Reflections on 1619
The following excerpt was originally published by Lynette Allston in Richmond Magazine and is posted with permission from the author and publisher.
History measures time with pivotal events. This year, we commemorate 1619, a year that would force transitions and alterations of destiny upon Virginia’s indigenous people. The experience of the Nottoway Tribe is similar to that of other tribes, yet unique in the sequence of challenges that make us who we are today. Over the past 400 years, legislative acts, regulations and, unfortunately, the abuse of power by some who were given authority to assist the Native American population have shaped our lives.
What I learned about my ancestry and the tribe’s history came not from textbooks, but from my maternal grandparents and extended family. (My parents died when I was a small child.) In school, I think the first mention of Virginia Indians was in fourth grade, and it was about Jamestown. It was taught as something in the past, rather than the present. But where I live in Southampton County, we have the Nottoway River and historical markers that point out where the Nottoway reservation was located. I had cousins who still lived on land that they owned, because the reservation was allocated to descendants of the tribe. You could walk into your yard and see an arrowhead that came up after a rain. It’s part of day-to-day life. That’s how you learn about who you are and who your people are and make your connections to the land.
In 1619, three events accelerated the crisis of change among Virginia’s Native people. The arrival of English women ensured that the Jamestown Colony would survive with population growth. The arrival of Africans as an enslaved workforce added another strata to the class divisions that were already in place with the indentured servant class. The establishment of an invasive Colonial government would impact the cultural practices and lifestyle of the Native population.
South of the Jamestown Settlement was the territory of the Iroquoian Nottoway Tribe of Indians. Being separated by rivers and distant from Jamestown delayed the impact of the 1619 events, but the Nottoway Tribe was not insulated from change that was inevitable. Having more time than the Algonquin tribes to prepare undoubtedly gave Nottoway leaders the opportunity to formulate a strategy for survival.
The most difficult challenges to the Native American way of life were the restrictive laws created after the establishment of the Colonial government. The governing structure, under the newly formed House of Burgesses, incorporated 17th-century English practices by assigning land ownership, defining subordinate classes, restricting historic Native trade routes and practices, and adopting racial separation. Creating land ownership through property grants to colonists was contrary to Native beliefs that land was open and free to be used, like air, for sustaining life.
Through negotiations with the Colonial government, by the early 1700s, the Nottoway lived on a 40,000-acre reservation. In 1713, a separate treaty with the Nottoway further defined the relationship between the tribe and the Colonial government. With these treaty agreements, the Nottoway Great Town was a stopover for travelers and a meeting place for negotiations between the Colonial government and other tribes, particularly the more aggressively defensive Tuscarora. The Nottoway reservation offered a buffer against Anglo conflicts with tribes that were stridently resistant to Colonial usurpation of their land.
After the Revolutionary War, the Nottoway continued to live on a reservation in present-day Southampton and Sussex counties. The tribe faced many forms of adversity, including advances by newcomers seeking land. By the late 1800s, the Nottoway tribal leaders requested and were granted by the Virginia General Assembly the right to become individual landowners by receiving allotments of the remaining reservation land. Sadly, through legal and financial chicanery, many individual allotments were lost within less than a decade. In 1847, the Nottoway Tribe sued and won a lawsuit against a government-approved trustee for theft of tribal land funds.
Just as in the 1600s, when Native Americans were displaced from their towns and territory, the methods of U.S. Census takers in the late 1800s and Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act were manifestations that disrupted Native identity, creating separation within families and communities…
Read more of Chief Allston’s story at Richmond Magazine.
Editor’s note: Want to join the 2019 Commemoration in surfacing authentic portrayals of Virginia Indians and Native Americans? Don’t miss the Pocahontas Reframed Storytellers Film Festival.