Letter from Amissville
Today, as many as 8,000 years later, in freshly turned cornfields on the floodplains of the Rivanna, Rapidan, and Rappahannock you can still find what they made—so fine crafted, so indestructible, so timeless, as if actually made for you, for you to discover, and then for you to leave for others, yet unborn, to find anew. They seem almost alive—these quartzite and basalt spear-points of arrowheads— as though they were made to kill.
By the time the first English explorers pushed up the Chesapeake estuaries, the natives who inhabited these banks were the Algonquin tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy, including the Pamunkey, the Mattaponi, the Chickahominy, the Nansemond, and the Rappahannock. These tribal designations all still live, attached now to Virginia tidal rivers of the same names.
Upstream, above the fall line, were other Indians about whom less is known. By the time European settlers encountered and described them, disease and dislocation had altered their precontact ways. Nomadic, they tended to make their home along the rivers and streams while hunting buffalo and other game. These upland Indians of the Piedmont included the Tanxnitania and Whokentia tribes of the Manahoac (Algonquin for “They were very merry.”), who were often warred upon from the north by the Iroquois, whose trail crossed the Rappahannock at what was to become known as Norman’s Ford. Like the Manahoac, other Siouan-speaking groupings apparently inhabited the Virginia Piedmont, too: the Saponi, Tutelo, Occaneechi, and Monacan.
But very little, not even the name, is known of those who came before, now called by students of America’s prehistory simply as “Formative” or “Woodland” cultures. Evidence of Virginia’s only known “cliff kill” site—where the earliest Native Americans would drive game over the edge of a sheer drop—has been discovered in the Shenandoah National Park near the Rapidan River’s Blue Ridge headwaters.
To recount all this, as I have just done, makes me sad. And to have done it so matter-of-factly, even sadder. So why did I feel compelled to do it at all, to set down in my own written language the little that I know of the Indians, my spatial ancestors, who once lived where I do now? Scholars, of course, know more than I; indeed, much of what I, a layman, think I know may well be wrong; so it is with some risk that I have even tried to put figurative pen to paper.
That I know so little, maybe that’s what makes me sad.
At night, sometimes, I go outside and stare at the stars. My eyes are pulled downward toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. They are darker even than the night. I find my mind wandering, wondering how an Indian, my predecessor, looked at these same mountains, what he saw, what he thought, what he felt, what they meant to him. And, most of all, I wonder what was the name he called them, these dark mountains to the west that swallow the sun, by what name was suggested their mysterious presence and power?
To die, to have your children die, and their childless children die, your gods die, your genes extinguished, your race eradicated, never to be remembered, that is death enough. But to leave ignorance not only for your own name but also for the names that you gave to the places you loved — that must be oblivion.
— Walter Nicklin