Rappahannock Tribe


The Rappahannock tribe is a state- and federally recognized Indian tribe whose tribal area is located in Indian Neck in King and Queen County. In the late twentieth century, the tribe owned 140.5 acres of land and the Rappahannock Cultural Center and had about 500 members on its tribal roll.

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.

The Portraictuer of Captayne John Smith

In December 1607, after the first English settlers had founded Jamestown, the Rappahannock people met Captain John Smith at their capital, whose name Smith recorded as “Topahanocke.” At the time, the Rappahannock lived in towns and villages along the Rappahannock River. They spoke a dialect of Algonquian and were among the roughly twenty-eight to thirty-two tribes of Tsenacomoco, a political alliance of Algonquian-speaking tribes that was ruled by Powhatan.

Smith came to the Rappahannock capital as a prisoner of Powhatan’s brother or cousin, Opechancanough, 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, the Pamunkey chief Cockacoeske signed a treaty with the English that united several tribes under her authority, but the Rappahannock Indians, joined by the Chickahominy, refused to be subservient to her or to pay her tribute.

In November 1682 an order of the governor’s Council laid 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

In an effort to solidify its tribal government and fight for state recognition, the Rappahannock tribe incorporated in 1921. But, like other Virginia Indian groups, the tribe struggled to preserve its 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 had 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 under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the Racial Integrity Act unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia (1967).

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.

July 24, 1608
John Smith embarks on the second of his two major Chesapeake Bay explorations. He and his party explore the Susquehanna, Patuxent, and Rappahannock rivers and negotiate peace between the Rappahannock and Moraughtacund Indians.
May 29, 1677
Cockacoeske signs the Treaty of Middle Plantation, and at her request several tribes are reunited under her authority. But having been free of Powhatan domination since 1646, the Chickahominy and Rappahannock refuse to become subservient to her or to pay tribute.
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.
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.
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.
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.
  • Egloff, Keith, and Deborah Woodward. First People: The Early Indians of Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
  • Wood, Karenne, ed. The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. Charlottesville: The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2008.
APA Citation:
Encyclopedia Virginia staff. Rappahannock Tribe. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/rappahannock-tribe.
MLA Citation:
Encyclopedia Virginia staff. "Rappahannock Tribe" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 14
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