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An Attack in Defense- March 22, 1622

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Some of the most important and interesting American history took place along the James River, and the Indian Uprising of March 22, 1622 is no exception. On this Good Friday four centuries ago, Algonquian Indians loyal to Powhatan’s predecessor, Opechancanough, coordinated a massive attack on English colonists along the length of the Lower James River. Was this a brutal massacre or simply a desperate attempt by native people to save their people and regain their homeland? In his 2007 book The River Where America Began, Bob Deans tells the nuanced story.

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By the spring of 1622, the English had built some fifty large farms and dozens of smaller settlements along the banks of the James River, clearing and asserting control of a widening band of prime land reaching from the Chesapeake Bay to the falls near present-day Richmond. The Indians found themselves driven further from the river and deeper into the forests, fields, and outlying lands. 

On the morning of March 22, 1622–the Christian holiday, Good Friday–settlers up and down the river were visited by Indians, who bore gifts of game, conversed casually, and, in some cases, joined their English hosts at table. Suddenly, in a unified and convulsive strike, the Indians pounced... "They came unarmed into our houses, without bows or arrows, or other weapons, with deer, turkeys, fish, furs and other provisions to sell and truck with us for glass, beads, and other trifles," wrote [Edward] Waterhouse. "Yea, in some places, [they] sat down at breakfast with our people at their tables, whom immediately with their own tools and weapons either laid down or, standing in their houses, they basely and barbarously murdered…"

Within hours, the Indians had killed at least 347 settlers, more than one-fourth of all the colonists, in what the English quickly dubbed a massacre. [In response], the colonists set about a series of missions, razing Indian villages, killing indigenous people, and destroying their crops, deliberately targeting the chief source of food for thousands of people utterly dependent upon the land for their survival.

In this attack, Virginia Indians used tactics of terror and intimidation they may well have learned from the English, who had shocked native people with their willingness to kill women in their own raids. The English, in turn used, events like this attack to justify a brutal policy of extirpation and exclusion that gave them free reign over new land for tobacco production.

The horror of the violence along the James was undoubtedly great for both sides during the colonial era. It is important to remember as we enjoy the peaceful James of the present that life here was not always so.

Click here for more information about Bob Deans' The River Where America Began.

Learn more about the aftermath of 1622 here.

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