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Ancient cliffs are revealing lost tribal histories

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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.

Fones Cliffs is one of the most spiritually and historically important places to the Rappahannock Tribe. The cliffs are along the Rappahannock River about 37 miles south of Fredericksburg and some 5o miles from the Chesapeake Bay.

“My people have lived here since the beginning,” says Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson.

“Rappahannocks would have been able to look down both sides of the river here and see potential enemies or guests coming before they ever got here. And so this was a very strategic place for them to live, for many reasons.

So, you would see the fires of other villages, you could hear the drums of other villages along the water because the acoustics are so wonderful on water. And they would have communicated in the way that they were drumming to let other tribes know, ‘hey, it’s an enemy coming,’ or ‘friends are coming,’ or, ‘bad storm coming.’ That kind of thing.”

“Native communities in Virginia have listened to other people tell our stories. Now, it’s our turn. We’re debunking myths and legends with fact, teaching you about tribal heritages, cultures, and current issues. This is Tribal Truths. My name is Steven Nelson, and I’m a citizen of the Rappahannock Tribe.”

“The land defines us. And the water does too,” says Nelson. “There’s a place along a section of the Rappahannock River in eastern Virginia, not far from the Chesapeake Bay, where copper white cliffs rise vertically from the river. We have a deep connection to this place now called Fones Cliffs.

Hundreds of years ago, we lived in villages and towns along the Rappahannock, including three located on the cliffs. Below, we fished and traveled by canoe. At the top, we held ceremonies, hunted and kept watch for enemies. It’s one of the places we launched an attack against the English explorer Captain John Smith. When the colonists came to our lands,  we retreated to the cliffs and their forests to escape militia attacks, the taking of our children, and our enslavement. Then, colonists drove us from the cliffs. They broke our ties to the river and the part of our culture that went with it.

Chief Anne Richardson looks up at the archaeological dig site.
Pamela D'Angelo
Chief Anne Richardson looks up at the archaeological dig site.

Today, even though we no longer live here, Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson will tell you, the cliffs are still like home. “

“We had an oral tradition that our canoe dance comes from,” explains Chief Richardson. “And our canoe dance is about a love affair that took place between Portobago and Nanzatico. And the canoe would go over and the love affair continued because of the canoe. And when I went to Nanzatico, I was talking to the park ranger that’s over there at Land’s End and I was telling him this story and he said, ‘Oh my God, when the tide goes out there is a place from Portobago that you could literally you could come across so easy.’ “Because it has some kind of – I forget what he called it but it’s like an embankment that comes up and it’s easier to cross. And I thought, oh, my goodness, that’s where our canoe dance comes from.”

“So, it’s surreal that you know these stories or you know documentation of this history and then you go to those places. It’s, it’s, it’s like nothing else. It feels like your coming home from a long, long journey. That you’re coming home again. And that’s such a healing. That emotionally from all of the rejection and the racism and the marginalization and all of those things that we carry in our DNA. And trauma from wars and the taking of land and the dispossession of families. It’s healing for us to go to those places and know that those stories that were passed down to you were real. And they weren’t just folk tales. And going back to those places is very healing for you. And that’s the same thing with the cliffs, it’s like healing to the people when they go there.” (NOTE: the sound you hear when Chief Richardson is talking is a woman in a jingle dress. Bells are sewn onto dresses or skirts that are used in healing ceremonies)

“Fones Cliffs is a wild place with only a narrow wooded lane off a main rural road, says Nelson. “There are woodlands, steep ravines and creeks that lead to the cliffs that peak at a breathtaking 150 feet above the river.

Over centuries, the cliffs that were once ours have been divided and sold. Today, owners include a national wildlife refuge and a logging company. The largest and highest parts belong to a New York development group called Virginia True.

In 2017, Virginia True arrived to this rural area of fishermen and farmers with big plans.

On the highest cliffs they would build hundreds of houses and townhouses, a hotel, a bar, a spa, a restaurant, a small commercial center and lodge. All around a championship golf course. And, on the quiet river below, they’d build seven piers to accommodate all those new boat owners living up top.

They pitched their plan to locals as a place where tourists could attend lectures on the colonial history of our region and visit nearby destinations like George Washington’s Birthplace and Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.

They planned for everything, except the history under their feet.”

Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson and a team of archaeologists are bringing that history to the surface. They’re digging for traces of our towns and connecting them to our oral histories. And centuries after the Rappahannock Tribe’s removal from this area, they’re reconstructing our ties to Fones Cliffs, looking for three of our towns once located there. It’s a race against time, development and climate change.

In late July, bald eagles keep watch from trees high above the river, along the crumbling cliffs. As Fones Cliffs erode, they release a history of the river that carved them and reveal objects from our past. Rappahannock means “the people who live where the water ebbs and flows.” Like the Rappahannock River, many waterways still bear the names of tribes who once lived by them.

“To understand our tribe, first you must understand our river,” says Nelson.

Thanks to conservationists the Rappahannock is once again the longest free-flowing river in the eastern United States. It runs some 184 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Chesapeake Bay.

On this day, Chief Richardson, motors along in a skiff below the cliffs. With her are Assistant Chief Mark Fortune and archeologists from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Julie King and Scott Strickland, who we’ll meet later. Local river-keeper Brent Hunsinger is at the helm.

“The Rappahannock River has this intact fabric from the Blue Ridge all the way down to the bay,” says Hunsinger. “It doesn’t have a lot of industry, it has some towns, cities, Culpeper, Fredericksburg, but by and large the cultural, historical, natural features of the watershed are intact. And it’s not something you see in a lot of other rivers. And the river runs free all the whole way as well. (sigh) So, how do you preserve that?”

“Our Chiefs stood at the headwaters of the river and cursed the river, it would salt up and not run free until both tribes had been restored to their places on the river,” says Chief Richardson. “And, when the Emory Dam was destroyed and pulled down, I thought, ‘oh, my goodness, this is the time. This is the time, it’s coming.”

Chief Richardson is interpreting archeological finds by Julie and Scott’s team on a section of cliffs owned by the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. They are searching for artifacts from three towns once located here.

“Many of our ancestor’s stories passed to her are matching with what’s being found here and at other digs,” says Nelson.For centuries, other people told our stories and they didn’t always match our oral traditions. Most of what colonists documented were interactions with Indigenous people on other waterways. In the past, archeologists and anthropologists compiled their interpretations of our lands and history. Until now, the stories we know were never told.”

“I remembered my dad saying, ‘we had towns on the river and when you had a town, your town was on both sides of the river,’” says Chief Richardson.

Using Capt. John Smith’s maps and our oral traditions, the team is trying to locate some of the 43 villages Smith marked as he traveled the Rappahannock River in 1608. He marked three towns on top of Fones Cliffs – Wecuppon, Matchopick and Pissacoack. Julie and Scott are using past archeological discoveries, including one of our large towns up river now called Leedstown.

“And so, when I’m taking [archeologist] Ben McCary’s work from the 50’s that he did on Leedstown and identifying some of the towns, we realized that even though they had different names they were the same towns on both sides of the river and Dr. King verified that in her work,” says Chief Richardson.

“Julie King and Scott Strickland confirmed another oral tradition that past experts and colonists never documented. That we were independent of the Powhatan chiefdom near Jamestown,” says Nelson. “We built sizable towns along the river. And, we provided refuge to other tribes escaping colonists.”

“And so finding these places from King George to Westmoreland to Stratford Hall and Totusky, we were able to see kind of the footprint of our tribe’s territory, which was pretty vast and it was not relegated to this little area right here in Indian Neck,” says Chief Richardson.

“When our Chief says Indian Neck, she’s referring to the 170 acres of land in King and Queen County, Virginia that our tribe owns today,” says Nelson. “It’s where we have our tribal center, Emergency Management facility and health clinic. How we got to Indian Neck has a dark history. And, of course, it starts with the land.”

How the Land was Stolen

“Most of the time when our tribe agreed to sell lands to encroaching colonists, they rarely paid us. They just took it.” says Nelson. “They gave 50 acres of land to each tribal warrior, then took most of those lands, sometimes forcibly removing us. In 1684, we were forced to move to Portobago Indian Town, further up the river. The reason behind this move is explained by historian Edward Ragan. He worked with our tribe for more than 25 years and helped us get federal recognition in 2018. “

By the early 1680’s the Virginia frontier was facing more violence from foreign Indians coming in and raiding the frontier,” says Ragan. “Primarily Iroquoian warriors coming down from New York. And the English were using Indians as buffers. And so by putting Indians further out in the frontier and away from the primary English settlements, it put Indians in harms way, but it protected English settlers a little more.”

That’s right, the Rappahannocks and neighboring tribes were used as human shields,” says Nelson. “Later, our neighbors, the Nanzatico Tribe that Chief Richardson mentioned earlier, were taken as slaves to Antigua. And once again, we were forcibly moved. Treaties were consistently ignored and over centuries paper records of our people were lost, neglected or purposely destroyed, nearly wiping away our documented existence. But we endured by hiding in plain sight, moving back near Indian Neck, in the woodlands of King and Queen County.”

“They effectively...I hate to use the word disappear but that’s effectively what happens,” says Ragan. “They disappear from the records. They seclude themselves in such a way that they no longer become a focus of any provincial government or any county government for that matter.”

So, it may have looked like we were gone, but look closer and you’d see we were here all along,” says Nelson. “That’s what happened when Scott Strickland dug into scarce court documents and used the latest mapping technology. He located some of our former hunting camps, ceremonial grounds and towns along the Rappahannock River.

Scott is able to pinpoint where these towns were physically so that we can go and visit those places,” says Chief Richardson.

And he’s helping us make connections to land and water up and down the river,” says Nelson.

The creek over here, that one’s called Brokenbrough Creek but it used to be called Charles Beaverdam Creek,” says Strickland. So, there were beaver dams up and down that creek and it just kind of connected with me that you call the tribe the Beaver Clan is that correct?”

We’re the Beaver Clan,” responds Chief Richardson.

The Dig on Fones Cliffs

Eighty feet above the Rappahannock River perched on a cliff, archeologist Julie King, Scott Strickland and a team of students and volunteers carefully dig five-by-five foot square, test excavation pits. If this was 1608, Captain John Smith would be navigating the river below them.

Shovels of dirt are poured onto one of two large screens set into a table-like frame under the shade of a canopy. Each screen is manned by two people, their gloved hands rolling the dirt and pushing it through to a fine pile of dust below. Their trained eyes spot pieces of German and Native pottery, lead shot, pipe stems and a piece of a buckle. All clues to who once walked the cliffs.

Strickland sits nearby in the middle of a dusty square, logging the day’s artifacts, mostly from the daily life of someone living during the 17th and 18th centuries. King takes a break from the dig to tell an amazing story of an accidental discovery made early on. A discovery that points to our tribe’s connection to Fones Cliffs.

So, I think it was here. One of the people from Fish and Wildlife Service was out visiting us and he was poking around over here and he comes over and he shows me this crystal he found,” says archeologist Julie King. “And it’s not unusual to find things on the surface in archeology. This fields been plowed and things churned up. I’m like, ‘where did you get that?’ And he said, ‘I got it over there by that tree.’

And I went over and you could still see the place where he had found it, and he had found another one. And so I was like, ‘Wow, let the archeologists take them because these have something really important to say.’ And then somewhere in this vicinity, not far away, about maybe ten feet, we were digging a hole and that’s where we found a piece of table glass, that stemware that had been broken and then flaked. “

“Almost as if it was trying to mimic a crystal with a point at the end,” says Strickland. “And crystals and things like that, they would have religious significance for Native people but also enslaved African people. “

All right here,” says King. “What’s going on here. So, yeah, there is so much that the land tries to tell us if we just listen to what it has to say.”

For Chief Richardson the crystals are proof she can hold in her hand, verifying stories she’s heard since she was a little girl. And there’s more. Across from the cliffs is an endless mat of green reaching into the river called Beverly Marsh.

One of the property owners around Beverly Marsh had contacted us after we had said we found the crystals and said he had found crystals too,” says King. “And I really think that this shows how the river is both a resource, an economic resource but it’s also a spiritual resource, the whole river. So, these are questions we don’t have answers for, or I should say the archeologists don’t have answers for, the tribe may have total answers for them.”

“Well, we know that the crystals were used both in spiritual ceremonies and for healing,” says Chief Richardson. “And so your ossuaries are also on the river, where people honor the ancestors would have been interred and they would have been places of sacred ceremony for the tribe. Places that those crystals may have been buried with those people or places that those crystals would have been used for a sacred ceremony. And we know that was the power to heal and to communicate with the other realm, the supernatural realm. And so we know that there were supernatural ceremonies, religious ceremonies that happened on those tall cliffs close to the creator. We know that was a place of sacred ceremony because the eagles nest there. And the eagles had great spiritual significance for the tribe they were the messengers from the creator to the people. So, that’s another reason why this place is so important to us. And the eagles remain there to this day and I think they’re waiting for our return. So when we come out they always come to visit.”

The tiny section where the dig is taking place is the most recent addition to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a vast federal refuge of unconnected lands threaded by the river. Some call it a “string of pearls.” Though only 252 acres, this section of Fones Cliffs is finally a part of it. That was no easy task. It took years of battles and negotiations for conservationists to convince a small developer to sell it for the refuge. At one point, he nearly sold it to Virginia True.

Soon it will be open to the public. But before that can happen, trees have to be planted to stabilize the eroding cliffs. Unless the archaeologists find something really big, they’ll need to wrap up their dig. So, time is of the essence.

And, there’s something else pressing them on.

“This is right at the cliff’s edge,” says King. “So, while there’s a lot of artifacts up there, these particular artifacts are right at the cliff’s edge. Any more erosion, you know we may not have had the opportunity to see them.”

“That’s what’s so important about the work now,” adds Chief Richardson. “And with climate change and all of the storms that are coming in, there will be more and more increased difficulty in trying to preserve these things.”

As the clock is ticking, erosion next door at the Virginia True property is just as much of a concern. Development plans were stopped a few years ago when Virginia True cleared some of the land causing a mudslide into the river. With the highest of the cliffs slated for development, the three towns the archeologists are looking for may be lost as houses and other structures are built and land is disturbed for the golf course. So far, the archeologists have not found signs of a town at the refuge site, which makes them even more anxious to explore the Virginia True property.

Then, Scott makes an exciting discovery while digging through court records. Proof someone may have been living on the cliffs 300 years ago.

The Discovery of Indian Peter

“The creek to the south of us it’s today known as Garland’s Creek but on old USGS maps from like 1890’s – 1910’s, refer to it as Indian Peter Swamp,” says Strickland. “And we found a will record from 1697 for a guy named Angelo Jacobus. And his will mentions someone he calls, ‘my Indian boy, Peter.’ It was implied that he was a servant or a slave that was given to his daughter. In addition to granting his freedom, [they] gave him a horse, horse saddles and some clothes and some other stuff. So, it implies somewhere around 1699 he was supposed to be freed and that just happens to be when this site shows up.”

“We only knew about the locations of the towns but we never knew there were survivors there,” says Chief Richardson.

The group motors to where the cliffs slope down to Garland’s Creek. This is likely where Indian Peter accessed the river to fish or travel. Like detectives they must piece together his history.

“There are some clues that suggest that if Indian Peter is not living here, he’s here a lot,” says King. “So, as Scott especially got into the documents and started finding repeated references to this Indian Peter in the same time period. The swamp was named after him, there’s a land record that shows a corner that says formerly Indian Peter’s. This is a person that’s known in this early 18th Century community and I’m sure everybody knew him. We don’t know him now because there’s not much that survives except these few geographical and legal records. So what we’re depending on is the archeology to help us unearth that story.”

They are looking for more clues like the wine glass stem that was flaked into a crystal. The archeologists believe only Indian Peter or another Indigenous person had the skill to do that. They’ve also found pieces of Native pottery called colonoware and, what looks like the footprint of an 18th Century house.

For Chief Richardson, a picture of a Native man’s life here is becoming clear.

We think that there was probably a long-term occupation of a Native person there,” says Richardson. “Indian Peter and his family, in a place that they would have made wares to utilize in their everyday lives. And that they have worked crystals for healing purposes or religious practices down the cliffs.”

“I’m going to say this, I don’t know if you want to put this on public radio but we believe, tribal people, that there are specific portals in the earth that are connected to the spirit world,” says Chief Richardson. “And I believe the cliffs are one of those places, Werowocomico is another place. You can feel it, so, oof, so powerfully when you get there. And to see the place where eagles have gathered in this place and are nesting there, it’s like HELLO PEOPLE!”

“Archeology is a kind of portal,” adds King. “I mean we’re digging these holes, right, and we’re looking at what these holes are telling us. What’s coming out of these holes they have a story to tell. So, it is with a great deal of responsibility that we have to speak for these items, these objects that we find. Archeology it’s a great metaphorical portal and it’s kind of a literal portal too.”

Many landowners along the Rappahannock River have graciously opened their properties and artifact collections to the archeologists and our chief. But some, have not.

The thing about it is, these people who own these properties should open it because to me it would be a sense of pride to find things like that on their property,” says Chief Richardson. “I guess a lot of the fear left over from the Colonial days is that, we’ll come and take the property or take possession of things, which we have no interest in doing. We just want to uncover the history. And we can work to buy land wherever it is on the river that we want. We’re not going to do casinos, we’re not a casino tribe. We’re not interested in doing development on the river. We’re interested in keeping it the way that it is and having it for people to be able to experience and enjoy. If nothing is ever done to it except for our people can go there and have ceremony. It’s a very important place for the tribe.”

Another Discovery

Remember Leedstown, the large town up river from the cliffs mentioned earlier in the episode? In late August, during the final days of the dig, the team makes a tiny but significant discovery - a single bead. And not just any bead. This is a Leedstown bead. The same kind of bead first discovered by an archeologist in 1937, in an area the tribe knows as Pissasseck. This tiny bead connects Fones Cliffs to that place.

Chief Richardson holds a Leedstown bead.
Pamela D'Angelo
Chief Richardson holds a Leedstown bead.

Scott hands the bead to Chief Richardson. More history she can actually hold. She whispers, “Oh, wow,” when Scott hands it to her.

So that’s a tubular shaped bead. In archeology-speak we call that a compound bead because it’s made of two types of glass,” says Strickland. “There’s like an opaque red with a translucent green core. So if we were to shine a light or hold it up to the sun you could see that the interior of the bead is a dark green color. We have found the same beads of that shape, that color, that construction from the Leedstown site. It’s a few miles but you can almost see Leedstown from the site. It’s obstructed only by a small point of trees.”

And that’s just around the bend in the river,” says King. “And that town is really only mentioned once in the colonial records. Of course I’m sure it’s carried in the oral history. Today, it’s known as Leedstown. It’s got a big marsh, it’s got a low landing space. But it was probably more than just an economic resource. It appears, based on what we know archeologically, it’s really an important sacred space as well, gave great views up and down the river. This is really exciting because it does link us very concretely, I think, to Indian Peter.”

“Even as colonists stripped us of our lands and forced us to adopt their culture and traditions, Indian Peter is proof we endured,” says Nelson.

We tend to look at those cultural markers as proof they are no longer Indian,” says historian Edward Ragan. “And when you think about the structure of communities and the structure and importance of place I think that says as much about identity as anything. That they were willing to undergo these dramatic cultural transformations in order to continue living in the place where they have always lived and that’s where they are today. And that’s true for all the tribes in Virginia.”

As the group wrapped up its work on the cliffs, the producer of this podcast made a written request to one of the owners of the Virginia True property, asking permission to allow Chief Richardson, Julie and Scott to walk the Virginia True Property and to consider allowing some initial digs. No response has come, yet. That’s no surprise as the group is tied up in a New York bankruptcy court, battling each other over Fones Cliffs.

Buried in court documents is an appraisal document. It says, “the highest and best use for Fones Cliffs is to retain the land in its natural state in order to preserve and promote its natural and historic significance.”

“Our tribe would like to buy back some of our historic property,” says Nelson. “Although that may be a huge goal, those lucky enough to know Chief Anne Richardson, understand that she has a way of making the difficult – attainable. Chief Anne has led our people through many challenging times. She is a strong, determined, driven, and intelligent woman who has faced uphill battles all of her life. I would not want to stand between her and something she wants, for our people, our history and our ancestors.”

“We just want to be back here,” says Chief Richardson. “And we want our children to be back here and to learn about the cliffs. We’re not trying to take everybody’s land up. We’re not interested in that. We just want our portion. So, A little equity goes around a long way.”

You can read more about the Rappahannock Tribe here: RappahannockTribe.org

Read more about archeological work here: https://www.nps.gov/cajo/learn/upload/ICL-Rappahannock-508-compressed.pdf

This episode was made possible by a grant from Virginia Humanities.

Original Rappahannock Tribal Music is by the Maskapow Drummers featuring The River song. If you want to learn more about the Rappahannock Tribe and the work of Julia King and Scott Strickland go to our website for links and photos. Tribal Truths is reported, written and sound designed by Pamela D’Angelo. Kelley Libby is editor. Additional editing by Steven Nelson and David Seidel. Support was provided by Radio IQ. Other music in this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions.