Virginia Indians


Indigenous people have lived in the area now known as Virginia for thousands of years. Their histories, ancestral connections, and traditions are intertwined with the 6,000 square miles of Tidewater land the Algonquian-speaking Natives called Tsenacomoco. The early inhabitants of present-day Virginia were hunter-gatherers who followed the migratory patterns of animals. Over time, and as the region warmed, they settled into towns along riverbanks and outlined their homelands, developing intimate, balanced relationships with the animals, plants, and geographic formations. They hunted, fished, and farmed, and developed complex social and religious systems and vast trade networks. By the early 1600s, people indigenous to Virginia lived in three broad cultural groups based on the language families found in the area: Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan. Scholars know most about the Algonquian-speaking Natives of Tsenacomoco, who eventually grouped into a paramount chiefdom. Led by Powhatan, the polity ultimately included twenty-eight to thirty-two small chiefdoms and tribes, stretching from the James to the Potomac rivers and encompassing much of Virginia’s coastal plain. In 1607, Englishmen arrived and affected Native life forever. In the midst of a severe drought, the colonists’ demands for food and their inability to fully understand Indigenous cultural practices led in part to three protracted and violent conflicts over four decades, ending in 1646 with the Algonquian-speaking Natives largely subject to English rule. The General Assembly set aside land for the tribes of Tsenacomoco, although in subsequent years some Indigenous people were forced to move and some tribes became dispersed. In the years that followed, they contributed to the developing American culture while working to maintain their own traditions during difficult periods of disease, hunger, forced relocations, and restrictive colonial and later statewide policies that curtailed their rights to travel through lands now occupied by white settlers, to visit their traditional hunting and fishing grounds, and to testify in court on their own behalf. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a cultural renaissance bloomed and some scholars began to study Native history more closely. At the same time, the General Assembly did much to deny Indigenous identity, including passing in 1924 the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, which criminalized interracial marriage and separated Virginians into two simplified racial categories: white and colored. These wrongs were addressed in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia (1967) and by state legislation in the late 1980s that allowed Virginia Indians to change the racial designation on their birth certificates without cost. Indigenous Virginians in the twenty-first century actively cultivate their own culture while educating others about their history.


Title Page of A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia
Title Page of A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia
Victims of the 1622 Indian Attacks
Victims of the 1622 Indian Attacks

Scholars understand Indigenous communities of Virginia’s colonial and precolonial era with the help of three types of sources: historical, archaeological, and oral. Historical, or written, sources are the most commonly available. They include laws, official documents, narratives, and letters, as well as paintings and engravings created by Europeans who interacted with Natives (who did not have a system of writing). Although these primary sources often provide immediate, eyewitness accounts of events, they are also marked by the biases of Europeans who often failed to fully understand the Native people on their own terms. A Declaration of the state of the Colonie and Affaires in Virginia, for example, was written in 1622 and provides ample detail about a Powhatan attack of that year. But it also characterizes the Indigenous people as “beasts,” “without remorse or pitty,” a “Viperous brood” of “hell-hounds” and “wicked Infidels” who “despised Gods great mercies.” Such a source is not helpful for understanding the motives behind the attack or the cultural norms that guided Natives’ behavior.

Scholars also rely on archaeology and oral history. Archaeologists uncover and study what remains from previous human settlements. For instance, at Paint Lick Mountain in Tazewell County, archaeologists discovered twenty pictographs on a rock cliff that are symbolic representations related to the way Native peoples in this area perceived the world around them. Recovered ceramics, meanwhile, demonstrate daily life through objects and help archaeologists draw distinctions between tribes based on the patterns imprinted into them. At the Jefferson’s Mound Archaeological Site in Albemarle County, Thomas Jefferson excavated what is likely a Monacan burial site, helping to inform scholars on religious practices of the Monacans and those who preceded them.

Monacan Baskets

Oral history includes the stories, rituals, and basic understandings that are passed down from generation to generation and offers the community’s point of view. Scholars disagree over whether the oral history of Native tribes has survived intact from the early seventeenth century. These oral histories often diverge significantly from the written, English historical record. In addition to stories, crafts, such as Pamunkey and Mattaponi pottery and Monacan basketmaking, have survived and provide invaluable insight into Indigenous culture.

Early History

For decades, scholars asserted that tribes in present-day Virginia likely can trace their heritage back to a nomadic people living in Siberia more than 13,000 years ago. Taking advantage of a warming glacier, they crossed over into what is now North America, either by foot or in boats, and spread out across the continent. They left behind what scientists refer to as Clovis-age artifacts, so named for the stone tools and projectile points found near Clovis, New Mexico, in the mid-1930s.

Pre-Clovis Cores and Blade Flakes

These nomads may not have been the first inhabitants of present-day Virginia, however. Evidence at archaeological sites such as Cactus Hill in Sussex County suggests that a pre-Clovis culture existed there 18,000 to 20,000 years ago. Other sites with significant evidence of a pre-Clovis culture exist in locations as diverse as Pennsylvania and Chile. Proposed explanations of human settlement in America include arrival by way of a so-called kelp highway from Japan to the western coasts of North and South America via a corridor between Antarctica to Chile and even from Western Europe. Scholars continue to debate what relationship these early inhabitants had to today’s Virginia tribes, who believe them to be their ancestors.

During the Paleoindian Period (16,000–8000 BC), inhabitants of present-day Virginia hunted and gathered in the vast forests that dominated the landscape. They moved from place to place, probably on a seasonal basis, and had no domesticated animals except for dogs. Beginning in the Early Archaic Period (8000–6500 BC) and continuing into later periods, gradual climatic changes occurred, resulting in the modern environment. By the Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650) scattered Indigenous populations had consolidated into towns, where they adopted a new kind of life around seasonal hunting and gathering and, more importantly, farming.


Native communities in Virginia spoke dialects of Algic, Iroquoian, or Siouan, three large language families that include many of the more than 800 Indigenous languages that once existed in North America. It is unknown when speakers of Algonquian, a form of Algic, moved into the Tidewater region of Virginia, but by AD 1607 there existed a complex paramount chiefdom in the region called Tsenacomoco. It consisted of twenty-eight to thirty-two small chiefdoms and tribes. Several groups whose relationship to Tsenacomoco was less clear, such as the Chickahominy, Accomac, and Patawomeck, also spoke Algonquian dialects.

Negotiating Peace with the Indians

Little is known of the Algonquian dialect spoken by Native communities in Virginia and North Carolina. Thomas Hariot, who visited Roanoke in 1585, created a word list that was later lost. In 1612 John Smith also created a list that included now-familiar words such as mockasin and tomahack. That same year, William Strachey compiled an even more detailed “A Dictionarie of the Indian Language.” Scholars suggest that Smith may have been recording a greatly simplified form of the language; much of Strachey’s list, meanwhile, was gibberish. In 2005, the linguist Blair A. Rudes reconstructed a close approximation of the Virginia Algonquian dialect for the film The New World.

The Nottoway and Meherrin lived along the fall line of the rivers of those names in the southwestern Tidewater and far southeastern Piedmont. Both groups spoke a form of Iroquoian. While the Meherrin language was never recorded, in 1820 a professor at the College of William and Mary named John Wood visited the Nottoway community in Southampton County and compiled a word list that, through correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and a French linguist, was identified as Iroquoian. Virginia’s Siouan-speakers lived west of the fall line and spoke dialects of the Tutelo language. The anthropologist Horatio Hale documented the Tutelo language in the 1880s by working with Tutelo people who had left Virginia to join the Iroquois and eventually settled in Brantford, Ontario. Indigenous peoples living in Virginia in the twenty-first century primarily speak English.


Regulorum aut Principum in Virginia typus (An example of the Rulers or Chiefs in Virginia)

By the early 1600s, Indigenous people in Virginia consisted of three broad cultural groups based on the languages they spoke. The Iroquoians lived along the fall line south of present-day Richmond and in far southeastern and southwestern Virginia; the Siouans lived west of the fall line in the Piedmont, loosely organized into the Monacan confederation; and the Algonquians lived in the Tidewater. The tribes’ cultural practices were similar to those of other eastern Woodlands cultures in many ways: homes were constructed similarly and agricultural practices, warfare, and celebrations were similar, while arts and religious observances varied. Scholars know the most by far about the Algonquians—their political systems, their religion and worldview, their individual leaders, and their cultural traditions—because these people interacted with the English at Jamestown. Much of what is known about the Siouans and Iroquoians of this period comes from the writings of these Englishmen, who often obtained their information from the Algonquians. The English largely learned about the Monacan, for instance, from tales told by the Monacans’ traditional enemies.

Oppidum Secota (The Town of Secota)

The development of centralized governance through chiefdoms, such as the Algonquian paramount chiefdom of Tsenacomoco, dates to the advent of farming. Farming allowed Indigenous people to provide food for themselves more easily. As their populations increased, so did their need for good farmland. In this regard, the weather created a problem. The Little Ice Age, which lasted from about 1300 to 1750, slightly cooled temperatures and shortened growing seasons, especially in areas to the north of Virginia. Tribes in present-day New York and Pennsylvania pushed south, looking for better land and fighting to claim it. In part to defend themselves against intruders, the Native inhabitants of Tidewater Virginia grouped into chiefdoms. Among the Algonquians, these usually consisted of one or more towns and were ruled by a weroance or weroansqua (chief), his or her council, and a group of religious advisors, or priests. Of equal if not greater importance were increasing hostilities and competition near coastal Virginia as the population there grew. Regardless of the source of such threats, small chiefdoms with centralized and inherited positions of leadership were at an advantage over more decentralized tribes.

Map of Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom

Six small chiefdoms and tribes (one account suggests there were nine) eventually formed what scholars call a paramount chiefdom. In the mid-to-late 1500s, Powhatan inherited Tsenacomoco and became paramount chief. Over the next few decades, through a combination of diplomacy and violence, he expanded Tsenacomoco to include twenty-eight to thirty-two districts.

The original six chiefdoms and tribes included the following:

Additional chiefdoms and tribes included the following:

  • Chesapeake
  • Nansemond
  • Kecoughtan
  • Warraskoyack
  • Quiyoughcohannock
  • Paspahegh
  • Weyanock
  • Chiskiack
  • Werowocomoco
  • Piankatank
  • Opiscopank
  • Lower Cuttatawomen
  • Moraughtacund
  • Rappahannock
  • Pissaseck
  • Nandtaughtacund
  • Upper Cuttatawomen
  • Wiccocomico
  • Sekakawon
  • Onawmanient
  • Patawomeck
  • Accomac
  • Occohannock
The Chickahominy Become "New Englishmen"

The Chickahominy, who lived in the heart of Tsenacomoco on the Chickahominy River were independent of Powhatan’s rule. Others, such as the Patawomeck and Accomac, lived on the chiefdom’s outskirts, sometimes paying Powhatan tribute and at other times defying his authority.

Powhatan’s control stretched from the south bank of the Powhatan River (today’s James River) north to the south bank of the Potomac River. Tsenacomoco was bounded on the west by the fall line and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean. These geographical boundaries were co-opted by the English and became the unofficial borders of the Virginia colony. By the early 1600s, before the first Englishmen arrived, Tsenacomoco’s population ranged from 13,000 to 22,000, and some scholars argue that the name means “densely inhabited place.”

Incolarum Virginiae piscandi ratio (The Method of Fishing of the Inhabitants of Virginia)

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. Their yi-hakan, or houses, were constructed of slender wooden poles and woven mats. These dwellings generally had circular or oval floor plans, and a fire burned in the middle of the room. (More important buildings, such as temples and structures associated with chiefs, were larger, especially in length.) Women nurtured wild plants and gathered firewood in the forests, tended fields of corn, squash, and beans, and cooked. Men hunted and fished. They also went to war, which was frequent but usually small-scale.

These towns were semi-permanent. During the summer, inhabitants lived in several places at once. They stayed briefly in their towns to weed their crops before traveling to various camps to fish, hunt, and gather plants, nuts, and seeds. And when the soil became worn out by decades of farming, the town’s residents gathered their belongings and moved to more fertile land.


An Ossuary Temple

Religion affected all aspects of society for Indigenous people inside and outside of Tsenacomoco. It conferred authority on leaders, explained past occurrences, and pointed to future actions. It not only described the world’s origins but also established a comprehensive set of rules governing how people behaved. And it was driven by the need to pay proper respect to spirits who occupied the world alongside human beings. These spirits, according to the historian Bernard Bailyn, were “active, sentient, and sensitive.” Although they could not be seen, they were like humans in many other ways. They had consciences and memories. They had purposes. They could be made happy or angry. They were everywhere, and they expected reciprocity.

Good weather, good harvests, good health, successful hunts, successful trade, fertility, and peace all could be attributed to correct behavior and happy spirits. If the spirits were not properly respected, the result might be drought, illness, hunger, or war. The rituals of daily life were all important. The people honored spirits as well as plants and animals, which were believed to be no less sentient than humans. In addition, menstruating women, prisoners of war, and the dead were all carefully regulated.

Respect given equaled respect received and maintaining this balance was a critical function of life for the people indigenous to Virginia. When misfortune arrived they consulted religious advisors, examined their own dreams, and performed special rituals to help them understand how the imbalance had occurred and how to right it.


Kwiocosuk (religious advisors) mostly lived apart from the community in temples and occupied the highest level of tribal society. Their main responsibility was to divine the will of spirits, and chiefs—even Powhatan, who was considered both a political and spiritual leader—required their approval when making important decisions. Chiefs based their decisions on an understanding of what the spirits required, and they relied on the kwiocosuk to make this clear. The religious leaders also acted as doctors.

Interpreting Cultural Norms

English Interacting with Powhatan

In Tsenacomoco, the Englishmen at Jamestown observed a society radically different from theirs and struggled to understand it. Familiar with the monotheism of Christianity, they associated the numerous spirits of Indigenous religion with devil worship, even though Native communities knew nothing of the Christian devil before European contact. They failed to grasp the importance of balance and respect in gift-giving practices and trade and the significance of name-changing practices. Unlike Europeans, the Powhatan peoples’ personal names could change depending on circumstances. Wahunsonacock became Powhatan upon assuming the position of paramount chief; his successor Opitchapam became Otiotan. Names changed because of deeds accomplished or about to be accomplished. Just before Otiotan and Opechancanough attacked the English in 1622, they changed their names to Sasawpen and Mangopeesomon, respectively. Had the English better understood this cultural norm, they might have seen the name-changing ceremony as a precursor to war.

The Native people of Virginia practiced better hygiene than did the English, bathing daily in all seasons and all weather. In formal interactions, they appeared to be stoic and imperturbable. A speaker was never interrupted and refrained from speaking until the appropriate moment. In instances of minor personal conflict, they chose either to withdraw from the situation or to bear any imposition without complaint. Aggression was saved for game-playing and warfare.

Huskanaw Cage

The community taught boys how to hunt and wage war and girls how to collect plants, build houses and furnishings, and farm. The huskanaw , a coming-of-age ceremony for boys, involved what the English interpreted as a ritual killing but which represented a transition in which the boy symbolically died to become a man. Young men were not purposefully killed during the ritual, but they were given a drug that may have made them briefly violent. Men could take as many wives as they could provide for; Powhatan may have had as many as 100 during his lifetime. While the first marriage was expected to last for life, the others were generally shorter. Divorce was permitted, though uncommon, and wives could, with their husbands’ agreement, conduct extramarital affairs.

Indigenous Virginia peoples’ social systems were governed by laws that were orally codified through sacred stories, songs, and poems. They often were very sensitive to breaches of conduct and exacted revenge against either an individual or group to restore balanced relations. In such cases, chiefs were not inclined to intervene. These societies perceived imbalance and angry spirits; individual responsibility was less important than the imperative of righting that imbalance and placating the spirits. As a result, some Englishmen viewed Natives as irrational and lawless. In contrast, the Indians saw the English as uncivilized.

European Arrival

Indigenous inhabitants were familiar with Europeans well before the first Englishmen landed at Jamestown in 1607. The Spanish may have set foot in the area by the 1530s and regularly explored the coastline. In 1561, they picked up a Native named Paquiquineo, and nine years later he returned to the Chesapeake area with a group of Jesuits, only to kill the missionaries a few months later. In 1584, Englishmen financed by Sir Walter Raleigh picked up two Algonquian-speaking Natives, Manteo and Wanchese, from the coast of present-day North Carolina and took them to England. They played crucial roles in the various tragedies that marked the two subsequent attempts at establishing a colony at Roanoke.

When the English built a fort at Jamestown, Powhatan knew to be cautious. He allowed his people both to entertain and attack the intruders, likely in an attempt to better grasp their strength and their intentions. (The Arrohateck chief Ashuaquid was particularly generous.) Misunderstandings abounded. After his men had captured Captain John Smith, Powhatan attempted to make the Englishman a weroance answering only to the paramount chief. Smith may have misunderstood the ritual as an attempt on his life and Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, as his savior; almost all modern scholars dispute Smith’s interpretation of the event. Later, Smith and Captain Christopher Newport similarly attempted to bring Powhatan under their control by crowning him an emperor answering only to King James. Powhatan firmly rejected the offer, refusing to stoop so that the crown could be placed on his head.

Drought and extreme weather complicated these relations. Food was scarce, and at times Powhatan feasted the Englishmen in a show of hospitality. At other times, the colonists traded for or forcibly took grain, violating Indigenous gift-exchange norms and provoking violence.

Anglo-Powhatan Wars

By 1609, Powhatan was determined to resist the English, who grabbed his people’s food and land with no reciprocal offerings. Violence flared during the summer in the wake of English aggression, and Powhatan responded by cutting off all food from James Fort during the winter. Many of the settlers starved. What followed was the long but only intermittently violent First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614), which ended after the Patawomeck helped the English capture Pocahontas. She was imprisoned as a hostage at Henricus. Her subsequent conversion to Christianity and marriage to John Rolfe created peaceful relations between the English and Powhatan people that lasted several years beyond her death. This led some of the English to believe that the local tribes had capitulated to English rule.

On March 22, 1622, a few years after the death of Powhatan, the Pamunkey leader Opechancanough led a massive attack on the English settlements along the James River. Known by the English as the Great Massacre, the assault killed as many as a quarter to a third of the Virginia colony’s English inhabitants and launched a ten-year war that ended in yet another uneasy truce. (Chauco may have been one of several Indigenous people who warned the English at Jamestown of the attack.)

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 under the authority of the Pamunkey chief Cockacoeske after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1677, the treaty placed the Virginia Algonquians entirely under the protection and control of the English colonial government. A number of additional weroances of tribes that were not under Cockacoesque’s authority eventually signed those treaties as well, as did some Siouan and Iroquoian tribes, including the Nottoway and the Monacan.

The Decline of Tsenacomoco

The 1646 treaty set aside land for, among others, the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Nottoway, Chickahominy, Nansemond, and Accomac (Gingaskin) and established a tradition of paying yearly tribute to the Virginia governor—a tradition that the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes have continued into the twenty-first century. (The fourth Wednesday of November is set aside for presentations of fish and game at either the state capitol or executive mansion in Richmond.) When Cockacoeske signed the treaty of 1677 she represented a number of Powhatan-affliated tribes—a last and brief resurgence of Tsenacomoco. Traditionally independent, the Chickahominy and Rappahannock refused to submit to her authority. Cockacoeske’s successor was also a woman, whose name in colonial documents was Ann.

The governor’s Council appropriated land for the Rappahannock Indians in 1682, but they were forced out a year later, settling in Portobago Indian Town in present-day Essex County. After being made to move again in 1706, they returned to their ancestral land in King and Queen County. In the meantime, attacks by Iroquoian-speaking Indigenous people led many of the surviving Mattaponi to disperse in 1683. Some joined the Pamunkey and Chickahominy in King William County. In 1718, the government forced the Chickahominy to relocate, and by 1820 the tribe had begun to settle in its present-day location in Charles City County.

Nansemond Family

A group of Nansemond converted to Christianity and, starting with the Nansemond woman Elizabeth and the Englishman John Bass in 1638, began to intermarry with the descendants of Nathaniel Bass (perhaps Basse). After the turn of the eighteenth century, a group of Christian Nansemond moved to Norfolk County, near the Great Dismal Swamp; the current members of the Nansemond tribe are largely descended from this group. The Nansemond who did not convert to Christianity remained on a reservation, which they sold to the Virginia government in 1792. By that time, only three reservation Nansemond remained alive; the last died in 1806.

The Patawomeck who lived in present-day Westmoreland County fought the encroachment of English planters, some of whom even attempted to frame a chief for murder in 1662. After the planters raised a militia against the Patawomeck in 1663, the General Assembly, in 1665 reserved to the governor the power to appoint all tribal chiefs and required that the Patawomeck sell all of their remaining land for the site of a fort. In 1666, the governor’s Council declared war on the Patawomeck, calling for “their utter destruction if possible and that their women and children and their goods … shall be taken to be disposed of.” A 1669 census recorded no Patawomeck warriors, and the tribe disappeared from all colonial records. Their descendants currently live in Stafford County and the area surrounding Fredericksburg.

Assimilation, Marginalization, and Renaissance

Councilor James Johnson

From the colonial period until the twentieth century, Indigenous people in Virginia faced enormous pressure to assimilate to English and American culture in various ways. They learned to speak English, wore Western-style clothing, ate and cooked Western-style food, and built Western-style homes. Some Native people were enslaved, both at plantations in the Caribbean, where the English transported members of hostile tribes, and in the American South, where they labored alongside enslaved Africans and African Americans. The College of William and Mary opened the Brafferton Indian School to educate the sons of tribal leaders and convert them to Christianity.

Many members of Virginia’s tribes continued to largely live apart from the rest of Virginia society. Some, including members of the Pamunkey tribe, served the Union as spies, land guides, and river pilots during the American Civil War (1861–1865).

Then, in the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century, a cultural renaissance began to take shape. Men like James Johnson, a Rappahannock tribal official who might once have worn a suit and tie was photographed in 1925 wearing a Western-style headdress and buckskin. The change was noticed by—some have argued even precipitated by—the anthropologist Frank G. Speck. Referring to this photograph of Johnson he observed, “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.”

Application for Marriage License

At the same time, however, the Commonwealth of Virginia was initiating a series of actions that would seek to diminish, if not entirely destroy, Indigenous identity. In 1924, the General Assembly passed the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, which, along with subsequent legislation, banned interracial marriage in Virginia and required racial identifications on birth and marriage certificates. “White” was defined as having “no trace of whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian,” while all other people, including Indigenous people, were defined as “colored.” Falsifying racial information on a government form—as the state registrar Walter Plecker regularly accused others of doing as a form of intimidation—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.” The law was vigorously opposed by Indigenous Virginians such as the Pamunkey chief George Major Cook and the Mattaponi chief George F. “Thunder Cloud” Custalow, who understood its implications: legally speaking, Virginia’s Indigenous population had ceased to exist.

Monacan Tribal Recognition

That wasn’t true, of course. By mid-century, Native culture was in revival. By 1989, eight tribes—the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi, Nansemond, and Monacan—had been recognized by the commonwealth. In 2010, another three were recognized: the Cheroenhaka Nottoway, the Nottoway of Virginia, and the Patawomeck tribes. And on July 2, 2015, the U.S. Department of the Interior officially granted the Pamunkey Tribe federal recognition.

In the twenty-first century, Native tribes in Virginia seek to cultivate their own cultural identities while educating other Virginians about their history. They do this through tribal cultural centers, annual powows, and educational outreach. The Virginia Indian Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities also works with and on behalf of the state’s tribes. According to its mission statement, the program exists to “help redress centuries of historical omission, exclusion, and misrepresentation.”

ca. 16,000—18,000 B.C.
Indians are living at Cactus Hill, in present-day Sussex County. Their relation to later Virginia Indians is unclear.
ca. 900
At the beginning of the Late Woodland Period, the foundations are laid for the transition by Virginia Indians to a more sedentary life. They begin to settle in towns and place increasing reliance on domesticated plants.
Late June 1561
Two Virginia Indians—Paquiquineo and his companion—encounter the Spanish caravel Santa Catalina somewhere near where the James River empties into the Chesapeake Bay. The two Indians either volunteer to go with the Spanish or are kidnapped.
February 1571
Paquiquineo (once Don Luís), a Virginia Indian who has lived in Spain and Mexico and has recently returned to the Chesapeake Bay as part of a Jesuit mission, leads a group of Paspaheghs in an ambush against the Jesuits. All the missionaries are killed, save a young boy.
Under the tutelage of Manteo and Wanchese, Thomas Hariot begins learning and transcribing the Algonquian language of the Virginia Indians.
Mid-August 1584
The English exploration party led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe sails for England, taking along two high-ranking Algonquian-speaking Indians, Wanchese and Manteo.
April 9, 1585
Five ships and two smaller pinnaces along with 600 men set sail from Plymouth, England, for Roanoke Island, along the present-day Outer Banks of North Carolina. Sir Richard Grenville commands the flagship Tiger, which is piloted by Simon Fernandes. John White, Thomas Hariot, and the Indians Manteo and Wanchese are also present.
August 9, 1587
A party of Roanoke colonists, led by the Indian Manteo, attacks the town of Dasemunkepeuc in the early morning hours. Instead of killing enemy Roanoke Indians, however, they kill friendly Croatoans, including the weroance Menatonon.
April 26, 1607
Jamestown colonists first drop anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, and after a brief skirmish with local Indians, begin to explore the James River.
June 25, 1607
By this date, Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, sends an ambassador to Edward Maria Wingfield, president of the Jamestown colony, promising peaceful relations and inviting the Englishmen to plant gardens.
September 1607
By this month, the Jamestown colonists, who landed in April, have exhausted their stores of food and survive only on gifts of food from Powhatan's subchiefs, including Opechancanough.
December 1607
Late in the month, John Smith is brought before Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco. He later tells of his life being saved by Pocahontas; in fact, Powhatan likely puts Smith through a mock execution in order to adopt him as a weroance, or chief.
February 1608
Christopher Newport and John Smith visit Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, at his capital, Werowocomoco. Powhatan feeds them and their party lavishly, and Newport presents the chief with a suit of clothing, a hat, and a greyhound. The English continue upriver to visit Opechancanough at the latter's request.
June—September 1608
John Smith explores the Chesapeake Bay without Powhatan's permission.
September 1608
Christopher Newport returns from England with a plan to improve relations with Virginia Indians by bestowing on Powhatan various gifts and formally presenting him with a decorated crown. The subsequent crowning is made awkward by Powhatan's refusal to kneel, and relations sour.
Summer 1609
John Smith unsuccessfully attempts to purchase from Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, the fortified town of Powhatan in order to settle English colonists there.
October 1609
John Smith leaves Virginia. The Jamestown colony's new leadership is less competent, and the Starving Time follows that winter.
November 1609
Powhatan Indians lay siege to Jamestown, denying colonists access to outside food sources. The Starving Time begins, and by spring 160 colonists, or about 75 percent of Jamestown's population, will be dead from hunger and disease. This action begins the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609—1614).
April 1613
Powhatan's favorite daughter, Pocahontas, is captured and held hostage by the English, bringing a truce in the First Anglo-Powhatan War. The fight goes out of Powhatan, and during his apathy over the next year, his daughter is converted by the English.
April 1618
The death of Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, is reported to the English colonists.
While the elderly Opitchapam serves as paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, Opechancanough appears to build his own power base without unduly alarming the English.
March 22, 1622
Indians under Opechancanough unleash a series of attacks that start the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The assault was originally planned for the fall of 1621, to coincide with the redisposition of Powhatan's bones, suggesting that the attack was to be part of the final mortuary celebration for the former chief.
By this year, Opechancanough succeeds Opitchapam as paramount chief of Tsenacomoco.
August 14, 1638
John Bass, who may be the son of Nathaniel Basse and Mary Jordan Basse, marries Elizabeth, a Nansemond woman who has converted to Christianity.
April 18, 1644
Opechancanough and a force of Powhatan Indians launch a second great assault against the English colonists, initiating the Third Anglo-Powhatan War. As many as 400 colonists are killed, but rather than press the attack, the Indians retire.
The English capture Opechancanough on the Pamunkey River. His successor, Necotowance, surrenders to the colonists, and Opechancanough is shot and killed while in English custody at Jamestown.
A group of planters in Westmoreland County attempts to frame the Patawomeck weroance, Wahanganoche, for murder. The chief is eventually exonerated.
Gerrard Fowke, a planter in Westmoreland County and a burgess, raises a militia and leads it against the Patawomeck Indians without the General Assembly's consent.
October 1665
In "An act concerning Indians," the General Assembly, among other things, reserves to the governor the right to appoint tribal weroances, or chiefs.
October 1665
In "An act concerning the building of a ffort," the General Assembly requires that the Patawomeck sell all of their remaining land for the site of a fort.
The governor's Council declares war on the Patawomeck Indians, calling for "their utter destruction if possible."
A census records no warriors among the Patawomeck Indians. The tribe has disappeared from colonial records.
May 29, 1677

Representatives from the Pamunkey, Weyanock (also spelled Weyanoke), Nottoway, and Nansemond tribes sign the Treaty of Middle Plantation with the English, negotiated to end conflict between members of Virginia's Native communities and the English colonists.

November 1682
An order of the governor's Council directs that 3,474 acres of land should be laid out for the Rappahannock Indians "about the town where they dwelt."
The General Assembly forces the Rappahannock Indians to leave their fortified village and move upriver, to Portobago Indian Town.
November 21, 1683
Iroquoian-speaking Indians attack Virginia Indian settlements from Rappahannock to New Kent counties and down the Mattaponi River.
By order of Essex County, the Rappahannock tribe is forced to leave Portobago Indian Town. Tribal members settle downriver, in King and Queen County, the location of their ancestral homelands.
After this year, Virginia Indians are forced to relocate from the Pamunkey Neck area of present-day King William County, where they have lived since the peace treaty of 1677.
Construction is begun on the Brafferton building to house the Indian school at the College of William and Mary.
The Indian school located in the Brafferton building at the College of William and Mary closes.
The Nansemond tribe sells its last known reservation lands, 300 acres on the Nottoway River in Southampton County.
By this year, families with present-day Chickahominy surnames have begun to settle in Charles City County.
The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute accepts Native American students, most of whom come not from Virginia but from the western United States and territories.
March 20, 1924
Governor E. Lee Trinkle signs "An act to Preserve Racial Integrity," a law aimed at protecting whiteness on the state level. It prohibits interracial marriage, defines a white person as someone who has no discernible non-white ancestry, and requires that birth and marriage certificates indicate people's races.
March 25, 1983
Virginia Joint Resolution 54 extends official state recognition to the Chickahominy Tribe, the Eastern Chickahominy Tribe, the United Rappahannock Tribe, and the Upper Mattaponi Tribe. It also acknowledged the recognition of the Pamunkey Tribe and Mattaponi Tribe, which the commonwealth had recognized since the colonial era.
February 20, 1985
The Nansemond tribe is formally recognized by the General Assembly in House Joint Resolution 205.
February 14, 1989
The Monacan Indian Nation is officially recognized as a tribe by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
February 16, 2010
Virginia extends state recognition to the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia, the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, and the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe.
July 2, 2015
The U.S. Department of the Interior grants official federal recognition to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe.
January 29, 2018
The Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act is signed into law, granting official federal recognition to the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Monacan, Nansemond, Rappahannock, and Upper Mattaponi tribes.
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APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Virginia Indians. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/indians-in-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Virginia Indians" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, June 25
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