The Legal Status and Classification of Virginia Indians


Indigenous communities in Virginia have experienced several shifts in their legal status over the past four centuries. From their initial status as tributaries during the colonial period, Virginia tribes saw a reduction of their tribal lands and the corresponding erosion of their legal rights throughout the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. By the late eighteenth century, only four Virginia tribes retained treaty lands and the Commonwealth of Virginia had abandoned many of its treaty obligations. Virginia tribes, however, continued to function as autonomous communities, retaining separate institutions that allowed for the continued expression of Indigeneity through cultural, social, and economic practices. These institutions included governing systems, church congregations, and schools that supported Virginia tribes’ successful efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to advocate for recognition at the local, state, and federal levels.



Early Colonial Classifications of Indigenous Peoples

Powhatan Algonquian tribes have inhabited the Tidewater region of Virginia for more than 10,000 years. They were among the first tribal communities encountered by English colonists. At first, the colonists considered these Native people potential allies who might support the colonial economy through trade and labor. As more colonizers came to the area, they encroached further on the territories and livelihoods of the Native people, resulting in tension and hostility. The earliest conflicts in the colony of Virginia, the Anglo-Powhatan Wars, took place between the allied tribes of the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom and the English colonists. Afterward, a series of negotiated treaties brought Virginia tribes into diplomatic and legal relationships with England and the colonists.

The first of these was the Articles of Peace (1646), signed after the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646). This treaty initiated the tributary status of those tribes who negotiated and signed it. Tributary status was a legal classification; tributary tribes agreed to provide payment and other obligations to the English Crown through the governor of Virginia, who acted as the king’s proxy. For example, the 1646 Articles of Peace states that Necotowance, who succeeded Opechancanough as paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, would pay to the governor “twenty beaver skins att the goeing away of Geese yearely.”

Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677), a colonial uprising against local Native populations, broke this peace. The Treaty of Middle Plantation, signed on May 29, 1677, reestablished peace and reinstated many of the same provisions for the Indigenous signatories, commonly referred to as Indians.

Tributary status offered a measure of protection for Native tribes in Virginia. Tributaries could count on some defense against their enemies, assurances against further incursion by colonists, and rights to their lands and livelihoods as hunters and watermen. Although this status purported to protect against the enslavement of tribal members, slavery continued to affect Indigenous communities, particularly Indigenous children.

Tributary status also created restrictions for Indigenous communities. They were prohibited from carrying weapons when fishing, oystering, and gathering local flora and were required to provide the colonists with military support when called upon. Colonial leadership often placed or attempted to place tributary groups on lands where they could serve as a strategic military buffer between colonists and non-tributary groups the colonists considered hostile. Individual movement among Native tributaries was restricted to assigned lands. To ensure safe travel throughout the colony members of Indigenous communities had to wear badges or special clothing or obtain certificates, a precursor to the laws requiring passes for non-white populations that existed from the eighteenth century to the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865).

Eighteenth Century Indigenous Status

By the turn of the eighteenth century, the unique tributary status of Virginia’s treaty tribes was well established. Indigenous peoples in Virginia moved more freely across the colony and throughout the East Coast as they integrated themselves into the growing colonial economy. These developments led to laws passed by the General Assembly of Virginia to further codify the status of non-white people. These included “An act concerning Servants and Slaves” (1705) and later legislation in 1723 that governed the movement and behavior of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of mixed ancestry. The laws also more stringently defined the parameters between servitude and enslavement. These laws were antecedents to scientific racism and eugenics policies in the twentieth century.

These laws had the effect of creating a legal paradox for Indigenous people in the commonwealth. Based on where they lived, Virginia Indians could be classified as protected tributaries, indentured servants, enslaved persons, or free people of color.

Native people residing on reservation lands were considered tributaries and recognized as citizens of their own nations—nations whose sovereignty was acknowledged and enshrined through treaties with colonial European governments. Those who were forced or voluntarily moved away from their reservation communities were no longer considered subjects of their tribal nations. Instead, they were subject to the colonial legal systems that introduced strict race-based classifications and designations. This dual legal classification system for Indigenous peoples, referred to in colonial legal codes as “Indians,” would later inform the federal classification of “non-citizen Indians” (also referred to as “Indians not taxed”) and “citizen Indians.” The word “citizen” in these classifications denoted whether a person had citizenship status with the United States.

Tributary status provided limited protections to those Virginia tribal communities that continued to hold reservation lands into the eighteenth century. These tribes continued their traditional forms of self-governance and upheld their rights under treaties by providing the annual treaty tribute to Virginia’s governor. But tributary tribes experienced a major shift in status in the mid-eighteenth century when the General Assembly appointed trustees to oversee the sale or lease of tribal lands. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, trustees’ role expanded and they began serving as general intermediaries between tribal governments and the commonwealth. The Gingaskin, Mattaponi, Nottoway, and Pamunkey all had trustees during this period.

Although tributary tribes were considered subjects of the English Crown, colonial leaders and trustees recognized that Native peoples residing within their reservation communities were also subject to the tribal governments of those reservations. For example, a 1795 petition to the General Assembly details the case of Suzanna Denry, a Pamunkey woman who lived with her husband Lewis Denry, an Indigenous man from Canada, on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation. After Lewis Denry allegedly committed a transgression, the tribal government expelled the couple, invoking a law against residency for Pamunkey women who married outside of the tribe. Lewis Denry petitioned the commonwealth to intervene: Suzanna Denry was blind and, according to Lewis Denry, that made it difficult for them to find another place to live. The trustees stated that “the Reasons for expelling Denry arose from Private disputes, with the grounds of which we are not acquainted,” thus demonstrating their limited ability to intervene in tribal affairs. As Lewis Denry was residing in Petersburg by 1809 and his name does not appear again on the tax lists or census records of the Pamunkey Indian Reservation, the state apparently upheld the tribe’s sovereignty by refusing to intervene.

By 1776, only four of Virginia’s tribes retained reservation lands: the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi in King William County, the Nottoway in Southampton County, and the Gingaskin in Northampton County. This status offered some protections to the tribes but also made them easy targets for restrictions and other efforts to deny their continuing rights as tributary tribes.  

Members of tribes who no longer held reservations generally were subsumed under the legal classifications of “mulatto” or “colored,” which effectively removed these populations from the commonwealth’s treaty obligations and denied them their tributary rights. This included the Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nansemond, Patawomeck, and, by the end of the eighteenth century, the Nottoway.

Indentured Servitude, Enslavement, and Manumissions

Indigenous people were indentured and enslaved in the Virginia colony. For example, to ensure treaty compliance and to promote assimilation, the English demanded that Indigenous children serve as indentured servants within English households. Ostensibly, these indentures offered the opportunity to convert Indigenous children to Christianity. Indigenous parents argued, however, that indentures funneled their children into the slave market.

Queen Ann of Pamunkey objected to the separation of children from their families. On October 24, 1711, Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood petitioned the leaders of Virginia’s tributary tribes to send their sons to the Brafferton Indian School at the College of William and Mary. Queen Ann feared that sending the Pamunkey children away from home would make them vulnerable to being sold into slavery. Only after Spotswood agreed to remit the annual tribute of animal skins did Queen Ann and her councilors, the six “great men of Pamunkey Town,” agree to send three children. One was the son of Queen Ann and the other two were sons of her councilors.

Queen Ann’s fears were warranted. The colony’s growing plantation economy was dependent on forced labor, including that of local Native peoples. Virginia laws were often unclear and contradictory regarding the enslavement of these people. Even with treaty stipulations and subsequent laws that banned the enslavement of Indigenous people, evidence suggests that the practice continued. Over the course of the eighteenth century, there are cases of Native families and individuals filing suits seeking freedom from alleged illegal enslavement. Plaintiffs often sought justice based on a precedent-setting 1662 law that stated that the status of children “bond or free” would be determined “according to the condition of the mother.”

In several notable freedom suits brought between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, entire families sought their freedom based on their descendance from illegally enslaved Native women. Successful freedom suits included Robin et al v. Hardaway (1772), Hudgins v. Wrights (1806), and Cooks v. Ivy (1819). In Cooks v. Ivy, seven members of the Cook family successfully sued George Ivy for their freedom in Norfolk County due to their descendance from an illegally enslaved Indian woman known as Moll Cook. While not without challenges, the people involved in these suits were granted manumission and lived the remainder of their lives as free persons.

The case of Charles Evans et. al. v. Lewis B. Allen (1821) provides a tragic example of how challenging suing for one’s freedom could be. In this case, the Evans family of Lynchburg sued in 1820 for their freedom based on their descendancy from Jane Gibson, a Native woman. But their case was not presented when their attorney, former congressman Christopher Henderson Clark, had a stroke and failed to appear in court. The suit was dismissed in 1821, leaving the Evans family and their descendants in slavery until emancipation.

Nineteenth Century Indigenous Status

Legislation created to separate the populace by race, which became increasingly common in the nineteenth century, affected tribal status as it was subsumed under laws meant to limit the civil liberties and freedoms of people of color. Laws that limited Black people’s freedom also had negative effects on tribal communities. Laws designed to curb the possibility of uprisings of enslaved people, for example, denied tribal communities the right to establish independent congregations and prevented Native people from carrying arms. Throughout the nineteenth century, members of Virginia tribal communities were affected by racist ideologies and policies, including laws restricting the movement of Native individuals that required them to carry Indian papers or certificates and efforts to divest tribes of land.

The General Assembly of Virginia enacted an allotment system that was enforced upon the Nottoway in 1735 and then extended to other tribes. This system divided tribal lands into smaller parcels distributed to individuals, who could then sell these parcels to buyers outside of the tribe. This effectively divested a tribe of the lands it held in common and divided the tribal community.

The allotment system was devised to strip tribes of their tributary status. For tribal communities in Virginia to maintain their special status, the majority of reservation residents had to be classified as “Indian.” White landowners who resided near reservations tried to deny this classification to tribal communities in order to divest them of their remaining lands. If a community’s tributary status was revoked, the commonwealth could take the lands and sell them. In the nineteenth century, white landowners attempted to force allotment of the last remaining reservations in the commonwealth: those belonging to the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and Accomac or Gingaskin.

In 1641 the Gingaskin received a patent for 1,500 acres of their ancestral lands located in Northampton County; by 1680, that land had been reduced to 650 acres. As in many tribal communities across the commonwealth, the Gingaskin intermarried with other free people of color. In petitions submitted to the General Assembly in 1784 and 1787, the tribe’s white neighbors argued that this practice of intermarriage changed their classification from “Indians” to “free negroes.” Thus, they argued, the tribe’s reservation lands should be allotted and sold. The General Assembly responded by ordering the Northampton County Court to appoint trustees for the tribe. By 1812 the trustees had convinced reservation residents to agree to allotting the remaining lands; by 1813 the General Assembly had passed an act to allot the reservation, dividing the remaining land among tribal members.

The Pamunkey Indian Tribe faced similar circumstances. In 1836 and 1843, white King William County residents attempted to force allotment of the tribe’s reservation, arguing that the Pamunkey were no longer considered Indian so they should not be classified as such. The timing of these attempts to remove the Pamunkey was significant. The Pamunkey were known to harbor individuals who had escaped from slavery, and white fears of slave uprisings were at an all-time high after Nat Turner’s Revolt in 1831. The tribal government thwarted each attempt to force allotment.

The Mattaponi Indian Reservation also was threatened with forced allotment. In 1852 the Senate of Virginia passed a bill attempting to separate the Mattaponi, and again the Pamunkey, from their lands. The bill was presented as being favorable to the tribes by giving them “equal rights” with their white neighbors. It outlined that tribal lands “shall be held by the same titles and with no other privileges or restrictions upon their right of enjoyment, than now are, or may be hereafter conferred upon or required of the free white owners of real estate in this Commonwealth.” The proposed bill passed the state senate in 1853 but failed in the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1895, Virginia lawmakers made another attempt to allot remaining reservation lands; it too was unsuccessful. Today, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservations are the only reservations in the commonwealth. They are also the two oldest continually occupied reservations in the United States.

These were deliberate attempts by white landowners to remove the tributary classification from Indigenous populations. Without tributary status, Native groups were subsumed within the general Virginia population and were classified according to racial and increasingly binary designations set forth by the state: “colored” or white.

Divested of lands, Virginia tribes generally became more mobile. Many tribal members sought economic opportunities in urban centers such as Norfolk, Petersburg, and Richmond. They also migrated to cities along the East Coast, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. At the same time, they maintained close ties to their core tribal communities.

At this time, Indigenous people in Virginia who did not live on a reservation or in a place that recognized this distinct population had to carry “free Indian” papers on their persons, much like the papers issued to free Black people. This practice was enforced across Virginia, especially in cities like Richmond and Petersburg. King William County and Norfolk County were rare exceptions. King William County was home to the only two reservations in the state and had a large Native population. County officials there did not require Native people to be enumerated on the Register of Free Negros and Mulattos that every country was mandated to keep by the General Assembly.

In 1833, the General Assembly passed a law allowing county courts to issue certificates of freedom to people who identified as “descendants of Indians and other persons of mixed blood, not being free negroes or mulattoes.” In reservation communities, state-appointed trustees issued these certificates to individual tribal members. The documents were precious, especially to those who left the reservation to engage in economic opportunities. For example, on June 20, 1855, Edward Bradley published a classified advertisement in the Richmond Daily Dispatch offering a reward for the return of “a small tin box, containing my FREE PAPERS, together with an Indian register, from the trustees of the Pamunkey tribe of Indians.”

Officials of Norfolk County used the 1833 law to protect its Indigenous residents. Between 1833 to 1860, they issued certificates of freedom to many Nansemond families, which gave them legal protection from the increasing economic and social restrictions placed on Black people in Virginia. The Norfolk County Register of Free Negroes and Mulattoes also listed several other individuals from tribal communities across the Tidewater region, including Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Nottoway, and Chickahominy.

For those who did not reside on a reservation or in a place that recognized its Indigenous residents, the situation was more dire. State and local government officials denied tribal members’ Indian papers and status, refusing to acknowledge anything other than Black or white. For instance, in 1853, Richmond officials detained Richard Bradly, a twenty-year-old Pamunkey man, on a charge of disorderly conduct. The judge who heard Bradly’s case classified him as a free Black man. Bradly identified himself as a member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe and produced his trustee-issued certificate of identity. But court officials did not believe his claims. They referred the case to the Mayor’s Court, where the matter was tabled so that Bradly’s counsel, A. Judson Crane, could produce additional evidence. On November 30, 1853, Crane presented evidence to the court demonstrating that the Pamunkey Indian Tribe existed and held lands in King William County, that the tribe’s trustees were appointed by legislative act and had authority to aid the tribe in its affairs with the commonwealth, and that Bradly’s certificate of identity was a genuine legal document. Despite the evidence, the Mayor’s Court denied Bradly’s Pamunkey identity, referencing his phenotypical characteristics and hair texture. Crane declared that he would appeal to the circuit court to settle “whether the descendant of an Indian woman by a negro man, shall be entitled to the privileges of the mother, or subjected to the disabilities of the father.” The court remanded Bradly to jail and ordered him to “remain until he obtained a free negro register from the Hustings Court, or until good and sufficient cause be shown why he should be regarded as an Indian.” By the time of Bradley’s trial on March 2, 1854, a Judge Meredith “upon mature deliberation, decided him to be an Indian.”

Twentieth Century: Racial Integrity Laws and Tribal Reformation

The first half of the twentieth century produced a contradictory and complex phase in the classification and legal status of Indigenous people in the commonwealth. It was a time of political resurgence among tribal communities, who were reforming their systems of governance. It was also a time when Virginia lawmakers passed increasingly racist, eugenics-based laws that denied Indian identity as a legal classification. As the commonwealth erased Indian as a legal classification from the state’s vital documentary records, Virginia’s tribal communities responded strategically. Throughout the twentieth century, they invoked federal Indian classifications and their jurisdictional relationships with the U.S. government to uphold their legal status as Indian people.

At the turn of the twentieth century Virginia tribes remained in the same geographic locations, continued their cultural practices, and established community institutions around a shared identity. The commonwealth continued to recognize its treaty relationships with the Mattaponi and Pamunkey. These tribal communities maintained residence on their reservations and were governed by tribal chiefs and councils. They presented their treaty tributes to the governor each year, supported and managed their own Baptist congregations, and worked with the state to secure funding for the education of their children. Importantly, the commonwealth recognized the tax-exempt status of reservation communities based on their tributary status.

Tribal communities without reservation lands began seeking to re-formalize their relationships with the state by incorporating. Between 1901 and 1925, the Chickahominy (1901), Rappahannock (1921), Upper Mattaponi (1923), and Chickahominy Eastern Division (1925) organized as corporations. They established bylaws that acted as governing documents and boards that served as tribal governments. This provided a legally secure mechanism through which the tribes could purchase lands held in common for their communities. Incorporating also further secured tribes’ government-to-government relationship with the commonwealth. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservation communities supported these efforts, which signified the resurgence of tribal political systems and the beginning of re-forming relationships with the state and federal governments.

The tribes also made concerted efforts to be more visible to remind the public that Indigenous people still existed and to emphasize their deep connection to the commonwealth’s history. Native people made public appearances and performed for audiences across the state. The Chickahominy began to attend the annual treaty tribute alongside the Pamunkey and Mattaponi. The Pamunkey Players, a traveling theatrical group, performed historical reenactments statewide. The most popular program depicted Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life. They became well-known throughout the state, performing at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition and seeking state funding to attend the Paris Exposition in 1900.

Indigenous people within Virginia also participated in the emerging fields of anthropology and ethnology, working with ethnologists and anthropologists to record their histories and cultures. Some worked with federal agencies, such as the Bureau of American Ethnology, which was tasked with recording Native cultures in the United States.

These were shrewd, strategic responses to shifting and often contradictory federal and state policies during the first half of the twentieth century. The federal government was preparing to pass the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which aimed to decrease federal control of Indigenous affairs and support tribal self-determination. At the same time, however, Native identity in Virginia was under attack. The commonwealth enacted segregation laws and legislated eugenics-based policies that denied that Indigenous people existed in the state. These policies affected Indian legal classification in Virginia in ways that still resonate today.

Virginia passed the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity in 1924. It was the first in a series of laws promoted and enforced by Walter Ashby Plecker, the state’s registrar of vital statistics from 1912 to 1946. Plecker was a devoted eugenicist, and the Racial Integrity Laws were based on centuries of legal precedent and racist, pseudoscientific scholarship. The 1924 act required every Virginian to register as one of two categories: “white” or “colored.” Such restrictions were an attempt to limit tribal sovereignty by denying Indigenous people the right to be classified as a distinct racial category.

Under the 1924 act, Plecker attempted to stamp out all vital documentary records of Native people in the state. He threatened jail time to those who reported their identity or their family’s identities as Indian. He distributed to all public health personnel in the state a list of surnames of families he purported to be misidentifying as white or Indian. He changed existing records. And he attempted to involve the federal government: in 1928, he appealed to the U.S. Bureau of the Census to stop the practice of counting the Virginia tribes as Indian in the U.S. Census. The effort failed.

The Racial Integrity Act and Plecker’s subsequent efforts to enforce it are now known as the Paper Genocide. For decades following the passing of the law, Indigenous people in Virginia were unable to list Indian on their vital records. This negatively and directly affected the federal recognition efforts of several tribal communities in Virginia during the twenty-first century.

Virginia Indian Leaders

Plecker’s assault on Indian identity did not go unchallenged. Tribal leaders coordinated their response, speaking out against the 1924 Racial Integrity Law before it was passed. Among them were Chief O. W. Adkins (Chickahominy), Chief George Major Cook (Pamunkey), and Chief George F. Custalow (Mattaponi). Through speeches, newspaper articles, letters to the editor, and appearances before legislative committees, tribal leaders argued vehemently for the right of Virginia Indians to legally identify as such. In a letter published in the Newport News Daily Press on July 9, 1925, Chief Cook protested, “We demand to be classed as Pamunkey Indians. Can, oh can, it ever be said the pale face Christian nation that has taken the poor Indians’ land, taken their hunting grounds, and with plowshares desecrated the graves of their forefathers, will as a closing climax to the awful scene, take their name? Nay, no, never.”

The racial integrity laws had the effect of driving a wedge between the Black and Native populations in Virginia. Plecker and other eugenicists claimed that there were no Indigenous people in Virginia in the twentieth century because of a history of “race mixing”—an amplification of the argument whites used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to remove Virginia tribes from their reservation lands. In 1930, the Racial Integrity Law was updated to codify the one-drop rule of racial classification. Now, legally, the category of “colored” was applied to any person “in whom there is ascertainable any Negro blood.”

This development had severe and far-reaching consequences for tribal communities in Virginia. Some of these communities responded by eschewing past practices of defining tribal identity in ways that did not consider the concept of race. They did this by excluding families with mixed-race heritage or separating families across racial lines. These approaches were taken perhaps in the hope that the commonwealth might acknowledge their tribal identity and that tribes might avoid the discrimination and oppression experienced by the Black community. Other Indigenous people in Virginia responded by publicly passing as white or Black but continuing to practice their culture and traditions in secret. The commonwealth’s choice to force the complex and multifaceted nature of identity into two categories continues to impact tribal communities in Virginia, especially as it relates to tribal enrollment, family separation, and recognition.

Twenty-First Century: Recognition

Tribal status in Virginia shifted again at the end of the twentieth century. The Mattaponi and Pamunkey continued to uphold their treaty obligations with the state, and in the 1980s the General Assembly passed legislation formally recognizing the tribal governments of the Chickahominy, Rappahannock, Nansemond, Monacan, Upper Mattaponi, and Chickahominy Eastern Division tribes. In 2010 the General Assembly recognized the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe, the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, and the Patawomeck Indian Tribe. An administrative process for state recognition based loosely on similar federal regulations was established in 2018 by the Virginia Indian Advisory Board.

Although state recognition in Virginia restores formal acknowledgment as Native communities and allows the right to hunt and fish without a license issued by the commonwealth, this recognition does not provide financial support for tribal programs or services. Further, state agencies are not required to consult state-recognized tribes when actions by those agencies may affect the cultural, historic, natural, and environmental resources of tribal communities. One informal benefit state recognition has brought is that it supports a tribe’s ability to seek recognition at the federal level.

On January 28, 2016, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe was recognized by the federal government. This was the result of decades of work alongside scholars to complete the tribe’s petition for federal acknowledgment, which met the seven criteria established by the federal government. On January 29, 2018, the Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Rappahannock, Nansemond, Upper Mattaponi, and Monacan were federally acknowledged through the legislative process when the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Program (Public Law 115-121) was signed by President Donald J. Trump. With federal recognition, tribal communities can engage in government-to-government relationships with the United States. This status recognizes tribal sovereignty, confers certain rights to tribes related to their sovereignty, and enables them to manage their own health, environmental, housing, economic, and governance programs. Federal recognition also mandates that federal agencies consult with tribes on projects that affect their communities and the resources they define as significant.


The Gingaskin tribe receives a patent for 1,500 acres of land in Northampton County.

October 1646
The General Assembly confirms the Treaty of Peace with Necotowance. The treaty ends the Third Anglo-Powhatan War and creates Native tributaries.
George Brent, commander of Stafford County's troop of horse, and George Mason (1629—1686) pursue and kill some Doeg Indians who were accused of murdering settlers, leading indirectly to the outbreak of Bacon's Rebellion the next year.
May 29, 1677

Representatives from the Pamunkey, Weyanock (also spelled Weyanoke), Nottoway, and Nansemond tribes sign the Treaty of Middle Plantation with the English, negotiated to end conflict between members of Virginia's Native communities and the English colonists.


Gingaskin tribal land has been reduced from 1,500 acres to 650 acres.

October 1705
The General Assembly passes "An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves," which summarizes previous laws defining bound labor in Virginia. It makes distinctions between the treatment of white "christian" indentured servants and nonwhite, non-Christians, allowing for the killing of slaves in various situations without penalty.
May 1723
As part of a long act devoted to "the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free," the General Assembly declares "That no free negro, mullatto, or indian whatsoever, hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever." The law also restricts a master's ability to free his slaves.

The General Assembly of Virginia enacts an allotment system that is first enforced upon the Nottoway.


Only four of Virginia's tribes retain reservation lands.


The General Assembly passes an act to allot the Gingaskin reservation.

August 21—22, 1831
Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher and self-styled prophet, leads the deadliest revolt of enslaved people in Virginia's history.
February 25, 1833
The General Assembly passes a law allowing county courts to issue certificates of freedom to people who identify as “descendants of Indians and other persons of mixed blood, not being free negros or mulattoes.”

King William County residents attempt to force allotment of the Pamunkey Tribe’s reservation lands.


King William County residents attempt to force allotment of the Pamunkey Tribe’s reservation lands.


The Senate of Virginia passes a bill attempting to allot Mattaponi and Pamunkey reservation lands.


Virginia lawmakers make another attempt to allot Mattaponi and Pamunkey reservation lands.

March 20, 1924

Governor E. Lee Trinkle signs the Racial Integrity Act and the Eugenical Sterilization Act into law.

Walter Plecker appeals to the U.S. Bureau of the Census to stop the practice of counting the Virginia tribes as Indian in the U.S. Census.
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.
February 16, 2010
Virginia extends state recognition to the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia, the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, and the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe.
July 2, 2015
The U.S. Department of the Interior grants official federal recognition to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe.
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.
  • O’Brien, Jean. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Roundtree, Helen and E. Randolph Turner III. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia’s Powhatans and their Predecessors. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
  • Tarter, Brent. “‘Hundreds of the Descendants of Indians Have Obtained Their Freedom’: Freedom Suits in 18th and 19th Century Virginia.” The UnCommonwealth (blog). Library of Virginia, September 26, 2012, https://uncommonwealth.virginiamemory.com/blog/2012/09/26/hundreds-of-the-descendants-of-indians-have-obtained-their-freedom-freedom-suits-in-18th-19th-century-virginia/.
  • Vaughan, Alden T., ed. Early American Indian Documents: Treaties and Laws, 1607–1789 Vol. 4. Washington, D.C.: University Publications of America, 1983.



APA Citation:
Spivey, Ashley & Kiel, Michelle. The Legal Status and Classification of Virginia Indians. (2024, June 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/the-legal-status-and-classification-of-indigenous-people-in-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Spivey, Ashley, and Michelle Kiel. "The Legal Status and Classification of Virginia Indians" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (20 Jun. 2024). Web. 11 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, July 05
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