Benjamin Franklin’s Satire of Witch Hunting

Advisor: Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor of Law, Literature and Criticism, Columbia University Law School, National Humanities Center Fellow.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2014

How does Benjamin Franklin’s satire of a witch trial argue that human affairs should be guided, above all, by reason?


Many people in the eighteenth century, especially the educated elite in Europe and America, believed that truth was discovered through reason, through the application of principles discovered through science, observation, and experimentation. In “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly” Benjamin Franklin asserts the primacy of reason by satirizing the efforts of those who would seek truth through superstition and irrationality.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, ca. 1746
Harvard Art Museums


Benjamin Franklin, “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly,” 1730, from Founders Online, from the National Archives. Suggested secondary sources from “Divining America: Religion in American History” from the National Humanities Center: Deism and the Founding of the United States by Darren Staloff and The First Great Awakening by Christine Heyrman.

Text Type

Informational text: Literary non-fiction, satire.

Text Complexity

Grades 11-CCR complexity band. For more information on text complexity see these resources from
Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.6 (Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).)
  • ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.9 (Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.)

Advanced Placement English Language and Composition

  • Reading nonfiction
  • Analyzing satire and how an author’s rhetorical choices achieve a particular purpose

Teacher’s Note

In addition to illustrating how satire works, this piece could be used to highlight cultural differences between the educated elite of the eighteenth century who were influenced by Enlightenment thought and the common folks who were not. The publication date of 1730 places the piece on the earliest fringe of the First Great Awakening, which had its initial manifestations around New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Thus the satire could be seen as foreshadowing the attitude many among the elite took toward the religious emotionalism, which they called “enthusiasm,” of those caught up in the Awakening’s fervor. Although Franklin later befriended the preacher George Whitefield, a major figure in the First Great Awakening, he remained suspicious of the revival’s enthusiasm throughout his life. In 1730, as a twenty-four-year-old, his firm embrace of the rationalistic philosophy of Deism could easily have moved him to take aim at the irrationality of enthusiasm as it might manifest itself in a witch hunt.

We provide the text in its entirety. Franklin wrote it as a single paragraph. We have numbered the sentences to make it easier to teach. For close reading we have analyzed the article through fine-grained, text-dependent questions. The first interactive activity asks students to do three things: identify words and phrases that make the piece a satire, explain why the language they chose is satirical, and compare their choices and rationales with ours. You may want to make these tasks, or at least the first two, a pencil-and-paper assignment. This exercise lends itself well to whole-class discussion with projection on a screen or smart board. The second interactive asks students to draw a conclusion from the piece. The student pdf also includes links to the interactive exercises.

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, access to the interactive exercises, and a follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive worksheet that can be e-mailed, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions, and the follow-up assignment.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide


Background Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

The Pennsylvania Gazette was founded in Philadelphia in 1728. A year later Benjamin Franklin and a business partner bought it and in the following decades turned it into one of the most popular publications in the American colonies, printing reports from other papers as well as local news. In eighteenth-century America people hung on to newspapers, especially in inns, because paper was precious. They circulated widely, and with high literacy levels in Philadelphia, we can assume that the Gazette had a substantial general readership. Franklin frequently contributed articles, as he did for the October 22, 1730, edition when he published, anonymously, a satire datelined “Burlington, Oct. 12.”

Untitled when it appeared, a nineteenth-century editor dubbed it “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly.” The brief narrative describes the determined efforts of a mob in a small New Jersey town to find a man and a woman guilty of witchcraft after they had been accused of making sheep dance and hogs sing. In a normal proceeding only the accused would be tried, but in this one the accused cut a deal to put their accusers, also a man and a woman, on trial as well. The mob decides upon two tests. In the first the men and women will be weighed individually against a “huge great” Bible. If it outweighs them, they are witches; if they outweigh it, they are not. In the second test they will be cast into water. If they sink, they are innocent; if they float, they are guilty. The inclusion of the accused in the tests makes the proceedings less a trial and more an absurd experiment in which scales and water are used to detect virtue and vice. The tale is told by the sort of narrator who often appears in satire, an urbane, witty figure who coolly observes the action with an amused, tolerant attitude.

The article, presented as local news, is a literary hoax, similar to two others Franklin published in the Gazette. As far as scholars have been able to determine, he was neither reporting on nor responding to an actual event, certainly not a witch trial. No one has found records of one in New Jersey or Pennsylvania in or around 1730. Franklin may have written the piece to underscore themes in two other articles that appear in the October 22 issue. The lead story — datelined Paris, February 27 — describes the ridicule visited upon a Monsieur Languet, a bishop and a member of the esteemed French Academy, for a biography he wrote of a nun who died in 1690. The author of the article denounces Languet as a “Fanatick and a Visionary” for retailing stories of apparitions the nun claimed to have experienced. In language that echoes “A Witch Trial” the narrator notes that Languet’s book is surely “the Amusement and Diversion…of the thinking Part of the People of Paris.” The other article — datelined Oxford, July 30 — recounts the comic struggle that broke out over the body of a murderer named William Fuller after it was cut down from the gallows. As officials try to get the corpse out of town, they must fend off a mob and then a determined band of “gownsmen,” Oxford medical students, who want to carry Fuller off for dissection. The officials fail, and Fuller ends up serving science at Christ Church College. At one point the mob tosses Fuller’s coffin into water, and the gownsmen leap on it “like Spaniels,” much as a sailor in Mount Holly leaps on one of the men on trial as he floats in the local mill pond.

In addition to sharing language and motifs — repetition of the phrase “the thinking part,” mob behavior, and jumping on floating bodies — these stories share themes with “A Witch Trial.” The Paris story underscores the primacy of reason in its description of the ridicule the educated heap upon Monsieur Languet for his belief in apparitions. “A Witch Trial” also asserts the primacy of reason as the narrator mocks the people of Mount Holly for their belief in witches. Comic as it may be, the Oxford story recounts the triumph of science and empiricism, perspectives that drive the satire in “A Witch Trial.” It would not be surprising if these stories inspired Franklin to write his satire. He was twenty-four in 1730, and the piece reflects his youthful embrace of Deism, a form of religious belief, influential among the elite in eighteenth-century America, that placed faith in reason and rejected the supernatural.

Text Analysis

Close Reading Questions

1. What does Franklin do to establish the “authenticity” of his hoax? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
Through the dateline “Burlington, Oct. 12” he tells his readers that the incident took place in a real place at a specific time. He then offers details that make the dateline even more specific and thus make the event more believable. It took place “Saturday last” in the town of Mount-Holly, which he is careful to locate “about 8 miles from this Place.” Moreover, he tells us about how many people were involved, “near 300.”

2. What are the connotations of the word “experiment”? (Note: The word “experiment” is a key term in the story and deserves extended attention.)
It suggests science and unbiased, rational, carefully conducted inquiry that follows the rules of logic.

3. What do experiments usually seek to do?
Experiments usually seek to test a hypothesis, an assumption or proposition that calls for some sort of test to see if it is accurate or valid.

4. What is the effect of the narrator’s use of the word “experiment”?
The narrator ridicules the witch trials by calling them experiments. Clearly, they are not carefully reasoned, logical attempts to test a verifiable hypothesis. Rather, they are inappropriate and ineffectual attempts to determine a person’s guilt or innocence. By applying the term to the witch trials, the narrator ironically highlights the extent to which they diverge from rational processes of science and stray into superstition. The term bestows a comically inflated dignity and importance to this slapstick enterprise.

In addition, the term helps to define the narrator’s persona. It suggests that he is a man of the Enlightenment, familiar with the ways of science. Indeed, he seems more interested in how the trials are conducted than in their outcome. Note his careful description of each step. Note, too, that he never tells us how the mob judges any of the men subjected to the tests.

Activity: Franklin's Satirical LanguageActivity: Franklin’s Satirical Language
In “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly” Franklin ridicules the thinking of the people of Mount Holly with language that is in some places obviously humorous and in others finely subtle.

5. How would you describe the persona of the narrator or “reporter” of this story?
The narrator/reporter is calm, casual, off-handed, bemused, and condescending.

6. How does Franklin create this persona? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
Franklin creates the persona through the language the narrator uses. It suggests that he is not necessarily well informed or even terribly concerned about what is going on: the people have gathered to see “an Experiment or two”; “It seems” that the accused are charged with witchcraft. He describes two remarkable accusations, but any others he dismisses with an off-handed “&c.” He highlights the comic nature of the charges by turning one of them into a joke. If sheep were made to dance in “an uncommon manner,” one is tempted to ask how they commonly dance.

7. What is the narrator’s point of view? How does Franklin establish it? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
The narrator stands apart from the other spectators. While the townspeople are passionate in their demand for a trial and, it would seem, a guilty verdict, he calmly and wittily observes the scene and describes it without any of the bias that fires the crowd. He is deeply uninvolved. Franklin further establishes the narrator’s distance from the townspeople by having him ironically describe these rather simple provincial folks with comic exaggeration. They meet in “grand Consultation.” They are “the King’s good and peaceable Subjects.” Of course, there is nothing “peaceable” about them; they are a mob in pursuit of a verdict they have already reached.

8. What are the connotations of the word “plump”? How does Franklin use it in the story?
It suggests weight, flesh, heaviness. Franklin uses it for comic effect. With it he undermines the seriousness of the scale trial. We can almost see and hear—the word is slightly onomatopoeic—the accused plummeting to the ground and bouncing upon arrival. Moreover, the word “plump” reminds readers that the subjects are flesh and blood, merely human, and not supernatural beings.

9. What does the term “Lumps of Mortality” refer to? How does Franklin use it?
It refers to the bodies of the people tested in the scales. “Lumps” echoes “plump” and, like that word, suggests weight and heaviness. Linking it to “Mortality,” Franklin again reminds his readers that the accusers and the accused are mere mortals, not witches. Juxtaposing “Lumps of Mortality” with “Moses and all the Prophets and Apostles,” the narrator suggests the absurdity of attempting to learn something about the supernatural from a test that measures only the weight of flesh, blood, and bone.

Activity: Satire as a CorrectiveActivity: Satire as a Corrective
Satire is often practiced as a corrective of human behavior. Satirists who see satire in that way imply a course of action to improve, reform, or change in some way the target of their ridicule.

10. What does Franklin mean when he says that the male accuser “with some Difficulty began to sink”? Why would he include this detail?
He suggests that the man initially floats but sinks only when he tries to. This detail sets up the narrator’s ridicule of “the more Thinking Part of the Spectators,” for while they reach the correct conclusion about people with air in their lungs floating, they mistakenly conclude that a thin person’s physique would cause him or her to sink.

11. How does Franklin focus our attention on the word “naked”? What function does it play in the story?
He makes us pause before it and heightens its comic effectiveness by setting it off with a comma. Functioning rather like the punch line of a joke, it completely demolishes any pretense to seriousness that the trials may have claimed and suggests their true purpose as entertainment for the masses.

12. How does Franklin characterize the trials? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
Franklin portrays the trials as essentially comic, thoroughly unserious undertakings — note the deal by which the accusers are put on trial, the “plump” landing in the scale trials, the search for pins, the attempt to sink the floaters. He also characterizes them as an entertainment spectacle. They are advertised. The scales are set up on a gallows to enable the ladies of the town to view them without going into the crowd. To accommodate that crowd, town officials have cleared an open space “after the Manner of Moorfields.” When it becomes apparent that the trials will have to be repeated, officials insure a crowd by promising nudity at the next performance.

13. How does Franklin portray the people of Mount Holly? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
He portrays them as simple-minded, superstitious bumpkins. Franklin makes explicit fun of them throughout the story. They think pins are “Thing[s] of weight”; they are surprised when the men and women outweigh the Bible and land “plump” on the ground. Finally, they reject the resoundingly conclusive results of the scale test. Portraying their failure to understand what is clearly before them, Franklin reflects the fear, widespread in eighteenth-century America, that religious enthusiasm will prevent meaningful education.

A Witch Trial at Mount Holly

BURLINGTON, Oct. 12. [1] Saturday last at Mount-Holly, about 8 Miles from this Place, near 300 People were gathered together to see an Experiment or two tried on some Persons accused of Witchcraft.

[2] It seems the Accused had been charged with making their Neighbours Sheep dance in an uncommon Manner, and with causing Hogs to speak, and sing Psalms, &c. to the great Terror and Amazement of the King’s good and peaceable Subjects in this Province; and the Accusers being very positive that if the Accused were weighed in Scales against a Bible, the Bible would prove too heavy for them; or that, if they were bound and put into the River, they would swim; the said Accused desirous to make their Innocence appear [desiring to prove their innocence], voluntarily offered to undergo the said Trials, if 2 of the most violent of their Accusers would be tried with them.

[3] Accordingly the Time and Place was agreed on, and advertised about the Country; The Accusers were 1 Man and 1 Woman; and the Accused the same.

[4] The Parties being met, and the People got together, a grand Consultation was held, before they proceeded to Trial; in which it was agreed to use the Scales first; and a Committee of Men were appointed to search the Men, and a Committee of Women to search the Women, to see if they had any Thing of Weight about them, particularly Pins.

[5] After the Scrutiny was over, a huge great Bible belonging to the Justice of the Place was provided, and a Lane through the Populace was made from the Justices House to the Scales, which were fixed on a Gallows erected for that Purpose opposite to the House, that the Justice’s Wife and the rest of the Ladies might see the Trial, without coming amongst the Mob; and after the Manner of Moorfields [in the eighteenth century, an open space in London often the site of markets and shows], a large Ring was also made.

[6] Then came out of the House a grave tall Man carrying the Holy Writ before the supposed Wizard, &c. (as solemnly as the Sword-bearer of London before the Lord Mayor) the Wizard was first put in the Scale, and over him was read a Chapter out of the Books of Moses, and then the Bible was put in the other Scale, (which being kept down before) was immediately let go; but to the great Surprize of the Spectators, Flesh and Bones came down plump, and outweighed that great good Book by abundance [a large amount].

[7] After the same Manner, the others were served, and their Lumps of Mortality severally [separately] were too heavy for Moses and all the Prophets and Apostles.

[8] This being over, the Accusers and the rest of the Mob, not satisfied with this Experiment, would have the Trial by Water; accordingly a most solemn Procession was made to the Mill-pond; where both Accused and Accusers being stripp’d (saving only to the Women their Shifts [undergarments]) were bound Hand and Foot, and severally placed in the Water, lengthways, from the Side of a Barge or Flat, having for Security only a Rope about the Middle of each, which was held by some in the Flat.

[9] The Accuser Man being thin and spare [bony], with some Difficulty began to sink at last; but the rest every one of them swam [floated] very light upon the Water.

[10] A Sailor in the Flat jump’d out upon the Back of the Man accused, thinking to drive him down to the Bottom, but the Person bound, without any Help, came up some time before the other.

[11] The Woman Accuser, being told that she did not sink, would be duck’d a second Time; when she swam again as light as before.

[12] Upon which she declared, That she believed the Accused had bewitched her to make her so light, and that she would be duck’d again a Hundred Times, but she would duck the Devil out of her.

[13] The accused Man, being surpriz’d at his own Swimming, was not so confident of his Innocence as before, but said, If I am a Witch, it is more than I know.

[14] The more thinking Part of the Spectators were of Opinion, that any Person so bound and plac’d in the Water (unless they were mere Skin and Bones) would swim till their Breath was gone, and their Lungs fill’d with Water.

[15] But it being the general Belief of the Populace, that the Womens Shifts, and the Garters with which they were bound help’d to support them; it is said they are to be tried again the next warm Weather, naked.

Pennsylvania Gazette, October 1730



  • Robert Feke, portrait of Benjamin Franklin, oil on canvas, ca. 1746. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Dr. John Collins Warren, 1856, H47. Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reproduced by permission.
  • The Pennsylvania Gazette, Oct. 15-22, 1730, p. 3 (detail). Digital image reproduced by permission of Accessible Archives, Inc.

Successful European Colonies in the New World

Advisor: Kathleen A. Duval, Associate Professor of History, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, National Humanities Center Fellow.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2011

Why did some European attempts to establish colonies in the New World succeed while most failed?


Early European colonies in the New World succeeded only if local Indians allowed them to and if they were lucky. When European settlers arrived in the New World, they often placed their colonies among people who had established complex webs of political relationships that included both alliances and rivalries. If Indians tolerated settlements they could easily have wiped out, they may have done so not because they were afraid of the settlers or kindly disposed to them or militarily weak but rather because they saw them as useful adjuncts in their own internal power struggles.


George Percy, Observations Gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southern Colony in Virginia by the English, 1608. (excerpts)

[Find more primary resources on successful European colonies in the New World American Beginnings: The European Presence in North America, 1492–1690.]

Text Type

Informational text with moderately complex purpose, text structure, and knowledge demands, and very complex language features. Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups (full list at bottom of page). Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Text Complexity

Grades 11-CCR complexity band.
For more information on text complexity see these resources from

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 (Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.)
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.10 (Read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 1.2 (IIIB) (…native people sought to defend and maintain their political sovereignty…)

Teacher’s Note

We do not know why the Indians of the Chesapeake, fierce protectors of their own territory, refrained from destroying the weak vulnerable English outpost in its earliest days, especially since these same tribes wiped out the Spanish mission of Ajacán thirty-seven years earlier. (For a companion lesson see Failed European Colonies in the New World.) The Indians left no written record of their experience with the settlers. However, we do have Percy’s account. If we keep in mind the limitations of his understanding of Indian culture, his European biases, language barriers, the dangerous situation the settlers were in, and the rivalries that apparently existed among the various tribes, we can, through careful and sensitive reading, arrive at a plausible speculation: perhaps the Indians allowed Jamestown to survive because the presence of the English provided advantages to some tribes — trade goods, for example, or prestige — as they vied with others to gain power within the Powhatan Confederation. This exercise in close reading will allow students to be ethnohistorians, discerning the motives and actions of people who left no written evidence. Students may need some pushing to get them to consider the Indian’s point of view.

The first passage illustrates some of the ambitions of the Jamestown colony. The English saw Spain both as an evil Catholic empire, reaping riches through barbarous treatment of Indians, and as a model of how to collect the riches that the English wished for themselves. The settlers of Jamestown knew that they had chosen a spot not far from Spanish St. Augustine and within the larger territory that Spain still claimed, although the peace that their new king, James I, had negotiated with Spain in 1604 meant they should be protected from Spanish attack.

The second passage brings together all the references Percy makes to the Indians. Among other things, it introduces students to the discussions and debates that the Indians were having regarding what to do about the English. Of course, most of these discussions took place when Percy was not present to record them, but the disagreement suggested here between some of “the Savages” and their werowance can help students imagine how those discussions might have gone. Some Indians were disturbed that the English were “planting,” in other words that they seemed to be intending to settle rather than merely trade. One of the discussion questions asks students to think about the nature of the Powhatan Confederation, in which Powhatan required subordinate werowances to pay tribute to him. Might this political situation have led some to welcome the Virginians? As you analyze this passage, pay attention to the rivalry between the Rapahanna and the Paspihe.

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, access to the interactive exercises, and a follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive worksheet that can be e-mailed, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions, and the follow-up assignment.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version PDF (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide


Contextualizing Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience is it intended?
  5. For what purpose is it written?

These excerpts from Percy’s Observations chronicles the first six months of Jamestown’s existence, from April to September, 1607, a period during which the colony survived only because the Indians allowed it to. Luck played its role in 1610, when all the remaining colonists, fleeing the utter failure of Jamestown in four small boats, encountered, at the mouth of the James River, a re-supply fleet headed their way. On board were three hundred new settlers and a new governor, Lord De la Warr, who ordered the fleeing boats to turn around. With fresh manpower Jamestown began the slow painful process of establishing itself as a profitable agricultural colony.

At the time of Jamestown’s founding George Percy was just one of several noblemen among the colonists. He later served as governor of the colony. The original manuscript of his Observations has been lost. It was published in 1625 as part of a larger collection of accounts of travel in the Americas. When analyzing any primary document, it is important to consider the author’s motives in writing it. Apparently, Percy wrote Observations simply to record his experience in Virginia. It seems to have been intended for readers interested simply in learning more about the fascinating “new world.” What matters here is what Percy was not doing: he was not trying to recruit settlers, nor was he trying to raise money to support Jamestown. How might these considerations shape our interpretation of his Observations?

The Indians Percy and his fellow settlers encountered were well-organized politically under the leadership of Chief Powhatan. He commanded about thirty tribes, yet each local tribe had its own chief or werowance, who was subordinate to Powhatan and who had to pay him tribute. Percy and the settlers traveled from town to town meeting these chiefs. Like most seventeenth-century peoples, the Indians believed they were the center of the world. To them, the English newcomers were needy itinerants, not colonizers, and they expected to call the shots.

Text Analysis


Close Reading Questions

1. What do Percy’s words here tell us about English reasons for founding Jamestown?
The colonies has resources that would be useful to England, “the Country being so fruitful”. It would have also be “a great annoyance to our enemies,” an annoyance to Spain, if England had been there during the war with Spain. So it is a useful military staging ground.

2. What do you think he thought of the Spanish?
He saw the Spanish as rivals and enemies.

3. Judging from Percy’s statement, what role do the Indians who inhabit the region play in the plans of the English?
The Indians have little role in the plans of the English. Percy does not mention them in the first excerpt.

[I]f the beginners of this action [the Virginia Company] do carefully further [support] us, the Country being so fruitful, it would be as great a profit to the Realm of England, as the Indies to the King of Spain. If this River which we have found had been discovered in the time of war with Spain, it would have been a commodity [profit] to our Realm, and a great annoyance to our enemies.

4. What does this passage tell us about how well the English understand the Indians?
The English little understood the Indian culture. They assumed the Indians were burning off a field for planting or signaling, which is what the English would do. They also did not understand how the Indians fought, at night.

5. Why would the English expect the Indians to attack them?
The Indians had attacked before.

Activity: Settlement — Two Different ViewsActivity: Settlement — Two Different Views
Compare the conflicting views of Native Americans and Europeans regarding the early English colonies in the New World.
April 1607 (soon after arrival)
[1] At night, when we were going aboard, there came the Savages creeping upon all fours, from the Hills, like Bears, with their Bows in their mouths, [who] charged us very desperately in the faces, hurt Captain Gabriel Archer in both his hands, and a sailor in two places of the body very dangerous. After they had spent their Arrows, and felt the sharpness of our shot, they retired into the Woods with a great noise, and so left us.

[2] We marched some three or four miles further into the woods, where we saw great smokes of fire. We marched to those smokes and found that the Savages had been there burning down the grass, as we thought either to make their plantation there [to clear the land for farming], or else to give signs to bring their forces.

[3] Thirtieth day, we came with our ships to Cape Comfort; where we saw five Savages running on the shore. Presently the Captain caused the shallop [small open boat] to be manned; so rowing to the shore, the Captain called to them in sign of friendship, but they were at first very timorous, until they saw the Captain lay his hand on his heart; upon that they laid down their Bows and Arrows, and came very boldly to us, making signs to come ashore to their Town, which is called by the Savages Kecoughtan [“great town,” commanded by a son of Powhatan]. We coasted to their Town, rowing over a River running into the Main[land], where these Savages swam over with their Bows and Arrows in their mouths.

6. How might you account for the hospitality shown the English by Powhatan’s son only days after Indians attacked the settlers?
He might wish to find out more about the whites — their intentions, strength, etc. He might also wish to open trade negotiations, or use his relationship with the whites as a sign of his strength within the Powhatan culture.

7. How might the tribes in the Powhatan Confederation interpret the fact that one of Powhatan’s sons entertained the English?
The might think that Powhatan’s son was attempting to develop a diplomatic relationship with the English.

8. What does this passage tell us about European perceptions of Indians and their understanding of Indian culture?
The Europeans believed that the Indians were feeding and entertaining them, “in welcome.”

[4] When we came over to the other side, there was a many of other Savages which directed us to their Town, where we were entertained by them very kindly. When we came first a Land they made a doleful noise, laying their faces to the ground, scratching the earth with their nails. We did think they had been at their Idolatry [worship]. When they had ended their Ceremonies, they went into their houses and brought out mats and laid upon the ground: the chiefest of them sat all in a rank; the meanest [lowest, poorest] sort brought us such dainties as they had, and of their bread which they make of their Maize or Gennea [Guinea] wheat. They would not suffer [allow] us to eat unless we sat down, which we did on a Mat right against them. After we were well satisfied they gave us of their Tobacco, which they took in a pipe made artificially of earth as ours are, but far bigger, with the bowl fashioned together with a piece of fine copper. After they had feasted us, they showed us, in welcome, their manner of dancing, which was in this fashion. One of the Savages standing in the midst singing, beating one hand against another, all the rest dancing about him, shouting, howling, and stamping against the ground, with many Antic tricks and faces, making noise like so many Wolves or Devils.

9. What does the scene in the Paspihe village — an entertainment with “much welcome” interrupted by an “old Savage’s” rant — suggest about the Paspihe’s response to the arrival of the English? Compare the Paspihe’s welcome with that which the English received in the village of Kecoughtan (see paragraphs 3 and 4) and in the Raphanna village.
While the general tribe was welcoming, some of the older members were suspicious of the English.

10. What does the response of the Rapahanna’s chief to the presence of the English among the Paspihe suggest about relations between the two tribes?
It suggests that the two tribes were rivals.

11. Why might the Raphanna chief have been displeased that the English visited the Paspihe village before visiting his?
He might have thought it would give the Paspihe village an advantage over his own village.

12. Why might it have been advantageous to Powhatan to permit rivalries among the tribes in his confederation?
If there were rivalries among the tribes, no leader within a tribe could become strong enough to challenge Powhatan.

May 1607
[5] The fourth day of May, we came to the King or Werowance of Paspihe [Paspahegh]: where they entertained us with much welcome. An old Savage made a long Oration, making a foul noise, uttering his speech with a vehement action, but we knew little what they meant. While we were in company with the Paspihes, the Werowance [leader] of Rapahanna came from the other side of the River in his Canoe. He seemed to take displeasure of our being with the Paspihes. He would fain [gladly] have had us to come to his Town. The Captain was unwilling. Seeing that the day was so far spent, he returned back to his ships for that night.

[6] The next day, being the fifth of May, the Werowance of Rapahanna sent a Messenger to have us come to him. We entertained the said Messenger, and gave him trifles [trinkets] which pleased him. We manned our shallop with Muskets and Targatiers [foot soldiers armed with shields] sufficiently: this said Messenger guided us where our determination was to go. When we landed, the Werowance of Rapahanna came down to the water side with all his train [followers]… playing on a Flute made of a Reed…. He entertained us in so modest a proud fashion, as though he had been a Prince of civil government, holding his countenance [keeping his bearing] without laughter or any such ill behavior.

13. Why, after some Indians entertained the English cordially, would the Apamatica confront them “in a most warlike manner”?
They may have seen the English as enemies, aligned with a rival tribe.

14. What do the Apamatica demand of the English?
He wanted to know why they were there, and told them to leave, “willing us to be gone.”

15. What might the English have signaled through their “signs of peace” that convinced the Apamatica to let them land?
They may have displayed trinkets or other things to trade. An earlier tribe (see paragraph 3) had responded to the Captain “lay his hand on his heart,” and he may have done this.

[7] The eighth day of May we discovered [explored] up the River. We landed in the Country of Apamatica. At our landing, there came many stout and able Savages to resist us with their Bows and Arrows, in a most warlike manner, with the swords at their backs beset with sharp stones, and pieces of iron able to cleave a man in sunder [cut a man in two]. Among the rest one of the chiefest, standing before them cross-legged, with his Arrow ready in his Bow in one hand, and taking a Pipe of Tobacco in the other, with a bold uttering of his speech, demanded of us our being there, willing us to be gone. We made signs of peace, which they perceived in the end, and let us land in quietness.

16. How might the establishment of Jamestown in the Pasphie’s country affect that tribe’s attitude toward the English?
They may have been suspicious of the English’s intent to permanently settle.

17. What does the “alarm” suggest about the Indian’s approach to the English settlement?
The English felt threatened by the Indian’s approach.

[8] The thirteenth day, we came to our seating place [Jamestown] in Paspihas Country, some eight miles from the point of Land, which I made mention before: where our ships do lie so near the shore that they are moored to the Trees in six fathom water.

[9] The first night of our landing, about midnight, there came some Savages sailing close to our quarter. Presently there was an alarm given; upon that the Savages ran away, and we [were] not troubled any more by them that night. Not long after there came two Savages that seemed to be Commanders, bravely dressed, with Crowns of colored hair upon their heads, he came as Messengers from the Werowance of Paspihae, telling us that their Werowance was coming and would be merry with us with a fat Deer.

18. How do these encounters with the Paspihae differ from the earlier “entertainment” the Paspihae provided the settlers? (See paragraph 5.) What might account for the difference?
These encounters are much more adversarial. The Paspihae may have realized that the English intended to stay.

19. How do these encounters with the Paspihae differ from the settlers’ encounters with the Rapahanna? (See paragraph 6.) What might account for the difference?
These encounters with the Paspihae reflect the war-like defensive poster of the Paspihae. The encourter with the Rapahanna reflected more a diplomatic trade meeting.

20. Why might the English suspect villainy on the part of the Paspihae?
Since they had been attacked earlier they were suspicious. They feared that the Paspihae would remain in their fort overnight and attack them from within.

21. Why might the Paspihae werowance offer the English as much land as they wanted? Can we be sure that he actually made that offer?
He used the offer of land as a stall tactic. He probably did not make the offer in the sense that the English understood the offer.

22. Why would an Indian be interested in stealing a hatchet? What might the hatchet represent?
A hatchet represents a warrior. By stealing the hatchet the Indian would remind the English that the Paspihae were the superior warriors.

[10] The eighteenth day, the Werowance of Paspihae came himself to our quarter, with one hundred Savages armed, who guarded him in a very warlike manner with Bows and Arrows, thinking at that time to execute their villainy [make their deceitful attack]. Paspihae made great signs to us to lay our Arms away. But we would not trust him so far. He seeing he could not have convenient time to work his will, at length made signs that he would give us as much land as we would desire to take. As the Savages were in a throng in the Fort, one of them stole a Hatchet from one of our company, which spied [noticed] him doing the deed: whereupon he took it from him by force, and also struck him over the arm. Presently another Savage seeing that, came fiercely at our man with a wooden sword, thinking to beat out his brains. The Werowance of Paspiha saw us take to our Arms, went suddenly away with all his company in great anger.

[11] The twentieth day of Werowance of Paspiha sent forty of his men with a Deer, to our quarter: but they came more in villainy than any love they bare us. They faine would have lain in our Fort all night, but we would not suffer them for fear of their treachery.

23. How do you think the Indians might have interpreted the English cross planting ceremony?
They would have been suspicious or curious.

24. What implications does the ceremony hold for the Indians?
It represents the English’s attempt to Christianize them and change the Indian culture.

25. Why might it have mattered to the Indians that the captain went onshore alone?
It did not represent an attack — it was only one man — so it was probably more a diplomatic effort.

26. How valuable would the gift of the hatchet be to the chief? What might it suggest to him about the English and the potential of an alliance with them?
He received it “joyfully.” It was valuable for what it represented, a possible mutual military or trading alliance.

27. What reasons might local tribes in the Powhatan Confederation have had for befriending the English? Might they be seeking allies? Why would they need allies?
They would be seeking allies against rival tribes. Allies would be useful for military or trading purposes.

28. Why would local Indians be concerned that the English were planting?
It implies a permanence as well as exclusive use of the land. It would reduce the territory under the Paspihae’ direct control.

29. What does the werowance’s reply tell you about debates that were going on among the Indians who met the English?
Debates include what force the English may use, their military strength, and their purpose — why they are there.

30. How does the werowance’s characterization of the site of Jamestown as “waste ground” reflect upon the Paspihae’s offer to give them as much as they want?
As long as the English do not ask for anything valuable or pose a risk, the Paspihae can be accommodating.

[12] The four and twentieth day we set up a Cross at the head of this River, naming it Kings River, where we proclaimed James King of England to have the most right to it. When we had finished and set up our Cross, we shipped our men and made for James Fort. By the way, we came to Pohatan’s Towre [sic], where the Captain went on shore suffering none to go with him. He presented the Commander of this place, with a Hatchet which he took joyfully, and was well pleased.

[13] But yet the Savages murmured at our planting in the Country, whereupon this Werowance made answer again very wisely of a Savage, Why should you be offended with them as long as they hurt you not, nor take any thing away by force. They take but a little waste ground, which does you nor any of us any good.

Smith's map of Virginia, 1624

Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606 (detail)

31. Compare the Englishmen’s relationship with the Rappahanna to their relationship with the Pasphie.
Rappahanna focused upon establishing a friendship with the English. The relationship with the Paspihae was more complicated and involved military elements. Since the English settled in Paspihae territory their relationship was more direct.

June/July 1607
[14] The seven and twentieth of July, the King of Rappahanna demanded a Canoe, which was restored [given], lifted up his hand to the Sun (which they worship as their God), besides he laid his hand on his heart, that he would be our special friend. It is a general rule of these people, when they swear by their God which is the Sun, no Christian will keep their Oath better upon this promise.

32. Percy believed that the Indians spared Jamestown because God put a terror into their hearts. What other reasons might they have had?
The English settlement could represent a balance against other tribes. They could be a trading partner or a military buffer.

33. Would you have predicted in 1607 that Jamestown would be a success?
Answers will vary. Probably not, as the settlers were starving and knew little of the environment in which they found themselves. The Natives were a major determining factor in their survival.

34. At several points, the colony almost failed, whether because of starvation or sporadic war with the Indians. But ships with food and settlers arrived each time the colony was nearly empty, and over time diseases that were previously unknown in the Americas dramatically decreased the Indian population. Jamestown was eventually abandoned, but the colony of Virginia thrived with the adoption of tobacco agriculture and slavery. Why, on the whole, did Virginia survive?
The English settlers were able to manipulate the environment and adjust to it for their own benefit.

35. Would you call Jamestown a successful colony? Why or why not?
Answers will vary.

August/September 1607
[15] It pleased God, after a while, to send those people which were our mortal enemies to relieve us with victuals, as Bread, Corn, Fish, and Flesh [meat] in great plenty, which was the setting up of our feeble men, otherwise we had all perished. Also we were frequented by divers [visited by many] Kings in the Country, bringing us store of provision to our great comfort.

Follow-Up Assignment

“Early European colonies in the New World succeeded only if local Indians allowed them to and if they were lucky,” asserts Professor Duval in the understanding for this lesson. To examine her premise, read the personal accounts below relating the early months of the first three successful British colonies: Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay. Using the graphic organizer, cite evidence from the accounts that reveal how luck, and the Indians’ attitude toward the colonists, influenced the colonies’ survival.

JAMESTOWN, founded 1607
Text: George Percy, Observations Gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southern Colony in Virginia by the English, 1608 (excerpts).

PLYMOUTH, founded 1620
Text: William Bradfod, History of Plymouth Plantation, 1656 (excerpts).

Text: Memoir of Roger Clap, ca. 1680s (excerpts).

For more primary resources on early New World colonies, see the primary source collection American Beginnings: The European Presence in North America, 1492-1690, from the National Humanities Center.

Vocabulary Pop-Ups

  • timorous: fearful, shy
  • doleful: sad, mournful
  • vehement: intense, passionate
  • treachery: betrayal, disloyalty

Image: John Smith, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606, map, London, 1624 (detail). Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division, Call No. G3880 1624. S541 Vault. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.