Native Americans in Virginia


Aside from Squanto, Samoset, and Massasoit’s dealings with the European colonists in New England during the “First Thanksgiving,” the state of Virginia possesses some of the most famous Native American stories and heritage. And in actuality, an interestingly similar occasion took place a couple of years before the European-Indian feast in the Northeast.[1] But nevertheless, the research for this week pertains not to the European colonists, but to the indigenous people.

While many of the history books on Virginia’s past begin their stories in the late 1500s or early 1600s (when Europeans settled here ironically enough), the existence of natives appears to go back thousands of years.[2] When a Virginia Indian is asked about how long his/her heritage can go back into the past, a common response is, “We have always been here.”[3] Karenne Wood, a contemporary, Monocan Indian, notes that for hundreds of years prior to any European contact, the natives had developed very “sophisticated agricultural techniques,” they had surprisingly better nutrition available to them (compared to Europeans), wielded a powerful knowledge of astronomy for farming and navigation purposes, developed intricate religious beliefs, composed successful trading networks, and were able builders.[4]

Whereas the specificity for exactly when different tribes crystallized into distinguishable groups is uncertain, Wood’s research more than adequately helps one to get an accurate picture of the division of tribes in times immediately prior to European colonization (as well as into its beginnings). It is also quite fascinating as to how knowledge of the geography of Virginia helps one to better understand the organization of the natives in the 1500s. Wood provides a map, composed of native languages and corresponding tribes.[5] In the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah regions, the tribal groups were especially uncertain, as they were “shifting tribal groups.” Throughout the entire Piedmont region in central, northern, and southern Virginia were the Siouans, with the Manahoacs farthest to the north, and the Monacans right in central Virginia. The approximate region of modern-day Roanoke (not the lost Roanoke colony, which was to the coast) housed the Tutelo Indians, below the Roanoke River the Saponi Indians occupied territory, and further southeast were the Occaneechi Indians. All regions along the coast were Algonquian, and under the rule of the Powhatan Chiefdom. Perhaps the most peculiar sections were the Iroquoian, which were split into two areas, the one to the west of the Siouan, and the other just to the east of the Siouan (and in-between them and the Algonquians to the coast). Out southwest and in the Appalachian Mountains, the Cherokee Indians dwelled (Iroquoian). Both the Nottoway (slightly north) and Meherrin Indians (slightly south) were located in the southeast, just west of the Powhatans, and both being below the James River. The Nottoway and Meherrin Indians are likewise Iroquoian.

There were, however, some tribes that were not specifically mentioned in Karenne Wood’s research that are worth noting. However, these exclusions were probably the result of the tribes being under the umbrella of the Powhatan rule, as all of these territories are along the coast and in that region. The Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indians lived along the rivers representative of their names (the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers). Interestingly, these two tribes have reservations still in existence today that date back to the 1600s. Furthermore, important tribes included the Chickahominy and Eastern Chickahominy Indians (Charles City County and New Kent County), the Rappahannock Indians (King and Queen County), the Nansemond Indians (Suffolk and Chesapeake, Virginia), and the Patawomeck Indians (Stafford County).

There are a couple of additional points that should be made, relative to the topic of future settlement. Much of the discussions of early Virginia, European settlements are focused on the coast (Roanoke Island [North Carolina], Jamestown, and the Chesapeake Bay). However, recent evidence has demonstrated that Spanish soldiers were present in western Virginia before Spanish missionaries landed on the James River in 1550s (but probably not more than a few years).[6] English exploration did not start until 1584 at Roanoke Island (Outer Banks, North Carolina). This was the Island that “vanished,” that is, when John White left in 1587 and returned (after hindrances) in 1590, the only things he found were deserted houses and the word “Croatoan” carved in a tree. The next great settlement came in 1607, Jamestown. In the following years, Indian-English interaction consisted of both peace and war. Having “always been here,” it is understandable as to why some Indians (particularly the powerful Powhatans) could have felt invaded. Certainly, some have criticized the Europeans for moving into these territories, and there were definitely some actions that would not be condoned by most today. Yet, to be fair to both sides (natives and Europeans), each had their reasons for “owning” the land. Each also, I think, had their reasonable fears and/or criticism of the other. But of course, the historical context needs to be remembered, lest we become overly critical or overly complimentary of people who lived in, truly, a different world.

In studying the history of Virginia, it can be very tempting to overlook the vast importance of the Native Americans who lived in this fascinating state prior to European colonization and exploration. To do so would be incredibly ignorant of a significant, historical people group that has played a gigantic part in American history. And even by briefly delving into the history of these fascinating individuals, one will almost definitely be intellectually captured by their unique culture and valuable contributions to the state of Virginia.

[1] See Ross Mackenzie, “The First Thanksgiving Likely Occurred Here, & Not at Plymouth…” Richmond Times-Dispatch (11/26/1998). Cited in [accessed January 31, 2015].

[2] Part of this difficulty would also have to do with the lack of written historical records as well.

[3] Karenne Wood, ed., The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. 2nd ed. (Charlottesville, VA: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2008), 12.

[4] Ibid., 12-13.

[5] See Ibid., 14. For a digital copy see: [accessed January 31, 2015].

[6] Peter Wallenstein, Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 7. This exploration was most likely under Hernando de Soto from 1539 to 1543.


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