Native American Burial Sites in Virginia
John Smith saw traditional burial practices and ossuaries at Indian Point in 1608
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Graveyards may be seen as sacred spaces, eternal resting places, but not all of the dead in Virginia have been able to rest in peace. The locations of the Native American graveyards are almost unknown. Many Native American burial sites were looted in raids by the first English colonists at Jamestown. Knowledge about most Native American cemeteries has simply disappeared, as the cultures were disrupted through the Contact Period and different tribal groups forced off their lands.
On the Coastal Plain, the bones of elite werowances and priests (and perhaps commoners) were collected after flesh decayed and then buried in ossuary mounds. John Smith visited one site with such secondary burials, the home of the Patawomeck, in 1608. Early archeological investigations there, prior to World War II, identified five ossuaries.1
Smith reported that after death of a "king," the internal organs were removed and the body placed on elevated rails (hurdles). After the flesh rotted away or was removed by birds, the skeleton was collected, wrapped in a reed mat, and preserved in a temple with carvings to the sacred spirits (Okee):2
- Their bodies are first bowelled, then dried vpon hurdles till they be very dry, and so about the most of their ioynts and necke they hang bracelets, or chaines of copper, pearle, and such like, as they vse to weare, their inwards they stuffe with copper beads, hatchets, and such trash. Then lappe they them very carefully in white skins, and so rowle them in mats for their winding sheets. And in the Tombe which is an arch made of mats, they lay them orderly. What remaineth of this kinde of wealth their Kings haue, they set at their feet in baskets. These Temples and bodies are kept by their Priests.
One key burial site was Powhatan's primary temple site, Uttamusack, in what today is King William County. The three, 60-foot long temples were destroyed in the Anglo-Powhatan wars, but the location still has meaning. Dominion Energy agreed to purchase the site in 2017 and donate Uttamusack to the Pamunkey tribe, as part of the mitigation required to get Federal approval to construct new high-voltage transmission lines across the James River at Skiffes Creek.3
The bodies of commoners may have been included in some ossuaries, but John Smith reports they were treated differently:4
- For their ordinary burials, they dig a deepe hole in the earth with sharpe stakes, and the corpse being lapped in skins and mats with their iewels, they lay them vpon stickes in the ground, and so cover them with earth. The buriall ended, the women being painted all their faces with blacke cole and oyle, doe sit twenty-foure houres in the houses mourning and lamenting by turnes, with such yelling and howling, as may expresse their great passions.
In the Piedmont and west of the Blue Ridge, burials in mounds were disturbed by early settlers. Most mounds were flattened for farming. A curious Thomas Jefferson conducted the first American scientific archaeological study of a Monacan mound on the Rivanna River, reporting:5
- It was of a spheroidical form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base, and had been of about twelve feet altitude, though now reduced by the plough to seven and a half, having been under cultivation about a dozen years. Before this it was covered with trees of twelve inches diameter, and round the base was an excavation of five feet depth and width, from whence the earth had been taken of which the hillock was formed...
Modern archeologists have identified a few burial sites, but nearly all places where Native Americans were buried have been covered over with farms, roads, and houses. A major road in Henrico County carries the name "Quioccasin," thought to be the term used to designate a temple or meeting place. In 2016 the Henrico County school board renamed "Harry F. Byrd Middle School" to "Quioccasin Middle School." Renaming the school after a Native American term had a special significance because Byrd had been a strong supporter of segregation between whites and other races, but no quioccasins have been preserved in Virginia.6
It is possible one of the houses within any subdivision in Tidewater may have been constructed on top of a site where Native Americans were buried, but the residents will be unaware of that heritage. In Virginia Beach, graves from the Chesapeake tribe were excavated before houses were built on Great Neck, and the remains were reburied at First Landing State Park. Graves at the main town of the Paspahegh were excavated during construction of The Governor's Land at Two Rivers community, and artifacts were reburied next to the golf course.7
- Virginia Department of Historic Resources
1. Margaret Williamson Huber, "Religion in Early Virginia Indian Society," Encyclopedia Virginia, May 30, 2014, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Religion_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society; Debra L. Gold, The Bioarchaeology of Virginia Burial Mounds, p.13, https://books.google.com/books?id=ZEflxVUYGtYC; T. Dale Stewart, "Archeological Exploration of Patawomeke: The Indian Town Site (44St2) Ancestral to the One (44Stl) Visited in 1608 by Captain John Smith," Smithsonian Contributions To Anthropology - Number 36, Smithsonian Institution, 1992, pp.92-93, https://repository.si.edu/handle/10088/1342 (last checked May 17, 2017)
2. John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, 1624, p.35, http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/smith/smith.html (last checked May 17, 2017)
3. "Agreement clears way for Corps decision on power lines," Virgina Gazette, May 10, 2017, http://www.vagazette.com/news/local/dp-nws-skiffes-moa-vg-version-20170510-story.html (last checked May 17, 2017)
4. John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, 1624, p.35, http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/smith/smith.html (last checked May 17, 2017)
5. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Merrill D. Peterson (editor), 1984, pp.223-224, http://web.archive.org/web/20110221131226/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=JefVirg.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=11&division=div1; J. Hantman, "Jefferson's Mound Archaeological Site," Encyclopedia Virginia, July 1, 2014, http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Jefferson_s_Mound_Archaeological_Site; "Jefferson's Excavation of an Indian Burial Mound," Monticello, https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-excavation-indian-burial-mound (last checked September 2, 2016)
6. "Quioccasin selected as new name for Byrd Middle School," Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 28, 2016, http://www.richmond.com/news/local/education/henrico/article_bc859e10-312f-55a1-91d7-e5fe5e6ecdd1.html; "Names & Places in Henrico," Henrico County, http://henrico.us/history/government/names-places-in-henrico/#QUIOCCASIN ROAD (last checked September 2, 2016)
7. "First Landing State Park and the Last Trace of a Vanquished Nation," Abandoned Country, April 1, 2013, http://www.abandonedcountry.com/2013/04/01/first-landing-state-park-and-the-last-trace-of-a-vanquished-nation/; "The History of the Governor's Land," Governorís Land Foundation Heritage Committee, http://governorslandhistory.com/ (last checked September 2, 2016)
Graveyards in Virginia
Population of Virginia