Native Americans and the Colonists

Start Free Trial

Editor's Choice

What caused the war between the Powhatans and English settlers?

Quick answer:

The main cause of the wars between the Powhatan and the English settlers was a dispute over land. The English wanted Powhatan land, and the Powhatans, not surprisingly, didn't want them to have it. The English tried to take Powhatan land by force, which met with fierce resistance from the natives.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A number of factors gave rise to the outbreak of hostilities between English settlers and the Powhatans. But as was often the case in conflicts between Europeans and Native Americans, the most important single factor was a dispute over land. The land on which the English had been living was swampy and generally unsuitable for farming. Powhatan land, on the other hand, was fertile, just the kind that the English needed.

After several failed attempts to reach an amicable accommodation between the English and the Powhatans, full-blown conflict broke out as a result of a more aggressive approach by the English under Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, after whom the state of Delaware is named. He believed that the best way to resolve the vexed issue of land ownership once and for all was through conquest. Only in this way, he believed, would the English ever be able to get the land that they needed.

In common with just about all Europeans at the time, he also believed that the Powhatans were an inferior race, heathen savages who needed to be dealt with harshly. This enormous cultural gap between the English settlers and the Powhatans was an additional factor in the wars that would break out between them.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Powhatan War (1622–1644) was among the first conflicts between European settlers and Native Americans. In general, this warfare was caused by cultural differences and conflicts over land.

Jamestown (1607) was the first permanent English settlement in North America. At the time of its founding, the surrounding area was dominated by the Powhatan Indian Confederacy, led by Chief Powhatan. Relations between the two disparate peoples were problematic from the start, but full-scale war was avoided for fifteen years.

The first couple of years for the Jamestown settlers were hazardous, and the colony almost collapsed. The settlers sought merely to survive, and Indian foodstuffs were badly needed by the colonists. The Indians cultivated corn, fished, and hunted, so they had surplus food. In exchange for food, the Indians received blue beads from the English. But relations were tense, and there were occasional conflicts. Nevertheless, an uneasy cooperation continued for a few years.

One reason why limited cooperation persisted was the role played by Pocahontas. A daughter of Powhatan, she supposedly saved the life of Captain John Smith as he was about to be executed by the Indians. Later, in 1613, Pocahontas was captured by the English, and she married an Englishman in 1614. This marriage helped maintain a delicate peace.

By 1618, both Powhatan and Pocahontas were dead. Opechancanough became the new chief. Tensions were high. The English had started to cultivate tobacco and were seizing land from the Indians. Tobacco was extremely lucrative, so more land was needed by the colonists for planting and for settlements as more Europeans poured into Virginia. In 1622, Opechancanough led a devastating attack, and full-scale war had begun.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When English settlers arrived in Virginia and came into contact with the Powhatan, they were reliant on the Powhatan and their corn for survival. This, combined with the fact that the English settlers were heavily outnumbered, led to early cooperation between the English and the Powhatan. With the development of tobacco as a cash crop, however, things began to change.

The introduction of tobacco to the Virginia colony proved to be very successful. A high demand for tobacco in Europe led to increasing profitability, which led to a strengthening of English settlements in Virginia. With English settlers realizing the value behind the growing demand for tobacco, they attempted to plant more tobacco in order to increase their wealth. This led to the English attempt to gain more land, which encroached upon Powhatan land. This would lead to conflict and violence between the English and the Powhatan, as they both attempted to exert control over the same land.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Aside from the cultural differences that contributed to friction between native peoples and Europeans throughout the Americas, the main cause of the Anglo-Powhatan wars in the years following Jamestown's founding was the desire of English settlers for land. When the Jamestown colonists arrived in Virginia, they entered the empire of the Powhatan people, whose chieftain had spent the previous two decades expanding his influence over the region. At first, he probably saw the English as subject peoples and perhaps valuable allies, but after surviving a series of horrific famines, and nearly failing as a business venture, the English began to plant a variety of tobacco that could be easily marketed in Europe. Virginia quickly became a cash crop colony, and the colonists' demands for land increased dramatically. As more and more colonists arrived, they became more of a threat to the Powhatan, and this process led to conflict. The earliest war had actually begun when the Powhatan attempted to starve out the colonists by denying them corn, a response to early English expansion (before tobacco became a factor). But the introduction of tobacco into the colony sped up expansion and intensified conflict with area natives. This process ended in disaster for the Powhatan.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What caused conflicts between the Powhatan and the colonists?

The Powhatan resented the English settlers because they made regular incursions into their lands without permission. These lands had been occupied by the Powhatan since time immemorial; they were ancestral hunting lands which had deep cultural significance to the tribe and were considered sacred. Unsurprisingly, then, the Powhatan didn't take too kindly to the Jamestown settlers encroaching on their territory.

Relations between the Powhatan and the English settlers, which had initially been quite cordial, rapidly deteriorated, to the extent that a series of full-scale conflicts broke out between the two sides. A brief period of peace ensued after the marriage of the Powhatan princess Pocahontas to the English tobacco planter John Rolfe. But after she passed away, conflict resumed, this time even more bitter and bloody. The Powhatan made regular raids on Jamestown, indiscriminately killing men, women, and children. The English retaliated with equal ferocity, using their superior firepower to bring the Powhatan to within an ace of extinction.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on