“The Indian sees no need for setting aside one day in seven as a holy day, since to him all days are God’s.”
The sounds of drums reverberate through the forest. In the village, the firelight casts eerie shadows as the dancers move in a circle. Their chants fill the air. Little do they know that the same wind whistling overhead through the pines is filling the sails of strange vessels heading towards their shore.
This is a story about the Native Americans, those original inhabitants of the new land, and how their lives were forever changed by the coming of the Europeans.
In Virginia, the first encounter between two cultures was in the Jamestown colony. It was here that Captain John Smith met the great chief Powhatan. Powhatan’s confederation occupied the tidewater section of the state. It extended up to the fall line of what is currently the James River (roughly up to present-day Richmond). The James was then known as the Powhatan River and beyond the fall line laid the territory of the Monacans.
Every schoolchild knows the story of how Pocahontas saved the life of Captain Smith, but very few know that Pocahontas was only a nickname and her real name was Matoaka, meaning “frisky one.” Powhatan was a title given to this chief. His real name was Wahunsonocock.
Very little is known about the Monacans because Europeans did not extensively travel into their territory until much later. However, Powhatan told Captain Smith of their existence. The Powhatans and the Monacans were enemies and often engaged in warfare with each other. The Powhatans spoke the Algonquian language and the Monacans spoke Siouan.
During the early 1600’s, the European contact with the Monacans was limited. Captain Smith and his Indian guide Mosco ventured above the fall line and visited two Monacan villages. They were searching for valuable minerals, but none were found. However, Smith learned that there were five villages – Rassawek, Mowhemcho, Massinicack, Monasuchapanough, and Monahassanough.
Rassawek was located at the confluence of two rivers (approximately on the spot that is the present site of the town of Columbia). This is also known as Point of Fork, which played a role in the Revolutionary War.
The Monacans called themselves Ye-sah, which means “the people” – a universal term among all Indian peoples. Even though little is known about them, we can judge their appearance to be similar to that of the tidewater tribes, as described by Captain Smith. Their villages appeared to have been of circular design, with houses of bark on sapling frames. The women tended the crops and the men engaged in hunting and fishing.
The Indians had their own religion. They did not deem it necessary to worship or fear the benevolent god who provided all good things, but they did feel it necessary to pacify and respect the evil spirits.
The villages were ruled by werowances (chiefs) who were counseled by priests (shamans) and conjurers. As the Europeans encroached on their territory, the Monacans moved further west up the James River to what is now Amherst County. By the early 1700’s, when Europeans settlers moved into Fluvanna County, there were few Monacans left.
The Monacans were often referred to as a “lost” Virginia tribe, however, the Amherst Monacans have survived. They say that they were only able to survive as a nation for hundreds of years because they lived in the middle of nowhere. In 1989, they were officially recognized by the Virginia General Assembly as one of the eight indigenous tribes of the state. Their influence is still felt in Fluvanna today and occasionally one finds remnants of their past in the form of arrowheads, spearheads, and pottery.
The Monacans once played a vital role in what is now Fluvanna County and they are certainly a part of its history.
(For those interested in learning more about the Monacans, see the Historical Society Bulletins 39 and 75. These can be purchased at the bookstore in Maggie’s House in downtown, historic Palmyra.)
Bill Jones – Fluvanna County Historical Society