In Colonial Virginia It Was the Kids Who Mixed the Cultures That Became American

Both the English and the Native Americans Used Children to Learn the Mysterious Ways of Their New Neighbors

In Colonial Virginia It Was the Kids Who Mixed the Cultures That Became American | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Artist rendering of an aerial view of Jamestown, Virginia, around 1614. Courtesy of Sidney King/Wikimedia Commons.

What It Means to Be American In 1608, Thomas Savage, age 13, arrived on the first ship from England bringing supplies to the newly founded Jamestown colony. He had been in Virginia just a few weeks when he was presented as a gift to Wahunsenaca, the great Powhatan who ruled over most of the people along the rivers leading into the lower Chesapeake Bay area. In return, Powhatan gave the English a young man named Namontack.

Such exchanges of young people were considered normal. As English expeditions began to venture into the continents across the Atlantic, the Chesapeake Algonquians who owned the land wanted to know as much as possible about the newcomers—and vice versa. The quest for knowledge was practical: In order to deal with the English arriving in Jamestown, who were impulsive and sometimes brutal, the Powhatans and their allies needed to understand English motives and capabilities. Venturers from across the Atlantic needed local knowledge just to survive, and they hoped to discover valuable products that they could send home to pay for their American bases.

The issue for both sides was how to get inside the other’s settlements to gain all this necessary knowledge. The answer? Send young people to live and learn in the other culture. Youths were flexible, able to adapt, and much better than adults at learning new languages. As Shakespeare’s character Lafeu said in All’s Well That Ends Well, boys are “unbaked and doughy.”

Namontack soon sailed to England on the return voyage of the ship that had brought Thomas Savage to Virginia. Powhatan said that he “purposely sent” Namontack to “King James his land, to see him and his country, and to returne me the true report thereof.” Everyone assumed the young emissaries would remain completely identified with their birth culture and just act as spies. But their immersion in a very different culture at such a young age complicated their identities. Their knowledge was absolutely crucial, but leaders on both sides increasingly wondered if the boys could be trusted.

Every English ship that crossed the Atlantic carried boys who were expected to perform whatever duties commanders chose for them. No one thought this was strange, because English children typically left home around the age of 13. As their childhood ended, they entered a stage called nonage, and they stayed in this phase of life until they reached adulthood, often well into their twenties. A fortunate few went to Oxford or Cambridge or studied law at the Inns of Court, and some, whose families could afford it, became apprentices. Most became servants in another family’s home or business, where they were supposed to learn the skills necessary for adult life.

The records tell us nothing about Thomas Savage’s origins or his family. He was listed as a laborer in the ship’s records, and Richard Savage also appeared on that list, so he may have traveled with his brother. In 1609 another boy, 14-year-old Henry Spelman, arrived and was given to Powhatan’s son. We know more about him, partly because his family was prominent enough to appear in the records, and because he wrote a memoir of his life with the Chesapeake Algonquians. The first sentence of his Relation of Virginia tells us why he was sent to America, “Beinge in displeasure of my frendes, and desiring to see other cuntryes.” The fleet in which he sailed confronted the huge hurricane that inspired the opening scene of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

It must have been a terrible shock for the boys as they were thrust out by the English commanders, but eyewitness accounts tell us that their hosts dealt with them kindly and the teens quickly adapted. The chiefs accepted them into their own households and treated them as sons. Powhatan called Thomas Savage “My childe.” And Patawomeck Chief Iopassus, with whom Henry Spelman had eventually gone to live on the Potomac, punished his wife for attacking Henry, “tellinge me he loved me, and none should hurt me.”

The issue for both sides was how to get inside the other’s settlements to gain all this necessary knowledge. The answer? Send young people to live and learn in the other culture. Youths were flexible, able to adapt, and much better than adults at learning new languages. As Shakespeare’s character Lafeu said in All’s Well That Ends Well, boys are “unbaked and doughy.”

Chesapeake Algonquian boys and girls took on adult roles as they entered their teen years, so Thomas Savage and Henry Spelman entered a new American life. There, girls joined the women in planting and caring for the agricultural fields, and dealing with the tribe’s food supplies. Men, including the boys, engaged in hunting and fishing, which meant creating all the equipment for these pursuits and setting up the maze of nets to trap fish in the rivers. While the leaders back in Jamestown considered Savage and Spelman servants at their command, living with the Chesapeake Algonquians allowed them to be members of a society that valued them.

Being American involved getting used to a lot of shocking changes in everyday life. For one thing the boys had to bathe, something quite foreign to the English experience. William White, a runaway who had lived among the Powhatans, reported that at daybreak everyone older than 10 “runnes into the water” and “washes themselves a good while.” On top of that, they had to drink water. The water in England was so polluted that it was unsafe, so everyone drank beer or wine. Starting the day clean and with a clear head was part of what it meant to be American.

Namontack made a private report to Powhatan, so we do not know what he thought of the dirty, crowded, and noisy city of London. He did learn enough about English customs that he helped persuade Powhatan to wear the crown and robe sent to him by King James I of England. And as they acquired facility in Chesapeake Algonquian languages, Savage and Spelman and other boys like them also came to understand the American environment and how to navigate it. They learned about dangerous plants like Jimsonweed, a hallucinogen, as well as the plants they could consume on their travels. They also came to know how to read the landscape and find their way. Such knowledge was absolutely necessary to survival, especially given the extreme environmental conditions prevailing at the time. Tree-ring studies of cores taken from living, 1,000-year-old bald cypress trees show that the region was gripped by a disastrous seven-year drought, the driest period in the preceding 770 years, so food was short for everyone.

Meanwhile, the men back in Jamestown were unprepared to grow their own food. The soldiers they had led in Europe “lived off the land”—expecting the people they had invaded to feed them—so that is what they expected to do in America. Leaders constantly widened their search for food grown by Chesapeake Algonquians, sending ships as far as the Potomac, hoping for a cargo of corn. The land’s owners were forced, often at gunpoint, to hand over food they desperately needed for themselves. Increasingly, English dependence led to anger and conflict.

Thus it fell to the kids—English and Algonquian—to do the crucial work of making any kind of relationship possible. In the first year or so of the Jamestown settlement, 10-year-old Pocahontas had tried to help the Englishmen learn how to interact American-style. She accompanied her father’s emissaries to the colonists’ fort several times; Pocahontas’ presence indicated the embassy’s peaceful intentions. While the Powhatan men attempted to instruct colonial leaders in American diplomacy, Pocahontas’ playfulness offered a welcome respite from the grim reality of the colonists’ life. But, as relationships worsened, Powhatan moved his capital farther away from the English, and Pocahontas quit coming to Jamestown.

As the relationship between Jamestown and the Powhatans became increasingly fraught, Savage and Spelman were caught in the middle. Both Powhatan and the English leaders sometimes sent the boys with false messages, resulting in dire consequences. After Spelman had been living with Powhatan for three weeks, the chief sent him to Jamestown with a message saying that if the English sent a ship, he would fill it with corn. As soon as the ship arrived, the English eagerly started trading, but they thought the Powhatans were cheating them. When they objected, they heard noises coming from warriors hidden in the woods. All the English were killed except for two.

Spelman was so upset about this that he soon deserted Powhatan to live with Iopassus on the Potomac. At the same time Powhatan sent Savage back to Jamestown. This was a very early instance of the American conundrum of dealing with the other, as each side worried about the boys’ true loyalty. Could leaders trust their translations and their messages? Had their identities been compromised—or changed completely?

For a time, Pocahontas, the most famous of these kids, was out of harm’s way. She had married a man named Kocoum and taken up her role as a Powhatan woman. But in 1613, an English ship searching for food found her visiting on the Potomac and its captain forced Iopassus and his wife to assist in her capture. Pocahontas was brought to Jamestown where young Rev. Alexander Whitaker instructed her in Christianity, and John Rolfe fell in love with her. Ultimately, Pocahontas ceased to be an American, at least in English eyes. Whitaker wrote home that she had “renounced publickly her countrey Idolatry.” She and John Rolfe married, had a son, and the Virginia Company brought her to London to show her off as the ultimate English gentlewoman.

Pocahontas’ conversion signaled to English investors that the Virginia colony had made the first step toward bringing Americans to Christianity, one of the venture’s stated goals. But English Virginia still had to establish itself as a going enterprise. The venture had been a money drain from the beginning, and its fortunes turned around only when the English began to adopt a truly American understanding of the environment.

In Colonial Virginia It Was the Kids Who Mixed the Cultures That Became American | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

This engraving by Simon van de Passe is the only known portrait of Pocahontas drawn from life. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/National Portrait Gallery, London.

Though she died at the age of 20 in Gravesend, England, as the ship carrying the Rolfes back to Virginia moved down the Thames River, Pocahontas was key to the Americanization of the Virginia English because she taught John Rolfe how to grow tobacco—a crop whose planting and maintenance was very different from any the English had grown back home. Colonists, including Rolfe, had been trying for years to produce a marketable crop, but with no success, and so the English had to develop a new, American relationship with the land and its products. Once they learned how to grow tobacco successfully, colonists began to plant more and more, ultimately pushing the Powhatans off their most valuable land. Drinking tobacco, as contemporaries called it, quickly went from being a luxury for the elite to a commodity of mass consumption in England.

While Virginia was becoming a financial success, the question of how to deal with Savage and Spelman loomed. Now adults, they were no longer under leaders’ direct control and their knowledge and relationships made them potentially dangerous. Another boy who had lived with the Powhatans, Robert Poole, brought treason charges against Spelman at the first meeting of the Virginia Assembly in 1619. Poole testified that Spelman had told Opechancanough, the new paramount chief who had replaced the retiring Powhatan, that Gov. Sir George Yeardley would soon be replaced by a much greater man. Spelman was convicted of treason for endangering the colony by bringing the governor into “disesteem.” He was sentenced to serve the colony as an interpreter, which meant that he had been “degraded” back into servitude. Even though the English no longer trusted Spelman, his knowledge still mattered.

Thomas Savage escaped most of the turmoil by moving to the Eastern Shore across Chesapeake Bay. He formed close relationships with the Accomacs there, and the chief, known to the English as Esmy Shichans, gave him 9,000 acres of land. He continued to send information to Jamestown, and the leaders there decided what to do with it. Savage conveyed a warning about Opechancanough’s plans for a massive attack on all the colonists in 1622, but English leaders, skeptical about his intentions and his sources, decided to ignore it. Hundreds of colonists were killed in the great attack and Henry Spelman died the next year in the fighting that followed; he was only 28.

Thomas Savage lived on in peace. As a substantial landowner, he married a recent migrant from England and they had a son. Savage did not grow tobacco; instead he grew provisions, food for the colonies now being established all along North America’s Atlantic Coast. He continued to send information to Jamestown, and he maintained close relationships with the Accomacs. Of the kids involved in this early drama, he was the one who ended up living as a new-style American.


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