Cover Story

Virginia's First People

Story by Jim Mason, Contributing Writer


Gloria Sharp Photo.

Many of Virginia’s First People live and work among us without our being aware of their Indian ancestry — unless they happen to tell us.

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 region.

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 Indians lived.

“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.

 “But 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 occurred.

“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.

 “We 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 says.  

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 suspicions.

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 Englishman.

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 old.

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 it home.”

Today, many Virginians share Shelton’s perspective, including Kathleen S. Kilpatrick, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

“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.


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 cheerful ‘Wingapo.’”

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 Schenemann says. 


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 the Indian. 

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 two archaeologists. 

“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.”


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 bookstores. 


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