The First Inhabitants of the Northern Neck
European immigrants are often referred to as “settling the Northern Neck,” but the area was already inhabited by Native American tribes. When the Europeans moved in the native people were displaced, enslaved or even killed. Native American artifacts in the Northern Neck have been dated as early as 8,000 B.C. After only about 100 years of European occupation there were almost no remaining traces of the native people. They left behind some arrowheads and grinding stones the same way they left behind names for towns and waterways.
Most Native American history was passed down orally. Much of this was lost as the tribes disintegrated. Vikings may have sailed into the Chesapeake Bay during medieval times, the Italian explorer Cabot may have visited the area in the late 1400’s and Spanish sailors likely explored the bay in the 1500’s. It was not until Captain John Smith and the beginning of white settlement that the first maps and written history appear.
Upon first sailing into the Chesapeake Bay, John Smith wrote, “There is but one entrance by sea into this country, and that is at the mouth of a very goodly Bay, the wideness whereof is 18 or 20 miles. Within is a country, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation. Here are hills, plains, valleys, rivers and brooks all running most pleasantly into a fair Bay compassed but for the mouth with fruitful and delightsome land.”
As Jamestown was being built in 1607, John Smith continued to explore the area further up the bay. He noted there were a number of Indian tribes called the Algonquins who formed a confederation under the rule of “king” Powhatan. It is now estimated that the Virginia Algonquian numbered 14,000-21,000 during this time and in the Northern Neck they were organized into eight separate chiefdoms. John Smith was captured by Chief Powhatan’s brother and paraded around to various villages in the winter of 1607 and 1608. He was taken up the Rappahannock to “Taphanocke.” He was taken overland to “Nominies” near the Potomac. After seven weeks of travel he was brought before Powhatan at a spot near the York River, where Pocahontas famously intervened to spare his life.
Smith drew a map of 161 villages that made up Powhatan’s “kingdom.” He documented the Wicomico Tribe of about 130 men in 1608 occupying the land on the southern mouth of the Potomac River. Further upriver was the Sekacawone (Coan) a tribe of only 30. On June 17th of 1608 Smith and his men were ambushed at the mouth of the Nomini. They fired their guns at a low angle into the water to skip the shot across the water and the loud boom was enough to cause the Indians to retreat. Returning to Jamestown one month later Smith and his men were near the mouth of the Rappahannock when they noticed fish schooling so thickly they can be stabbed with swords. When John Smith reached in the water to remove a fish from his sword he was stung on the wrist by a Stingray. This incident gave the name to Stingray Point. According to local lore he was then taken to Antipoison Creek where the mud was used to treat his wound and save his life. Smith documented many other encounters with Northern Neck natives, some friendly and others not. He noted several attacks by the Rappahannock tribe, who seemed to be some of the most aggressive in the area.
After Powhatan’s death in 1618 his brother, Opechancanough, took a more hostile approach toward the English and tried to drive them from the area with large scale attacks in 1622 and 1644. The English withstood these attacks and retaliated in force. The fighting combined with new diseases of smallpox and measles brought from Europe decimated the Native American population.
The lower Northern Neck chiefdoms remained mostly at peace with the colonists and chose to continue their trade relationships. In 1622 Captain Raleigh Croshaw was looking for trade on the Potomac River on a small vessel commanded by Captain Spilman. They were tipped off on the upcoming attack and told that the Wicomico tribe would be involved. Captain Spilman then went to the village to confront the Wicomico directly. He reported that the tribe knew they had been discovered and to “color their guilt” they gave him “such satisfaction in trade that his vessel was nearly full.”
Between 1652 and 1655 the Northumberland County court began ordering members of the Wicomico Tribe to merge with Chickacone Tribe on land south of the Great Wicomico River near Dividing Creek. The 4,400 acre reservation was of an allowance of “50 acres per fighting man.” The Cuttatawomen Tribe from the area to south moved up into Wicomico territory area and was soon absorbed into the larger chiefdom. The county court appointed Machywap as the leader, he was the former “king” of the Chickacone and considered a friend to the English. The tribe soon deposed him in favor of Pekwem. In the following years there were many legal disputes between the tribe and their white neighbors on the borders of the reservation. Frequently to Wicomico appealed to the Northumberland County Court for aid in stopping encrouchment on their lands, and in many cases the court ruled in their favor. But even when the law was on their side by 1719 the Wicomico Indian landholdings had dwindled to 1,700 acres. In 1705 Robert Beverley, Jr., an early Virginia historian, wrote that the tribe had only ten men left “which yet keep up their kingdom, and retain their fashion, they live by themselves, separate from all other Indians, and from the English.” William Tapitco died in June of 1719, he was the last Wicomico weroance, or leader. The remains of the tribe dispersed, assimilated or died of diseases brought by the English and the county took control of the land. The Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730 called for a tobacco warehouse to be built upon the site.
There are no recognized tribes in the Northern Neck today. Tribes like the Wicomico are working toward gaining official state and federal designation. The Rappahannock tribe which was driven out of the Northern Neck south into what is now Essex County still maintains some land near Tappahannock. They are recognized as a tribe by the state of Virginia, and only gained Federal recognition in 2018.
- Bulletin of the Northumberland County Historical Society. Heathsville, Va: Northumberland County Historical Society, 1992. Print. Pg. 3.