Opechancanough or Opchanacanough (1543?-1644) was a tribal chief of the Powhatan Confederacy of what is now Virginia in the United States, and its leader from 1618 until his death in 1644. His name meant “He whose Soul is White” in the Algonquin language.
During a Spanish exploration trip in 1560, the 17-year old son of an Algonquian chief of the Native Americans in the village of Chiskiack on the Virginia Peninsula (in an area now part of the lands of the U.S. Naval Weapons Station Yorktown) agreed to go with the Spanish to learn their culture.
The Spanish called him Paquiquino (little Francis) at first. He was brought to Mexico and was instructed in the Catholic religion and later baptized “Don Luis”, in honor of Luis de Velasco, his sponsor, who was the Viceroy of New Spain.
The youth was then transported to Madrid, Spain, and had an audience with the Emperor. He received a thorough Jesuit education. Don Luis later returned to the New World.
In 1570, Father Juan Bautista de Segura, Jesuit vice provincial of Havana, wanted to establish a mission in Ajacan (the land we now call Virginia) without a military garrison, which was unusual.
One of the chief stumbling blocks to converting the Natives to Christianity at other locations had been the often deplorable conduct of the colonial soldiers.
On garrison duty, not challenged by the prospect of fighting, they were apt to seek an outlet for their boredom in drunkenness, thievery, bullying and sexual license.
Despite concerns about the plan’s feasibility, Father Segura eventually obtained permission from his superiors for the founding of the new Ajacan Mission, which was to be called “St. Mary’s Mission.”
In August 1570, Father Segura, Father Luis de Quiros, former head of the Jesuit college among the Moors in Spain, and six Jesuit brothers set forth from their base in Havana to establish their new mission in Ajacan.
A young Spanish boy, Alonso Olmos, called Aloncito, also accompanied the priests to serve Mass. They were also accompanied by Don Luis as their guide and translator. On September 10, the party of 10 landed in the region now known as the Virginia Peninsula.
Don Luis soon set about attempting to locate his native village of Kiskiack which he had not seen in ten years. There, a small wooden hut was constructed with an adjoining room where Mass could be celebrated.
Soon after the ship bringing them had departed, Don Luis left the Jesuits, supposedly to seek his uncle and supplies.
The small band of Jesuits realized that they had been abandoned. To their added misfortune, it was a time when the mid-Atlantic region was enduring a long period of famine. The food they brought with them was in short supply. Immediately there was a dependence on the Indians for food.
They successfully traded with some natives for food, but it was increasingly in short supply as the winter months set in. Around February of 1571, Don Luis returned with other natives and stole all their clothing and supplies.
The natives killed both of the priests and all six brothers. Only the young servant boy was spared, perhaps because he was not a Jesuit.
It is speculated by some historians, but not known with certainty, that the same Native American youth who had been known as “Don Luis” was Opechancanough.
At the time of the English settlement at Jamestown, which was established in May of 1607, Opechancanough was a much-feared warrior and a charismatic leader of the Powhatans.
As Chief Powhatan’s younger brother (or possibly half-brother), he headed a tribe situated along the Pamunkey River near the present-day Town of West Point.
Known to be strongly opposed to the European settlers, he captured John Smith of Jamestown along the Chickahominy River and brought him before Chief Powhatan at Werowocomoco, one of the two capital villages of the Powhatans.
Located along the northern shore of the present-day York River, Werowocomoco is the site where the famous incident with Powhatan’s young daughter Pocahontas intervening on Smith’s behalf during a ceremony is thought to have occurred, based upon Smith’s account.
Beginning with the Indian massacre of 1622, Chief Opechancanough gave up on diplomacy with the English settlers of the Virginia Colony and tried to force them to abandon the region.
On the morning of Good Friday, March 22, 1622, approximately a third of the settlers were killed during a series of coordinated attacks along both shores of the James River, extending from Newport News Point near the mouth all the way west to Falling Creek.
However, the colony rebounded, and hundreds of natives were killed in retaliation, many poisoned by Dr. John Potts at Jamestown.
Chief Opechancanough launched one more major effort to get rid of the colonists in April 18, 1644. However, forces under Royal Governor William Berkeley captured Opechancanough, thought to then have been between 90 and 100 years old.
While a prisoner, Opechancanough was killed by a soldier (shot in the back) assigned to guard him.
In 2005, Wes Studi portrayed a character inspired by the Powhatan warrior Opechancanough in The New World, a 2005 Academy Award-nominated film directed by Terrence Malick, and starring Colin Farrell.
The historical adventure is set during the founding of the Jamestown, Virginia settlement and includes other characters inspired by historical figures, notably Captain John Smith (Farrell) and Pocahontas.
Much of the film was shot at locations in James City County and Charles City County, not far from where the first permanent English colony in the New World was established at Jamestown on May 14, 1607.