Text: This document is a speech delivered by Chief Powhatan and translated by John Smith. Powhatan gives this speech in 1609 to Captain John Smith expressing his concern about the strained relationship between the English colonists and Native Americans. He expresses that it is beneficial for the English and the tribes to work together rather than to fight and live separately. Powhatan notes that his tribe has welcomed the English and had been assisting them with food, while the English have been fighting them.
Context: John Smith and the English settlers arrived in 1607 in Virginia. There had been struggles between the Natives and the colonists from the beginning of the settlement with attacks from both sides. When Powhatan gave his speech to Smith he was around the age of 60 and died in 1618. Within the fall of 1609 John Smith was badly injured due to a gunpowder explosion and returned to England. We are not sure about the time in which Powhatan’s speech was given in relation to Smith’s leaving.
Subtext: Throughout the speech, translated by John Smith, Powhatan explains that he wishes there was peace between the two groups. Powhatan was the chief of a large Confederacy consisting of around 32 tribes living in the Virginia area. He was viewed as a strong and powerful leader who wants best for his people. He explains that the reason for his speech is that he is near the end of his life and is concerned about their relationship when his successor takes his place. When Powhatan died, his brother Opechancanough took his place. Since this was a speech given by Powhatan and an actual written recording from the chief is not provided, we are only left with Smith’s translation of the speech. This leads us to question the reliability of Powhatan’s words in 1609.
Why do you think that the English settlers come with “swords and guns, as to invade an enemy”?
The English were lead to America by military men who were trained to fight. Their initial reaction would be to fight rather than make peace with the native people. The English also viewed the Native Americans as “savages” and people they did not want to make friends with. They were not treated as equals. What do you think is a possible cause of the English’s “jealousy” that Chief Powhatan is referring to?
As possible reason for jealousy would be that the Native Americans are able to grow crops, hunt, and live off the land using resources provided in nature. Much of the success of Jamestown can be attributed to the help of the Native Americans, especially when recovering from the first few months when more than half of the colonists died. What is Powhatan implying will happen to Captain Smith if he continues his aggressive treatments towards the Native Americans? How do you know this?
Powhatan explains in the 2nd paragraph that he is able to take his “provisions” (food) away and” fly into the woods” (disappear) and this will cause the settlers to face “famish” (starve) by the “wrongdoings” of the tribe. This implies if the English don’t act peacefully the Native Americans won’t help them any longer and therefore won’t be able to survive.
Powhatan also expresses to Smith at the end of the speech that he is near the end of his life, and Smith and his people might be too if they act with “rashness and unadvisedness” (don’t work peacefully along side of the Native Americans).
Questions for Discussion:
What might John Smith say in reply to this speech?
Primary Source: “Chief Powhatan’s Address to John Smith” (1609)