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Prehistory: First Inhabitants
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Virginia Early History
First Early Inhabitants of Virginia
Early history examines the archaeological record that tells the story of the first inhabitants of Virginia. People lived in Virginia for around 17,000 years before the European made contact. These native people had no written language. They recorded their history through storytelling and symbolic drawings. Learn about the prehistory and culture of the first early inhabitants, and what lessons it might teach us about the early history of Virginia.
Virginia First Early Inhabitants Timeline
Early History of Native Americans in Virginia
The Indigenous People of Virginia
The Clovis culture is noted by the lance-shaped fluted point. Clovis points are found across the continent, and an especially large number are found in Virginia. Other stone tools found with the Clovis point include scrapers, gravers, perforators, wedges, and knives.
Evidence in Virginia suggests that these tools were used to spear game, cut up meat, scrape and cut hides, and split and carve bone of deer, bison, and rabbit. Also caribou, elk, moose, and possibly mastodon may have been hunted.
Glaciers made for long, hard winters and short, cool summers. In the Appalachian region, the mountain slopes were bare and tundra-like. People in the Shenandoah Valley and northern Virginia lived among grasslands, open forests of conifers, such as pine, fir, spruce, and hemlock, and occasional islands of deciduous trees. Slightly warmer weather south of present-day Richmond encouraged the growth of more deciduous trees such as birch, beech, and oak.
Archaic, meaning old, signals a series of new adaptations by the early people that occurred between 8,000 and 1,200 B.C. As the cold, moist climate of the Pleistocene Age changed to a warmer, drier one, the warming winds melted the glaciers to the north and warmed the ocean water. The sea level rose, spreading water across the Coastal Plain of Virginia and creating the Chesapeake Bay
Thus, the Early Archaic population grew, nurtured by a more inviting environment. Families lived in larger bands and remained mobile, but within a more limited fertile area.
By the Middle Archaic period, the Indians of Virginia had adjusted well to the Eastern woodland. They became masters of the deciduous forest of oak, hickory, and chestnut. Their knowledge of how best to use the physical setting altered with the changing environment and shifting seasons of the year, and gradually became more sophisticated.
Archaeologists believe that between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago, people first began to settle into villages. It was also about this time that people first began to clear sections of land by burning so that edible plants would continue to grow in those areas each year. We would consider this the earliest examples of farming. For example, we know these people ate sunflowers, ragweed, sumpweed, squash, gourds, and greens. They hunted deer, black bear, turkey, squirrel, rabbits, beaver, otter, muskrat and water birds. Particularly in the Coastal Plain Region of Virginia, the people fished for shad, herring, rockfish, and sturgeon. Oysters, clams, crabs and turtles were plentiful.
Archaeologists have found evidence that these people used clay to make pottery and then traded that pottery with other people in nearby areas. Around 800 years ago, native people began to use bow and arrow to hunt. We also know that they took care in burying their dead in large mounds, and left them with items of importance, probably because they believed these people would need the items in the afterworld.
When Europeans first arrived in this region in the early 17th century, they found a flourishing population of people who belonged to one of three main language groups. Most of the coastal plain was inhabited by an Algonquian empire, today collectively known as Powhatan. The southwestern coastal plain was occupied by Iroquoians, the Nottoway, and Meherrin. The Piedmont was home to two Siouan confederacies, the Monacan and the Mannahoac.
Modern Indians A.D.
In the 1800s, the prevailing white culture in Virginia wanted to push the Indians off their homelands. Pressure was brought to remove each of the four remaining reservations and end the people's legal status as tribes. This policy meant dividing, with the Indians' consent, all of a reservation among each of its members and removing all state services to the tribe. The Gingaskin Reservation on the Eastern Shore was legally subdivided in 1813. Unable to withstand legal pressure and being very poor, the people sold their land for profit. By 1850, all of the original Gingaskin Reservation was in white hands. The last parcel of the Nottoway Reservation was divided in 1878, although many families held onto their land into the 20th century. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi, the last two reservations, withstood attempts at termination. Though the people were poor, they maintained their tribal structure and treaties with the Commonwealth. Today, their reservations are two of the oldest in the
nation, symbols of a people who refused to give up.
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