In 2008, officials erected a historical marker in West Point, a small hamlet in Virginia’s King William County. Set at an intersection about 20 miles north of Williamsburg, the plaque is titled “Indians Poisoned at Peace Meeting.” It commemorates a little-known act of colonial duplicity: a mass poisoning carried out by the English in 1623 as part of an attempted assassination of the Pamunkey leader Opechancanough.
“Why place a marker of tragedy?” asked Pamunkey Chief William P. Miles at the unveiling ceremony. “By telling the past,” he added, “it leads to our future. … Not many knew of this poisoning. This will help tell the story of the good and bad neighbors.”
May 22 marks the 400th anniversary of that unprecedented moment, when English soldiers gave poisoned wine to 200 Powhatans, members of a confederacy of about 30 Native groups. The historical record is unclear on how many of those who were poisoned died. But even during a war that ravaged Indigenous and colonial communities, the incident stood out because Europeans at the time believed no civilized nation should employ poison in war—an idea later embodied in the 20th-century Geneva Conventions.
Does the 1623 poisoning constitute a war crime? The answer to this question depends on one’s understanding of the term. Modern discussions of war crimes began after the horrors of World War I, which contributed to the formation of the League of Nations and later the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions. But efforts to define legitimate rules for war and peace stretch back centuries. In 1625, for instance, the influential Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius published a three-volume meditation on warfare that asked “what is permissible in war” and “to what extent.”
Today, war crimes are generally defined as violations of codified rules of warfare. Examples range from torture to taking hostages to killing combatants who have surrendered. Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court explicitly categorizes “employing poison or poisoned weapons” as a war crime; this stipulation echoes Grotius, who codified European legal ideas dating back to antiquity that defined the use of poison in war as a crime. Still, the question remains: Would the 17th-century Europeans who poisoned the Powhatans have viewed their own actions as a war crime?
“Judgments about historical events prior to the 20th century are necessarily situational,” says Douglas Greenberg, former director of the USC Shoah Foundation, the renowned center for genocide studies launched by filmmaker Steven Spielberg. “Did the specific acts violate the standards of the time? Understanding what those standards were is the hard part, of course, but the poisoning of the Powhatans appears to qualify on those grounds.”
Tensions between Native American communities and the English arose not long after the latter set up a small outpost on the banks of the James River in Tsenacommacah, homeland of the Powhatans, in 1607. The political alliance that stretched across much of the Chesapeake Bay was led by the weroance (paramount chief in the area) Wahunsonacock, whom the English typically called Powhatan. He resided in Werowocomoco, along the York River near modern Richmond.
Colonists reported that Wahunsonacock had perhaps 100 wives who lived in towns that constituted the confederacy, relying on his many children to help maintain his authority. Each of these communities owed the chief tribute (typically offered as corn, though he also accumulated copper and pearls), which he redistributed to secure his power and the loyalty of those in the area.
When the English arrived, approximately 15,000 Powhatans and other Indigenous people lived in and around Tsenacommacah. The colonists understood their survival depended on maintaining good relations with Wahunsonacock. They knew that failure to coexist with the Powhatans could lead to their destruction—a realistic fear for newcomers who didn’t know what had happened to the English who tried to colonize the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the 1580s. Theories abound, but the mystery of the lost colony of Roanoke remains.
At first, Wahunsonacock saw the advantages of turning the English into another tributary community within his orbit. But the English had different ideas. They believed Elizabeth I had given this territory to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584, when she awarded the explorer a patent to settle Virginia. The colonizers’ possession was based on the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century European idea that allowed newcomers to claim places beyond the boundaries of Christendom. (The Vatican recently declared this policy inconsistent with Catholic thought.) After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the colonists believed they were offering the Powhatans the benefits of becoming subjects of James I.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these conflicting views about who controlled the region fueled tensions that exploded in 1609. The subsequent conflict, known as the First Anglo-Powhatan War, subsided in 1614 after the English captured and ransomed Wahunsonacock’s daughter Matoaka, known to the English as Pocahontas.
Despite animosities generated during that conflict, Wahunsonacock saw the benefits of creating a lasting alliance. To advance that goal, he approved Pocahontas marrying the English colonist John Rolfe, who had played a central role in establishing the newcomers’ tobacco economy. Pocahontas converted to Protestantism and changed her name to Rebecca Rolfe. The couple soon traveled to London, where Pocahontas sat for a portrait and met members of the English elite, including the king and queen.
In 1617, after the birth of their son, Thomas, the couple decided to return to Virginia. But Pocahontas became ill and died at the age of just 20 or 21. Her body is buried in the English town of Gravesend. According to a Mattaponi oral history, Pocahontas’ older sister and the quiakros (priests) who accompanied them to England believed she was poisoned by English men involved in the colony, including Rolfe.
“Certain people believed that Pocahontas would endanger the English settlement, especially because she had new insights into the political strategy of the English colonists to break down the Powhatan structure,” note Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star” in The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History. But this suggestion never spread among the colonists.
Wahunsonacock died soon after his daughter, in 1618. The Powhatan confederacy fell under the control of one of his brothers, Itoyatin, who was closely aided by another brother, Opechancanough, a Pamunkey leader who became the group’s war chief. Tensions between Indigenous peoples and newcomers rose again, likely exacerbated by colonists trying to acquire more land for tobacco, the most profitable export at the time. Within four years, the Powhatans concluded that the newcomers had overstepped their bounds.
On March 22, 1622, Opechancanough and his allies attacked outlying English farms and small communities. On a single day, the Native warriors killed 347 colonists of all ages, or about one-fourth of the colonial population of Virginia. The body count would have been higher if not for the warning of a Powhatan boy who had converted to Christianity. Colonists soon launched a series of reprisals, but they couldn’t get past the shock of the event they quickly labeled a “massacre.”
A chronicler named Edward Waterhouse wrote a lurid history of the attack, which was published in London before the end of the year. In addition to his descriptions of carnage, Waterhouse claimed that Opechancanough had traveled to a coastal Indigenous community in search of poison to use against the colonists, though he failed to find any. Waterhouse’s list of victims’ names filled nine pages of his book.
If Opechancanough had tried to acquire poison, he was likely after water hemlock or mandrake, two plants the Powhatans knew could be used to make poison, according to an Indigenous oral history. English readers of Waterhouse’s book would have known that local plants near the Chesapeake could be used to make poison, a fact they learned from Thomas Harriot, a mathematician who had traveled to the Outer Banks in 1585 and returned home to write a hugely influential tract about the region. Harriot described a plant called coscúshaw, which had a poisonous juice that needed to be extracted before the Algonquian speakers of the region could make bread from it.
Fourteen months after the March 1622 uprising, a colonial commander named William Tucker and 12 men ascended the Potomac River to rescue captives taken in the conflict, now called the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. According to Robert Bennett, proprietor of a local corn and tobacco plantation, the English told the Powhatans they had come to sue for peace. One witness claimed the soldiers placed the rescued captives in a small boat, then returned to the supposed peace conference.
Once the speeches concluded, the visitors produced sack, a Spanish wine, for a toast. To allay any suspicions, Tucker took a drink from one container, then surreptitiously offered another filled with poisoned wine to the Powhatans. “It is thought some 200 were poisoned,” Bennett wrote, adding that the English then returned to kill and scalp about “50 more.” (The spelling of historical texts has been modernized throughout this article.)
The poisoning wasn’t the first time that English soldiers resorted to mass ambush and murder during war, either in Europe or North America. Henry VIII’s soldiers unleashed vicious attacks against civilians during the king’s campaign to reclaim Boulogne, a French territory he believed belonged to the English crown. A generation later, when Elizabeth I’s forces invaded Rathlin Island, off the northern coast of what is now Northern Ireland, in 1575, soldiers murdered entire families, some of them found cowering in caves as they hid from the main scene of the battle.
Then, during the First Anglo-Powhatan War, the English destroyed Indigenous towns and attacked civilians, committing atrocities that would be considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions. During that conflict, says Matthew Kruer, a historian at the University of Chicago, English colonists embraced “attacks against non-combatants and systematic theft or destruction of food supplies, with the goal of making it impossible to survive even absent direct killing.” This shift in strategy represented a move toward extirpation, “a pulling out by the root, [or] total destruction,” Kruer adds. As recently as January 1623, Virginia’s council had sent a report to London bragging that colonial soldiers had stolen the Powhatans’ corn, burned their towns and likely killed more of their enemies in the region than ever before.
But what happened on May 22 stands out against this bloody backdrop. Until that encounter, the English had never intentionally used poison in war. In Europe, doing so was unacceptable, as Grotius and others pointed out.
When word of the incident leaked, Governor Francis Wyatt and Virginia’s council told London officials the report was false. Still, while denying that English soldiers had distributed poisoned sack to the Powhatans, the colonists pointed out that doing so would have been legitimate given Opechancanough’s earlier efforts to acquire poison.
Council members acknowledged the parley had gone wrong; that soldiers had killed 9 (not 50) Powhatans; and that they had failed to find Opechancanough, “the prime plotter and actor of the late inhuman massacre.” They admitted the soldiers could have had poison with them but said they were certain that no one died from poisoning. Even if some did succumb, the colonists argued, their deaths would have been justified to save “so many captivated Christians.” Two sources claimed Opechancanough was shot during the incident, but in fact he lived another 23 years, until colonists captured him in 1646. An English soldier murdered the aged leader while he was in captivity.
Despite the council’s denials of wrongdoing, James I sent a message across the ocean that a colonist named John Potts (or Pottes) should not be involved in governing Virginia because he was “the poisoner of the savages [there].”
Scholars who have written about early Virginia widely accept as fact that the poisoning occurred. “How many sickened and died is uncertain,” says James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation and the author of a crucial 2021 book about Opechancanough. “But the English reported to the Virginia Company in London with evident satisfaction that their ‘successful stratagem’ had killed many Indian chiefs and commanders, including the great chief Opechancanough. No unease, either in the colony or in England, was expressed at the time about the method adopted.”
Horn adds, “Labeling the Native Americans a barbarous and treacherous enemy, Virginia’s leaders declared they ‘held nothing unjust’ that would lead to the Powhatans’ ruin since ‘with these [people] neither fair war nor good quarter is ever to be held.’” The poisoning fit a pattern, the late Yale University historian Edmund Morgan observed, “of lulling the Indians into security, the better to surprise them.”
The poisoning of May 1623 represents a turning point in the history of the English conquest and colonization of North America. The early modern Atlantic world was a brutal place, and no population had a monopoly on unleashing violence against others, either in wars of conquest, civil wars, or through captivity and enslavement. But before 1607, the English believed they would not need to conquer territory through war. They were sure that Indigenous peoples would quickly recognize the superiority of the newcomers’ culture, from missionaries who promised a route to a true heaven to a benevolent monarch who would enclose and protect them in his metaphorical arms. Despite the violence that plagued the region from 1609 to 1614, Powhatans and English worked to coexist, at least for a time.
March 24, 1622, changed that calculus, not only in Virginia but across English America. During the Elizabethan era, English promoters of colonization believed Indigenous peoples would embrace the European way of life. But the Powhatans’ rebellion revealed the error of that assumption. The colonists felt betrayed, which may help explain their lust for revenge.
This shifting perspective can be seen in what became the most enduring visual image of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. In 1628, Matthäus Merian, an artist who worked in his family’s publishing house in Frankfurt, created an engraving to accompany the German and Latin translations of Waterhouse’s account. Over the previous three decades, the firm’s engravers had often created terrifying images, depicting Iberian Catholics committing brutal acts against Indigenous Americans. Drawing on this visual repertoire, Merian depicted the Powhatans surprising colonists at their tables, stabbing and clubbing innocents. European viewers of the image may have concluded that there was no need to abide by the common rules of war in the wake of such an attack.
The Second Anglo-Powhatan War came to a formal conclusion in 1632, but by then, Europeans who wanted to wrench eastern North America away from its Indigenous occupants seemed more willing to engage in acts that fit modern definitions of a war crime. They did not resort to poison on a large scale again, but in New England in 1637 and in New Netherland a few years later, they set Native towns on fire and shot those who tried to escape.
The 13 colonists who likely participated in the poisoning of 1623 acted without precedent and beyond the norms of what constituted proper Christian behavior in times of conflict. To contextualize their actions in the larger story of European conquest and colonization in North America, historians must consider the aftereffects of the secret slaughter—and possibly rewrite that plaque in West Point to address a crucial question: namely, was this one of the first American war crimes?