The Pamunkey and Jamestown

Who were the Pamunkey?

Before the English arrived in Virginia, there were the Pamunkey.  They are one of 11 tribes and the one many remember due to their relationship with the English in Jamestown. Part of the Algonquian speaking tribes, they lived in the Virginia area between the tidewater of Virginia and Maryland for over 12,000 years. Like others of their time, they lived off the land, working it and hunting the animals in order to survive.  The Native Americans believed in creating a bond with the environment in order to continue their way of life. They left nothing to waste and believed in wasting nothing. This meant they only killed the animals they needed or picked the food necessary for immediate survival. When settlers arrived from Europe, life changed dramatically for the Pamunkey.

There were anywhere between 10,000 and 25,000 people living in Virginia at the time the English arrived in 1607. While the Pamunkey are one of two tribes currently still living in Virginia, there were many more four hundred years ago.

So what happened to the Pamunkey?
Two words – urban sprawl.  Today, when we hear that word, we think of when people move into an unpopulated area, build homes, and destroy the environment around them as they take over the natural resources.  This is exactly what happened to Virginia’s unspoiled land and resources, as well as the Pamunkey back in 1607. Today only two tribes survive In Virginia and live on a reservation of about 700 acres.  Other members live all across the country, living their daily lives amongst the rest of the Americans, having assimilated to their culture and losing their own. Those who remain on the reservation, keep the ways of their people alive through tradition.

According to the Virginia Charter, all the land “between eight and thirty degrees of the said latitude, and five and forty degrees of the same latitude;. And that they shall have all the lands, soils, grounds, havens, ports, rivers, mines, minerals, woods, marshes, waters, fishings, commodities, and hereditaments, whatsoever from the frist seat of their plantation and habitation by the space of fifty like English miles as is aforesaid, all alongst the coast of Virginia and America,….” 

Just imagine then, if you landed there, you felt the land was yours, not the natives. Or imagine if you were a native and wanted to move their village to another, more fertile location. What would happen?

Most people are familiar with the story of Captain John Smith arriving in Virginia in England’s quest for gold and riches. While they did not find gold, they did find a land rich in resources. Powhatan (Wahunsenacawh) was the leader of the Pamunkey tribe at that time. His daughter was Pocahontas, who was kidnapped by the English for several years. His brother, Opechancanough fought for peace when the settlers tried to kick the Native Americans off their land.  Over the upcoming years, many treaties were signed that eventually weren’t worth much more than the paper they were printed on.  The government had a way of reneging on their deals.

When the settlers first arrived, they were unprepared for the harsh weather along the James River (named after King James). Many got sick and died. Through it all, Powhatan tried to help the settlers by sending food supplies and other goods necessary for survival.  Still many died. They passed strange illnesses on to the Native Americans who had never been exposed to such virulent diseases before so, they too, perished. The relationship between the settlers and the natives was a strained one.  The settlers saw many of them as “naked devils” or “red devils” because of the color of their skin.  The natives saw the English as greedy and destructive because they took over the land, destroying the resources, and ordering the Pamunkey to move.

Much to the dismay of the Pamunkey, the colonists did not repay the favor by accepting the native’s theory of being good to the Earth and its animals. They came to strip the land of its bounty and ship it back to London. Whereas the natives only took what they needed to survive, the English took what they could to make money, often stripping the area of all resources. When they first arrived, the settlers thought they would find gold – the assumption made because of the riches the Spanish had found in Central and South America. Those riches were not found in Virginia.  But they did find another type of gold – tobacco. The only problem with tobacco – it depleted the land of nutrients and left it unfarmable for many years afterwards.  If the settlers did not rotate their crops, they would destroy all the land around them in their thirst for wealth through a crop – tobacco.

Chief Powhatan even reached out to the British monarch, James I and sent him a deerskin. The Pamunkey were a peaceful tribe and did not seek out hostilities with the English.  They merely wanted to hunt and fish as they needed. They saw the land as belonging to everyone and no one – that it must be shared, but the English did not see it that way.  Once they staked a claim on their parcel of land, they did not want anyone stepping on it – especially the natives who scared them.

Hostilities arose between the two peoples and many battles ensued.  Called “the Dark Days”, many people from both sides – English and Pamunkey alike, perished. From 1610-1646, the conflicts were known as the Anglo-Powhatan Wars.  People were not just killed by battle, but by disease, something they could not fight with weapons.  The colonists continued to illegally steal land from the Native Americans, even though they had made promises to Chief Powhatan and other Pamunkey. There were two treaties made with the Pamunkey.

The first treaty was in 1646 – This treaty was signed by Necotowance, who took over for Opechancanough. The treaty provided land for the Pamunkey. This land would be protected for them by the King if they provided tribute to the crown (in the order of 20 beaver pelts). The English would leave the natives alone north of the York River. The land between the York and James Rivers would belong to the English and if the natives wanted to travel across that land, they would have to get permission.  The English would have to get permission to cut down trees on the north side of the York or they would be tried for the offense.  South of the James River, the natives could only move between the Blackwater River and English plantations. If the English were caught harboring natives in their lands, they would be punished. Natives to the south had to wear special badges and could trade at Fort Henry or Captain Flood’s home. The tribal leader, Necotowance had to oversee the return of guns, English prisoners, Negroes, and Indian servants to the English.  Native children under the age of 12 could be kept as servants and could live in English homes.
Royal Brooch given to Weoansqua Cckacoeske

The second one in 1677 was the Treaty of Middle Plantation and was signed after Bacon’s Rebellion (see below). A royal brooch was given to the queen of the Pamunkey, Weoansqua Cockacoeske.  She was given this engraved frontlet after the treaty was signed.  This treaty promised to preserve the reservations’ boundaries and to provide equal justice to Indians in English courts. Of course, the English did not honor this treaty either. 

The Articles of Peace - At this time, King Charles II was in power.  According to the Virginia Colonial records, the Indian kings and queens would not only recognize the English kings, but they would pay tribute to them. The articles also called for lands to be turned over to England and a yearly fee be paid. The articles stated that as long as the Indians paid proper tribute, their lands would not be taken away from them. It calls for a distance of three miles to be kept – the English agree not to encroach on those lands, and the same for the Indians. Finally, the Indians shall be able to defend their land if the English should injure them in any way.  Many more articles such as these follow, delineating exactly what the Pamunkey could and could not do.  Remember those boundaries?

The Pamunkey tried to maintain their boundaries, but this was difficult.

Bacon’s Rebellion:
Many people did not like the way Governor Berkeley was ruling. The main reasons include: restricting voting rights to only those who owned land, higher taxes, low tobacco prices, a rising aristocracy, and many people not feeling safe against attacks by the Native Americans. Unfortunately, the land set aside for the Pamunkey and other natives was being taken over by more and more settlers. Since Berkeley would not take action against the natives for the attacks.

Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675 occurred because of repeated attacks on tribes that were loyal to the English.  A man called Nathaniel Bacon and his supporters did not agree with Governor Berkeley’s policies with the Pamunkey and other natives living in the area.  Bacon incited several tribes to attack each other, then his group of men followed afterwards, killing men, women, and children at the village.  Because of his success, he was elected to the House of Burgesses.

The governor called for new elections.  With Bacon gone for long periods of time, the governor felt he was neglecting his duties so he hoped to have Bacon removed.  Once Bacon was released, he raised a small army.  Many reforms were set into place but Bacon returned to Jamestown. He demanded the militia go after the natives. Berkeley was chased from Virginia and the capital was burned. Bacon got dysentery and died in the fall of 1676.

Berkeley was furious when he returned with soldiers of his own and seized the land of men who were involved. Twenty-three men were hanged, including the former governor of Albemarle Sound colony – William Drummond.  King Charles II was upset when he read the report and relived Berkeley of his command, ordering him to return to England. Once the natives realized they had little chance of winning against the guns and other weapons of the English, they signed the peace treaty of 1677.

This treaty allowed the Pamunkey to rule as they had before, to hunt and fish on their lands, to be given the means to protect themselves if needed, and many more contingencies. Click here to see the rest of the treaty outlined by the English government.

While the colonists considered the Native Americans to be independent and sovereign, the US government did not recognize them as a sovereign nation. 

Life for the Pamunkey
The Pamunkey lived in long narrow homes called yihakans.  We call them longhouses.  The buildings have a long barrel shape and were made from bent saplings. The covering was constructed from bark.  The inside was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. A center fire heated the enclosed building keeping family members warm and toasty as well as providing a place to cook their food. The benches along the sides served multiple purposes – beds for sleeping and chairs for sitting, as well as storage when needed.

Their homes were semi-permanent because the natives only resided in an area for 10 years.  Once the land became fallow, they would move on to a new area to reside but always maintained homes near rivers and a major food source. The river provided an excellent source of food as well as the woods for hunting. This is one reason the English had disputes with the Pamunkey. As the natives prepared to move on, the English would feel uneasy and there would be fighting between the two peoples. The natives believed they could hunt on any land they wished, but the English believed the land belonged to them.

We are all familiar with Chief Powhatan, but in reality he was voted into power by the people. They also voted on the other 7 members of the council to help administer their laws. They had a very democratic system, not unlike what we do today – they had two candidates and voted. The man with the most votes won the election (or woman). The remaining council members were voted on in the same manner. 

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