Henry Spelman of Jamestown

Henry Spelman of Jamestown

Henry Spelman was the third son of “Sir” Henry Spelman of Congham, (1562-1641), and was an English adventurer, soldier, and author. The younger Henry Spelman was born in 1595, and left his home in Norfolk, England at age 14, to sail to Virginia aboard the ship "Unity" as a part of the Third Supply to the Jamestown colony in 1609. He is remembered for his role in documenting the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia, but especially for the only documentation of the lifestyles of the Native Americans of the Powhatan Confederacy led by Chief Powhatan in his book “Relation of Virginia.”

The 1609 Voyage

Although Henry was the son of the high sheriff of his county, - due to the traditional English practice of primogeniture, young Henry Spelman was left to indenture himself as a laborer to pay his passage to the New World. The Third Supply flotilla of 9 ships set sail from Plymouth England on 2 June 1609. In July 1609 [A True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia ..., by the Council for Virginia, 1610.] , the ships ran into a massive 3 day storm and the fleet was broken up, with the flagship Sea Venture wrecking upon the islands of Bermuda. After the storm passed, the remaining ships reassembled off of Cape Henry, and then sailed up the coast and arrived at Jamestown 4 or 5 days later in October 1609. [Spelman, “Relation of Virginia”]

A Son of Powhatan

Only two weeks after his arrival at the Jamestown Settlement, Henry went with Captain John Smith, on an expedition up the James River to the Indian town called Powhatan. ("Powhatan" is a Virginia Algonquian word meaning "at the waterfalls, - the village was located in the East End portion of the modern-day city of Richmond, Virginia.) John Smith, knew that Jamestown would be unable to support the arrival of the several hundred new colonists through the coming winter, and he traded young Henrys bonded servitude in exchange for the village there ruled by Parahunt, the son of Weroance Wahunsunacock (also known as Chief Powhatan.) The trade was also for the boy to apprentice the native Algonquian language, and thus become an interpreter and serve as a messenger between the two cultures. Young Henry Spelman was not the first boy to be traded to the Native inhabitants, - young Thomas Savage had previously been given to Powhatan by Captain Christopher Newport in 1608, and Henry named in his writings of "Dutchman Samuel" (actually "Samuel Collier" who was John Smiths page) as another European child that lived with the Natives. [Spelman, “Relation of Virginia”]

Parahunt treated Henry well, but relations soured between the English and the Indians in the Tidewater region, eventually leading to warfare. Henry wanted to return to the English and soon made his way back to Jamestown. His stay was brief however due to the shortage of food at the fort as they started into what has been named the starving time, - and he knew the Indians had food in their village. Henry took a hatchet and some copper with him and gave it to Powhatan. Powhatan was pleased and treated Henry kindly for a while. [Spelman, “Relation of Virginia”]

Henry spent a total of about a year and a half with the Powhatan Indians, learning the Algonquian language and their way of life. He acted as a messenger and interpreter between the Powhatan people and the English, arranging for the two groups to trade with one another. He also witnessed hostilities between them which made him feel uneasy. He had been living with the Indians for several months when a local chief of the Patawomeck, a tribe living on the south side of the Potomac River, came to visit Powhatan. Without telling Chief Powhatan, Henry, Thomas and Dutchman Samuel left when the visiting Chief left. Powhatan’s men captured and killed Samuel. [Spelman, “Relation of Virginia”] In his book "Generall Historie of Virginia, …", Capt. John Smith wrote that " "Pokahontas the Kings daughter saved a boy called Henry Spilman that lived many yeeres after, by her meanes, amongst the Patawomekes.” " [Smith, "Generall Historie", p. 204] There he moved freely and was treated as a special guest.

The Kidnap of Pocahontas

In September 1610, Captain Samuel Argall was on a trading mission and found Henry living with the Patawomeck and he was bought back for "sum copper." With his knowledge of the native language and culture, Henry continued to help the English trade copper for valuable supplies such as corn. He also helped the Colonists form an alliance with these northern Indians that would be important for the future of Jamestown. In 1613, Henry was the translator when Chief Japazeus helped Captain Argall kidnap Pocahontas, which eventually led to her marriage to John Rolfe and a temporary peace with Powhatan. Henry continued to work as an interpreter for the English, mixing with both English and Powhatan leaders.

Captain of Militia

Henry went back to England in 1613, and made several other trips, but returned to Virginia each time to continue to serve as an interpreter, and eventually rising to the rank of Captain. During this time he married an un-named Patawomeck Indian woman who is believed to have been given the English name "Martha Fox." In 1619, a rival interpreter accused Henry of speaking badly about the now Governor Samuel Argall to Opchanacanough, who was the new chief of the Powhatan people. If he was found guilty of treason, Henry could have been executed, but he was instead found guilty of a lesser crime, and on 4 August 1619 he lost his rank of Captain and was sentenced to serve the Governor for seven years as an interpreter. Records state: " “this sentence being read to Spelman he, as one that had in him more of the Savage than of the Christian, muttered certain words to himself neither showing any remorse for his offences, nor yet any thankfulness to the Assembly for their so favorable censure.” " [Proceedings of the Virginia Assembly, 1619]

The War of Opchanacanough

In 1622 Opchanacanough tried to drive the English out of Virginia by attacking the settlers and killed about 330 men, women and children. Henry survived the attacks and was called upon to renew the English alliance with the Powhatan Indians along the Potomac River. In the spring of 1623, Henry volunteered to take a group of 19 men north to the Potomac River, away from the fighting near Jamestown, to barter for corn or other food. On 23 March 1623 the party was attacked by 60 canoes full of Anacostan Indians from their settlement of Nacochtank along the Anacostia River. Henry Spelman and all others in his party were killed or captured in the botched trading expedition. After providing much good service as an interpreter, Henry died as he had lived – amongst the Native Indians at 28 years old.

He was survived by his Patawomeck spouse "Martha Fox," a child named Clement Spelman, his father Sir Henry Spelman, his brothers Thomas Spelman of Kecoughtan, Virginia, John Spelman, and Francis Spelman of Truro, Cornwall, England. [The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Virginia Historical Society, Contributor Philip Alexander Bruce, William Glover Stanard, Published 1893, Virginia Historical Society” p. 17]

Relation of Virginia

Henry Spelman left a handwritten manuscript a "Relation of Virginia,” that was later printed privately in 1872 by the Chiswick Press of London.


Further reading

* The Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1605-1614 (Real Voices, Real History) by Ed Southern
* The Jamestown Project by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
* Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America by Benjamin Woolley
* The Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1605-1614 (Real Voices, Real History) by Ed Southern
* Pocahontas (The Civilization of the American Indian Series; V. 93) by Grace Steele Woodward
* Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma: The American Portraits Series (American Portrait Series) by Camilla Townsend
* The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550-1624 by Peter C. Mancall
* Captain John Smith by Charles Dudley Warner

External links

* [http://www.americanjourneys.org/aj-136/summary/index.asp American Journeys - Henry Spelman]
* [http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/aj&CISOPTR=8665 American Journeys - Spelman, Relation of Virginia (1609)]
* [http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/jamestown-browse?id=J1040 Virtual Jamestown Project - First Hand Accounts of Virginia, 1575-1705]
* [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/kidspost/pdf/jtspelman.pdf The Washington Post – Henry Spelman]
* [http://www.historicjamestowne.org/learn/pdf/middle_school/6_english_henry_spelman.pdf Historic Jamestown - Henry Spelman: The Powhatan Indians' English Boy]
* [http://www.historyisfun.org/pdf/Curriculum-Materials/Henry%20Spelman%20bio.pdf History is Fun – Henry Spelman]
* [http://www.tobacco.org/History/Jamestown.html Tobacco.org - A Brief History of Jamestown, Virginia]
* [http://www.jamestown1607.org/enterprise_v2.asp Jamestown 1607 - Trading "Hostages" and Hiring Guides]
* [http://www.historian.org/local/jamstwnva.htm History Net - A History of Jamestown, Virginia]
* [http://www.sheilagibson.org/resrchtime1600.html Timeline-1600 (1609)]
* [http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/source/is2/is2k.htm Proceedings of the Virginia Assembly, 1619 ]

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