Did The Jamestown Settlers Really See The Native Americans As Nothing More Than Savages?

By now, we’ve properly established that the Native American societies already living in the New World were far more culturally advanced than we ever give them credit for. Some of these civilizations had cities of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. They had complex trade routes and a robust economy. But they were also much different.

For example, Native Americans weren’t writers. Most of their history was passed down through stories and song in a primarily oral tradition. They were artists. 

Perhaps it was because the Native American civilization was simply so much different than the European settlers were used to. They were not as technologically advanced, of course, but they had a deep respect and commitment to nature and all things that stemmed from it. In the next couple of centuries, settlers would continually rape and pillage the very land, pushing Native Americans from their ancestral homes. Who wouldn’t have a problem with that? War was inevitable. 

Those settlers would often hunt buffalo not for meat, but for hide. This kind of activity was considered barbaric — by the Native Americans. They were appalled that anyone could be so disrespectful of nature, which was where their gods were derived from. 

The Native Americans tried to steer clear of the settlers at Jamestown, but eventually everything came to a head in 1622. John Smith wrote in the History of Virginia: Powhatan “came unarmed into our houses with deer, turkeys, fish, fruits, and other provisions to sell us.”

But that changed.

Eventually, Opechancanough of the Powhatan Confederacy attacked the settlers in a surprise raid, killing hundreds. They spared no one, including women and children. About a quarter of the entire colony was wiped out during this 1622 attack. But the attack was revenge. A European settler had murdered the chief’s adviser. He responded by attacking at least 31 settlements. 

But Jamestown actually escaped the brunt of the attack because of one of those Native Americans. 

Opechancanough believed that the settlers would decide to leave after he finally withdrew his forces. He believed this because that’s what any Native American tribe would do. When you were defeated, you moved. Instead, they consolidated their settlements to increase defenses and request reinforcements from overseas. And that’s exactly what happened thereafter. The English fought back every chance they could get.

It was likely in part due to the brutality of attacks like these that settlers would describe Native Americans as barbaric and savage. But those settlers were little better. This was as true then as it was throughout the 18th and 19th centuries during campaigns that essentially genocided the Native American populations.