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Opechancanough or Opchanacanough (1554?-1646) was a tribal chief of the Powhatan Confederacy of what is now Virginia in the United States, and its leader from sometime after 1618 until his death in 1646. His name meant "He whose Soul is White" in the Algonquian language.
The Powhatan Confederacy was established in the late 16th and early 17th century under the leadership of Chief Wahunsonacock (who was more commonly known as Chief Powhatan, named for the tribe he originally led which was based near present-day Richmond, Virginia). Over a period of years, through negotiation and/or coercion, Chief Powhatan united more than 30 of the Virginia Indian tribal groups in the Tidewater region of what is now the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States, essentially the southeastern portion of the state.
At the time of the English settlement at Jamestown which was established in May of 1607, Opechancanough was a much-feared warrior and a charismatic leader of the Powhatans. As Chief Powhatan's younger brother (or possibly half-brother), he headed a tribe situated along the Pamunkey River near the present-day town of West Point. Known to be strongly opposed to the European settlers, he captured John Smith of Jamestown along the Chickahominy River and brought him before Chief Powhatan at Werowocomoco, one the two capital villages of the Powhatans. Located along the northern shore of the present-day York River, Werowocomoco is the site where the famous incident with Powhatan's young daughter Pocahontas intervening on Smith's behalf during a ceremony is thought to have occurred, based upon Smith's account.
Written accounts by other colonists confirm that Pocahontas subsequently did serve as an intermediary between the natives and the colonists, and helped deliver crucial food during the winter of 1607-08, when the colonist's fort at Jamestown Island burned in an accidental fire in January 1608.
A later marriage of Pocahontas and colonist John Rolfe in 1614 brought a period of peace, which ended not long after her death while on a trip to England and the death of her father, Wahunsonacock, in 1618. A short time later, after a brief succession of the chiefdom by Opitchipam, Opechancanough became chief of the Powhatan Confederacy.
The natives and the colonists came into increasingly irreconcilable conflicts as the land-hungry export crop, tobacco (which had been first developed by Rolfe), became the cash crop of the colony. The relationship became even more strained as ever-increasing numbers of Europeans arrived and began establishing "hundreds" and plantations along the navigable rivers.
Beginning with the Indian massacre of 1622, Chief Opechancanough abandoned diplomacy with the English settlers of the Virginia Colony as a means of settling conflicts and tried to force them to abandon the region. On the morning of Friday, March 22, 1622, approximately a third of the settlers in Virginia were killed during a series of coordinated attacks along both shores of the James River, extending from Newport News Point, near the mouth of the river, all the way to Falling Creek, near the fall line at the head of navigation. The colony eventually rebounded, however, and later hundreds of natives were killed in retaliation, many poisoned by Dr. John Potts at Jamestown.
Chief Opechancanough launched one more major effort to get rid of the colonists in April 18, 1644. In 1646, forces under Royal Governor William Berkeley captured Opechancanough, at the time believed to be between 90 or 100 years old. While a prisoner, Opechancanough was killed by a soldier, who shot him in the back while assigned to guard him. He was succeeded as Weroance first by Nectowance, then by Totopotomoi, and later by his daughter, Cockacoeske, Totopotomoi's wife. Cockacoeske had a concubine relationship with Colonel John West, who was the son of the Governor of Virginia.
It is speculated by some historians, including Carl Bridenbaugh (See John M. Murrin, et al. Liberty Equality Power: A History of the American People, Volume I: To 1877, third edition (Florence, Kentucky: Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, 1996, 2002), page 36-37.), but not known with certainty, that Opechancanough was the same Native American youth who was the son of a chief and is known to have been transported voluntarily from the village of Kiskiack in Virginia to Spain in the 16th century at the age of 17 and educated.
Rechristened as "Don Luis", the young man returned to his homeland in what is now the Virginia Peninsula subregion of the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, where Jesuit priests established their ill-fated Ajacan Mission in September of 1570. However, shortly thereafter, Don Luis is believed to have returned to life with the Powhatan Confederacy, and turned against the Europeans. The mission failed during the winter of 1571 when the Jesuits were killed by the Native Americans, ending Spanish efforts to colonize the area.
From various contemporary reports, Marsteller (1988) concludes that Opchanacanough may have suffered from myasthenia gravis. These reports include weakness which improved with resting and drooping of the eyelids.
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