Scholars believe that thousands of years ago, in the Ohio River Valley, the Siouan-speaking people lived as a unified group, and that eventually the tribes moved both east and west, separating into the Eastern and Western Siouan speakers. Monacan Indians spoke a language related to other Eastern Siouan tribes, such as the Tutelo. The Monacan people are also related to the Occaneechi and Saponi peoples located in present-day North Carolina, and they were affiliated with the Mannahoac Indians, who occupied the northern Piedmont in what is now Virginia.
When the first English settlers founded Jamestown in 1607, the Monacan lived above the falls of the James River and were traditional enemies of the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco. Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, had discouraged the Englishmen from visiting the Monacan, but in September 1608, Christopher Newport and 120 men set out anyway, traveling forty to fifty miles beyond the falls. After kidnapping a Monacan political leader to act as a guide, Newport and his party visited the towns of Mowhemicho and Massanack, while mapping three others: Rassaweck, Monasukapanough, and Monahassanugh. According to English reports, Rassaweck, on the James River, was the principal Monacan town. The area in general, John Smith wrote, was a “faire, fertill, well watred countrie,” but it did not boast the mineral wealth for which Newport was hoping, and the Englishmen soon retreated back to Tsenacomoco.
Traditionally, Monacan people buried the remains of their dead in sacred earthen mounds constructed over time. These mounds, excavated by archaeologists and others, have been the site of secondary burials. In other words, many corpses were exhumed and reburied during periodic ceremonies. Thirteen such mounds have been found throughout the Blue Ridge and Piedmont regions, similarly constructed, some more than a thousand years old. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson wrote that in the mid-1750s several Indians had been observed visiting one of the mounds on the Rivanna River and in or about 1784 directed an excavation of the burial mound. Located in Albemarle County, the mound’s location, according to a map published by John Smith, lies in what was Monacan territory, but scholars disagree as to whether the mound’s builders were Monacan. Some argue that because most burial mounds are found west of the Piedmont, the so-called Jefferson’s Mound may have been the work of Indians who invaded the area from the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. In 2000, after learning of the possibility of nearby development, the Monacan Indian Nation conducted a blessing ceremony at the site.
Bear Mountain Indian Mission School
Like other Virginia Indians, the Monacans struggled to preserve their identity and culture early in the twentieth century. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and 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 Indians, were defined as “colored.” 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 laws essentially erased Virginia Indians as a category of people.
By late in the century, however, the tribes had reasserted their identity. On February 14, 1989, the Monacans were recognized as a tribe by the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1995, the Episcopal Diocese returned the land on which the old mission stood, and the site is now the home of the tribe’s museum and cultural center. The original log cabin was restored and, in 1997, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2007, a Virginia Historical Highway Marker was erected at the site. The tribe was federally recognized on January 29, 2018.