The Rappahannock probably first encountered the English in 1603, when an English captain, likely Samuel Mace, sailed up the Rappahannock River and was befriended by the Rappahannock chief. The captain killed the chief and took a group of Rappahannock men back to England. In December 1603, those men were documented giving dugout canoe demonstrations on the Thames River.
In December 1607, after thehad founded , the Rappahannock people met at their capital, whose name Smith recorded as “Topahanocke.” At the time, the Rappahannock lived in along the Rappahannock River. They spoke a and were among the roughly twenty-eight to thirty-two tribes of , a political alliance of Algonquian-speaking tribes that was ruled by .
Smith came to the Rappahannock capital as a prisoner of Powhatan’s brother or cousin,, who asked the Indians whether Smith was the Englishman who had murdered their chief and kidnapped some of their people four years earlier. (They confirmed he was not.) Smith returned to the Rappahannock tribal lands in the summer of 1608, when he mapped fourteen of the tribe’s towns along the banks of the river.
English settlements began to expand into the Rappahannock River Valley in the 1640s. After being attacked by settlers and other hostile tribes, the Rappahannock consolidated into one fortified village in 1676. A year later, thechief signed with the English that united several tribes under her authority, but the Rappahannock Indians, joined by the , refused to be subservient to her or to pay her tribute.
In November 1682 an order of thelaid out 3,474 acres for the Rappahannock tribe in Indian Neck, “about the town where they dwelt,” but the General Assembly forced the tribal members from their homes one year later in response to increasing attacks by the Iroquois of New York. Faced with the choice of merging with the nearby Nanzatico tribe or relocating altogether, the Rappahannock chose to move about thirty-five miles upriver, at Portobago Indian Town in present-day Essex County. The tribe remained there until 1706, when, by order of Essex County, they were forced to leave Portobago. The Rappahannock Indians then returned to their ancestral lands, located in King and Queen County, where their descendants live today.
Rappahannock Tribe During the 1920s
By late in the century, the tribes had reasserted their identities. In 1964, members of the Rappahannock tribe founded the Rappahannock Indian Baptist Church. On March 25, 1983, the Rappahannock tribe was formally recognized by a joint resolution of the General Assembly. In 1998 the Rappahannock tribe elected as its chief G. Anne Richardson, the first woman chief to lead a tribe in Virginia since the 1700s. That same year, the tribe purchased 119.5 acres and established a land trust on which to build a housing development. The development’s first home was built and sold in 2001. The tribe was federally recognized on January 29, 2018.
As of 2013 the Rappahannock tribe hosted a traditional Harvest Festival and Powwow annually on the second Saturday in October at its Cultural Center in Indian Neck. The tribe’s Rappahannock Native American Dancers (a traditional dance group) and Maskapow Drum Group (Maskapow means “Little Beaver” in the Powhatan language) perform locally and abroad in their efforts to educate the public about Rappahannock history and tradition.