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Native Americas

Virginia's First People

by Richard M Bayles (1874). Updated by Mick Baker, 11 July 2018

People lived in Virginia for about 17,000 years before European contact and, with no written language, they recorded their historic events through storytelling and symbolic drawings.

Three distinctive native American tribes of the Eastern Woodland dominated the territory now known as Virginia during the late sixteenth century and during the seventeenth century.

These tribes spoke three different languages - Algonquian, Siouan, and Iroquoian - and lived in organised villages along the banks of the coastal waterways, and in woodlands and mountain valleys. They worshipped, hunted and fished, planted crops and traded goods, much like we do today.

The settlers arrive

When Europeans and Africans began arriving in what is now Virginia, they met Indian people from three linguistic backgrounds. Most of the coastal plain was inhabited by an Algonquin empire, today collectively known as Powhatan. The south-western coastal plain was occupied by Iroquois, Nottoway, and Meherrin. The Piedmont was home to two Sioux confederacies: the Monacan and the Manahoac. The Virginian mountains, by 1600, provided hunting territory to many peoples and a home to a few.

Long before a hundred and four Englishmen landed at Jamestown on 13 May 1607, Chief Powhatan and 10,000 of his people lived along the coastal regions of Virginia all the way north to the later site of Washington DC. Chief Powhatan and his famous daughter, Pocahontas, lived amongst the Pamunkey tribe, the most powerful in the Powhatan empire. They spoke the Algonquian language and had conquered thirty of the thirty-six tribal capitals.

Other surviving tribes of the early Powhatan empire include the following:

  • Nansemond, who settled around the Nansemond River, while some later settled in Nottoway County in central Virginia
  • Mattaponi and Upper Mattaponi who settled around the Mattaponi River in the Chesapeake Bay region
  • Rappahannock who settled around the Rappahannock River in the Chesapeake Bay region
  • Chickahominy and Eastern Chickahominy who settled along the Chickahominy River in New Kent County

Coastal Plain Indians

The once mighty Powhatan chiefdom was reduced to tributary status, being required to make annual payments to the colonial government as a sign of dependence. The Powhatan also lost all their lands between the York and Blackwater rivers.

Map of the Powhatan confederacy AD 1600
The Powhatan confederacy (the pale orange area) was formed towards the end of the sixteenth century, and under its second paramount chief it rapidly expanded to cover territory which is now divided between the states of Delaware and Maryland (click or tap on map to view full sized)

In 1677, another treaty was made with the colonists. The Indians along the coast lost their remaining land and were confined to small reservations. Many of the tribes were extinct by 1722. The Rappahannock tribe lost its reservation shortly after 1700; the Chickahominy lost theirs in 1718. These groups and the Nansemond, who sold their reservation in 1792, faded from public view. Only the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and an Eastern Shore group kept reservations, although their land constantly shrank in size.

Some native people wanted to keep the traditional lifestyles, while others accepted white culture. Powhatan religion and language, central aspects of the culture, were gradually replaced by Christianity and English. The people still raised crops, hunted, and fished. Cash crops, like cotton, were added, and livestock, such as chickens, cows, and hogs, became commonplace. Log and plank houses replaced the bark and mat-covered oval houses, and traded iron implements quickly replaced stone tools. However, the native ceramic technology of vessels and pipes remained vibrant, adapting to European shapes and functions.

Nottoway and Meherrin

Two groups which were distinct from the Powhatan were the Nottoway and Meherrin. They lived along the coastal plain of Virginia.

They spoke dialects of the Iroquoian language and lived along the Nottoway and Meherrin rivers. Like the coastal Algonquin, these people farmed and hunted, and their houses were similarly interspersed amongst fields of crops. Unlike members of the Powhatan chiefdom, however, the Nottoway and Meherrin lived as tribes in autonomous villages, with a local chief holding little sway beyond the village.

The Nottoway and Meherrin remained relatively undisturbed by the English settlements which were expanding outwards from Jamestown. But by 1650 the fur trade had increased their contact with the settlers. Then in the 1677 treaty, they too lost their land and became tributaries of the colony.

The Nottoway and Meherrin set up reservations along the Nottoway River in Southampton County. By the late 1700s, the Meherrin had lost their reservation, but the Nottoway still held onto theirs.

It appears from court records and related documents that the Indian populations in the coastal plain area dropped from a height of 20,000 to about 1,800 by 1669 due to warfare and diseases introduced by Europeans.

Piedmont Indians

A number of Indian tribes which spoke dialects of the Siouan language lived in the Piedmont of Virginia.

The Manahoac settled on the waters of the Rappahannock River above Fredericksburg. The Monacan lived above the falls of the James River, and the Occaneechi and Saponi lived above the falls of the Roanoke River.

Indians (Saponi?) cooking
There seem to be few contemporary illustrations of native Americans in the Virginias, but in the late sixteenth century G Veen was responsible for a number of engravings including this one which shows natives - possibly Saponi - cooking

Little is known about these people because few early traders and travellers kept records. These sketchy pieces of information from written records survive: Captain John Smith in 1608 met a group of Manahoac, who lived in at least seven villages to the west, above the falls of the Rappahannock River. The Manahoac were friends of the Monacan and enemies of the Powhatan.

The first direct mention of the Monacan tribe also comes from Captain Smith. In 1608, he learned from a Powhatan informant about five Monacan towns which lay to the west of the James River falls at what is now Richmond.

In 1670, German traveller John Lederer was commissioned by the governor of Virginia to explore the territory. Approaching one of the villages along the James, he was welcomed with friendly volleys of firearms.

After leaving the chief Monacan settlement, Lederer proceeded to the chief settlement of the Saponi people which was located in Charlotte County along the Roanoke River. Lederer wrote:

This nation is governed by an absolute monarch; the people of a high stature, warlike and rich. I saw great store of pearl unbored in their little temples, or oratories, which they had won amongst other spoyls from the Indians of Florida, and hold in as great esteem as we do.

Lederer advised traders to carry with them cloth, axes, hoes, knives, and scissors to trade with the Indians. Though the Indians were eager to purchase arms and ammunition, such trade was outlawed by the colonial government. For remote tribes, he wrote, the best articles to carry were small trinkets, copper, toys, beads, and bracelets.

A year after Lederer's expedition, Robert Fallam and Captain Thomas Batts, under the commission of General Abraham Wood, left the James River near Petersburg and travelled west. The men arrived at the chief Saponi settlement, welcomed by the firing of guns and plenty of supplies. Continuing beyond the Piedmont, they met with yet another warm greeting from the Totero people who were living either in the Roanoke or New River valleys. The closely-allied Saponi and Totero eventually left their villages and many moved south, joining their friends, the Occaneechi. According to John Lederer's report, the Occaneechi people lived on an island in the Roanoke River near Clarksville. From distances of up to eight hundred kilometres away, other tribes came to the village to trade, making the island a great regional centre.

The James River Monacan primarily controlled the area of the upper waters of the James River at Richmond in central Virginia. The Monacan also controlled areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley during the time of the Jamestown landing in 1607. They were members of the Catawba tribe of the Sioux and spoke the Siouan language. The area of Bear Mountain in Amherst County has been their ancestral home for several thousand years (a figure exceeding ten thousand is claimed).

Indians in the mountains

Again little is known from the written records of the Indians who lived in the mountains of western Virginia. John Lederer was the first European to view the Shenandoah Valley from the Blue Ridge in 1670 when his party travelled up the headwaters of the Rappahannock River.

The Robert Fallam and Thomas Batts expedition of 1671 marked the first contact with the Totero people living in either the Roanoke or New River valleys. By 1706, when Louis Michel, a French-Swiss traveller, proceeded up the Shenandoah River to a point near Edinburg, he noted dismissively that 'All this country is uninhabited except by some Indians'. The area was presumed to be devoid of any permanent settlements, with only hunting parties of Shawnee, Susquehannock, and Iroquois moving through it.

Thomas Walker, a physician who became a surveyor for the Royal Land Company, saw no Indians in his 1750 expedition through south-western Virginia. Twice, however, he came across Indian tracks on the trail. When he reached Long Island along the Holston River at Kingsport, Tennessee, he described an abandoned village which may have been Cherokee:

In the Fork between the Holston's and the North River, are five Indian Houses built with logs and covered with bark, and there were an abundance of Bones, some whole Pots and Pans, some broken and many pieces of mats and Cloth.

By the time Europeans came to settle western Virginia, it had become another region which was void of Indian villages. The only natives to be sighted were hunting, trading, and raiding groups of Cherokee and Shawnee who were passing through the region.

Virginia's native Americans fishing
Another unspecified group of Virginia's native Americans is illustrated in this sixteenth century engraving, showing them fishing and probably marking them out as a coastal people

The Cherokee occupied the mountain valleys of south-west Virginia and along the banks of the Nottoway River near the North Carolina border during the Jamestown landing in 1607. They spoke the Iroquoian language, and may well have been the otherwise unknown 'Richohecrian' or 'Richohockan' people who came down from the mountains in 1656. That was shortly after the first contact between the Cherokee nation and the English around 1630, when they began trading with English settlers who were migrating westwards.

By 1700 there were only a handful of tiny Algonquian-speaking tribes remaining, and one Iroquoian group. By 1790, only four Algonquin reservations (Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Nansemond, and Gingaskin) and an Iroquoian one (Nottoway) were left.

Some of the tribes which lost reservations went on living together nearby, becoming ancestors of the modern 'citizen' tribes (Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, and Rappahannock); others dispersed. In the Piedmont, the Siouan tribes withdrew southwards, sometimes returning and then leaving again. Non-Indians poured freely into their territory.

After the Tuscarora War (1715-1716), some Sioux went north with the Tuscarora. Others drifted back into Virginia, less as tribes than as families, and settled in the Piedmont and along the Blue Ridge. The population of these groups was too small to maintain their languages, even on the reservations. The native tongues of Virginia were practically gone by 1800, with none of them having been adequately recorded.

The traditional native cultures changed slowly and without direct interference, and by 1800 even the reservation people were very much Anglicised.

[However, this was not the case for the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) tribe. In March 1820, John Wood, a former professor of mathematics at William and Mary College, came to the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) tribal reservation in Southampton County and sat down with the queen of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Edy Turner (whose native name was Wane Roonseraw), and recorded the vocabulary. The vocabulary is on file with the Philosophical Society of Religion in Pennsylvania. The Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) have been teaching a word a week to the tribal members for years].


Main Sources

Bayles, Richard M - Long Island Indians and The Early Settlers

Online Sources

First Nations: Issues of Consequence

Legends of America

Philosophical Society of Religion in Pennsylvania

Virginia's First People



Original text copyright © Richard Bayles and published on the website, Long Island Indians and The Early Settlers.