Trading with the Nansemonds: 1608

Published 7:05 pm Saturday, April 30, 2016

By Kermit Hobbs Jr.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of an occasional series on the Nansemond Indians and their interactions with the colonists from England. Part one appeared in the Nov. 14 edition of the Suffolk News-Herald.

In the summer of 1608, Capt. John Smith and a dozen fellow explorers sailed around the Chesapeake Bay, learning what they could about the geography and the inhabitants of the new land they called Virginia.

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On the last day before their return to Jamestown, the explorers sailed up the Nansemond River and encountered the Nansemond Indian tribe. Their visit ended in armed conflict between the explorers and the natives.

Smith’s men, with their muskets, held the upper hand against the Indians’ bows and arrows. They forced the Indians to trade 400 bushels of corn as a ransom for the return of their dugout canoes that Smith and his men had captured.

Smith’s little shallop could carry only a small portion of the corn the Nansemond Indians had promised, so he regarded the remainder as a debt yet to be repaid.

It was the following December before Smith had an opportunity to collect on the Indians’ “debt,” and by that time, the colony’s need for food had become urgent.

Much to Smith’s dismay, Capt. Christopher Newport had arrived from England in October bringing a new supply of colonists. As far as Smith was concerned, they were nothing better than 70 more mouths that had to be fed.

When he returned to the Nansemonds’ village, however, the natives refused to give Smith the corn he claimed they owed him. They said Powhatan had commanded them not to trade with Smith any further, nor to even allow the English into their river.

One of the colonists in the expedition told what happened next: “We were constrained to begin with them perforce. Upon the discharging of our Muskets they all fled and shot not an Arrow; the first house we came to we set on fire, which when they perceived, they desired we would make no more spoyle, they would give us half they had.”

This amounted to 100 bushels.

It is important to recognize that for the Indians, the winter season was essentially a period of famine, and loss of their corn supply could threaten their own survival.

Capt. Smith’s heavy-handed dealing with the Indians prompted Powhatan to invite Smith to negotiate with him at his home at Werowocomoco, on the north side of the York River. This meeting, in December 1608, would be the fourth and final time the two leaders would meet.

Powhatan’s words reflected the wisdom and shrewdness of the 70-year old chief. After hearing Smith’s appeal for trade, the old chief agreed to provide some corn for the settlers, but he followed with words of caution.

“Yet some doubt I have of your coming hither, that makes me not so kindly seeke to relieve you as I would: for many doe informe me, your coming hither is not for trade but to invade my people, and possesse my Country….”

“But this bruit from Nandsamund, that you are come to destroy my Country, so much affrighteth all my people as they dare not visit you. What will it availe you to take that by force you may quickly have by love, or to destroy them that provide you food? … Let this therefore assure of our loves, and every yeere our friendly trade shall furnish you and now also, if you would come in friendly manner to see us, and not thus with your guns and swords as to invade your foes.”

Both men continued to speak under a charade of friendship as Powhatan sought to convince Smith and his men to put down their weapons. Smith, however, held on to his guns as the negotiations ground to a halt.

Smith’s wariness of Powhatan’s intentions proved to be wise. Powhatan slipped away from the longhouse and left Smith and his companion there. When Smith emerged from the building he discovered that it had been surrounded by Indians waiting to ambush him.

Smith, “…with his pistol, sword, and target [shield] hee made such a passage among these naked Divels; that at his first shot, they… tumbled one over another, and the rest quickly fled some one way some another.”

Smith made his escape and, even under these circumstances, was able to obtain some of the corn he still claimed he was owed. Even so, it was becoming more evident that for the Jamestown colony to survive, it would have to become self-sufficient in food production. In the coming months he would work toward that objective.

Yet again, Captain Smith’s attention would be drawn to the Nansemond River.

Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at