Cumberland Academy

The Paspahegh Massacre

The Paspahegh Town

The Indian town of Paspahegh was situated at the mouth of the Chickahominy River on its east bank, about six miles northwest of James Fort. John Smith’s 1608 Map of Virginia shows an unnamed town here. The entire area was known as Paspahegh, the name of the Algonquian-speaking group who occupied the town and hunted and fished the surrounding terrain and waters.

Timeline of Paspahegh-English Interaction

When Captain John Smith and his fellow colonists selected their seasonal hunting grounds on Jamestown Island for the site of their fort, the Paspahegh became the first victim of English expansion in the Chesapeake.

The timeline presents documentary references to the Paspahegh found in the Virtual Jamestown archive and other available sources, allowing an examination of the Indian-English encounter from the perspective of a single Powhatan group.

May 19, 1607

George Percy and others make a visit to a Paspahegh village and describe the gardens they encounter on the way:

The nineteenth day, my selfe and three or foure more walking into the Woods by chance wee espied a path-way like to an Irish pace: wee were desirous to knowe whither it would bring us; wee traced along some foure miles, all the way as wee went, having the pleasantest Suckles, the ground all flowing over with faire flowers of sundry colours and kindes, as though it had beene in any Garden or Orchard in England. There be many Strawberries, and other fruits unknowne: wee saw the Woods full of Cedar and Cypresse trees, with other trees, which issues out sweet Gummes like to Balsam: wee kept on our way in this Paradise, at length wee came to a Savage Towne, where wee found but few people, they told us the rest were gone a hunting with the Werowance of Paspiha: we stayed there a while, and had of them Strawberries, and other things; in the meane time one of the Savages came running out of his house with a Bowe and Arrowes and ranne mainly through the Woods: then I beganne to mistrust some villanie, that he went to call some companie, and so betray us, wee made all the haste away wee could: one of the Savages brought us on the way to the Wood side, where there was a Garden of Tobacco, and other fruits and herbes, he gathered Tobacco, and distributed to every one of us, so wee departed. (Percy 1606)”


According to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the intentional killing of an ethnic group or actions designed to destroy the group, constitute genocide, but require legal validation to be considered a crime. The Paspahegh massacre meets the definition but was never reviewed by a court.

However, the massacre itself supports another more recent understanding by historians of its significance: it is an act of “settler colonialism.” Rather than conscription by invaders to exploit local people and resources, it shows how the goal was the removal of native populations to make room for another work force, such as indentured servants or slaves.

Myth:– The English invaders intentions were to conscript the native peoples of Virginia and force them to work for them to exploit mineral resources, fur-bearing animals, timber-rich forests, and agricultural lands.

Reality:– Unable to conquer native peoples, the English invaders quickly turned their attention to removal and replacement of Indians by indentured servants and slaves. The growth of tobacco as a cash crop and the importation of the first slaves in 1619 spurred this development. The Algonquians under Opechancanough responded with an attack upon James River plantations in 1622, killing about 500 settlers, and again in 1644. Subsequent treaties confined Virginia’s Indians to ever diminishing spaces. No one should be mislead into thinking the Algonquian responses in 1622 and 1644 prove the Indians were a naturally violent people. If you had a domestic cat and you stepped on its tail everyday, it would soon become more feral. Time and time again, the colonists provoked the people they needed to survive. Dispossession was was a central feature of conflict.

Means of Dispossession

English custom, religion, and law were three means of dispossession. According to English custom, land not in the possession of a Christian prince could be taken, regardless of the occupants. This custom allowed colonial explorers to lay claim to land they had “discovered.” Religious conversion was another means of dispossession. Although not as strong a motivation in Virginia as in colonial New England, proselytization (conversion from one religion or belief to another) motivated English colonialists from the outset. When it involved separating children from their parents for the purpose of religious instruction, as it did at times in Virginia, the process angered Indian parents. When Wahunsenacah claimed “I have seen the death of my people thrice,” he was likely referring to cultural genocide. Colonists viewed converted Indians as safe or good Indians. The law was anther means of dispossession. Removing Indians to reserved areas, supposedly to reduce the chances for conflict, and sealing the agreements in treaties that were often violated led to anger and distrust.

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