The Pamunkey Indians (in King William County with 200 members) obtained federal recognition in 2016.
The Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017 received the President’s signature last month; it added six new federally recognized Virginia tribes.
The new six are the Nansemond (in Suffolk City with 200 members), the Chickahominy (in Charles City County with 840 members), the Eastern Chickahominy (in New Kent County with 132 members), the Upper Mattaponi (in Hanover County with 575 members), the Rappahannock (in Essex, Caroline and King and Queen Counties with 500 members) and the Monacan (in Amherst County with 2,000 members).
In addition to the now seven federally and state recognized Virginia tribes there are also four Virginia state-only recognized tribes. The Cheroenka Nottoway (in Southampton County with 272 members), the Nottoway (in Southampton and Surry Counties with 120 members), the Mattaponi (in King William County with 450 members and the Patomeck (in Stafford County with 770 members).
Collectively, the eleven tribes have an enrolled membership of about 6,000 individuals. Ten of them are based in Tidewater in the watersheds of the Rappahannock, York, and James rivers. The eleventh, the Monacan tribe, is situated near Lynchburg in central Virginia.
It is 300 miles from Lynchburg to Virginia’s Cumberland Gap. Thus there is vast area of western and southwestern Virginia devoid of any modern-day recognized tribes.
The two principal ways that we know anything about early American Indians are history (written and oral) and archeology. Both offer much information about the American Indians of western Virginia.
The Spanish archives tell that western Virginia was an area of Spanish interest decades before the English settled at Jamestown.
In 1565, the Spanish established the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America at St. Augustine, Florida.
It served as a trading and slaving center and as a military base for defense of the annual Spanish treasure fleets.
By 1567 the Spaniards had established forts near what is now the North Carolina-Virginia border, and attacked an Indian town named Maniatique located on the Middle Fork of the Holston River at present-day Saltville in Smyth County.
An American Indian woman from Maniatique, whom we know only by her Spanish-given name of Luisa Menéndez, married a Spanish soldier (some four decades before Pocahontas married John Rolfe) and went with him to St. Augustine where she later gave testimony about her homeland. She is said to have been a Yuchi Indian.
Recent academic historical studies and oral tribal tradition both place the Yuchi in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia at the time of Spanish contact. Today, the Remnant Yuchi Nation of Kingsport, Tennessee, fortunately preserves an 1857 tribal roll that resided for many years in Floyd County, Virginia.
Archeology tells much about the early American Indian people of Smyth and Washington Counties (the last two Virginia counties traversed by Interstate 81 as it passes into Tennessee).
While the formal archeology of these counties as told over the years by the professional and avocational archeologists is mundane, the informal archeology is spectacular.
It was Yuchi cultural practice to bury high-status individuals with their personal wealth and decorative objects.
In consequence, for much of the twentieth century, the Indian burials in these two counties were ransacked by grave robbers seeking burial artifacts to sell to a wealthy nationwide community of Indian relic collectors.
Two outstanding categories of grave objects are gorgets and platform pipes. Gorgets are several-inch-wide engraved, decorative pendants hung at the throat or chest and were made from the outer shell of large marine whelks.
Platform pipes are made of highly polished stone and typically consist of a bowl rising from a six to ten inch long drilled stone platform.
Smyth and Washington county gorgets and pipes are not recorded in professional archeological journals, but rather in relic collectors journals and books. Particularly important is the 11-volume series issued under the collective title of “Who’s Who in Indian Relics.”
These gorgets and platform pipes are characteristic of Mississippian American Indian culture, a culture which is well-recognized but incorrectly thought to be absent from Virginia.
So while it is wonderful that some eastern Virginia tribes have finally gained federal recognition, it is surely time that Virginia historians and others undertake to study the early history of western Virginia and the neglected Indian tribes that were there.
A version of this column appeared as an op-ed in the “Newport News Daily Press” on Feb. 25, 2018.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.