During the 17th century, English colonists founded the first permanent settlements on the Eastern Shore of what was to become the United States. The American Indians, the indigenous population, had already lived on the land for hundreds of years. With the arrival of the colonists, their world was about to change forever. War with the colonists and each other, lack of immunity to diseases such as smallpox, the inability to control their consumption of alcohol and English progression into their lands would almost decimate the Indian population by the end of the century. (see 1675 and 1715 maps)
While it is not possible here to write about every tribe found in the southeastern colonies, I have tried to provide information on the major tribal communities found in Virginia.
Algonquian (Powhatan Confederacy)
When Jamestown was established in 1607, Chief Powhatan (his proper name was Wahunsonacock) had recently brought over 30 Algonquian tribes under his control. His confederacy extended along the eastern Virginia seaboard and ran to the west through Washington DC, then south to Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg and then running back east to North Carolina. Thanks to John Smith, Chief Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas, the Algonquians are perhaps the most popular Indians in American History.
Powhatan entertained thoughts of wiping out the English colonists at Jamestown, but his awe of English weapons and the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe put to rest that idea. Powhatan died in 1618 to be replaced by Opechancanough. In 1622, the Powhatans led a massacre that left up to 400 colonists dead. In retaliation, the colonists set out on a campaign to exterminate the Indians. In 1644, Opechancanough again attacked the colonists, killing between 300 to 500 Virginians. Once again, the colonists retaliated, this time against the Pamunkey and Chickahominy tribes. War was waged until 1646 when a treaty was signed, marking the first instance of permanent acquisition of Indian land by the colonists.
The process of driving out any unwanted tribes continued throughout the rest of the 17th century. Nathaniel Bacon, after his quest to fight the Susquehanna in 1676, turned his attention to the Pamunkey. After attacking their main settlement, a treaty was signed by the remains of Powhatan’s Confederacy, granting their allegiance to the English king. Most historians consider this treaty of 1677 to effectively end the Indian Period in Virginia’s colonial history.
It has been estimated that in the beginning of the 17th century, there were 9,000 Powhatan Indians living in Virginia. By 1669, Powhatan’s census estimates only 2,000. By 1705, the population was closer to 1,200.
The Iroquoian tribes (and the Siouan tribes) had less contact with the English and, therefore, fewer clashes contributing to loss of life. The main Iroquoian tribes are:
Cherokee – the Cherokee were not very populous in Virginia since their homeland was considered to be in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. They lived in southwestern Virginia.
Nottoway – The Nottoway Indians were related to the Tuscarora Indians of North Carolina. They lived in southeastern Virginia and stretched into North Carolina, as far as the Albermarle Sound.
Meherrin – The Meherrin lived in the same area as the Nottoway and were closely connected with them. Less is known of these tribes than the Powhatan Confederacy, but it is thought that the Meherrin received an influx of Conestoga Indians around 1675, after the Susquehanna disruption. During the 1720’s, the Meherrin left their ancient home and moved toward the Roanoke River due to attacks by the Catawba Indians. There were an estimated 700 Meherrin Indians in 1600. The census of 1669 counts approximately 180.
The following are the major tribes of the Siouan Indians in Virginia:
Manahoac – The Manahoac lived in Northern Virginia and were concentrated along the upper Rappahannock river. In 1600, there were approximately 1500.
Monacan – John Smith wrote that the Monacan’s were a confederacy made up of several tribes. There were also approximately 1500 Indians in this group and they lived mainly along the James River.
Saponi – the Saponi lived just north of the present University of Virginia, in Albermarle County and counted 1200 Indians among their population.
Tutelo – The Tutelo were the Southernmost Siouan tribe and numbered approximately 1,000.
Mohetan – There is little recorded about the Mohetan except that they lived in the mountains, near the upper New River.
Occaneechi – The Occaneechi was a small tribe who inhabited an island in the Roanoke River, in present day Mecklenburg County. Their population was about 1200.
The Siouans have been estimated at 6,300 total in the early 17th century. By mid-century, the number had dropped to less than 1,200.
Though less frequent than the Algonquians, the Siouans also engaged in wars with the colonists. The Manahoac joined with other tribes to defeat the English and the Pamunkey tribe in a skirmish in 1655. However, more damage was done to their population through warfare with the Iroquois and Susquehanna. After the middle of the century, a the Siouans moved steadily southward to escape the northern tribes. In 1676, the Tutelo, Saponi, Manahoac and Monacans all lived in Occaneechi country and all were affected of Bacon’s campaign.
Indians living further south along the East Coast, in the Carolinas and Georgia, met the same fate, although at a slightly later date. Loss of land, displacement, death through disease, introduction of alcohol and prolonged warfare was the fate shared by all of the Indians in the southeastern United States. However, a few tribes in the Carolinas fared better than tribes in Virginia. I will explore what these tribes did differently in the next installment.
- McCary, Ben C. Indians in Seventeenth Century Virginia. Clearfield Company, Inc. Baltimore, 1995 (Reprint from 1957).
- Swanton, John R. The Indians of the Southeastern United States. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979 (Reprint from 1949).
- Waldman, Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian. Facts on File Inc. New York, 1985