Virginia Indian Tribes

The story of Virginia Indians is sometimes tragic, sometimes triumphant. Stretching back thousands of years, it includes breathtaking changes and remarkable continuities.

Once nomadic, Virginia Indians settled in communities to farm and hunt. Once free of the English, they now play a unique role in today’s commonwealth.

At the same time, and perhaps against the odds, Virginia’s Indians have managed to preserve many of their old ways while creating entirely new traditions.

There has been violence, of course, including at least three extended wars, as well as occasions, even in the recent past, of maddening injustice. But the story of Virginia Indians has largely been one of adaptation: to the environment and to the people around them.

Virginia had been occupied by humans now known as Virginia Indian Tribes for roughly 15,000 years before the first European explorers arrived, according to the archeological evidence.

When Europeans first arrived in this region in the early 17th century, they found a flourishing population of people who belonged to one of three main language groups. Most of the coastal plain was inhabited by an Algonquian empire, today collectively known as Powhatan Indians.


The Algonquian-speaking tribes in Virginia are often treated as if they were all part of Powhatan’s “empire.”

Between the time the Spanish arrived in 1570 and the English came to stay in 1607, Powhatan established his empire over tribes east of the Fall Line.

He had inherited control (from his mother rather than his father, in accord with his cultural tradition) of just four tribes, but conquered another 30 and exerted control over nearly all Algonquian-speaking Native Americans in Virginia when the Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant sailed between the capes at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Those Algonquian-speaking tribes were all located east of the Fall Line.

Powhatan ruled between the Falls of the James (today the site of Richmond) and the Atlantic Ocean.

Powhatan dominated those on the Eastern Shore, which could be reached only by canoe until the Europeans brought a new technology – sailing ships. Powhatan’s power extended south to the Blackwater River and today’s Virginia Beach, and north to Potomac and Aquia Creeks.

North of the Rappahannock, his control was weak. The Potomack tribe, who lived at the mouth of Aquia Creek, actually sold Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas to the English.

She had been in the area ensuring the corn tax would be paid to her father, but ended up instead as a captive (sold for a copper kettle). Pocahontas is said to have later saved the life of Captain John Smith.

Further north, Powhatan claimed no power. Instead, he tried to block the English from dealing with those tribes outside his control. The Algonquian-speaking Taux (Doeg’s) were allied to Piscataway and other Maryland tribes, and the capital of their leader or “tyac” was located in Maryland.

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.


Federal list last updated 3/18

Chickahominy Tribe
Chickahominy Tribe
Monacan Nation
Nansemond Tribe
Pamunkey Indian Tribe a.k.a. Pamunkey Nation
Upper Mattaponi Tribe


(Not recognized by the Federal Governemnt)

Cheroenhaka (Nottoway)

Mattaponi Tribe (aka Mattaponi Indian Reservation). Letter of Intent to Petition 04/04/1995. State recognized 1983.

Nottoway of Virginia


Rappahannock Indian Tribe (I) (formerly United Rappahannock Tribe). Letter of Intent to Petition 11/16/1979. State recognized 1983; in Indian Neck, King & Queen County. Shares a name with an unrecognized tribe Rappahannock Indian Tribe (II).

The Mattaponi and Pamunkey have reservations based in colonial-era treaties ratified by the Commonwealth in 1658.

The Pamunkey Tribe’s attorney told Congress in 1991 that the tribes state reservation originated in a treaty with the crown in the 1600s and has been occupied by Pamunkey since that time under strict requirements and following the treaty obligation to provide to the Crown a deer every year, and they’ve done that (replacing Crown with Governor of Commonwealth since Virginia became a Commonwealth).


Ani-Stohini/Unami Nation. Letter of Intent to Petition 07/08/1994
Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe. Letter of Intent to Petition 12/30/2002

Rappahannock Indian Tribe (II). Letter of Intent to Petition 1/31/2001. Shares a name with a State recognized tribe Rappahannock Indian Tribe (I).

United Cherokee Indian Tribe of Virginia. Letter of Intent to Petition 08/03/2000.

Wicocomico Indian Nation (aka Historic Wicocomico Indian Nation of Northumberland County, Virginia). Letter of Intent to Petition 09/15/2000


Virginia Indians likely can trace their heritage back to a nomadic people living in Siberia about 13,500 years ago.

Taking advantage of a warming glacier, they crossed over into what is now North America, spreading out across what is now North and South America and leaving behind what scientists now call the Clovis-age culture, named after stone projectile points first found found near Clovis, New Mexico, in the mid-1930s.

These nomads may not have been the first Virginians, however. Recent evidence at sites such as Cactus Hill in Sussex County suggests that people were living here 18,000 to 20,000 years ago and creating a so-called pre-Clovis culture.

Intriguingly, at least some of these people may have originated in France, skirting across Atlantic ice floes to their new hunting grounds. Scholars are still debating what this means for our understanding of the origins of Virginia Indians.


The Spaniards were among the earliest to explore the coast of what is now Virginia. In 1561, a Virginia Indian named Paquiquineo boarded a Spanish caravel and did not see his home again for nine years. His hair-raising and, in the end violent, story is one of rebellion, conversion, and return.

Two decades later, the English arrived, planting two failed colonies to the south at Roanoke in what Sir Walter Raleigh dubbed Virginia and the Indians called Ossomocomuck.

The result, while a failure for the English, was no less heartbreaking for the Indians.

When the chief Wingina battled the invaders, he was beheaded, and when the young man Manteo decided instead to join the foreigners—learning their language, wearing their clothes—he faced the sorts of terrible choices and consequences that would echo through the next three hundred years of Virginia Indian history.

Once the English arrived and began to settle in the area, the native people found themselves in competition for land for hunting and farming.

They also were exposed to European diseases for the first time, and many died of diseases like smallpox, to which they had no immunity.

While there were occasional fights over the land, the increasing number of English settlers and African slaves, and the dwindling population of natives effectively pushed native groups into smaller and smaller settlements where they could barely farm enough land to stay alive.

Accompanying the English colonists in 1585 were two men whose sole responsibility was to document the land and people they found.

The more scientific of the two, Thomas Hariot surveyed the Outer Banks and inland areas for maps; he even learned a bit of the Algonquian language and took extensive notes on the native culture, which he published in 1588 as A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia.

John White was an artist. His watercolors attempted to capture Indian dress, diet and cooking techniquesgift exchanges, and religious ceremonies.

Of course, his paintings were filtered through a sensibility that was completely foreign and not altogether sympathetic to Virginia Indian culture. 

While not always perfectly accurate in their ethnography and biology, these images nevertheless reached a broad and curious audience in Europe, becoming, for better or for worse, archetypes for all the natives in America.

Much of what we know about Virginia Indian society dates to the writings of these first English colonists.

Captain John Smith, for instance, wrote that all Indians, regardless of language or location, had “religion, Deare, and Bow and Arrowes.”

But what was that religion? In highly dramatic fashion, Robert Beverley Jr. later described the huskanaw, a religious coming-of-age ceremony, while others transcribed various creation stories and the attributes of that fearsome god Okee.

Most observers agreed that the most powerful figures in Virginia Indian society were priests. They were more powerful, even, than Powhatan.

Powhatan was the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, a political alliance of twenty-eight to thirty-two Algonquian-speaking tribes that stretched from the south bank of the Powhatan (later James) River to the south bank of the Potomac River.

When the English founded Jamestown in 1607, they did so on land ultimately controlled by Powhatan. The chief responded, sometimes simultaneously, with acts of hospitality and war.

His was a diplomacy rooted in the understandings of his own ancient culture, understandings that would be sorely tested in the years to come.

The English, meanwhile, arrived with the hope of treating the natives better than the Spanish had, only to wage near total war against them.

Virginia Indians were more numerous and varied than all the attention paid to Powhatan and Tsenacomoco might lead you to expect.

The Monacan Confederation, for instance, consisted of Siouan-speakers who lived beyond the fall line on the Piedmont and into the mountains.

The Mannahoac, a related group of tribes, lived farther north, along the tributaries of the Rappahannock.

The Nottoway and Meherrin Indians spoke Iroquoian languages and lived along the fall line of the rivers of those names.

Their cultures were distinct and no less well developed than their Algonquian neighbors, and many of their traditions have survived into the present day.

English incursions onto Indian land, often accompanied by horrific violence, eventually led to the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614).

Where once Powhatan had sought to feed the colonists, he now attempted to starve them out. It almost worked, but in the end the old leader’s daughter Pocahontas was captured and peace negotiated. 

It was an uneasy peace at best, and while Pocahontas went on to marry John Rolfe, some Indians have cited oral history which suggests that she was mistreated in captivity.

Pocahontas marks a pivotal moment in the history of Virginia Indians. She is seen by the English as the quintessential “good Indian”—she helped the struggling foreigners, converted to their religion, even married one of their men.

Like Manteo before her at Roanoke, she went “all in” with English culture—but her only reward was an early death.

Pocahontas has become an iconic and famously Disney-fied figure, one that has drawn attention to Virginia Indians while at the same time distorting their history and culture.

She was not, technically, a princess, and she likely did not save the life of John Smith, let alone romance him. She is just one of the many ways in which first English and then American culture has sought to erase Virginia Indian culture.

The height of Virginia Indian resistance to English rule came on March 22, 1622, when  the Pamunkey leader Opechancanough led a massive attack on the foreign settlements along the James River.

Known by the Indians as the Great Attack and by the English as the Great Massacre, the assault killed as many as a quarter of the Virginia colony‘s inhabitants, and launched a ten-year war that ended in yet another uneasy peace.

Opechancanough attacked again in 1644, and after his capture and death in 1646, a more lasting, if not particularly generous, treaty was finally signed.

Along with the Articles of Peace, drawn up and signed after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1677, the treaty placed the Virginia Indians entirely under the protection and control of the English colonial government.

Resistance was largely over. Assimilation had begun.

In the 1800s, the prevailing white culture in Virginia wanted to push the Indians off their homelands.

Pressure was brought to remove each of the four remaining reservations and end the people’s legal status as tribes.

This policy meant dividing, with the Indians’ consent, all of a reservation among each of its members and removing all state services to the tribe.

The Gingaskin Reservation on the Eastern Shore was legally subdivided in 1813. Unable to withstand legal pressure and being very poor, the people sold their land for profit. By 1850, all of the original Gingaskin Reservation was in white hands.

The last parcel of the Nottoway Reservation was divided in 1878, although many families held onto their land into the 20th century.

The Pamunkey and Mattaponi, the last two reservations, withstood attempts at termination. Though the people were poor, they maintained their tribal structure and treaties with the Commonwealth.

Today, their reservations are two of the oldest in the nation.

After two centuries of death and displacement, a number of Virginia Indian tribes remained on their land at the dawn of the twentieth century.

The Chickahominy Indians lived in Charles City County, while the Eastern Chickahominy and Pamunkey Indians resided in New Kent County.

The Mattaponi and Upper Mattaponi tribes could be found in King William County and the Monacans in the mountains of Amherst.

The Rappahannock were in King and Queen County and the Nansemond down in Chesapeake and Suffolk.

They had mostly assimilated, wearing non-Indian clothing and working as farmers or laborers. The next twenty-five years, however, would see big changes, both good and bad.

On the good side, a cultural renaissance began to bloom. Men like James Johnson, a Rappahannock tribal official who might once have worn a suit and tie now wore a headdress and buckskin.

The change was noticed by—some have argued even precipitated by—the anthropologist Frank G. Speck, who in 1925 wrote, “In respect to their consciousness the Rappahannock may be said to possess the same tenacity of feeling and purpose as regards their tribal identity as the kindred Powhatan bands.”

On the bad side, the General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which, along with subsequent legislation, banned interracial marriage in Virginia and asked for voluntary racial identifications on birth and marriage certificates.

“White” was defined as having no trace of African ancestry, while all other people, including Virginia Indians, were defined as “colored.”

Falsifying racial information on a government form was a felony.

To accommodate elite Virginians who claimed Pocahontas and John Rolfe as ancestors, the law allowed for those who had “one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood to be deemed to be white persons.”

In other words, as far as Virginia was concerned, its Indians no longer existed.Of course, that wasn’t true in reality.

By mid-century Virginia Indian culture was in revival and by 1983, the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, and Rappahannock tribes all had been recognized by the state.

In the years to come, another five followed suit: the Nansemond, Monacan, Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Nottoway, and Patawomeck tribes.


15,000–8,000 B.C. – Paleoindians. Early Hunters.

8,000–6,000 B.C. – Early Archaic. Hunters.

6,000–2,500 B.C. – Middle Archaic. Dispersed Foragers.

2,500–1,200 B.C. – Late Archaic. Sedentary Foragers.

1,200–500 B.C. – Early Woodland. Sedentary Foragers

500 B.C.–A.D. 900 – Middle Woodland. Sedentary Foragers

900–1600 A.D. – Late Woodland. Farmers.


During the Paleoindian Period (16,000–8500 BC), Virginia Indians hunted and gathered in the large forests that dominated the landscape. Gradually, their lifestyles became more sedentary and they began to domesticate plants. 

The Clovis culture is noted by the lance-shaped fluted point. Clovis points are found across the continent, and an especially large number are found in Virginia.

Other stone tools found with the Clovis point include scrapers, gravers, perforators, wedges, and knives.

Evidence in Virginia suggests that these tools were used to spear game, cut up meat, scrape and cut hides, and split and carve bone of deer, bison, and rabbit. Also caribou, elk, moose, and possibly mastodon may have been hunted.

Glaciers made for long, hard winters and short, cool summers. In the Appalachian region, the mountain slopes were bare and tundra-like.

People in the Shenandoah Valley and northern Virginia lived among grasslands, open forests of conifers, such as pine, fir, spruce, and hemlock, and occasional islands of deciduous trees.

Slightly warmer weather south of present-day Richmond encouraged the growth of more deciduous trees such as birch, beech, and oak.

The first people lived in groups which anthropologists today call bands, and camped along streams that flowed through the tundra-like grasslands and the open spruce, pine, and fir forests that covered Virginia at that time.

A band was like an extended family. Due to the harsh climate, each band moved seasonally within a set territory to hunt and forage.

Early Archaic Period

Archaic, meaning old, signals a series of new adaptations by the early people that occurred between 8,000 and 1,200 B.C.

As the cold, moist climate of the Pleistocene Age changed to a warmer, drier one, the warming winds melted the glaciers to the north and warmed the ocean water.

The sea level rose, spreading water across the Coastal Plain of Virginia and creating the Chesapeake Bay. Thus, the Early Archaic population grew, nurtured by a more inviting environment.

Families lived in larger bands and remained mobile, but within a more limited fertile area.

Middle Archaic Period

By the Middle Archaic period, the Indians of Virginia had adjusted well to the Eastern woodland. They became masters of the deciduous forest of oak, hickory, and chestnut.

Their knowledge of how best to use the physical setting altered with the changing environment and shifting seasons of the year, and gradually became more sophisticated.

The people of the Eastern forest started to produce in large quantities chipped stone axes around 4,000 B.C.

The axes were made from tough resilient stone, such as basalt and quartzite. With large axes, the Middle Archaic people could more easily cut wood to build houses and make fires.

The resulting forest clearings altered the environment in a radical way.

Clearings encouraged the growth of plants and trees that were beneficial to the people, such as berry bushes and fruit and nut trees.

Deer, bear, turkey, and other animals came to the clearing to browse on the tender leaves of low-lying shrubs and to eat berries and nuts.

Late Archaic Period

Archaeologists believe that between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago, people first began to settle into villages.

It was also about this time that people first began to clear sections of land by burning so that edible plants would continue to grow in those areas each year. We would consider this the earliest examples of farming.

For example, we know these people ate sunflowers, ragweed, sumpweed, squash, gourds, and greens. They hunted deer, black bear, turkey, squirrel, rabbits, beaver, otter, muskrat and water birds.

Particularly in the Coastal Plain Region of Virginia, the people fished for shad, herring, rockfish, and sturgeon. Oysters, clams, crabs and turtles were plentiful.

Late Woodland Period

By the Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650), scattered populations had consolidated into villages and towns, where they adopted a new kind of life around the farming of maize.

Competition over the richest soil caused movement and conflict—hence the palisade around the towns—and the creation of increasingly complex political systems and alliances.

Archaeologists have found evidence that these people used clay to make pottery and then traded that pottery with other people in nearby areas. Around 800 years ago, native people began to use bow and arrow to hunt.

We also know that they took care in burying their dead in large mounds, and left them with items of importance, probably because they believed these people would need the items in the afterworld.

Villages became more complex; house building more substantial. In typical villages, various sizes of house were placed in rows around a plaza with perhaps a council house or temple elevated on a nearby mound.

A palisade may have surrounded the entire village.

Sources of records on US Indian tribes

Virginia Native American Boarding Schools


Article Index:

Places to visit native american culture exhibits in Virginia USA

Here is a list of places to visit in Virginia USA to learn about native american culture.

Baylay Art Museum of the University of Virginia
Rugby Rd.
Charlottesville, VA 22903
tel (804) 924-3592
fax (804) 924-6321

Bedford City/County Museum
201 E. Main St.
Bedford, VA 24523
tel (703) 586-4520

Berkeley Plantation
12602 Harrison Landing Rd.
Charles City, VA 23030
tel (804) 829-6018
fax (804) 829-6757

Virginia Indians struggle for federal recognition

Virginia’s original inhabitants are seeking formal recognition from the federal government, but they face opposition from casino interests and other groups.

The Pamunkey, whose most famous member was Pocahontas, and other Native American tribes in Virginia want federal recognition that would open the door for housing, education and other financial assistance.


The casino giant MGM, which is building a gaming resort on the Maryland side of Washington, D.C.’s National Harbor, is urging the federal government not to recognize the Virginia tribes. MGM has raised several objections, including accusations that the tribes have been racist and sexist.

However, Native Americans say the real reason for MGM’s opposition is that the company fears that federal recognition would allow Native Americans to open competing casinos in Virginia. (The Virginia tribes have not expressed interest in doing so.)

“It’s pretty infuriating to me – in a way, it’s insulting – because they think that’s the only reason a tribe wants to be recognized is for casinos,” said Wayne Adkins, an assistant chief of the Chickahominy tribe.

11 tribes recognized by Virginia

The commonwealth of Virginia recognizes 11 tribes: the Mattaponi, Upper Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Rappahannock, Nansemond, Monacan, Cheroenhaka, Nottoway and Patawomeck. Six were approved by the General Assembly in 1983; the others were added by legislation since then.

None of those tribes are recognized by the U.S. government. There are 566 federally recognized tribes.

A tribe can obtain recognition from the U.S. Congress or from the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Pamunkey tribe applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agency is expected to decide by the end of July.

Six Virginia tribes have formed a coalition to seek recognition from Congress. The Virginia Indian Tribe Alliance for Life includes the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Monacan, Nansemond, Upper Mattaponi and Rappahannock tribes. (Initially, the Pamunkey tribe also was a member of VITAL.)

Adkins is president of the alliance. With federal recognition, a tribe is treated like a separate nation with a level of self-governance. It also is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“That whole congressional process is just a whole other ball game itself. It’s completely different than state recognition,” Adkins said. “I’m hoping that the Pamunkey will get their federal recognition; they’d be the first in Virginia to get it.”

The importance of federal recognition

The Pamunkey were among the indigenous tribes to come in contact with the first wave of English settlers in the early 17th century.

“The Virginia Indian tribes have played an integral role in our Commonwealth’s and our country’s history, and it is a grave injustice that the federal government has failed to grant them federal recognition,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. He is co-sponsoring legislation to award federal designation to the six tribes represented by VITAL.

U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, a Republican who represents Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, also is a sponsor of the legislation.

“The history of these tribes is intertwined with the birth of our nation, and their federal recognition status is long overdue,” Wittman said. “I’m proud to work with the Virginia tribes to ensure that they are granted the recognition that they have been denied for far too long.”

To obtain federal recognition, a tribe must show that it has existed as a community since at least 1900, that its members can trace their lineage to the historical group and that it exercises political influence or authority over its members.

Virginia Indians face extra hurdles in meeting those requirements.

For one thing, the Virginia tribes lack formal treaties with the U.S. government because they made peace with England well before the establishment of the United States.

Moreover, the Virginia Indians were victims of what some call a “paper genocide”: In 1924, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act, which destroyed birth records, marriage certificates and land titles of Virginia’s tribes.

At the time, the registrar overseeing Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics was Walter Plecker, a white supremacist intent on preventing interracial breeding. Seeking to purify the white race in Virginia, he forced Indians and other nonwhites to classify themselves as blacks.

“Through his campaign of racial classification, Plecker denied the Virginia American Indians their inherent birthright by removing the category of ‘Indian’ from birth and marriage records,” according to the VITAL website.

Gregory Smithers, an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, said tribes that receive federal recognition enjoy certain benefits.

“They’re not going to get rich from becoming federally recognized, but there are federal annuities that are administered through the Department of Interior,” Smithers said. “Leaders of those tribes then have the responsibility of allocating those funds to things like health care services, schools, the maintenance of roads and basic infrastructure.”

Some tribes have used their federal designation to open casinos. The legislation sponsored by Kaine and Wittman would explicitly prohibit the Virginia tribes from offering gambling. In March, the bill won approval from the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

Meanwhile, the staff of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said it believes the Pamunkey tribe meets the criteria for federal recognition. The bureau was supposed to act on the tribe’s application by March 31 but delayed its decision because of questions and objections raised by opponents of federal recognition.

The objections to the Pamunkey petition

The objections to the Pamunkey petition for federal recognition are laid out in documents filed last year with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Companies that sell gasoline and cigarettes, for example, complained that federal recognition would allow the tribes to sell those products without collecting state taxes.

MGM National Harbor, a $1.2 billion facility scheduled to open in 2016, filed its comments jointly with a group called Stand Up for California.

They questioned whether the people who today call themselves Pamunkey Indians truly descended from the tribe that interacted with Capt. James Smith at Jamestown in 1607. There are big gaps in Pamunkey history, and at times the Pamunkey mixed with other tribes and with non-Indians, the opposing statement said.

This information “undermines (the bureau’s) conclusions regarding descent from historical members of the Pamunkey tribe,” the document said.

It also raises questions about discriminatory practices by the Pamunkey. The tribe had rules to “prohibit members from marrying African-Americans” and “prohibit women members from marrying non-Pamunkey men, from voting, and from holding office,” according to MGM and Stand Up.

Because of such practices, the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus also have objected to federal recognition for the Pamunkey.

“Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are upset at the thought of federal recognition and potentially federal revenue going to a tribe with a deep history of what they perceive as racism,” Smithers said.

He said rules against mixed marriages by Virginia Indian tribes should be viewed in the historical context of Jim Crow laws of the late 19th and early 20th century.

“This is not in any way to sort of excuse the Pamunkey’s kind of exclusionary law. It is more to sort of explain the decisions that they made in this highly charged racial context,” Smithers said. “And the legacy of this stuff is coming out in the open with their case for federal recognition.”