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Return to the River

Members of Virginia’s Rappahannock tribe are at work with archaeologists to document the landscape they call home


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Rappahannock Drone AerialRappahannock MapSoon after Captain John Smith arrived at Jamestown in 1607, or so the story goes, he was captured by Opechancanough, the brother of the powerful Native chief Powhatan. English explorers wrote that Powhatan controlled a domain spanning much of what is now Virginia, from the state’s Piedmont region to the coast. Several tribes reportedly paid him tribute and lived within his Powhatan Confederacy. After Smith narrowly escaped execution through, he later claimed, the intervention of Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas, he set off from Jamestown to explore and chart the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Opechancanough had already taken Smith to a number of Native settlements during his captivity, including at least one on the Rappahannock River. Smith recorded that the Rappahannock peoples, who inhabited both sides of the eponymous waterway, were divided among eight communities, each with a leader, or werowance. Smith mapped or described 43 of their villages, reporting friendly encounters with some groups and hostility from others.


More than 400 years later, the Rappahannock still call Virginia home. The community numbers some 300 enrolled members, many of whom live in Indian Neck, a hamlet about 10 miles west of the modern town of Tappahannock. Since 2016, tribal members have been working with archaeologists to document their traditional homeland, a task that has presented challenges. Centuries of European encroachment and the conversion of woodland to farmland have physically separated the Rappahannock from many of their ancestral landmarks. Their towns, hunting camps, and ceremonial grounds were often built from ephemeral materials and were sometimes relocated for environmental or political reasons. Led by Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe and archaeologists Julia King and Scott Strickland of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the project was launched as an initiative of the National Park Service to identify sites within a 552-square-mile swath of territory that are culturally significant to the tribe.

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