Settling on Stolen Land [Essay]

Based on the paper titled ‘Settling on Stolen Land” by Misty Smith. Originally published on Nov. 26, 2017, for HIST 314 at Southern New Hampshire University College of Online and Continuing Education.

Settling on Stolen Land

Native Americans were thrust into a new world by their European invaders in which they did not desire or in many instances understand. In most instances, the interaction of the Native Americans with the Europeans depended greatly upon the geographical location. Some tribes greeted the newcomers as friends with the idea of expanding trade to be in their favor. Many other encounters between the Native Americans were misunderstood due to cultural differences between the Native Americans and their European counterparts, who only knew of their own cultural traditions. For the Europeans who were settling the new lands, they often planned their entire settlements around geographical areas in which trade access would be optimum, or where food and water would be easily accessible to the new settlements. However, the success or failure of their colonies was often at the hands of the Native Americans, in which lands they were trespassing and attempting to steal from their Native occupants.

The Invasion via Jamestown

Three ships lie at anchor on the river as early settlers carry lumber and raise the walls of the stockade fort at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in America, circa 1610. (Image by Getty Images)

One such example of a relationship gone sour is that of the Powhatan Confederacy and the settlers of Jamestown. Jamestown was to be a new start in a geographical setting which would provide ease of access to ports for trade; however, the land was already owned by the Powhatan and not free for the taking. In the year 1607, the Powhatan Confederacy was under the control of the Powhatan Chiefdom and “encompassed all of Tidewater Virginia, from the Potomac River in the north to south of the James River, and parts of the Eastern Shore.”[1] However, on May 13, 1607, 104 English settlers, employed by the Virginia Company, arrived at the site of what is now known as Jamestown. The settlers picked the location of Jamestown because of its geographical location, “The site was surrounded by water on three sides (it was not fully an island yet) and was far inland; both meant it was easily defensible against possible Spanish attacks. The water was also deep enough that the English could tie their ships at the shoreline…The site was also not inhabited by the Native population.”[2] Although not inhabited, the land was the hunting ground of the Powhatan Confederacy, who attacked the new settlers until peace negotiations ensued between the groups. Almost immediately the settlers began dying from disease and starvation, and, instead of allowing the invaders of their lands to die, the Powhatan’s took pity upon them, as was the way of his people, and gave the invaders food and supplies. However, the settlers demanded more and more from Powhatan and his people and “By 1609, Chief Powhatan was tired of the constant English demands for food and officially told his people not to help them.” [3]

After Powhatan’s order to not help the settlers anymore, Captain Smith of Jamestown threated war with the tribes. Powhatan’s response was:

“I am now grown old, and must soon die; and the succession must descend, in order, to my brothers, Opitchapan, Opechancanough, and Catataugh, and then to my two sisters, and their two daughters. I wish their experience was equal to mine; and that your love to us might not be less than ours to you. Why should you take by force that from us which you can have by love? Why should you destroy us, who have provided you with food? What can you get by war? We can hide our provisions, and fly into the woods, and then you must consequently famish by wrongdoing your friends. What is the cause of your jealousy? You see us unarmed, and willing to supply your wants, if you will come in a friendly manner, and not with swords and guns, as to invade an enemy. I am not so simple, as not to know it is better to eat good meat, lie well, and sleep quietly with my women and children; to laugh and be merry with the English; and being their friend, to have copper, hatchets, and whatever else I want, than to fly from all, to lie cold in the woods, feed upon the acorns, roots, and such trash, and to be so hunted, that I cannot rest, eat, or sleep. In such circumstances, my men must watch, and if a twig should but break, all would cry out, “Here comes Capt. Smith;” and so, in this miserable manner, to end my miserable life; and Capt. Smith, this might be soon your fate too, through your rashness and unadvisedness. I, therefore, exhort you to peaceable councils; and above all, I insist that the guns and swords, the cause of all our jealousy and uneasiness, be removed and sent away.”[4]

The Powhatan and English War that ensued was slated to end with either the death of the Powhatans or the settlers themselves, and only came to an end after the kidnapped daughter, Pocahontas, of the Powhatan Chief, was slated to be married to John Rolfe in 1615.[5] Pocahontas died in England in 1617; her son, Thomas Rolfe, became a success in the Americas after his return home in 1641.[6]

Plymouth Colony Built on Thievery

Another example of Europeans building their colonies on geographical locations suitable for their needs (but owned by Native Americans) was that of Plymouth Colony. However, unlike Jamestown, the Plymouth Colony was not the initially planned location of a settlement by the Pilgrims. They had in fact been lost at sea and took landfall as soon as it was spotted, “The Pilgrims were hungry and weak from scurvy after two months at sea by the time the Mayflower anchored in the icy waters on the bay side of Cape Cod in the winter of 1620.”[7] The passengers of the Mayflower consisted of multiple groups who had planned on making separate settlements, but by having to set up at Cape Cod they had no choice but to make a contract among themselves for an organized colony and government, called the Mayflower Compact.[8] However, the agreement left out one important piece of information: the Native Americans who already owned and occupied the land they were planning to settle. They believed that they were able to claim the land as their own because “They believed this land was peopled but ‘devoid of all civil inhabitants.’”[9]

The Pilgrims made landfall and decided that stealing land was not enough. They mounted a small expedition to scout land for a settlement, during which they came upon what seemed to be abandoned Native villages in which they stole corn[10] and even pillaged Chief Chikataubut (Massachuset) mothers’ grave, from which they stole the “bear-skins that covered her body.”[11] These actions pushed the Native Americans of the area to pursue war with the invaders of their land. Massachuset declared:

“When last the glorious light of all the sky was underneath this globe, and birds grew silent, I began to settle, as my custom is, to take repose. Before mine eyes were fast closed, me tho’t I saw a vision, at which my spirit was much troubled, and trembling at that doleful sight, a spirit cried aloud, “Behold! My son, whom I have cherished; see the paps that gave thee suck, the hands that clasped thee warm, and fed thee oft; canst thou forget to take revenge of those wild people, that hath my monument defaced in a despiteful manner; disdaining our ancient antiquities, and honorable customs. See now the sachem’s grave lies like unto the common people, of ignoble race defaced. Thy mother doth complain, implores thy aid against this thievish people new come hither; if this be suffered, I shall not rest within my everlasting habitation.”[12]

However, the Pilgrims were saved from pending doom from both warfare and starvation by Samoset, a Native from Maine, and a Patuxet man named Squanto (Tisquantum). Samoset had learned English from fishermen and Squanto had been previously abducted and taken first to Spain, then to London, where he then made passage back to his homeland.[13] It was Samoset and Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to hunt, farm, and fish for their food before starvation took them all. They were also responsible for helping the Pilgrims broker a peace treaty between the Wampanoag natives they had offended.[14]

In conclusion, European settlements in their New World were often planned around geographical landmarks that would provide the settlers with trade opportunities or needed sustenance for survival. Additionally, most settlements came at the expense of the Native Americans whose lands were being taken. For example, both the Jamestown and Plymouth Colonies were founded upon lands that the settlers considered free for the taking although the Native Americans already lived or hunted there. However, both colonies soon learned that they were ill adapted for the New World territory and came to depend upon the Native Americans that they had thought so little of.


[1]. Sarah J Stebbins, “The Powhatan Indian World,” National Park Service, March 2011, (accessed November 21, 2017).

[2]. Sarah J Stebbins, “A Short History of Jamestown,” National Park Service, (accessed November 21, 2017).

[3]. Sarah J Stebbins, “The Powhatan Indian World,” National Park Service, March, 2011, (accessed November 20, 2017).

[4]. Samuel G. Drake, Biography and History of the Indians of North America, from Its First Discovery, 11th ed. (Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey & Co., 1851), 353.

[5]. Larry Gragg, “Pocahontas.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (2016).

[6]. Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 168.

[7]. Stephen Harrigan, “First Encounter.” American History 47, no. 5 (December 2012): 58. MAS Ultra – School Edition.

[8]. Plimoth Plantation, “Mayflower and Mayflower Compact,” Plimoth Plantation.

[9]. Stephen Harrigan, “First Encounter.” American History 47, no. 5 (December 2012): 58. MAS Ultra – School Edition.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. Bob Blaisdell,Great Speeches by Native AmericansGreat Speeches by Native Americans (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2000), 5.

[12]. Samuel G. Drake, Biography and History of the Indians of North America, from Its First Discovery, 11th ed. (Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey & Co., 1851), 107.

[13]. Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 168.

[14]. “THE PLYMOUTH COLONY.” Northern Colonies: The Quest For Religious Freedom (1600-1700) (November 2004): 22-35. History Reference Center, EBSCOhost.


Calloway, Colin G. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Drake, Samuel G. Biography and History of the Indians of North America, from Its First Discovery. 11th ed. Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey & Co., 1851.

Gragg, Larry. “Pocahontas.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (2016): Research Starters, EBSCOhost (accessed November 23, 2017).

Harrigan, Stephen. “First Encounter.” American History 47, no. 5 (December 2012): 58. MAS Ultra – School Edition, EBSCOhost (accessed November 22, 2017).

Plimoth Plantation. “Mayflower and Mayflower Compact.” Plimoth Plantation. (accessed November 22, 2017).

Stebbins, Sarah J. “A Short History of Jamestown.” National Park Service. (accessed November 21, 2017).

Stebbins, Sarah J. “The Powhatan Indian World.” National Park Service. March,

  1. November 21, 2017).

“THE PLYMOUTH COLONY.” Northern Colonies: The Quest For Religious Freedom (1600-1700) (November 2004): 22-35. History Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed November 23, 2017).

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