Power  /  Explainer

Was the 1623 Poisoning of 200 Native Americans One of the Continent's First War Crimes?

English colonists claimed they wanted to make peace with the Powhatans, then offered them tainted wine.

In 2008, officials erected a historical marker in West Point, a small hamlet in Virginia’s King William County. Set at an intersection about 20 miles north of Williamsburg, the plaque is titled “Indians Poisoned at Peace Meeting.” It commemorates a little-known act of colonial duplicity: a mass poisoning carried out by the English in 1623 as part of an attempted assassination of the Pamunkey leader Opechancanough.

“Why place a marker of tragedy?” asked Pamunkey Chief William P. Miles at the unveiling ceremony. “By telling the past,” he added, “it leads to our future. … Not many knew of this poisoning. This will help tell the story of the good and bad neighbors.”

May 22 marks the 400th anniversary of that unprecedented moment, when English soldiers gave poisoned wine to 200 Powhatans, members of a confederacy of about 30 Native groups. The historical record is unclear on how many of those who were poisoned died. But even during a war that ravaged Indigenous and colonial communities, the incident stood out because Europeans at the time believed no civilized nation should employ poison in war—an idea later embodied in the 20th-century Geneva Conventions.

Does the 1623 poisoning constitute a war crime? The answer to this question depends on one’s understanding of the term. Modern discussions of war crimes began after the horrors of World War I, which contributed to the formation of the League of Nations and later the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions. But efforts to define legitimate rules for war and peace stretch back centuries. In 1625, for instance, the influential Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius published a three-volume meditation on warfare that asked “what is permissible in war” and “to what extent.”

Today, war crimes are generally defined as violations of codified rules of warfare. Examples range from torture to taking hostages to killing combatants who have surrendered. Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court explicitly categorizes “employing poison or poisoned weapons” as a war crime; this stipulation echoes Grotius, who codified European legal ideas dating back to antiquity that defined the use of poison in war as a crime. Still, the question remains: Would the 17th-century Europeans who poisoned the Powhatans have viewed their own actions as a war crime?

“Judgments about historical events prior to the 20th century are necessarily situational,” says Douglas Greenberg, former director of the USC Shoah Foundation, the renowned center for genocide studies launched by filmmaker Steven Spielberg. “Did the specific acts violate the standards of the time? Understanding what those standards were is the hard part, of course, but the poisoning of the Powhatans appears to qualify on those grounds.”