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Long before any European settlers had ever set foot in North America, groups of Native Americans settled and worked the land that would later become known as Tuckahoe.
The word “Tuckahoe” is derived from an Eastern Algonquin word and refers to a plant that was commonly found along the river. Algonquian was spoken primarily in the Coastal Plain by the Powhatan nation, and other neighboring Native American tribes. The root of the Tuckahoe plant needed to be cooked for many hours before being eaten, to get rid of its natural toxins. Often the roots were buried in the ground with a large fire built on top to cook them for a day or more, then dried out and ground into flour. The berries were long-boiled and considered a delicacy, with a flavor similar to chocolate.
When the first settlers were landing in Jamestown in 1607, the upper waters of the James River where we are now were controlled primarily by The Monacan Nation. However It is very possible that this fertile area served as meeting grounds for Native American tribes to gather food and trade since the Monacan, Powhatan and Nottoway nations, (who spoke the Siouan, Algonquian and Iroquian languages, respectively), all converged in this part of the state.
According to Encyclopedia Virginia, “Tsenacomoco” was the original Algonquian name for one of these three territories, which stretched from the James River (where we are now) to the Potomac, and from the coast all the way up to here at the fall line. Tsenacomoco was a chiefdom of Native Americans who cleared land for farming, hunted in the forest, and used the rivers for food, trade and travel. When the English arrived, Powhatan tried to incorporate the settlers into this chiefdom. After that attempt failed, and several Anglo-Powhatan wars were fought, the chiefdom of Tsenacomoco came to an end in 1646.
The Monacan nation inhabited the area above the falls of the James, and were traditional enemies if the Algonquian speaking tribes of Tsenacomoco. Originally the Monacan’s territory covered roughly half of the state of Virginia, including most of the Piedmont region, as well as portions of Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. The Monacan culture in this region dates back 10,000 years. They are one of the oldest groups of indigenous people that still exist in their ancestral homeland, and are the only group of Eastern Sioux in the state. As members of the Sioux, the Monacans spoke the Siouan language. Monacans gradually moved westward as they wanted no contact with the colonists.
Early settlers believed they had a right to the land and were entitled to it. In their minds, native peoples were just “pagan savages” with no title to the land they lived on. The colonial period was marked with numerous battles between the Native Americans and the colonists. Homes were often built with portholes in the walls in order to defend from attacks. There is speculation that the earliest structure at Tuckahoe (likely a one room residence built by 1714 by Thomas Randolph) took such measures for defense.
During the wars between Native Americans and settlers, many Native Americans were captured and sold into slavery. We can see evidence of this in the will of William Randolph of Turkey Island made in 1709. Here he left several enslaved African Americans to his wife, Mary, and also “the Indian girle Patty.” Just like for African Americans, there were many laws put into place limiting the freedoms and rights of Native Americans and diminishing their identities and culture. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924, and other legislation that followed, seemed to be direct attempts to erase Virginia Indians as a category of people. These laws sought for racial identification on official documentation, wherein the options were “white” (defined as having no trace of African [or other non-European] ancestry), “black” (having any African ancestry), and “colored,” which lumped together people of all other ancestry, including Native American. Laws allowing for those with “one-sixteenth” or less of the blood of Native Americans to be considered white, (so long as they had no other non-Caucasian blood), were instituted to accommodate elite Virginians who wish to claim Pocahontas and John Rolfe as ancestors.
The damage that was done to Native Peoples’ cultural identity cannot be undone, but we can honor them, do our best to learn about these rich and vibrant cultures, take from them what lessons they have to teach us, and celebrate their contributions to our civilization.