American Indians: The First “Other”

American Indians: The First “Other” 2017-07-26T10:41:28-04:00

Bermuda Hundred Plantation, the Virginia Colony.

On a chilly spring morning, as the first rays of sun slanted through the thick forest, Powhatan warriors stepped into the doorways of the settlers’ farmhouses. The young Indians appeared friendly and smiling, their thick black hair carefully braided in ponytails. Their faces free of war paint, their eyes sparkling, the young men held out trade goods: sacks of corn and beans and freshly killed birds.

The English colonists lived on two dozen isolated plantations located along 60 miles of the James River. Most of the settlers were young men, farm laborers, housed in crude, wood plank cabins, located on the edge of large, muddy fields containing thousands of spindly green tobacco plants. The laborers worked long hours, tending the tobacco plants or cutting trees to clear more land for cultivation. Because of the plantation owners’ focus on growing as much valuable tobacco as possible, the colonists grew few food crops. They depended upon trading with the Indians to obtain their food. On this nippy March morning, many settlers, eager to obtain more food, invited the young warriors inside.

But this would be a day of killing, not commerce.

Once inside the cabins, the warriors dropped their sacks of food, pulled out knives and tomahawks and attacked the shocked settlers. They raised their arms again and again, striking repeated blows. Soon blood spattered the wood-plank walls and soaked into the dark earth.

The warriors stepped over the crumpled corpses and searched each house for guns, ammunition, axes and knives. If they found infants sleeping, they quickly dispatched them with deep knife thrusts. After searching the house, they moved quickly to the next dwelling.

At many sites, the Indians hacked the bodies of the dead into pieces, a gesture calculated to unnerve the English. The Powhatan leaders had observed the English burial ceremonies and knew the whites placed great importance on keeping a body intact before it was placed in a grave.

The Indians singled out one Englishman, George Thorpe, a Christian missionary, for a particularly cruel death.

A wealthy member of the British parliament, Thorpe arrived in Virginia in 1620, committed to the cause of converting the local Indians to Christianity. With the backing of four other leading London merchants he purchased a 10,000-acre tract of land upriver from Jamestown. The plantation, later known as “Berkeley Hundred,” included several thousand acres reserved for future construction of a “college” (i.e. a high school) for Indian youths.

Thorpe was convinced that the Indians were peaceful, loving people who were being cheated and verbally abused by many colonists. He wrote several letters of complaint to Sir Edwin Sandys, London-based treasurer of the Virginia Company,

According to Thorpe, “most (Virginia) men with theire mouthes give them nothinge but maledictions and bitter execrations…”

Thorpe attempted to ingratiate himself with the new chief of the Pamunkey tribe, Opechancanough, by conducting Bible readings in the tribe’s home village. He even had an English-style wooden frame house built for the chief. Opechancanough was proud of his new house and fascinated with the lock on the front door. He wore the shiny metal key around his neck and locked and unlocked the door a “hundred times a day.”

Right up until the day of his murder, Thorpe thought that he had been making good progress in his efforts. Unfortunately, his many uninvited visits to the tribe made them suspicious.

The Pamunkeys, like all the tribes of North America, had their own religion. They worshipped dozens of different deities they found in different forms of nature. They came to view Thorpe’s frequent visits and his droning lectures (in English) on Christianity as an attempt to destroy their culture. The Pamunkey chief suspected that Thorpe was trying to weaken them spiritually or psychologically for a coming attack by English soldiers.

On the day of the massacre, a friendly Pamunkey ran to the Berkeley Hundred plantation and warned Thorpe he would be killed. Thorpe waved him off and began praying. Soon afterwards, a party of warriors ran towards him and felled him with a series of fierce blows. They then battered the dead man’s face to a bloody pulp and cut off his arms and legs. His remains were scattered around the ground to be eaten by animals. The attacking party burned Thorpe’s cabin, scattered his Bibles and proceeded to kill eight other colonists at the plantation.

This slaughter was repeated at a dozen other plantations. These humble settlements, little more than clearings in the vast Virginia forest, bore hopeful names, Falling Creek, Jordan’s Journey, Paces-Paines, Powlebrook, and Shirley’s Hundred. Soon the small wooden buildings were turned into charnel houses, the bludgeoned bodies of the colonists lying in pools of blood.

At Martin’s Hundred, a large plantation about ten miles south of Jamestown, a half-dozen buildings were burned and 50 of the 122 settlers working there were slaughtered. A dozen colonists tried to hide under the altar in the plantation’s small church. The warriors broke into the house of worship and ran to the terrified workers. When they left, the wooden pews and walls of the church were spattered with red.

Opechancanough, chief of the Powhatan confederacy, had carefully planned the colony wide, surprise attack. The elderly chief ruled a dozen smaller tribes including the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Nansemond, Appamattock and Weyanoke. Having demanded that all the tribes in the alliance to contribute men, he was able to send around 1,000 warriors into dozens of separate positions for the surprise attack.

Historians still debate the timing of the attack. After all, the English had arrived 15 years earlier and had been slowly building more plantations and seizing Indian land year after year.

The Indians had no written language so Opechancanough left no letters. It is quite probable that the English did not seem like much of a long-term threat to the Powhatans during their first years. The Indians saw that they were unable to grow enough food to feed themselves and died in large numbers in the summer malaria season.

The Indians also found the English good trading partners. They valued the metal tools, glass beads and wool blankets they English offered up. The Powhatan also saw them as potential allies, should a war develop with neighboring tribes.

The cautious, basically peaceful relationship might have continued had the English confined themselves to the swampy area near Jamestown.

Tobacco Boom

During the first decade, as ship after ship arrived from England with dozens of new immigrants and fresh supplies, the village of Jamestown grew to several hundred people. The colony’s first big breakthrough, the sales of locally grown, sweet smelling tobacco, came in 1613. Virginia’s destiny was set. In 1617, 20,000 pounds of tobacco was exported to England. In 1618, shipments topped 40,000 pounds. New plantations were founded up and down the James River.

The Indians anger grew as the English seized many of their corn fields, fenced them off and planted tobacco. The English chopped down hundreds of acres of trees, destroying forests that had been prime hunting ground. Even worse, the English let their pigs roam freely and the animals wandered into the Indians villages, crushing gardens and eating food baskets.

The Indians also grew concerned that their own population was shrinking along with their territory. Archeologists estimate the Virginia region held around 25,000 American Indians in 1600, prior to the arrival of the English. Shortly after the English arrived, waves of European diseases swept through the tribes and the native population dropped by half. The Indians had no immunity to sicknesses such as smallpox, typhoid fever and dysentery. Smallpox was particularly devastating, wiping out entire villages in a day or two.

While neither the English nor the Indians understood how germs transmitted disease, the Indians just knew these terrible plagues had arrived after the white man came. The English seemed to have caused one disaster after another: the sicknesses, the theft of their fields, the attack on their religion.

The massacre represented, in effect, a clash of two worlds. It was one of the last attempts by the Indians in Virginia to push back against the English colonizers and the forces of European civilization.

The English were shocked by the surprise and coordination of the Indian attack. They simply didn’t believe the Powhatans were capable of such a clever, coordinated action. With the narrow vision of 17th century Europeans, they had never imagined the Indians could plan and execute such a bold surprise attack.

Report on Virginia

Thomas Harriot and John White, a writer and an artist, accompanied Sir Walther Raleigh on a trip across the Atlantic in 1585. They explored the coast of today’s Virginia and North Carolina. Upon returning, White and Harriott published Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. The book, subsidized by merchants interested in colonization, depicted the Indians as a strong, handsome people but simple in their beliefs and outlook. They owned no private property and built no permanent structures. Instead, they moved according to the seasons and were adept at hunting, fishing and raising food. The authors believed the Indians would be open to becoming “civilized” (e.g. farm workers and town-dwellers) and ripe for conversion to Protestant Christianity.

When Jamestown was founded in 1607, the Virginia Company had three primary goals: earn profits with trade, provide employment for thousands of desperately poor Englishmen and convert the Indians to Protestantism. One of the Company’s instructions to the first settlers was to reach out to the Indians to provide “civility (clothes) for their bodies” and “Christianity for their souls.”

Now, in the wake of the massacre, all efforts to civilize the Indians were halted. With George Thorpe’s body mutilated, the plans for the Indian college were dropped and the land put up for sale.

The leaders ordered militiamen to tally the dead on the outlying plantations. The final count came at 347 dead, more than a quarter of the colony’s total population. The soldiers returned after checking the sites, but afraid of Indian attacks, they did not take time to bury all the dead.

When Virginia Company leaders finally received news of the massacre (it took eight weeks for a ship to cross the Atlantic) they were shocked. But they gave no thought to abandoning Virginia. The colony may have lost many workers, but brutal warfare and mass casualties were expected when conquering new lands. England had already paid a steep price for subjugating its neighboring island, Ireland. The Nine Years War, which ended in 1603 had brought Ireland under control cost 30,000 English soldiers and 50-60,000 Irish dead (from war and famine).
London’s Response

After a dozen urgent meetings, the company finalized its decision. In crafting its official announcement, the company leaders acted like modern corporation executives: they blamed their underlings. The company wrote the Virginia settlers claiming they had been “deaf to so plaine a warning” and “surprised by treacherie in a time of known danger.”

The company advised Virginia Governor Francis Wyatt and his council to now impose discipline on themselves and take the fight to the Indians. The London officials called for a new, wide ranging war. The Indians, now deemed “savages,” must be driven out from Virginia. The colonial soldiers should conduct a new type of scorched earth warfare, destroying the Indians’ crops and villages.

The 1,200-word report prepared by Edward Waterhouse has become a key document in American history because it marks a turning point in England’s policy toward the American Indians.

The report’s title gave a clear indication of its findings:
A Declaration of the state of the Colonie and Affaires in Virginia. With a Relation of the barbarous Massacre in the time of peace and League, treacherously executed by the native infidels upon the English

According to Waterhouse the English settlers now had the right, even the duty, to attack and destroy the Powhatans. He advised that “Our hands which before were tied with gentlenesse and faire usage, are now set at liberty by the treacherous violence of the Savages…”

The Virginia company secretary went on to add that “Conquering them is much more easie then of civilizing them by faire meanes, for they are a rude, barbarous, and naked people …” (italics added).

In October 1622, a warship loaded with weapons arrived in Jamestown. King James had reluctantly parted with a warehouse of obsolete guns that had been stored in the Tower of London. He wanted to keep his newest weapons should a conflict break-out in Europe or Ireland.

The colonists received three hundred obsolete, bulky harquebuses (primitive, slow-firing muskets), seven hundred “calivers,” (a newer, lighter musket), three hundred “short pistols” which used the newer “fire-lock” mechanisms (instead of slow-burning cotton fuses). These were quicker to load and fire.

During the next year, the colonists stepped up militia training. The new guns allowed many more men to take up soldiering. The newly expanded militia undertook a series of assaults against Indian villages. In some battles, the Indians stood and fought, losing hundreds of warriors. At other times, they quickly retreated into the interior. The colonists quickly won back control of the land around the abandoned plantations. The Indians were thrown on the defensive and it would be 12 years before the Powhatans were able to mount another substantial attack.


In the aftermath of the 1622 massacre, the English leadership defined the Indians as an “other” group. “Othering” is a term used – with slightly different meanings – in the fields psychology, sociology and political science. Basically, othering occurs when a dominant group takes the position that an individual or group is “not one of us.”

This process can be as simple and innocent as the two groups of fans cheering for different teams at a baseball game. The same concept of “othering’ can also lead to great harm when applied to racial or ethnic groups that are being subjugated. Once a minority group had been identified as an “other,” it can be easier for the majority group to isolate and subjugate them. The most extreme example of this came in Nazi Germany, when Hitler demonized the Jews and set-up an elaborate organization to conduct the Holocaust.

In wartime, the process of “othering” can be useful for democracies. During World War II, the United States enjoyed a unique period of social cohesion as the country mobilized around fighting Germany and Japan. Later, the country focused on fighting the Soviet Union during the Cold War. When the communist states collapsed, the United States no longer had a single, clear threat to unify the country. Within a few years, fractures emerged along racial, income and geographic lines.

When colonial Virginia experienced its tobacco boom after 1618, a wealth gap emerged between those who owned the plantations and the servants who toiled in the fields. As tobacco profits poured in and the wealthy acquired more land and new businesses, the gap only increased. Identifying the Indians as an “other” which must be ruthlessly attacked and driven out created a common sense of purpose among the white colonists, rich and poor alike.

This was a key step into a morality and cultural orientation in the American colonies that would lead to slavery. Once the English colonists believed themselves entitled to eradicate the original inhabitants of the American continent, they were free to control other peoples who arrived in the colony.

In time, the English colonists and their descendants would apply “otherness” to other groups arriving on the continent including people from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe (e.g. Jews) and Latin Americans.

The consequences of othering would be most severe for a group which was basically invisible in 1622, but would soon grow in numbers and become a key labor source for plantation owners: black men and women forcibly transported from Africa.