The Only Land They Knew

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The story of the Indians in the Old South is a dramatic and tragic one. The white man was a constant challenge to the Indian’s survival. As the English population grew, that of the Indian declined. Indian wars followed one after another with terrible repetition until some coastal tribes became extinct.

When the English arrived in Virginia in 1607, they had with them a fully developed mythology about the native societies. This mythology began to develop in English literature in the 1550’s, before any important meeting between native and white occurred, and was predicated upon two viewpoints. The first was based on the belief that the natives were ignoble savages, indeed children of the devil. The portrait drawn of them emphasized their nakedness, promiscuity, lack of order and discipline, and violent nature. In contrast, the Englishman represented culture, civility, and character. The belief in this irrevocable difference created the tendency toward violence that broke out soon after the first settlers arrived and continued into the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, the Indian was also seen as a noble savage, free from the sins and wars of Europe. His independence, bravery, and stoicism were admired, yet he was still a savage.

Whichever view was accepted by the English, the mythology created by the white man developed with little accurate information and continued for hundreds of years. The concepts were difficult to change, even after greater contacts between whites and natives produced more facts about Indian society.

Attempts to bring the natives to Christianity failed and, because of this failure, Europeans blamed the natives. That the savage was supposedly unteachable helped justify the exploitation that represented native-white relationships, and led to the numerous violent confrontations which began in 1622.

There is also evidence that the whites landed among a people who already knew and detested them. There is information that the Southern Indians had several chances to develop views about the whites, both from information told them and through direct contact. The first direct contacts probably took place in the early sixteenth century, when Giovanni de Verrazzano sailed into Chesapeake Bay. By the end of that century, a Spanish expedition under Pedro Menéndez de Avilés had unleashed terrible attacks upon the Indians. Thus, the Indians knew something of Europeans years before the Jamestown settlers arrived in 1607.

Nevertheless, when the settlers arrived at Jamestown, they were welcomed by the Indians. This was probably because Powhatan, their chief, wished to gain greater control over other tribes. It was thereby necessary to aid the first settlers, for they could become important allies in his political plans.

At the time Jamestown was established, Indian culture was going through a period of expansion, and the English appeared to offer no serious challenge to Powhatan’s Confederation. The Indian population was large and powerful, numbering perhaps ten thousand people. They lived in a well-ordered society and were ruled by a complex system of government. This political sophistication can be noted in the chain of command, which extended through the Confederacy, with Powhatan at its head.

As Wright points out, however, while the Indians aided the first settlers, the whites attempted to place the Indians under their control and demanded an annual tribute. Captain John Smith, the leader of the settlers, believed that the Indians should become servants of the whites. Because of this attitude and the fact that the Indians were dying of the white man’s diseases, the relationship was becoming more difficult, and it appeared that Jamestown might suffer the tragic fate of Walter Ralegh’s Lost Roanoke Colony. It was during this tense period that John Smith supposedly almost lost his life to an Indian tomahawk, only to be saved by Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas. Relations were further improved in 1614 when she married John Rolfe. For almost a decade there was peace. Then in 1622 the Virginia tribes under a new chief attacked the whites, killing almost four hundred settlers. English reprisals were swift and deadly. For almost twenty years, there was peace, until the last major Indian uprising occurred in 1644, when Indians killed five hundred whites and Virginians killed more than a thousand Indians.

In 1646, the Confederacy yielded most of its land, and beginning in 1665, its chiefs were selected by the royal governor of Virginia. By the eighteenth century, all semblance of the once powerful Confederacy had disappeared. Today only a few thousand Powhatans survive.

The Indians of the...

(The entire section is 1927 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XIX, October, 1981, p. 301.

Journal of American History. LXVIII, December, 1981, p. 636.

Library Journal. CVI, March 15, 1981, p. 660.

Southern Living. XVI, November, 1981, p. 196.