Tribes Then and Now

The foci of this page are seventeenth-century Virginia Indians, their general history and treatment, and their enduring legacies.

The marks of sundry Chief men of Virginia, 1590. Engraving by Theodor de Bry

Genocide by Vital Statistics and the Long Road to State and Federal Recognition

In 1912, Virginia established the Bureau of Vital Statistics and designated Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker as the director. The Bureau decided that all babies born in Virginia get birth certificates and that the certificates include racial designations (usually indicated by midwives). During the nineteen twenties, Plecker became a disciple of eugenics. Eugenics was a pseudoscience that espoused racial purity as the basis for a stable society. Segregation and prohibition of interracial marriage laws were enacted to ensure racial integrity. He worked with John Powell, a renowned pianist from Richmond who founded the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, and Earnest Sevier Cox, another white supremacist and author of White America (1923), and successfully advocated for the Virginia General Assembly to pass the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The legislation prohibited whites from marrying non-whites, and explicitly defined racial classifications: “The term ‘white person’ shall apply only to such person as has no trace whatever of any blood other than Caucasian.” All others were “colored.” In addition, the law asked people to voluntarily register their racial identity with the Bureau of Vital Statistics, making the falsification of one’s racial identity, or “color,” on a marriage license or birth certificate a felony offense punishable by up to one year in prison. So determined was Plecker to enforce the law strictly that he appointed county officials to draw up a list of surnames by county of those suspected of mixed ancestry (the Shiffletts , my ancestors, were on the Greene County list)). He even struct through designations on birth certificates he suspected of wrongful claims of racial status. Finally, he declared Virginia Indians did not exist; only two races existed, white and colored, and any claiming the status of Indian would be registered as colored. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia ruled the Racial Integrity Law unconstitutional. After the complaints of some elite descendants who claimed kinship from the Pocahontas-Rolfe marriage, the law allowed for a “Pocahontas exemption.” Anyone with 0ne-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and no other non-Caucasian blood would be classified as white.

The damage done to Virginia Indians was substantial and continues to affect all future generations.

Timeline (Selections Chosen to Represent the Broad Outlines of Virginia Indian History)

  • 1570-1607: Chief Wahunsenacah consolidates 31 tribes under his paramount chieftancy
  • 1607: English settlers arrive and build a military fort in the Paspahegh territory
  • 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation
  • 1609-1614: First Anglo-Powhatan War
  • 1614: The Chickahominy negotiate a treaty with the English agreeing to supply 3oo bowmen in case of war with the Spanish
  • 1622-1632: Second Anglo-Powhatan War
  • 1644-1646: Third Anglo-Powhatan War and Peace Treaty establishing tradition of yearly tribute
  • 1677: Treaty of Middle Plantation (Cockacoeske, Pamunkey Chief)
  • 1658: The Governor, the Council, and the general Assembly confirm the Pamunkey and Mattopani reservations
  • 1682: The Virginia Council apportions over 3,000 acres for a Rappahannock village
  • 1683: Iroquoian-speaking tribes attack Virginia tribes forcing some to disperse while others joined the Chickahominy or Pamunkey tribes.
  • 1683: The Rappahannock are forcibly removed from their town to Portobago Indian Town, to serve as a human shield to protect white Virginia settlers from the New York Iroquois who were attacking the frontier
  • 1705: The Nanzatico Indians who lived near Port Portobago were sold into slavery in Antigua
  • 1706: The Rappahannock were driven from Portobago Indian Town and their land was given to English settlers. The Rappanannock later moved back to ancestral lands where they live today
  • 1820: The Chickahominy Indians settle in the tribe’s present-day location on Chickahominy Ridge where they purchased land, built homes, and established the Samaria Indian Church. In 1987, the church became the Samaria Baptist Church
  • 1868: A log cabin was built and used as a church by members of the Monacan Nation, an Eastern Siouxan-speaking group
  • 1908: Arthur P. Gray, Jr., and Episcopal minister, established St. Paul’s Mission and Bear Mountain Indian Mission in Amherst County with the Monacan Nation.
  • 1924 Racial Integrity Act
  • 1924: All American Indians declared to be U. S. citizens
  • 1941: All Powhatans made subject to the draft and made to serve with blacks. Nansemonds, Mattaponi, and Upper Mattopani sought and received assignments with whites. After the Chickahominy chief pulled strings, they were assigned with whites.
  • 1946: Walter Plecker retired and was replaced by his associate
  • who retired in 1959
  • 1967: Loving v. Virginia
  • 1982: Virginia General Assembly began a process to identify groups to be recognized by the Commonwealth
  • 1983 : State recognition granted to the Upper Mattaponi and the Rappahannock
  • 1985: State recognition of the Nansemond
  • 1989: State recognition of the Monacan Nation
  • Note: the Mattaponi and Pamunkey lived on reservations under terms of a 1677 treaty that they wished to retain
  • 1980s and 1990s: building and refurbishing of tribal centers and museums
  • 1990s: Reburials of bones and artifacts unearthed in constructions of buildings or from archaeological digs
  • 1995: The Episcopal Church returned the land to the Monacan Nation on which the old mission stood. In 2007, the original log cabin was added to the National Register of Historic Places
  • 1998: G. Anne Richardson selected as Chief of the Rappanannock, the first woman to lead a tribe since Cockacoeske in 1677
  • 2016: Pamunkey receive federal recognition via the Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • 2018: Federal recognition granted to: the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nansemond, and Monacan

Pan-Indian Powwows and Reunions

The Chickahominy started the first annual tribal festival in 1951. By 1990, all Virginia tribes adopted Pan-Indian customs: dances: Welcome Dancee, Green Corn Dance, Courtship Dance; and some also organized annual reunions. Chickahominy Chief Oliver Adkins, his tribe, and other Powhatan Pan-Indian groups joined in coalitions with Eastern Native Americans to exchange ideas about dealing with government bureaucracies, particularly in areas of education, housing, land claims, and other areas of need. These were important developments in renewing cultural traditions and exchanging ideas about how to gain and protect their civil rights.

Virginia Tribes: Recognition and Location

Click on the links for tribal histories

TribeYear Recognized    Location
Mattaponi17th century Banks of the Mattaponi River, King William Co.
Pamunkey17th century Banks of the Pamunkey River, King William Co.
Chickahominy1983 Charles City County
Eastern Chickahominy1983 New Kent County
Rappahannock1983 Indian Neck, King & Queen County
Upper Mattaponi1983 King William County
Nansemond1985 Cities of Suffolk and Chesapeake
Monacan Indian Nation1989 Bear Mountain, Amherst County
Cheroenhaka (Nottoway)2010 Courtland, Southampton County
Nottoway of Virginia2010 Capron, Southampton County
Patawomeck2010 Stafford County

Pamunkey and Mattaponi Hatcheries

Virginia tribes continued their traditional habits of hunting, fishing, trapping, and producing pottery wares for cooking and hauling water in a subsistence economy. Preservation of natural resources and wild life and respect for the natural environment are part of the history of Virginia tribes. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi created shad and herring hatcheries. The Pamunkey Hatchery has contributed to shad runs that are the healthiest of any rivers feeding the Chesapeake Bay and the Mattaponi hatchery includes a marine science facility. These are hallmark examples of the Algonquian Exchange that should not be overlooked.

Virginia Indians and the Algonquian Exchange

This broad timeline indicates some of the contributions of Virginia Indians to American life and culture, but does not adequately reveal the entirety of the Algonquian Exchange. Schools, churches, hatcheries, and museums reflect the physical means whereby Indians retained their cultural heritage and became First Americans. Traditional practices of fishing, hunting, trapping, and farming in harmony with the environment continue to inform Americans willing to listen about the need to practice a sustainable ecology and economy. Thousands of descendants have become physicians, school teachers, lawyers, pharmacists, business people, ministers, tribal leaders, professors, and service workers. Their history, backgrounds, and experiences bring a hard-won perspective to Americans on the need for inclusion and equity as national ideals.