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Rappahannock Tribe takes ownership of ancestral town on Fones Cliffs

At a farm along the Rappahannock River, under a giant white party tent that at times felt it would lift with the heavy gusts of wind, 200 people gathered Friday afternoon to honor tribal members and those who helped in the arduous process of getting back the Rappahannock Tribal town of Pissacoack.

"I whispered over to Chief Anne before this all started, ‘I hope I can get through my remarks without crying,'" Interior Secretary Deb Haaland admitted to the crowd.

She didn’t. Nor did the audience. But they were tears of joy and relief after years of work by families, businesses and non-profit organizations to restore their ancestral town.

"You know, for our people to go back there, which they haven’t been yet, it’s emotional because the bones of our ancestors reside in there and their DNA is in the ground and the eagles watch over it. It’s a spiritual place for us and we don’t want development there,” Chief Anne Richardson said before the ceremony.

Across the river from the ceremony, as though looking on, the string of Fones Cliffs stood like sentinels, some up to 150 feet high. The tribe now owns 465 acres of them. Mapped by Captain John Smith during his 1608 explorations, the cliffs were once their home, along with lands up and down both sides of the river in this area.

Kennon and Johnny Morris flank their father Ben at the ceremony. They are the former owners of what is once again Pissacoack.
Pamela D'Angelo
Kennon and Johnny Morris flank their father Ben at the ceremony. They are the former owners of what is once again Pissacoack.

The Morris family, who owns a local lumber company, bought the acreage some 25 years ago as an investment. As developers moved in, Johnny and Kennon Morris and their father Ben decided to sell it to the Tribe because they understood the Tribe wouldn’t develop it. They set up a meeting just before the pandemic. "And then Johnny and daddy and I met with Chief Anne and we sat down and talked to them and here we are," Kennon Morris said.

His grandmother grew up on another farm across from the cliffs and knew members of Rappahannock Tribe. "I know my grandmother would be very happy, that’s my mother’s mother. And my mother’s very happy too," Morris noted. "Because they know that it’s going to somebody like that and it won’t be developed."

Working with the Chesapeake Conservancy, Chief Richardson met the $4 million price with donations. And under agreements, federal agencies will be required to conserve and protect the land forever.

"You know in New Mexico we don’t have a lot of women tribal leaders," Sec. Haaland admitted. "And so when I’m in the presence of one it does my heart good, so thank you very much for sharing this with me."

The Tribe has plans to open the land for public walks and education about their history and culture.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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  • There's a place along the Rappahannock River in eastern Virginia, not far from the Chesapeake Bay, where the Rappahannock Tribe once lived along the copper-white cliffs that rise vertically from the river. The tribe has a deep connection to this place, now known as Fones Cliffs. Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson and a team of archaeologists are bringing history to the surface, but it's a race against time, development and climate change.Narrated by Steven Nelson, a citizen of the Rappahannock Tribe.This episode was produced with support from Virginia Humanities.