The York River is arguably the most historically significant location for early colonial history found anywhere in America. European and Native American civilizations collided here. This was the land of Powhatan, Opechanacanough, Pocahantas, and the legendary explorations of Captain John Smith. No wonder this area’s colonial land patents (King’s grant lands) were so highly sought after by the first families of Virginia for the their Colonial plantations. The Washington’s, Lee’s, Anderson’s, Roane’s, Tucker’s, and Taliaferro’s settled its shores. History lives and breathes here. It is woven into the fabric of the estuary and its surrounding lands.
Captain John Smith, Powhatan, Opechanacanough, & Pocahontas
When the English settled Jamestown on the James River, the hero of the colony, Captain James Smith explored the York River in 1608. Smith was captured and taken prisoner by no other than Opechanacanough, who according to legend was the same young Indian boy the Spanish Jesuits Christened Don Luis in his childhood. Opechanacanough brought his captor back to Chief Powhatan’s capital city on the York, Werowocomoco, located at Purtan Bay (a few miles downriver of Anderson’s Neck). Opechanacanough had supposedly seen Europe with his own eyes and knew the white man’s plans for conquest of the area (again according to legend if he was in fact the Indian Boy known as Don Luis). He was gravely concerned with the encroachment of the Europeans and rightfully so. It was decided that Captain Smith should be executed and he was sentenced to death. Only because of a last minute intervention by Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan’s daughter, was Smith’s life spared. He was released to the Indian Princess in her charge (again according to legend but in this case Captain John Smith’s own writings which have been hotly debated and challenged).
Opechanacanough eventually succeeded his half-brother Powhatan, as Chief of the Indian confederacy and took a much more aggressive stance against the colonists. He knew his people would be crushed if they did not eliminate the Europeans from their lands before the European’s grew larger in number. Opechanacanough led the Indian Massacres of 1622 (347 colonists killed) and 1644 (500 colonists killed). Most of the violence occurred on the north bank of the York River as Jamestown was warned in advance of the raids and was able to survive. Only upon his capture as part of the 1644 raid, was the legendary Opechanacanough, alleged one time Indian boy Christened Don Luis, shot in the back at age 100 by a colonial soldier and left to die on the streets of Jamestown.