Wahunsenacah and John Smith on Peace and War

In December 1607, Captain John Smith left James Fort and traveled up the James River to the headwaters of the Chickahominy River, about six miles north. At the town of Apocant Smith was captured by Opechancanough, brother or cousin of Wahunsenacah and weroance of the Pamaunkee Indians. Following protocol, Opechancanough was obligated to inform Wahunsenacah of the capture. When Wahunsenacah could not be reached, Opechancanough decided to summons his seven highest ranking kwiocosuk or shamans and convene an elaborate three-day ritual in an attempt to discern Smith’s intentions. In the course of this assemblage, he decided to take Smith to visit the Rappahannock Indians, who had been previously attacked by a European ship captain, killing one of the Rappahannocks. But the tribe decided Smith was not the killer; they determined he was too short. Opechancanough  then proceeded to Werowocomoco, Wahunsenacah’s capital of Tsenacomoco, the name of the territory encompassing the more than thirty tribes of Wahunsenacah’s chieftancy. It was during this meeting of the two men when Smith and Wahunsenacah engaged in a profound and revealing exchange on peace and war, as reported later by Smith. In this dialogue, summarized here, we are given an intimate exchange of Indian views on the invaders from the Algonquian perspective. According to Wahunsenacah:

  • I have seen the death of my people thrice.
  • I know the difference between peace and war better than any.
  • I know this report from Nansamund that you have come to destroy my country and it frightens us.
  • What will it avail you to take by force what you can have with love or destroy those who provide you with food?
  • What would you do if we hid our provisions and fled to the woods, whereby you would starve?
  • Would not it be better if we traded good meat for hatchets, copper, or what I want?
  • Why do we have to live lying cold in the woods in fear, feed on acorns and roots, and, listening for every twig that breaks, imagining “here comes John Smith?”
  • Let me assure you of our love and will to furnish you with corn, if you come without guns and swords.

To this Smith replied (with disregard for the truth):

  • We have kept our promises to you, but you violate yours every day
  • But we have curbed our desire for revenge, out of love and courtesy
  • We have advantages in arms and could, if we intended, destroy you when your people come to Jamestown with bows and arrows
  • As for hiding your provisions or flying to the woods, we would not starve; we could live without your care