Virginia Indians slaughtered men, women and children in a surprise assault on Good Friday, but that didn't frighten the English enough to leave.
Chief Opechancanough launched the March 1622 attack, a move avoided by his predecessor and relative, Powhatan.
Historian Helen Rountree offers that Powhatan thought the Europeans would die off from disease and hunger. Also, fighting them would have been costly — warriors were also hunters, and if they died, families would have been left wanting.
Old Dominion University professor Edward Ragan, an early-Virginia scholar, suggests also that Powhatan gained financially from a détente with the English: They needed his corn, and he wanted their copper. In a culture without a monetary system, power and influence often were recognized in materials imbued with totemic power. Color often mattered; the white hue of shells or pearls was associated with Powhatan's embodiment of his people's dreams and hopes.
"That's why the English are excited the Indians are willing to accept glass beads," Ragan says. "To them, it's trash; but if you look at the colors of those beads, they are ritually important." Late in Powhatan's tenure, however, the power color was shifting to red, and by the 1670s, red, white, and blue beads were often traded.
Opechancanough, a man of "large stature, noble presence and extraordinary parts," carried vitality and ambition. His younger subjects couldn't remember a time when the English weren't in Virginia, but he could well recall. The chief wanted to show the settlers that the native people were stronger and that newcomers weren't wanted.
Opechancanough first sought to destabilize the English by poisoning Jamestown representatives with spotted cowbane at a memorial gathering for Powhatan. Then warriors would spread among the settlers. To gather enough poison, Opechancanough approached Esmy Shichans, the Accomack chief known as the "Laughing King." Contrary to his nickname, Shichans wasn't amused, refused Opechancancough's request and informed Jamestown of future trouble.
Opechancanough denied everything and then allowed missionary George Thorpe to freely proselytize. Thorpe's official role was to establish a college for the natives on 10,000 acres near Henricus.
The well-meaning Thorpe didn't realize he was getting set up, nor could he understand how insulting his evangelism was to people who already had a religion. In his way, Thorpe was sympathetic to the natives, having adopted a young member of Pocahontas' entourage in London who subsequently died; and he publicly hanged mastiff dogs belonging to the settlers because they frightened the natives. He also built an English-style house for Opechancanough, who was fascinated by the mechanics of the front-door lock.
The Jamestown authorities and the residents of outlying plantations were lulled into believing peace was at hand, with natives living among them and even assisting in farming. Opechancanough declared that "the sky would sooner fall" than he would violate the peace.
The Day of Retribution — killing more than 300 men, women and children, a quarter of the colony's population — came on Good Friday, March 22, in a series of well-timed assaults upon the English settlers scattered between Jamestown and Northern Virginia.
Native families were fishing and foraging away from the settlements, keeping them safe for the moment from English reprisal. On order from Opechancanough, messengers spread throughout the James River region, under peaceful guise, with a mission to give the signal for violence. Almost a dozen tribes participated.
Jamestown wasn't affected, but workmen in Henricus were killed, and 21 men, two women and three children were slain at the Falling Creek Iron Works. George Thorpe was killed and ritually mutilated.
Instead of leaving, the English sent more settlers, although King James I revoked the Virginia Company's business charter, placing the colony under strict control of the crown.
And détente between the Indians and English was definitively over. A 10-year war soon ensued, including a 1644 Opechancanough attack similar in nature to the Good Friday slaughter, only with deadlier results. The future brought an erosion of the native tribes and, before long, the advent of Indian reservations.