The Nansemond in Virginia

John Smith recorded where the Nansemond lived, south of Powhatan flu (James River)
John Smith recorded where the Nansemond lived, south of "Powhatan flu" (James River)
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia (by John Smith, 1624)

When English colonists arrived in 1607, they discovered the Nansemond tribe living on the Nansemond River in different villages near modern Chuckatuck. Canoes made the river a transportation corridor, not a barrier to travel.

The Algonquian-speaking Nansemond were part of Powhatan's paramount confederacy. They were one of the over thirty tribes within his territory (Tsenacommacah), and they were on the edge. Algonquian-speaking Chowanoac and Weapemeoc/Yeopim living to their south were outside of Powhatan's control. The Iroquioan-speaking Nottoway and Meherrin, living to their west, were also outside of Tsenacommacah.1

Around the time the English arrived to settle at Jamestown, the Nansemond men may have repopulated the territory occupied by the Chesapeake east of the Elizabeth River. Powhatan had expanded Tsenacommacah by seizing their land and killing/moving the Chesapeake werowance and other key leaders. The English colonist William Strachey later reported that the attack was done in response to a warning from Powhatan's priests that an empire from the east would threaten his paramount chiefdom.2

It would be out of chracter for Powhatan to order the slaughter of all the Chesapeake women and children. They may have been moved away and incorporated into a different tribe already under Powhatan's control, with him ordering whole families of a tribe he already controlled to move into that territory. More likely, Powhatan sent men from his nearest allies, the Nansemond, to re-occupy the former Chesapeake towns and recreate what the English colonists described as the separate Chesapeake tribe.

the Nansemond may have repopulated the territory of the Chesapeake just before the English arrived in 1607
the Nansemond may have repopulated the territory of the Chesapeake just before the English arrived in 1607
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia (by John Smith, 1624)

John Smith and Chistopher Newport discovered that the Nansemond "werowance" lived on Dumpling Island. That island was also the site of their temple. There may have beeen as many as 1,500 members of the tribe when the English first arrived. Today, there are approximately 200.

The name "Dumpling Island" apparently was created by the English settlers, and is not derived from whatever name of the place was used by the Nansemond. Modern speculation is that the always-hungry colonists thought the island looked like an English dumpling. An alternative possibility is that the island was recognized as the source of corn that had been seized from the Nansemond to feed the colonists.3

English colonists ignored Native American land claims and issued grants to land in Nansemond territory, including Dumpling Island
English colonists ignored Native American land claims and issued grants to land in Nansemond territory, including Dumpling Island
Source: Library of Congress, The lower parish of Nansemond County, Va. with adjoining portions of Norfolk County : Elizabeth City Shire 1634, New Norfolk County 1636, Upper Norfolk County 1637, Nansemond County 1642

After the ships of the Third Supply arrived in 1609, John Smith refused to cede authority to the officials who made it across the Atlantic Ocean, taking advantage of their leadership vacuum after the flagship Sea Venture wrecked on Bermuda and stranded the man officially designated by the Virginia Company to act as governor, Sir Thomas Gates.

Smith asserted that he remained as president of the council. He solved the conflict over control in part by directing some of the new leaders to create settlements away from Jamestown. In those new places, rivals could be commmanders away from Smith. They could also find new food sources to feed new colonists away from Jamestown.

Smith send George Percy and John Martin with 60 colonists to create a new English settlement on the Nansemond River. Most men walked along the southern bank of the James River to the Nansemond River, while Percy and Martin sailed there in a small ship.

After reuniting, two colonists were sent to Dumpling Island to start negotiations. The English wanted to trade copper and other commodities for a space to live and food. The werowance refused to abandon the site of his tribe's temple, with the remains of former leaders, and the main grain storage bins.

After the English decided that the two negotiators had been killed, they tried to seize land by force. George Percy later described discovering how the colonists attacked the Nansemond and sacked their town on Dumpling Island:4

we never sett eye upon our messengers after, Butt understood from the Indyans themselves thatt sacrifysed and thatt their Braynes weare Cutt and skraped outt of their heads with Mussell shelles. beinge Landed and acquaynted with their trechery we Beate the Salvages outt of the Island burned their howses ransaked their Temples, Tooke downe the Corpes of their deade kings from their Toambes, and Caryed away their pearles Copper and braceletts wherewith they doe decore their kings funeralles.

Dumpling Island in the Nansemond River
Dumpling Island in the Nansemond River
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

In 1611, Sir Thomas Dale considered using the Nansemond lands to found a new settlement that would eventually supercede Jamestown. Dale ultimately chose to locate the new settlement, which he called Henricus, further upstream. Instead of the Nansemond, the Arrohateck who lived near the mouth of the Appomattox River were displaced.5

The First Anglo-Powhatan War ended in 1614, when the paramount chief Powhatan agreed to peace and allowed his daughter Pocahontas to marry one of the "Tassantassas." The Nansemond joined Opechancanough in the 1622 Second Anglo-Powhatan War, and again the English burned their towns and destroyed their corn. AfterTo avoid the colonists, Nansemond

In 1638, colonist John Bass married the daughter of the Nansemond werowance. That marriage established the community of "Christianized" Nansemonds, separate from the band of "Reservation" Nansemonds. The last member died in 1806, after the 300 acres of their last reservation on the Nottoway River was sold in 1792.6

Nansemond children were sent to the Indian School at William and Mary College, housed in the Brafferton building.7

The Nansemond Indian Tribal Association has been recognized officially by the state of Virginia since 1985. Federal recognition was approved by the US Congress in 2018, when it passed the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017. At that time, the tribe had 300 members.8

Dumpling Island, today
Dumpling Island, today
Dumpling Island, today
Source: US Geological Survey, Chuckatuk, VA 1:24,000 topographic quadrangle (2016) and Google Maps

In 2013, City of Suffolk deeded 70 acres near Chuckatuck to the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association. The site had been used to mine calcium-rich marl for production of cement since the 1920's, and was last used by the Lone Star Cement Company. It closed in 1971, after determining that it was not cost-effective to upgrade the furnaces in South Norfolk that used the marl to manufacture cement in order to meet air quality standards.9

in 2013, the City of Suffolk deeded 70 acres of the former Lone Star Cement Company site to the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association
in 2013, the City of Suffolk deeded 70 acres of the former Lone Star Cement Company site to the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The tribe planned to build a recreation of a historic palisaded village with a longhouse, school, museum and cultural park, and constructing Mattanock Town was projected to cost $5 million. The city stipulated that the project had to be completed in five years, or the land would revert back to the city.10

Boy Scouts helped construct trails and get five longhouses started, but finding $5 million was a challenge. In 2013, when the deed transferring the land was signed, Nansemond Chief Earl Bass said "It's like a weight lifted." Three years later, he projected an extension of the five-year deadline would be necessary. Describing the 2018 deadline, he recycled his earlier phrase: It's like a weight hanging over our heads.11

Chief Bass was correct in the need for an extension.

the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association planned to reconstruct a palisaded town near Chuckatuck
the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association planned to reconstruct a palisaded town near Chuckatuck

The historical territory of the Nansemond became an issue in 2019. The Pamunkey proposed to build a gambling casino and hotel complex on the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, taking advantage of their status as a Federally-recognized tribe with rights under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The proposal included having the US Bureau of Indian Affairs take land next to Harbor Park into trust and add it to the Pamunkey Reservation.

The Nansemond objected to the Pamunkey claim that the Elizabeth River was within their traditional territory. The Nansemond asserted they had a greater claim to the former Chesapeake territory, now included within the cities of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Chesapeake. The Nansemond chief notified the mayor of Norfolk that:12

This is our ancestral land, our community, and the foundation for our future.

One possible outcome was for the Pamunkey and Nansemond to negotiate a deal. If the Pamunkey agreed to share enough profits to establish Mattanock Town, the Nansemond might support the casino proposal. The Pamunkey chief, Robert Gray, said in 2019:13

Several months ago, I traveled to Chesapeake and met with their chief and council, and we had a discussion. Basically, we in no way want to interfere with their telling of their story in history. We would love to help them in the future to do that. If and when we have the means, we’d like to help them, like we would any other tribe. The boundary issue — like I said, I believe [the] Nansemond [tribe] could [also] claim up to this part of the state as their ancestral homelands. We don’t see any one tribe as having exclusionary land, because that’s more a European model of boundaries: “I own this land; you own that land.” We just shared the land together. Going forward, that’s what I would say — that we continue to share in any way possible.

The Commonwealth of Virginia had previously identified the Nansemond (not the Pamunkey) as the closest related tribe to the now-extinct Chesapeakes. When the Virginia Department of Historic Resources reburied 64 skeletons in 1997 that had been excavated from Great Neck in Virginia Beach, before a subdivision was constructed in the 1970's and 1980's, the state agency partnered with the Nansemonds.

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, "cultural affiliation" is the basis for determining where to repatriate artifacts and burial remains. The Nansemond adopted the remains and ceremniously re-interred them at First Landing State Park on April 26, 1997.14

Mining Marl in Southeastern Virginia

Native American Gaming and Casino Gambling in Virginia

Native American Tribes in Virginia Since Contact

the Nansemond helped rebury remains excavated from the Chesapeake town on Great Neck
the Nansemond helped rebury remains that had been excavated from the Chesapeake town on Great Neck
Source: Library of Congress, Americæ pars, nunc Virginia dicta (by Thomas Hariot, 1590)



1. Phillip W. Evans, "Chowanoac Indians," NCpedia, 2006,; Michael D. Green, "Weapemeoc Indians," NCpedia, 2006, (last checked November 7, 2018)
2. William Strachey, The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia: Expressing the Cosmographie and Comodities of the Country, Togither with the Manners and Customes of the People, Hakluyt Society, 1849, p.101, (last checked November 2, 2019)
3. "Nansemond Tribe," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, May 30, 2014,; "What's in a name? | Dumpling Island," The Virginian-Pilot, March 22, 2010,; "Nansemond Tribe," Virginia Department of Education, (last checked November 7, 2018)
4. James Horn, ed., Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America, Library of America, 2007, pp.1095-1097, posted online by Encyclopedia of Virginia, (last checked November 7, 2018)
5. Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, p.57,; "History of Henricus," Henricus Historical Park, (last checked November 7, 2018)
6. "Nansemond Tribe," Virginia Department of Education, (last checked November 7, 2018)
7. "Nansemond pride," Suffolk News-Herald, September 24, 2012, (last checked January 17, 2018)
8. "Virginia Indians," Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth,; "Suffolk tribe closer to recognition," Suffolk News-Herald, January 16, 2018, (last checked January 17, 2018)
9. "Lone Star Cement Corporation," Greater Chuckatuck Historical Foundation, (last checked January 17, 2018)
10. "A few steps at Mattanock Town," Suffolk News-Herald, July 19, 2017,; "Village slowly rising in Chuckatuck," Suffolk News-Herald, May 16, 2016, (last checked January 17, 2018)
11. "Nansemond land transferred," Suffolk News-Herald, August 17, 2013,; "Mattanock plods ahead," Suffolk News-Herald, January 2, 2016, (last checked January 17, 2018)
12. "A new hurdle for a Pamunkey casino in Norfolk: A tribal challenge from the Nansemond," Daily Press, January 13, 2019, (last checked November 2, 2019)
13. "Betting on success," Virginia Business, October 30, 2019, (last checked November 7, 2019)
14. "The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)," National Park Service,; "First Landing State Park and the Last Trace of a Vanquished Nation," Abandoned Country, April 1, 2013, (last checked November 2, 2019)

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