Rassawek print

Captain John Smith’s famous 1612 map of Virginia shows the Monacan town of Rassawek, the site of which is now slated for a pump station. Rassawek can be found at the top left of the map, between the Powhatan sketch and the banner proclaiming “Virginia.”

“The land of the free and the home of the brave” — that famous line from “The Star-Spangled Banner” — doesn’t ring true for all people in this nation.

Four hundred years ago, in 1619, the first Africans arrived at Jamestown, the capital of the first permanent English settlement in North America. English pirates had stolen the cargo of a Spanish slave ship and sailed north to the Virginia colony where they traded the Africans for food. Over the course of the next six decades, the concept of chattel slavery slowly entered the law books of the colony, beginning more than two centuries of slavery in this country, an institution whose evil legacy we are still dealing with as a nation to this day.

But the colony those English pirates did business with 400 years ago was a society already in the early stages of what can only be described as a genocidal war with the native peoples of North America, people whom we still call “Indians” because Christopher Columbus mistakenly thought he’d arrived on the Indian sub-continent in 1492.

While it’s difficult to estimate the indigenous population of North American in 1607, when the English established Jamestown, historians and demographers estimate there were between 2.1 million and 7 million people in all of the continent. Some estimates even go as high as 18 million. Today, demographic data puts the number of Native Americans at a little more than 3 million, or 1 percent of the U.S. population.

Central Virginia, from the Lynchburg region up to and past Charlottesville and over to the Richmond region, was the home territory of those we know today as Monacans. The population numbered about 10,000 and had been in this area for more than 10,000 years. Their spiritual and cultural home today is in Amherst County at Bear Mountain, site of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Mission chapel and school, now a museum.

Over the centuries, as the population of European colonists kept growing and their territory kept expanding, the native people, Monacans included, were pushed further and further west. Inevitably there were conflicts, often deadly. As the European culture took hold, inevitably the indigenous culture weakened.

Such was the case with the Monacans, who were almost wiped out — literally by wars and figuratively by racist laws that refused to recognize them as native peoples. Indeed, it was only in 2018 that the Monacan Nation received official federal recognition through an act of Congress.

Which makes the fight the Monacan Nation is involved in today all the more incredulous.

You see, one of the most important archeological sites in Virginia is Rassawek, at the confluence of the Rivanna and James rivers in Fluvanna County. Rassawek is the site of the historic capital of the Monacan Nation, first described by Capt. John Smith in 1612 and dating back thousands of years. It’s also where the James River Water Authority wants to build a massive water intake and pumping station as part of a larger project to extend water service to areas of Fluvanna and Louisa counties.

Construction of the pumping station would obliterate the Rassawek site, along with thousands of years of culture and history of the Monacan Nation. When the Monacans first learned of the water authority’s plans earlier this decade, they were told the site was the only feasible one for the project. Late in 2018, however, consultants for the Monacans learned many other sites were considered, but Rassawek “won out” because of one, primary factor: cost. Monacan representatives were shocked because they’d been told for years by the authority that the Rassawek site was the only one where such a facility could go, hence their acquiescence to the authority’s needs. To say they were misled is a nice way to describe how they felt.

That’s when things got interesting.

It’s emerged that the archeological consultant hired to assess the impact of the project on important historical sites wasn’t qualified to do the job, failing to meet the standards of the Virginia Department of Historical Resources. There is a darkening cloud over the project now, as the news media has shined a spotlight on the matter and state and federal authorities, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are honing in.

Jeffrey Hantman, a retired anthropology professor at the University of Virginia and a longtime consultant to the Monacan Nation, has called Rassawek as important as any Native American site in the commonwealth, on par with the Powhatan Confederation’s capital of Werowocomoco, which the National Park Service purchased three years ago.

How this project got to where it is today is a textbook example of the government trying to steamroll a marginalized community, only this time, it was found out. It’s not too late for the James River Water Authority to back down, but barring that, it’s time for Virginia’s elected leaders to step in. We urge Rep. Denver Riggleman, who represents Fluvanna County in Congress, and U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine to do all they can to stop this obliteration of the Monacans’ history and culture.

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