A Brief History of Chanco on the James

Chanco on the James began as a summer camp in 1968 and has run continuously as a summer camp program since then. In the beginning, Chanco ran primarily as a summer camp program and the very rustic campsites were used for fall and spring Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia youth group retreats on occasion. In the late 1980′s the Chanco Board of Directors with the support of the Diocese of Southern Virginia began a capital campaign to purchase a larger property and to build improved cabins and bathhouses for the camp as well as facilities for a retreat center. The first summer at the new location (our current location) was 1989. The retreat center opened shortly thereafter. The summer camp programs are ACA (American Camping Association) accredited and have run continuously for over 40 years. The retreat center is home for many diocesan programs such as Fresh Start, Clergy Conference, EYC (Episcopal Youth Community) retreats and Cursillo retreats as well as parish vestry and family retreats. The retreat center also serves Christian organizations outside of the Episcopal Church, businesses, schools, family reunions and weddings to name a few.

Who was Chanco?
Chanco on the James has an interesting history and while the camp and retreat center have only been in Surry County for a short period of time (well, relatively short – over 40 years!), the story of Chanco goes back to the very beginning, during the colonization of America, almost 400 years ago. Are you interested in the story of Chanco himself?

Chanco-LilGirl-225Even though Chanco, the Native American boy who converted to Christianity and whose timely warning saved the Virginia Colony from almost certain destruction in the Indian massacre of 1622, is now almost forgotten, he deserves better treatment than he has formerly received to date from the chroniclers of the Old Dominion. To background the events leading up to the 1622 massacre, an uneasy truce had existed between the Indians and the English settlers from the time of the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in 1614. This continued until Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father and the chief ruler of the Powhatan Confederacy, died in 1618. Meanwhile, from 1607 on, those colonists who had survived the “seasoning period” and the terrible “Starving Time” of 1609-10 had made it evident that they intended to remain in Virginia to serve as a nucleus for England’s first permanent overseas expansion.

For Powhatan’s subjects, that meant a rapid loss of their traditional territories as well as the eventual obliteration of their age-old way of life. Cowed by the usurpers’ more sophisticated weapons and technology, however, the Indians could only feign a friendliness for then overbearing English and hope for a leader from their own ranks who would turn their complaints into action. This desire was not long unfulfilled.

Opechancanough, Powhatan’s younger brother and successor, was well aware of the desperate plight of his people, but was prevented from acting as long as the Peace of Pocahontas, instituted by her father after her marriage to an Englishman, lasted. When Opechancanough learned belatedly that his niece, then Mrs. John Rolfe, had died in England in March 1617, he decided the time had come. By 1622, the year Opechancanough and his braves finally acted, the English had established themselves on small plantations and palisade settlements from the tip of the lower Virginia Peninsula to the falls of the James River and the colonists continued their daily dealings with the Indians, little dreaming that a plot was being hatched that, if successful, would wipe out the colony.

OldChancoIn the meantime, Opechancanough’s warriors visited the far-flung settlements regularly on a friendly basis, borrowed the colonists’ boats to ferry their forces to strategic points from which the massacre could be more easily managed, and even slept in the houses of some unsuspecting settlers the night before the butchery. Then, quite suddenly, at eight in the morning on Good Friday, March 22, 1622, the Indians fell upon their victims. By nightfall, 347 white men, women and children had been murdered, while their houses and tobacco barns had been torched by the rampaging natives. All of which brings us to the story of how Chanco, the Christian Indian boy, risked the displeasure of his people to help his English benefactors.

Chanco, who lived with Capt. William Perry, had been well treated by his employer, who had imparted the teachings of Christianity to his Indian servant. On the night before the massacre, Chanco was staying with Richard Pace at his plantation, “Pace’s Paines,” on the south side of the James River opposite Jamestown. Toward nightfall, one of Chanco’s brothers visited him and informed Chanco of the plot, instructing him to murder Pace the next morning when the signal for the massacre was given.

Instead of following his brother’s instructions, however, Chanco went to Pace and revealed the plot. Heeding Chanco’s warning, Pace dressed quickly, secured his house, and rowed across the river to Jamestown “before day” to spread the alarm. Stunned by Pace’s communication, the governor sent out warnings to settlements within reach. As a result, according to an account of the massacre written later by Capt. John Smith, thousands were saved “by this one converted Infidel.” Unfortunately, word of the impending danger could not be gotten to the outlying settlements in time, and the resulting carnage and property damage that took place the next morning came near bringing the Virginia experiment to ruin. Many credit the Christian Indian boy, Chanco, with saving the settlement from complete destruction that March 22, 1622.

Chanco, who undoubtedly was regarded as a traitor by his own people, made one more

appearance in recorded history. According to the minutes of the London Company, in April 1624, when Capt. William Perry was one of the petitioners sent from Virginia to England to seek relief for the colony after the massacre, he took Chanco along. On April 26, 1624, Perry brought Chanco to the attention of the directors of the company, at which time a motion was made to provide for his future maintenance “whereby to bring him up in the Christianitie and some good course to live by.” What happened to Chanco after that is unknown.

Today, in historic Jamestown, there hangs a plaque commemorating Chanco in the Jamestown Church. Of the original church, the sole 17th century structure that still stands is the tower of the 1639-44 church. Today, the church’s walls (rebuilt in 1907) hang with commemorative plaques of various 17th century figures including Capt. John Smith, Princess Pocahontas, John Rolfe, and Chanco, among others.

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