“Welcome, my beloved friend”
European colonists arriving in Virginia may have been greeted with, “Wingapo,” (pronounced win-gà-po), which translated means “Welcome, my beloved Friend.” So we know that the State of Virginia’s history did not begin in 1607. We are learning that Indians have lived in Virginia for thousands of years. In fact, if you ask any Virginia Native American, “When did you come to this land?”, he or she will tell you, “We have always been here.”
Native American Tribes Led by Chief Powhatan
Little is known about Chief Powhatan’s life before the arrival of English colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. He apparently inherited the leadership of about 4-6 tribes, with its base at the “fall line” near present-day Richmond, and his Algonquin native name “Powhatan,” which means “at the falls,” and describes his people’s original lands. Through diplomacy and/or force, by the early 17th century, Powhatan had assembled a total of about 30 tribes that included an estimated 10,000-15,000 people.
According to early chroniclers, Powhatan’s father may have come to Virginia from either Florida or Maya territory in Central America. The Mayan word “Pohotun” refers to ancient ones. Their civilization had a history of conquest and tribal consolidation.
About the Powhatan “Confederacy”
The Powhatans populated the northeastern part of the United States at the time of its colonization [1492-1673]. Their boundaries in 1607 stretched from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and onto the Eastern Shore region (about 16,000 square miles). [Note: A Washington Post map by Gene Thorpe dated December 13, 2006, showed the land and water areas were in fact between 18,700 to 19,250 square miles.]
Map Showing The Boundaries Of The Powhatan Confederacy
Treaty Between The English And The Powhatan Indians, October 1646
The oldest Treaty in America dates back to October 1646, two years after Pamunkey Chief Opechancanough, brother of Powhatan, ordered coördinated attacks on English settlements that killed about 500 people. The government of the colony and Chief Necotowance, son of Opechancanough, and nephew of Chief Powhatan, on behalf of the Powhatan tribes, negotiated a treaty that ended hostilities between the remnant of the Powhatan and the English Virginians. Later in the year, the British General Assembly enacted the treaty into law and adopted other laws to enforce its terms.
The substance of the “Treaty of 1646,” placed Indians in eastern Virginia under the control of the King of England. In theory, it provided the tribes’ people protection from other tribes and from encroaching settlers. Yet, it imposed many restrictions on them by 1) confining them to land north of the York River; 2) prohibiting them from interfering with English settlements south of that river; 3) requiring them to communicate with the government by messengers while dressed in distinctive clothing; 4) requiring them to return all hostages, including “negroes,” 5) to turn in their guns; and, 6) to acknowledge and make tribute to the King for such protection by paying unto the King’s Governor 20 beaver skin’s annually at the time the Geese migrated south.
From that time on, the colonies, governments, and Indian leaders negotiated treaties that allowed people of European origin or ancestry to settle in areas that Indians had formerly occupied. Often, these treaties put an end to open hostilities or organized warfare. These legal doctrines also showed that Indians did not bear the same relationship to the colonial governments that free white men enjoyed. In fact, some colonial laws and practices treated Indians as foreign nations. And, when Indians resided in or near European settlements, they were not given the full rights of free white men. In the case of the Treaty of 1646, the affected tribes were known as “tributary nations,” because they were required to pay tribute to their victors who had imposed the terms of the treaty on them. As a result, their required annual tribute by payment of beaver skins to the government compared to the European settlers taxation, which exempted Indians.
Our Constitution also included some of those same attitudes toward Indians residing within its boundaries:
- Article I, Section 2, in providing for the counting of people for the purposes of assigning direct taxes and the number of members each state would have in the House of Representatives, exempted “Indians not taxed” from the population entitled to representation.
- Article I, Section 8, empowered Congress to regulate commerce “with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes,” treating Indian tribes as if they were sovereign, foreign countries.
- The authorization in Article II, Section 2, for the president to negotiate, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and make treaties was understood to include Indian tribes as well as foreign nation states. In fact, our first President and then President of the Constitution Convention of 1787, George Washington, clearly understood this clause and assigned agents to negotiate treaties with Indian tribes while during his term of office.
The status of Indians became even more complex after the new federal government concluded its own treaties with western Indians. Those treaties created different relationships with the federal government for western Indians than eastern Indians had negotiated with individual state governments.
Settlers Westward Expansion: 1787 – 1869
The constant westward expansion of the settlements by people not of Indian ethnicity and the recurring warfare with people of Indian origin led to more than a century of treaties and actions by the federal government, unlike any agreements or laws adopted that pertained to free or enslaved people.
Pamunkey John Miles-Mills was born in Hanover, King William County, Virginia, in 1847 to Mary Frances Miles. It was often the custom for children of Indian women to carry the mother’s surname. Mary Frances was the daughter of the
Pamunkey Indian headman (chief) Isaac Miles and his wife Nannie Custalow Miles. The
Pamunkeys’ and the village of the same name were the main seat of the Powhatan Chiefdom. King William County land records show Mills land (and Mills family including John Watson Mills, age 3 in 1850) near Aylett and Rt. 30 on the Pamunkey River, a tract of 110 acres called Pigeon Hill. The land was deeded to Edward
Mills by his uncle Captain Daniel Miles (spelled Mills, Myles, and Miles) a trustee of Delaware Town, or De La Warr Town, now called West Point. The land was originally owned by Opechancanough, Powhatan’s half-brother. Like many Virginia Indians living away from the reservations, Pamunkey John saw many changes in his racial classification before he died in Fairfax County in 1923 and was buried in the Pleasant Grove churchyard. You see, Indians were called “Indian,” as long as they remained on reservations. When they left, they were called fringe Indians, mulatto or mulatto, colored, negro and black. John married Martha Loretta Goings in Fairfax County July 18, 1876. On the marriage certificate, the bride and groom were designated “Black.”
Christopher Mills, John’s brother, married, at age 65, in King William County in 1908. His marriage record shows him as Indian. In the words of a Mattaponi philosopher, John and Martha “got called out of their race.”
Although the historic events and details of each tribe’s situation vary considerably, the legal rights and status maintained by Native Americans are the result of their shared history of wrestling with the U.S. government over such issues as tribal sovereignty, shifting government policies, treaties that were made and often broken, and conflicting latter-day interpretations of those treaties.
The result today is that although Native Americans enjoy the same legal rights as every other U.S. citizen, they also keep unique rights in such areas as hunting and fishing, water use, and Gaming operations. In general, these rights are based on the legal foundations of tribal sovereignty, treaty provisions, and the “reserved rights” doctrine, which holds that Native Americans retain all rights not explicitly abrogated in treaties or other legislation. Not even the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which defined as citizens “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” conferred full civil rights and liberties on our Native Americans.