pictured here is a portrait of Captain John Smith

Contact: An Industrial Society Confronts A Native American Culture

Picture of Contact: An Industrial Society Confronts Native American Culture Sign
Lakelyn Wiley, “Historical Marker for Contact: An Industrial Society Confronts Native American Culture Fredericksburg, VA” 2018.


“They use also long arrows tyed in a line wherewith they shoot at fish in the rivers.” —Captain John Smith

In 1608, shortly after Jamestown had been established, Captain John Smith and a small crew worked a vessel up the Rappahannock River. In this vicinity, the English explorers encountered a Native American people called Mannahoak. Their contact proved hostile and after a short skirmish, the Englishmen withdrew. There would be no further interaction between the Europeans and the Mannahoak because a powerful Native American confederation under Chief Powhatan stood between them.

Not until 1670, after Powhatan’s confederation had been militarily defeated, did explorers once again travel up the Rappahannock River. By then, the Mannahoaks were no longer here. They had either succumbed to disease or been dispersed by more powerful tribes from the north. The Mannahoaks were the last Native American culture in the Rappahannock valley. The arriving Europeans, drawn to the mineral rich Piedmont, represented the beginning of an industrial presence.


When Captain John Smith developed a map of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, he mapped the upper Rappahannock River valley from information gleaned from interrogating a Mannahoak he had captured at the falls. Archeologists have since confirmed the location of the large Native American settlement sites that Smith mapped without seeing. The crosses on the map represent this area, where Smith landed in 1608.

Native Americans were drawn to the falls of the Rappahannock River where fish and game were abundant. The later Europeans would use the river’s flow to power mills.

Ceramic pot.

Spearhead used for fishing, fashioned from flint.

Unfinished spearhead.

Polished grooved ax.


In the summer of 1608, the Virginia Company ordered Smith and his crew-members to explore the Chesapeake Bay with the intentions that the English would later colonize this region. However, Spain had already explored and colonized this area for nearly a century. At the time of this European imperialism, it was believed that America was a narrow passage to the riches of China; with this thought, John Smith set his eyes on the northern and western tributaries of the Chesapeake when he left Jamestown.(1)

Pictured is John Smith in an illustration from The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles.(
Pictured is John Smith in an illustration from The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles.(8)

The chosen vessel for this journey was something that could quickly be pulled ashore and cast off – depending on relations with the locals. This ship was, therefore, a “barge or shallow, which in 1608 described a largeish wooden boat that could be sailed or rowed.”(2) In July of 1608, John Smith saw the mouth of the Rappahannock River for the first time at Fleets Bay and present-day Deltaville, VA. However, Smith was still sick at the time, and a decision was made to skip exploration of the Rappahannock and return to Jamestown.(3)

After returning to Jamestown, the expedition set out for the mouth of the Rappahannock on July 24, 1608. On August 14, 1608, after a small exploration of the James River, Smith arrived at the mouth of the Rappahannock, and remarked that it was an “excellent, pleasant, well inhabited, fertile and a goodly navigable river.”(4) On August 22, 1608, James Smith and his crewmates landed in the area of today’s Chatham Bridge in Fredericksburg, VA. The search party went ashore and began “digging in the earth, looking for stones, herbs, and springs.”(5) After searching in the dirt for an hour, the local Mannahoaks began their attack on the Englishmen.

Chatham Bridge, now the railway bridge for Fredericksburg, is assumed to be the site where John Smith and his party landed and was ambushed by the Mannahoac.(9)

A reported 100 Indian men took fire at the explorers, which resulted in the Europeans taking cover amongst the trees that lined the edge of the Rappahannock. After half-an-hour the Indians withdrew upriver, leaving an unconscious man behind. Smith had his physician tend to the wounded man, named Amoroleck, who he interviewed after he had been cared for. Smith asked Amoroleck if he could lead them to the Mannahoac community upriver, but Amoroleck knew that his people would not enjoy the presence of these Europeans. Despite the advice of the wounded Indian captive, Smith anchored his ship and prepared to stay the evening.

Either late in the evening or early in the morning another Mannahoac attack began, with arrows “dropping on every side [of] the boat.”(6) When the sun rose, the Europeans allowed themselves and Amoroleck be seen, to prove that they were not holding the Native American as a prisoner. A friendly meeting occurred on a marshy point south of Fredericksburg, where a certain amount of trading began.(7)

The Mannahoac had disappeared in this region by the time European colonists returned to this region in 1670, which allowed for Europeans to root themselves in the area that is now Fredericksburg, VA. The fall line just north of the city of Fredericksburg is key to why colonists chose to settle in this area, as well as the explorations that John Smith made in this area in the early 17th Century.


Featured Image:

    “John Smith,” Biography.com, https://www.biography.com/.image/ar_1:1%2Cc_fill%2Ccs_srgb%2Cg_face%2Cq_auto:good%2Cw_300/MTIwNjA4NjMzOTc0MTk1NzI0/john-smith-9486928-1-402.jpg.

(1) Helen C. Rountree, Wayne E. Clark, & Kent Mountford, John Smith’s Chesapeake Voyages: 1607 – 1609 (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 78.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid., 103.

(4) Ibid., 122.

(5) Ibid., 127.

(6) Ibid., 128.

(7) The Mannahoacs had weapons, tobacco bags and pipes that they wished to exchange for the Europeans guns – which they thought were fancy smoking pipes. Ibid., 128.

(8) John Barra, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles; with the names of the Adventurers, Planters, and Governours from their first beginning, Ano: 1584, to this present 1624. (London : Printed by John Dawson and John Haviland for Michael Sparkes, 1624), 105-248.

(9) Dwayne and Maryanne Moyers, “Chatham Bridge from City Dock Park,” November 22, 2012. https://www.flickr.com/photos/moyersteam/8228121720



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