The Crowning of Powhatan

by Francis S. Drake


Adventures in Early Indian History

The first European visitors to the shores of North America met with a most friendly reception from the natives. Powhatan, the Indian Emperor of Virginia, who ruled in savage state over twenty-six Indian nations, on more than one occasion kept the Virginia colonists from starvation by sending them corn when they were almost famished. To retain his good-will a crown was sent over from England, and the Indian monarch was crowned with as much ceremony as possible. A present from King James of a basin and ewer, a bed, and some clothes was also brought to Jamestown, but Powhatan refused to go there to receive it.

“I also am a King, and gifts should be brought to me,” said the proud monarch of the Virginia woods. They were accordingly taken to him by the colonists.

The coronation was “a sad trouble,” wrote Captain John Smith, but it had its laughable side also, as we shall see. Custom required that the Indian ruler should kneel. Only by bearing their whole weight upon his shoulders could the English upon whom this duty devolved bring the chief from an up-right position into one suitable to the occasion. By main force he was made to kneel.

The firing of a pistol as a signal for a volley from the boats in honor of the event startled his copper-colored Majesty. Supposing himself betrayed, Powhatan at once struck a defensive attitude, but was soon reassured. The absurdity of the whole affair reached its climax when Powhatan gave to the representatives of his royal brother in England his old moccasins, the deer-skin he used as a blanket, and a few bushels of corn in the ear.


On the New England coast the anger of the natives had been aroused by the conduct of visiting sailors, who would persuade them to come on board their ships, and then carry them off and sell them into slavery.

One of these natives, named Epanow, “an Indian of goodly stature, strong, and well proportioned,” after being exhibited in London as a curiosity, came into the service of Sir Ferdinand Gorges, Governor of Plymouth. This gentleman was much interested in New England, and was about fitting out a ship for a voyage to this country.

The Indian soon found out that gold was the great object of the Englishman’s worship, and he was cunning enough to take advantage of the fact. He assured Sir Ferdinand that in a certain place in his own country gold was to be had in abundance. The Englishman believed him, and Epanow sailed in Gorges’s vessel to point out the whereabouts of the supposed gold-mine.

When the ship entered the harbor many of the natives came on board. Epanow arranged with them a plan of escape, which was successfully carried out the next morning.

At the appointed time twenty canoes full of armed Indians came to within a short distance of the ship. The captain invited them to come on board. Epanow had been clothed in long garments, that he might the more easily be laid hold of in case he attempted to escape, and he was also closely guarded by three of Gorges’s kinsmen.

The critical moment arrived. Epanow suddenly freed himself from his guards, and springing over the vessel’s side, succeeded in reaching his countrymen in safety, though many shots were fired after him by the English.

In this affair the European was completely outwitted by the ignorant savage. Gorges was bitterly disappointed. Writing of it he says, “And thus were my hopes of that particular voyage made void and frustrate.” And thus, we may add, the first gold-hunting expedition to the coast of Maine “ended in smoke”—from the Englishmen’s guns.


For many years after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth the relations of the English with the Massachusetts Indians were peaceful. Only once was there any attempt to disturb them. To try the mettle of the colonists, Canonicus, the powerful Narragansett chief, sent them by a messenger a bundle of arrows wrapped in the skin of a snake—a challenge to fight. Governor Bradford returned the skin filled with powder and shot, with the message that if they had rather have war than peace they might begin when they pleased, he was ready for them. This prompt defiance impressed the chief. He would not receive the skin, and wisely concluded to keep the peace.


What is known as King Philip’s War broke out in 1675. Though it lasted but little over a year, it was terribly destructive, and it carried misery to many a hearth-stone.

Philip of Pokanoket, the chief of the Wampanoags, had for years been suspected of plotting against the English. He had resisted all their efforts to convert his people to Christianity, and had told the venerable apostle Eliot himself that he cared no more for the white man’s religion than for the buttons on his (Eliot’s) coat. On another occasion he refused to make a treaty with the Governor of Massachusetts, sending him this answer:

“Your Governor is but a subject of King Charles of England. I shall not treat with a subject. I shall treat of peace only with the King, my brother. When he comes, I am ready.”

On the morning of April 10, 1671, the meeting-house on Taunton Green presented a scene of extraordinary interest. Seated on the benches upon one side of the house were Philip and his warriors, and on the other side were the white men. Both parties were equipped for battle. The Indians looked as formidable as possible in their war-paint, their hair “trimmed up in comb fashion,” with their long bows and quivers of arrows, and here and there a gun in the hands of those best skilled in its use. The English wore the costume of Cromwell, with broad-brimmed hats, cuirasses, long swords, and unwieldly guns. Each party looked at the other with unconcealed hatred.

The result of this conference was that the Indians agreed to give up all their guns, and Philip, upon his part, also promised to send a yearly tribute of five wolves’ heads—“If he could get them.”

As the Indians had almost forgotten how to use their old weapons, the taking of their fire-arms away was a serious grievance. Other causes of enmity arose, and at last the war begun, which in its course caused the destruction of thirteen towns and hundreds of valuable lives.

Philip was joined by the Nipmucks, as the Indians of the interior were called, and by the Narragansetts, whose stronghold was captured in the winter of 1675-76. Here seven hundred of this hapless tribe perished by fire or the sword. The death of Philip, in August, 1676, ended the war. Many of the Indians fled to the west, and a large number died in slavery in the West Indies. The power of the Indians of southern New England was broken forever.


Captain Benjamin Church, a prominent actor in this war, was the most celebrated Indian fighter of his day. One of his most remarkable feats was the capture of Annawan, Philip’s chief captain. Annawan often said that he would never be taken by the English.

Informed by a captured Indian where Annawan lay, Church, with only one other Englishman and a few friendly Indians, succeeded in gaining the rear of the Indian camp.

The approach to this secluded spot was extremely difficult. It was nearly dark when they reached it, and the Indians were preparing their evening meal. A little apart from the others, and within easy reach of the guns of the party, the chief and his son were reclining on the ground. An old squaw was pounding corn in a mortar, the noise of which prevented the discovery of Church’s approach, as he and his companions cautiously lowered themselves from rock to rock. They were preceded by an old Indian and his daughter, whom they had captured, and who, with their baskets at their backs, aided in concealing their approach.

By these skilful tactics Church succeeded in placing himself between the chief and the guns, seeing which, Annawan suddenly started up with the cry, “Howoh!” (“I am taken.”) Perceiving that he was surrounded, he made no attempt to escape.

After securing the arms, Church sent his Indian scouts among Annawan’s men to tell them that their chief was captured, and that Church with his great army had entrapped them, and would cut them to pieces unless they surrendered. This they accordingly did, and, on the promise of kind treatment, gave up all their arms. This well-executed surprise was the closing event of King Philip’s War.