European colonists arriving in Virginia may have been greeted with, "Wingapo." Indians have lived in what is now called Virginia for thousands of years. While we are still learning about the people who inhabited this land, it is clear that Virginia history did not begin in 1607. If you ask any Virginia Indian, "When did you come to this land?", he or she will tell you, "We have always been here."
Note: The following information is taken with permission from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources webpages entitled, "First People: The Early Indians of Virginia." The information from the webpages is taken from the book First People: The Early Indians of Virginia, produced by the Department of Historic Resources, and published by the University Press of Virginia.
Paleoindians 15,000-8,000 BCE
Most scientists think that the first people entered the Western Hemisphere from Asia over land that connected Siberia and Alaska at the end of the last great Ice (or Pleistocene) Age. Huge glaciers more than a mile thick covered large areas of land in what is now Canada. The glaciers lowered the sea level by 300 feet, exposing an immense, 1,000-mile-wide plain between Siberia and Alaska known as Beringia. Especially along the coast, the tundra-like plain teemed with animal and plant life, and the ocean provided abundant marine life. The early immigrants were unaware they entered a new continent as they hunted Beringia's game and gathered plants for food.
When did the first people arrive and what was their culture like? While Native Americans believe that they have always been here, the first documented Paleoindian culture was found at an archaeological site near Folsom, New Mexico, in 1927. There, a distinctive spear point was found between the ribs of a type of bison that had been extinct since the end of the last Ice Age. Five years later near Clovis, New Mexico, a woolly mammoth kill and associated stone tools were uncovered, dating to 11,200 years ago. The hallmark of the Clovis culture is the lance-shaped fluted point. Although Clovis points are found across the continent, an especially large number of them are found in Virginia. Other stone tools found with the Clovis point include scrapers, gravers, perforators, wedges, and knives. Evidence uncovered so far in Virginia suggests that these tools were used to spear game, cut up meat, scrape and cut hides, and split and carve bone of deer, bison, and rabbit. Caribou, elk, moose, and possibly mastodon also may have been hunted.
The effects of the glaciers made for long, hard winters and short, cool summers. In the Appalachian region, the mountain slopes were bare and tundra-like. People in the Shenandoah Valley and northern Virginia lived among grasslands, open forests of conifers, such as pine, fir, spruce, and hemlock, and occasional islands of deciduous trees. Slightly warmer weather south of present-day Richmond encouraged the growth of more deciduous trees such as birch, beech, and oak.
The first people lived in groups which anthropologists today call bands, and camped along streams that flowed through the tundra-like grasslands and the open spruce, pine, and fir forests that covered Virginia at that time. A band was like an extended family. Due to the harsh climate, each band moved seasonally within a set territory to hunt and forage.
Early Archaic 8,000-6,000 BCE
The term Archaic, meaning old, signals a series of new adaptations by the early people that occurred between 8,000 and 1,200 B.C. As the cold, moist climate of the Pleistocene Age changed to a warmer, drier one, the warming winds melted the glaciers to the north and warmed the ocean water. The sea level rose, spreading water across the Coastal Plain of Virginia and creating the Chesapeake Bay. Many of the places where early humans lived were eroded and covered by the rising water. Grassland and open forests of conifers gave way to thick forests of pine, oak, and hickory. As the flora changed, the mastodon, the last of the large Pleistocene animals, became extinct and other animals such as bison, caribou, and moose moved away. People now hunted widely the abundant deer, elk, bear, turkey, and small game such as rabbit and fox. As the vegetation became profuse, they gathered more plant foods such as fruit, acorns, and hickory nuts.
The people of the Archaic period began to vary the size and shape of their lithic (stone) points. Stone spear points, knives, scrapers, gravers, and drills were still used; however, the hunter-gatherers fashioned them differently, with side or corner notches. Notching tells us how the points were attached to the spear or knife handle.
In general, the Early Archaic population grew, nurtured by a more inviting environment. Families lived in larger bands and remained mobile, but within a more limited fertile area.
Middle Archaic 6,000-2,500 BCE
By the Middle Archaic period, the Indians of Virginia had adjusted well to the Eastern woodland. They became masters of the deciduous forest of oak, hickory, and chestnut. Their knowledge of how best to use the physical setting altered with the changing environment and shifting seasons of the year, and gradually became more sophisticated.
To perform their tasks effectively, the Middle Archaic people enlarged their tool kits, becoming skilled at new challenges. Based on the findings of beautifully shaped and polished perforated stones, scientists in Virginia now have evidence of the spear thrower, or "atlatl." Evidence for this weapon was found in the Early Archaic period in Florida, where wooden shafts of the tool were preserved. The spear thrower added length and power to the hunter's arm. Archaeologists have found parts of the spear thrower—bone hooks and stone weights—at sites as old as 6,000 B.C. The hooks, made from bone or antler, held the butt end of the spear. The polished stone was placed near the tip of the spear thrower. The purpose of the stone is uncertain. It may have balanced and steadied the spear as the hunter followed through on the throw, or it may have added more spring to the flexible spear thrower. The stones uncovered in excavations are well made from beautiful types of stone and vary in shape over a period of years. As works of art, they probably had special meaning to the hunter.
Other tools that archaeologists commonly find in gathering societies are mortars and pestles. These tools were used to crush nuts, seeds, and fibrous plants in preparing foods. People added walnuts to the list of seed crops harvested.
Notched stones found at archaeological sites are interpreted as net sinkers. They indicate that the people expanded their quest for food by catching large numbers of fish in nets.
The people of the Eastern forest started to produce in large quantities chipped stone axes around 4,000 B.C. The axes were made from tough resilient stone, such as basalt and quartzite. With large axes, the Middle Archaic people could more easily cut wood to build houses and make fires. The resulting forest clearings altered the environment in a radical way. Clearings encouraged the growth of plants and trees that were beneficial to the people, such as berry bushes and fruit and nut trees. Deer, bear, turkey, and other animals came to the clearing to browse on the tender leaves of low-lying shrubs and to eat berries and nuts. The people had made changes to the environment, that brought them direct benefits.
By then, numerous types of spear points were used throughout the eastern United States. Many of them are found in Virginia. Archaeologists use point styles from a particular time to determine the period in which people lived at a site.
Late Archaic 2,500 – 1,200 B.C.E.
By the Late Archaic Period, the people in Virginia totaled perhaps in the tens of thousands. Their growing numbers caused them to intensify their hunting and gathering practices. Concentrations of bands settled along the rich floodplain, which some researchers describe as the "supermarket of the prehistoric world." Archaeologists have uncovered at riverside sites large hearths of fire-cracked rock, proof that the Late Archaic people prepared large amounts of food there.
In the Coastal Plain, the people started to harvest large numbers of saltwater oysters, a custom that would continue to the historic period. Especially in the early spring, before plants came up, oysters were a rich food source. The discarded shells formed thick middens or refuse heaps that archaeologists find to be a rich source of household debris.
In their quest for food and raw materials, the people ventured into every section of Virginia. Soapstone, commonly found along the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge, was one of the most sought-after materials around 2,000 B.C. Because it was a type of soft rock that carved easily and did not break when heated, it made excellent cooking pots. The people quarried large mushroom-shaped pieces of soapstone from outcroppings, and, with stone and bone tools, hollowed out bowls. When people started making heavy soapstone cooking vessels, they were probably more settled, as the vessels were too heavy to move often. Archaeologists have found fragments of soapstone vessels across Virginia, sometimes hundreds of miles from a quarry.
In a similar fashion, cobbles of quartzite along the Fall Line, and outcrops of quartzite and rhyolite in the mountains were mined for the production of large points and knives. These tools, like the soapstone bowls, also found their way across Virginia, confirming the widespread trading in Virginia between people living in the mountains and along the coast.
By this time, the people were learning to nurture native plant species, including sunflowers, gourds, sumpweed/marsh elder, maygrass, lambsquarter/goosefoot, and amaranth. These were plants that appeared in the clearings created by humans with the axe invented in the Middle Archaic period. People in the Eastern United States also started to raise varieties of squash that were brought from what is now Mexico where squash was first developed.
As more and more groups sought the abundant environment along the rivers, they merged through marriage and trade to form small settlements, called hamlets. Each series of hamlets began to take on a simple tribal identity. Elders guided the groups, along with members whose talents made them leaders in specific tasks. This structure was unlike that of earlier bands in which each member held equal standing.
Early Woodland 1,200 – 500 B.C.E.
Department of Historic Resources, and published by the University Press of Virginia.
The Woodland period refers to the more sedentary cultures that lived in the extensive woodlands of what is now the eastern United States. A major innovation occurred about 1,200 B.C. when the people began making fired clay cooking and storage vessels. Archaeologists believe this technology was introduced to Virginia from the people along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. There, the earliest pottery in North America may have been made as early as 2,500 B.C. The shape and size of the first pottery in Virginia was patterned after that of soapstone vessels. Clay pots quickly proved to be more versatile and practical than soapstone.
Though pottery vessels were fragile and easily broken, they could quickly be replaced. Superior cooking pots, they also provided drier storage than earlier fiber or skin vessels. Archaeologists have recorded the changes over time in the size, shape, temper, surface treatment, and decoration of pottery from 1,200 B.C. to the present. This wealth of pottery information provides archaeologists with ways to help date sites and to define Indian groups and interpret their interaction and movement.
Although people undoubtedly lived in various shelters throughout their sojourn in Virginia, the first evidence for house patterns occurred in the archaeological record in the Early Woodland period. These homes were round to oval and from 10 to 20 feet in diameter and from 16 to 28 feet in length. Storage pits were located along the inner wall of the houses and fire pits were in the center. Since the small, but numerous, wall support posts were driven 1 to 2 feet into the ground, the houses probably supported a great weight of thatch or bark covering and storage of belongings in the rafters. This suggests permanently-built homes, reflective of a sedentary life style.
Middle Woodland 500 B.C.E. – 900 C.E.
Populations grew in Virginia so that diverse tribes now lived in scattered, settled hamlets along major rivers that wound through the mountain valleys and down through the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain.
One example of the great diversity can be found in the Stone Mound Burial culture in the northern Shenandoah Valley. This culture, dating from 400 B.C. to A.D. 200, placed hundreds of low stone mounds in clusters on ancient bluff-like river terraces overlooking the floodplain. Only a few people were buried with great ceremony in each mound.
Sometimes, the Stone Mound people placed rare and sacred objects made from exotic materials in the graves. These objects included tubular and platform pipes, copper beads, hematite cones, pendants, basalt celts, spear-throwing stones, and caches of projectile points. The people placed the objects within the mound for the deceased to use on their afterlife journeys. The few graves within each mound, the few clusters of mounds, and the special objects suggest that the Stone Mound Burial culture gave only higher-ranking people this preferential treatment.
During the Middle Woodland period, the people slowly replaced their spears with the bow and arrow as a hunting weapon. Evidence for this change is found in smaller projectile points, particularly the triangular shapes. Further advances came as people redesigned the grooved axe and used what is called a celt, or ungrooved axe. Sleek and polished the celt enabled people to refine their woodworking techniques.
Starting in the Middle Woodland and continuing into the Historic Period, people lavished their artistic ability on their tobacco pipes. Tobacco pipes in the Early Woodland Period resembled large, straight cigars. Later pipes were fashioned into exquisite effigy carvings of birds and animals. Most of the Late Woodland pipes were a short-stemmed elbow type into which wood or reed stems were inserted. Tobacco, introduced during the Late Woodland Period and considered a gift from the gods, was reserved for reverent use in medicinal and spiritual supplications. In later times, particularly after contact with the Europeans, smoking for pleasure developed among the Indians, and pipes became commonplace.
A number of developments point to the beginning of ranked cultures. As the Middle Woodland people created specialized items and increased their trade, status was bestowed on individuals within a tribe. Differential status led to a more complex, ranked social structure.
Late Woodland 900 – 1600 C.E.
People throughout eastern North America lived in thousands of large villages. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people resided in each village, organized around a complex economic, social, and political structure. The people increased their reliance on intensive gardening for most of their food. Although the developments were not as elaborate in Virginia, Late Woodland people developed strong identities as each adapted to its local setting. In southwestern Virginia, the transplanted Mississippian and local cultures thrived; in the Shenandoah Valley, the Earthen Mound Burial culture grew; and to the east, the Coastal Plain Indians prospered.
Village life broadened the social sphere, wealth, and security of the residents. The resulting social structure demanded more coordination of functions from the tribal leader, who assumed greater responsibility and status.
The Late Woodland people achieved a richness of culture that was unmatched to date. Sophisticated craftsmanship created a wide range of pottery forms, stone artifacts, and bone tools such as awls, fishhooks, needles, beamers, and turtle shell cups. Accoutrements for the rich, such as beads and pendants, were made from imported shell and copper. Ceremonial and symbolic objects of stone, copper, and shell were also manufactured. A wide range of rather elaborate burial customs reflected the people's fascination with the passage from life to death.
Villages became more complex; house building more substantial. In typical villages, various sizes of house were placed in rows around a plaza with perhaps a council house or temple elevated on a nearby mound. A palisade may have surrounded the entire village.
In farming, beans arrived from the southwestern lands about A.D.1000 to join corn and squash as the three major crops. Tobacco came by way of Mexico. Animals, especially deer and turkey, were heavily hunted, as well as turtles and sometimes bear and elk. A wide array of natural plants, nuts, and berries were gathered.
Since the preservation of artifacts from the Late Woodland period is outstanding and the cultures are rich and dynamic, archaeologists have been able to collect much information about group variation across Virginia. Although many of the pieces are missing, we know certain things about a few of the more prominent groups.
Indians 1600 – 1800 C.E.
Coastal Plain Indians
When Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the Western Hemisphere, or, more precisely, the West Indies, he believed he had found a new trade route to Asia. Thinking he had landed in India, he called the native people "Indians." The coastal groups in Virginia first encountered European explorers in the 1520s. During this early period, the natives likely traded with the Europeans to give them fresh water, fruit, and meat.
The first English colonists arrived in North America in 1584 at Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina. The next year, a group of these settlers explored southeastern Virginia. The Roanoke colony found it difficult to survive and ran out of food and supplies. In 1590, when the colony's leader, John White, returned from England, he found the settlement deserted. What happened to the "lost colony" remains a mystery to this day.
The first English colony in North America that managed to survive began at Jamestown in 1607. Although this settlement also ran out of supplies and nearly perished, it grew as increasing numbers of colonists arrived.
Led by Captain John Smith, the settlers immediately explored the surrounding country, traveling up the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac Rivers as far as the fall line. They observed and wrote about the many villages and natives they met. Smith published an accurate map of the Coastal Plain of Virginia, marking the villages the scouting party discovered. Smith wrote of the Indians, "The men bestowe their times in fishing, hunting, wars and such manlike exercises...The women and children to the rest of the worke. They make mats, baskets, pots, morters, pound their corne, make their bread, prepare their victuals, plant their corn, gather their corn, beare al kind of burdens and such like."
About their dress, he wrote, "[The Powhatans are] generally tall and straight, of a comely proportion, and of a colour browne...Their haire is generally black, but few have any beards. The men weare halfe their heads shaven, the other halfe long...The [Women's hair] are cut in many fashions agreeable to their years, but ever some part remaineth long. They are very strong, of an able body and full of agilitie, able to endure to lie in the woods under a tree by the fire, in the worst of winter."
Wahunsunacock was the paramount chief, or "Powhatan," of the chiefdom when the colonists first arrived. His title and the name of the chiefdom were one and the same. By 1607, many of the villages of the Algonquian-speaking people were brought under one rule by Wahunsunacock and formed the Powhatan paramount chiefdom. Wahunsunacock ruled more than 32 subchiefdoms in more than 150 villages of various sizes, which he controlled through inheritance and power. In war, the districts fought for him; in peace, they paid taxes on their produce. The chief, in return, aided them in times of need. Wahunsunacock died in 1618.
One of Wahunsunacock's daughters from one of his many wives, the famous Pocahontas, was kidnapped by the colonists. Pocahontas was the first Indian woman to marry an English colonist when she took John Rolfe for her husband in 1614. Rolfe introduced a mild West Indies strain of tobacco to Jamestown, which soon became the settlers' main crop.
The new settlers brought with them different tools, clothing, lifestyles, and a need for land. During the first decade, encounters between colonists and Indians were often hostile. In 1622, Wahunsunacock's brother, Opechancanough, launched the first coordinated attack to expel the settlers, leading to a decade of intermittent warfare. The Indians tried a second attack in 1644, but by then they were fewer in number and faced 15,000 colonists. After Opechancanough's death in 1646, the Powhatan chiefdom basically ceased to exist.
Modern Indians 1800 C.E. – Present
In the 1800s, the prevailing white culture in Virginia wanted to push the Indians off their homelands. Pressure was brought to remove each of the four remaining reservations and end the people's legal status as tribes. This policy meant dividing, with the Indians' consent, all of a reservation among each of its members and removing all state services to the tribe. The Gingaskin Reservation on the Eastern Shore was legally subdivided in 1813. Unable to withstand legal pressure and being very poor, the people sold their land for profit. By 1850, all of the original Gingaskin Reservation was in white hands. The last parcel of the Nottoway Reservation was divided in 1878, although many families held onto their land into the 20th century. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi, the last two reservations, withstood attempts at termination. Though the people were poor, they maintained their tribal structure and treaties with the Commonwealth. Today, their reservations are two of the oldest in the nation, symbols of a people who refused to give up.
Their example has been an incentive for the non-reservation Indian people, who, around the time of the Civil War, began to resurface as identified enclaves. In the early 1900s, these enclaves reorganized into tribes. The move by Indian descendants to form tribes was seen as a threat by some people who wanted to keep the white race "pure." Led by Dr. Walter A. Plecker, a group called the Anglo-Saxon Club of America prevailed upon the General Assembly to pass the Racial Integrity Law in 1924. According to this law, in matters of births, marriages, and deaths, the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics recognized only two races — white and black. U.S. Census figures in 1930 showed 779 Native Americans living in Virginia; by 1940, the figure dropped to 198. In effect, people of Indian descent did not exist. Since the Indians were not accepted into white churches and schools, they opened their own. However, Indian schools in Virginia did not go beyond seventh grade until the late 1950s.
The Civil Rights movement promoted opportunities for education and employment for the Indians as well as other minorities. The requirement for school integration during the 1960s removed the need for separate Indian schools or for Indian students to leave the state to obtain high school or college education. After the movement was actively in force, doors opened for the more rapid advancement of Indian people into all professional levels of society.
Many activities among Virginia's Indians continue to build a strong sense of identity among the tribes. Tribal centers have emerged as symbols of unity, similar to the role played earlier by Indian schools and churches. Tribal dance groups are commonly seen at the increasingly popular tribal Pow Wows, which enable Virginia Indian tribes to meet with the public and demonstrate crafts, dances, and share oral histories.
At the same time that Virginia Indians' self-images are changing, the popular view of them is shifting, too. More people recognize that the world has inherited from the Indians a legacy of many valuable foods and words. Corn, one of the world's most precious foods, is one of their gifts. They also cultivated squash, beans, and tobacco. The names of many Virginia counties, cities, towns, and roads are Indian names. Common words, including moccasin, raccoon, hickory, moose, chipmunk, and skunk are Virginia Indian words.