Essex County History
Pre 1608: The Rappahannock Tribe

The Rappahannock probably first encountered the English in 1603. It was likely Captain Samuel Mace who sailed up the Rappahannock and was befriended by the Rappahannock chief. The record tells us that the ship’s captain killed the chief and took a group of Rappahannock men back to England. In December 1603, those men were documented giving dugout demonstrations on the Thames River. In December 1607, the Rappahannock people first met Captain John Smith at their capital town ‘Topahanocke”, on the banks of the river bearing their name. At the time, Smith was a prisoner of Powhatan’s war chief, Opechancanough. He took Smith to the Rappahannock town for the people to determine whether Smith was the Englishman who, four years earlier, had murdered their chief and kidnapped some of their people. Smith was found innocent of these crimes, at least, and he returned to the Rappahannock homeland in the summer of 1608, when he mapped 14 Rappahannock towns on the north side of the river. The territory on the south side of the river was the primary Rappahannock hunting ground.

English settlement in the Rappahannock River valley began illegally in the 1640s. After Bacon’s Rebellion, the Rappahannock consolidated into one village, and in November 1682 the Virginia Council laid out 3,474 acres for the Rappahannock in Indian Neck, where their descendants live today. One year later, the Virginia colony forcibly removed the tribal members from their homes and relocated them, to be used as a human shield to protect white Virginians from the Iroquois of New York, who continued to attack the Virginia frontier and to threaten the expansion of English settlement.

In an effort to solidify their tribal government in order to fight for their state recognition, the Rappahannock incorporated in 1921. The tribe was officially recognized as one of the historic tribes of the Commonwealth of Virginia by an act of the General Assembly on March 25, 1983. In 1996 the Rappahannock reactivated work on federal acknowledgement, which had begun in 1921, when Chief George Nelson petitioned the U.S. Congress to recognize the Rappahannock civil and sovereign rights. In 1995 they began construction of their cultural center project and completed two phases by 1997. In 1998 the Rappahannock tribe elected the first woman chief, G. Anne Richardson, to lead a tribe in Virginia since the 1700s. As a fourth-generation chief in her family, she brings to the position a long legacy of traditional leadership and service among her people. Also in 1998, the tribe purchased 119 acres and established a land trust on which to build their housing development. They build their first home and sold it in 2001.

The Rappahannock Tribe hosts their traditional Harvest Festival and Pow-wow annually on the second Saturday in October at their Cultural Center in Indian Neck. They have a traditional dance group called the Rappahannock Native American Dancers and a drum group called the Maskapow Drum Group, which means “Little Beaver” in the Powhatan language. Both of these groups perform locally and abroad in their efforts to educate the public about Rappahannock history and tradition.

Sources: 1. The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. Edited by Karenne Wood. A Project of the Virginia Council of Indians. In partnership with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. (2007) - Reproduced by kind permission of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Rappahannock Indians

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