Long before the first English ships arrived on its shores, Virginia was home to a thriving population of native peoples. For thousands of years, tribes like the Monacan, Mannahoac, Cherokee and Powhatan lived off the bountiful lands.
Mighty rivers like the James, York and Rappahannock provided them fish and passage to new hunting grounds. Deer grazed on the open meadows and turkeys roamed the forests.
In village clearings, the women tended crops of maize, beans and squash, singing songs passed down from their mothers and grandmothers. The men returned from the hunt with furs and meat to feed their families.
Life followed the rhythms of the seasons. Spring brought renewal and planting. Summer saw long days of labor in the fields beneath the hot Virginia sun.
Come autumn, there were harvest celebrations, with food and drink and dancing that lasted long into the cool nights. Winters could be lean, but still the people persevered until the return of spring.
For the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Cherokee and many more, this land of forest and river was home. Its smells, its sounds, its changing seasons connected them to the spirits of their ancestors. They became part of its rhythms over generations.
Yet unseen over the horizon, momentous change was on the winds. Soon tall ships with billowing sails would arrive bearing strangers from distant shores.
Disease and musket shot would precede them, and for the native inhabitants, nothing would ever be the same. Their ancient cycle would be interrupted, their way of life forever altered by the newcomers who claimed these lands for their own.
But that time had not yet come. For now, they lived as their forebears had lived, from river to forest and back again.
Uneasy First Encounters
In 1607, three English ships sailed up the James River, bearing a band of just over 100 settlers. They chose a marshy peninsula 50 miles inland to establish their settlement, which they named Jamestown in honor of their king.
The Algonquian-speaking Powhatan people watched anxiously as the English constructed their fort. Who were these pale strangers invading their lands?
Some Powhatan traded furs and food with the newcomers, who seemed woefully unprepared for survival in this new country. But the English hungered for more than the Powhatan’s surplus food. Their dreams were of gold and conquest.
Tensions simmered, like floodwaters behind a fragile dam. The Powhatan way of life still flowed on, but beneath these new gathering clouds.
For a time, peace prevailed between the English and the native tribes. The legendary Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, even rescued the Jamestown settler John Smith from execution in 1608.
Smith initiated trade with the Powhatan, exchanging English beads, pots and tools for the corn, squash and furs that kept the fledgling colony alive.
But such episodes masked growing resentment on both sides. The English sought to convert the natives to their religion and way of life, while encroaching further into tribal lands.
The Powhatan grew frustrated by English demands for food during the winter, demands that sometimes left Powhatan families hungry. This uneasy coexistence could not last.
Rising Tensions and Conflict
English tobacco profits fueled Jamestown’s expansion, infringing more and more on Powhatan territory. Colonists raided Indian villages, killing men and capturing women and children. The Powhatan retaliated by attacking colonial settlements along the James River.
In 1622, the Powhatan launched an assault on multiple English settlements that killed over 300 colonists. Jamestown survived, but the First Anglo-Powhatan War had begun in earnest.
Like a slowly rising flood, violence and mistrust between the two peoples would only increase as the decades passed. The English would ultimately overwhelm the outnumbered Powhatan, but not without terrible bloodshed on both sides.
The Avenging Brother
Opechancanough, brother of Chief Powhatan, watched from the shadows as the English settlers in Jamestown reveled and feasted. They laughed and drank without a care, foolishly turning their backs on the surrounding forest where his warriors lay hidden and ready.
Tonight, the English would pay for despoiling his people’s lands. They would pay for cutting down the sacred woods and fouling the clean waters. Most of all, they would pay for the hundreds of his people captured and sold into slavery.
Opechancanough gave the signal. As one, his fighters leapt from concealment with piercing cries, raining arrows down upon the unsuspecting colonists. The village erupted into screams and smoke, the flashes of musketfire answered by the singing of war clubs cracking bone.
It was but the opening blow in a conflict that would span decades. Though his brother Powhatan had accepted peace with the English, Opechancanough would never yield. He would resist them to his last breath, whatever the cost.
In the years that followed, Jamestown and the surrounding settlements were bathed in blood and fire again and again. Scores were massacred in relentless attacks ordered by the hardened Opechancanough. He rallied the remaining tribes to fight as one against the invading tide.
But the English numbers kept growing while Opechancanough’s warriors dwindled. Slowly, inevitably, the noose tightened around the defeated tribes who could no longer defend their lands.
By the time he was captured in 1646, over a hundred years old and nearly blind, most of Opechancanough’s people had been killed or driven far from their ancestral homes. Yet his eyes still smoldered with defiance.
Basely murdered while in custody, Opechancanough remained unbowed to the end. Though the struggle was lost, his valiant resistance in the face of impossible odds would live on in legend. He was the avenging brother who refused to surrender.
The Vanishing Tribes
As English settlements swelled along the coast and inland waterways, the very survival of Virginia’s tribes was threatened. Tribes like the Quiyoughcohannock and Appomattoc were extinguished in wars and epidemics.
Even mighty groups like the Powhatan and Pamunkey were reduced to remnants as the tide of colonists washed over them. By treaty in 1646, the defeated Powhatan were forced to recognize England’s sovereignty over their ancestral lands.
The dwindling Pamunkey were confined to a reservation on the river that bore their name. Here they lived under colonial supervision, their children taken for Christian education, their ancient rituals and language discouraged.
So it went for tribe after tribe. Some, like the Monacan, were gradually pushed west into the mountains by the inexorable pressure of settlement.
Others simply saw their numbers dwindle away to nothing, their names and histories largely forgotten. A civilization stretching back millennia was teetering on the brink.
The Lost Cherokee
The Cherokee inhabited the mountainous southwestern region of Virginia, practicing hunting, farming and trade. As colonists pressed inland they came into repeated conflict with these warlike mountaineers.
In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, legalizing the forced relocation of all Eastern tribes across the Mississippi. This included not just the Cherokee, but also the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee Creek and Seminole nations, who held millions of acres in the Southeast.
Yet the Cherokee could not withstand the combination of European diseases, whiskey traders, and Virginia militia forces pushing them ever farther from their ancestral valleys.
After failed attempts at armed resistance, the remaining Cherokee were forcibly removed to Oklahoma Indian Territory in the infamous Trail of Tears. Troops rounded up men, women and children at bayonet point to begin the long march west.
Perhaps 4,000 Cherokee perished on this “Trail Where They Wept,” many succumbing to cholera, starvation and exposure over the harsh journey. Those surviving the trek found only hardship in their new home in Oklahoma Indian Territory.
By 1839, the last Cherokee had vanished from the mountains and valleys they had called home for centuries uncounted.
Only their melodic place names remained—the Shenandoah River, the Alleghany and Appalachian mountains. Their legacy lived on in the land itself.
In Virginia, the few remaining tribes like the Pamunkey and Mattaponi were powerless to resist as white settlers claimed their lands acre by acre. They could only acquiesce as the best portions were taken and they were left with small reservations under colonial rule.
Their numbers dwindled from disease and resignation. Many of the old ways were now abandoned or practicing only in secret for fear of punishment.
The Vanishing Continues
After the Civil War, even the reservations were threatened by Virginia politicians seeking to “solve the Indian problem” through assimilation or outright expulsion. Tribes saw their reservation lands whittled down again and again by legal chicanery.
The Pamunkey survived only due to the courageous leadership of Chief George Major Cook, who fought in courts to preserve his people’s treaty rights.
By the early 20th century, Indians in Virginia seemed destined for extinction, either literally or culturally. Racist laws barred Indians from white schools and social institutions.
Yet still a handful of tribes persevered deep in the Tidewater swamps and inland valleys, keeping their identities and traditions alive despite the enormous pressures to abandon them. Their will to survival was unbroken.
In the 1980s, a cultural revival blossomed in many of Virginia’s Native communities. Younger generations discovered renewed pride in their Indian identity and heritage.
Intertribal organizations like the American Indian Intertribal Association provided valuable support and advocacy. Tribes increased efforts to resurrect their languages and pass down traditional arts and crafts.
Leaders like Chief Stephen Adkins of the Chickahominy Tribe and Chief Kenneth Adams of the Upper Mattaponi advocated tirelessly for state recognition, finally achieved in 1983.
This marked a major step, even as the struggle continued for federal recognition and the associated rights and resources.
In 2015, after years of determined effort, the Pamunkey became the first Virginia tribe to attain federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Pamunkey had persevered despite centuries of hardship.
Their ancestral lands along the river were now assured, and the federal recognition brought resources for cultural preservation and economic development.
Other Virginia tribes continue to pursue federal status, facing resistance from budget-minded legislators. Yet their voices are being heard more widely now.
Their cultural events draw ever more public interest and appreciation. After so many bitter decades, it seems the tide may finally be turning for Virginia’s Native people.
The Journey Forward
The old rituals are still honored along the rivers and among the hills that knew them centuries before the English came. The drum beats and the singers raise their voices to the heavens.
Children learn the stories and dances of their ancestors. And the proud legacy endures.
So too does the spirit of communities who have never stopped fighting for their rights, their heritage and their place in this land they’ve always called home.
Though the journey is long, those who remain are still walking the trails their ancestors walked, still keeping faith with the past, still building the future.