How were the Native Americans in the Powhatan Confederacy different from those confronted by the Spanish?

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lynnebh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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The Powhatan Indians were located in Virginia. They get their name from an important chief, Powhatan, who was the father of Pocahontas. These tribes had established a complicated chiefdom in which many sub-tribes were ruled over by the major tribe, controlled by Powhatan. These Indians built houses out of trees. They grew crops, mostly maize (corn), and they fished and hunted for meat. The men were tall, thin and handsome. The women were shorter, but strong because they worked hard growing crops and making bread out of the corn flour that they had to pound for hours. Both sexes had their different roles, but they all worked hard. They tended to stay where they were until the land could no longer produce enough to support them, and then they would move to another location.

The English needed to get along with these Indians to ensure their survival, but they made many mistakes. They tried to buy Powhatan’s favor by giving him a lot of worthless trinkets and making him a vassal of the English king, but in order to do this, he had to kneel before the English in submission, and this he naturally refused to do. He was already a king in his own nation. There was a lot of fighting between the Indians and the colonists. There was a brief period of peace when tobacco farmer John Rolfe married Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, but when they both died, the wars continued as the English continued to encroach on the Indian land. 

Spanish explorers such as Coronado and DeSoto had even worse luck with the Native Americans. They encountered hostile natives almost everywhere, which caused them to change direction often. Since most of the Spanish conquests were in South America and Mexico, when they encountered resistance in Florida and in the Southern U.S., they gave up and turned around. They did not find any gold, so they were not interested in settling down and farming like the English were. They had different goals in mind than the English settlers.

None of the Native Americans were very pleased about the arrival of the Europeans, but Native Americans believed that no one could own the land and if the Europeans were willing to co-exist, that was fine. The problem was, the Europeans had a different culture and different views about the land. They believed that God meant man to subdue the land and use it for himself. The Native Americans believed that the people and the land were one so when they were forced to leave their land by the Europeans, they fought back.

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