Scholars understand Indigenous communities of Virginia’sand 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. , for example, was written in 1622 and provides ample detail about a Powhatan attack of that year. But it also 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, atin 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 , meanwhile, demonstrate daily life through objects and help archaeologists draw distinctions between tribes based on the patterns imprinted into them. At the in Albemarle County, excavated what is likely a burial site, helping to inform scholars on religious practices of the Monacans and those who preceded them.
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.
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.
These nomads may not have been the first inhabitants of present-day Virginia, however. Evidence at archaeological sites such asin 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(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 except for dogs. Beginning in the (8000–6500 BC) and continuing into later periods, gradual climatic changes occurred, resulting in the modern environment. By the (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, Accomac, and , also spoke Algonquian dialects.
Little is known of the Algonquian dialect spoken by Native communities in Virginia and North Carolina., who visited in 1585, created a word list that was later lost. In 1612 also that included now-familiar words such as mockasin and tomahack. That same year, compiled an even more detailed 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, throughbetween 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.
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. 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.
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, 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.
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:
- Lower Cuttatawomen
- Upper Cuttatawomen
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.”
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, 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 and gathered firewood in the forests, tended fields of corn, squash, and beans, and . 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.
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
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 inand trade and the significance of name-changing practices. Unlike Europeans, the Powhatan peoples’ 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 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 neverand 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 and warfare.
The community taught boys how to hunt and wage war and girls how to collect plants, build houses and furnishings, and farm. The, a coming-of-age ceremony for boys, involved what the 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 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. 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. In contrast, the Indians saw the English as uncivilized.
When the English built a fort at Jamestown, Powhatan knew to be cautious. He allowed his people both toand attack the intruders, likely in an attempt to better grasp their strength and their intentions. (The Arrohateck chief 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 similarly attempted to bring Powhatan under their control by crowning him an emperor answering only to . Powhatan firmly rejected the offer, refusing to stoop so that the crown could be placed on his head.
Drought andcomplicated 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.
By 1609, Powhatan was determined to resist the English, who grabbed his people’s food and land with no reciprocal offerings.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 . What followed was the long but only intermittently violent (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 to 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 aon 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. ( 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,was finally signed. Along with the , drawn up and signed under the authority of the Pamunkey chief after 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.
Theappropriated 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.
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). 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 toin 1662. After the planters raised a militia against the Patawomeck in 1663, the General Assembly, in 1665 the power to appoint all tribal chiefs and 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
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, 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,as spies, land guides, and river pilots during the (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.”
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 registrarregularly 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 and the Mattaponi chief , who understood its implications: legally speaking, Virginia’s Indigenous population had ceased to exist.
That wasn’t true, of course. By mid-century, Native culture was in revival. By 1989, eight tribes—the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy,, Rappahannock, , Nansemond, and Monacan—had been recognized by the commonwealth. In 2010, another three were recognized: the Cheroenhaka Nottoway, the , 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.”