Culture

Language

Note: The following information is from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and used with permission.

People lived in Virginia for about 17,000 years before European contact. The native people had 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 16th century through the 17th century. These tribes spoke three different languages -- Algonquian, Siouan and Iroquoian -- and lived in organized villages along the banks of the coastal waterways, in woodlands and mountain valleys. They worshipped, hunted and fished, planted crops and traded goods, much like we do today.

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 Algonquian empire, today collectively known as Powhatan. The southwestern coastal plain was occupied by Iroquoians, the Nottoway, and Meherrin. The Piedmont was home to two Siouan confederacies, the Monacan and the Mannahoac. The Virginia mountains, by 1600, were hunting territory to many peoples and home to few.

Long before 104 Englishmen landed at Jamestown on May 13, 1607, Chief Powhatan and 10,000 of his people lived in the coastal regions of Virginia all the way north to Washington, D.C. Chief Powhatan and his famous daughter Pocahontas lived among the Pumunkey Tribe, the most powerful in the Powhatan Empire. They spoke the Algonquian language and had conquered 30 of the 36 tribal capitals.

Other surviving tribes of the early Powhatan Empire include the:

  • Nansemond who settled around the Nansemond River; 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 a tributary status, being required to make yearly payments to the colonial government as a sign of dependence. They also lost all lands between the York and Blackwater Rivers. 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 Pamunkeys, Mattaponis, 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.

Nottoways and Meherrins

Two groups distinct from the Powhatans, the Nottoways and Meherrins, lived in the Coastal Plain of Virginia. They spoke dialects of the Iroquoian language and lived along the Nottoway and Meherrin Rivers. Like the coastal Algonquians, the people farmed and hunted, and their houses were similarly interspersed among fields of crops. Unlike members of the Powhatan chiefdom, however, the Nottoways and Meherrins lived as tribes in autonomous villages, with a local chief holding little sway beyond the village.

The Nottoways and Meherrins remained relatively undisturbed by the English settlements expanding from Jamestown. But, by 1650, the fur trade increased their contact with the settlers. Then in the 1677 treaty, they too, lost their land and became tributaries of the colony. The Nottoways and Meherrins set up reservations along the Nottoway River in Southampton County. By the late 1700s, the Meherrins had lost their reservation, but the Nottoways still held theirs.

It appears from court records and related documents that the Indian populations in the Coastal Plain 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 that spoke dialects of the Siouan language lived in the Piedmont of Virginia. The Manahoacs settled on the waters of the Rappahannock River above Fredericksburg. The Monacans lived above the falls of the James River, and the Occaneechis and Saponis lived above the falls of the Roanoke River.
Little is known about these people because few early traders and travelers kept records. These sketchy pieces of information from written records survive: Captain John Smith in 1608 met a group of Manahoacs, who lived in at least seven villages to the west, above the falls of the Rappahannock River. The Manahoacs were friends of the Monacans and enemies of the Powhatans.

The first mention about the Monacan tribe also comes from Captain Smith. In 1608, he learned from a Powhatan informant about five Monacan towns west of the James River falls at present-day Richmond. In 1670, German traveler 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 Monacan Town, Lederer proceeded to Sapon, a town of the Saponi people 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 traveled west. The men arrived at Sapon Town, 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 living in either the Roanoke or New River Valleys. The closely allied Saponis and Toteros eventually left their villages and many moved south, joining their friends the Occaneechis. According to John Lederer's report, the Occaneechi people lived on an island in the Roanoke River near Clarksville. From 500 miles away, other tribes came to the village to trade, making the island a great regional center.

The James River Monacans primarily controlled the area of the upper waters of the James River at Richmond in Central Virginia. The Monacans 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 more than 10,000 years.

Indians in the Mountains

Little is known from the written record 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 traveled 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 traveler, proceeded up the Shenandoah River to a point near Edinburg, he noted that "All this country is uninhabited except by some Indians." The area was presumed devoid of any permanent settlements, with only hunting parties of Shawnees, Susquehannocks, and Iroquois moving through.

Thomas Walker, a physician who became a surveyor for the Royal Land Company, saw no Indians in his 1750 expedition through southwestern Virginia. Twice, however, he came across Indian tracks on the trail. When he reached Long Island in 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 void of Indian villages. The only natives sighted were hunting, trading, and raiding groups of Cherokees and Shawnees passing through the region.

The Cherokees occupied the mountain valleys of southwest 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. The Cherokee Nation did not have contact with the English settlers until around 1630, when they began trading with the English who migrated westward.

By 1700 there were only a handful of tiny Algonquian-speaking tribes remaining, and one Iroquoian group. By 1790, only four Algonquian reservations (Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Nansemond, and Gingaskin) and an Iroquoian one (Nottoway) were left. 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 southward, sometimes returning and then leaving again. Non-Indians poured freely into their territory. After the Tuscarora War (1715-16), some Siouans 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, none of them having been adequately recorded. The Indians' traditional cultures changed slowly and without direct interference, and by 1800 even the reservation people were much Anglicized.  

However, this was not the case for the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian 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 (native name Wane Roonseraw) and recorded the vocabulary. The vocabulary is on file with the Philosophical Society of Religion in Pennsylvania. (http://www.cheroenhaka-nottoway.org/about-nottoway-tribe/nottoway-language.htm) The Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) have been teaching a word a week to the tribal members for years.

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