Jamestown 8: Bloodletting


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The massacre of 1622

On March 22, 1622, Powhatan warriors ambushed and killed 347 people – a quarter of Virginia’s colonists.  In just a few hours, the colony was transformed from boomtown into rubble.  Worse, it was about to collapse into a second starving time.

Over the next year, 1000 people died.  War resumed with the Powhatan, this time led by Opechancanough and his brother, Opitchapam.  Governor Wyatt resumed Delaware/Gates/Dale’s tactics of razing Powhatan villages in retaliation for offenses.

In April 1623, the English poisoned and shot dozens of Powhatan leaders and warriors at a supposed peace negotiation.  A year after that came the decisive battle, where 800 Powhatan fought 60 better-armed, and armored, Englishmen.  Sporadic hostilities continued for the next eight years, but there was no longer any chance of Powhatan victory.

Opechancanough had hoped that the massacre would either kill or drive the English from Virginia.  Instead, it galvanized them.  The London Company used pro-Protestant fervor to attract new investors and settlers.  The English no longer felt the need to try to cooperate or cohabitate with the Powhatan.  The new policy was to drive the Powhatan from the land, and take Virginia by right of conquest.

The attack also catalyzed the collapse of the Virginia Company, and the transformation of Virginia into England’s first Crown Colony.

Everyday life in the 17th Century Chesapeake

As a Crown Colony, Virginia no longer had top-down imposition of social structure or economics.  It developed naturally, and the society that evolved was extremely unique.

Again, younger sons of noble or landed gentry families started to emigrate.  Peasants facing destitution went, too, after exhausting all their options within England.  Again, it was a choice between destitution and colonization.

Colonists did all their trading with merchant mariners, so they didn’t develop towns or industry of their own.  With no towns, there was virtually no law enforcement, though the Virginia Assembly could still pass laws.  Colonists simply lived as they saw fit, without trying to impose their ideas on others.  Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t.

Instead, people lived within kinship networks.  Extended family and friends formed the basis of society.  This was a natural extension of noble families in England, though it took a very different form.  It also took a form molded by the hardship of society.  40% of new arrivals died during their “seasoning period,” and survivors experienced permanent damage to their health.  75% of children had lost at least one parent before they reached adulthood.  Many had lost both.  Marriages lasted an average of 7 years before one partner died.

Through the rest of the century, even the richest people in Virginia had a lower standard of living, and access to fewer luxuries, than the poor people of England.  There were no towns, taverns, or marketplaces.  There was also very little crime.

Fragile though life was, Chesapeake society was strong enough to endure the coming turmoil of war and depression.  It survived, and formed the foundation of the American South.

Recommended book:

Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth Century Chesapeake, by James Horn

Fascinating book, if a little dry.  Horn’s research is superb and very unique.  It forms the basis of the last 10 minutes of this episode, discussing everyday life, though the book obviously goes into a lot more detail, with maps and even anecdotes.  It’s not light reading, but if you’re interested in the topic, it’s the best there is.

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