Well before the Romans, or the Greeks or the Egyptians created their cultures, an ethnic group known as the “First People” began its colonization of North American. There are a number of theories of how the original settlers came to the continent. Some belive they were the “Lost Tribes” of the Old Testament. Others fancifully speculated they were Trojans or Atlantians. The most supportable claim is they migrated from Asia over a land bridge formed by the last ice age. Although the evidence does not conclusively date the migration into North America, it does suggest an arrival in the New World more than 25,000 years ago.
Scholars believe the first group to reach Virignia arrived before the Chesapeake Bay was formed. With the harsh climate limiting the vegetation to conifer forests and grasslands, the first settlers were nomadic hunters. Although mastodons, mammoths, musk oxen, and other big game were available, their food supply was predominately deer, elk, bear and moose. To kill these animals, the Paleoindians fashioned relatively crude stone weapons. The Thunderbird Quarry, an archeological site in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, provided these first people with a source of yellow jasper which could be hammered by river rocks into knives, drills, scrapers and other tools as well as arrowheads and spear points.
8000 BCE to 6000 BCE
The end of the Ice Age and the gradual receding of the glaciers dramatically altered the Virginia’s environment. The Chesapeake Bay was formed and the grasslands became forests of pine and oak. This forced a cultural shift from a nomadic hunter’s society to a hunter/gatherers’ in which nuts and fruits and small game provided the food supply. Adapting to this new environment created the need for new tools and weapons. One of these was the javelin for small game hunting.
The more hospitable environment resulted in an expansion of the population. Small family groups of hunter/gatherers formed. Although the bands remained mobile, they could restrict their movement to a more limited area and establish permanent shelters that could be used repeatedly. An archeological dig in Russell County uncovered a site established about 8000 BCE and used to the arrival of the Colonists.
6000 BCE to 2500 BCE
As the climate became more and more hospitable, the Indians of Virginia became more sophisticated and effective in their use of their environment. The creation of the Atlatl or spear thrower was of major importace because it extended the length of the thrower’s arm and increased the spear’s force and velocity. Thus the Atlatl allowed the hunter to throw his spear with deadly force from a safe distance instead of having to creep up and stab his prey. Mortars and pestles dating from this period indicate that the gathers had the means to grind nuts and seeds. This process made the food sources were more easily digested and gave variety to the Indian’s diet.
Another innovation was an early form of the ax. This gave the people of the Middle Archaic period a more efficient way of clearing the forests and cutting wood for fires and shelter. This radically changed the environment. Foraging animals such as deer, bear, and smaller animals would now come to the clearings to eat the leaves of the low lying shrubs and small trees, creating a more reliable hunting ground. The forest openings also encouraged the growth of plants and trees that were beneficial to the Indians both for food and raw materials.
2500 BCE to 1200 BCE
The expanding waterways, the rich ground of the flood plains and the evolving clearing of the forests produced an abundant animal and aquatic life and diverse plant life that provide seeds, shoots, tender leaves, roots and berries. As a result, small units formed through bonds of marriage and trade and fostered a tribal identity. The new groupings established small settlements of 25 to 50 members. The new social structure was a hierarchy led by an elder and those with the skills essential for the tribes’ survival.
The archaeological digs of riverside sites from this period reveal large hearths of fire-cracked rock which indicates the people cooked large quantities of food. The large pits uncovered indicated they were used to process food such as smoked fish and dired deer meat for later use.
The increasing domestication was most evident in the discovery of soapstone cooking vessels. Large mushroom shaped pieces of the rock quarried from one of the many sites along the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge were hollowed out with stone and bone tools and formed into bowls. Because the pots could be placed on the cooking fire without breaking, they became a valuable product which were traded by the settlements on coast to those in the mountains. Another interesting piece of evidence from the archaeological digs was the bones of the Indians’ only domesticated animal, the dog. It served as a companion, scavenger to clean up the hamlet and as food.
Early Woodland 1200 BCE-500BCE
The term “Woodland Period” describes the prehistoric culture that developed between the Archaic period and the arrival of the Colonists and the development of a written language by the Cherokees. The key technological advancement of this period was pottery. Instead of the heavy stone pots, clay vessels were lighter, easier to shape and simple to replace when broken. The early pottery was of simple shapes formed from a lump of clay with a tempering agent added to it to prevent cracking during the firing process. Other developments in of the early Woodland Period were the appearance of more permanent settlements and the erections of earth works of various sizes and usages.
Middle Woodland Period 500 BCE -900 AD
By the middle of the Woodland Period, Virginia had a diverse Indian population. Most settled in small hamlets which were established along the major rivers that ran through the region. In the northern Shenandoah Valley, a group called the Stone Mound Burial people dated from 400 BC to 200 AD. Related closely to the Adena culture of the Ohio Valley, the Stone Mound Burial culture clustered hundreds of low stone mounds on a flat river terrace for the burial of their dead. The objects buried within the mounds suggest the group was part of the large trading network throughout the Eastern United States. It also suggested that the interaction among the diverse cultures promoted the sharing of ideas of social organizations, views of the natural world and information about technology and agriculture.
Another crucial change in this period was the introduction of maize. The productive plant easily adapted to the environment and provided a more sustainable food source than the local plants and trees. Corn together with beans and squash became the staples of the Woodland diet. Because the food sources were shifting from hunting to agriculture, the spear was superceded by the bow and arrow and a redesigned ax called a celt.
The social order of the villages became more complex with status bestowed on certain individuals and families. In some Indian cultures those of higher rank were given housing on an elevated area within the village. In some, like the Stone Mound Burial Indians, the elite were buried with rare and sacred items. The new order also led to intricate marriage alignments that preserved the tribal identity and insured the continuation of the power base.
Late Woodland Period 900 CE -1600 CE
The Late Woodland Period is one of transition. The small, isolated permanent communities spread across a region gave rise to small-scale cultures that were distinctive to the areas in which they existed. In the Shenandoah Valley, the Earthen Mound Burial culture dominated. Its characteristic feature was the burial mound which was at least 20 feet high and became a visible monument to the culture. Many were built along waterways and were destroyed by flooding and the agricultural practices of the colonists. Like the other Indians in the region they combined agriculture with hunting and gathering. Their tools were crafted from the high quality cert and jasper that was found in the area. These stones were traded along with soapstone and copper with other tribes.
There seems general agreement that the Earthen Mound Burial people were the ancestors of the Monacans who dominated the area when the Colonists arrived and John Smith made his trip to the interior of Virginia.
Monacans were one of three distinct cultures in Virginia at the arrival of the English colonists. The others were the Powhatan and the Cherokee. The language of the Monacans is Siousan which scholars traced to the Ohio Valley and the Mound Builders culture. Unlike the Powhatans, the Monacans shunned interaction with the Colonists. As a result, there are few written records of Monacans in contrast to the history of the Powhatans and the popular story of Pocahontas.
The Monacans lived in small villages or hamlets which were protected by a high palisade made of wood poles. The individual houses were dome-shaped structures of bark and reed mats. Although an agricultural people, the Monacans would leave their settlements to visit temporary hunting camps in the Shenadoah Valley to seek deer, elk and small game. The Monacans also mined copper and fashioned it into jewelry which they traded with the Powhatans and the Iroquois.
In response to the intrusions of the Europeans, many of the Monacans withdrew from Virginia and moved westward. Those who survived in Virginia were burdened by the state’s racial laws. In 1823, Virginia declared that all children born to Indians were to be recorded at “mulatto.” In 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Law which prohibited intermarriage between those deemed White and those having any mixture of “colored blood” of more than one-sixteenth. The law in effect disenfranchised the Monacans and limited their ability to marry and denied their right to be register as Indians. In 1942, a legal chanllenge was mounted that forced the head of the state Bureau of Vital Statistics to admit that there was no scientific evidence to support the racial designation used for the Indians. A series of law suits followed that resulted in the Monacans being recognized as a one of the eight indigenous tribes in Virginia in 1989. In 1997, the tribe lobbied for legislation to correct the birth certificates and other official documents at no cost to the tribal members. With the passing of the bill, the state-sanctioned racial discrimination ended.