Opechancanough

Opechancanough

(c. 1556-1646)

Opechancanough and John Smith While Chief Powhatan (see no. 11) had a mixed relationship with the English settlers at Jamestown, his half-brother Opechancanough (o-pech-en-ka-no) left no uncertainty about his attitude toward the colonists.

Little is known about Opechancanough’s early years, but some evidence suggests that his father was a Mexican Indian, possibly a survivor of the Indians brought into North America by Hernando de Soto (see no. 5).

Others believe that Opechancanough himself may have been taken to Florida and even Spain at one point. In any case, he became the chief of the Pamunkey branch of the Renape Indians. The Pamunkey were subject to Powhatan and his confederacy, but Opechancanough evidently enjoyed some special powers because of his close relationship with Powhatan.

When the English arrived at Jamestown in 1607, Opechancaough and his fellow Native Americans were already aware of the threats posed by the Europeans who had been exploring North America for a century.

In December 1607, Opechancanough captured Captain John Smith for entering his territory (see no. 16). However, the two men reach an uneasy truce, and during the next decades, Opechancanough apparently helped the English against rival tribes. Still, he never really accepted the ever-expanding European presence in his land.

After the death of Powhatan in 1618, Opechancanough became the main chief of his brother’s confederacy. Before long, his attitude toward the settlers became very hostile. When the English killed a warrior and prophet named Nemattanow in 1622, Opechancanough called for a surprise attack on the colonists in Virginia.

The organized Indian attacks on the settlements along the James River killed 347 English people — nearly one-third of the colony. This led to all-out war, but by the following year, the English had received reinforcements, and they forced Opechancanough to settle for a truce.

For the next 20 years, various incidents and skirmishes arose between the Native Americans and the English in Virginia. However, even though there was no major conflict, the Indians could see that the English were rapidly expanding their settlements. In 1644, the now aged and nearly blind Opechancanough called for another surprise attack on the English.

The Indians rose up in March and killed 500 colonists,but this time Opechancanough was captured and brought to Jamestown. The aged Indian chieftain was then killed by angry guards while being held in a jail. His death ended the Powhatan confederacy’s war against the English, and the settlers proceeded to expand their colony.