansemond to make sure they knew he still wanted Harrison gone, but the people, in defiance, upheld him as their minister in Berkeley’s presence.[56]

     Many people began to view the assault as a divine judgment for the rejection of the Puritan teachings. They began to heed that message and turn their hearts toward God. Others who were able managed to find a way to escape Virginia. Groups of refugees boarded ships to leave that place forever. Many Puritans escaped north to New England, who gave the leaders there the news of the assault and of Berkeley’s persecution of the Puritan churches in Virginia.[57] Based on these refugees, John Winthrop remarked:


“It was very observable that this massacre came upon them soon after they had driven out the godly ministers we had sent to them, and made an order that all such as would not conform to the discipline of the church of England should depart the country by a certain day, which the massacre now prevented: and the governor… a courtier, and very malignant towards the way of our churches here… had appointed a fast to be kept through the country upon good Friday (as they call it) for the good success of the king, etc., and, the day before, this massacre began.”[58]


     Rev. Edward Johnson echoed Winthrop when he energetically wrote:


“It were much to be desired, that all people would take notice of the hand of God against this people, after the rejection of these Ministers of Christ: and indeed it was none other but the thrusting [of] Christ from them; and now… all you Cavaliers and malignant party the world throughout, take notice of the wonderworking providence of Christ toward his Churches, and punishing hand of his toward the contemners [sic] of his Gospel. Behold ye dispisers [sic], and wonder. Oh poor Virginia, dost thou send away the Ministers of Christ! with threatening speeches? No sooner is this done, but the barbarous, inhumane, insolent, and bloody Indians are let loose upon them.”[59]


     By April 30, twelve days after the attack, Governor Berkeley finally had enough information, and had reestablished channels of communication with colonists of the frontier. The prisoners that were taken had been brought in for questioning. These warriors may have expected torture, which was consistent with their culture surrounding warfare practices. They may have received it. In the end they spelled out exactly what caused them to be so angry as to bring on the assault. It was the land. The English took the land away from the Powhatans, and they would stop at nothing to get it back. What’s more, these captives boasted, all the Indians within six hundred miles were confederated together against the English. The English have no hope. It was a bluff, but Berkeley bought it, and this impression would make them think that they were at war with the entire Indian world.[60] He gave basic orders and instructions for marches against the Powhatans and began getting the colony on a war footing.[61] This show of military activity may have disconcerted the Indians, who had hard experience of English style warfare, and began to abate on their attacks and altogether look after their individual tribal interests rather than Powhatan affairs on a larger scale. The English interpreted this as cowardice. It was written that “they had not the heart to follow the Counsells their King commanded: but to the admiration of the English, prosecuted not their opportunitie, nor were constant to their owne Principles, but fled away and retyred themselves many miles distant off the Colony: which little space of time gave the English opportunity to gather themselves together, call an Assembly, secure their Cattell, and to thinke upon some way to defend themselves.”[62] Opechancano must have been horrified that the most critical part of his plan to lay siege was no longer being followed. Perhaps like the later Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor, he may have known that he had awakened a sleeping giant. It is a mistake however, to say that no further strikes were made by Opechancano’s forces. To the contrary, as will be seen, he still had fight left in him, and while he was abandoned by some of his followers, most remained loyal and would continue to wreak havoc on the Virginian frontier in coming months.


[1]Beverley states that Berkeley undid the “unjust” land grants of Harvey in the sight of the Indians and English and was well loved by the people. Those Puritans who were set in his crosshairs, however, said differently, in that they were subject to their homes being sacked by government gangs if they did not take an oath of allegiance to the king. See Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, 61; and Frank, ”News From Virginny,” 84-87

[2]Parr, The Voyages of David DeVries, 224-225

[3]Ibid., 222-232

[4] Strachey, Historie of Travaile, 50

[5]Winthrop, History of New England, 163


[7]Robinson, Notes From the Council and General Court Records, 64-65.

[8]Frank, “News FromVirginny,” 85-86; Bliss, Revolution and Empire, 50n11

[9]Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, 60

[10]Parr, The Voyages of David DeVries, 252-253.

[11]The anonymous authors of the Puritan letters published in Mercurius Civicus do not specifically state that Opechancano was apprised of English disunity and factions, but made clear the attack did occur at a time of great social strife, speculating that if he had waited a month longer, he may have succeeded in his plans. Beverley gives Opechancano full credit for being apprised of the internal conflicts of Virginia as the chief reason behind the timing of the attack, while an anonymous author in 1649 writes that he not only knew about the internal struggles of Virginia, but of the Civil War in England as well. This is confirmed further by John Winthrop, who reported that a Powhatan prisoner confirmed knowing about the Civil War and observing the naval battle. See Ibid., Frank, “News From Virginny,” 84-87; Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, 60; Anonymous, A Perfect Description…, 11; and Winthrop, History of New England, 2:167-68.

[12]Many histories make brief mention of the 1644 assault and subsequent war, though do little to describe it. Others, like Helen Rountree and Martha McCartney, have described more detail to the events of the conflict but still give little insight into Opechancano’s motivations. Some of the authors that mention the war are McCartney,  “Cockacoeske, Queen of Pamunkey: Diplomat and Suzeraine” in Powhatan’s Mantle, 243-266, McCartney, “Seventeenth Century Apartheid”, 47-75, Rountree, Powhatan’s People, 84-85; Rountree and Davidson, Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland, 58-59, Fausz, “Opechancanough: Indian Resistance Leader”  34, Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, 174 and Feest, The Powhatan Tribes, 54, among others.

[13]Frederick W. Gleach, Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures, (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1997) 158, 174-175

[14] Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough, 231-232

[15]Fausz, John Frederick, The Powhatan Uprising of 1622: A Historical Study of

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Conflict, (PhD.  Diss., College of William and Mary in Virginia, 1977) 582

[16]Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star,” The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History, (Golden, Fulcrum Publishing, 2007) 93.

[17]Anonymous, A Perfect Description…, 11

[18]Winthrop, History of New England, 2:167-168

[19]In 1622 Opechancano and Virginia fought back and forth ferociously for the first two years of the war before collapsing into a “war of attrition” for the remainder, but it is plain that all was quiet immediately following the main strike, allowing the English ample time to regroup. This was a lesson Opechancano would not forget, but a lesson difficult to enforce among his people.

[20]Webb, 1676, 19. Kupperman, The Abandoned Colony, 62; Horn, A Kingdom Strange, 97; Oberg, Nugent’s Hand, 59; Lee Miller, Roanoke, 101; Thomas Mathews, ”The Beginning, Progress and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in the Years 1675 and 1676”, in Charles McLean Andrews, ed., Narratives of the Insurrections, 1676-1690,vol. 16 (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915), 15-16

[21]Both the Powhatans and the English alike perceived natural signs as messages of divine nature. While this is not surprising regarding the Powhatan, considering they lived in a state far more connected with the natural world than the English, modern readers may find this surprising regarding the English. A fair wind, for example, may indicate God’s approval of a voyage about to be undertaken, or in the case of the Third Powhatan War, an Indian massacre was considered a judgment for sin. See Edward L. Bond, Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth Century Virginia, (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000).

[22]Frank, “News From Virginny,” 86-87

[23]Mathews, “The Beginning, Progress and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion,” 15-16

[24]Rountree “Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough,” 212

[25]Gleach, Powhatan’s World, 26, 43-45, 54. Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia, 118-19

[26]Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina …, (Books London, 1709) 200.

[27]Fausz, The Powhatan Uprising of 1622, 363-364; Gleach, Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia, 146-163

[28]Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, 61

[29]While specific interactions were not recorded, it can be inferred that Opechancano failed in garnering support from the Rappahannocks and Patawomeks by reason of later events in the war. While it was argued that the Rappahannocks should be attacked by some in the Council, William Claiborne argued successfully that they should be left alone, presumably because they did not participate in the assault. The Rappahannocks and Accomacs also later sided with the English as scouts. See Robinson, “Notes From the Council and General Court Records,” 64-73; and Act 9, February 17, 1644/5, Acts of the Assembly, in Hening, The Statutes at Large...293-294; Rountree and Davidson, Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland, 58-59.

[30] The Chiskiacs are never mentioned for the entire length of the war in any record, so their role is unknown. However, it is known that they engaged in hostilities against settlers on the Piankatank River shortly before the war and were assigned a reservation immediately following the war, so logically they were most likely involved in some capacity.

[31] Beverly’s account on where the attacks fell most severely, together with references in the June 1644 Assembly meeting, gives information on which I inferred the tribes that were attacked and by whom. Ascomowet and Opachisco were noted in 1649 documents, and I inferred that they were likely the chiefs during the war. The Chickahominies had no centralized chief and operated under a council system, but Herquapink was a lead man noted in documents in the early decades following the war. The warrior counts are my own decidedly rough estimate. There are no population records between 1612 and 1669, but by plotting the general rate of decline between the two points, and understanding that this decline did not happen evenly but did so after various bouts of disease and war (making any population study problematic), a general and tentative estimate can be given. See Beverly, The History and Present State of Virginia, 61; and “Acts, Orders and Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia,” in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 23, No. 3 (July, 1915), 225-255

[32]Winthrop, History of New England, 2:168

[33]Edward Johnson reported that the attack began just before dawn, which meant that the warriors would have had to get into position well before that, during the night or early hours of the morning. See Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence…, 266

[34]Ibid; Plantagenet, “A Description of the Province of New Albion,” in Force, Tracts and Other Papers, 2:6

[35]Margaret Worleigh is only known because of nineteenth century historian Sebastian Streeter, who had access to records that were later destroyed during the civil war. George Worleigh appeared as burgess in 1642, and in a suit against his estate it was stated that he died after 1644 and before 1646. He lived in the same area that Margaret was captured and was, in fact, the only man recorded in Virginia with that surname at the time. That said, the connection between Margaret and George Worleigh is probably but speculative and cannot be specifically proven for genealogical purposes. See Streeter, Papers Relation to the Early History of Maryland, 78-79; Fleet, Virginia Colonial Abstracts, 52, 58; Stanard, Virginia Colonial Register, 62.

[36]Beverley, History and Present State of Virginia, 61

[37]Three shots fired as a warning was the standard alarm on the frontier of Virginia at this time, as noted in Berkeley’s instructions from King Charles and subsequent acts of the assembly. That the survivors fled and sought each other out, settling into “great families,” is seen in Johnson’s narrative and acts of the assembly. See Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence, 266; See Anonymous, “Acts, Orders and Resolutions,” 234, and Hening, The Statutes at Large…, 1:285-86

[38]Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence, 266

[39]Anonymous, A Perfect Description…, 11

[40]The Puritans of New England heard that the attacks had spread out for nearly 200 miles along the rivers. This is clearly an exaggeration as such a figure, if taken from the falls moving toward the coast, would encompass all of Tidewater Virginia and into the bay, but clearly the attacks were wide-ranging, beginning at the falls and moving eastward, gradually losing momentum as better defended positions were encountered. See Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence…, 266; and Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, 61.

[41]This story is obviously embellished, especially in several romanticized versions I have read, but there do bear several marks of underlying truth. The people mentioned, namely John and Sarah Woodson with their two sons, can be positively identified as real people during this time period. The family kept the gun as a cherished artifact and it still exists today. Additionally, the details of the story do not disagree with the written record and in fact are consistent with what is known of the 1644 assault. For one of many examples of this story, see Grose, S.E., Appomattox County History and Events, (Marceline, MO: Walsworth Publishing Company, 2001) 193

[42]Rountree, Before and After Jamestown, 170

[43]Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence, 266


[45]Exactly how long after the assault the garrisons were established is unclear, but I feel they beginnings of them were immediate. Banding together for defense would come naturally without much thought in the face of such an attack, and if they hadn’t, I believe the casualties would have been much higher. In any case, these “great families” were mentioned in the October acts of the assembly. See Hening, The Statutes at Large…, 285-86.

[46]Anonymous, “Acts, Orders and Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia,” 3:236

[47]Anonymous, “Acts, Orders and Resolutions,” 236.

[48]A 1642 law prohibited the trade of firearms to the Powhatans, indicating that a steady black market trade was already going on. Also, the surviving records do not indicate the length of time the attack went on for. Later on, only one day, April 18, was deemed a new holiday, but with it known that the Powhatans pressed on until garrisons were brought together and were stopped by their firepower, and the government taking over a week to respond, may indicate that more violence on a lesser scale happened for the next few days following the main assault. Also see Ben C. McCary, Indians in Seventeenth Century Virginia, (Williamsburg, Garret and Massie, Inc., Virginia 350thAnniversery Celebration Corporation, 1957) 80; Act 23, March 1642/3, Acts of the Assembly, in Hening, Statutes at Large…, 255-256; Billings, The Papers of Sir William Berkeley, 60-61.

[49]Anonymous, “A Perfect Description…,” 11.

[50]Frank, “News from Virginny,” 86.

[51]Anonymous, “Acts, Orders and Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia,” 3:235; Robinson, “Notes From the Council and General Court Records…,” 70; Fleet, York County Records, 40.

[52]Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, 60; Frank, “News From Virginny,” 85; Anonymous, “Acts, Orders and Resolutions,” 229; Winthrop, History of New England, 167; Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence, 266; Morton, Colonial Virginia, 153.

[53] Fausz, Powhatan Uprising, 362-400.

[54]Act 5, October 5, 1644, Acts of the Assembly, in Hening, The Statutes at Large…, 285-286; Morton, Colonial Virginia, 154.

[55] Billings, The Papers of Sir William Berkeley, 31-32.

[56] Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence…, 266.

[57]Winthrop, History of New England, 168.


[59]Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence…, 265.

[60]Winthrop, History of New England, 167-68; Anonymous, A Perfect Description…, 11.

[61]Robinson, “Notes From the Council and General Court Records…,” 70.

[62]Anonymous, “A Perfect Description…,” 11.