"Indians" of Virginia - The Real First Families of Virginia

each year, the governor of Virginia announces November is Virginia Indian Heritage Month
each year, the governor of Virginia announces November is Virginia Indian Heritage Month
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Governor McDonnell Signs Proclamation Designating November as Virginia Indian Heritage Month (November 8, 2013)

NOTE: It is difficult to describe Virginia's aboriginal cultures without violating some aspect of modern political correctness. This Web site uses Native Americans, First Virginians, Indians, and other terms. Inevitably, some readers may take umbrage at one or more of the labels. Perhaps in the future, we'll reach a stage in our own cultural development where examination of the patterns of other societies will be considered a way of honoring another culture. The reader is requested to suspend efforts to find fault with inadequate terminology, and emphasize instead an appreciation of the effort required to understand the differences and appreciate the similarities among cultures.

The first human residents of Virginia left virtually no written materials about their culture. We don't have the diaries, reports, or other records of a "literate" society as source material for understanding a different culture, in a different time. We have to evaluate other evidence to determine - or guess - at their religious beliefs, political boundaries, population levels, family life, and other social patterns. The physical evidence still available for study - shards of pottery, animal bones, postholes of houses, etc.- are subject to interpretation.

English listeners recorded the words spoken by Powhatan. (He was also called Wahunsenacawh or Wahunsunacock, as recorded by the English immigrants in the early 1600's - spelling of the original Virginia names by the English is not 100% consistent.) His words are not first-hand records; they were not written directly by Powhatan himself. In addition to the inevitable errors in translation, the written records of the Europeans must be viewed in the context of the 1500's and 1600's rather than the first decade of the 21st Century. The early English were not necessarily "New Age, sensitive kinds of guys" who made anthropologically-neutral observations. The first Europeans to explore Virginia filtered what they saw through their world view.

The vast majority of English explorers and colonists were Protestants and nationalists. The idea that there should be a separation between church and state, that government should be secular and individuals left free to choose their own personal faith, was far in the future. The Europeans who arrived in Virginia considered it a natural way of life that the English would displace the Native Americans, as well as prevent settlement in Virginia by French and Spanish Catholics.

The "pagan" culture of the Natives was described by those educated enough to read and write in the early 1600's. Those recorders were not 100% neutral; they had been thoroughly exposed to the religious and political bias of their time. The descriptions of the early explorers include overt and hidden value judgements that shade our current understanding of the lifestyles of the First Virginians. When you read the original documents, try to anticipate the source material that was omitted as well as the way the recorded material was morphed by the biases of the colonial times.

Modern historians, scientists, and students are affected by cultural biases as well. For example, do you assume the ability to read and write (literacy) is fundamental to intelligence? Do you notice spelling errors in documents, and discount the quality of the thinking because the writing was flawed? If so, then you may be consciously or unconsciously assuming that the Native Americans were not intelligent. If so, be consistent and assume Shakespeare was not intelligent - because his spelling was inconsistent...

If you visit one of the colonial Virginia mansions, tour guides will talk about the Carters, Randolphs, Lees, Bollings, and even the Grymes family as "First Families of Virginia" (FFV's) The FFV's were the gentry - the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant gentry - who governed the economic, social, and political life of colonial Virginia between 1607-1776. ("Colonial" is the time between when Jamestown was settled in 1607 and 1776, when a special convention of colonial leaders declared Virginia to be an independent state.)

In the 1600's and 1700's, members of the gentry families established plantations, purchased slaves, grew tobacco, and built brick mansions such as Gunston Hall, Stratford Hall and Berkeley Plantation. In my family there was even a "Grymesby on the Piankatank" - what a mixture of Native and English names...

Stratford Hall, ancestral home of the Lee family
Stratford Hall, ancestral home of the Lee family

Men controlled the Virginia General Assembly and local county courts in colonial times. No women and no slaves (male or female) could vote. Political and economic power was not shared or spread around any more than necessary.

The sons and daughters of FFV families married sons and daughters of other FFV's, and inherited wealth - primarily land and slaves, both considered necessary property for growing tobacco that was shipped to Europe - stayed in the family. The oldest male son inherited the majority of the family wealth, a pattern known as "primogeniture." Inherited land was kept within family control for generations, "entailed" by the wills of long-dead ancestors.

In modern Virginia, especially in rural areas of Tidewater and Southside and in the West End suburbs of Richmond, being related to one of the early colonial families is a badge of honor. These FFV's think "To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one's Mother's side is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above."

Despite such traditional Virginia gentry myths, the real FFV's did not speak with a British accent. The very first human residents in Virginia probably walked here from Asia through Alaska, after crossing a land "bridge" hundreds of miles wide known as Beringea.

Those immigrants may have come directly from Siberia, following the game through fields and marshes exposed as the sea level dropped - or early arrivals may have been trapped on the edge of Siberia/Alaska for thousands of years, isolated from others and interbreeding until the genetic diversity was limited. There's even a small chance that the first Virginians paddled here from Europe about 15,000 years ago, bringing stone manufacturing traditions from the Burgundy region of France near the rock of Solutre.1

When the English immigrants got to Virginia, they were greeted by the real "first" Virginians. The next time someone argues about the discovery of America by the Vikings from Scandinavia, or suggests the English had a legitimate claim on the area by Right of Discovery because it was unoccupied by any Christian prince, or challenges the presence of immigrants from foreign nations - remember that Virginia was discovered and occupied first by people who did not speak English.

The traveling band whose descendants ultimately occcupied North and South America may have been just 70 people. One single family group may have been the source for all the Indians who were "discovered" by the Europeans.2 On the other hand, two or more additional waves of immigration could have brought genetic diversity to the Western Hemisphere.3

Our knowledge about the earliest Virginians is unclear. We do not have enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt when humans first came to Virginia, or how they got here. The traditional view, that Asians walked across the Bering Land Bridge, is being re-examined.

(We can be positive about one thing: the first Virginians did not arrive in the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery in 1607.)

Back about 20,000 years ago, so much water was captured in the ice blanketing the continents that sea level was 300' or more lower. The lower sea level exposed the land now under the Bering Sea, and there was wet-but-walkable ground that connected Alaska with Russia. Asians who crossed the Bering Land Bridge must have walked east and south, following new territory for hunting game, perhaps ranging 10 miles a day. Maybe they told tall tales to other bands of hunters, describing what they thought would be over the next ridge before anyone had explored the virgin lands.

Think the first Virginian resembled this individual? Remember the climate 11-15,000 years ago...
Think the first Virginian resembled this individual?
Remember the climate 11-15,000 years ago...
Source: Library of Congress

Bering Straight, now and then
Bering Straight, now and then
Source: USGS Ecosystem and Climate History of Alaska

For over 50 years, scholars thought the first artifacts of humans settling in North America were stone tools that defined the style of the Clovis culture, discovered in the 1930's near Clovis, New Mexico and dated to be about 13,000 years old. Recent studies in the last 30 years show clear evidence that there was a pre-Clovis culture, one that arrived in North America as early as 15,000 or so years ago. At Cactus Hill in Sussex County (site 44SX202), stone artifacts have been excavated that may be dated:4

potentially as much as 5000 years before the period conventionally assigned to the arrival of the first Paleoindians in North America

What's less clear is whether any pre-Clovis immigrants settled in Virginia. Also unclear: in Virginia, does the Paleoindian period (the time of first human ocupation) start with immigrants from Asia who shaped stone in the form of Clovis points?

Archeologists still debate if some items found at Cactus Hill in Sussex County, a few inches below Clovis-style artifacts, prove that Virginia was occupied by humans before the development of the distinctive stone tools of the Clovis culture. Critical thinking skills are required when someone states anything related to Virginia before 1600 as "true." What we know today may not be what we believe tomorrow, as new evidence surfaces and new interpretations are based on new evidence.

In 1996, a skeleton was discovered on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. "Kennewick Man" was radiocarbon dated at roughly 9,000 years old. The Federal government planned to turn over the bones to a local Native American tribe for burial, following the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. That law mandates that ancient human bones must be turned over to the most closely-allied tribe for reburial.

However, anthropologists sued to block the reburial, demanding access to the bones for scientific research. The scientists challenged the assumption that all bones older than 1492 (when Columbus "sailed the ocean blue") must be connected with a modern Native American tribe.5

Clovis and later Folsom points, showing distinctive notches from base up through center of point
Clovis point and (below) a later Folsom point,
showing distinctive notches from the base up through center of point
Source: Bureau of Land Management, Wilson Butte Cave

One speculation is that the bones might suggest Polynesian or even European immigrants may have reached North America nearly 10,000 years ago. As a result, the lawsuit generated extensive discussion on the definition of race and who were the earliest settlers in North America, thousands of years before Columbus. The courts ruled that the bones are not associated closely enough with any current tribe to require repatriation to a modern tribe under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and scientists got 16 days to examine the remains.6

That study led scientists to conclude that Kennewick Man was a traveler from Alasak, someone who drank water from glaciers and ate marine animals such as seals, sea lions and fish. Though found inland, he was a maritime hunter-gatherer who originated with the same group of people that later populated Polynesian islands and Japan. Members of that group may have paddled along the shoreline of Beringea 9,000 years ago to reach different hunting grounds on the coastline of North America, and some may have gone inland for brief visits to trade for different types of stone tools and food. If that is true, North America had a fourth wave of immigration across the Bering Land Bridge before rising sea levels drowned that path.7

Our perspectives on the past are changing fast. For example, the old assumption that corn imported from Mexico was key to the development of agriculture in Virginia is now outdated. The very first Virginians were cultivating different plant species, and just added corn as a new plant in their gardens:8

Native North American women and men domesticated local plants, including the wild ancestor of squash and several highly nutritious seed crops, long before any domesticated plants were introduced from Mesoamerica. This revolutionary contribution of Native North Americans makes eastern North America one of the world's four major independent centers of plant domestication along with the Middle East, China, and Mesoamerica!

Even assumptions about Native American origins for Virginia place names are changing. Maybe Shenandoah really does mean Daughter of the Stars, but evidence for that claim is thin. Layers and layers of tradition still lack primary sources...

Chesapeake, name of the largest bay in Virginia, is of Native American origin. Roanoke, Meherrin, and Nottaway are Native American names for Virginia rivers - but they were not the original names used by the first Virginians. Place names used by Native Americans in the early 1600's (before the Europeans arrived) had little or no relationship to the first names assigned to those places by the first settlers as much as 15,000 years earlier.

The English changed the name of Powhatan's River to James River to honor a ruler in London, but a name change was not new. The Native Americans under Powhatan's control had adopted Powhatan's River within the last 30 or so years.

Kennewick Man may have looked like this
Kennewick Man may have looked like this
Source: Smithsonian Institution, The 9,000 year-old Kennewick Man

on John Smith's map, the James River was labelled Powhatan's flu (river)
on John Smith's map, the James River was labelled Powhatan's flu (flu=river)
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606

The English referred to Virginia rather than Tsenacomoco, the term used by Powhatan's Algonquians to describe the region where they lived. What was the first name for the place we now call Virginia? No one knows; the Paleoindians left no records providing any clues to their languages.

What we do know is that the first Virginians, maybe 15,000 years ago, did not speak the Algonquian language or have a chief called Powhatan. The original names of the Virginia rivers recorded by John Smith on his map of Virginia were not the first names ever used, so efforts to "restore" the place names of Virginia must deal with the fact that we do not know the first names that were used.

Powhatan's control over Tsenacomoco may have been greater on the southern bank of the Rappahannock River, which is one explanation for the concentration of Algonquian settlements north of that river (marked by blue line)
Powhatan's control over Tsenacomoco may have been greater on the southern bank of the Rappahannock River, which is one explanation for the concentration of Algonquian settlements north of that river (marked by blue line - and on John Smith's map, "north" is to the right, not at the top)
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606

The First Virginian

From Paleo-Indian to Woodland Cultures

Paleo-Indians in Virginia

Archaic Indians in Virginia

Woodland Indians in Virginia

The Three Linguistic Groups of Colonial Virginia

Contact Period

Native Americans - The First Geologists in Virginia

Native American Agriculture

How the Fall Line Shaped Powhatan's Area of Control


Why Didn't Virginia's Natives Sail East to Europe, First?

Getting Here and Getting Around - Native American Transportation in Virginia

Native American Land Claims in Virginia

Treaties Defining the Boundaries Separating English and Native American Territories

Native American Reservations in Virginia

State and Federal Recognition of Native American Tribes in Virginia

Re-creation of Monacan Town

Where Are the Natives in Virginia Today?

chiefs of Virginia's state-recognized tribes, 2012
chiefs of Virginia's state-recognized tribes with Gov. McDonnell (November 2012)
from L to R: Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson, Nottoway Chief Lynette Lewis Allston, Upper Mattaponi Assistant Chief Frank Adams, Pamunkey Tribal Member Ashley Atkins, Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Chief Walt Brown, Upper Mattaponi Chief Kenneth Adams, Governor McDonnell, Mattaponi Chief Carl Custalow, Patawomeck Chief Robert Green, Monacan Chief Sharon Bryant, Chickahominy Assistant Chief Wayne Adkins
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia



1. "Paleoamerican Origins," Smithsonian Institution, http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_Si/nmnh/origin.htm (last checked September 25, 2011)
2. Jody Hey, "On the Number of New World Founders: A Population Genetic Portrait of the Peopling of the Americas," PLoS Biol 3(6), http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.0030193 (last checked September 25, 2011)
3. David Reich et al., "Reconstructing Native American population history," Nature, July 11, 2012, dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature11258 (last checked July 12, 2012)
4. Daniel P. Wagner, Joseph M. McAvoy, "Pedoarchaeology of Cactus Hill, a Sandy Paleoindian Site in Southeastern Virginia, U.S.A.," Geoarchaeology, Vol. 19, No. 4, (2004), p.297, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/gea.10120 (last checked July 4, 2012)
5. "Kennewick Man," National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/archeology/kennewick/index.htm (last checked September 25, 2011)
6. "Kennewick Man," Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, http://www.burkemuseum.org/kman/ (last checked September 23, 2012)
7. "The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets," Smithsonian, September 2014, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/kennewick-man-finally-freed-share-his-secrets-180952462/?all (last checked August 31, 2014)
8. "A Quiet Revolution: Origins of Agriculture in Eastern North America," National Museum of Natural History Bulletin for Teachers, Vol. 15, No. 2 1993, http://www.mesacc.edu/dept/d10/asb/lifeways/hg_ag/quiet_revolution.html (last checked September 25, 2011)

Population of Virginia
Virginia Places