The colonists and the Nansemond Indians – 1609

Published 9:04 pm Saturday, July 2, 2016

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part three 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 and part two appeared in the May 1 edition.

When the English colonists representing the London Company arrived in Virginia in 1607, they expected to find gold in abundance.

The company’s investors had long read the news of Spanish fleets bringing home shiploads of gold and other valuables from their colonies in the Caribbean and South America, and they fully expected the Virginia colony to be equally successful.

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They even envisioned the discovery of a waterway that would take them across the land to the “South Sea” and ultimately to India, China or other lands.

Capt. John Smith, who had become president of the colony in the fall of 1608, had managed to procure enough food from the natives to keep his people fed up to that point and a few months longer.

The food situation grew more difficult with the arrival of Christopher Newport’s vessel containing 70 new colonists that October.

Smith managed to obtain a few months’ supply through his negotiations with Chief Powhatan in December, but it became clear to him that he could not count on pressuring the natives to keep feeding his people. It was critical that the colony become self-sufficient in food production.

Smith was particularly irritated by the presence of the “gentlemen” among the colonists. Around February, 1609, Smith issued an order to the colonists that “hee that will not worke shall not eate… for the labours of thirtie or fortie honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintaine an hundred and fiftie idle loyterers.”

In August, seven more vessels arrived from England bearing hundreds of new settlers to the colony. Smith was unimpressed with them, commenting that they included “many unruly Gallants, packed thither by their friends to escape ill destinies.” That is, they were fleeing from England to take their chances in Virginia.

Smith decided that the time had come for the new settlers to spread into other locations to grow the food they would need for survival.

He therefore sent Francis West up the James River with 120 men to begin a new colony, and he sent John Martin with 60 colonists to the Nansemond River to do the same. Both took with them adequate supplies to succeed in their mission.

George Percy, who accompanied Martin on the Nansemond River expedition, left the most detailed explanation of what happened.

Capt. Francis Nelson delivered the Nansemond colonists, probably aboard the Phoenix, to the banks of the Nansemond River. Upon their arrival, Captain Martin sent two messengers “to the King of Nancemonde to barter with him for an island right opposite against the main we were upon, for copper hatche(t)s and other commodities. But our messengers staying longer than we expected, we feared that which after hap’ned.”

Their fears were soon realized when they learned “from the Indians themselves that (the two messengers) were sacrificed, and that their brains were cut and scraped out of their heads with mussel shells.”

In response to this atrocity, Capt. Martin sent a party of his men to invade the island. They “burned their houses, ransacked their temples, took down the corpse’ of their dead kings from off their tombs, and carried away their pearls, copper, and bracelets wherewith they do decore their kings’ funerals.”

“In the meantime, the savages upon the main did fall into dissension with Captain Martin, who seized the king’s son and one other Indian, and brought them bound unto the island….”

The other Indian escaped after being shot. The king’s son was also freed.

With Martin and his men now posted in a relatively safe position on the island, Percy returned on the ship to Jamestown.

A few days later, Capt. Martin showed up at Jamestown “pretending some occasions of business. But indeed his own safety moved him thereunto, fearing to be surprised by the Indians, who had made divers excursions against him.”

Of the colonists left on the Nansemond River island, 17 took a small boat and left for Kecoughtan, supposedly to get some food supplies. They were never heard from again.

George Percy reported that the remainder were later “found slain, with their mouths stopped full of bread, being done as it seemeth in contempt and scorn that others might expect the like when they should come to seek for bread and relief amongst them.”

It would be several more years before the Nansemond Indians would again be bothered by the English colonists.

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