Rappahannock Retracing their Past (From Living Landscape Observer)

This article has been copied in full from the Living Landscape Observer website and was written by their guest writer, Joe McCauley.


In 1940, Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, a novel about finding one’s identity in the modern world.  In popular American speech, the phrase has come to mean it is impossible to relive the optimistic expectations of youth once you have experienced the world as an adult.  Perhaps so, but through the Indigenous Cultural Landscapes initiative, the Chesapeake Conservancy and the National Park Service intend to turn that concept around for the American Indian tribes of the Chesapeake region, and demonstrate that in some respects, you can go home again.

The Indigenous Cultural Landscapes initiative (or ICL in short) is an attempt to identify and map geographic areas where Chesapeake tribes once lived, where they worked the land, fished and hunted, gathered materials for pottery, weaponry and utensils, and where they fought for survival against the English incursion.  ICLs are defined as trail-related resources for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail in its Comprehensive Management Plan. From the Park Service and Chesapeake Conservancy perspective, identifying and mapping these places help us achieve one of the Trail’s three goals, that being to “to share knowledge about the American Indian societies and cultures of the 17th century.”  Equally important, this initiative provides an opportunity for Chesapeake American Indian tribes to, in a sense, go home again.  This collaboration among the tribes, the Conservancy, and the Park Service is also critical to achieving another of the goals of the Captain Smith Chesapeake Trail: “to interpret the natural history of the Bay (both historic and contemporary).”

Chief Anne Richardson and the Author Courtesy: St. Mary's College of Maryland

Chief Anne Richardson and the Author
Courtesy: St. Mary’s College of Maryland

The ICL concepts and opportunities came together beautifully on a warm, blustery April day when six members of the Rappahannock Tribe, including Chief Anne Richardson, visited several sites along the Rappahannock River and two tidal tributaries.  Tribal members were joined by archeologists from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, along with staff from the National Park Service and Chesapeake Conservancy.  Stops included Sabine Hall, which may have been the site of the Rappahannock town of Toppahanock; Cobham Farm, where the Rappahannock dug clay for pottery even into the 1960s; and Totuskey Creek, which formed one boundary of the land grant to Moore Fauntleroy that resulted in one of many moves the Rappahannock were forced to make by the English.

The day was filled with excitement and discovery.  Most tribal members had never before visited these sites with the exception of Cobham Farm, where Chief Anne remembered digging clay for pottery when she was a teenager.  Vestiges of the Packett family campground that once thrived there along the Rappahannock River still remain and brought back memories

Fish scale motif and "X" carved into Menokin mantle piece. Photo by Leslie Rennolds
Fish scale motif and “X” carved into Menokin mantle piece.
Photo by Leslie Rennolds

from decades past.  At Menokin, the ancestral home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, the group toured the visitor center where artifacts from the original 18th century building are on display.  Of particular note for the Rappahannock was an engraved “X” in a mantelpiece that resembled one they had seen on a 17th century treaty.  Was it the same mark used as a signature by the tribal leader who signed the treaty?

Fones Cliff Beverly Marsh Courtesy: St. Mary's College of Maryland

Fones Cliff Beverly Marsh
Courtesy: St. Mary’s College of Maryland

During the second of the two trips, the group visited Beverly Marsh, a special place whose history is unquestioned.  On August 18, 1608, as Smith’s shallop approached the narrowest part of the river at what is now called Fones Cliff, Rappahannock bowmen let loose a volley of arrows directed toward the English.  Smith had erected shields along the gunwales of his boat, so the arrows did no harm.  The event is exquisitely captured in Smith’s writings and there is little doubt as to the location, with the high white cliffs being a prominent feature in the story.  What remains in doubt is the future of this ecological and historic treasure as Richmond County has approved two development proposals that would place hundreds of homes and townhouses atop Fones Cliff.  While Beverly Marsh is permanently protected through the generosity of the Wellford family, Fones Cliff is highly threatened.

From Smith’s journals and maps, it is believed that at least one, and perhaps more, Rappahannock towns existed on the Fones Cliff properties, but no archeological work as been performed.  As Chief Anne noted during the May visit to Beverly Marsh, ” I was amazed to find the places we frequented on the South side of the River were directly across from historic towns on the North side of the River.”  But exactly where those towns were remains unknown.

The entire Fones Cliff ecosystem is within the boundary of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge and efforts are ongoing to bring the properties into public ownership, or at a minimum, protect them via conservation easements.  If they were to come into public ownership, it would provide opportunities for tribal members, young and old, to visit their ancestral lands.  It would provide equal opportunities for visitors from around the Nation and the world to experience what it must have been like to be there in 1608, since the landscape is remarkably intact with few intrusions of 21st century habitation.

Documentation is key to the ICL project and any similar archeological endeavor.  Investigators, in this case from St. Mary’s College, NPS, and the Rappahannock tribe, are attempting to piece together what is known from historic records with oral history to get as close to the “truth” as possible.  The St. Mary’s team is using geographic information systems to map the best corn growing soils, high-resource marshes, fresh water sources, and routes of travel among other key ingredients for pre-17th century survival. Those layers are augmented by reports of known archeological sites maintained by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. What sets the ICL initiative apart is the added layer provided by the Rappahannock themselves, adding their oral and written history to the mix, which will provide the most comprehensive mapping project of its kind for indigenous occupation along the river.

When completed, the Rappahannock ICL report will have multiple uses.  Areas mapped as having a high probability of being sites of occupation and utilization by the Rappahannock Tribe can provide another layer of information for those who wish to conserve their lands.  Adding this information to known priority areas for fish and wildlife for example, will help focus efforts to work with willing landowners who are interested in both habitat and cultural resource conservation.  Participation in the endeavor is encouraging the tribe in ongoing efforts to revisit their cultural heritage and relearn the traditional skills involved.

The ICL work will also help identify those sites that warrant further investigation by archeologists on public land, and with landowner concurrence, on private lands as well.  There is great public interest in the pre-17th century indigenous use and habitation of the Chesapeake Bay region, as evidenced by well-attended public lectures on the subject.  Public land managers have a duty to understand where important cultural resources exist on lands they manage, so they can both protect these sites and interpret them for the visiting public.  Private landowners too have shown great interest in knowing where on their property these sites exist, so they can avoid accidentally damaging resources that are vital to our understanding of the earliest days of what would become the United States of America.

And then there are the Rappahannock themselves, without whom the ICL project would be just another academic exercise.  Tribal members’ recollections, research, and willingness to become fully engaged in the process are what set the ICL initiative apart from more traditional archeological endeavors.  Where this path will ultimately lead, only time will tell.  But for now it offers hope for the Rappahannock and other Chesapeake tribes that you can go home again.

Joe McCauley retired in 2015 after 32 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now serves as the Chesapeake Fellow for the Chesapeake Conservancy (www.chesapeakeconservancy.org), Joe can be reached at jmccauley@chesapeakeconservancy.org.

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