Many of us associate witchcraft with United States history; Salem, Massachusetts in particular. But the phenomenon of witchcraft was something firmly believed in by those who were rooted in the Christian faith throughout Europe. In other words, most Jamestown settlers from 1607 and on didn’t just believe in witchcraft: they knew it existed. There was even a string of accusations that began sometime after 1622. Dozens of trials were conducted from 1626 to at least 1730.
They probably would have gone on longer if Parliament hadn’t repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1604, which is what planted many of the seeds of the future chaos in the first place. It really started back in 1542 when Parliament criminalized witchcraft.
It didn’t help that the ancient planters assumed the Native Americans worshiped alongside the devil. It’s no coincidence that John Smith once said Powhatan was “more like a devil than a man.” Others used similar descriptions after encountering the indigenous tribes. Alexander Whitaker was an Anglican minister who described them like the “English Witches” all men of the cloth seemed to “know” so well. George Percy wrote that the Native Americans would make “noise like so many Wolves or Devils.”
It shouldn’t come as such a surprise, then, that the colonists thought witchcraft was a big problem even in their own backyards.
Historians have no idea exactly how many trials regarding witchcraft were conducted in the early 1600s, because most of the era’s court records were destroyed during the Civil War nearly two hundred years later.
In September 1626, Joan Wright of James City County was formally accused of witchcraft. She was an English settler. Witnesses testified that she had prophesied the deaths of fellow colonists around the same time she allegedly destroyed crops and cows, and somehow caused the death of a baby. Naturally, they said it all occurred through witchcraft.
Even though she admitted her part in all of it, she was acquitted of the charges.
Although we’ll never know for sure exactly why these charges were brought about, we can safely assume it was not the result of supernatural activity. Perhaps Wright was not a popular member of the community. More likely the charges were the result of unexplained phenomena that were so commonplace in the early 1600s: unexplained crop failure, death, persistent illness, etc. Even today people feel the need to place blame when something goes wrong. How often do we turn to science? It was even less common back in the colonies.
Naturally, witchcraft cases tend to reflect the presence of misogyny in the culture of the ancient planters. Only two of the cases we know about made allegations that men had played at witchcraft. Women were the primary targets, but we have no idea how far the paranoia really spread.