Note: The following information is taken with permission from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Web pages entitled, "First People: The Early Indians of Virginia" at http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/arch_NET/timeline/time_line.htm. The information from the Web pages is taken from the book First People: The Early Indians of Virginia, produced by the Department of Historic Resources, and published by the University Press of Virginia.
When Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of what Europeans called the New World, or, more precisely, the West Indies, he believed he had found a new trade route to Asia. Thinking he had landed in India, he called the native people "Indians." The coastal groups in Virginia first encountered European explorers in the 1520s. During this early period, the natives likely traded with the Europeans to give them fresh water, fruit, and meat.
The first English colonists arrived in North America in 1584 at Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina. The next year, a group of these settlers explored southeastern Virginia. The Roanoke colony found it difficult to survive and ran out of food and supplies. In 1590, when the colony's leader, John White, returned from England, he found the settlement deserted.
The first English colony in North America that managed to survive began at Jamestown in 1607. Although this settlement also ran out of supplies and nearly abandoned in 1610, it later grew as increasing numbers of colonists arrived.
Led by Captain John Smith, the settlers immediately explored the surrounding country, traveling up the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac Rivers as far as the fall line. They observed and wrote about the many villages and natives they met. Smith published an accurate map of the Coastal Plain of Virginia, marking the villages the scouting party discovered. Smith wrote of the Indians, "The men bestowe their times in fishing, hunting, wars and such manlike exercises...The women and children to the rest of the worke. They make mats, baskets, pots, morters, pound their corne, make their bread, prepare their victuals, plant their corn, gather their corn, beare al kind of burdens and such like." About their dress, he wrote, "[The Powhatan are] generally tall and straight, of a comely proportion, and of a colour browne...Their haire is generally black, but few have any beards. The men weare halfe their heads shaven, the other halfe long...The [Women's hair] are cut in many fashions agreeable to their years, but ever some part remaineth long. They are very strong, of an able body and full of agilitie, able to endure to lie in the woods under a tree by the fire, in the worst of winter."
The name “Powhatan” is usually used to refer to the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Virginia Coastal Plain (Tidewater) region. When the English arrived in 1607, most of the tribes in this area had been brought together under the leadership of one paramount chief or high chief named Wahunsunacock. This leader had taken the name of “Powhatan”, the name of his birth town, when he became the paramount chief, so that was how the settlers were first introduced to him, and it is the name by which he is still referred to today. At the time of English contact, the native Tidewater population numbered 20,000. Powhatan controlled more than 32 chiefdoms in more than 150 town and settlements of various sizes. The tribes under his leadership often fought for him in hostilities with other Indian nations. They also paid regular tributes or taxes in the form of game and produce. In times of need, Powhatan fed his people from these stores and provided protection.
One of Powhatan’s daughters, known to the English as Pocahontas, was kidnapped by the colonists in 1613. After a year in captivity and the arrangement of a treaty between her father and the colonists, she agreed to convert to Christianity and married an English colonist by the name of John Rolfe in 1614. The years following that marriage were peaceful, but difficult for the Indians because of their continual loss of land. In 1615, Pocahontas and John Rolfe had a son, Thomas Rolfe. The following year the three travelled to England with other Indians on behalf of the Virginia Company who had sponsored the Jamestown colony. While in England Pocahontas became seriously ill, and she died there in 1617.
There were hundreds of settled towns and satellite villages built near the Chesapeake Bay or in the inlets and rivers, which flow into it. These towns and villages were placed along points or other sites that allowed a commanding view of the water and the people, especially enemies, traveling on it. Waterways were the central avenues of transportation and a major source of food. Because of the abundant source of fish, oysters, clams and waterfowl, the Powhatan did not have to move around as much as tribes further inland. Over the centuries they settled into agricultural communities, growing corn and other vegetables to supplement the fishing, hunting and foraging of plants for food and medicines.
During the first decade encounters between colonists and Indians were often hostile. Seeing land slowly taken from his people, Powhatan appealed to Captain John Smith in 1609. Meeting Smith at Werowocomoco, his headquarters, he said, "I have seen there generations of my people die. Not a man of the three generations is alive now but myself... Why will you take by force what you may quietly have by love?"
The Werowocomoco Archaeological Site (44GL32) is a Native American village situated on Puritan Bay along the York River in Gloucester County, Virginia and which dates to the Late Woodland (A.D. 900-1607) and Early Contact (A.D. 1607-1609) periods. When the English founded Jamestown in 1607, it served as the capital of the Powhatan chiefdom and the principal residence of the chiefdoms’ paramount chief, Powhatan. The site represents the sole location where Powhatan and Captain John Smith met face-to-face, and where according to Smith Pocahontas saved his life. In 1609, Powhatan abandoned Werowocomoco and moved his capital further west to put distance between him and the English at Jamestown. Werowocomoco has been documented through archaeological surveys and excavations since 2002 to encompass 45 acres.
Four years later, the people launched the first coordinated attack to expel the settlers, leading a decade of intermittent warfare. Opechancanough, Wahunsunacock's brother, was the last Powhatan to exert control over Coastal Plain Algonquian subchiefdoms.
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. By 1722, there were no further records on many of the tribes who had been document earlier. 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 distinct from the Powhatan, the Nottoway and Meherrin, 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 Algonquian, the people farmed and hunted, and their houses were similarly interspersed among 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 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 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 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.
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.
When the first colonists arrived at Jamestown in 1607, they immediately met with Indian people on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. These Indians belonged to a vast Powhatan autocracy and spoke Algonquian languages. In the piedmont and mountain regions of this area lived Siouan Indians of the Monacan and Mannahoac tribes, arranged in a confederation ranging from the Roanoke River Valley to the Potomac River, and from the Fall Line at Richmond and Fredericksburg west through the Blue Ridge Mountains. At this time, the Virginia Siouan numbered more than 10,000 people. They were an agricultural people who grew the “Three Sisters” crops of corn, beans and squash, and they had domesticated a wide variety of other foods, including sunflowers, fruit trees, wild grapes and nuts. They lived in villages with palisade walls, and their homes were dome-shaped structures of bark and reed mats. These Monacan ancestors hunted deer, elk and small game, and they would leave their villages every year to visit their hunting camps. The Monacan traded with the Powhatan to the east and the Iroquois to the north. They mined copper, which they wore in necklaces, and which the Powhatan prized greatly. The Monacan also buried their dead in mounds, a tradition that differentiates them from neighboring Indian nations. Throughout the piedmont and mountain regions, thirteen mounds have been identified and many excavated, yielding interesting information about the lives of these First Americans, whose ancestors inhabited this region for more than 10,000 years.
In 1676, the Susquehannock of Pennsylvania contacted the Occaneechi to expand their trade with the Europeans. At the same time, Nathaniel Bacon and his discontented followers arrived. Bacon was leading a revolt against the colonial government, claiming, among other things, that Governor William Berkeley was doing nothing to prevent ongoing Indian raids in the western part of the colony. The Occaneechi received both the Susquehannock and Bacon and his men. Hostilities arose and Bacon defeated the Susquehannock with the help of the Occaneechi. Then, the colonists turned on the Occaneechi, killing more than 50 people. The Occaneechi soon fled south into North Carolina along with the Saponi and Totero.
Probably around 1716, the Saponi, Totero, and Occaneechi left North Carolina for Fort Christanna in Brunswick County, Virginia, in a move to maintain closer trade relations with colonists. The Indians' presence there provided a barrier between hostile Tuscaroa in North Carolina and the Virginia settlements. In 1722, a general peace was made between the Iroquoi and the Virginia and Carolina Indians. Around 1740, many of the Saponi, Totero, and Occaneechi moved north into Pennsylvania.
In 1833, a small remnant of the central Piedmont Indian groups purchased 400 acres of land on Bear Mountain in Amherst County, where they established a small enclave. Their descendants are known as the Monacan.
Indians in the Mountains
Little is known from the written record of the Indians who lived in the mountains of western Virginia. 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 Shawnee, Susquehannock, 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 communities. The only natives sighted were hunting, trading, and raiding groups of Cherokee and Shawnee passing through the region.