Early history examines the archaeological record that tells the story of the first inhabitants of Virginia. People lived in Virginia for around 17,000 years before the European made contact. These native people had no written language. They recorded their history through storytelling and symbolic drawings. Learn about the prehistory and culture of the first early inhabitants, and what lessons it might teach us about the early history of Virginia.
All of the Commonwealth of Virginia used to be Virginia Indian territory; the area was estimated to have been occupied by indigenous peoples for more than 12,000 years. Their population has been estimated to have been about 50,000 at the time of European colonization. The various peoples belonged to three major language families: roughly, Algonquian along the coast, Iroquoian in the southern Tidewater region, and Siouan above the fall line. About 30 Algonquian tribes were allied in the powerful Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom along the coast, which was estimated to include 15,000 people at the time of English colonization.
The native people had no written language and recorded their events through storytelling and symbolic drawings
The Clovis culture is noted by the lance-shaped fluted point. Clovis points are found across the continent, and an especially large number are found in Virginia. Other stone tools found with the Clovis point include scrapers, gravers, perforators, wedges, and knives.
Evidence 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. Also caribou, elk, moose, and possibly mastodon may have been hunted.
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,
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.
Archaic, meaning old, signals a series of new adaptations by the early people that occurred between 8,000 and 1,200 BC 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
Thus, 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.
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.
The people of the Eastern forest started to produce in large quantities chipped stone axes around 4,000 BC 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.
Archaeologists believe that between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago, people first began to settle into villages. It was also about this time that people first began to clear sections of land by burning so that edible plants would continue to grow in those areas each year. We would consider this the earliest examples of farming. For example, we know these people ate sunflowers, ragweed, sumpweed, squash, gourds, and greens. They hunted deer, black bear, turkey, squirrel, rabbits, beaver, otter, muskrat and water birds. Particularly in the Coastal Plain Region of Virginia, the people fished for shad, herring, rockfish, and sturgeon. Oysters, clams, crabs and turtles were plentiful.
Archaeologists have found evidence that these people used clay to make pottery and then traded that pottery with other people in nearby areas. Around 800 years ago, native people began to use bow and arrow to hunt. We also know that they took care in burying their dead in large mounds, and left them with items of importance, probably because they believed these people would need the items in the afterworld.
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.
When Europeans first arrived in this region in the early 17th century, they found a flourishing population of people who belonged to one of three main language groups. Most of the coastal plain was inhabited by an Algonquian empire, today collectively known as Powhatan. The southwestern coastal plain was occupied by Iroquoians, the Nottoway, and Meherrin. The Piedmont was home to two Siouan confederacies, the Monacan and the Mannahoac.
Once the English arrived and began to settle in the area, the native people found themselves in competition for land for hunting and farming. They also were exposed to European diseases for the first time, and many died of diseases like smallpox, to which they had no immunity. While there was occasional fighting over the land, the increasing number of English settlers and African slaves, and the dwindling population of natives effectively pushed native groups into smaller and smaller settlements where they could barely farm enough land to stay alive.
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
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