In 1561, Spanish explorers abducted an Indian boy from his home in what is now coastal Virginia. They took Paquiquineo to Spain, where he met King Philip II, who was eager to learn about his empire in the New World. Paquiquineo convinced Philip of his princely origin and received the title Don Luis. After spending 10 years in Madrid, Mexico City, Florida and Cuba, Don Luis returned to the Chesapeake with a group of Jesuits, ostensibly to help them set up a mission school for the Indians. Soon after they arrived, however, Paquiquineo led a war party that murdered the priests.
When the Spanish authorities put a price on his head, Paquiquineo disappeared without a trace. Thirty years later, according to James Horn (president of Jamestown Rediscovery and author of several books about Jamestown and the "lost colony" of Roanoke), he reappeared as Opechancanough, a war chief of the Powhatans.
In "A Brave and Cunning Prince," Horn tells the story of the 17th-century Anglo-Indian wars from the perspective of a mostly forgotten leader, who, he claims, understood better than any of his contemporaries the dangers posed by the European invaders and their vulnerabilities, including their dependence on the Powhatans for food, and who "came closer than any other warrior of his time to drive them from American shores."
Informative and engaging, "A Brave and Cunning Prince" challenges conventional wisdom about Pocahontas, Captain John Smith and, most important, the early encounters between the Indians and the English. And Horn reminds us that the outcome of their protracted conflict was by no means certain.
Like all historians of colonial Virginia, Horn was forced to rely on often unreliable sources written by English settlers. For this reason, his account of Opechancanough's life is, to a significant extent, speculative. Horn's argument that Paquiquineo is Opechancanough is not conclusive. He does not substantiate his assertion that Opechancanough was the brother of Powhatan (named for his people), the paramount chief of Tsenacommacah ("densely populated land"), an area of about 10 thousand square miles.
Despite the absence of documentation of motives, Horn maintains, for example, that Opechancanough "must have wondered how the newcomers would feed themselves"; "may have informed Powhatan" about Spain's military strategy on the Florida coast; was "unlikely to have been prepared" for the English influx that followed the tobacco boom; "understood" that new settlers would spread highly contagious diseases; appeared to accept peace overtures "to lull settlers into a false sense of security"; did not believe "in a policy of containment, confining the English to Jamestown"; and "recognized that the Europeans' arrogance was their greatest weakness."
As Horn tells it, Opechancanough continued to fight the English until he died at just shy of 100 years old. If even a fraction of "A Brave and Cunning Prince" is true — and much more than that certainly is — he deserves the honor still bestowed on him by the Pamunkeys, who, Horn reveals, continue to live on the ancient tribal land he defended so tenaciously.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
A Brave and Cunning Prince: The Great Chief Opechancanough and the War for America
By: James Horn.
Publisher: Basic Books, 320 pages, $30.