What you should know: Ethnic Cleansing in Virginia

An ethnic cleansing in Virginia

Within a relatively short period in the mid-1660s, all of the Native American towns in the Shenandoah Valley were sacked. Credits:  VR image by Richard Thornton
The 160 mile long Shenandoah Valley is located in northwestern Virginia and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.   Ten counties are located in this famous valley.  They are (south to north) Rockbridge, Augusta, Rockingham, Page, Shenandoah, Warren, Frederick and Clarke Counties in Virginia, plus Berkeley and Jefferson Counties in West Virginia.

The main Shenandoah River is formed by the North Fork of the Shenandoah and South Fork of the Shenandoah that join in Front Royal, VA.  They are created by tributaries in the central mountains of Virginia.  The Shenandoah River and all its tributaries flow northeastward to join the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, WV.

In between the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River are the Massanutten Mountain Range and Fort Valley.  The football shaped valley is surrounded on all sides by steep slopes.  George Washington planned to make his last stand here, if the British Army conquered most of the colonies.

A tribe of mound builders vanishes

A common story told tourists in the Shenandoah Valley is that it was uninhabited when the white man came to Virginia in 1607.  It is typically explained to visitors that no one knows what Indian tribe lived in the Valley. They were either driven out by the Iroquois or some “southern” tribe.

Historians and anthropologists do know who was living in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1600s.  Virginia colonists were also aware of the indigenous inhabitants of Valley.  The Valley’s fertile soil supported many farming villages.  Some contained mounds. The Petun or Tionontati Indians, who later merged with the Wyandot (Wendat ~ Huron) Indians, lived in the northern tip of the valley.  They grew high quality tobacco that was traded to Indians living in the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions, plus Canada. The remainder of the Valley was densely occupied by a mound-building, agricultural society, known as the Shanantoa.  Their villages were developed anywhere there was fertile bottom land.

Samuel Kercheval settled in the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1800s.  He published A History of the Shenandoah Valley in 1833. In his book, he wrote, “Along all our water courses evidences of Indian dwellings are yet to be seen.” Kercheval further stated that elderly residents of the Shenandoah Valley, still living when he arrived, told him that there were many large Indian mounds visible when they arrived in the late 1700s.

It is impossible that the vestiges of simple wigwams or longhouses would be visible 160 years after the Shanantoa Indians were massacred.  Obviously, there were earthworks, stone walls and thick wattle and daub houses in their towns.  These vanished Native Americans were part of an advanced culture.

The case for ethnic cleansing

It is documented that the Tionontati were driven out of the northern tip of the valley in the late 1600s by Iroquois raiders.  This is a clear case of ethnic cleansing by one group of Native Americans against another.  The Iroquois traded deer skins to the English and French in return for European goods.

The Manahoac Indians were a Siouan-speaking tribe in northern Virginia, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley.  In their region were originally many ceremonial and burial mounds, but they did not seem connected to the abandoned mound sites.  They were decimated in the 1660s by another Indian tribe.  The survivors moved south and joined the Monacan Indians.

The Iroquois are often blamed for almost destroying the Manahoac Indians, but did they?   Both the Manahoac and the Shanantoa were victims of ethnic cleansing at the same time.  There might be another culprit. There is substantial circumstantial evidence that the Shenandoah Valley was the crime scene of Great Britain’s first experiment with ethnic cleansing in North America. English nobility had developed their skills at such tasks while subjugating Scotland and Ireland.  At the time North America was being colonized, the English were manipulating African tribes to capture slaves and depopulate regions in West Africa, where plantations were planned.  Did the British use the same scheme in Virginia?

In 1660 the Shenandoah Valley had the densest Native American population in the Mid-Atlantic Region.  Around 1665, a handful of Shanantoa Indian refugees reached the Colony of Pennsylvania, where they told sad stories of entire towns being killed or enslaved by Indians who came from the south.  These raiders were armed with arqubuses (primitive muskets) and attacked without warning.

After the Puritan leader of England, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, died in 1658, the exiled son of King Charles I began schemes to claim the English crown.  In 1659, he traded the Northern Neck of the Colony of Virginia to the powerful Culpepper Family in return for a large sum of money to hire an army and political support for his claim to the crown.   The Culpepper Estate corresponded exactly to the territories of the Shanantoa, Petun and Monahoac Indians.

Shortly after being crowned in 1660, Charles II reinstated Royalist William Berkeley as governor of Virginia.  Soon thereafter, he created the Colony of Carolina. Berkeley was named one of its eight Lord Proprietors.  Carolina was originally planned as being a feudal society with a hierarchy of nobility.

Sir William Berkeley stacked the Virginia House of Burgesses with wealthy planters.  He then pushed through legislation which institutionalized human slavery for the first time in English history.  Henceforth, Native American and African bond servants would be in livelong slavery.  Their children would be born slaves.

Around 1664, William Berkeley signed a contract with his long time trading partners, the Rickohocken Indians. The Rickohockens were located in southwestern Virginia and northwestern North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains; south of the Shenandoah Valley. The Rickohockens were furnished  firearms and munitions in return for capturing an unlimited number of Native American slaves.  They were guaranteed prices for these slaves.

Within a few years, all of northern Virginia and much of western Virginia no longer contained Native Americans, while Native American tribes in alliances with the British Crown controlled massive territories outside those owned by aristocratic British families. The new owner of the Northern Neck Estate, Thomas Lord Fairfax, then sold the abandoned Native lands to European homesteaders and planters at a great profit.  This chain of events does seem to be a coincidence.

Readers interested in learning more about the early history of the Shenandoah Valley, may access this detailed article on the internet:


Readers wishing to ask Mr. Thornton questions about architecture, urban planning or Native American history may write him at NativeQuestion@aol.com.

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