Food and Friendship in Early Virginia

The final post in the Roundtable on Food and Hunger in Vast Early America is by Rachel Winchcombe, a cultural historian of early modern England and America. She joined the University of Manchester in September 2017 as a Lecturer in Early Modern History. Alongside her teaching, Rachel is currently developing a new research project, provisionally titled ‘Emotional Eating in the Early American Colonies’. This project explores the interplay between diet and emotion in English accounts documenting dietary change in the early American colonies. Our food roundtable began on Monday. You can read Carla Cevasco’s introduction here, Zachary Bennett’s post here, and Bertie Mandelblatt’s here.

A few weeks ago, my ten-year-old nephew earnestly declared, “Rachel, sometimes meat makes me really happy!” Whilst this made me laugh, I could not deny the sincerity of the kid, or the veracity of his statement. After all, we all recognise the power of food to improve our mood and to provide comfort in times of sadness and heartache. For our early modern forebears, I would argue that this emotional aspect of food was no less powerful. In this post I will explore one facet of the emotional power of food, illustrating how it had the potential to irrevocably alter Anglo-Indigenous relations in early Virginia.[1] March 1622 marked a watershed moment in the history of the early Anglo-American settlements. On March 22, the indigenous population launched a devastating attack on the English settlements. In its aftermath, hundreds of English colonists were left dead, and a number of settlements razed to the ground. The attack also, unsurprisingly, resulted in the breakdown of positive emotional relationships between the English and the indigenous population, relationships that I will argue had been constructed around food exchange and commensality in the wake of the First Anglo-Powahatan War of 1609-1614.[2]

From initial contact between the English and the Algonquians in the 1580s, the English had advocated a policy of friendship and kindness in relation to the indigenous community. As Thomas Harriot had explained to his readers in as early as 1588, by “meanes of good government,” and through “friendships & love,” the native Virginians would in “short time be brought to civilitie, and the imbracing of true religion.”[3] Food was undoubtedly at the heart of this strategy. After all, the sharing of a meal and the gifting of food was, as Felicity Heal has argued, traditionally a way of constructing bonds of friendship between giver and receiver, of maintaining already affective relationships, and a means by which to express feelings of affection and esteem towards another person.[4] In the earliest English account of Virginia, composed by Arthur Barlowe, who had conducted a reconnaissance of the region in 1584, the provision of food helped shape his initial positive responses to the indigenous community. Barlowe and his fellow Englishmen were treated well by chief Wingina’s brother, Granganimo, being sent sustenance in the form of “bucks, conies, hares, fish the best of the world.” Granganimo’s wife had also shown herself to be a hospitable hostess, entertaining the English and providing them with “supper halfe dressed, pottes and all” to be taken back to the ships. His treatment by the local population led Barlowe to conclude that these people were “most gentle, loving, and faithfull, voide of all guile and treason.”[5]

de bry the seethynge of their meate

Theodore de Bry, copper engraving, “Their Seetheynge of their Meate in Earthen Pottes” (c. 1590).

As permanent English settlement in the region became a reality in the early 1600s, the relationship between the settlers and the local population was undoubtedly strained, first during the winter of 1609 to 1610 when poor weather and food shortages led to the decimation of the English population due to starvation, and then in the 1610s during the First Anglo-Powhatan War.[6] Whilst the Powhatan War was bloody and damaging, it was not detrimental to Anglo-Indigenous relations. The marriage between the English colonist John Rolfe and the daughter of Powhatan, Pocahontas, brought an end to the conflict and led to the establishment of peace between the two groups.[7] Indeed, the famed explorer and coloniser John Smith would later criticise the English leadership in Virginia for entering naively into a peace agreement with the indigenous population. Smith claimed in his 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia (with a breath-taking degree of hindsight) that whilst the colony’s leaders used to express a degree of suspicion towards the native chiefs, by the time of the 1622 attack they were writing so confidently of their “assured peace with the salvages” that “there is now no more feare nor danger either of their power or treachery.”[8]

By 1622, then, relations had improved. Once again, indigenous leaders were willing to share their produce with the settlers and in return, in the words of the English colonist Edward Waterhouse, the Powhatans were “alwaies friendly entertained at the tables of the English.”[9] The sharing of food between the English and the indigenous population of Virginia, and between other European colonising nations and peoples of the Americas, has been interpreted by scholars as largely instrumental, strategic, and highly politicised. Michael Lacombe has argued that the exchange of food was used by English settlers to shore up their status, convey political prowess, and maintain a modicum of peace. Lacombe also suggests that indigenous leaders used the symbolism of food in a similar manner: to reinforce English dependency and to illustrate their own mastery over the environment.[10] Likewise, Enrique Rodriguez-Alegria has argued that Spanish colonisers in Mexico often ate with indigenous peoples and incorporated the materiality of indigenous dining practices into their own, as a means of negotiating and strengthening social and political relations with local elites.[11] What both Lacombe and Rodriguez-Alegria seem to underplay, however, is the extent to which, for the English at least, the sharing of food was interpreted as a genuine sign of friendship and goodwill. Perhaps for the English it was inconceivable that the indigenous population were civilised enough to politically outmanoeuvre them.

Tellingly, the attack of 1622 began at the breakfast tables of the English settlers.[12] Dining tables throughout the early modern period were sites of physical intimacy, conviviality, and locations where social ties could be formed and reinforced.[13] The choice to launch an attack at this symbolic site of friendship and sociability no doubt compounded the sense of betrayal articulated by English settlers in the wake of the attack. In Waterhouse’s account of the attack, Friday 22nd March 1622 began normally. The indigenous people, “as in other dayes before,” came into the homes of the English settlers with “deere, Turkies, Fish, Furres, and other provisions” to exchange for glass, beads, and other such trifles. As had been the case many times before, the English, laying down their own tools and weapons, invited the native Virginians to join them at the breakfast table. It was during this act of commensality, an act that was so central to social ties and the maintenance of friendship in the English imagination, that the Amerindians took up the tools and weapons of the English and began a massacre that would leave, according to Waterhouse, “three hundred forty seven men, women, and children” dead.[14] Waterhouse’s sense of betrayal is palpable, especially in the section of the text where he recounts the fate of a settler named George Thorpe. According to Waterhouse, Thorpe was highly benevolent towards the native population. He “thought nothing too deare for them, and as being desirous to binde them unto him by his many courtesies, hee neuer denyed them any thing that they asked him.” In return, the indigenous population “not only wilfully murdered him, but cruelly and felly, out of devillish malice, did so many barbarous despights and foule scornes after to his dead corpes.”[15] Summing up the emotional toll that the attack had on the English settlers, William Capps, an Englishman who had been living in Virginia since 1609, wrote “God forgive me I think the last massacre killed all our country, besides them they killed, they burst the heart of all the rest.”[16]

merian massacre of 1622

Matthaeus Merian, woodcut, “Massacre of 1622” (1628).


This perceived treachery fundamentally altered Anglo-Indian relations and reshaped English attitudes towards the Virginian lands and the provision of food. Prior to the attack, and during the period of peace initiated by the marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, the English had, from their own perspective at least, respected the lands and provisions belonging to the native population.[17] The English had, where possible, avoided stealing food from the indigenous community, instead preferring to rely on the exchange of food for other commodities. Not only would theft undermine peace and goodwill between the two groups, it would also reflect badly on the English ability to support their own population.[18] All niceties, however, disappeared after March 22nd. In the minds of the English, the native population had betrayed their trust and irrevocably damaged any friendship there had once been. The indigenous population, and their resources, were now fair game. In a letter to Captain William Tucker, the governor Francis Wyatt, instructed how the indigenous population should be dealt with from now on. The English now had permission to take by force “corne, peas, beans or whatsoever else commoditie he shal finde and seisse upon” from “thoes who had there hands in the cruel and treacherous murdering of our people.”[19]

The breakdown of positive emotional relationships between the English and the indigenous population, which had been constructed around food exchange and commensality, radically altered English attitudes towards American lands and American peoples. As Alden T. Vaughan has argued, the attack of 1622 initiated a new policy towards the indigenous population that had not been advocated in the aftermath of earlier periods of conflict. This new policy was one of “unrestrained enmity” that “reflected a persistent but often repressed contempt for the American natives.”[20] The emotional responses of English colonists to what they perceived as the indigenous population’s betrayal at the breakfast table, unleashed a new and much more aggressive approach to Anglo-Indigenous relations. Feelings of friendship were set aside, as were the physical embodiment of these friendships, namely the sharing of food. These were replaced by feelings of betrayal on the part of the English that now, in their minds, justified the theft of food and the intentional starvation of the indigenous population. Waterhouse summed up this new attitude, claiming “the Indians, who before were used as friends, may now most justly be compelled to servitude and drudgery.”[21]

[1] Whilst scholars have identified how vocabularies of emotion coloured social interactions in colonial America, less has been said about how environmental and dietary concerns reshaped the emotional landscape of early modern North America. This blog post gives just one indication of how the history of emotions can be connected to food history in early colonial America. For more on emotion in the early Americas see Nicole Eustace, Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008) and Javier Villa-Flores and Sonya Lipsett-Rivera, eds., Emotions and Daily Life in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014).

[2] A similar analysis of food and emotional relationships could be made for the period of 1609-1614 but I have chosen to focus here on the aftermath of 1622 given the strong emphasis on food and commensality in the sources and the fact that historians have argued that this attack really represented a turning point in the relationship between the English settlers and the indigenous population: see Alden T. Vaughan, “‘Expulsion of the Salvages’: English Policy and the Virginia Massacre of 1622”, William and Mary Quarterly 35, no. 1 (Jan., 1978): 57-84.

[3] Thomas Harriot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (London, 1588), 25.

[4] Felicity Heal, “Food Gifts, the Household and the Politics of Exchange in Early Modern England”, Past & Present 199, no. 1 (May, 2008): 41-70. For scholarship on early modern friendship more broadly see Cedric C. Brown, Friendship and its Discourses in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Maritere López and Daniel T. Lochman, eds., Discourses and Representations of Friendship in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700 (London: Routledge, 2016); Gregory D. Smithers, “‘Our Hands and Hearts are Joined Together’: Friendship, Colonialism, and the Cherokee People in Early America”, Journal of Social History 50, no. 4 (2017): 609-629.

[5] Wingina is also referred to by the name of Pemisapan in some early English sources. See Arthur Barlowe, “The First Voyage Made to the Coasts of America, with Two Barks, Where in were Captaines M. Philip Amadas, and M. Arthur Barlowe,” in The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, ed. Richard Hakluyt (London, 1589), 3:246-247.

[6] It is perhaps the memory of this time of starvation and war that made food so emotionally charged in Virginia. Indeed, the 1610s arguably served as a reminder for what could happen if Anglo-Indigenous relations broke down.

[7] Frederick Fausz, “An “Abundance of Blood Shed”: England’s First Indian War, 1609-1614”, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98, no. 1 (Jan., 1990): 3-56.

[8] John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia (London, 1624), 138.

[9] Edward Waterhouse, A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia (London, 1622), 12.

[10] Michael A. LaCombe, Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[11] Enrique Rodríguez-Alegría, “Eating Like an Indian: Negotiating Social Relations in the Spanish Colonies”, Current Anthropology 46, no. 4 (2005): 551-573.

[12] The breakfast table is mentioned by both Edward Waterhouse and John Smith: Waterhouse, Declaration, 14; John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia (London, 1624), 144.

[13] Alison A. Smith, “Family and Domesticity,” in A Cultural History of Food in the Renaissance, ed. Ken Albala (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 136-150.

[14] Waterhouse, Declaration, 13-14.

[15] Ibid., 15-17.

[16] William Capps, “Letter to Doctor Thomas Wynston”, in The Records of the Virginia Company of London (London: Forgotten  Books, 2018), 38.

[17] This is, of course, not to suggest that in reality the English had not resorted to the theft of food in the past. As Frederick Fausz has argued, tensions had mounted between the indigenous population and the English settlers in the very early years of the Jamestown colony due to the English reliance on the Algonquians to provide food. Likewise, during the war of 1609-1614 the theft of food and the destruction of indigenous food supplies was undoubtedly practiced: see Fausz, “An ‘Abundance of Blood Shed.’”

[18] LaCombe, Political Gastronomy, 103.

[19] Francis Wyatt, “Instructions to Captain William Tucker”, in Records of Virginia, 7.

[20] Vaughan, “‘Expulsion of the Salvages’”, 58.

[21] Waterhouse, Declaration, 25.

One response

  1. Pingback: Roundtable Conclusion: Food and Hunger in Vast Early America « The Junto


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