Early Tribal History
The Iroquoian-speaking Nottoway Indians dwelled in coastal areas of Virginia and North Carolina, living in dispersed communities along the Nottoway River in present-day Dinwiddie, Isle of Wight, Nottoway, Sussex, and Southampton counties. Each community—for example, Cohanahanhaka, Rowantee, and Tonnatorah—was autonomous and had its own leader. The Nottoway people democratically elected tribal leaders to serve for a specific term limit, and this practice remains in place among the modern-day Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia.
The traditional territory of the Nottoway Indians lies south of where the English colonists established the. Separated from Jamestown by waterways and situated further inland from the James River, the Nottoway, unlike their Algonquian-speaking counterparts, did not encounter the English until the middle of the seventeenth century. The Nottoway’s communication networks, created through longstanding trade networks, meant the tribe was likely aware of the experiences of their Algonquian neighbors. They were aware that the Europeans possessed exceptional artillery and were quickly changing the lifestyles of Native people in what is now Virginia. Timing, location, and trade provided the Nottoway with the opportunity to leverage their assets: knowledge of the territory, the ability to communicate with tribes who had not directly interacted with the colonists, and wealth through the bartering of trade goods. Trade goods, mainly furs, were in great demand by the colonists for export back to England. In exchange, Virginia’s Native peoples gained durable metal tools, trade cloth, and trinkets.
The first documented written account of European contact with the Nottoway was in 1650 by English merchant and colonist Edward Bland. Bland and his party, which included an Appomattox guide named Pyancha, were looking for new land for colonial expansion; they also planned to travel to Tuscarora territory, where a “king of the Tuscarora” had invited them to trade and where they planned to look for some missing English settlers. Leaving from Fort Henry, in present-day Petersburg, they traveled south on an established Native trade path, Weecacana, into the territory of the Nottoway and Meherrin tribes. In his journal,encountering two Nottoway settlements located on the north and south sides of the Nottoway River, near present-day Stony Creek.
The Nottoway Tribe was among several tribes represented in 1677 at the signing of the Treaty of Middle Plantation, which was negotiated afteras a re-negotiation of the Treaty of Peace (1646). It is possible that this treaty codified an existing tributary relationship between the Nottoway and the English. On its face, the treaty was meant to end conflict between members of Virginia’s Native communities and the English, but its terms eroded Native power. The tribes who signed the treaty became tributaries to King Charles II of England, acknowledging colonial authority with yearly gifts in exchange for some protection. Tributary tribes received access to civil courts, permanent ownership of land within a three-mile radius of their towns, and the right to hunt and fish on their land—all colonial constructs.
The colonial government reserved two tracts of land for the Nottoway in present-day Sussex and Southampton counties. Surveyed around 1705, these two tracts are known as the Circle and the Square, and together they composed the Nottoway Reservation. The Circle, located on the north side of the Nottoway River near Sebrell, included the fortified Great Town on the Assamoosick Swamp. The Square, a six-mile tract of land, was located on the south side of the river. At a combined 41,000 acres, this was a considerable reduction of the traditional Nottoway territory. Also in 1705, the House of Burgesses lifted the Blackwater boundary law, opening land beyond the Blackwater River for colonial settlement. This meant that colonists were legally permitted to encroach upon Nottoway territory and the territory of neighboring tribes—a violation of the treaty signed in 1677. Many tribes opposed the colonists’ forceful encroachment into Native lands. This shifted established relationships among tributary tribes, nontributary tribes, and the English.
The colonial government attempted to bring the Nottoway under its sphere of influence, particularly under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. During the Tuscarora War (1711–1713), Spotswood called on the Nottoway to support the English as agreed upon in the 1677 treaty—but he used extreme tactics to ensure their cooperation. On November 17, 1711, Spotswood reported to the Council of Trade and Plantations on a meeting with five Nottoway leaders at the Nottoway Great Town to secure their assistance in fighting the Tuscarora, then based in present-day North Carolina, and to negotiate using Nottoway land as a territorial buffer between the colonial settlers and the Tuscarora. He arranged for 600 militiamen from three surrounding counties to gather near the Nottoway Great Town to plan for war with the Tuscarora. He wanted several commitments from the Nottoway: “I then proposed to them either to carry on a war against those Indians upon the promise of rewards to be paid them or join with H.M. subjects of Carolina for extirpating those Assassines,” wrote Spotswood, “and that for the better assuring us of their future good behavior they should deliver two children of the great men of each town to remain as hostage and to be educated at our Colleges.” The English held the Nottoway leaders captive until they acquiesced to Spotswood’s plan.
On February 27, 1714, the Nottoway signed a standalone treaty with Spotswood describing their relationship with the colonial government and affirming their land rights. The Nottoway Great Town would serve as a rest stop for travelers and a meeting spot for diplomatic discussions between the colonists and other tribes, chiefly the Tuscarora. Thus, the reservation lands of the Nottoway, a tributary tribe, would serve as a buffer between the encroaching English and the territory of nontributary tribes. The treaty also stipulated that the Nottoway send twelve boys to the Fort Christanna school, an Indian school Spotswood established in present-day Brunswick County on land set aside for the Saponi people. Again, the English held the Nottoway chief men in chains until they complied.
The Bodleian Plate
By 1715, Nottoway boys were on the rolls at both the Fort Christanna school and the Brafferton Indian School at the College of William and Mary. Separated from their families, culture, language, and religious practices, the children were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, with a heavy emphasis on the teachings of Christianity. Spotswood’s expectation was that the students would then promote Christianity and English interests within their tribal communities. We now know that forced assimilation can lead to depression and other mental health challenges; perhaps the Nottoway children experienced these challenges as they learned to navigate in a different society. Among the Nottoway boys who were educated at the Brafferton Indian School was Thomas Step, who would go on to play a significant role in the French and Indian War. In addition to enlisting Indigenous men to fight alongsideand serving as a war captain and orator, he used the skills he learned at the Brafferton to advocate for his own people, requesting service pay for Nottoway combatants.
The Trustee System and Reservation Allotment
By the first half of the eighteenth century, several Virginia Indian communities faced the economic need to sell off portions of their reservation lands that were no longer actively being used by the tribal community. Based on false assumptions that Indigenous people were incapable of handling their own financial affairs, the colonial government began the practice of appointing trustees—white, male landowners—to oversee and manage the sale of Indian lands and distribute the resulting funds. The trustees disbursed these funds only to matrilineal adults—that is, descendants of Nottoway women. Children, non-Native spouses, and any adults descended exclusively from Nottoway males did not receive this support.
In 1735, the House of Burgesses. The sale altered the tribe’s relationship to the colonial government. Given that the same 1735 act also dismissed the colonial government’s Nottoway language interpreters, it is not clear whether the Nottoway fully understood the true implications of the sale. This was the first of many reservation land sales that took place in the eighteenth century.
The relationship between the Nottoway and the trustees changed frequently due to the appointment of new trustees and the tribe’s shifting needs. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a period of change for the Nottoway, economically, politically, and socially. Between 1775 and 1808, about half of the Nottoway Reservation’s population headed north with the Tuscarora, leaving Virginia for New York. During this period the trustees petitioned the legislature for permission to sell off tracts of land, arguing that the Nottoway were experiencing a decline in their population growth and an increase in desire for material goods. The trustees claimed that the waning population was due to wars and illness, and that many of the elderly men were not able to work or hunt. In fact, the continued push to sell reservation lands came from non-Native landowners and the trustees who sought greater control over tribal affairs. As time passed, the trustees became the managers of property rentals of reservation lands belonging to the Nottoway, even as tribal leaders increasingly pressed the Commonwealth of Virginia for control of their ancestral land and financial resources. The allotment of Nottoway reservation lands and the trustee system of oversight negatively impacted the tribe’s social, political, and economic structures. In taking away the tribe’s control of its fiscal and material assets, the trustee system undermined the traditional ways of Nottoway governance.
Given the power and control the trustees gained over Nottoway affairs, there is evidence that some non-Native trustees abused their authority. In 1808 the trustees apprenticed four Nottoway children to white landowners without tribal or parental consent. The Nottoway recognized such apprenticeships as a first step towards involuntary servitude. They protested to the, who had the children returned and suggested that in the future, the trustees seek the Nottoway people’s approval of such efforts. In response, the trustees that the tribe had vetoed the idea, saying “that an Indian was never known as apprentice.” In 1819, the Nottoway worked with an attorney and the Southampton County sheriff to file a petition to repeal an act authorizing the sale of 3,000 acres of Nottoway reservation land, saying that “a sale of a larger quantity of land was authorized than they wished.”
Wané Roonseraw, also known as Edith or Edy Turner, emerged as a Nottoway leader and an opponent of the trustee system. Roonseraw was extremely politically active. In addition to helping coordinate the 1819 counterpetition, shethe General Assembly in 1821 to distribute the remaining segment of the initial 44,000-acre Nottoway Reservation into individual descendant ownership allotments. Turner was politically savvy, shrewd, and business-minded. She assumed allotting portions of the reservation was perhaps the only means to evade the involuntary ejection of the Nottoway people westward, along with members of the , Meherrin, and Weyanoke tribes who had sought refuge at the Nottoway Reservation.
In 1824, the General Assembly passed an act giving William G. Bozeman, also known as William Woodson, the son of a Nottoway woman, an allotment of land from the Nottoway Reservation. The act, which became known as the Bozeman Act, also stated that any matrilineal descendant of the Nottoway may apply for a share of reservation land. In 1830, Bozeman and Roonseraw eachand received an allotment of land. That same year, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law, permitting the president to remove Native American tribes from their ancestral lands.
The Nottoway continued to resist the mismanagement of their lands and funds. In 1848, trustees acting on behalf of the Nottoway sued trustee Jeremiah Cobb in Southampton County Court. Cobb was found guilty of misappropriating funds from the sale of Nottoway reservation land while serving in the capacity of a trustee for the tribe. This event was the first time that a trustee was held accountable for the misappropriation of monies belonging to the Nottoway people, and one of the few instances in which a Virginia Indian tribe successfully brought a lawsuit under treaty/reservation rights during the nineteenth century. In 1878, the children of Edwin Turner, heir to the property of Wané Roonseraw or Edith Turner, filed the last recorded application for a share of Nottoway reservation land. The application requested 575 acres.
Land sales and reservation allotment removed the colonial construct of the reservation, but Nottoway families remained in Tidewater Virginia, living in their traditional, often matrilinear family groups. Their traditional tribal culture remained intact. Although post-Reconstruction-era societal changes, such as the passage of Jim Crow laws and the practice of paper genocide, further reduced their ability to live freely and to openly share their identity and cultural status as Native people, Nottoway people practiced deep culture. That is, they eschewed external cultural practices in favor of more deeply held, less obvious practices shared quietly across the generations. Among Nottoway people, land ownership, education, diplomatic commerce, and extended family are a few examples of the deep cultural core structure that the community has maintained to the present day.
Throughout the twentieth century, Nottoway family groups built and maintained commercial enterprises that followed traditional Nottoway practices, such as farming, animal husbandry, fishing, building sawmills, and running trading posts. They educated their children by all available methods, sending them to any schools available, whether white or Black. They built churches and, while Christianized, continued to hold and pass down traditional beliefs related to the sacredness of the land and water. As Nottoway people progressed throughout the twentieth century and into the present, their families were able to maintain their community and pass this traditional knowledge to succeeding generations. Today these values are expressed by the continued presence of a vital Nottoway community in Tidewater Virginia.
Nottoway families also expanded into the larger mid-Atlantic region. World War I (1914–1918), the Great Depression, and World War II (1939–1945)—along with Jim Crow laws, the eugenics movement, and the Racial Integrity Laws—stimulated large migrations to the urban centers along the eastern seaboard. As the social fabric of Virginia began to change following the Civil Rights movement, many Nottoway began to express their Native identity more openly, eventually paving the way for the state recognition of Nottoway people in 2010.
State recognition is a legislative process, first established in the 1980s, by which the Commonwealth of Virginia acknowledges its longstanding relationships with and governmental responsibilities to tribal communities. Between 1983 and 1989, the General Assembly formally acknowledged six tribal communities—Mattaponi. As other tribal communities, including the Nottoway, began to seek recognition, the state developed a more detailed and stringent process to provide recommendations for recognition to the General Assembly of Virginia., , , , Nansemond, and —alongside the two tribes that still hold reservation lands, the and
Early in the twenty-first century, the Nottoway community in Tidewater Virginia began their effort for recognition pursuant to the existing processes at the time. This required compiling significant documentation, including genealogical research of Nottoway families and records of Nottoway tribal participation in the written history of Virginia. The Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia gathered a wealth of documentary evidence from colonial to modern times that was ultimately used to secure recognition of the tribe. This process also resulted in the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia being documented conclusively as the descendants and heirs of Nottoway Indians who lived on the reservation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 2010, the Nottoway received recognition by resolution of the General Assembly of Virginia. As citizens of a state-recognized tribe, the Nottoway can fish and hunt within the state without a license.
Since recognition in 2010, the tribe has reestablished formal ties with the communities of Tidewater Virginia in Southampton and Surry counties. The Nottoway have established working relationships with other Virginia tribes and continue the traditional relationships with other Iroquoian tribes in the South, such as the Meherrin and Tuscarora.
Contemporary Tribal Community and Core Cultural Values
The Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia follows traditional Nottoway/Iroquoian tribal practices of democratically elected government and rule by council. The tribe elects its council members and chiefs, following commonly accepted democratic practices such as fixed terms of office for council members and chiefs. A principal chief, an assistant chief, and a war chief lead the tribe today. Each performs a specific role in tribal operations. They share governance with the tribal council, who work directly with the chiefs and provide oversight. Traditionally matrilinear, the tribe today accepts into leadership both men and women.
A crucial element of Nottoway government is the concept of consensus among tribal citizens. Tribal citizens are encouraged to participate in decision-making for the tribe and all tribal citizens have an equal voice in tribal meetings. Tribal elders and youthful citizens participating together provide balance in view and knowledge that is good for the tribe.
The connection to the land is a core cultural value for many Nottoway citizens. The land holds the ancestral memories of Nottoway people; it is where they have lived prior to the establishment of the Virginia colony until the present day. Nottoway citizens continue to live in community in traditional Nottoway territories in Southampton, Surry, and Sussex counties, as well as in the portions of Dinwiddie and Nottoway counties that adjoin the Nottoway River. Many tribal citizens own land on both sides of the river, on what was once the Circle and Square tracts. Some Nottoway families today have generational land holdings: land their ancestors apportioned or purchased at the end of the reservation era that has remained in their families through the present day. In recent years, there has been a return migration of Nottoway tribal citizens to the ancestral lands along the Nottoway River. They continue to farm the land they have always lived on, continuing the practices of land stewardship and cultivation.
As a tribe, the Nottoway are beginning to focus on the conservation of the natural resources contained in the land and water of Virginia. Nottoway citizens work in conjunction with governmental agencies on a variety of environmental issues that affect the land and water of Nottoway territory. The tribe’s annual Clean River Day, in which Nottoway citizens and other interested parties clean the Nottoway River, is an opportunity for the tribe to educate the public more widely on the preservation of this sacred water resource.
Because the connection to the land is so important to the Nottoway people, it figures prominently in many areas of contemporary tribal life. Tribal activities and the tribal interpretive center and meeting house are located within the traditional boundaries of Nottoway territory. Houses of worship, burial grounds, and schools, some now designated as historic, remain throughout Nottoway territory.
From the mid-seventeenth century to the late twentieth century, as a means of survival in an era when the laws and culture in Virginia were hostile to Indigenous identity, the Nottoway abandoned many external cultural practices that were considered inappropriate or dangerous—among them dress, celebration, and dance. Since recognition, there has been a determined effort to revive traditional tribal practices of celebration and ceremony, using them to strengthen and teach traditional Nottoway values.
The ceremonies and celebrations in which modern Nottoway citizens participate include an annual powwow (a modern expression of pan-Indian celebration), seasonal celebrations and feasts, welcoming ceremonies, and rites of passage in keeping with Nottoway values. These activities are consistent with the spirit of self-determination that permeates the modern Nottoway Tribe. The tribe also uses its annual powwow as a public-facing opportunity to celebrate Nottoway heritage and culture, educate the public, and partner with the local community and government to provide an event that provides value to the local community.
The tribe also seeks to revitalize its language, beginning with known Nottoway vocabulary and working with linguists and scholars in the painstaking process of accurately rebuilding the language, with the goal of a spoken Nottoway language being heard once more in the modern era. The tribe offers workshops for Nottoway citizens to share tribal cultural traditions that were lost to some. Topics include modern farming practices, performance arts, history, commerce, and crafts, such as beading, quilt-making, pine needle weaving, quillwork, and indigo dyeing.