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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
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
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.
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)
A detailed set of features & king lists focussing on
these complex peoples.
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 that were distinct from the Powhatan
were the Nottoway and Meherrin. They lived along the coastal plain
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 that 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.
A number of Indian tribes that 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.
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 -
A native American male of one of Virginia's tribes (unidentified)
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 five hundred
miles 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).
A native American female of one of Virginia's tribes (unidentified)
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 that 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 that 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.
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
This illustration, possibly of the nineteenth or early twentieth
century, shows Monacan natives
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
Some of the tribes that 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].
Sioux natives of the Yankton tribe photographed in the nineteenth
Bayles, Richard M - Long Island Indians
and The Early Settlers