Colonial Interpreters

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Colonial Interpreters


Karen Kupperman (professor of history at New York University) Randy Shifflett (history professor at Virginia Tech) and Jim Whittenburg (history professor at the College of William and Mary) discuss interpreters like Henry Spelman, an Englishman who, as a young boy, was sent to live with a Powhatan tribe to serve as a liaison between the two groups. This audio clip is an excerpt from an interview originally aired during week of September 30, 2006 on the radio program With Good Reason, hosted by Sarah McConnell and produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


VFH Radio, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


VFH Radio


September 30, 2006


Courtesy of VFH Radio





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Sarah McConell: So how customary in particular was Henry Spelman’s position? Here was a man who was planted by the first arriving colonists in an Indian village at the age of 13, were there others like him?

Karen Kupperman: It was very common and one of the things about it is that they never trusted these people. They relied on them utterly…

McConell: The English didn’t trust their moles?

Kupperman: That’s right, because they had some divided consciousness and Henry Spelman was actually tried and convicted of treason at the meeting of the first assembly in 1619 because they thought he was favoring the Indians’ point of view over the English. They convict him of treason but then they say, ‘Ok, your sentence is that you have to be our interpreter for the next seven years.’ So, you know they’re saying, ‘You’re going to control the relationship even though we think you’re a traitor.’

McConell: Why did the Indians accept these boys to live among them?

Randy Shifflett: Well there was a reciprocal exchange here, usually the Indians placed some-one of theirs in with the English...

Jim Whittenburg: This is how Pocahontas winds up in Jamestown. So, if you have your favorite daughter living among the English this might have some influence on, at least in the English mind this is the thinking, this’ll have some influence on your behavior toward the English.

Kupperman: But I think what it means is that there were real bonds of affection forged by these children on both sides and it’s clear that these Indian leaders who accepted English boys had real affection for those boys, thought of them as their sons.

Shifflett: Other reasons why the English would be very wary of moles as well, there were settlers who were abandoning Jamestown and James Fort especially in the early [years] and going to live with the Indians and not coming back. The English knew this and were concerned about it.

Whittenburg: Over the course of colonial history, there’s a significant number of English men and women and children, who having been captured by the Native Americans and taken into their communities, made part of that, even when they’re given the opportunity to return to white society, they decide not to do it. They find things that they like among the Native Americans.





VFH Radio, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Colonial Interpreters,” Virginia Indian Archive, accessed June 2, 2023,

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