The river system served as the highway centuries ago for Powhatan, known to his people as Wahunsonacook. It is said that he traveled along the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers that flow into the York River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay, to Werowocomoco, the capital of his nation.
A canoe similar to the ones Powhatan used hangs in display in the Pamunkey Indian Museum, located on the Pamunkey reservation in King William. Made from a cypress tree, the canoe is estimated to have been carved in the 1600s.
The museum, open since 1974, has 14 encased collections with artifacts such as tools, weapons, regalia, cooking utensils and pottery – some dating back 12,000 years. It also features numerous drawings and photographs showing the lifestyle of the Pamunkey Indians, the largest tribe in the Powhatan Nation, and Powhatan’s people.
With the approaching commemoration of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, people interested in early history will travel to Virginia this year to visit Jamestown as well as the American Indian museums of Virginia’s first people.
One site that attracts attention is Powhatan’s grave site. His burial mound measures 30 feet by 20 feet and is located on the reservation, said museum curator Isabelle Bradby Brown, Pamunkey.
”It’s a sacred area, and it’s right off the water,” Brown said.
Among the color-coded collections in the Pamunkey museum, visitors can see pottery made by tribal members. Some of the pottery dates back to 1850 and, alongside the pottery, various exhibits include tools used to create the pottery as well as pictures and explanations of the process. The tribe also has pottery fragments that date back several centuries.
”The Pamunkey women have been making pottery for 3,000 years,” Brown said; today, members of the tribe continue to create, sell and exhibit pottery.
The museum collections, organized by periods, provide an in-depth history of the ancient and modern Pamunkeys. Among them, the Powhatan exhibit includes descriptions of the chief given by the early English explorers. In the center of the exhibit, a clay image of Powhatan, created by Pamunkey artist Kevin Brown, gives a more detailed image of Powhatan unlike those in 17th century English drawings.
Powhatan was said to have worn a cloak made of four deerskins sewn together with sinew and decorated with white shells. The design on the front of the cloak shows a human figure with two ”quadrupeds” with long tails, ”possibly wolves or foxes” and surrounded by ”solid disks,” according to the description.
Capt. John Smith wrote about Powhatan’s clothing, stating his attire was that of the higher social class of Virginia Indians, as noted in the cloak description.
In the Powhatan exhibit, the Pamunkeys have a photograph of Powhatan’s cloak.
”The cloak he was said to have worn is in a museum in England,” Brown said. ”I don’t know how the museum obtained it.”
The Pamunkeys also have several cases with regalia, made of deerskins with beadwork, including headdresses, worn by former Pamunkey chiefs.
In designing the museum, the Pamunkeys created arched ceilings in the style of the longhouses of their ancestors.
For more information on the Pamunkey Indian Museum, call (804) 843-4792.
The Mattaponi Indian Museum
A necklace belonging to Pocahontas stands out among many pieces in the collections of the Mattaponi Indian Museum, located in West Point.
Often referred to as Pocahontas’ people, the Mattaponi – the direct descendants of Powhatan and Pocahontas – reside on a reservation in King William County, not far from the Pamunkey Indians.
”The necklace would have been worn on leather as a pendant,” said Minnie Ha-Ha Custalow, who runs the Minnie Ha-Ha Educational Trading Post next door to the museum. She has operated the Trading Post and shared the history of the Mattaponi culture since 1969.
One article in the Mattaponi collection that visitors find fascinating, she said, is a beaded medicine bag owned by a female Mattaponi Indian chief who lived more than 300 years ago.
”The medicine bag was passed down through the family line, and the chief bloodline is of the Custalow and Major line,” Custalow said. ”Her name was Mari Eliza Custalow Major.”
Now protected in a glass case in the trading post, the medicine bag was made of soft leather, beaded and decorated with porcupine quills flattened out and woven through the bag, with leather fringe at the end, Custalow said.
”It’s about a foot long and eight to nine inches wide,” Custalow said. ”It was put in the Minnie Ha-Ha Educational Trading Post by the fourth-generation granddaughter, Marie Custalow, of Chief Mari Eliza Custolow Major.”
To share its culture, the tribe operates the Mattaponi Indian Museum, run by curator George Custalow, as well as the Minnie Ha-Ha Educational Trading Post.
Just as the Pamunkey, the Mattaponi Indians have artifacts including tools, regalia from past chiefs, weapons, pottery, cooking tools and other items the Indians used. Some of their artifacts, such as a stone bowl with a stone pestle used for grinding meal, herbs and pitted fruit, date back to 5,000 B.C., Minnie Ha-Ha Custalow said.
”We like to share our history because so much of it has been misconstrued and not being correctly taught or given out,” said Minnie Ha-Ha Custalow. ”When we get the chance to tell people how it was and how it is, we feel we have accomplished something.”
In teaching visitors about the Mattaponi culture, Custalow said she operates the trading post for the trading of knowledge.
”I let people in to let them know what we’re all about,” said Custalow, who brings in visitors by appointment and during the Mattaponi Tribe’s annual pow wow, which is held on the third Saturday of every June. ”I love history.”
For more information, call (804) 769-2194.
The Monacan Ancestral Museum
In the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, the skulls of a Sioux Indian man and woman, estimated to be between 800 and 1,300 years old, add significantly to the history of the Monacan Indian Nation.
Found in the region where the Monacans have lived for thousands of years, the skulls were returned to the tribe for repatriation. With the remains returned, the Monacans, a Siouan-language tribe, decided to recreate the images of their ancestors, said Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham.
”The Monacans received a grant for molds to be made of the skulls to recreate Monacan images,” Branham said. ”We shipped the skulls to California, and the woman had no idea what the Monacans looked like.”
When the tribe received the images, Branham said they were amazed at how closely the images appeared to look like the modern Monacan Indians. These images have since become part of many exhibits in the tribe’s museum, located in Amherst.
The Monacan Ancestral Museum most recently added 15 panels that detail the tribe’s history. Similar to large pictures, the panels provide visuals to the detailed history provided.
”The panels are really educational, and we’ve added additional artifacts found in the area,” Branham said. ”The panels explain the history from the pre-contact period to contact period and to the present time.”
Many Monacan people worked in apple orchards when Branham was a child and the panels provide pictures of the Monacans at work.
Quartz projectile points and scrapers, jasper stone tools and soapstone bowls, as well as clay pottery, are among some of what visitors to the Monacans’ museum will see. The Monacans also have soapstone pipes, which Branham said were very important in the Monacans’ ceremonies.
About six Monacans continue to make baskets for income, he said, and the museum features reconstructed baskets made of honeysuckle and locust wood. One member teaches basket making to children.
Next door to the museum, the Monacans maintain the former Monacan log cabin school house, which was restored to appear the way it looked between 1913 and 1914 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Branham said the school even has its original school bell. Branham attended school in the log cabin until he was in the third grade. Once the school closed, Monacans used the building for Sunday school classes until about 15 years ago.
Many people visit both the museum and historic school house during the Monacans’ annual pow wow, which will be held on May 19 and 20 this year.
For more information, call (434) 946-5391.