• War and Politics: Powhatan Expansionism and the Problem of Native American Warfare

European colonists often remarked upon the differences between Native Americans’ way of war and their own. Indians, colonists asserted, were reluctant to absorb casualties and fought for captives, revenge, and personal glory rather than for political reasons such as territorial expansion. Historians have too often taken such claims at face value. Broad generalizations about low-risk tactics and individual or kin-group motives for Indigenous warfare inadvertently echo a neo-Rousseauian tradition of distinguishing between state and non-state warfare that, like other manifestations of Rousseauian thinking, implicitly characterizes Native Americans as people with cultures but not political histories. As a corrective to this tendency, this article advocates a “war-and-politics” approach, presenting as an example the rise to power of the paramount chief Wahunsonacock/Powhatan. The Powhatans’ diverse tactical repertoire overlapped with that of Europeans, was equally deadly, and was, as in Europe, an expression of the strategic concerns of political leaders. Those concerns included the conquest and colonization of entire peoples, and the acquisition of their territory, under Wahunsonacock’s direction. The Powhatan example demonstrates how historians might de-exoticize Native warfare more generally, recognizing its historical and cultural specificity without marking it as fundamentally different from war in the rest of human history.

NATIVE Americans and English colonists in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century eastern North America seemed surprised at times by the differences between their respective tactics in war. The newcomers especially remarked upon Indians’ reluctance to absorb casualties, engage in prolonged battles, or fight in open-field formations; their penchant for taking captives and subjecting them to elaborate rituals; and their disinterest in absorbing new territories. The Roanoke colonist Thomas Hariot, for instance, wrote that Indians fought “by sudden surprising . . . by ambushes, or some suttle deuises.” When they were faced with a disciplined enemy willing to absorb significant casualties, “running away was their best defence.” The Jamestown colonist John Smith interpreted such tactics as evidence that the Powhatans “seldome make warre for lands or goods, but for women and children, and principally for revenge.”1

Historians have long sought to account for this “dissonance between the two cultural systems of war” in which Natives and newcomers fought for different reasons, using different tactics. The compelling idea behind such efforts is that war opens a window into a society, an insight that has in recent decades transformed the practice of military history and restored its relevance for historians working in a wide variety of other fields. Such [End Page 3] studies ask, in essence, What does it say about a people that its warriors wage war in a certain way?2

The two most influential works on early American Indigenous warfare over the past generation, Daniel K. Richter’s 1983 “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience” and Patrick M. Malone’s 1991 The Skulking Way of War, are both in this vein: each uses the “how” of battlefield tactics as the first point of entry into the cultural logic—the “why”—of Native American warfare. Richter focuses on the Five Nations Iroquois in the early seventeenth century, rooting his complicated argument in the particulars of Haudenosaunee history, kinship, and political organization. With his emphasis on low-casualty “mourning wars” fought to replace loved ones (particularly those lost prematurely or in unnatural ways), Richter draws readers’ attention to the centrality of captivity in Native American warfare, and life, in much of the Americas. Malone’s study of warfare among New England Algonquians focuses on the transformations wrought by exposure to European warfare and weaponry but emphasizes that Algonquians incorporated these changes into their own preexisting way of “forest” warfare. Because they waged war for personal honor and on behalf of kin groups, Malone argues, they fought constantly but on a limited scale. Preferring skirmishes and ambushes to direct confrontations, they inflicted and absorbed few casualties.3

Although neither Richter nor Malone claimed to have solved the riddle of Native ways of war among people other than the Five Nations Iroquois or New England Algonquians, nor even of their chosen peoples’ patterns of warfare outside of a certain time frame, historians have nevertheless applied [End Page 4] their arguments regarding the prevalence of low-risk or “guerrilla” tactics and individual or kin-group concerns with honor, revenge, and captive taking as primary motives for warfare to eastern North America and to the early modern period as a whole. Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, for example, characterize “the prevalent form of aboriginal conflict east of the Rockies as ‘mourning war.’” Armstrong Starkey asserts that even “encounters between large forces . . . resulted in few casualties”; the real measure of success “was captives taken rather than deaths inflicted.” John Keegan confidently states that “Indians fought for honour, revenge, excitement, and in order to replace the casualties of war by seizing and ‘adopting’ captives.”4

Such assertions echo an older, Rousseauian scholarly tradition of distinguishing between “primitive” and “civilized” or non-state and state war. Non-state warfare, in this formulation, is driven by “personal, psychological, and social motives” and thus tends to be limited, loosely organized, and relatively nonlethal; often it is said to take the form of ritual combat or a game, a contest in which men prove themselves and gain their reputations. The underlying motives for state warfare, in contrast, are “economic and political—for example, plunder, more territory, or hegemony.” It is therefore more sustained, more organized, and employs more deadly tactics than non-state warfare. A significant strain in military history scholarship endorses this dichotomy and extends it over the broad sweep of human history. Keegan, for example, fully embraces it in his classic A History of Warfare, while Victor Davis Hanson explicitly contrasts Westerners’ “organization, discipline, . . . and command” harnessed to the strategic goals “of state politics” with their non-state foes, who lacked those characteristics and thus were vanquished. Like other manifestations of Rousseauian thinking about Indigenous peoples, the state versus non-state typology implicitly contrasts Europeans as people with histories and Native Americans as people with cultures but not contingent, event-rich pasts.5

Neo-Rousseauian characterizations of Indigenous warfare have not gone uncontested. Lawrence H. Keeley argues that proponents of the state/non-state [End Page 5] warfare distinction grossly understate the deadliness of small-scale warfare, while Wayne E. Lee has leveled a similar critique against the “skulking way of war” paradigm.6 Robbie Ethridge, Alan Gallay, and Paul Kelton, among others, have increased historians’ awareness of the alternative logic— and the destructiveness—of the war-fueled late seventeenth-century Indian slave trade.7 Historians who have punched through the “prehistory”/history divide, such as Richter and Christina Snyder, together with archaeologists such as David H. Dye and George R. Milner, have shown that Native American warfare, in its character, frequency, and lethality, varied considerably over time, and scholars of the Americas beyond the Eastern Woodlands— including Inga Clendinnen, Ross Hassig, and Patricia M. Lambert—have demonstrated that it also varied considerably by region.8

Yet despite these scholars’ work, characterizations of Indigenous warfare mirroring the state/non-state paradigm remain common in historical writing on the Eastern Woodlands. Specialists may have moved on, but scholars of early American and Native American history who are not [End Page 6] primarily concerned with warfare still routinely fall back on sweeping statements about “guerilla warfare” in which “natives rarely waged war to accumulate territories” but rather did so “to avenge murders and to accumulate people and things of symbolic and practical value.” This is standard textbook language as well, further testimony that recent scholarship revising neo-Rousseauian depictions of Native warfare has yet to take hold.9

Perhaps, then, a more direct approach is in order—one that begins with a conceptual shift away from war and culture and toward war and politics. Culture and politics, of course, are not entirely different things; the distinction lies in the angle of approach. War-and-culture studies tend by their very nature to treat tactics as a conveyer of meaning, with a resulting [End Page 7] emphasis on the limited, loosely organized, individualistic, symbolic, and relatively nonlethal dimensions of Native warfare. This is certainly a fruitful line of inquiry, for the conduct of war is unquestionably communicative, symbolic, and culturally specific. The problem lies not in individual works in this vein but rather in the overall pattern in which, as Emerson W. Baker and John G. Reid put it in a 2004 critique, early Americanists have stressed the “supposedly transient impact of native tactical success” to the point of assuming that Native people were “innocent of strategic calculation.”10

One remedy for this imbalance is to pay more attention to the connections between Native military tactics, strategy, and contingent political histories—to war as an instrument of government, as politics by other means.11 This approach begins with the proposition that some Native societies were organized in such a way as to permit tactics other than low-intensity raiding, and it foregrounds the manner in which those tactics reflected the strategies and policies that they were intended to fulfill. Enacting this approach requires revisiting the sources that describe Native American military tactics in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, before the advent of changes caused by sustained contact with Europeans. (The question of changes caused by engagement with Europeans is another major theme in Indigenous military history but is best kept separate.)12 And for that we need a single, concentrated demonstration of how historicizing Indigenous warfare—focusing on a specific polity, region, and era—opens up insights that broad typologies such as state versus non-state warfare would otherwise obscure. [End Page 8]

The rise to power of the paramount chief Wahunsonacock (otherwise known as Powhatan) over today’s eastern Virginia during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries lends itself well to a historicized analysis of the linkages between battlefield tactics, military strategy, and Indigenous politics. Scholars have written extensively about Powhatan history and culture yet tended not to question generalizations about low-intensity war waged for captives and personal honor. Helen C. Rountree’s meticulous reconstructions, for example, consistently refer to “guerrilla war” that “took the form of small-scale raids and ambushes, in which feats of individual bravery were easy to observe” and that was driven primarily by personal and cultural imperatives. Alfred A. Cave emphasizes the “restrictions on killing” inherent in Powhatan culture, while Camilla Townsend glosses an array of attacks, including sieges and frontal assaults, as “frequent skirmishes.” Here again, scholars who are not primarily concerned with warfare fall back on sweeping, neo-Rousseauian statements—although, interestingly, some of the essential materials for a reevaluation of Powhatan warfare can be found in these same authors’ accounts of Powhatan political culture.13 [End Page 9]

The small but high-grade body of scholarship on Powhatan warfare likewise contains the raw materials for rethinking the connections between military tactics, strategy, and politics without ever quite putting the pieces together. Frederic W. Gleach’s brilliant explication of the cultural specificity of Powhatan tactics emphasizes their performative, communicative dimensions but is less concerned with strategy and policy. Seth Mallios gives somewhat more weight to chiefly imperatives by highlighting “exchange-system violations” as a cause of Native attacks against European colonists, yet his work remains rooted within the war-and-culture framework. Ethan A. Schmidt criticizes generalizations about Indian warfare as being waged for individual reasons that were “disconnected from the welfare of the larger group” but does not elaborate, while J. Frederick Fausz’s scholarship includes examples that illustrate how varied Powhatan tactics were without explicitly making that argument. Here, too, the secondary literature exemplifies the need for war-and-politics studies to complement the larger corpus of war-and-culture studies.14

Powhatan ways of war were not what one might expect based on this current scholarship. Chesapeake Algonquians did not confine themselves to light skirmishes. They employed a wide range of tactics that included frontal assaults and prolonged sieges, and they both sustained and inflicted high casualties. They did so because the political agendas of hereditary chiefs and elites, rather than concerns such as personal honor or collective grief, determined when and where they would wage war. The threat of war and war itself, in fact, were central to the remarkable growth of Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom. The political structure of his chieftaincy, paired with his expansionist aspirations, profoundly shaped the forms of Powhatan warfare. His men employed risky and highly lethal tactics whenever those served the paramount chief’s strategic ends, which included the conquest, absorption, and colonization of neighboring polities. The Powhatan way of war thus exemplifies the need to get beyond current generalizations about Native American warfare and to pay greater attention to the links between Indigenous peoples’ battlefield tactics, strategic calculations, political systems, and unique histories.


At least twenty thousand people lived in the Chesapeake Bay region in 1600. Most were broadly Algonquian in language and culture, though the Susquehannocks in the northern bay were Iroquoian and the piedmont Monacans and Manahoacs were Siouan. The great majority of Algonquians [End Page 10] lived within chiefdoms, a type of hierarchical political order in which hereditary rulers commanded tribute, coordinated foreign policy, and served as intermediaries between humans and the spiritual world. By the late sixteenth century, moreover, an increasing number of people found themselves living within paramount chiefdoms, which were comprised of multiple chiefdoms owing tribute and some degree of obedience to a chief-of-chiefs. The most powerful of these was Wahunsonacock, better known today as Powhatan. As a young man, Powhatan inherited a paramount chiefdom of six subordinate nations, and by 1608 he claimed more than thirty dependent werowances (chiefs) in a territory, known as Tsenacommacah, that covered most of today’s eastern Virginia (Figure I).15 Although the paramount chief did not interfere much in the everyday lives of his subordinate werowances and their people, he did expect conformity in matters of war, diplomacy, and exchange with outsiders.

By the 1570s these outsiders included Spanish and English voyagers and colonists, whose accounts of military engagements with Powhatan warriors through the first years of the Jamestown colony are an excellent point of entry for understanding the nature of Powhatan warfare in this period. These engagements were extensively documented, though often misrepresented or imperfectly understood. The colonial project, for example, depended in part on systematically denigrating Native masculinity. One way of doing that was to label Native men cowardly in their preference for skirmishes and in their readiness to abandon the field of battle—even when the details of the same colonial descriptions of Powhatan warriors’ behavior reveal that they were doing no such thing. Thus, when read with an eye to the narrative details about Native peoples’ actions rather than to their authors’ generalizations— as Michael Witgen puts it, by “reading texts written by Europeans without privileging the[ir] fantasies”—English accounts of these violent episodes reveal much about the Powhatan way of war in the years before it was substantially modified in response to the English presence.16

Early European accounts are especially useful because of their rich descriptions of Powhatan warriors’ tactics. The battlefield, after all, is where the diverse imperatives behind warfare all converged: the prospect of personal rewards, societal expectations of young men, cultural norms surrounding violence, and varied calculations of interest on the part of different communities, kin groups, and political leaders. Much as in the anthropologically informed microhistories with which early Americanists are so familiar, working outward from the details of discrete episodes to the broader strategies and political concerns expressed through the tactics employed in those clashes [End Page 11]

Figure I. This map of Tsenacommacah and its neighbors traces a narrative of expansion from the six tributary chiefdoms inherited by the paramount chief Powhatan (in Roman type) to those added to Tsenacommacah during his rule (in bold type). Other nations (in italics) had reason to fear that they too would soon be incorporated into the paramount chiefdom. Adapted by Rebecca Wrenn from Indigenous Communities in the Chesapeake Tidewater, 1607–1619, in James D. Rice, “‘These Doubtfull Times, between Us and the Indians’: Indigenous Politics and the Jamestown Colony in 1619,” in Virginia 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America, ed. Paul Musselwhite, Peter C. Mancall, and James Horn (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 2019), 218.
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Figure I.

This map of Tsenacommacah and its neighbors traces a narrative of expansion from the six tributary chiefdoms inherited by the paramount chief Powhatan (in Roman type) to those added to Tsenacommacah during his rule (in bold type). Other nations (in italics) had reason to fear that they too would soon be incorporated into the paramount chiefdom. Adapted by Rebecca Wrenn from Indigenous Communities in the Chesapeake Tidewater, 1607–1619, in James D. Rice, “‘These Doubtfull Times, between Us and the Indians’: Indigenous Politics and the Jamestown Colony in 1619,” in Virginia 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America, ed. Paul Musselwhite, Peter C. Mancall, and James Horn (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 2019), 218.

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yields a deeper understanding of Powhatan warfare.17 The earliest clashes with Europeans, moreover, were not sufficiently destructive to significantly alter Powhatan tactics: these were working just fine, as it was in precisely these years that Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom swelled to such impressive dimensions. Nor did events in the First four years of the Jamestown colony immediately force the Powhatans to reconsider their tactics; they maintained the upper hand over the English until a sudden reversal of fortunes in the fall of 1611—well into the First Anglo-Powhatan War of 1609–14.18 Thus the Powhatans initially used much the same array of tactics against the English that they deployed against other Native people.

English colonists described, or at least mentioned, dozens of light skirmishes initiated by the Powhatans. These started within hours of the Jamestown colonists’ first venture ashore in Virginia: after entering the Chesapeake Bay in the early morning hours of April 26, 1607, the first ships carrying colonists to the new colony anchored at what is now Cape Henry, the southern entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. The fleet’s captain, Christopher Newport, immediately landed with thirty men. They lingered until nightfall. As the English were returning to their ships, “certaine Indians” emerged from their hiding places and charged. Their arrows injured several Englishmen before the colonists were able to return fire. The attackers veered away, retreating “into the Woods with a great noise.” The English continued to reconnoiter the area and soon established a fort at what they called Jamestown Island; meanwhile similar attacks—characterized by volleys of arrows fired from a safe distance—continued until late June 1607. These resumed in the summer of 1608, when Powhatan relations with the English deteriorated. Henry Spelman, an English youth living in the household of one of Powhatan’s werowances along the Potomac River in 1609–10, witnessed yet another such attack by raiders from the North. “Ther was no great slauwter” on either side, he recalled.19 [End Page 13]

Powhatan fighters, moreover, attempted to set up lethal ambushes within what appeared, on the surface of things, to be light skirmishes in which the attackers meant only to harass the defenders from a safe distance. In March 1611, for example, in the midst of the First Anglo-Powhatan War, a small party of Powhatans appeared before a blockhouse that guarded the narrow spit of land between the mainland and Jamestown Island. Lieutenant Puttocke (first name unknown), “Sheowinge more vallour then will,” led his men in pursuit. The Indians lured Puttocke in by allowing him brief glimpses of their retreat across the isthmus and into the mainland woods “untill they browghte him into their ambuskado.” Several hundred Indians awaited the English. Puttocke and his twenty men died almost instantly in flights of arrows “as thicke As hayle.”20

Other ambushes came in the midst of seemingly peaceful encounters, at times revealing a certain pride in outwitting the enemy. A 1572 attack on Spanish intruders who had captured a local werowance, for instance, began with the approach of “two large canoes filled with Indians who were so concealed that no one was seen except the two who steered and they pretended they brought us oysters.” (The Spanish spotted and avoided the trap.) Similarly, in November 1609 Powhatan invited the English to his largest town, Pamunkey, to trade for corn. Fifty men under John Ratcliffe sailed to Pamunkey, where their initial greetings followed normal protocol: Ratcliffe and Powhatan exchanged gifts of bread and venison, copper and beads, before the main body of Englishmen came ashore to trade the following day. Powhatan and his family then slipped away to another town. Back in Pamunkey, things turned tense when the English caught their hosts using false-bottomed baskets to measure the corn. As the English retreated to their ship, Powhatan archers hidden in the woods and cornfields along the path to the landing took them down one by one, killing nearly all of the thirty colonists who had come ashore. At the same time, canoes suddenly appeared on the Pamunkey River, making for the English ship. More English died as arrows rained down on the decks. Ratcliffe himself was captured and tortured to death. The ship returned to Jamestown with only sixteen survivors aboard and not a single kernel of corn.21 [End Page 14]

Powhatan attackers also risked frontal assaults against enemies who had ample time to prepare themselves for battle. Take, for example, an attack on James Fort on May 27, 1607. At that point the three-week-old fort amounted to little more than a brush barrier, described by the defenders as “but the boughs of trees cast together in the forme of a halfe moone.”22 Many of the English were away reconnoitering the upper reaches of the river. In their absence the Paspahegh werowance (a tributary of Powhatan) led “aboue 200” men who “gaue a very furious Assault to our fort.” The Paspaheghs “came vp allmost into the Fort,” close enough to fire their arrows through the walls of the tents within. The assault “indured hott about an hower.” It might well have succeeded, too, except for the fact that deep water in the river adjacent to the fort permitted two English ships to draw close to the shore and fire shrapnel from their cannon into the Paspahegh ranks.23

The varieties of Powhatan warfare included open-field battles as well, set pieces that were carried out according to commonly understood (and sometimes formally negotiated) conventions. At the mouth of the James River in September 1607, sixty or seventy Kecoughtan warriors “in a square order” centered on an effigy of the powerful Algonquian spirit Okeus confronted an English landing party. “Being well armed” with clubs, shields, and bows and arrows, John Smith recalled, “they charged the English.”24 On yet another occasion, two to three hundred Powhatan warriors near the capital town of Werowocomoco, organized “in the forme of two halfe moons,” approached an English party. Smith and his men fled to their boat—though he later insisted that it was the Powhatans, and not he, who had “trembled with fear.”25

When the Powhatans staged a demonstration of their “method in warre” before English observers in 1608, they chose to reenact an open-field battle that pitted one hundred Powhatans against one hundred men playing “Monacans” (Siouan enemies who lived in the nearby piedmont). As Smith [End Page 15] recalled, the two sides “tooke their stands a musket shot one from another” and deployed themselves “15 a breast” with several yards between each line. Within each line the men left spaces on either side so that “the Reare could shoot as conveniently as the Front.” Emissaries from either side agreed to the terms of the engagement. Officers on each flank and in the rear then gave the order to unleash a flight of arrows, and then another. Once their arrows were exhausted, the front ranks charged and fell into hand-to-hand combat, each man trying to catch an enemy by the hair and “beat out his braines” or take him captive before retreating to the rear. The next rank came to the fore, then the next. (In this case the battle favored first the Powhatans and then the Monacans, until “each [side] returned to their owne quarter” after suffering numerous casualties.)26

Powhatan warriors maintained strict order and formations even when away from the battlefield, at least when circumstances warranted it. After Powhatan’s brother Opechancanough captured Smith in December 1607, for example, he marched the Englishman northward into the territories of several tributary werowances within Tsenacommacah. At each stage they were greeted by warriors in formation: “well guarded,” as Smith recalled, “with 20 bowmen 5 flanck and rear, and each flanck before him a sword and a peece, and after him the like.” At the end of the tour, too, Smith’s captors approached Powhatan’s capitol of Werowocomoco in formation: bowmen marched on either side of the Englishman, followed by a long single file at the rear, remaining in formation even while weaving along wooded paths. A “sargeant” flanked the main column on either side, each moving up and down the ranks in synchronization with the other to maintain the formation.27

Sieges, especially, were more common and more central to Powhatan warfare than scholars have recognized. Indeed, a series of sieges at three of the four main English settlements in Virginia nearly eradicated the Jamestown colony in 1609–11. The first of these sieges began in August 1609, when one hundred Englishmen under John Martin arrived at the main town of the Nansemonds, several miles downriver from Jamestown, and announced their intention to build a permanent settlement. The Nansemonds killed the two messengers who brought them that unwelcome news. The English immediately retaliated by capturing and sacking the Nansemonds’ town. The Nansemonds regrouped and counterattacked, pinning down the English for weeks in the ruined town. They picked off any who dared venture outside and easily repelled thirty musketeers sent from Jamestown to lift the siege. By October the Nansemonds had killed “neere halfe” the English. The remaining English defenders abandoned Nansemond and returned to Jamestown.28 [End Page 16]

Almost simultaneously, another 120–40 men under Francis West built a fort upriver from Jamestown, in the heart of Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom near the fall line and today’s city of Richmond. Here too Powhatan’s tributary werowances, this time led by his son Parahunt, established a siege. Englishmen who left the fort to patrol the woods or find food came home wounded or not at all: Powhatan warriors awaited them there, Smith wrote, and “finding some stragling abroad in the woods they slew manie.” By mid-October 1609 the intermittent siege had killed more than fifty colonists and forced West’s garrison, like the survivors of the siege at Nansemond that same month, to abandon their position.29 For the second time in a matter of weeks, one of Powhatan’s werowances had expelled a large English garrison from his territory.

With refugees from the abandoned garrisons flooding into Jamestown, the entire colony faced having to survive the winter of 1609–10 by relying upon the food stores that had been set aside for Jamestown alone—supplemented, of course, by whatever they could obtain from their Indian neighbors or fish, hunt, and gather for themselves. These means of acquiring more food were soon cut off, however, because Powhatan established a siege around Jamestown and forbade his werowances from trading with the English. A “worlde of miseries” opened up at Jamestown. Some men robbed the common storehouse of food, condemning others to starvation. The colonists slaughtered their remaining livestock, then all of the dogs, cats, and even rats that they could find. A few resorted to cannibalism. Those who left the fort in search of food were “Cutt off of and slayne by the Salvages.” This, the legendary “Starving Time” of 1609–10, was the product of a Powhatan siege.30


Many Powhatan military engagements, it is true, were low-intensity and small-scale affairs. Even the largest chiefdoms within Tsenacommacah (Pamunkey, Nansemond, and Patawomeck) fielded only two to three hundred warriors in the early seventeenth century. The Onawmanients and Rappahannocks, with one hundred “fighting men” each, were more typical.31 None could afford to lose a large number of men all at once, even in victory. To do so would rob the dead men’s kin and community of too much: too many fishers, hunters, and defenders; too many sons, uncles, and [End Page 17] husbands; too many future councilors and other leaders. Hence the majority of attacks employed relatively low-risk tactics, with Powhatan fighters firing from cover or tricking their enemies into letting down their guard before attacking.32

Powhatan warfare was nevertheless highly lethal, in part because recurring engagements could seriously deplete a group’s population over time. Wayne E. Lee calls this the “cutting-off way of war,” in which “repeated success at surprising a village could render it uninhabitable” even in the absence of a single overwhelming victory. Attackers, too, could accumulate heavy casualties through attrition. Moreover, losing even a few key, productive people to death or captivity—or diverting their focus to warfare—weakened a community in the long term. Some groups, as George R. Milner notes, would have had to “modify subsistence practices or move to safer, but less productive places.” A survey of the archaeological evidence from throughout the Eastern Woodlands prior to European colonization confirms that a series of engagements that were individually not all that deadly could collectively add up to a death toll as high (in proportion to the population) as in the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century.33

Powhatan warfare was all the more lethal because warriors engaged in dangerous close-quarters fighting even during “skirmishes.” The terms ambush and subterfuge, frequently used in English sources, are generally read by historians as meaning that Powhatan men avoided risky tactics, but a closer examination of these accounts reveals that the attacks they describe often featured direct assaults and fighting at close quarters. One could not, after all, take captives from a distance, nor kill an enemy so easily, nor so clearly demonstrate one’s courage, as one could from up close. Henry Spelman, the English teenager who witnessed an Indian attack against his Patawomeck hosts, noted that whenever a man went down with an injury, opposing warriors took greater risks, rushing forward “to knock him on the heade.” Similarly, in a Paspahegh attempt to surprise the English during [End Page 18] a visit to the colonists’ blockhouse near James Fort, the attackers mingled with the defenders before springing the ambush; thus the battle, once joined, was fought more with blades than with projectiles. When an English captain grappled with the Paspahegh werowance and “Thruste him twyse throwghe the body w[i]th his Sworde,” other Paspaheghs were already close by and carried the injured man to safety. Just a few feet away, a Paspahegh and an Englishman, “encowntringe w[i]th” one another, fought “hande to fiste”; the defender “grapled w[i]th him and stabbed him to deathe w[i]th his ponnyard” (dagger).34

Further evidence of the Powhatans’ willingness to engage in close- quarters fighting can be found in their weaponry. In addition to their bows, ideal for attacking from afar, they carried “shock weapons”: wooden swords, clubs, and stone hatchets intended to be used at close range. Though riskier to wield, these far surpassed arrows in accuracy and striking power. When trading with the English, the Powhatans sought not only guns and powder but also iron swords—a textbook case of adapting the newcomers’ technology to preexisting Indigenous uses. Indeed, swords (and, by extension, close-quarters fighting) were so important to Powhatan warfare that English reluctance to provide metal swords became a sticking point in Anglo-Powhatan diplomatic relations. Tellingly, John Smith and William Strachey both recorded a term for swords—“Monacookes”—in their Powhatan word lists, along with numerous other terms relating to close combat.35 Powhatan warriors also wore bracers to protect their wrists and forearms while in close combat, as well as round shields, made from bark, for protection against shock weapons as well as arrows.36 [End Page 19]

Still more deaths came in successful surprise attacks. A single Powhatan surprise attack against the Piankatanks in 1608, for example, killed roughly half of the latter’s adult male population; as was so often the case, the Powhatans took no adult male prisoners except for the werowance. Other nations conquered by the Powhatans, of which there were many in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, had similar tales to tell, and they would have been surprised at any suggestion that their defeat was nearly bloodless. So too, in the end, would Spelman: in 1623 twenty-one men under his command were killed or captured in an ambush when they visited a town on the Potomac River to trade for corn. Spelman himself was beheaded.37

Still others died because the Powhatans sometimes were in fact willing to take heavy casualties by employing tactics that exposed their warriors to enemy fire and close-quarters fighting. The Paspahegh attackers in the frontal assault against James Fort in May 1607, for example, pressed forward right up to the base of the English barricades and fought “hott” there, both sustaining and inflicting significant casualties, for an hour. They impressed the English defenders—many of whom were veterans of horrendous wars on the European continent and in Ireland—as “a very valiant people.” After the battle they retreated into the nearby woods, where they made “a huge noyse,” as the English surmised, “at [th]e burying of their slayne men.” The Kecoughtans’ open-field battle against the English a few weeks later likewise began with the Indians advancing across a field “in a square order” and ended with “divers” of them “sprauling on the ground,” dead or wounded by English shot. Similarly, in the Powhatan-Monacan battle reenacted for Smith in 1608, the combatants first stood exposed to enemy fire, then took turns coming forward for hand-to-hand combat with swords and clubs.38

Sieges were particularly deadly. The series of Powhatan sieges and associated surprise attacks in 1609–10 winnowed the English population from 381 in August 1609 to 100 in May 1610. At James Fort proper, the population plummeted from nearly 350 to 60.39 Newly arrived colonists in the spring of 1610 boosted the population to 345 in mid-June, but only 250 remained by year’s end after an extended blockade of another new fort at the fall line. Three months later all but 150 colonists were dead. All told, J. Frederick Fausz has estimated, Powhatan attacks killed 350 English people from 1607 to [End Page 20] 1614, or 23 percent of all immigrants during that time period—a conservative figure that significantly understates the actual death toll.40

Historians have often written as if it was the disease environment, rather than warfare, that killed these English people. In practice, however, war, starvation, and disease could no more be separated from one another in Powhatan sieges of English garrisons than they could in early modern siege warfare on the European continent. In both cases deaths by disease and starvation routinely and greatly—and by design—outnumbered battlefield deaths. Jamestown Island was already notoriously unhealthy. The English had made multiple attempts at establishing settlements in healthier places along the James River, but as a consequence of Powhatan sieges, they found themselves forced back into the deadly confines of Jamestown. As one colonist reported, the Powhatans “killed as fast without, if our men stirred . . . as Famine and Pestilence did within”—a succinct description of the dilemma that sieges throughout the premodern world were designed to force upon the defenders. In short, many of those who died of hunger and disease in Powhatan sieges died as a clear result of Native military tactics and must be counted as casualties of war.41

Because warfare was so deadly, the Powhatans and other Native American peoples developed “structural and cultural” ways of limiting it, such as requiring collective decision making before going to war and reckoning victory in terms other than dead enemies (such as through conspicuous individual acts of daring).42 Such constraints on warfare, however, were not working especially well in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Chesapeake. One key indicator of their diminished efficacy is that a growing number of Native communities felt it necessary to fortify their towns in this period. Palisades (walls constructed of close-set tree trunks placed vertically into the ground and woven together horizontally with smaller, more supple branches) sprouted around a number of central towns, including more than a dozen known sites between the Shenandoah Valley and the Eastern Shore. At the same time, an enormous buffer zone—a lightly occupied region useful for seasonal hunting but unsafe for year-round village life—opened up to the west and north of the Chesapeake Bay. This area eventually encompassed most of the Shenandoah Valley, today’s western and northern Maryland, and central Pennsylvania. Archaeologists regard the proliferation of fortifications and the expansion of buffer zones as indications of an increasingly dangerous era of [End Page 21] warfare—and indeed, major changes were afoot in the region during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.43


The diversity of Powhatan fighters’ tactics and their willingness to risk and inflict high casualty rates point toward motives for fighting other than the mourning wars and concern with personal honor so often emphasized in modern scholarship. Powhatan warfare was centrally directed by chiefs and waged for chiefs’ strategic reasons. It was werowances, in consultation with priests, elites, and other allied werowances—and not ordinary warriors, their non-elite kin, or local communities—who decided upon and planned the conduct of wars. The numerous small skirmishes and ambushes against the Jamestown colonists in early 1607, for example, were called for by Powhatan himself, and they ceased when he directed it: in June 1607 a colonist recorded that “an Indian Came to vs from the great Poughwaton with the worde of peace, that he desired . . . that the wyroaunces, Paspaheigh, and Tapahanagh should be our freindes,” and the attacks did indeed end.44

Powhatan rose to power by waging wars for reasons of state: to conquer, absorb, and colonize new peoples and to maintain discipline over his expanding paramount chiefdom. These strategic concerns led the Powhatans to employ, at critical moments, precisely the tactics that have so often been dismissed as unrepresentative of Indigenous warfare: sieges, open-field battles, and bloody surprise attacks fought at close quarters. These were aimed not at taking captives and demonstrating the victors’ superior intelligence and masculinity (though these were considerations for individual warriors) but rather at the subjugation of entire peoples. The roots of the diverse and often deadly Powhatan ways of war, in other words, were historical. They lay in the rise to power of a particular lineage, in a particular place and time, through the creation of a substantial paramount chiefdom.

The modern scholarship on chiefdoms, which emerged from multiple sources (prominently including ethnographic studies of the Western Pacific and Africa, archaeological research in the Americas, and ethnohistorical scholarship on contact-era encounters between Indigenous peoples and [End Page 22] European newcomers), is helpful for understanding the particular case of Powhatan’s rise to power and associated ways of war. Broadly speaking, a “chiefdom” was a multi-village polity with a clear social and political demarcation between elite lineages—from which a hereditary chief was drawn— and commoners. Chiefdoms often emerged when groups felt a sustained need for protection against outsiders, adapting to such shared threats by coordinating efforts at defense and other external relations through a hierarchical political structure with a hereditary ruler at the top. Often a cluster of chiefs recognized an additional, higher level of authority on a larger scale: a paramount chief who coordinated relations among multiple chiefdoms, especially in their interactions with outsiders.45

Such was the case with the paramount chiefdom that Powhatan inherited and expanded. Tsenacommacah’s location exposed its inhabitants to attacks by Monacans and Manahoacs from the west and Massawomecks, Susquehannocks, and other peoples from the north. These external pressures were particularly intense in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries because of the deepening Little Ice Age, a centuries-long cold phase that shortened growing seasons and forced generations of people across much of the Northeast to abandon their towns in search of more crop-friendly locations. They usually looked to lower elevations or to warmer southern climes, which often led them to the Chesapeake Bay region. Thus by the late sixteenth century virtually all of the nearly fifty Algonquian polities lining the shores of the great rivers flowing into the Chesapeake had reinvented themselves as chiefdoms in order to better defend themselves through centrally coordinated diplomacy, external exchange, and war.46

At some point between the late 1560s and early 1580s Powhatan inherited six subordinate chiefdoms, along with the paramount chief ’s title of mamanatowick. It was an enviable legacy. As head of the largest paramount chiefdom north of today’s South Carolina, Powhatan had more power, and his people more security, than any of their neighbors. His polity was also a rising power, an expansionist entity that might well continue to grow, especially given the incentive for neighboring werowances to choose absorption into Tsenacommacah over defeat by the Massawomecks or other northern and western enemies.47 [End Page 23]

Powhatan’s people initially accepted him as mamanatowick because he was born to the position, but he also turned out to be a charismatic leader. Tall, athletic, and determined, Powhatan—his subjects later recalled—was a “strong and able” man, “synowye, and of a daring spirit,” and “ambitious . . . to enlarge his dominions.” “Cruell he hath bene,” they remembered, “quarrellous . . . with his owne weroances” and quick “to strike a terrour and awe” into his neighbors and subjects “in his yonger days.” Powhatan steadily expanded his influence over the next few decades through a skillful blend of conquest, intimidation, and negotiation. One by one, other werowances fell into Powhatan’s orbit, “eyther by force subdued unto him,” as his subjects later explained to the English, “or through feare yeilded.” Soon, “by reason of his powerfulnes and ambition,” Tsenacommacah reached “larger lymitts than ever had any of his predicessors in former tymes.” By the early seventeenth century, Powhatan commanded tribute from more than thirty subordinate nations between the James and Potomac Rivers—some fifteen thousand people, taking in all but a few pockets of today’s tidewater Virginia.48 By then he and his tribute-paying werowances could collectively call upon somewhere between two and three thousand bowmen, a force, even at the lower-bound estimate, that was comparable to the number of English soldiers normally stationed in Ireland during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—and ten to twenty times the number of Jamestown colonists who were available to fight.49

Powhatan’s expansion of Tsenacommacah started close to home, absorbing the chiefdoms immediately downriver from his original inheritance: the Weyanocks, Quiyoughcohannocks, Paspaheghs, and Warraskoyacks on the James River and the Chiskiacks on the York River. No specific stories of these nations’ conquest by the Powhatans have survived, and they were especially well-integrated under Powhatan’s rule; thus some of these early additions may have been relatively peaceful, entered into as voluntary mergers for mutual defense against their common Monacan and Manahoac enemies.50 [End Page 24]

Others unmistakably fell by force. The Kecoughtans, whose fruitful lands at the end of the peninsula between the James and York Rivers offered both material abundance and a strategically important location in military terms, had little need of the protection that would come with accepting absorption into Tsenacommacah. Powhatan was hesitant to attack these “too powerfull neighbours” because their experienced werowance had strong ties to other independent chiefdoms near the mouth of the James. Powhatan bided his time, waiting until the Kecoughtans’ werowance died (sometime around 1595), and then struck hard: he “conquered the people,” as English visitors later heard the story, “killing the chief and most of” his people. Then he evicted the survivors, “craftely chaunging their seat and quartering them amongst his owne people” in another chiefdom. Colonists from among Powhatan’s other subjects repopulated the Kecoughtans’ homeland. One of Powhatan’s sons, Pochins, replaced the slain werowance and his heirs.51

Powhatan also expanded his reach to the north of his original home-land, into the Rappahannock and Potomac River valleys. Dozens of towns and at least twenty different chiefdoms clustered along these rivers, and the peninsula between the Rappahannock and Potomac (known today as the Northern Neck) was the most densely populated part of the Chesapeake Bay region. Yet werowances on the Northern Neck could not afford to remain totally independent. Susquehannock, Massawomeck, and Manahoac warriors attacked them from the west, north, and east, while their neighbor on the north shore of the Potomac, the Piscataway paramount chief known as the tayac, sought to absorb them. Not coincidently, virtually all of the Rappahannock and Potomac nations began paying tribute to either Powhatan or the tayac in the 1590s and 1600s. Powhatan and his emissaries regularly visited his northern werowances to collect tribute, reinforce his authority through gift exchanges and rituals, and direct them in matters of war and diplomacy.52

Among the last to be integrated into Tsenacommacah through a combination of force and fear were the English. John Smith’s carefully staged captivity in the winter of 1607–8 culminated in his (purely ceremonial) last-minute deliverance from a club-wielding Powhatan executioner, after which, Smith wrote, Powhatan “proclaimed me a werowanes” and directed that “all his subjects should so esteeme” the Jamestown colonists as “Powhatans.”53 Powhatan told Smith to move the English to a new territory and gave him a name to mark his new status: “he would give him [Smith] the Country of Capahowosick, and for ever esteeme him as his sonne Nantaquoud.” Powhatan also directed the English to pay tribute in the form [End Page 25] of “hatchets, . . . bells, beads, and copper.” Smith turned out to be a faithless werowance and the English unassimilable, but he did agree to the plan and the English did pay the first installment of tribute, making them—as far as Powhatan was concerned—yet another addition to Tsenacommacah.54

Still Powhatan felt vulnerable. His priests warned of a prophecy that “from the Chesapeack Bay a nation should arise which should dissolve and give end to his empire” by conquering and subjecting Powhatan’s people. Powhatan was “perplext” by the vagueness of this prophecy. Who were these future invaders? He fixed his attention not on the English but rather on the Chesapeakes, another powerful independent nation located directly across the mouth of the James River from Kecoughtan. Powhatan did not wait for the Chesapeakes to fulfill the prophecy. Instead, sometime around 1608, his men “destroyed and put to sword . . . all the inhabitants, the weroance and his subjects.” Once again “new inhabitants,” colonists brought in from elsewhere in Tsenacommacah, took the place of a defeated people.55

Powhatan also used force to maintain discipline among newly subordinated werowances. In the summer of 1608, the Piankatanks, a relatively recent addition to Tsenacommacah, usurped the paramount chief’s role by conducting their own separate diplomatic and trading relations with both the English and, indirectly through the English, with Powhatan’s Manahoac enemies in the interior.56 Soon afterward Powhatan sent a small party of men to spend the night with the Piankatanks, his “neare neighbours” to the north of his capital at Werowocomoco. As far as the Piankatank werowance knew, the visitors were there merely for “a generall hunt”; he had no idea that a much larger group of Powhatan warriors lurked in the woods. In the middle of the night, they surrounded the houses within the town, attacking them from the outside while the men who had infiltrated the town the evening before struck from within. They killed twenty-four men on the spot, took the werowance alive, captured as many women and children as possible, and pursued the remainder into the woods. The Powhatan warriors presented the captive Piankatanks to Powhatan along with the “lockes of haire” of the men they had slain; these he prominently displayed at Werowocomoco as an example to others. The surviving members of the Kecoughtan nation, who had been living among strangers ever since their own defeat at Powhatan’s hands in the 1590s, at last got their own town: formerly supplanted by the Powhatan colonists who took over their homeland, they now became the supplanters, settling into the Piankatanks’ homes and taking over their fields.57 [End Page 26]

Powhatan consolidated his power within a rapidly growing Tsenacommacah through a combination of ideological work, control of external exchange networks, gifting, and force. Priests constantly reminded people of the spiritual origins of his power through ritual, history, and other invocations of the cosmology in which Powhatan occupied a special place. (Tellingly, his title of “Mamanatowick” shared the same root as “manit” or “manito”—spiritual power and a powerful spirit, respectively.)58 He accumulated large quantities of exotic, spiritually potent goods such as copper and shell beads, partly by playing an outsized role in external trade and partly by collecting tribute. Such objects provided their users with enhanced access to the spiritual realm from which all power ultimately came. Powhatan spread around much of this wealth in the form of gifts that created a sense of connection and reciprocity. Indeed, gifts and tribute tended to cycle through Tsenacommacah in a series of acts that created a web of mutual obligations.59

Yet there is no escaping the twin facts that a great deal of Powhatan’s power originally derived from, and was reinvested in, war or the threat of war and that he increased his power by incorporating new territories and peoples into his paramount chiefdom. Modern writers have often seized upon Smith’s statement that the Powhatans “seldome make warre for lands or goods, but for women and children, and principally for revenge” without recognizing Smith’s implication that they sometimes did fight for “lands.” In fact, they did so with sufficient frequency to multiply the area encompassed by Tsenacommacah several times over during Powhatan’s lifetime. Gaining control of strategically located territory such as the Kecoughtans’ and the Chesapeakes’ homelands, moreover, made the rest of Tsenacommacah safer by guarding the mouths of the two main rivers of central Tsenacommacah.60 [End Page 27]

Increasing the paramount chiefdom’s population by annexing entire nations served chiefs’ strategic ends just as surely as controlling territory did. Scholars have not closely examined how or why the Powhatans incorporated conquered or captive people into Tsenacommacah, but the distinction that Africanists often draw between reckoning “wealth-in-people” and “wealth-in-things” points toward an explanation. As one historian has summarized the logic of reckoning wealth-in-people, “the network of people, particularly dependents, upon whom one could rely for production and reproduction brought security in numbers and energy [to their new community], as well as a variety of ideas, skills, and talents that would make for stronger families and societies.”61 These benefits especially flowed from women, whom the Powhatans favored as captives and who did most of the work of raising crops, gathering wild plants, and making clothing and ceramics. The gain (or loss) of women also made more of a difference in population growth (or decline) than did that of men. The children of captives, whether taken in battle or conceived afterward, added both future men (fishers, hunters, and warriors) and future women to the whole, to be integrated, as they matured, into a thickening web of relationships in their new kin groups and communities.62

Wealth-in-people and territorial expansion, moreover, were closely related. The forced relocation of newly conquered communities to other places within Tsenacommacah, while other Powhatans took over their former fields and homes, obviously combined the two imperatives. They also merged when, as was often the case, Powhatan installed one of his sons or other close kin as werowances of conquered nations, thus simultaneously extending the territorial extent of Tsenacommacah and the web of familial [End Page 28] relations. Deliberate intermarriage between the newly related groups, including polygynous marriages to Powhatan himself, made such rearrangements of kinship networks and territory more lasting. Once they were securely incorporated into the paramount chiefdom, tributary werowances’ warriors swelled the ranks of Powhatan fighting men. The addition of each subordinate chief, moreover, added his people’s tribute to the circulating flow of spiritually powerful goods that knit together the multiple nations of Tsenacommacah. For Powhatan, his advisers, and other elites, then, there was much to recommend war, or the threat of war, against neighboring werowances or wavering werowances within the paramount chiefdom: through the addition of land and people, integrated via a growing web of kinship, tribute, and gifting, they both gained and consolidated their power.63

But what motivated other people besides the paramount chief, werowances, and other elites to go to or support war? What was in it for individuals, kin groups, and local communities? What made them more than reluctant conscripts? First, the threats posed by the Massawomecks, Susquehannocks, and other outsiders represented a common danger. As the anthropologist Raymond C. Kelly has observed, in relatively large and tightly integrated polities such as paramount chiefdoms, an attack against one person or community became an attack against the entire group.64 Second, some may have internalized the values of religious and other ideological work that explained the legitimacy of chiefly calls to war. Third, individuals could earn and burnish their reputations in war regardless of who had called them to battle or why. People seeking revenge could take advantage of moments when local and kin-group desires overlapped and meshed with chiefly interests, and the addition of captives, new populations, and their territories met household and local needs as well as those of the paramount chiefdom as a whole. In any era, the reasons why people fight tend not to be identical to the reasons why their leaders send them to war. Tsenacommacah in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was no exception. Powhatan, his werowances, and other elites recruited warriors to fight for broadly political reasons, but they depended upon young men’s personal motives (or their kin group’s or community’s imperatives) to inspire them to answer their leaders’ call and risk their lives in battle.

Yet Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom, even during its most expansionist phases, was not entirely stable. The threats posed by outsiders were real. He could lose battles and even control of the chiefdom itself. Towns and [End Page 29] entire nations under his protection might be scattered and destroyed by their enemies. Werowances along the margins of Tsenacommacah might resist or even reverse its expansion by aligning themselves with another paramount chief, such as the Piscataway tayac (who dominated the north side of the Potomac River), or joining one of the alliances that briefly formed at the end of the sixteenth century around the Patawomeck nation on the Potomac River and the Accomac nation on the Eastern Shore. Or the threat might lie deeper within Tsenacommacah, because while in theory Powhatan was the locus of spiritual, military, and economic authority, in practice he could never fully monopolize power. The subordinate werowances, priests, war leaders, and others within the paramount chiefdom had their own access to spiritual, military, and economic power and could, if they dared, use it against Powhatan.65

These vulnerabilities were inherent in Powhatan’s situation, and indeed in any chiefdom. So inherent was this condition, in fact, that there is a shorthand term—chiefly cycling—for the “seemingly endemic rise and fall of chiefdoms” from external stresses and internal instabilities. By the time Powhatan emerged as a political and military force, chiefdoms had existed across a swath of territory from the Chesapeake Bay to Florida and the Mississippi Valley for more than half a millennium. Even the largest and most powerful of these polities tended to break apart within a few generations, with their constituent parts eventually recombining with others to create new political units. Powhatan’s inheritance thus included the ever-present possibility that his paramount chiefdom, too, would unravel.66

Powhatan warfare fit into a long-term pattern in the Southeast that was closely tied to the regular rise and fall of the region’s paramount chiefdoms—of chiefly cycling and associated ways of war. Southeastern paramount chiefs typically employed a suite of military tactics resembling that of the Powhatans. These were characterized, as the archaeologist David H. Dye writes, by “surprise raids and ambushes coupled with organized, large-scale attacks” that were “carried out for political gain.”67 Indeed, warfare [End Page 30] was central to the functioning of southeastern paramount chiefdoms. It “provided an arena for chiefs to demonstrate and enhance their military prowess, thus bolstering their political authority and control” and legitimizing their authority. It resolved “chiefly grievances” and was essential for “expanding and consolidating one’s polity,” not to mention gaining and holding valuable resources and defending a leader’s people from aggressive outsiders.68

Given the long-established pattern of chiefly cycling, the Powhatans might well have been due for a fall in the seventeenth century even without the English in the picture. The survival of the Jamestown colony in its early years had less to do with the might of the English nation than with the colonists’ success at cultivating relationships with both recently added, reluctant Powhatans on the margins of Tsenacommacah and other neighboring peoples who feared that they might be next. These groups enlisted the English into what was by then an ancient and predictable role in curbing the power of yet another expansionist paramount chief. Powhatan, for his part, responded as paramount chiefs often did: by employing military tactics suited to his strategic goal of turning the English into yet another tributary nation within Tsenacommacah.69


Powhatan warfare was in many respects scarcely distinguishable from what we might expect from states at war. The Powhatans’ tactical repertoire overlapped considerably with the tactics of the Spanish and English newcomers, was equally deadly, and was, as in Europe, an expression of [End Page 31] the strategic concerns of those atop a hierarchical political structure. The Powhatans’ reasons for going to war included the conquest and colonization of entire peoples and the acquisition of their territory under the paramount chief’s direction. Although tactics calculated to minimize casualties in any one engagement persisted even at the peak of Powhatan’s power, that should not blind us to either the heightened importance of the chiefly imperatives driving Powhatan warfare in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries or the critical importance of open-field battles, extended sieges, and other risky tactics when they furthered Powhatan’s strategic ends.70

That said, there is no need to lurch from a Rousseauian starting point to a Hobbesian extreme by presenting the Powhatans and other Native peoples as living in a state of perpetual war. Doing so would simply replace one essentialized vision of Indigenous America with a more starkly offensive one.71 There is a need, however, to de-exoticize Native American warfare by stepping away from that Rousseauian-Hobbesian continuum altogether— that is, to recognize the historical and cultural specificity of Indigenous warfare without marking it as fundamentally different from war in the rest of human history. We must understand that there were more than two systems of war in play during early Native-newcomer encounters, just as there were more than two ways of doing everything else.72 Perhaps then we might be more alert to the full range of tactics and to the importance of strategy and political calculation in Indigenous warfare in other places and times—and perhaps, more broadly, we will also more fully embrace the need to write about Native polities with the same degree of narrative detail and attention to contingency that is routinely accorded to European colonizers. [End Page 32]

James D. Rice

James D. Rice is Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts University.

The author is deeply indebted to Matthew Kruer and Wayne Lee for their multiple, insightful readings of this article, together with Rachel Applebaum, Juliana Barr, Colin Calloway, Kendra Field, Elizabeth Foster, Robert Green (Patawomeck), Geoffrey Megargee, Beatrice Manz, Joseph Miller, Jeanne Penvenne, Alisha Rankin, Gordon Silver (Patawomeck), David Silverman, Christina Snyder, Camilla Townsend, five anonymous readers for the William and Mary Quarterly, and audiences at the 2016 meetings of the American Society for Ethnohistory and the Society for Military History.


1. Thomas Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. . . . (Frankfurt, 1590), 25 (“sudden”); John Smith, A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (1612), in The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631) in Three Volumes (CWJS), ed. Philip L. Barbour (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 1986), 1: 165 (“seldome”).

2. Wayne E. Lee, Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare, 1500–1865 (Oxford, 2011), 164–65 (quotation, 164); Lee, “Mind and Matter—Cultural Analysis in American Military History: A Look at the State of the Field,” Journal of American History 93, no. 4 (March 2007): 1116–42.

3. Patrick M. Malone, The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics among the New England Indians (Lanham, Md., 1991), 1 (“forest”); Daniel K. Richter, “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 40, no. 4 (October 1983): 528–59. Richter’s argument was elaborated upon in Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 1992), chap. 2; and echoed by Roland Viau, Enfants du néant et mangeurs d’âmes: Guerre, culture et société en Iroquoisie ancienne ([Montreal], 1997). According to JSTOR, Richter’s article was the most frequently downloaded WMQ article as recently as the period 2009–17, at 32,989 times, and even that figure substantially understates the article’s enduring impact; see Josh Piker, “Comparing Apples and Oranges, Floors and Ceilings in Digital Scholarship,” Uncommon Sense (blog), Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, May 3, 2017, https://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/2628-2/. According to Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com/), the article continues to be cited more than one hundred times per year in the late 2010s. The Junto, a widely read group blog on early American history, runs an annual “March Madness” tournament to identify the most influential works in the field; Richter’s “War and Culture” reached the Final Four in the 2016 edition, which was devoted to journal articles (Rachel Herrmann, “Junto March Madness Semi-Final Results and Finals Voting,” The Junto [blog], Apr. 4, 2016, https://earlyamericanists.com/2016/04/04/junto-march-madness-semi-final-results-and-finals-voting/).

4. Armstrong Starkey, “European-Native American Warfare in North America, 1513– 1815,” in War in the Early Modern World, ed. Jeremy Black (London, 1999), 237–62, esp. 246–47 (“guerrilla,” 247, “encounters,” 246); Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500–2000 (New York, 2005), 26 (“prevalent form”); John Keegan, Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (New York, 1996), 103 (“honour”).

5. For Lawrence H. Keeley’s excellent entry point into this scholarly tradition, of which he is a critic, see Keeley, War before Civilization (New York, 1996), 3–24 (“primitive,” 11). See also Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York, 2001), pp. 21 (“organization”), 22 (“state politics”), 6, 12, chaps. 6, 8; Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (New York, 1989), xv–xvi; John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York, 1993), chap. 2; Jean Guilaine and Jean Zammit, Le sentier de la guerre: Visages de la violence préhistorique (Paris, 2001), 49–52. The locus classicus of this distinction is Harry Holbert Turney-High, Primitive War: Its Practice and Concepts (Columbia, S.C., 1949).

6. Wayne E. Lee, “The Military Revolution of Native North America: Firearms, Forts, and Polities,” in Empires and Indigenes: Intercultural Alliance, Imperial Expansion, and Warfare in the Early Modern World, ed. Lee (New York, 2011), 49–79, esp. 52–55 (quotation, 52); Keeley, War before Civilization. David J. Silverman lends considerable support to their assessments in Silverman, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (Cambridge, Mass., 2016). See also John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 2004); Tom Holm, “American Indian Warfare: The Cycles of Conflict and the Militarization of Native North America,” in A Companion to American Indian History, ed. Philip J. Deloria and Neal Salisbury (Oxford, 2007), 154–72, esp. 156–59; Lee, Journal of American History 93: 1117.

7. Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670–1717 (New Haven, Conn., 2002); Paul Kelton, Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1715 (Lincoln, Neb., 2007); Robbie Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World, 1540–1715 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2010).

8. Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation (Cambridge, 1991); George R. Milner, “Warfare in Prehistoric and Early Historic Eastern North America,” Journal of Archaeological Research 7, no. 2 (June 1999): 105–51; Patricia M. Lambert, “The Archaeology of War: A North American Perspective,” Journal of Archaeological Research 10, no. 3 (September 2002): 207–41; Ross Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, 2d ed. (Norman, Okla., 2006); David H. Dye, War Paths, Peace Paths: An Archaeology of Cooperation and Conflict in Native Eastern North America (Lanham, Md., 2009); Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge, Mass., 2011), 18–36, 41; Christina Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America (Cambridge, Mass., 2012), 28–34. See also R. Brian Ferguson and Neil L. Whitehead, eds., War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare, 2d printing (Santa Fe, N.Mex., 1999); Raymond C. Kelly, Warless Societies and the Origin of War (Ann Arbor, Mich., 2000); James F. Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 2002); Elizabeth N. Arkush and Mark W. Allen, eds., The Archaeology of Warfare: Prehistories of Raiding and Conquest (Gainesville, Fla., 2006); Richard J. Chacon and Rubén G. Mendoza, eds., Latin American Indigenous Warfare and Ritual Violence (Tucson, Ariz., 2007); Holm, “American Indian Warfare”; Steven A. LeBlanc, Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest (Salt Lake City, Utah, 2007); Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven, Conn., 2008); Brooks, Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre (New York, 2016).

9. See for example Denise Ileana Bossy, “Shattering Together, Merging Apart: Colonialism, Violence, and the Remaking of the Native South,” WMQ 71, no. 4 (October 2014): 611–31 (“guerilla warfare,” 612); Andrew Lipman, “‘A Meanes To Knitt Them Togeather’: The Exchange of Body Parts in the Pequot War,” WMQ 65, no. 1 (January 2008): 3–28, esp. 11 (“accumulate territories”), 19; Susan Juster, Sacred Violence in Early America (Philadelphia, 2016), 49; Ann M. Little, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheel-wright (New Haven, Conn., 2016), 44; Arthur J. Ray, An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People: I Have Lived Here since the World Began, 4th ed. (Montreal, 2016), 30–31; Catherine M. Cameron, “The Effects of Warfare and Captive-Taking on Indigenous Mortality in Postcontact North America,” in Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America, ed. Cameron, Paul Kelton, and Alan C. Swedlund (Tucson, Ariz., 2015), 174–97, esp. 176; Stephanie Carvin and Michael John Williams, Law, Science, Liberalism, and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict (Cambridge, 2015), 25, 46; Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (New Haven, Conn., 2015), 38–41, 161–63; Thomas Wickman, “‘Winters Embittered with Hardships’: Severe Cold, Wabanaki Power, and English Adjustments, 1690–1710,” WMQ 72, no. 1 (January 2015): 57–98, esp. 90; Kathleen Donegan, Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America (Philadelphia, 2014), 63; Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675 (New York, 2012), 9; Matthew Jennings, New Worlds of Violence: Cultures and Conquests in the Early American Southeast (Knoxville, Tenn., 2011), 26, 95; Richard Middleton and Anne Lombard, Colonial America: A History to 1763, 4th ed. (Oxford, 2011), 17–22; R. Todd Romero, Making War and Minting Christians: Masculinity, Religion, and Colonialism in Early New England (Amherst, Mass., 2011); Michael Leroy Oberg, The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians (Philadelphia, 2008), 20; Little, Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (Philadelphia, 2007), 29–60; John Grenier, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607–1814 (Cambridge, 2005), 27–28; Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), 62–67; James Axtell, Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America (New York, 2001), 331; Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Ithaca, N.Y., 2000), 107–9; Evan Haefeli, “Kieft’s War and the Cultures of Violence in Colonial America,” in Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in American History, ed. Michael A. Bellesiles (New York, 1999), 17–40, esp. 20–21; Armstrong Starkey, European and Native American Warfare, 1675–1815 (Norman, Okla., 1998), chap. 2. Textbook examples, which often stress the well-known reaction of a Narragansett ally of New England colonists to the destruction of the Pequot town of Mystic in 1637 (it “is too furious, and slaies too many men”), include Jacqueline Jones et al., Created Equal: A History of the United States, Volume 1: To 1877, brief 3d ed. (New York, 2009), 63 (quotation); James Oakes et al., Of the People: A History of the United States, Volume 1: To 1877, concise 3d ed. (New York, 2015), 86; Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, 5th ed. (New York, 2016), 10, 76.

10. Emerson W. Baker and John G. Reid, “Amerindian Power in the Early Modern Northeast: A Reappraisal,” WMQ 61, no. 1 (January 2004): 77–106 (quotations, 80). Important recent war-and-culture studies include Little, Abraham in Arms, 29–60; Lipman, WMQ 65: 3–28; Juster, Sacred Violence.

11. This is not the place for a deep dive into Carl von Clausewitz’s philosophy, but see von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J., 1976), particularly bk. 1, pp. 86–89. The potential of a war-and-politics approach in studies of the Eastern Woodlands is gestured at or can be read between the lines of some recent works, but it remains to be spelled out and explicitly argued. See especially Lipman, WMQ 65: 10, 13–14; Cameron B. Strang, “Violence, Ethnicity, and Human Remains during the Second Seminole War,” Journal of American History 100, no. 4 (March 2014): 973–94; Matthew R. Bahar, “People of the Dawn, People of the Door: Indian Pirates and the Violent Theft of an Atlantic World,” Journal of American History 101, no. 2 (September 2014): 401–26.

12. Two main thrusts of the scholarship on how Native people altered their battlefield tactics in response to those of European colonists are that they became even more cautious than before, especially in engagements against Europeans, and that militaristic Native slaving societies frequently emerged. See for example Adam J. Hirsch, “The Collision of Military Cultures in Seventeenth-Century New England,” Journal of American History 74, no. 4 (March 1988): 1187–212; Ferguson and Whitehead, War in the Tribal Zone; Craig S. Keener, “An Ethnohistorical Analysis of Iroquois Assault Tactics Used against Fortified Settlements of the Northeast in the Seventeenth Century,” Ethnohistory 46, no. 4 (Autumn 1999): 777–807; Jon Parmenter, “After the Mourning Wars: The Iroquois as Allies in Colonial North American Campaigns, 1676–1760,” WMQ 64, no. 1 (January 2007): 39–82; Bossy, WMQ 71: 611–31; Matthew Kruer, “Bloody Minds and Peoples Undone: Emotion, Family, and Political Order in the Susquehannock-Virginia War,” WMQ 74, no. 3 (July 2017): 401–36.

13. Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (Charlottesville, Va., 2005), 192 (“guerrilla war”); Rountree, Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia through Four Centuries (Norman, Okla., 1990), 12 (“took the form”); Alfred A. Cave, Lethal Encounters: Englishmen and Indians in Colonial Virginia (Lincoln, Neb., 2013), 43 (“restrictions”); Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (New York, 2004), 88 (“frequent”). For more such statements, see also Rountree, Pocahontas’s People, 50 (as a rule “no large-scale move was made”); Rountree, “The Powhatans and Other Woodland Indians as Travelers,” in Powhatan Foreign Relations, 1500–1722, ed. Rountree (Charlottesville, Va., 1993), 21–52, esp. 49–50 (war as a personal/cultural imperative); Rountree, “Summary and Implications,” ibid., 206–28, esp. 221 (a “game”); Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough, 17 (“of the guerrilla kind”), 49 (“small-scale raids”), 60 (an assault on an English fort as a “skirmish”); Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture (Norman, Okla., 1989), 85 (individual glory), 87 (“guerrilla war”), 121 (captives, revenge, masculinity), 122 (gesture to politics and strategy in Powhatan warfare), 123–25 (small-scale raids); Rountree and E. Randolph Turner III, Before and After Jamestown: Virginia’s Powhatans and Their Predecessors (Gainesville, Fla., 2002), 27 (“small scale. . . . guerilla warfare . . . individual shows of prowess”), 37 (conquest of peoples, not territory), 84 (“guerilla”), 108 (light casualties), 234; J. Frederick Fausz, “Fighting ‘Fire’ with Firearms: The Anglo-Powhatan Arms Race in Early Virginia,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 3, no. 4 (1979): 33–50, esp. 34; Alan Taylor, American Colonies (New York, 2001), 127; James Horn, A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America (New York, 2005), 17, 19–20; James D. Rice, Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson (Baltimore, 2009), 51–52. Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, and Margaret Holmes Williamson, Powhatan Lords of Life and Death: Command and Consent in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (Lincoln, Neb., 2003), offer important insights into Powhatan expansionism but do not extend those insights to the battlefield. Townsend laments scholars’ tendency to “dwell on his [Powhatan’s] cultural tendencies” while ignoring his “political calculations” (62) yet also writes of “frequent skirmishes” (88) and “low-intensity warfare” (96). Williamson comes closest to the argument regarding Powhatan expansionism offered here, but she too ultimately characterizes Powhatan warfare as a series of skirmishes, “inconclusive but giving prestige to those involved” (35); the “most important reason for the chief engaging in warfare” was to acquire captives for ritual sacrifices (142–47; quotation, 147).

14. Seth Mallios, The Deadly Politics of Giving: Exchange and Violence at Ajacan, Roanoke, and Jamestown (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2006), 90 (“violations”); Ethan A. Schmidt, The Divided Dominion: Social Conflict and Indian Hatred in Early Virginia (Boulder, Colo., 2015), 24 (“disconnected”); J. Frederick Fausz, “An ‘Abundance of Blood Shed on Both Sides’: England’s First Indian War, 1609–1614,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98, no. 1 (January 1990): 3–56; Frederic W. Gleach, Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures (Lincoln, Neb., 1997), 43–54.

15. This series of events is ably summarized in Rountree, Pocahontas’s People, 3–28; Rountree and Turner, Before and After Jamestown.

16. Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia, 2012), 15 (quotation). See also Alejandra Dubcovsky, “Defying Indian Slavery: Apalachee Voices and Spanish Sources in the Eighteenth-Century Southeast,” WMQ 75, no. 2 (April 2018): 295–322.

17. Think, for example, of classic microhistories by the likes of Natalie Zemon Davis, Robert Darnton, and Carlo Ginzburg, or of George Rudé’s studies of crowd behavior and the subsequent work that it has inspired. See Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford, 1959); Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Mass., 1983); Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, 1983); Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1984). Recent examples of this approach in military history include Isabel V. Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca, N.Y., 2005); Sarah C. Melville, “The Last Campaign: The Assyrian Way of War and the Collapse of Empire,” in Warfare and Culture in World History, ed. Wayne E. Lee (New York, 2011), 13–34.

18. Fausz, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98: 3–56.

19. John Smith, A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia. . .. (1608), in Barbour, CWJS, 1: 27 (“certaine”), 23, 51, 79; “George Percy’s Discourse,” in Philip L. Barbour, ed., The Jamestown Voyages under the First Charter, 1606–1609 (London, 1969), 1: 133–34 (“Woods,” 1: 134); Henry Spelman, Relation of Virginia: A Boy’s Memoir of Life with the Powhatans and Patawomecks, ed. Karen Ordahl Kupperman (New York, 2019), 76–79 (“slauwter,” 78); [Gabriel Archer], “A relatyon of the Discovery of our River . . . by a gent. of ye colony,” in Barbour, Jamestown Voyages, 1: 96–97; G[eorge] P[ercy], “A Trewe Relacyon of the P[ro]cedeinges and Ocurrentes of Momente w[hi]ch have hapned in Virginia. . . . ,” Tyler’s Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine 3, no. 4 (April 1922): 259–82, esp. 274, 279–80; Smith, Map, 1: 151, 173– 76, 179; Smith, The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia, [1606–1612]. . . . (1612), in Barbour, CWJS, 1: 205–6, 212–13, 220, 226–28; Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. . . . (1624), in Barbour, CWJS, 2: 164–67, 173–76, 179, 243. For Spanish testimony of similar ambushes in the 1570s, see “Carta de Juan Rogel,” Aug. 28, 1572, in Clifford M. Lewis and Albert J. Loomie, The Spanish Jesuit Mission in Virginia, 1570–1572 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1953), 104, 108–9.

20. Percy, “Trewe Relacyon,” 276 (quotations). See also Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 165.

21. “Carta de Juan Rogel,” 109 (quotation), 104; Percy, “Trewe Relacyon,” 265–66; Spelman, Relation, 52–55; Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 232. For similar incidents, see “Carta de Juan Rogel,” 104–5, 109–10; Percy, “Trewe Relacyon,” 273; William Strachey, The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia. . .. , ed. R. H. Major (London, 1849), 59; Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 200–201. On Powhatan warfare as a battle of wits and a vehicle for intercultural communication, see Gleach, Powhatan’s World, 43–54.

22. Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 138 (quotation); George Percy, “Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English, 1606,” in Lyon Gardiner Tyler, ed., Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606–1625 (New York, 1907), 16.

23. [Archer], “A relatyon,” 95 (quotations); Smith, True Relation, 1: 31, 33.

24. Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 144 (quotations). Not to be confused with the more remote creator Ahone, Okeus sometimes spoke directly to humans and, if properly addressed, served as a guardian and teacher. On Okeus, see Gleach, Powhatan’s World, 35–38, 52–53; Williamson, Powhatan Lords, 176–80.

25. Smith, Proceedings, 1: 254–56 (quotations, 1: 255). See also Council in Virginia to the Earl of Southampton and the Council and Company of Virginia, Dec. 2, 1624, in Susan Myra Kingsbury, ed., The Records of the Virginia Company. . .. (RVC) (Washington, D.C., 1935), 4: 507–8.

26. Smith, Map, 1: 166–67 (“method,” 1: 166, “tooke their stands,” 1: 167).

27. Smith, True Relation, 1: 47 (quotations). See also Strachey, Historie, 51.

28. Smith, Proceedings, 1: 275 (quotation), 269–70; Percy, “Trewe Relacyon,” 262–65.

29. Smith, Proceedings, 1: 269–72 (quotation, 1: 271); Percy, “Trewe Relacyon,” 263–65.

30. Percy, “Trewe Relacyon,” 265–69 (“worlde,” 266, “Cutt,” 267). See also Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes. . .. (1625; repr., Glasgow, 1906), 19: 45, 50, 65–66, 70–71. For other examples of Powhatan sieges, see Strachey, Historie, 79–80; “A Breife Declaration of the Plantation of Virginia. . .. ,” in H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619–1658/59 (Richmond, 1915), 29–30. Rachel B. Herrmann argues that the cannibalism may not have taken place; Herrmann, “The ‘tragicall historie’: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown,” WMQ 68, no. 1 (January 2011): 47–74.

31. Smith, Map, 1: 146–48 (quotation, 1: 146).

32. Wayne E. Lee, “Peace Chiefs and Blood Revenge: Patterns of Restraint in Native American Warfare, 1500–1800,” Journal of Military History 71, no. 3 (July 2007): 701–41.

33. Lee, “Military Revolution of Native North America,” 52–53 (“cutting-off,” 53); George R. Milner, “Warfare, Population, and Food Production in Prehistoric Eastern North America,” in North American Indigenous Warfare and Ritual Violence, ed. Richard J. Chacon and Rubén G. Mendoza (Tucson, Ariz., 2007), 182–201 (“modify,” 199); Milner, Journal of Archaeological Research 7: 126–27; and the rest of the essays in Chacon and Mendoza, North American Indigenous Warfare. Indeed, cross-cultural comparisons reveal that premodern warfare between non-state societies could be even more deadly than warfare between modern states. The most influential work arguing for higher death rates in premodern combat is Keeley, War before Civilization, 83–97, 194–97. See also Steven A. LeBlanc and Katherine E. Register, Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful Noble Savage (New York, 2003); Guilaine and Zammit, Le sentier de la guerre. Though an important counterpoint to notions of relatively nonviolent non-state warfare, such works may constitute an overcorrection and are themselves prone to overgeneralization. For a cautionary note, see R. Brian Ferguson, “Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, and the Origins and Intensification of War,” in Arkush and Allen, Archaeology of Warfare, 469–523.

34. Percy, “Trewe Relacyon,” 274–75 (“skirmishes,” 274, “Thruste,” 275); Spelman, Relation, 76–79 (“knock,” 78). See also [Archer], “A relatyon,” 91.

35. Keeley, War before Civilization, 49 (“shock”); Smith, Map, 1: 136 (“Monacookes”). On “shock weapons” in general, see Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, From Sumer to Rome: The Military Capabilities of Ancient Armies (Westport, Conn., 1991), 56–75; for the Southeast, see Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians ([Knoxville, Tenn.], 1978), 245. For clubs and hatchets, see Smith, True Relation, 1: 87; Smith, Map, 1: 163; Smith, Proceedings, 1: 231, 236; Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 106–7, 126, 144, 148, 151, 171, 183, 202; Spelman, Relation, 76–77; Strachey, Historie, 80, 105–6. For swords and pikes, see Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, 19: 64; [Archer], “A relatyon,” 91; “A Breif discription of the People,” in Barbour, Jamestown Voyages, 1: 103; “George Percy’s Discourse,” ibid., 1: 138, 139; Smith, True Relation, 1: 39, 79, 81, 83, 89, 93; Smith, Map, 1: 136, 163; Smith, Proceedings, 1: 220, 245–46; Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 81, 106, 117, 183, 194–95, 197, 199– 200, 203, 244–45; Strachey, Historie, 80, 105–6. Strachey’s “A Dictionarie of the Indian Language” included numerous terms for arms and warfare, including “to beat out with a cudgell,” “Dead,” “Enemy,” “to fight at fisty cuffs,” “to flea,” “hatchet,” “an Indian hatchet,” “a hurt or cut,” “knife,” “pike,” “To strike,” “To strike with a sword,” “Sword,” “to take one prisoner,” “Targett” (shield), “Wapin, a stab,” “a wound,” and “To wrastle.” See Strachey, Historie, 183–96 (“cudgell,” 184, “Dead,” 186, “fisty cuffs,” 187, “hatchet,” 188, “hurt,” 189, “knife,” 190, “pike,” 192, “strike,” 194, “prisoner,” 195, “wound,” 196).

36. Smith, True Relation, 1: 94–95; Smith, Map, 1: 163; Smith, Proceedings, 1: 252. See also David E. Jones, Native North American Armor, Shields, and Fortifications (Austin, Tex., 2004), chap. 9.

37. Strachey, Historie, 36; Smith, Map, 1: 175. Strachey counted forty Piankatank bowmen, so twenty-four dead would be 60 percent of the fighting-age male population. On Spelman’s death, see Richard Ffrethorne to his father and mother, Mar. 30, Apr. 2, 3, 1623, in Kingsbury, RVC, 4: 61; Peter Arundel to William Caninge, April(?) 1623, ibid., 4: 89; Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 319–21. For additional examples of lethal surprise attacks, see Percy, “Trewe Relacyon,” 265–66, 275–76. On other conquered peoples, see 25–26, below.

38. [Archer], “A relatyon,” 95 (“hott”); Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 144 (“square”); Smith, True Relation, 1: 31–33; Smith, Map, 1: 167. For another possible example of a frontal assault, see Smith, Proceedings, 1: 220; for another half-moon formation, see Smith, Proceedings, 1: 255.

39. [Archer], “A relatyon,” 1: 95–98; Fausz, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98: 55.

40. Percy, “Trewe Relacyon,” 274–75; Smith, Proceedings, 1: 269–75; Fausz, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98: 3–56 (esp. Table A, p. 6). Fausz’s figures include all migrants who came during the period 1607–14, but war-related deaths were concentrated in 1609–11. Those numbers also assume that no one left the colony for England or other destinations. Moreover, the surviving sources have little to say about injuries suffered in war; thus the overall casualty rate, though difficult to estimate, was certainly higher.

41. Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, 19: 45 (quotation); Christopher Duffy, Siege Warfare: The Fortress in the Early Modern World, 1494–1660 (London, 1979).

42. Lee, “Peace Chiefs,” 702.

43. Smith, Map, 1: 150; Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 171; Milner, Journal of Archaeological Research 7: 118–19 n. 5; Rountree and Turner, Before and After Jamestown, 45; Robert D. Wall, “The Chesapeake Hinterlands: Contact-Period Archaeology in the Upper Potomac Valley,” in Indian and European Contact in Context: The Mid-Atlantic Region, ed. Dennis B. Blanton and Julia A. King (Gainesville, Fla., 2004), 74–97; Milner, “Warfare, Population, and Food Production,” 197–98; Dye, War Paths, Peace Paths, 145–48; Martin D. Gallivan, The Powhatan Landscape: An Archaeological History of the Algonquian Chesapeake (Gainesville, Fla., 2016), 130–32, 188–89. On buffer zones in general, see Dye, War Paths, Peace Paths, 7, 12–13, 42, 54, 84, 100–101, 132–33, 148, 154, 173; on the opening up of this particular buffer zone, see Rice, Nature and History, 47–56.

44. Edward Maria Wingfield, “A Discourse of Virginia,” in Barbour, Jamestown Voyages, 1: 214–15 (quotation); Smith, Map, 1: 165; Smith, Proceedings, 1: 226–28; Smith, True Relation, 1: 51; Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 243. For other evidence of central direction, see Percy, “Trewe Relacyon,” 279; Strachey, Historie, 50, 104. See also Williamson, Powhatan Lords, 52–53, 142–45; Rice, Nature and History, 81–82.

45. Useful introductions to chiefdoms and chieftaincy on a global scale include Timothy Earle, ed., Chiefdoms: Power, Economy, and Ideology (Cambridge, 1993); Earle, How Chiefs Come to Power: The Political Economy in Prehistory (Stanford, Calif., 1997); Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 2012). On the Southeast, see David G. Anderson, The Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1994); John F. Scarry, ed., Political Structure and Change in the Prehistoric Southeastern United States (Gainesville, Fla., 1996); Robin Beck, Chiefdoms, Collapse, and Coalescence in the Early American South (Cambridge, 2013).

46. Rice, Nature and History, chaps. 2–3. The major exception was the Chickahominy nation, located just upstream from Jamestown.

47. Rountree, Pocahontas’s People, 3–28.

48. Strachey, Historie, 48–50 (“strong and able,” “eyther,” 49, “yonger,” 50, “power-fulnes,” 48); Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough, 13.

49. The lower figure comes from John Smith’s careful enumeration of the bowmen in each nation during his summer 1608 reconnaissances of the Chesapeake Bay. Totaling up the number of fighting men recorded by Smith, Map, 1: 146–48, using lower-bound figures at every stage, excluding entire communities for which he gave no numbers, and noting that these figures include Indian deaths after the English war began still yields a figure of 2,005 warriors. (This count also excludes nations for which Smith estimated the number of warriors but that were not part of Tsenacommacah.) The higher estimate is based on the standard calculation, among historians of this period, that fighting men made up one-fifth to one-fourth of an Indigenous community’s overall population: one-fifth of 15,000 is 3,000. Thomas Dale estimated that Powhatan could assemble 1,000 of these warriors on short notice (Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, 19: 103). On the number of English troops in Ireland, see Lee, Barbarians and Brothers, 40.

50. Strachey, Historie, 49.

51. Ibid., 60–61 (quotations, 61).

52. Council in Virginia to Virginia Company of London, January 1621/2, in Kingsbury, RVC, 3: 584; Rice, Nature and History, 53–56.

53. Smith, True Relation, 1: 67 (quotations), 57, 73–75; Smith, Proceedings, 1: 248; Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 152.

54. Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 151 (quotations).

55. Strachey, Historie, 101 (“Chesapeack Bay”), 105 (“new inhabitants”); [Archer], “A relatyon,” 85.

56. Smith, Generall Historie, 175–78; Rountree, Pocahontas’s People, 46.

57. Smith, Map, 1: 175 (“neare,” “lockes”); Strachey, Historie, 36–37 (“generall hunt,” 36), 61.

58. Gleach, Powhatan’s World, 33 (“Mamanatowick,” “manito”), 36–43 (“manit,” 41).

59. Mallios, Deadly Politics of Giving; Daniel K. Richter, “Tsenacommacah and the Atlantic World,” in Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550–1624, ed. Peter C. Mancall (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 2007), 29–65. On the use of “loyalty work” and latent force to consolidate power over conquered populations, see Wayne E. Lee, “Conquer, Extract, and Perhaps Govern: Organic Economies, Logistics, and Violence in the Preindustrial World,” in A Global History of Violence in the Premodern World, ed. Erica Charters, Marie Houllemare, and Peter H. Wilson (Manchester, U.K., forthcoming).

60. Smith, Map, 1: 165 (quotation). Juliana Barr cautions against treating Native Americans as having “homelands” but not bounded territories in Barr, “Geographies of Power: Mapping Indian Borders in the ‘Borderlands’ of the Early Southwest,” WMQ 68, no. 1 (January 2011): 5–46 (quotation, 9); as does James H. Merrell in “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians,” WMQ 69, no. 3 (July 2012): 451–512, esp. 479–84. Lisa Brooks, “Awikhigawôgan ta Pildowi Ôjmowôgan: Mapping a New History,” WMQ 75, no. 2 (April 2018): 259–94, though focused on “centering” and connecting Indigenous places through remapping them, is equally subversive of scholarship that downplays Native territoriality (ibid., 287).

61. Kathleen R. Smythe, Africa’s Past, Our Future (Bloomington, Ind., 2015), 137–54 (quotations, 137). Influential statements include Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff, eds., Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (Madison, Wis., 1977); Jane I. Guyer, “Wealth in People and Self-Realization in Equatorial Africa,” Man 28, no. 2 (June 1993): 243–65; Guyer and Samuel M. Eno Belinga, “Wealth in People as Wealth in Knowledge: Accumulation and Composition in Equatorial Africa,” Journal of African History 36, no. 1 (1995): 91–120. See also Joseph C. Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (Madison, Wis., 1988); Jan Vansina, Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (Madison, Wis., 1990); A. Endre Nyerges, “The Ecology of Wealth-in-People: Agriculture, Settlement, and Society on the Perpetual Frontier,” American Anthropologist 94, no. 4 (December 1992): 860–81. Very few scholars have applied the concept of wealth-in- people to Native American peoples. See Hendrik Van Gijseghem, “A Frontier Perspective on Paracas Society and Nasca Ethnogenesis,” Latin American Antiquity 17, no. 4 (December 2006): 419–44; Catherine M. Cameron, Captives: How Stolen People Changed the World (Lincoln, Neb., 2016), chap. 3 (in passing); Kathleen J. Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 1650–1775 (Norman, Okla., 2009), 96 (also in passing); Timothy A. Kohler and Kathryn Kramer Turner, “Raiding for Women in the Pre-Hispanic Northern Pueblo Southwest? A Pilot Examination,” Current Anthropology 47, no. 6 (December 2006): 1035–45, esp. 1042 (even more briefly).

62. On taking and absorbing captives, see Smith, True Relation, 1: 75; Smith, Map, 1: 165–66; Smith, Generall Historie, 2: 173.

63. On Powhatan’s diplomatic marriages, intermarriage between werowances’ families, and the placement of Powhatan’s kin as werowances of tributary nations, see Ralph Hamor, A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia (Richmond, Va., 1957), 41–42; “The putting out of the Tenants that Came ouer in the B. N. wth Other Orders of the Councell,” Nov. 11, 1619, in Kingsbury, RVC, 3: 228; Spelman, “Relation,” 62–64; Strachey, Historie, 53–57, 60–62; Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, 16, 183 n. 18.

64. Kelly, Warless Societies.

65. Earle, How Chiefs Come to Power, 4–14.

66. Robbie Ethridge, “Introduction: Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone,” in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South, ed. Ethridge and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall (Lincoln, Neb., 2009), 1–62, esp. 7–9 (quotation, 7); Timothy K. Earle, “Chiefdoms in Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Perspective,” Annual Review of Anthropology 16 (1987): 279–308; Anderson, Savannah River Chiefdoms; Elsa M. Redmond, “Introduction: The Dynamics of Chieftaincy and the Development of Chiefdoms,” in Chiefdoms and Chieftaincy in the Americas, ed. Redmond (Gainesville, Fla., 1998), 1–17; David G. Anderson, “Examining Chiefdoms in the Southeast: An Application of Multiscalar Analysis,” in Great Towns and Regional Polities in the Prehistoric American Southwest and Southeast, ed. Jill E. Neitzel (Albuquerque, N.Mex., 1999), 215–41; John H. Blitz, “Mississippian Chiefdoms and the Fission-Fusion Process,” American Antiquity 64, no. 4 (October 1999): 577–92; Dye, War Paths, Peace Paths, chap. 6.

67. David H. Dye, “Warfare in the Protohistoric Southeast, 1500–1700,” in Between Contacts and Colonies: Archaeological Perspectives on the Protohistoric Southeast, ed. Cameron B. Wesson and Mark A. Rees (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2002), 126–41 (“surprise raids,” 129); Dye, War Paths, Peace Paths, 4 (“carried out”), chap. 9. See also Anderson, “Examining Chiefdoms,” 228; Joseph M. Hall Jr., Zamumo’s Gifts: Indian-European Exchange in the Colonial Southeast (Philadelphia, 2009), 25–26. For broader comparative perspectives, see Stephen P. Reyna, “A Mode of Domination Approach to Organized Violence,” in Studying War: Anthropological Perspectives, ed. S. P. Reyna and R. E. Downs (Langhorne, Pa., 1994), 29–65; Elsa M. Redmond and Charles S. Spencer, “From Raiding to Conquest: Warfare Strategies and Early State Development in Oaxaca, Mexico,” in Arkush and Allen, Archaeology of Warfare, 336–93; Steven A. LeBlanc, “Warfare and the Development of Social Complexity: Some Demographic and Environmental Factors,” ibid., 437–68.

68. Dye, “Warfare in the Protohistoric Southeast,” 130 (“provided an arena”); David H. Dye, “The Transformation of Mississippian Warfare: Four Case Studies from the Mid-South,” in Arkush and Allen, Archaeology of Warfare, 101–47, esp. 101–4 (“expanding,” 101). See also Earle, How Chiefs Come to Power, chap. 4.

69. On Jamestown’s struggles, see Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975); Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “Apathy and Death in Early Jamestown,” Journal of American History 66, no. 1 (June 1979): 24–40; Paul Musselwhite, Peter C. Mancall, and James Horn, eds., Virginia 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 2019). On the importance of “reluctant Powhatans,” see James D. Rice, “Escape from Tsenacommacah: Chesapeake Algonquians and the Powhatan Menace,” in Mancall, Atlantic World and Virginia, 97–140 (quotation, 126). On Powhatan’s fidelity to the conventions of chiefly behavior toward the English, see Richter, Before the Revolution, 121–28.

70. That there were limits to this overlap—for example, there were no Powhatan equivalents to the heavy artillery, expensive fortifications, naval vessels, and mercenary pikemen that were then driving the rise of the military-fiscal state in Europe—should not obscure these similarities, nor the fact that they yielded comparable death rates.

71. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, ed. Ian Shapiro (New Haven, Conn., 2010), chap. 13; Milner, “Warfare, Population, and Food Production,” 200.

72. Juliana Barr, “The Red Continent and the Cant of the Coastline,” WMQ 69, no. 3 (July 2012): 521–26.

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