“Relation of Virginia” by Henry Spelman and Karen Ordahl Kupperman— Memoir of a Young Boy

Spelman, Henry and Karen Ordahl Kupperman.  “Relation of Virginia”, NYU Press, 2019.

Memoir of a Young Boy

Amos Lassen

“Relation of Virginia” is a memoir of one of America’s first adventurers, a young boy who acted as a link between the Jamestown colonists and the Patawomecks and Powhatans. Young Henry Spelman writes, “Being in displeasure of my friends, and desirous to see other countries, after three months sail we come with prosperous winds in sight of Virginia.” This is how Spelman’s story begins. When he was fourteen-years old, his mother sent him to Virginia in 1609. He was one of Jamestown’s early arrivals and he soon became an integral player in the power struggle between the Chesapeake Algonquians and the English settlers. Shortly after he arrived, he accompanied another English boy, Thomas Savage, to Powhatan’s capital and after a few months accompanied the Patawomeck chief, Iopassus; to the Potomac. Spelman learned Chesapeake Algonquian languages and customs, acted as an interpreter, and knew a host of colonial America’s most well-known figures, from Pocahontas to Powhatan to Captain John Smith. His manuscript tells Henry’s story in his own words, and it is the only description of Chesapeake Algonquian culture written with an insider’s knowledge. Spelman’s account is lively and violent and filled with anthropological and historical detail. It is a valuable and unique primary document and illuminates the beginnings of English America and tells us much about how the Chesapeake Algonquians saw English invaders. This is the first transcription from the original manuscript since 1872.

Spelman was a new arrival in England’s Jamestown colony who, at age fourteen, was sent to live with the Powhatans, Pocahontas’s people. Henry is unique among boys who lived with Native people because he wrote about his experiences, and his memoir is a major source on Chesapeake Algonquian life in the early days of English colonization. As he matured, he found himself caught between loyalties. Colonial authorities put him on trial for informing Opechancanough, the Powhatan chief, about changes in Jamestown, and he died at the age of twenty-eight in fighting between Natives and English.