When thinking of the Native American tribes of Virginia, people mainly think of the Native Americans the first settlers of Jamestown would have encountered: the Algonquin-speaking tribes of eastern Virginia. The history of contact between the colonists at Jamestown and the Algonquin Tribes is very well documented, specifically the interaction between the new colonists and the Powhatan people. However, the history of Native Americans in Virginia does not begin and end with the Powhatan. The history of the Monacan Indian Nation who occupied the western portion of the state is well worth remembering and discussing.
The Monacan Indian Nation is based in Amherst County, Virginia and currently consists of about 2,000 members. The presence of this tribe dates back over 10,000 years in the Mid-Atlantic Region of the United States and their original territory covered more than half of present-day Virginia. While the Virginian Algonquin-speaking people mentioned previously occupied the bulk of the land to the east of what is now Richmond, the Monacan Tribe’s original territory would have been the majority of the Piedmont of Virginia and parts of the Blue Ridge, even stretching down into modern-day northern North Carolina. Most scholars believe that the Monacans were originally incorporated into the unified group of Siouan-speaking people that inhabited all of the Ohio River Valley. Eventually, the tribes that comprised this unified group separated into the Eastern and Western Siouan speakers. The Monacan, as well as other Siouan tribes such as the Occaneechi and Saponi people of North Carolina and the Mannahoac Indians of the northern Piedmont, moved eastward and settled into what we now consider their ancestral lands. In fact, the Monacan are one of the oldest groups of indigenous peoples that still exist in their ancestral homeland and the only group of Eastern Siouan people left in Virginia.
The Monacan were an agricultural people who grew what is commonly referred to as the “Three Sisters” crops of corn, beans, and squash, as well as a wide variety of other foods such as fruit trees, sunflowers, and even some species of nuts. They hunted big game such as deer and elk, as well as small game that is native to the Mid-Atlantic, like squirrel and rabbit. They lived in villages surrounded by palisaded walls and their homes were dome-shaped structures made out of bark and reed mats. The Monacan people are differentiated from neighboring tribes by their burial practices. They would build sacred earthen mounds to inter their dead, thirteen of which have been found throughout the Piedmont and Blue Ridge, some dating over a thousand years old. Many of these mounds have been excavated by archaeologists and have aided historians in building a more complete history of the Monacan people. Thomas Jefferson excavated one of the mounds near his property at Monticello after he documented a group of Native Americans visiting the mound in the mid-1750s and in the 1780s, he returned to the site to conduct a thorough excavation.
While the Powhatan people were much friendlier with the European settlers, the Monacan people were quite reserved in their interactions with the newcomers, this due in part to the settlers’ interactions with the Powhatan. The Monacans were enemies of the Powhatan, thus the settlers were warned not to interact with their neighbors to the west. Even so, some explorers did venture into the Monacan territory to visit towns and describe them; however none stayed to learn the Monacan language or observe their customs. Therefore much of what we know of Virginia Native Americans is confined to the Algonquin-speaking tribes to the east. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, a series of encounters with the Monacan people were recorded, but gradually the Tribe moved more and more westward, escaping contact with the English settlers. Some moved northward into Pennsylvania and eventually Canada while others stayed in their ancestral homeland of Virginia, settling in what is now Amherst County, where they still exist today.
Written by Kendell Ware,
Lynchburg Museum System Staff
Encyclopedia Virginia staff. "Monacan Indian Nation." Monacan Indian Nation. July 1, 2014. Accessed December 20, 2017. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Monacan_Indian_Nation.
Hantman, Jeffrey L. "Colonial Legacies and the Public Meaning of Monacan Archaeology in Virginia." 2005. SAA Archaeological Record. 5(2): 28-32. Accessed December 20, 2017.
"Our History." Monacan Indian Nation. Accessed December 20, 2017. https://www.monacannation.com/our-history.html.
Wood, Karenne. The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. Charlottesville, VA: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2009.