Settlers and Native Americans

Eastern Henrico History - Settlers and Native Americans
Palisaded Indian village sketched by John White in 1585. Powhatan's village at the falls of the James was described by the early settlers as being similar in construction and layout. Photo provided courtesy of County of Henrico Division of Recreation and Parks

The present geographical-political area known as Henrico County can trace its origins back to 1634. In that year, it was established as one of the eight original shires of Virginia and included all the land on both sides of the James River from Charles City County west to the mountains. In time nine counties, part of another county, and the cities of Richmond, Colonial Heights and Charlottesville would be cut from Henrico. Today, the county is 245 square miles in size.

When the English settlers came in 1607, they discovered the tidewater area was inhabited by Algonquian tribes who had moved down from the north during the sixteenth century. They had occupied the coastal plains from New England to central North Carolina. By the beginning of the 17th century, they were restricted to the land east of the fall line. Nearly all the tribes in the Virginia Tidewater were members of a chiefdom ruled by Wahunsonacock, also known as Powhatan. When he inherited control around 1595, there were six tribes, all within 50 miles of the falls on the James. Within a few years, he brought at least 25 tribes under his control.

Powhatan's empire was subdivided into tribes, or tribal divisions, and each had a well-defined territory. Each division had a governmental hierarchy consisting of the cockarouse or sachem; the werowance, or war leader; the tribal council; and the priests.

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Eastern Henrico History - Settlers and Native Americans
Algonquian warriors and hunters, as sketched by John White in 1585, hunted in the field on either side of the Airport Connector. They challenged the settlers who came upriver to establish the Citie of Henricus. Photo Credit: The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, VA

Powhatan's chiefdom was in reality a loose-knit organization of tribes who owed allegiance to Powhatan out of respect, heredity, or fear. Power and influence depended on the energy of the leaders, and not on a form of government. Powhatan's chiefdom served as a buffer for the English settlers, but he always sought to work out a policy with the English to insure his interest.

Within his territorial domain, Powhatan had three places of residence. One was just below the falls of the James River and was known as Powhatan, which means "falls in a current." Because it was one of Powhatan's residences and a primary point of contact between the Indians and the settlers, the English applied the name to Powhatan, his tribe, and his chiefdom.

Powhatan was the principal Indian village within the present confines of Henrico County and was inhabited by Powhatan's own tribe. Seated on a hill opposite three islands, the village consisted of some twelve houses with cornfields around it. One of Powhatan's sons, Parahunt (called Tanxpowatan or Little Powhatan by the settlers) was chief of the village. The total population of the village was about 150 in 1607; of these, 40 were warriors. Twelve miles downriver from Powhatan, on the north bank, lived the Arrohattoc tribe, with approximately 120 members, 30 of whom were warriors.

These early inhabitants of present-day Henrico County lived in matted or bark-covered lodges constructed close together and sometimes encircled by palisades. One English adventurer reported: "Their hayre is black generally, which they weare long on the left side, tyed up on a knott; about which knott the kings and best among them have a kind of coronet of deare's hayre colored redd. The common sort stick long fethers in the knott . . . Their skin is tawny; not so borne, but with dying and paynting themselves, in which they delight greatly. The women are like the men, onely this difference—their hayre growth long al over the heads, save clipt somewhat short afore. These do all the labour and the men hunt and goe at their pleasure. They live commonly by the water-side, in little cottages made of canes and reeds, covered with the barke of trees. . . . They live upon sodden wheat, beanes, and pease, for the most part; also they kill deare, take fish in their weares, and kill fowl aboundance. They eate often, and that liberally."

The first encounter between the settlers and the Indians in present-day Henrico County occurred shortly after the colonists landed to establish the fortified settlement that became Jamestown. Following instructions to explore the source of any rivers, an expedition was sent up the river the Indians called Powhatan's river, which the settlers named after their king, James I.

On May 21, 1607, Captain Christopher Newport commanded a party that proceeded up the river. The next day, Saturday, May 23, Newport and his men proceeded up the river and went ashore at the village of the Arrohattoc. Here they were wined and dined by the Indians and gave them gifts. Newport and his men left the village they called "Aratahec's Joye" and proceeded up the river to an island opposite the village of the Powhatans (present-day Richmond). Going ashore, they met Powhatan and during the discussion that followed, the English convinced Powhatan of their friendly intentions, and he "moved, of his own accord, a league of friendship." Setting up a cross on one of the islands, Newport claimed the river and land for King James I. Newport and his men departed, after spending night at Arrohattoc and later returned to Jamestown.

In May 1611, Sir Thomas Dale arrived in the colony with 300 more colonists, a new code of justice, and instructions to establish a town father up the river. After surveying the James up to the falls, he decided to establish two settlements on the river above Jamestown. The first site was just below the Arrohattoc village, and it was here that he established the colony's second settlement. The second proposed for a site was 10 miles above at the falls, but it never became a reality.

Early in September 1611, Dale moved up the river to establish the colony's second settlement. He had already had "timber, pales, posts and railes" prepared "for the present impaling this new Towne to secure himself and men from the malice and treachery of the Indians." A part of Dale's men sailed up to the site, on present-day Farrar's Island, while a contingent under Captain Edward Brewster marched overland. Powhatan sent some of his warriors to attack the column. They managed to harass, but did not deter Captain Brewster and his men.

Dale established his town, which he called Henrico in honor of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, James I's son "upon a neck of very high land, 3 parts thereof environed with the main River." He erected a log fence across the narrow end of the neck of land to make it an island.

After a fence was constructed around the town site, watchtowers were constructed at each of the four corners. "A faire and handsome Church, and storehouses" were built first, and then Dale set his men to constructing lodgings that "were more strongly and more handsome then any formerly in Virginia." Within four months, Dale "had made Henrico much better and of more worth than all the worke ever since the Colonie began."

Robert Johnson, a contemporary, described Henrico Town, which was also called Citie of Henricus, as "strong and defensible by nature, a good aire, wholesome and cleere." In addition to housing, each man was allotted sufficient ground "for his orchard and garden to plant at his pleasure and for his own use."

"The spade men fell to digging, the brick men burnt their bricks, the company cut down wood, the Carpenters fell to squaring out, the Sawyers to swing, the Souldiers to fortifying, and every man to some what." As a result of his stern authoritarian methods, Dale saw a town rise out of the wilderness. As seen by a contemporary, Henrico consisted of "3 streets of well-framed houses, a hansom Church, and the foundation of a more stately one laid, of Brick, in length, an hundred foote, and fifty foot wide, beside Store houses, watch houses, and such like." The town was defended by five blockhouses along the river and a paled fence two miles inland, which stretched two miles across the peninsula. A ditch, referred to Dale's Dutch Ditch, was excavated on the mainland side of the palisade. The land between the town and paled fence was set aside for farming.

In 1612 John Rolfe imported some tobacco seeds from Trinidad and began to cultivate a new strain of mild tobacco. The tobacco was mild enough for English tastes and proved to be the marketable product the company needed. The colonists began to plant tobacco, and by 1619, "Virginia went tobacco mad."

Eastern Henrico History - Settlers and Native Americans
Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, was around 10 years old when the English colonists arrived in 1607. While visiting Indian villages in the area, she journeyed through the fields through which the Airport Connector runs. She united her people and the colonists when she converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe. She appears here in English court dress. Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust

A period of peace followed the marriage of John Rolfe to Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas. Captain Samuel Argall had captured her along the Potomac River in March 1613, and brought her to Jamestown to be used as a pawn in negotiations for the return of some colonists held by Powhatan. The old chief refused to negotiate, and Pocahontas was entrusted to the Reverend Alexander Whitaker, minister at the church at Henrico. There, Pocahontas was converted to Christianity and baptized Rebecca. In April 1614 she married John Rolfe, and this union brought peace between Powhatan's people and the settlers.

The buildings at Henrico were not well-constructed and needed constant repair. The foundation of the brick church was never finished. When Dale left the colony in 1616, Henrico Town was the "furthest habitacion into the Land," but there were only 38 men and boys living in and around the town.

John Rolfe, his wife Pocahontas, and their son Thomas, went to England with Dale. She never returned to her native land. After her reception by British royalty, Pocahontas died at Gravesend, England, while preparing to return to Virginia, in March 1617.

Henrico County was also the site of the first university in the new world. In 1619, 10,000 acres were set aside on the north bank of the James River between the Citie of Henricus and Powhatan's village, the site of present-day Richmond. Fifty tenants were sent to cultivate the college land and George Thorpe was later sent to manage the undertaking.

The college was established to Christianize Indian children and to make the Indians useful members of society as envisioned by the English settlers. Thorpe approached the task of converting the Indians with such zeal and enthusiasm they felt their own culture was being threatened. Across the James on Falling Creek, above the Citie of Henricus, the colonists established the colony's first ironworks. Land was also settled across the river from the Citie of Henricus.

Concerned about the aggressive expansion of settlements, the Indians made plans to expel the English. On Good Friday, March 22, 1622, a secretly planned coordinated attack on the settlements was carried out. The Indians gained entrance into the settlements on the pretext of friendly visits and then struck without warning. Their mission was annihilation. Some settlements were warned of impending attacks and a friendly Indian warned the inhabitants of Jamestown. At Falling Creek, the ironworks were destroyed and 24 adults and three children were killed. Eleven adults and two children were killed at a neighboring farm. Five people were reported killed at the Citie of Henricus, and 17 men lost their lives at the college. In all, some 347 colonists lost their lives.

As a result of the attacks, the Citie of Henricus, the college, the ironworks and all settlements north and south of the James River above its junction with the Appomattox River were abandoned. Punitive expeditions were sent out to hunt the Indians, burn their villages and harvest their crops or destroy them. Early in 1623, colonists were allowed to return to their farms. Efforts to reestablish the Citie of Henricus and the ironworks were unsuccessful.

For several years the colonists on the frontier in present-day Henrico maintained the outpost by personal willpower. The site of the Citie of Henricus was abandoned and left to the elements. Fifteen years after the Indian attack of 1622, it was included in a 2,000-acre tract patented by William Farrar. Because it was owned by the Farrar family, specifically William Farrar, Sr., Henrico Island, on which the Citie of Henricus had been constructed, became known as Farrar's Island.

For the balance of the 17th century, a gradual resettlement of the previously settled areas of Henrico occurred as the colonists pushed inland away from the river and westward beyond the falls. As the Indians were either assimilated or forced back, their lands were taken by the colonists. By 1634 there were 4,914 inhabitants in the colony. Some 419 of these were in the area identified as Henrico, scattered on both sides of the James from Arrohattoc down to the boundary with Charles City.

It was in the year 1634 that the colony was divided into eight shires. Henrico was one of the original shires. Its boundaries were not changed. Lying west of Charles City on both sides of the James, it extended indefinitely westward to the mountains. The term shire soon gave way to the term county, and, as Henrico's western lands became settled, new counties were created. In 1747, the area south of the James became Chesterfield County, leaving the county of Henrico as we know it today.

During the Civil War, General Benjamin Butler had his men excavate a canal across the narrow neck land where Dale had constructed his Dutch Ditch between the Citie of Henricus and the mainland. The Union effort resulted in rerouting the river through what had become officially known as Dutch Gap. The old riverbed around Farrar's Island eventually filled in and in 1922 the General Assembly passed an act giving the island to Chesterfield. Early in the 1990s a group was formed to save the Citie of Henricus from oblivion, and their efforts, combined with many others, have resulted in recreating the Citie of Henricus, the second settlement in the new world.

As you travel the Richmond Airport Connector Road, you pass through land that once served as the hunting grounds of Henrico's original inhabitants. Arrohattoc, the Indian village on the north bank of the James, was to the right of Route 895 as you crossed the river. The college lands are to the left of Route 895 as you cross the river. Several housing subdivisions have been constructed on the land. The Henricus Historical Park lies six miles south of the Airport Connector.