The Crown of An American Queen

by Sally Nelson Robins


In the Days of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia

In the age when America was but a name and Virginia only a hamlet, there was a dusky queen who wore a silver crown by order of his most sacred Majesty King Charles II., King of England, Scotland, France, Ireland, and Virginia.

There are few distinct Indian personalities. Powhatan, Pocahontas, Opechancanough, Totopotomoi and his wife, the Queen of the Pamunkeys, are savage heroes who sentinel the seventeenth century; they all belonged to the Pamunkey tribe of the great Powhatan Confederacy, the most powerful Indian combination that ever existed.

When the boisterous and heroic Nathaniel Bacon was in the flush of his wonderful success, and had brought his followers to Jamestown, he demanded of the Governor redress for Indian depredations and outrages. When the Assembly in council was sitting, the Queen of the Pamunkeys came in, leading her son by the hand. She came to tell of grievances also. She wore a dress of black and white wampum peake and a mantle of deer-skin, “cut in a frenge” six inches from the outer edge. It fell loosely from her shoulders to her feet. On her head was a crown of “purple bead of shell, drilled.” She was a beautiful woman, old chronicles tell us, and she walked in with a proud but aggrieved countenance.

She sat down in the midst of the Assembly, listening eagerly to the arguments for the suppression and, if need be, the extinction of her race. And she remembered Totopotomoi bleeding for these people who would not recognize her rights. She arose and made a speech in her own tongue, eloquent with gesticulation; the refrain of it was a mad wail: “Totopotomoi chepiak!” (i.e., Totopotomoi dead).

Colonel Hill, the younger, touched a fellow-member on the shoulder, and whispered: “What she says is true. Totopotomoi fought with my father, and fell with his warriors.”

But the Assembly would not listen to the poor suffering Queen. They wanted to fight more battles, and the Queen of the Pamunkeys must furnish her quota.

“How many men will you furnish?” asked Nathaniel Bacon. “How many will you give to fight and subdue the treacherous tribes which threaten our peace?”

The Queen was silent. She remembered her husband and his slain braves. She had fears for her son, and she would not speak.

 “How many?” asked Bacon.

The poor Queen had her head turned away and bowed.

“How many?” demanded the famous rebel again.

Then she slowly turned her lovely face, and softly whispered, “Six.”

Her answer infuriated Bacon, who considered the number contemptible. “How many more?” he asked.

The Queen gave him a glance of indignant hate, and haughtily answered, “Twelve.” Then she gathered her robes about her, and majestically left the room.

Once more we see the Queen of the Pamunkeys, and now in fear and adversity. Bacon in his campaign destroyed the Pamunkey settlement—the same tribe which had so nobly assisted the English.

The poor Queen, terrified, fled far into the forest, accompanied by “onely a little Indian boy.” Her old nurse followed her, but was captured. Bacon ordered the old woman to guide him to a certain point, but she, full of revenge, led him in an opposite direction, whereupon the rebel ordered her to be knocked in the head.

The Queen wandered about almost crazy, and at last determined to return and throw herself upon Bacon’s mercy; but as she was rushing towards her desolated wigwam she came upon the body of her murdered nurse, which so affrighted her that she ran back into the wilderness, where she remained “fourteen daies without food, and would have perished but that she gnawed on the legg of a terrapin which the little Indian boy brought her.”

So only a few vivid sketches of this Queen are preserved to us in history but they have gained for her a place as a martyr. In recognition of her own and her husband’s deeds, Charles II. bestowed upon her a silver crown, with the lion of England, the lilies of France, and the harp of Ireland engraved thereon.

Savages are not averse to the baubles of civilization, and the crown which their Queen wore was a blessed treasure to her tribe for a hundred years after the Queen was dead.

The Pamunkey tribe, or a pitiful remnant of them, still dwell in Virginia, on the river which bears their name. They have a chief, and their own government. Annually they send tribute of fish and game and Indian handiwork to the Governor of Virginia. They are weakening physically, and pray for new blood from the Western reservation.

Once the tribe started for the West, carrying their best treasure, the silver crown. They came to the plantation of Mr. Morson, at Falmouth, and there bad weather and sickness made them halt. Mr. Morson attended to their physical wants, and allowed them to pitch their tents upon his land until their distress abated.

“What do we owe you?” asked the chief, when they had decided to return to their former Virginia reservation.

“Nothing,” said Mr. Morson. Perhaps he remembered Totopotomoi and his sorrowing Queen.

“Then we will give you what we value most,” and the chief presented to Mr. Morson the crown of the Queen of the Pamunkeys. For three generations it remained in the Morson family, and then it was purchased by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

The crown is really a frontlet, and the Queen of the Pamunkeys wore it upon her brow, surmounted by a red velvet cap, long since destroyed by moths, and bound to her head by two silver chains.