Monacan people

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Total population
Enrolled members 2000
Regions with significant populations
Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio
English, formerly Tutelo
Related ethnic groups
Tutelo, Occaneechi, Manahoac, other eastern Siouan tribes

The Monacan tribe is one of eleven Native American tribes recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. In January 2018, the Monacan Tribe was one of six tribes in Virginia also recognized by the federal government.[1] They are located primarily in the Piedmont, in Amherst County, Virginia near Lynchburg. As of 2009 there are approximately 2,000 members of the tribe.[2] There are satellite groups in West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee and Ohio.

The contemporary Monacan people claim ancestry to the historic Monacan tribe, first recorded in 1607 in Virginia. It was related to the Siouan-speaking[citation needed] Tutelo, Saponi and Occaneechi tribes. Today the people speak English.

17th century[edit]

Historical marker near the site of the Monacan village of Monasukapanough in northern Albemarle County, Virginia.

When the English first explored the James River in May 1607, they learned that the James River Monacan (along with their northern Mannahoac allies on the Rappahannock River) controlled the area of the Piedmont between the Fall Line in Richmond and the Blue Ridge Mountains. They were hostile competitors with the Powhatan confederacy, which controlled the coastal plain. The Monacan called their territory Amai Amañuhkañ ("The Country of the People of the Land").[citation needed] The weroance Parahunt, son of paramount chief Powhatan, persuaded Captain Christopher Newport not to continue beyond the falls into Monacan country.

But the determined Newport made an expedition into their country in November 1608. On a 40-mile (64 km) march, the English found two Monacan towns, called Massinacak and Mowhemenchough'. Unlike the Powhatan, who had given the English lavish welcomes, the Monacan largely ignored them and went about their business. The English captured their chief and forced him to conduct them around his kingdom. On November 26, 1608, Peter Wynne, a member of Newport's exploration party to the Monacan villages, wrote a letter to John Egerton, informing him that some members of Newport's party believed the pronunciation of the Monacans' language resembled "Welch" (Welsh), which Wynne spoke, and asked Wynne to act as interpreter.[3] The language was not Welsh.

Mowhemencho, their easternmost outpost, was between Bernard's Creek and Jones Creek in the eastern tip of present-day Powhatan County, while Massinacak (Mahock) was at the mouth of Mohawk Creek, a mile south of Goochland. Their capital was Rassawek, at the point within the two branches, Point of Fork, of the upper James and Rivanna rivers. Tributary to them were the Monahassanugh (later Nahyssan, i.e. Tutelo), whose town was near what later developed as Wingina, and Monasukapanough (later Saponi), living near Charlottesville.[citation needed] All these groups were closely related with the Siouan Manahoac to the north.[citation needed]

In 1656 several hundred Nahyssan, Mahock, and Rechahecrians (possibly Erie) threatened both the Powhatan tribes and the English by camping near the James falls. A combined force of English and Powhatan was sent to dislodge them in a bloody battle in which the Pamunkey chief Totopotomoi was slain.

The Monacan towns of Mowhemencho and Mahock were still in the area in 1670, when they were visited by John Lederer and Major Harris, who found that the men possessed muskets. Lederer recorded their tradition that they had settled in the area on account of an oracle 400 years earlier, having been driven from the northwest by an enemy nation. They told him they had found it occupied by the Doeg, whom they eventually displaced, in the meantime teaching them the art of growing corn. Another Monacan tradition he records as follows: "From four women, viz. Pash, Sepoy, Askarin, and Maraskarin, they derive the race of mankinde; which they therefore divide into four tribes, distinguished under those several names."

At the time of Lederer's visit, the tribe had about 30 bowmen, out of a total population of perhaps 100. Lederer also noted the towns of Sapon and Pintahae on the Staunton River. Batts and Fallam recorded the latter town as Hanahaskie in 1671. The 20th-century ethnologist Swanton considers this last to be a Nahyssan village. Around 1675 the Nahyssan settled on an island at the confluence of the Stanton and Dan rivers, above the Occaneechi people.

In 1677, the Monacan chief Surenough was one of several native signatories to the Treaty of Middle Plantation following Bacon's Rebellion. The English and Pamunkey encountered them, and the Manahoac, on the Upper Mattaponi and North Anna rivers in 1684.

By 1699, the Monacan had abandoned their homeland, moving further from Anglo-European encroachment. The former site of Mowhemencho was occupied by French Huguenot pioneers. First promised land at Jamestown, they were forced by English colonial leaders to settle above the falls on the James River after arriving in 1700. They renamed the village as "Manakin-Town".

Although a few Monacan lingered in the area as late as 1702, the core remnant seems to have merged with the Nahyssan and other closely related Virginia Siouan tribes, by then known generally as Tutelo-Saponi. Under this collective name, the bulk of the tribe may be traced to North Carolina (1702), back to Virginia (Fort Christanna, 1714). They headed north to join the Iroquois around the Great Lakes for protection, and were noted in Pennsylvania (Shamokin, by 1740); and in western New York (Coreorgonel) by 1753, where they joined the Cayuga. They participated with them in the American Revolutionary War as allies of the British against the colonists. After the war, the Monacan went with the Iroquois to Canada. They were settled at the (Six Nation Reserve of the Grand River First Nation) in present-day Ontario. Their settlement Tutelo Heights was noted in 1779. By the early 20th century, their descendants in Ontario had been largely absorbed by the Cayuga tribe through intermarriage.

Smaller bands are believed to have split off in North Carolina, and at several locations across Virginia.

Origins and legends of modern tribe[edit]

Current headquarters of the Monacan Indian Nation in Amherst, Virginia

After Peter Wynne's expedition of 1608, the Monacan are one of the groups who have been conjectured to be "Welsh Indians"[citation needed]. Historians have found no evidence for that and treat it as myth[citation needed]. The Monacan language was part of the Siouan language family.[citation needed]

In 1831-1833, William Johns, an ancestor of some of today's Monacan, purchased 452 acres (1.83 km2) of land on Bear Mountain for a settlement of families related to him. In 1850, the census recorded 29 families there.[4][5]

Over time, Native Americans in Virginia intermarried with Europeans and African Americans. In 1924, Virginia passed a Racial Integrity Act, which instituted the one-drop law, requiring classification as black of a person with any known African ancestry. The director of the department of vital records insisted on reclassifying specific families as black, although they had long been recorded as Indian. This program ignored how people identified and disrupted decades of records, causing American Indians in Virginia to lose historical continuity. But they kept their culture and community, and reorganized in the 20th century to regain recognition as Native American peoples.

In 1926 Mongrel Virginians: The WIN Tribe, a study of a mixed-race group in the Blue Ridge Mountains, was published by the Carnegie Institution. The author described the group as "degenerate". (Some claim the authors studied the Monacan.)[citation needed] The author referred to the group as the WIN tribe, for White-Indian-Negro, because he was disguising the name of the group, the surnames of its members, the county which was studied - every fact about them. Some contemporary academic reviewers strongly criticized and ridiculed the book and its reliance on community anecdotes to make judgments about families and individuals.[6]

When ancestors of current Monacan families entered the U.S. military to serve in the world wars, they resisted accepting the classification of "colored" which the state of Virginia had also tried impose on them.[5]

In 1946 the researcher William Harlan Gilbert, Jr. described the Monacan in his "Memorandum Concerning the Characteristics of the Larger Mixed-Blood Racial Islands of the Eastern United States". Edward T. Price had a study in 1953, "A Geographical Analysis of White-Negro-Indian Racial Mixtures in the Eastern United States ". Both used the former name for the group, "Issues", generally used to refer to free people of color, most of whom were mixed-race, who were free before the Civil War. Both authors considered the Issues (sometimes called "old Issues") to be triracial.

The Episcopal Church ran a primary school (Bear Mountain Indian Mission School) for the children of the community at Bear Mountain near Amherst, Virginia. There was no high school education available. In 1963, Amherst County proposed a $30,000 bond to build a school for the mission community. The proposal was voted down, and 23 students applied for transfer to public schools. The state approved their applications and the mission school closed.

Claims and recognition as Native American[edit]

In the early 1980s, Peter Houck, a local physician, published Indian Island in Amherst County, in which he speculated that the free people of color in the region during the antebellum era were in part descendants of the Monacan tribe.[7] While this population had claimed an Indian cultural identity since the turn of the 20th century, Houck was the first to link some of them to the Monacan Tribal identity. Prior to Houck's book, most people claiming Native American ancestry in that vicinity had identified as Cherokee. Many of the local families continue to claim Cherokee instead of Monacan ancestry.[8]

In 1988, the Monacan Tribe incorporated as a nonprofit organization, and in 1989, the tribe was officially recognized by the State of Virginia. Other tribes recognized by the state include the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Nansemond, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi, Patawomeck, Nottoway, and Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) tribes.

On January 30, 2018, federal status was granted to the Monacan Nation through the passage of the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017.[9]


Today the Monacan Tribe operates a yearly powwow in May, and a homecoming celebration in October. A model of an ancient Monacan village has been created as part of the tourist spot Natural Bridge (Virginia), in nearby Rockbridge County.


  1. ^ Vincent Schilling, "Six VA Tribes Slotted For Federal Recognition as Senators Warner & Kaine Secure Bill Passage", Indian Country Media Network, 16 January 2018; accessed 16 February 2018
  2. ^ Joanne Kimberlain, "We're Still Here", The Virginian Pilot online, 2009.
  3. ^ Mullaney, Steven The Place of Stager, University of Michigan Press 1995 ISBN 978-0-472-08346-6 p. 163
  4. ^ Contemporary Monacans Archived 2011-07-20 at the Wayback Machine., accessed 6 May 2008
  5. ^ a b Monacan Indian Nation Archived 2002-08-05 at the Wayback Machine., accessed 6 May 2008
  6. ^ "Review": A.H. Estabrook and Ivan E. McDougle, Mongrel Virginia: The WIN Tribe, in The ANNALS, American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 126, No. 1, 165-166 (1926), accessed 8 Apr 2010 The reviewer noted the lack of scientific data. He describes the book as "Absolutely unscientific in method; an exposé of small community moral depravity recorded from the lips of neighbors." The reviewer further criticizes the efforts at concealing the identity of the place and people, as nothing can be verified or checked, especially since some accounts are about people who have died. The reviewer noted that from his experience, there was little to differentiate this group culturally from others in the mountains of the region, and he attributed their characteristics more to the culture than to race.
  7. ^ Houck, Peter W (Sep 1993). Indian Island in Amherst County. ISBN 9780963845504. LCCN 84080088.
  8. ^ Horace R. Rice, The Buffalo Ridge Cherokee: A Remnant of a Great Nation Divided, Heritage Books, 1995
  9. ^ "Trump signs bill giving recognition to 6 Virginia tribes", Associated Press, 30 January 2018

Further reading[edit]

  • Houck, Peter W. Indian Island in Amherst County. Lynchburg: Lynchburg Historical Research Co., 1984.
  • Estabrook, Arthur H. & McDougle, Ivan E. Mongrel Virginians: The WIN Tribe. Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1926.

External links[edit]