The Algonquian Exchange in the Transition from Colony to Plantation Economy

The Subsistence Economy

The colonists learned critical skills from the Algonquians that allowed the colony to survive and begin the transition to a plantation economy. The Algonquians had evolved from nomadic migrations to settled towns, made possible by their development of a subsistence economy, successful hunting. fishing, and agricultural techniques. They taught the settlers how to grow corn, beans (planted in the same hills as corn), and squash. In the fall of the year they moved to temporary camps in the forests and by the rivers to hunt and fish. Using fire, they herded deer into contained areas where they could be more easily killed. Night fishing proved especially beneficial in spearing fish. John Smith noted that fish were so plentiful he could kill them with a frying pan. Fortunately, the Indians had superior techniques.

The English Gambit

The English arrived assuming they would be able to depend upon the “natives,” “naturals,” or “savages” (colonists used a variety of terms to refer to the Algonquians)to feed them. They took numerous trips up and down the rivers surrounding the Chesapeake Bay to trade iron tools, beads, furs, and copper (a ritual metal) for corn. The effects of a severe drought, however, led to Algonquian resistance to trade because tribes needed the corn for their own survival. In 1610, the competition for corn reached a critical point that resulted in the Paspahegh Massacre.

Wahunsenacah’s Gambit

Wahunsenacah initially supported Algonquian trade with the English and it allowed them to survive. His recognized that the English depended upon his people to feed them and their absence of women meant they could not reproduce themselves. Consequently, he believed the English could not survive and he resorted to a strategy of trade and efforts to incorporate them into his paramount chieftancy (see Wahunsenacah and John Smith on Peace and War). Eventually he realized the gambit had not worked and he resorted to placing James Fort under siege in an attempt to force the settlers to leave (see Drought, Siege, and Starvation). Wahunsenacah died in 1617 and Opechancanough assumed the leadership of his chieftancy. Unlike Wahunsenacah, Opechancanough never trusted the English. In 1622, he led a massive attack on James River plantations, killing over 500 settlers. But by that time, the English were on their way to establishing dominance over the Algonquians. In 1624, in retribution for Opechancanough’s attack, the Indians were invited to a council for the ostensible purpose of concluding a peace agreement. Instead, 200 were poisoned.

Developments in 1619 bridged the move from colony to a fledgling plantation economy, ironically made possible by the adoption of subsistence practices the colonists had learned from the Algonquians in the twelve years since the first settlement.

The Transition: 1619

Sixteen Nineteen was a pivotal year, arguably as significant as 1607. In that year, England made it’s first shipment of women to the colony. Their presence made a huge difference in the colony. It freed men to invest more time to invest in subsistence, using the techniques garnered from the Algonquian Exchange. Men could spend more time hunting and fishing or planting crops. Women also were active in the planting and harvesting of corn, tanning hides, cooking and cleaning. Another major development was the arrival of 20 Africans on the White Lion stolen by English corsairs off the Portuguese ship São João Bautista in the Bay of Campeche. Even though some of this first group were treated like indentured servants, others faced lifetime slavery in Virginia. A third important development in this year was the shipment of tobacco that increased in quantity as more and more slaves began to be imported. The growth of plantation agriculture was gradual. In 1650, the colony only had 300 slaves, but the numbers increased dramatically after that. Instead of forcing Algonquians into slavery, the colony now found a ready source of slave labor. The transition from colony to plantation economy had been bridged by the subsistence economy in the Algonquian Exchange. The subsistence economy continued, of course, as a source of foodstuffs, but the plantation economy came to dominate the social, economic, and cultural life of Virginia. Importation of livestock (cattle and hogs) boosted subsistence farming but created other problems, such as encroachment of livestock on Indian lands and the need to grow forage crops for livestock, especially corn and hay.

Arrival of First African Slaves in Virginia, 1619


The English succeeded at Jamestown due to superior knowledge, resources, and skill. Virginia Indians were naturally violent and had to be conquered by force.


The Algonquians enabled Jamestown to survive under Wahunsenacah’s misunderstanding that they could be brought into his paramount chieftancy and made sources of trade. Although some tribes had been alienated by previous contact with Europeans, most welcomed the English at first until they became victims of attack and massacre.