POINT OF FORK — No one doubts layers of history lie at this spot southeast of Charlottesville where the Rivanna River flows into the James. Abandoned canal locks loom like castle walls; Revolution-era buildings stand in ruins nearby.
But one group of Virginians claims the land has even deeper significance. The Monacan Indians, chased out some 300 years ago, believe the V where the two rivers meet was the site of their ancient capital, Rassawek.
Now two local counties want to build a water pumping station on top of it to supply a fast-growing commercial center several miles away. Until recently, the Monacans had felt powerless to protect their heritage, just as they watched electrical lines, a gas line and a railroad girdle the site in years past.
In 2018, the Amherst County-based tribe won a long battle for federal recognition. It’s using that status to fight the water station, in the first major test of Native American clout in Virginia since six state tribes earned federal protection that year.
“The eyes of everybody were on the project once we were federally recognized,” said Kenneth Branham, 66, chief of the Monacan Nation.
The challenge has mired the project in permit delays. The James River Water Authority, chartered by the counties of Fluvanna and Louisa, said the holdup is harming taxpayers. Across the river, a brand new treatment plant sits idle, with no water coming in. Commercial development at Zion Crossroads — a cluster of retailers, fast-food restaurants and gas stations along Interstate 64 — grows thirstier as local well water struggles to meet demand.
“Completing this project and completing it expeditiously is vitally important to both counties,” water authority lawyer Justin Curtis said. “It’s both a long-term, 50-year supply and it’ll also meet some short-term needs.”
It all hinges on the question of what lies beneath centuries of river silt.
In 1607, Capt. John Smith ventured up the James River past the falls of modern-day Richmond and encountered the Monacans. While the Powhatan Indians ruled Virginia’s Tidewater region, the Monacans held sway from the fall line west to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Smith published a map in 1612 that located five Monacan villages along the James and Rivanna rivers, with their capital — Rassawek — at the point where the waters converged. It was a major trading center that could have housed hundreds of people.
The Monacans were more reclusive than the Powhatan tribe, who alternately married (Pocahontas) and massacred settlers at Jamestown. Monacans spoke a different language and were distracted by conflict with tribes to the north. Over time, the English pushed them off their land and caused a diaspora that saw Monacans dispersed to North Carolina, Tennessee and possibly as far as Canada.
Today the tribe numbers more than 2,100, with about 500 clustered in Amherst County, about 70 miles from their old capital on the James River.
Over time, the confluence of the Rivanna and the James accumulated American history. A teenage Thomas Jefferson conducted one of his first public acts here, rallying surrounding landowners to clear channels in the Rivanna.
The British army captured an American arsenal on the Point of Fork during the Revolution. Later, the adjacent hamlet of Columbia became a hub for bateau traffic — the long, flat-bottomed boats that once carried cargo up and down canals to Richmond.
Artifacts of those eras have largely washed away in periodic floods. Historic Columbia is mainly a country store and several ramshackle ruins along Virginia 6.
In 1980, a college student driving to Richmond noticed construction over on the point — a gas line was being dug. Rich deposits of Native artifacts speckled the mounds of dirt. The state briefly called a halt to the work and archaeologists surveyed what had been exposed.
Then the work continued and the artifacts were bulldozed.
Since then, historians have speculated that the artifacts confirm Smith’s map and pinpoint the long-lost capital, Rassawek. That would be a significant find. The capital of the Powhatan people, Werowocomoco, was discovered on the York River in Gloucester County in 1977. After extensive study, the National Park Service acquired that site in 2016.
In a state that prides itself on preserving history, Native American heritage has long been overlooked. Many tribes were nearly erased in the early part of the 20th century when officials following the eugenics movement insisted on classifying every Virginian as either “white” or “colored.”
That legacy of neglect makes it even more crucial to preserve what’s left, said Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
“Documenting and preserving Native American sites is a priority for our department because it was an important part of Virginia history and it is not as well understood or documented,” she said.
Rassawek, Langan said, “is a highly significant site.”
The tribe had known about the water project for several years but had no official role as the counties bought the land, built a treatment plant and began securing permits for the pumping station.
Water authority officials said they kept the tribe informed, but the Monacans said they had no official seat at the table until President Donald Trump signed their federal recognition in January 2018.
After that, “the federal government had to consult the tribe” in reviewing permits, said Marion Werkheiser, a lawyer with Cultural Heritage Partners who has taken up the tribe’s case. “Their concerns can’t simply be dismissed anymore.”
Believing they were too late to change the outcome, the tribe initially asked Werkheiser to seek compensation to help care for artifacts and the reburial of any ancestral remains.
But once the tribe became a full participant, it learned something: There were other possible sites for the pumping station. The counties just thought this was the cheapest.
At that point, the strategy changed. Branham said the tribe dropped its interest in compensation and set out to protect the site.
By the summer of 2019, the Monacans were in what Werkheiser called “government-to-government” consultation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, pressing their concerns as a sovereign entity. They raised questions about the permitting process, and especially the archaeological survey work that the water authority had commissioned to certify that construction wouldn’t disturb any major historic site.
The water authority contends that any spot along the James River is going to turn up historic artifacts.
“Yes, it’s a very significant historical site,” said Curtis, the authority’s lawyer. “There are a lot of areas up and down the James River that have been inhabited for thousands of years, a lot of historic sites.”
As for whether this is Rassawek: “It’s fair to say it’s been inconclusive,” Curtis said. “Some historians have put it at [nearby] Elk Island, or farther up on Point of Fork.”
But the Monacans believe the evidence here is strong. In July, they persuaded Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to visit Point of Fork and hear their concerns. State and national preservation groups had begun to join in opposing the project.
Two months later, Langan, of the state Department of Historic Resources, dropped a bombshell: She said the project’s archaeologist, Carol Tyrer, had improper academic credentials. There would be no permit until a more suitable archaeologist had conducted a review.
The decision played like a major scandal in local newspapers. Then it got worse. A former employee of Tyrer’s came forward to accuse her of improper practices at the site, including using sloppy methods and destroying artifacts.
Tyrer has filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s ruling. Her office referred a reporter to her lawyer for comment; the lawyer did not respond to an email or phone call.
In her suit against the state, Tyrer said her graduate degree in global affairs with a concentration in world history and culture qualifies as a “related field” in meeting state guidelines for archaeological work. She said the Department of Historic Resources’ action is “an arbitrary and capricious abuse of power, exceeds the scope of the power granted to DHR ... and is not in accordance with law.”
Meanwhile, the project is on hold. The Corps of Engineers rescinded an earlier permit and demanded a more thorough review. A spokesman for Northam said the governor stands by Langan’s call for a new archaeologist.
“He wants to ensure a level playing field and fair process for those who seek to preserve their cultural heritage,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said via text message.
For now, the site remains undisturbed, apart from fields harvested for cattle feed. White sycamore, oak and maple trees march along the banks toward the point where the brown rivers slowly converge from either side. Chief Branham picks his way through undergrowth, notices deer tracks in the mud.
“Can you imagine four or five hundred years ago, canoes running up and down the river over here?” he says. “People, children — living normal family life. It was a town.”
Twenty years ago, Branham was part of a group of Monacans who received ancestral remains that had been on display in a Richmond museum. They wrapped them in red cloth and reburied them.
“If you’ve never had the experience of opening up a box — “ he said, his voice trailing off. “Taking those skeletons and putting them in cloth, looking at them and knowing it was a kid — I never want to go through that again.”
Better to let them lie where they are, he said. “This is our history. It’s part of who we are.”