Rappahannock people

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Camden property signing (4440846302).jpg
Two members of the tribe, Wanda Fortune and G. Anne Richardson, speaking with Tad Davis in 2009
Total population
Enrolled members: 500
Regions with significant populations
Essex, Caroline, and King and Queen counties, Virginia
English, Algonquian (historical)
Related ethnic groups
Monacan, Chickahominy, Mattaponi Official Tribal Seal

The Rappahannock are one of the eleven state-recognized Native American tribes in Virginia. They are made up of descendants of several small Algonquian-speaking tribes who merged in the 17th century. In January 2018, they were one of six Virginia tribes to gain federal recognition by the passage of the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017.


17th century[edit]

In 1607, the Rappahannock were the dominant tribe of the Rappahannock River valley, maintaining thirteen villages along the north and south banks of the river named after them. Their capital town was Topahanocke (or Tappahannock). They were a peripheral group among the Algonguian-speaking tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy. In spring of that year, when news spread of explorers sailing on the James River, their weroance took a party and rushed there. They stayed with their cousins the Quiockohannock, and sent word requesting audience with the newcomers. The weroance and explorers met on May 4.[1]

George Percy wrote a vivid description of the weroance, whose body was painted crimson, and face was painted blue sprinkled with silver. He wore a red deer-hair crown tied around his hair knot and a copper plate on the other side, with two feathers arranged like horns, and earrings made of bird-claws fastened with yellow metal.[2] When the weroance came to the shore, he was playing a flute. He escorted the explorers to his camp following a tobacco ceremony. The settlers were confused about the native names, and referred to the Quiockohannock south of the James by the name of Tappahannock for some time.

After Captain John Smith was captured in December 1607, he was taken northward to the Rappahannock capital. He was told that they wished to see if he was from the same nation that had attacked them some years earlier (possibly the Spanish); however, they determined that he was not. In 1608 Smith returned to the Rappahannock and mediated a feud between them and their neighbors, the Moraughticund.

The Rappahannock seldom appeared in early English records. Colonists attacked them in 1623 in retaliation after the Great Massacre of 1622. When the Second Anglo-Powhatan War of 1644–1645 broke out, the colonists seem to have viewed the Rappahannock as independent and outside the conflict, and did not attack the people.

In the 1650s, when colonists began settling along the river, the Rappahannock withdrew from the southern bank; their weroance Accopatough deeded the land east of Totuskey Creek to settlers just before he died in April 1651. His successor Taweeren confirmed the deed in May. Their main town in 1652 was two miles up Cat Point Creek. By 1653, English were moving into the region in such numbers, that the colony assigned the tribe reserved land. They also committed to build Taweeren an English-style house.

Disputes between the two groups continued. In November 1654, colonists visited the tribe to demand restitution for damages, but a brawl ensued in which Taweeren was killed. Border disputes continued under his successor Wachicopa. In 1662, the Virginia Colony fixed the Rappahannock boundaries at Cat Point Creek on the west and Totuskey Creek on the east. The Rappahannock gave up trying to defend their homeland and moved away; by 1669 they were settled at the headwaters of the Mattaponi River with 30 bowmen (and likely about 100 people in total).

In 1677, the Rappahannock joined the briefly resurrected Powhatan Confederacy of Cockacoeske, but broke away again in 1678. In 1684, the tribe numbered only 70 total, located on the ridge between the Mattaponi and Rappahannock rivers. The Virginia Colony ordered them to merge with the Portobago Indians on the Upper Rappahannock in Essex County, Virginia, supposedly for protection from the marauding Iroquois Seneca nation. The Seneca had invaded the area from their base in western present-day New York as part of the Beaver Wars.

Rappahannock descendants continued to live there. The Nanzatico (Nantaughtacund) lived across the river from them, until in 1705 the English deported the Nanzatico as slaves to the West Indies.

20th century[edit]

Today's Rappahannock Tribe consists of a few hundred descendants of the allied Algonquian Rappahannock, Morattico (Moraughtacund), Portobacco, and Doeg tribes, who merged in the late 17th century. Most live in Essex, Caroline and King and Queen counties.

To solidify their tribal government to seek state recognition, the Rappahannock incorporated in 1921; their first chief was George Nelson. The Commonwealth of Virginia officially recognized the tribe in January 1983. In 1998, they elected Chief G. Anne Richardson, the first woman chief to lead in Virginia since the 18th century.

Because they lacked reservation lands and had often lost their classification as American Indian in early 20th-century Virginia records, at a time of state enforcement of the one-drop rule, the Rappahannock had to work to demonstrate tribal continuity in seeking federal recognition. For more than two decades, persons who were mixed race were classified as black, despite identifying culturally as Rapahannock. But on January 12, 2018, federal status was granted to the Rappahannock Tribe through the passage of the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017.[3]


The Rappahannock use Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium, ssp obtusifolium for a variety of uses. They take an infusion of the roots for chills, smoke an infusion of dried leaves or dried stems in a pipe for asthma, and chew the leaves recreationally.[4]

Notable Rappahannock[edit]


  1. ^ Helen Rountree, Pocahontas's People (1990), p. 30.
  2. ^ Frank E. Grizzard, Jr., D. Boyd Smith, Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (2007) p. 183.
  3. ^ "Bill passes to give 6 Va. Native American tribes federal recognition". wtvr.com. 12 January 2018.
  4. ^ Speck, Frank G., R.B. Hassrick and E.S. Carpenter (1942), "Rappahannock Herbals, Folk-Lore and Science of Cures", in Proceedings of the Delaware County Institute of Science 10:7-55. (p. 29)

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