The Monacan Indian Nation are indigenous people from the greater Piedmont and Blue Ridge, with some of their earliest settlements dating to 1000 A.D. Their history is marked by resilience and their tie to this place. Today, the Monacans need help saving the remains of their historic capitol, Rassawek, located at the confluence of the Rivanna and James Rivers, from development.
For a millennium, the Monacan Nation honored their ancestors with burial mounds, an ancient practice associated with the most politically and economically powerful tribes in North America. The mounds grew over generations: remains were buried once, but then ceremonially reburied as part of a layered, earthen structure. Some of these burials are more than eight feet tall, around forty feet in diameter, and are home to over a thousand individuals’ remains, representing centuries of ancestral history.
The mounds could have only been built through sustained ritual over hundreds of years, showing that the Monacans were a settled, agricultural society—not solely hunter-gatherers, they gardened and relied on the forests for sustenance. In this matrilineal society, mothers and aunts passed down their family identities, which endured for generations. The mounds serve as a monument to a lineage and a connection to place. The thirteen known mounds represent thousands of years of history and habitation. Even after the practice ended, continued visitations to the mounds into at least the eighteenth century, and the mounds’ impressive stature today, link present generations to the past. The burial sites are physical testimonies to a lived connection to the Appalachian Mountains older than any other.
Between A.D. 1000 and 1700, Monacans resided in oval-shaped pole and thatch houses, typically between 130 and 285 square feet in size. These were permanent structures, but the Monacans also established smaller “hunting towns” with temporary buildings.
Monacans established their towns along rivers, home to between a few dozen and over a hundred individuals. Their capital city of Rassawek sat at the confluence of the Rivanna and James Rivers. By 1600, about 15,000 Monacans lived in towns that fanned out north and west from the capitol.
Native people in the Piedmont and Mountains subsisted on a variety of found and hunted foodstuffs like bear fat and deer meat, hickory nuts, black walnuts, and white oak acorns. Women farmed crops, primarily pumpkins, squash, corn, beans, gourds, and sunflowers. The Monacan people also cultivated persimmons, grapes, plums, and mulberries. In hunting for venison, farming, and building towns, everyday life was sustained by the region’s resources.
From the early 1600s, the Monacan Indians purposefully relocated away from European colonization. In 1608, Virginia colonist John Smith penned in his journal about his experience traversing up the James River eager to “finish the discovery” when he crossed into Monacan territories. After an altercation between the colonists and the Monacans, John Smith captured an injured Monacan man, Amoroleck, and questioned him to procure information on tribal relations and local resources. John Smith tells of Amoroleck’s response.
“They heard we were a people who came from under the world, to take their world from them.”
As Amoroleck described, the English soon came for the Monacans’ territories. John Smith first drew the Monacan territory in 1624, which he depicts with five major settlements on his map. On the 1624 map pictured here, Smith marked the Monacans territory along with five surrounding Monacan towns including the Monahassanugh, Rassawek, Mowhemencho, Monassukapanough, and Massinacack.
In 1680, the Monacans signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation, which made the Monacans and other groups tributaries to the English. In exchange, the English agreed to stay three miles from Indian settlements. Virginians failed to uphold this promise, while the Monacan tribe pays tribute to the Virginia governor up to the present day. A chief named Shurenough signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1680 as the “King of Manakins,” with his “mark” pictured here.
Through trade, the Monacans thrived and contributed to the survival of other Native people. The interior of Virginia held many prestige minerals that were used in trade, all situated within Monacan territory.
The Monacans traded important goods such as soapstone, copper, and mica, linking the peoples of the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain of Virginia. Competition for status was determined by access to nonlocal prestige goods, to which the Monacans had bountiful access.
Varying in shape, color, and size, copper was one of the most valuable trade items for the Monacans. The metal had a number of uses ranging from decorative purposes, jewelry, and tools needed for everyday life. Its versatility made it valuable. A majority of the copper found in this area was traded and transported from the Great Lakes. This illustrates the reach and distance that the Moncans had in trading with other tribes and the creation of many social networks. These materials were fundamental to their relationship with neighboring tribes such as the Powhatans and to establishing a stable economy.
Monacan trading towns, centers for exchange between colonists and Native peoples, were generally situated on interior trading paths within Roanoke and Shenandoah River Valleys. English trading posts and forts developed along the fall line in Virginia’s interior, impacting the economic and political landscape for Monacans. These trading posts and forts would build upon existing trade routes that indigenous peoples used for centuries, connecting people through trade. Fort Henry, which was established on Appomattox River south of the James, was especially important in the creation of a booming economy and social network for the indigenous people to the west. The development and expansion of trading towns around 1650 aided the exchange of hides and metal goods.
During English colonization, the Monacans moved away from plantations, with some joining allied tribes in the Virginia Piedmont. At the turn of the seventeenth century, Virginia lawmakers imposed harsh regulations to control their growing enslaved labor force by punishing interracial sex and marriage, and increasing punishment for resistance on the part of enslaved Africans and Indians. By 1723, most free Indians could not vote, own firearms, testify as a witness in a trial, or serve in the militia. While Native people saw themselves as members of distinct nations, Virginia law classified them all as “Indian” and identified them with mixed-race and African-American Virginians as people without rights.
By 1830 with the Indian Removal Act, United States policy focused on displacement of Native Americans from historical and ancestral lands. In efforts to acculturate Native populations, the United States government established reservations and appropriated Native land, and churches established missionary schools for Native children.
After the Civil War, the state of Virginia did not recognize “Indian” as an identity. As Reconstruction and Jim Crow began in Virginia, Monacans began to face racial discrimination from both white and African American citizens. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Monacans left ancestral lands they had known for generations. Some settled in cities like Baltimore and Johnson City, while a considerable number remained in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Some Monacans remained and settled in Amherst County, on historical lands, where they now worked and lived.
The following interview was conducted in 2009 for the Amherst Glebe Arts Response. Phyllis Hicks (1947-2015) grew up in Amherst County during segregation. She was a lay minister and priest, led efforts to establish the Monacan Ancestral Museum, and helped secure federal recognition for the Monacan tribe.
- Phyllis Hicks (1947-2015)
Amherst Virginia is where the Bear Mountain Mission School opened. From 1898 through 1964, the Bear Mountain Indian Mission School was a central cultural point for the Monacan Indian Nation, serving not only as an educational resource prior to integration, but also as a community focus and historical marker through the process of state and federal recognition.
After centuries of overt racism and systemic attempts to erase their identity, the Monacan people persevered as a tribe. For several decades the tribe has worked closely with a handful of committed scientists and academics to reconstruct the traditions and lifeways of their ancestors. Members of the Monacan Indian Nation continue to research their pre-colonial history and teach the public about their under-recognized culture.
The Monacan Indian Nation holds an annual Powwow, a representation of the transformation and merging of pre-colonial tradition with contemporary practices. The yearly gathering both raises money for Monacan student scholarships and educates the public through direct Monacan representation.
After an eighteen-year battle, the Monacan Indian Nation finally gained federal recognition on January 30, 2018. While federal acknowledgment does not entitle Monacan people to direct financial benefits, the tribe’s 2000 members can now apply for educational scholarships, housing opportunities, medical assistance and tribal grants. Federal recognition also provides the Monacan tribe with a stronger voice in protecting their ancestral lands, as in their struggle to save Rassawek, the Monacan capitol documented by John Smith. This sacred place is under threat by the James River Water Authority, which applied to build a water pump station in the center of Rassawek.
For generations, Rassawek defined life in the region. Preservation will save this important historical site, the capitol of a nation, for future generations. Because Monacans lived for some time after the nearby mounds were built, there are certain to be human burials at the site. The Monacan tribal leaders have already once felt the pain of repatriation and reburial of their ancestors’ remains. Moving the station to another location will respect a millennium of Monacan life and influence, and allow Rassawek's remains to rest in peace. The Save Rassawek campaign is happening now, and you can help.
Some nights we feel the furred darkness
of an ancient one’s breath and are trapped
in awakening, dismembered
by events we no longer recall.
We can touch the windowsill,
where October air gathers
as hours slip past in thin robes,
the forest a concert of voices.
The last crickets let go of their songs.
The land speaks, its language arising
from its own geography—
the mountains’ hulked shapes
are blue whales, remembering
when they were undersea ridges,
and rivers are serpentine strands
hammered from silver, and dark trees
talk to the wind—weaving mortal lives,
drumbeats, pillars of smoke,
voices wavering into updraft,
the storyteller shifting the present.
This exhibit was made possible by students in the Virginia Tech ASPECT Spring 2020 graduate course, the Politics of Memory, who researched the long history of the Monacan Indian Nation. Thank you to everyone who helped make this exhibit possible.
For more information about this exhibit and exhibits in the University Libraries contact Scott Fralin, firstname.lastname@example.org.