Paspahegh Massacre (Genocide)

Paspahegh Site on the Chickahominy River
Paspahegh Model Based Upon Archaeological Survey

This video shows an aerial view of the former Paspahegh site, based upon an archaeological survey

Paspahegh Site Today

The Paspahegh Town

The Indian town of Paspahegh was situated at the mouth of the Chickahominy River on its east bank, about six miles northwest of James Fort. John Smith’s 1608 Map of Virginia shows an unnamed town here. The entire area was known as Paspahegh, the name of the Algonquian-speaking group who occupied the town and hunted and fished the surrounding terrain and waters. Paspahegh was a dispersed town, meaning the town’s houses were scattered across a large area with no evidence of fortifications or palisades. Instead, houses, gardens, and fallow fields spread over a terrace (ten to fifteen feet high) above the three waterways surrounding the town: the James River on the south (about two miles wide at the point), the Chickahominy (half-mile wide) on the west, and the Mattapamient Bay (north). Today the town is covered by a residential and golfing development called “The Governor’s Land at Two Rivers. But before it was developed, an archaeological survey (44JC308) was made of the 2.75 acres (out of 31 on the point) in danger of destroying Indian remains.

The Paspahegh Massacre

Early relations between the Paspahegh and the English settlers were harmonious but quickly took a turn for the worse leading to Indian assaults on the men building the fort before they could even complete it. At one point, John Smith got into a fight with the weroance Wowinchopunck and the two men nearly drowned in the James River. Finally, the English, upset that the tribe would not give them the corn they demanded, launched an attack upon the village, destroying the huts and, ironically, burning the corn crop. They captured the Queen and took her and many children on the voyage back to Jamestown. During the trip, they threw the children into the water and shot them for sport as they tried to swim away. Upon arrival back at the fort, they killed the Queen, running her through with a knife. The attack virtually destroyed the tribe. See a timeline of these events.

This is a recreation of the site based upon an archaeological excavation. The black dots scattered among the houses indication burial sites.



According to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the intentional killing of an ethnic group or actions designed to destroy the group, constitute genocide, but require legal validation to be considered a crime. The Paspahegh massacre meets the definition but was never reviewed by a court.

However, the massacre itself supports another more recent understanding by historians of its significance: it is an act of “settler colonialism.” Rather than conscription by invaders to exploit local people and resources, it shows how the goal was the removal of native populations to make room for another work force, such as indentured servants or slaves.


The English invaders intentions were to conscript the native peoples of Virginia and force them to work for them to exploit mineral resources, fur-bearing animals, timber-rich forests, and agricultural lands.


Unable to conquer native peoples, the English invaders quickly turned their attention to removal and replacement of Indians by indentured servants and slaves. The growth of tobacco as a cash crop and the importation of the first slaves in 1619 spurred this development. The Algonquians under Opechancanough responded with an attack upon James River plantations in 1622, killing about 500 settlers, and again in 1644. Subsequent treaties confined Virginia’s Indians to ever diminishing spaces. No one should be mislead into thinking the Algonquian responses in 1622 and 1644 prove the Indians were a naturally violent people. If you had a domestic cat and you stepped on its tail everyday, it would soon become more feral. Time and time again, the colonists provoked the people they needed to survive. Dispossession was was a central feature of conflict.

Means of Dispossession

English custom, religion, and law were three means of dispossession. According to English custom, land not in the possession of a Christian prince could be taken, regardless of the occupants. This custom allowed colonial explorers to lay claim to land they had “discovered.” Religious conversion was another means of dispossession. Although not as strong a motivation in Virginia as in colonial New England, proselytization (conversion from one religion or belief to another) motivated English colonialists from the outset. When it involved separating children from their parents for the purpose of religious instruction, as it did at times in Virginia, the process angered Indian parents. When Wahunsenacah claimed “I have seen the death of my people thrice,” he was likely referring to cultural genocide. Colonists viewed converted Indians as safe or good Indians. The law was anther means of dispossession. Removing Indians to reserved areas, supposedly to reduce the chances for conflict, and sealing the agreements in treaties that were often violated led to anger and distrust.

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