A “Special Meeting Place” Focuses on Indigenous History

As amazing as it seems for an area that was once home to numerous Native tribes that were part of Tsenacomoco, the Powhatan paramount chiefdom that stretched from the James to the Potomac rivers and west to the fall line, a new Virginia state park in the region is the first to honor Indigenous history in the Commonwealth.

The 645-acre Machicomoco State Park runs along the York River in Gloucester County about ten miles downriver from Werowocomoco, the village that served as the headquarters of Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomco. Machicomoco means “a special meeting place” in the Algonquin language spoken by the tribes of Tsenacomoco. 

The origins of Tsenacomoco date to the Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650). By the time of English arrival in 1607, twenty-eight to thirty-two groups, each with its own chief, paid tribute to Powhatan. In 1614, the marriage of his daughter, Pocahontas, to John Rolfe, helped end, at least temporarily, years of war between the English settlers and the local tribes. 

The people of Tsenacomoco lived in towns situated along the region’s wide, tidal rivers, which made for good farming, good fishing, easy travel, and more efficient communication.

Tribes that lived in the area include the Cheroenhaka Nottoway, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Rappahannock, and Upper Mattaponi. Citizens of these tribes continue to live in the region, including on the Pamunkey Indian Tribe reservation on the northern bank of the Pamunkey River, and the Mattaponi Indian Tribe Reservation on the Mattaponi River, both in King William County. They are two of the oldest reservations in the country.

The park includes several interpretive sites that detail the Indigenous history of the region, a map of significant Native sites in the area, and a walking trail that features plants important to the local tribes to educate visitors about Native history and the importance of the land and waterways to the Virginia Indian tribes that still call the area home. 

Much like Encyclopedia Virginia worked with citizens of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia to tell their own story, and continues to work with other tribes in a community-driven process to do the same, state park officials worked with local tribes to develop the park and design the exhibits, which emphasize the continued presence of Indigenous peoples in the state. 

In the coming days, citizens of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes will present a deer each to the governor of Virginia as part of the annual Thanksgiving tribute ceremony, honoring the terms of the treaty that ended the Third Anglo-Powhatan War in 1646, a reminder of the deep roots of Native history in the Commonwealth.


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