Henry Spelman of Jamestown

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Henry Spelman (1595–1623) was an English adventurer, soldier, and author, the son of Erasmus Spelman and nephew to Sir Henry Spelman of Congham (1562–1641). The younger Henry Spelman was born in 1595, and left his home in Norfolk, England at age 14 to sail to Virginia Colony aboard the ship "Unity", as a part of the Third Supply to the Jamestown Colony in 1609. He is remembered for writing the Relation of Virginia, documenting the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia, and particularly the lifestyles of the Native Americans of the Powhatan Confederacy led by Chief Powhatan.

The 1609 voyage[edit]

Despite being a son of the high sheriff of his county, Spelman, owing to the traditional English practice of primogeniture, 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,[1] 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 sailed up the coast, arriving at Jamestown 4 or 5 days later in October 1609.[2]

A son of Powhatan[edit]

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. (located in the East End portion of the modern-day city of Richmond, Virginia.) Smith knew that Jamestown would be unable to support the arrival of several hundred new colonists through the coming winter, and he traded young Henry's bonded servitude in exchange for the village, which was ruled by weroance Parahunt, son of Wahunsunacock (also known as Chief Powhatan.) The agreement was also for the boy to apprentice the native Powhatan 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 Powhatans; 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 Smith's page) as another European child that lived with the Natives.[2]

Parahunt treated Henry well, but relations soured between the English and the Powhatan, 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.[2]

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 at Yawtanoone (Youghtanund) for six months when a local chief of the Patawomeck, a tribe living on the south side of the Potomac River, came to visit Powhatan.[3] Without telling Chief Powhatan, Henry, Thomas and Dutchman Samuel left when the visiting Chief left. Powhatan's men captured and killed Samuel.[2] 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." [4] There he stayed at Paspatanzie, moved freely and was treated as a special guest.

The Abduction of Pocahontas[edit]

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 Native Americans that would be important for the future of Jamestown. In 1613, Henry was the interpreter when Chief Japazaws helped Argall abduct 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[edit]

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 Patawomeck Indian woman who is believed to have been given the English name "Martha Fox." (According to traditions passed on to Henry Spellman's descendents, - his native wife was a sister of Pocahontas, and daughter of Powhatan.) 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." [5]

The War of Opchanacanough[edit]

In 1622 Opchanacanough tried to drive the English out of Virginia by attacking the settlers, killing about 330 men, women and children. Henry survived the attacks and was called upon to renew the English alliance with the Patawomeck tribe, who were at that point detached from Powhatan's Confederacy. 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 (apart from Captain Henry Fleet, who spent 5 years in captivity with them and also learned their language). After providing much good service as an interpreter, Henry Spelman died as he had lived – amongst the Native Indians at 28 years old. Some sources say Spelman was captured and beheaded by the Anacostans. This attack was in reprisal for a 1622 attack by Fleet and the Patawomecks in which 18 Anacostans had been killed.

He was survived by his Patawomeck spouse "Martha Fox," a child named Clement Spelman, his uncle Sir Henry Spelman, his brothers Thomas Spelman of Kecoughtan, Virginia and Francis Spelman of Truro, Cornwall, England.[6]

Relation of Virginia[edit]

Henry Spelman's handwritten manuscript, a Relation of Virginia was later printed privately in 1872 by the Chiswick Press of London.


  1. ^ A True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia ..., by the Council for Virginia, 1610.
  2. ^ a b c d Spelman, "Relation of Virginia"
  3. ^ Conway Whittle Sams, 1916, The conquest of Virginia: the forest primeval, xi,xii.
  4. ^ Smith, "Generall Historie", p. 204
  5. ^ Proceedings of the Virginia Assembly, 1619
  6. ^ The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Virginia Historical Society, Contributor Philip Alexander Bruce, William Glover Stanard, Published 1893, Virginia Historical Society" p. 17

Further reading[edit]

  • 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[edit]