Many of Virginia’s First People live and work among us
without our being aware of their Indian ancestry — unless they happen to
It hasn’t always been this way. As recently as the 1950s,
Indians, like African-Americans, were often shunned and segregated from
whites by law in Virginia.
A reversal of the injustice came in the 1960s with
judges’ rulings for voter and marital rights and integration of public
schools. In the same decade most of us already believed — or came to believe
— that every Virginian is entitled to dignity, respect and a chance to live
the American Dream.
But all this comes later in this story.
For now, let’s turn back to the spring of 1607 with the
arrival on a James River island of three boatloads of English sailors and
adventurers — 104 in all, no women — east of what is now Williamsburg. They
waded ashore and cut down trees and erected a palisade around little houses.
They called their tiny settlement Jamestown in honor of their king.
At the time, Indians ruled by Chief Powhatan had been
living in this part of Virginia for thousands of years. Historians say about
15,000 were living near Jamestown and along Virginia’s eastern coastal
As the English fanned out from Jamestown, turning
woodlands into cultivated fields, growing corn, beans and squash — foods the
Indians had shown them how to plant — the native Virginians’ powerful
leader, Chief Powhatan, thought about assimilating the newcomers, according
to Dr. Margaret W. Huber, a retired University of Mary Washington
anthropologist and an expert on Virginia Indians in the 17th century.
Instead, after intermittent years of war and peace, the
Indians were assimilated by the English colonists, Huber says. “The forest
was the source of a huge percentage of the Powhatan people’s diet, venison
not least. When you take that away, you take away a serious part of how the
“A result of this is that quite a few [Indian] families
moved to English settlements, adopted English ways and took English names
and, eventually, spouses. And unless somebody bothered to record their being
Indian, they disappear from history as Indian,” Huber says.
the Indian population didn’t actually disappear. It reformed itself; a good
deal of what visually distinguished Indians from English disappeared — the
cultural things, but also some of the physical aspects, as intermarriages
“So it only looks as if they vanished. It’s not right to
see the Indians who chose to live like the English as ‘giving up’ or in
other ways being overcome. It was a choice they made. A lot of them probably
thought this was cool, just as in 1607 and afterward lots of English
colonists thought the Indians were cool,” Huber says.
simply don’t know to what extent their adoption of the English custom was
just on the surface — clothing, housing, diet, language. Even today, there’s
things the various Virginia natives do that come from their Indian heritage,
not from Europe.”
A few Indian families still live on the Pamunkey and
Mattaponi reservations dating from the 17th century in King William County,
but most live and work in Richmond, Newport News and other parts of
Virginia, Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray says.
No matter how scattered these Virginia First Families are
today, they keep in close touch and visit their kin. Ashley Atkins, for
instance, still visits her grandfather, Warren Cook, 74, on the Pamunkey
reservation. “Some people claim that because we are ‘assimilated’ we are not
really Indians,” says Atkins, a Ph.D. student at the College of William &
Mary. “All Native Virginians are part of a broader American society, but I
would not say I am an ‘assimilated’ person. Driving a car or using a cell
phone doesn’t make me any less a Pamunkey.”
In the 17th century, many Virginia Indians died from
smallpox and measles before they developed immunity to
the diseases brought by English colonists.
A different kind of threat — identity theft — hit
Virginia’s Indians in the 20th century. Walter Ashby Plecker, who ran the
state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 until 1946, decided that
Indians, whether full-blooded or of mixed race, wouldn’t be identified as
Indians. Moreover, in 1924, Virginia’s legislature passed the Racial
Integrity Act, a law that imposed strict segregation in society and in state
records. All Virginians were either “white” or “colored.”
In 1940, the state government counted only 779 Indians in
Virginia. In contrast, the 2010 U.S. Census shows 29,225 Indians living in
the Old Dominion.
In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling unanimously for a
Caroline County interracial couple, struck down the Racial Integrity Act’s
ban on interracial marriage, and then the Virginia General Assembly repealed
the entire law.
Ken Adams, chief of the Upper
Mattaponi tribe, also in King William County, has been a leader in a long
battle to gain federal recognition for his and five other Virginia tribes.
Adams, 64, a retired U.S. Air
Force electronics specialist, says a bill granting federal recognition to
the six Virginia tribes has cleared a U.S. Senate committee, which sent it
to the Senate floor. “But I don’t know when it will come up for a vote,” he
Virginia’s Patawomeck Indians made news in 2010 when the
General Assembly recognized them as a tribe. In the eyes of Patawomeck
Chief Robert “Two Eagles” Green, it’s ironic that it took so long. “After
all, archaeologists say we have been living here at least 12,000 years.” The
Patawomecks number about 800 today, with most tribal members living in
Stafford and King George counties.
Practically every boy and girl growing up in Virginia has
heard the story, how Pocahontas saved the life of Captain John Smith as her
father’s warriors were about to club him to death. Smith wrote the tale in
his 1624 memoirs. Some scholars doubt it happened; others conclude it did.
Dr. Huber, the expert on 17th-century Virginia Indians,
summarizes the two sides: Scholars doubtful of the rescue story see Smith’s
claim as a “self-aggrandizing — ‘Hey, I-knew-her-when kind of story.’ ”
Pocahontas would have been only about 10 years old then and her age raises
Nowadays, however, most scholars think the rescue really
did happen, even if Smith didn’t understand what was going on, Huber says.
“This wasn’t a story of a beautiful young princess saving a stranger and
potential lover. Pocahontas was just performing her role in a ritual
orchestrated by her father, Powhatan, to assimilate the Jamestown colony
into his empire ... It was just a political move to put Smith firmly in the
old man’s debt — ‘Hey, I saved your life, so you owe me.’ ”
According to Patawomeck tribal historian Bill “Night Owl”
Deyo (below, left) of Colonial Beach, Pocahontas was married twice, the
first time in 1610 to a Patawomeck Indian named Kocoum, the second time in
1614 to 28-year-old English colonist John Rolfe. Patawomeck oral history
holds that Pocahontas gave birth to a child by Kocoum, who was a Patawomeck.
“Just a few years ago, I found out from the Mattaponi tribe that their oral
history has the same story about Pocahontas and Kocoum’s child being raised
by the Patawomeck tribe,” says Deyo.
William Strachey, an English writer who spent time in
Virginia after the Jamestown settlement, wrote about the marriage in his
journal, but left no details. His journal is the only known written record
of the marriage.
Dr. Huber says it appears true that in 1610 Pocahontas
married a man named Kokoum, but Strachey didn’t record what tribal
affiliation he had.
Oral history, she says, may have some truth in it. “But
the trouble is that without independent corroboration, such as a document,
there’s no way to know what has come down through the years without change,
and what’s been modified in various ways,” Huber says. “All you really have
to do, for example, is look at the Euro oral history of Virginia, which has
Pocahontas married to John Smith.”
While visiting with the Patawomecks, Pocahontas was taken
hostage by the English and taken to Jamestown. She converted to Christianity
and married John Rolfe, a tobacco grower. She gave birth in 1615 to a son,
Thomas Rolfe, the first recorded child of a Virginia Indian woman and an
In 1616, the Virginia Company, which financed the
Jamestown settlement, brought the family to England, where Pocahontas was
well received by the king and other royals. They honored her as a princess.
As the family prepared to sail back to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and
died in Gravesend, Kent, England, where she was buried. She was 22 years
It is a warm, sunny fall day, on the edge of the lush
woodlands at Caledon, once a King George County plantation and now a state
park preserve for bald eagles. Indians of the Patawomeck tribe have gathered
and set up a little village for tourists.
“When the white man came here, they called it the
wilderness,” Don “Flying Eagle” Shelton (below, right) says. “We called
Today, many Virginians share Shelton’s perspective,
including Kathleen S. Kilpatrick, director of the Virginia Department of
“Thankfully, in recent decades the Commonwealth has made
great strides in according Virginia Indians the respect and recognition that
is their due and right,” she wrote in the foreword for a book about
Virginia’s First People.
CAROLINE COUNTY FAMILY EMBRACES THE ANCESTRAL LIFESTYLE
When it comes to preserving their
Indian heritage, a Caroline County family may be seen as a model. Darren
(left) and Myra Schenemann and their children, Reba, Matthew, Carla and
Connie, are fully engaged in continuing the lifestyle of the
Fredericksburg area Patawomeck (pronounced Potomac, like the river) tribe.
“As a toddler, Carla (below) used to watch the Disney
movie Pocahontas repeatedly and play like she was Pocahontas,” her mother
recalls. “She would leap up onto the coffee table in the living room
pretending she was Pocahontas curiously peering at Captain John Smith’s
arriving ship. She would greet everyone entering the living room with a
Carla continued her Pocahontas play-likes as a
12-year-old when she wore a tanned buckskin dress, secured with pieces of
leather and adorned with fox and coyote teeth, in August 2006 when the
family represented the tribe at Stafford County’s Colonial Discovery Days at
Aquia Landing. “Nearly every young girl under the age of 10 thought Carla
was Pocahontas,” Myra Schenemann remembers. “One little girl was so
fascinated by Carla that she followed her around for the entire day.” Also
that year, in a documentary, “Pocahontas Revealed,” filmed at Henricus Park
in Henrico County, Carla played the role of an Indian village girl during
John Smith’s capture.
When the tribe gathers to set up
a “living history” village, at places like Aquia Landing and Caledon state
park in King George County, the entire Schenemann family pitches in to
revive the Indian way of life in Virginia for centuries up until modern
times. Darren demonstrates hide-tanning techniques. Carla and Connie
demonstrate use of fur for warmth, grind corn for bread, and help children
make keepsake necklaces to take home.
Matthew helps with the heavy lifting required
to set up and take down a village. Sometimes Connie plays the drum to
accompany a tribal flutist.
Darren Schenemann, just like his
Virginia Indian ancestors, traps in the winter and farms in the summer.
He hunts and fishes and passes on these skills
to his children. The Schenemann family grows a vegetable garden every
spring. “We also grow feed crops in Stafford County for our livestock,” Myra
WHEN & WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?
There’s a story about a Virginia Indian being asked one
time, “When did you come to this land?”
“We have always been here,” said
If so, could the Biblical “Garden of Eden” have been in
Virginia instead of Africa?
Not likely, scientists say. They tell us our earliest
ancestors evolved in Africa, then fanned out on foot, maybe some on boats.
To Europe, Asia and beyond, based on telltale bones and relics unearthed
over the years.
Virginia’s Indians — and other
North American Indians —- are taller and have different features compared
with their cousins in Mexico and elsewhere across Central and South America.
One theory, based on
archaeological findings, is that Indians came from Asia and walked across a
frozen Bering Strait land bridge from Russia to Alaska, then trudged on
across America, settling in various places, including Virginia, according to
“We know Indians were in Virginia about 18,000 years ago,
possibly even earlier,” says Dr. Elizabeth A. Moore, curator of archaeology
at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville. “These early
tribes were wandering bands of hunters and gatherers. They had no pack
animals so they walked everywhere they went.”
Dr. Michael B. Barber, state
archaeologist with the Department of Historic Resources, says it does indeed
appear that Indians have been living in Virginia for at least 18,000 years
and in the eastern part of the state for at least 12,500 years.
“There is a new hypothesis that some people may have come
to North America by boat crossing the North Atlantic,” Moore says. “This is
still under hot debate within the archaeological community.”
Some archaeologists, Barber says, do indeed theorize that
Indians came to America on boats from Europe, Asia and possibly Africa.”
HISTORY’S OTHER SIDE
The True Story of Pocahontas, by
Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow with Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star”
(above), tells the Powhatan Nation’s side of the first meeting between the
Indians and the English who settled at Jamestown. The book details events
based on Mattaponi oral history passed down by the
“quiakros,” spiritual leaders of the Powhatan
Nation. Custalow, a retired M.D., was the first Virginia Indian to graduate
from college and medical school. The book is readily available online and in