Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

The Indian Massacre in Virginia

Friday, the 22nd of March, of the year 1622, dawned brightly over a peaceful domain in Virginia. In the fifteen years that had passed since the first settlers landed and built themselves homes at Jamestown the dominion of the whites had spread, until there were nearly eighty settlements, while scattered plantations rose over a space of several hundred square miles. Powhatan, the Indian emperor, as he was called, had long shown himself the friend of the whites, and friendly relations grew up between the newcomers and the old owners of the soil that continued unbroken for years.

Everywhere peace and tranquillity now prevailed. The English had settled on the fertile lands along the bay and up the many rivers, the musket had largely given place to the plough and the sword to the sickle and the hoe, and trustful industry had succeeded the old martial vigilance. The friendliest intercourse existed between the settlers and the natives. These were admitted freely to their houses, often supplied with fire-arms, employed in hunting and fishing, and looked upon as faithful allies, many of whom had accepted the Christian faith.

But in 1618 the mild-tempered Powhatan had died, and Opechancanough, a warrior of very different character, had taken his place as chief of the confederacy of tribes. We have met with this savage before, in the adventurous career of Captain John Smith. He was a true Indian leader, shrewd, cunning, cruel in disposition, patient in suffering, skilled in deceit, and possessed of that ready eloquence which always had so strong an influence over the savage mind. Jealous of the progress of the whites, he nourished treacherous designs against them, but these were hidden deep in his savage soul, and he vowed that the heavens should fall before he would lift a hand in war against his white friends. Such was the tranquil and peaceful state of affairs which existed in Virginia in the morning of March 22, 1622. There was not a cloud in the social sky, nothing to show that the Indians were other than the devoted allies and servants of the whites.

On that morning, as often before, many of the savages came to take their breakfast with their white friends, some of them bringing deer, turkeys, fish, or fruit, which, as usual, they offered for sale. Others of them borrowed the boats of the settlers to cross the rivers and visit the outlying plantations. By many a hearth the pipe of peace was smoked, the hand of friendship extended, the voice of harmony raised.

Such was the aspect of affairs when the hour of noontide struck on that fatal day. In an instant, as if this were the signal of death, the scene changed from peace to terror. Knives and tomahawks were drawn and many of those with whom the savages had been quietly conversing a moment before were stretched in death at their feet. Neither sex nor age was spared. Wives were felled, weltering in blood, before the eyes of their horrified husbands. The tender infant was snatched from its mother's arms to be ruthlessly slain. The old, the sick, the helpless were struck down as mercilessly as the young and strong. As if by magic, the savages appeared at every point, yelling like demons of death, and slaughtering all they met. The men in the fields were killed with their own hoes and hatchets. Those in the houses were murdered on their own hearth-stones. So unlooked-for and terrible was the assault that in that day of blood three hundred and forty-seven men, women, and children fell victims to their merciless foes. Not content with their work of death, the savage murderers mutilated the bodies of their victims in the most revolting manner and revelled shamelessly in their crimes.

Yet with all their treacherous rage, they showed themselves cowardly. Wherever they were opposed they fled. One old soldier, who had served under Captain John Smith, was severely wounded by his savage assailants. He clove the skull of one of them with an axe, and the others at once took to flight. In the same way a Mr. Baldwin, whose wife lay bleeding from many wounds before his eyes, drove away a throng of murderers by one well-aimed discharge from his musket. A number of fugitive settlers obtained a few muskets from a ship that was lying in a stream near their homes, and with these they routed and dispersed the Indians for a long distance around.

The principal settlement, that of Jamestown, was a main point for the proposed Indian assault. Here the confidence and sense of security was as great as in any of the plantations, and only a fortunate warning saved the settlers from a far more terrible loss. One of the young converts among the Indians, moved by the true spirit of his new faith, warned a white friend of the deadly conspiracy, and the latter hastened to Jamestown with the ominous news. As a result, the Indian murderers on reaching there found the' gates closed and the inhabitants on the alert. They made a demonstration, but did not venture on an assault, and quickly withdrew.

Such was the first great Indian massacre in America, and one of the most unexpected and malignant of them all. It was the work of Opechancanough, who had laid his plot and organized the work of death in the most secret and skilful manner. Passing from tribe to tribe, he eloquently depicted their wrongs, roused them to revenge, pointed out the defenceless state of the whites, and worked on their passions by promises of blood and rapine. A complete organization was formed, the day and hour were fixed, and the savages of Virginia waited in silence and impatience for the time in which they hoped to rid the land of every white settler on its soil and win back their old domain.

While they did not succeed in this, they filled the whole colony with terror and dismay. The planters who had survived the attack were hastily called in to Jamestown, and their homes and fields abandoned, so that of the eighty recent settlements only six remained. Some of the people were bold enough to refuse to obey the order, arming their servants, mounting cannon, and preparing to defend their own homes. One of these bold spirits was a woman. But the authorities at Jamestown would not permit this, and they were all compelled to abandon their strongholds and unite for the general defence.

The reign of peace was at an end. A reign of war had begun. The savages were everywhere in arms, with Opechancanough at their head. The settlers, as soon as the first period of dread had passed, marched against them, burning for revenge, and relentless slaughter became the rule. It was the first Indian war in the British settlements, but was of the type of them all. Wherever any Indian showed himself he was instantly shot down. Wherever a white man ventured within reach of the red foe he was slain on the spot or dragged off for the more dreadful death by torture. There was no truce, no relaxation; it was war to the knife.

Only when seed-time was at hand did necessity demand a temporary pause in hostilities. The English now showed that they could be as treacherous and lacking in honor as their savage enemy. They offered peace to the savages, and in this way induced them to leave their hiding-places and plant their fields. While thus engaged the English rushed suddenly upon them and cut down a large number, including some of the most valiant warriors and leading chiefs.

From that time on there was no talk or thought of peace. Alike the plantation buildings of the whites and the villages of the Indians were burned. The swords and muskets of the whites, the knives and tomahawks of the red men, were ever ready for the work of death. For ten years the bloody work continued, and by the end of that time great numbers of the Indians had been killed, while of the four thousand whites in Virginia only two thousand five hundred remained.

Exhaustion at length brought peace, and for ten years more the reign of blood ceased. Yet the irritation of the Indians continued. They saw the whites spreading ever more widely through the land and taking possession of the hunting-grounds without regard for the rights of the native owners, and their hatred for the whites grew steadily more virulent. Opechancanough was now a very aged man. In the year 1643 he reached the hundredth year of his age. A gaunt and withered veteran, with shrunken limbs and a tottering and wasted form, his spirit of hostility to the whites burned still unquenched. Age had not robbed him of his influence over the tribes. His wise counsel, the veneration they felt for him, the tradition of his valorous deeds in the past, gave him unquestioned control, and in 1643 he repeated his work of twenty-one years before, organizing another secret conspiracy against the whites.

It was a reproduction of the former plot. The Indians were charged to the utmost secrecy. They were bidden to ambush the whites in their plantations and settlements and at a fixed time to fall upon them and to spare none that they could kill. The conspiracy was managed as skilfully as the' former one. No warning of it was received, and at the appointed hour the work of death began. Before it ended five hundred of the settlers were ruthlessly slain. They were principally those of the outlying plantations. Wherever the settlers were in a position for effective resistance, the savages were routed and driven back to their forest lurking-places.

Their work of death done, the red-skinned murderers at once dispersed, knowing well that they could not withstand their foes in open fight. Sir William Berkeley, the governor of Virginia, hastily called out a strong force of armed men and marched to the main seat of the slaughter. No foes were to be found. The Indians had vanished in the woodland wilderness. It was useless to pursue them farther on foot, and the governor continued the pursuit with a troop of cavalry, sweeping onward through the tribal confines.

The chief result of the expedition was the capture of the organizer of the conspiracy, the hoary leader of the tribal confederacy, who was found near his place of residence on the Pamunky. Too feeble for hasty flight, his aged limbs refusing to bear him and his weakened sight to aid him, he was easily overtaken by the pursuers, and was carried back in triumph to Jamestown, as the very central figure of Indian hostility.

It was the clement purpose of the governor to send the old chief to England as a royal captive, there to be held in honorable custody until death should close his career. But this purpose was not to be achieved. A death of violence awaited the old Indian chieftain. A wretched fellow of the neighborhood, one of the kind who would not have dared to face an Indian in arms, slipped secretly behind the famous veteran and shot him with his musket through the back, inflicting a deadly wound.

Aged and infirm as Opechancanough was, the wound was not instantly mortal. He lingered for a few days in agonizing pain. Yet to the last moment of his life his dignity of demeanor was preserved. It was especially shown when a crowd of idlers gathered in the room to sate their unfeeling curiosity on the actions of the dying chief.

His muscles had grown so weak that he could not raise his eyelids without aid, and, on hearing the noise around him, he motioned to his attendants to lift his lids that he might see what it meant. When he saw the idle and curious crowd, a flash of wounded pride and just resentment stirred his vanished powers. Sending for the governor, he said, with a keen reproach that has grown historic, "Had I taken Sir William Berkeley prisoner, I would not have exposed him as a show to my people." Closing his eyes again, in a short time afterward the Indian hero was dead.

With the death of Opechancanough, the confederacy over which Powhatan and he had ruled so long came to an end. It was now without a head, and the associated tribes fell apart. How long it had been in existence before the whites came to Virginia we cannot say, but the tread of the white man's foot was fatal to the Indian power, and as that foot advanced in triumph over the land the strength of the red men everywhere waned and disappeared.