The Chesapeake Indians and the Powhatan Prophecy
The Chesapeake Bay Indians and the Power of Prophesy
Here I am in the lovely state of Maryland (named for the English Queen Henrietta Marie) which along with Delaware and Virginia borders the Chesapeake Bay. Living here for 30 years now, I became curious about the origin of the name "Chesapeake" and found a more interesting history than I would have imagined.
There are lots of Native American place names in this region. The word "Chesapeake" comes from the Algonquin Indian "K'che-se-piak" meaning "land along the big river." In fact the Bay is is the largest estuary in the United States and has more than 150 tributaries. The original Native American inhabitants took advantage of this rich habitat and mild climate to hunt, fish and farm. You can still find huge mounds of shells from ancient oyster feasts held by the the Native Americans.
Capt. John Smith and the first European explorers arrived in the Chesapeake region in 1607 and founded Jamestown in Eastern Virginia. Note: There were no Chesapeake Indians to meet them. However, there were established Algonquin Indian settlements with permanent buildings, trade routes, and a complex system of laws and government.
Over 30 tribes combined to form this Algonquin civilization, known as the "Powhatan Confederacy", which (according to Thomas Jefferson) numbered more than 15,000 people and encompassed about 8000 square miles. Their leader, Wahunsunacawh, was known as Chief Powhatan. (The actual Algonquin word for chief is "Weroance", but I shall use the term "Chief"- also, the name "Powhatan" was probably the name of his particular tribe.) He had forged this unified state, starting with an original group of six tribes which he inherited from his father. The Powhatan capital was located near present day Richmond, Virginia.
Initially the Powhatans were tolerant of the new arrivals, as they seemed interesting and too few in number to be a threat. Then the English shot and killed some of the Powhatans and behaved in a generally impolite manner. Powhatan tolerance rapidly diminished.
Most readers know that the Chief's favorite daughter, Pocahontas, befriended the Jamestown inhabitants and saved them from starvation by bringing them food and supplies. She even warned them of pending attacks from her tribe. As a reward for her friendship she was kidnapped and held captive by the settlers who threatened to kill her if Chief Powhatan did not cease hostilities. Later Pocahontas came to fall in love and she married tobacco farmer John Rolfe. Although she died young and had only one son, Thomas Rolfe, thousands of Americans can now trace their lineage back to Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan.
Most of the rest of the Powhatans did not fare as well. In addition to death from conflicts with the expanding English settlements, they were exposed to infectious European diseases to which they had no resistance. By 1646 the Powhatan Confederacy was no more. The remaining Powhatans had to disperse as the colonists began to view them as a source of slave labor to work in the tobacco fields.
True enough you say, but what has this information to do with the Chesapeake Indians? They were already dead before the Europeans arrived, but their existence and destruction were documented by the popular English writer, William Strachey, (1572-1621).
In 1609 Strachey was on the ship the Sea Venture headed to Virginia looking for adventure. The ship got caught in a hurricane and ran aground at Bermuda (not yet a tourist destination.) His book The Sea Venture was an account of the ensuing ten-month long struggle for survival. William Shakespeare used Strachey's book as the basis for his play The Tempest.
While marooned on Bermuda, the castaways managed to build boats from the wreckage and eventually made it to Virginia. Strachey went to work documenting life in the new colony. He was also fascinated by the Native American inhabitants and compiled a dictionary of Algonquin language. The only other known record of Algonquin words was made by John Smith.
Taking time to talk with the natives gave Strachey information that few Europeans made an effort to learn. The Indians told him the remarkable story of the Chesapeake tribe.
He learned that in the year or two prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Algonquin priests informed Chief Powhatan that a great danger would arise from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay- so dire that it would destroy their empire, civilization and way of life. His Confederacy of 30 tribes would be gone, the villages burned, and his people would die.
This terrifying prophecy was so persistent among religious men of the various tribes that the Algonquin priests repeatedly pressed Powhatan to take action. At first he resisted and there was much debate among his council members. The priests could see danger, but could not be specific about the exact source or timing, other than it was to come soon from a tribe located on the shore to the east.
At that point in time there was only one group fitting that description, yet the Chief was reluctant to destroy the small, peaceful Chesapeake tribe of 300 to 400 members who lived near the mouth of the Bay. They seemed an unlikely source of trouble. Still the priests thought it probable that a member of the tribe, perhaps a son not yet born, would grow into the monster who would destroy the great Confederacy that Chief Powhatan had forged.
Unfortunately for the Chesapeake Indians these visions were compelling and persistent ; the priests and council members demanded that he consider the welfare of the 30 other tribes. It seemed to him a choice between the slaughter of a few or the destruction of many, including his beloved Pocahontas. He acted. Sometime around 1606 the entire Chesapeake tribe, every man, woman and child, was murdered by the Powhatans.
On returning to England in 1611 Strachey published his book, The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia where he describes the stories he was told by the Powhatans of the destruction of the Chesapeake (Chessiopeians) tribe:
"...not long since that his priests told him how that from the Cheaspeack Bay a nation should arise which should dissolve and give end to his empire, for which, not many yeares since (perplext with this divelish oracle, an divers understanding thereof), according to the ancyent and gentile customs, he destroyed and put to sword all such who might lye under any doubtful construccion of the said prophesie, as all the inhabitants, the wereoance and his subjects of the province, and so remaine all of the Chessiopeians at this daye, and for this cause, extinct. "
A few years ago archeologists found bones in Virginia Beach that they believed to be from 64 Chesapeake tribal members. They were recently reburied near the First Landing site in Virginia.
As horrific as the murders seemed, the Powhatans told Stachey that believed that their world was now safe, as the danger from the East was eliminated.
© 2011 Bernice Latou