- Cockacoeske, Weroansqua of the Pamunkeys, and Indian Resistance in Seventeenth-Century Virginia
In August 1676 Nathaniel Bacon brought his campaign to “ruin and extirpate all Indians in general” to the Green Dragon Swamp on the upper Pamunkey River.1 While there, he attacked and massacred nearly fifty Pamunkey Indians, who had been at peace with the government of Virginia for thirty years. Having once formed the backbone of the mighty Algonquian-speaking Powhatan Chiefdom, the Pamunkeys now numbered fewer than two hundred warriors and had lived in a state of dependence and subjection to the Virginia government since the end of the Anglo-Powhatan Wars in 1646. From the time of her accession to the position of Pamunkey weroansqua in 1656, the Pamunkey leader, Cockacoeske, had spent twenty years of her life navigating the tangle of policies, proclamations, customs, and expectations that constituted Virginia’s complex political and legal system to achieve her ends.2 Now in the space of a few short weeks, an army made up of nearly six hundred western Virginians who blamed her people for the attacks of Iroquoian Indian groups from Maryland had nearly destroyed all of her progress.3
In the first assault on the camp, the swampy terrain (made worse by the recent rains) slowed Bacon and his men enough to allow Cockacoeske to issue orders to her people. She instructed them to flee and not to fire on the Virginians under any circumstances. Having lived up to their treaty obligations for more than thirty years, the Pamunkeys refused to play the aggressors now. Bacon and his army failed to appreciate the gesture. While the majority of the Indians in the camp escaped, Bacon captured as many as forty-five Pamunkeys and killed eight, including one of Cockacoeske’s retainers whom they had captured and ordered to lead them to the now-fled weroansqua. After a day and a half [End Page 288] in which the woman led them in every direction but that in which the Pamunkeys had fled, the Virginians decided they had little use for her. According to one eyewitness, “Bacon gave command to his Soldiers to knock her in the head, which they did, and they left her dead on the way.” For her part, Cockacoeske wandered nearly two weeks in the swamp before she dared reemerge for fear of suffering the same fate as her former servant. Fortunately for her, Bacon had left the swamp long before Cockacoeske emerged from hiding. News that the royal governor, Sir William Berkeley, was moving against him ratcheted the rebel leader’s attention back to the east. His efforts to defeat Berkeley prevented him from further attacks against Indians.4
Ironically, of the principal actors involved in Bacon’s Rebellion, Cockacoeske exerted the most lasting impact on Virginia’s future. The Queen of Pamunkey managed to survive the rebellion and signed the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation, which effectively ended hostilities between the Virginians and area Indian groups. That Cockacoeske achieved this is no accident of fate. Rather, she represents one in a long line of Indians in general and Virginian Algonquians in particular who “sought cooperation rather than conflict” and “coexistence on shared regional patches of ground rather than arms-length contact across distant frontiers” who but sought to do so on Native terms.5 In the short term, Cockacoeske’s success in bridging the gap between her people and the Virginians angered individuals like Nathaniel Bacon. However, in the long term, though she died without realizing it, the concessions she extracted from the king’s commissioners in that treaty saved her people from annihilation and form the legal backbone of the present-day relationship between the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes and the Virginia government. The particular experience of Virginia Algonquians as a group well versed in preserving internal unity while defending themselves against the encroachments of outsiders long before the arrival of the English, combined with Cockacoeske’s own experience as a Virginia Algonquian woman, account for her and the group’s ability to persevere in the worst of circumstances.
Cockacoeske’s importance cannot be grasped simply by examining her life and career in isolation. Instead...