A Short History of Virginia Indians

This spring, the Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, in collaboration with Encyclopedia Virginia, launched the Virginia Indian Archive. (Funding was provided by the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation and Dominion.) What follows is a short history of Virginia Indians that draws on many of the archive’s wonderful images and links to the encyclopedia’s entries. If you don’t know this history, then as a Virginian you should! Either way, though, the pictures are gorgeous!

The story of Virginia Indians is sometimes tragic, sometimes triumphant. Stretching back tens of thousand of years, it includes breathtaking changes and remarkable continuities. Once nomadic, Indians settled in communities to farm and hunt. Once free of the English, they now play a unique role in today’s commonwealth. At the same time, and perhaps against the odds, Virginia’s Indians have managed to preserve many of their old ways while creating entirely new traditions. There has been violence, of course, including at least three extended wars, as well as occasions, even in the recent past, of maddening injustice. But the story of Virginia Indians has largely been one of adaptation: to the environment and to the people around them.

That is evident from the very beginning …

IMAGE: Susie P. Nelson by Frederick Johnson (1927)

Clovis Artifacts from the Lithic Casting Lab (Virginia Indian Archive)
Clovis Artifacts

Virginia Indians likely can trace their heritage back to a nomadic people living in Siberia about 13,500 years ago. Taking advantage of a warming glacier, they crossed over into what is now North America, spreading out across what is now North and South America and leaving behind what scientists now called Clovis-age culture. The name comes from stone and projectile points (like those pictured above) found near Clovis, New Mexico, in the mid-1930s.

These nomads may not have been the first Virginians, however. Recent evidence at sites such as Cactus Hill in Sussex County suggests that people were living here 18,000 to 20,000 years ago and creating a so-called pre-Clovis culture. Intriguingly, at least some of these people may have originated in France, skirting across Atlantic ice floes to their new hunting grounds. Scholars are still debating what this means for our understanding of the origins of Virginia Indians.

"The towne of Pomeiock" by John White, ca. 1585 (Virginia Indian Archive)
The towne of Pomeiock by John White (ca. 1585)

During the Paleoindian Period (16,000–8500 BC), Virginia Indians hunted and gathered in the large forests that dominated the landscape. Gradually, their lifestyles became more sedentary and they began to domesticate plants. By the Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650), scattered populations had consolidated into villages and towns, where they adopted a new kind of life around the farming of maize. Competition over the richest soil caused movement and conflict—hence the palisade around the town pictured above—and the creation of increasingly complex political systems and alliances.

And then the Europeans arrived …

"Americae pars, Nun Virginia dicta ..." by Theodor de Bry, 1590 (Virginia Indian Archive)
Americae pars, Nun Virginia dicta … by Theodor de Bry (1590)

The Spaniards were among the earliest to explore the coast of what is now Virginia. In 1561, a Virginia Indian named Paquiquineo boarded a Spanish caravel and did not see his home again for nine years. His hair-raising and, in the end violent, story is one of rebellion, conversion, and return.

Two decades later, the English arrived, planting two failed colonies to the south at Roanoke in what Sir Walter Raleigh dubbed Virginia and the Indians called Ossomocomuck (seen in the map above). The result, while a failure for the English, was no less heartbreaking for the Indians. When the chief Wingina battled the invaders, he was beheaded, and when the young man Manteo decided instead to join the foreigners—learning their language, wearing their clothes—he faced the sorts of terrible choices and consequences that would echo through the next three hundred years of Virginia Indian history.

"A chiefe Herowans wife of Pomeoc" by John White, ca. 1585 (Virginia Indian Archive)
A cheife Herowans wife of Pomeoc by John White (ca. 1585)

Accompanying the English colonists in 1585 were two men whose sole responsibility was to document the land and people they found. The more scientific of the two, Thomas Hariot surveyed the Outer Banks and inland areas for maps; he even learned a bit of the Algonquian language and took extensive notes on the native culture, which he published in 1588 as A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia.

John White was the artist. His watercolors attempted to capture Indian dress, diet and cooking techniques, gift exchanges, and religious ceremonies. Of course, his paintings were filtered through a sensibility that was completely foreign and not altogether sympathetic to Virginia Indian culture. They were the product—like the image above of the girl and her English doll—of two cultures colliding.

"Incolarum Virginiae piscandi ratio" by Theodor de Bry, ca. 1590 (Virginia Indian Archive)
Incolarum Virginiae piscandi ratio by Theodor de Bry (ca. 1590)

Many of White’s paintings were reproduced by the Dutch engraver Theodor de Bry, who added numerous details, some of which were suggested by the writings of Thomas Hariot. Above, de Bry attempts to show multiple methods of fishing—spears and traps and perhaps even fire—as well as the sorts of wildlife that might be found in that large area the English called Virginia. While not always perfectly accurate in their ethnography and biology, these images nevertheless reached a broad and curious audience in Europe, becoming, for better or for worse, archetypes for all the natives in America.

"The flyer" by John White, ca. 1585 (Virginia Indian Archive)
The flyer by John White (ca. 1585)

Much of what we know about Virginia Indian society dates to the writings of these first English colonists. Captain John Smith, for instance, wrote that all Indians, regardless of language or location, had “religion, Deare, and Bow and Arrowes.” But what was that religion? In highly dramatic fashion, Robert Beverley Jr. later described the huskanaw, a religious coming-of-age ceremony, while others transcribed various creation stories and the attributes of that fearsome god Okee. Most observers agreed that the most powerful figures in Virginia Indian society were priests, like the one shown above. They were more powerful, even, than Powhatan …

"Powhatan" by William Hole (Virginia Indian Archive)
Powhatan by William Hole

Powhatan was the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, a political alliance of twenty-eight to thirty-two Algonquian-speaking tribes that stretched from the south bank of the Powhatan (later James) River to the south bank of the Potomac River. When the English founded Jamestown in 1607, they did so on land ultimately controlled by Powhatan. The chief responded, sometimes simultaneously, with acts of hospitality and war. His was a diplomacy rooted in the understandings of his own ancient culture, understandings that would be sorely tested in the years to come. The English, meanwhile, arrived with the hope of treating the natives better than the Spanish had, only to wage near total war against them.

The engraving above, of Powhatan, was made by an artist who had never been to Virginia, borrowing (according to some scholars) from the shape and posture of an Indian idol drawn by de Bry, who also had never been to Virginia. De Bry’s idol, in turn, was plucked out of a John White painting. Sadly, this is as close as we can get today to an image of the great chief Powhatan.

Monacan Baskets by Bertie Branham (Virginia Indian Archive)
Monacan Baskets by Bertie Branham

Virginia Indians were more numerous and varied than all the attention paid to Powhatan and Tsenacomoco might lead you to expect. The Monacan Confederation, for instance, consisted of Siouan-speakers who lived beyond the fall line on the Piedmont and into the mountains. The Mannahoac, a related group of tribes, lived farther north, along the tributaries of the Rappahannock. The Nottoway and Meherrin Indians spoke Iroquoian languages and lived along the fall line of the rivers of those names.

Their cultures were distinct and no less well developed than their Algonquian neighbors, and many of their traditions—as demonstrated by the baskets shown above—have survived into the present day.

"Negotiating Peace with the Indians" by Theodor de Bry and Matthew Merian, 1634 (Virginia Indian Archive)
Negotiating Peace with the Indians by Theodor de Bry and Matthew Merian (1634)

English incursions onto Indian land, often accompanied by horrific violence, eventually led to the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614). Where once Powhatan had sought to feed the colonists, he now attempted to starve them out. It almost worked, but in the end the old leader’s daughter Pocahontas was captured and peace negotiated. The above engraving, which paints the Indians as devilish, suggests the peace was uneasy at best, and while Pocahontas went on to marry John Rolfe, some Indians have cited oral history to suggest that she was mistreated in captivity.

Pocahontas, after 1616 (Virginia Indian Archive)
Pocahontas (after 1616)

Pocahontas marks a pivotal moment in the history of Virginia Indians. She is seen by the English as the quintessential “good Indian”—she helped the struggling foreigners, converted to their religion, even married one of their men. In the portrait above, originally created on the occasion of her visit to London in 1616, she is shown in English dress and with English features. Like Manteo before her at Roanoke, she went “all in” with English culture—but her only reward was an early death.

Pocahontas has become an iconic and famously Disney-fied figure, one that has drawn attention to Virginia Indians while at the same time distorting their history and culture. She was not, technically, a princess, and she likely did not save the life of John Smith, let alone romance him. As in her portrait above, she suggests the many ways in which first English and then American culture has sought to erase Virginia Indian culture.

"Massacre Medallion" by Adalbert Johann Volck, ca. 1901 (Virginia Indian Archive)
Massacre Medallion by Adalbert Johann Volck (ca. 1901)

The height of Virginia Indian resistance to English rule came on March 22, 1622, when  the Pamunkey leader Opechancanough led a massive attack on the foreign settlements along the James River. Known by the Indians as the Great Attack and by the English as the Great Massacre, the assault (depicted above) killed as many as a quarter of the Virginia colony‘s inhabitants, and launched a ten-year war that ended in yet another uneasy peace.

Opechancanough attacked again in 1644, and after his capture and death in 1646, a more lasting, if not particularly generous, treaty was finally signed. Along with the Articles of Peace, drawn up and signed after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1677, the treaty placed the Virginia Indians entirely under the protection and control of the English colonial government.

Resistance was largely over. Assimilation had begun …

The Bradby Family by James Mooney, ca. 1900 (Virginia Indian Archive)
The Bradby Family by James Mooney (ca. 1900)

After two centuries of death and displacement, a number of Virginia Indian tribes remained on their land at the dawn of the twentieth century. The Chickahominy Indians, among them the Bradby family pictured above, lived in Charles City County, while the Eastern Chickahominy and Pamunkey Indians resided in New Kent County. The Mattaponi and Upper Mattaponi tribes could be found in King William County and the Monacans in the mountains of Amherst. The Rappahannock were in King and Queen County and the Nansemond down in Chesapeake and Suffolk.

Like the Bradbys, they had mostly assimilated: they wore non-Indian clothing and worked as farmers or laborers. The next twenty-five years, however, would see big changes, both good and bad …

Councilor James Johnson by Frank G. Speck, 1925 (Virginia Indian Archive)
Councilor James Johnson by Frank G. Speck (1925)

On the good side: a cultural renaissance began to bloom. Men like James Johnson, a Rappahannock tribal official who might once have worn a suit and tie now wore a headdress and buckskin. The change was noticed by—some have argued even precipitated by—the anthropologist Frank G. Speck, who in 1925 wrote, “In respect to their consciousness the Rappahannock may be said to possess the same tenacity of feeling and purpose as regards their tribal identity as the kindred Powhatan bands.”

Letter from Walter Plecker to Local Registrars, et al., January 1943 (Virginia Indian Archive)
Letter from Walter Plecker to Local Registrars, et al. (January 1943)

On the bad side: the General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which, along with subsequent legislation, banned interracial marriage in Virginia and asked for voluntary racial identifications on birth and marriage certificates. “White” was defined as having no trace of African ancestry, while all other people, including Virginia Indians, were defined as “colored.” Falsifying racial information on a government form—as the state registrar Walter Plecker accuses others of doing in the letter above—was a felony.

To accommodate elite Virginians who claimed Pocahontas and John Rolfe as ancestors, the law allowed for those who had “one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood [to] be deemed to be white persons.”

In other words, as far as Virginia was concerned, its Indians no longer existed.

Offering at the Capitol by Lui K. Wong, November 21, 1980 (Virginia Indian Archive)
Offering at the Capitol by Lui K. Wong (November 21, 1980)

Of course, that wasn’t true in reality. By mid-century Virginia Indian culture was in revival and by 1983, the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, and Rappahannock tribes all had been recognized by the state. In the years to come, another five followed suit: the Nansemond, Monacan, Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Nottoway, and Patawomeck tribes.

State recognition seeks to balance a tribe’s traditional sovereignty with its role in the life of the commonwealth. Something of that balance can be seen in the photograph above, which shows a Pamunkey chief making a traditional offering to the governor, honoring the terms of the treaty ending the Third Anglo-Powhatan War—signed way back in 1646.

Chief Sharon Bryant by Bill Johns, May 21, 2006 (Virginia Indian Archive)
Chief Sharon Bryant by Bill Johns (May 21, 2006)

From Pocahontas to Susie P. Nelson to Chief Sharon Bryant of the Monacan Indian Nation (pictured above), Virginia Indians have seen breathtaking changes, finding ways not just to survive but to thrive. The Virginia Indian Archive—published by the Virginia Indian Programs in collaboration with Encyclopedia Virginia at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities—is just one example of that. It is not a history but a repository of objects to be read, seen, and heard, to be understood not on a textbook’s terms but on your terms. Together these hundreds of objects tell the story of Virginia Indians.


8 thoughts

    1. My grandmother was Leda E. Freeman she was adopted,her mother was Minnie Bradley. They lived in Summit NY. I am trying to find my way home if anyone can help please email,
      My grandmother registere number was 94731 I think, thank you Tiffany Henness

    1. You and I share ancestry through the Bradby families. I have an ancestry chart if you are interested.
      My family group are those who moved to Canada about 1850. I would love to exhange information.
      – Cousin Katherine Wallace (John Bradby line)*

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