RALEIGH — Sarah Woodson watched the arrow as it plunged into her husband’s chest. She watched as John Woodson fell from his horse, surrounded by Indians with tomahawks raised high.
She watched her husband die.
The date was April 18, 1644. Dr. John Woodson, an Oxford-trained physician, lived with his wife Sarah Winston Woodson and two sons in a home near modern-day Richmond, Virginia. Dr. Woodson had been out doing his medical rounds when the Indians attacked. Galloping home to protect his family, Woodson had his gun loaded and ready. He never got to fire it.
The Woodsons had first arrived at Jamestown in 1619, and survived the 1622 Indian attack that had taken the lives of a third of the English settlers. The resulting war – the second between the Virginia colonists and the Powhatan Confederacy – lasted for 10 years and proved devastating for the Indians. With the coming of peace in 1632, the Woodsons joined many other settlers in moving further inland to develop farms along the fertile banks of the James River.
But tensions with the native communities were far from over. The main Indian leader in Virginia, Opechancanough, had launched the ruinous 1622-32 war, and later signed a treaty giving land rights in exchange for a share of the annual harvest. He wasn’t keen on more fighting. However, he also feared that the continuous flood of settlers would eventually overwhelm his people.
So in April 1644, the Indians attacked across the Virginia frontier. At the Woodson place, Sarah and her two sons John and Robert were entertaining a shoemaker named Ligon when they heard war cries outside. According to family lore, Sarah immediately barred the door and handed Ligon the old hunting rifle that hung over it. He went up into the sleeping loft while she searched furiously for somewhere to hide her children.
First her eyes alighted on a hole in the floor where the family stored potatoes. In went Robert. Then she picked up a large washtub, had John to crouch down, and covered him with it. In the meantime, Ligon began firing into the band of Indians surrounding the house. He was able to kill three of them before Dr. Woodson rode up. Sarah watched in horror through a small crack in the window shutter as John met his fate.
The remaining Indians turned their attention back to the house, which Ligon was still defending with the Woodson rifle. Two more attackers met their Maker. Then Sarah heard a noise on the roof. Two Indians were about to come down the chimney. Thinking quickly, she tipped the stewpot onto one of the attackers, scalding him, and then swung her heavy iron roasting spit at the other Indian’s head, killing him instantly.
By this time, nine of the attackers had died at her hands or Ligon’s. The remaining Indians ran off into the woods. Ligon came down from the loft and the two Woodson boys emerged from their hiding places, unscathed.
The Third Anglo-Powhatan War didn’t go any better for the Indians than the second one did. Opechancanough was captured and executed. The Powhatan Confederacy broke up into its constituent tribes, its military power at an end. Future Indian leaders sold additional land to white settlers and moved west or kept to the Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservations, which still exist in Virginia.
As for the Woodsons, both John and Robert went on to have large families. Future generations in Virginia and beyond would identify themselves as “washtub” or “potato-hole” Woodsons, in remembrance of the 1644 Indian attack. And if you ever visit the museum of the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, you can see the “Woodson Rifle” on display in its permanent collection.
You’ve heard of at least four “potato-hole Woodsons.” One was Dolly Payne, born in 1768 in Guilford County, North Carolina. She would become Dolly Madison, First Lady of the United States. Two other potato-hole descendants, Jesse Woodson James and his brother Frank, had some trouble with the law, as you may remember.
And, yes, I am also a potato-hole Woodson. I have no plans to rob any banks, but I suppose it is possible that I am about to marry a future U.S. president.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.