Conflict with Native Americans – A Clash of Cultures
by Glenn N. Holliman
Between April and June, 2010, I published six articles on the Holliman family in 17th Century Colonial America (they can be found in the archive section of this blog). After having published 23 articles on our English past, I now return to the history of the Virginia English colony and the travails our family experienced.
Michael Mallary in his 2004 work, Our Improbable Universe, makes the point that everywhere farmers went taking their technology and culture, the hunter-gatherers melted away before them. “The high population density that could be supported by agriculture depleted game well below the density that hunters (such as American Indians) required” observed this historian.
This then was the societal reality when Christopher C. Holliman, Sr. with his probable sister, Judith, arrived in Virginia in 1650. The frontier required bravery, a tenacious attitude to attack the virgin forests and a strong constitution not to succumb on the voyage or to disease and malnutrition upon arriving. Fortunately this Holliman family had such attributes, although Anne, Christopher's first wife, died in the 1660s. Mary Grey, perhaps the daughter of a member of the House of Burgesses in Jamestown, became Sr’s second wife.
In only a generation or so, soil exhaustion from tobacco cultivation forced families or young farmers to move to virgin land, to push the American frontier ever westward. The quest for land to grow tobacco and later cotton meant more and more Native Americans were displaced. The result was violence as American Indians naturally resisted encroachment on their hunting grounds and villages. The Indian did not go quietly to his cultural demise in Virginia and greater America.
Perhaps 15,000 to 25,000 Native Americans lived in Southern Virginia in the early 1600s. Benjamin Woolley’s Savage Kingdom records Captain Christopher Newport’s 1607 initial visit up the newly named James River to the site of present day, Richmond. He sighted numerous Indian villages. John Smith’s adventurous tales record numerous Indian settlements and evidence of many warriors. What English people knew as Virginia, Native Americans called Tsenacomoco.
Although there were numerous skirmishes and at least one large assault on early Jamestown as the two cultures brushed and bruised each other, the English were fortunate the central Indian chief was Powhatan. By and large he was an accommodating weroance (chief) who failed to anticipate the ultimate threat of the English invasion.
At his passing, his brother, Opechancanough, already an old man, recognized the Anglo incursion for what it was – a death threat to Indian culture and territory. On the Christian Good Friday in March, 1622, this war chief unleashed a Pearl Harbor on the small colony. By stealth, Indians conducted well-coordinated attacks on plantations and settlements all up and down the James River on both south and north banks. Over 1/3rd of the English colonists were killed in one day – 347 men, women and children. It was a close run thing if the colony could repel the attacks.
While a tactical victory for Native Americans, the attacks were not enough to drive the English into the ocean. Within a year, the colonists struck back and killed over 200 Indians, although Opechancanough escaped. For two decades the frontier was mostly quiet, but in 1644, now almost 100 years old, ever determined Opechancanough struck one last time. Five hundred settlers died, particularly along the York and Pamunkey rivers. (Records indicate several settlers named Holyman already were living in the colony in the 1630s and 40s. We will explore this in later postings.)
This time under a controversial but stubborn royal governor, Sir William Berkeley, the Virginia militia now much stronger and more numerous than warriors the Indians mustered, captured Opechancanough and destroyed most of his forces. The old chief died in captivity in Jamestown, slain by a vengeful guard. Surviving Native Americans were relegated to a piece a land near the fall line, at present day Richmond.