Powhatan Flu: The James River as
John Smith Knew It

This portrait of Captain John Smith appeared on a 1616 map of New England. The image is colorized by Jamie May from an original engraving by Simon de Passe. Captain John Smith, Compliments of APVA Preservation Virginia Through decades of war and diplomacy, the ruler Wahunsonacawh-better known as Powhatan-united the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Virginia's coastal plain under his paramount chiefdom. Estimates of Virginia's Algonquian population range from 13,000 to 20,000. Local chiefs, called werowances or werowansquas, governed tribal districts that were sometimes at odds with one another. Often a leader took the name of his town or people group. These names were also applied to rivers, so the James River was known to John Smith at Powhatan Flu (from the Latin for river) and the York River as Pamunkey Flu. Powhatan's supremacy provided order and protection from the Monacans to the west in return for military support and tributes from the member groups. Most Algonquian settlements were located near rivers, where breadbasket marshes supplied edible rice and roots. Wooden palisade walls protected some villages. Beside the John Smith Map of Virginia John Smith Map of Virginia thatch-roofed homes grew fields of corn, squash and vegetables, staples that were supplemented with wild plants, fish and game. Using bows, Algonquian men were skilled hunters. They typically shaved half their heads and wore the remaining hair in a knot. Women wore deer-hide skirts and ornate tattoos. Men painted their bodies with elaborate designs on special occasions. The people bathed each morning and began the day with prayers. The English who settled Jamestown entered a world in political flux; they encountered a long-standing culture so unlike their own that they failed to appreciate its complexity (sometimes with disastrous results).

In 1606, King James granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London enabling the private investors to establish a colony in North America. That December, three vessels, the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, left England with more than 100 male colonists aboard. The settlers were a quarrelsome lot and ill prepared for the task at hand. The gentry among them were loath to perform the work of farmers and craftsmen, hoping instead to find gold or a passage to the Pacific. The son of a yeoman, Capt. John Smith often found himself at odds with his "betters." In fact, he was Powhatan Powhatan Indians imprisoned and nearly executed on the voyage to America. Smith found himself a prisoner again in winter 1607, this time a captive of Powhatan. The ruler spared Smith, hoping to place him under his dominion. Smith emerged with an understanding of Algonquian language and culture that enabled him to trade successfully-and sometimes shrewdly-with the Native population, effectively keeping his fellow colonists alive. Smith made two exploratory voyages of the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1608, shortly before becoming president of Jamestown. Along with the recollections of George Percy, Smith's writings are among the few first-hand accounts of the colony and its Algonquian neighbors.

The Trail

Upper Oxbow Loop

The rocky Fall Line marks the border of Virginia's Piedmont and Coastal Plain geographic regions. The Falls of the James stopped John Smith and Christopher Newport from traveling farther upriver, and eventually spawned Richmond itself. -- read more

Middle Cypress Loop

Bald eagles, herons, cormorants and a variety of songbirds nest along this stretch of the James River. Stands of cypress grow along the water's edge, and tributary creeks fan into wide marshes.   -- read more

Lower Oyster Loop

Oyster reefs no longer project above the waves, but echoes of the Chesapeake John Smith explored still await along the lower James. Never a true island, Jamestown Island remains hemmed in by forest and marsh, connected to the mainland by only a narrow spit of land. -- read more


Educator Resources

Help your students relive John Smith's adventures -- read more

Find information on other useful websites that contain additional educational resources related to John Smith's adventures -- view list


Order the Trail Maps

Capt. John Smith's Trail is a 40-site water trail and auto tour for modern explorers. Each set of three travel maps features historic descriptions and information for the modern traveler, including where to hike, camp and launch your boat. -- Order Now!