Crossing a railroad track onto a 1,150 acre peninsula jutting into the Pamunkey River, visitors quickly learn they are entering a unique place: A sign says they have reached land that since 1677 has been governed by a tribal council and a chief.
It asks visitors to respect the tribe’s rules.
It is the Pamunkey Indian Reservation, land set aside for the tribe long before there was a United States. “This is one of the oldest reservations in the country,” said Warren Cook, vice chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. “Our treaty is with the King of England.”
As a result, the reservation land today is held in trust with the state of Virginia, rather than the federal government.
Another sign greeting visitors gives a sense of the rich heritage of the reservation’s inhabitants: It pays tribute to one of the their most famous ancestors, Pocahontas. The Pamunkey were once part of the Powhatan Confederacy of Indians, the powerful alliance that existed in the area when the English settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607.
Not far away, a burial mound on the reservation reputedly holds the remains of Pocahontas’ father, Wahunsonacoon — the Powhatan who was sometimes a friend, sometimes a foe, of the Jamestown settlers.
Whether the mound is actually the mighty leader’s final resting place is unknown. “It’s a legend,” Cook said. “But there are a lot of graves in there.”
While many other Eastern tribes — and much of their heritage — are long gone, the Pamunkey have managed to hang on through the centuries, preserving their land, and their traditions. Their reservation is now part of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
That the Pamunkey and their heritage have survived, has been good for the Bay as well. Part of the Pamunkey tradition is that if you take fish from the water, you should put something back. That led the Pamunkey, in 1918, to establish a hatchery on their reservation to raise and release young shad into the river.
As shad stocks were crumbling in other rivers around the watershed, the healthiest shad runs occurred in the Pamunkey, a tributary of the York River.
Shad can be difficult fish to work, and when shad stocking efforts began in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, biologists came to the Pamunkey reservation to learn about their hatchery operation. Eggs from Pamunkey River shad were used to start restoration efforts first in the Susquehanna, then in other rivers. “All up and down the East Coast, they’ve used this river,” Cook said. “We’ve always had a fairly good run of shad.”
With support from the Bay Program, the tribe built a modern hatchery in 1994, and every year residents from the reservation volunteer to work stripping eggs from adult shad, placing them in tanks to hatch and then releasing tiny “fry” into the river, keeping the Pamunkey stock strong.
This year, they returned 3.2 million fingerlings to the river. “We had a good time with it,” said Cook, one of the volunteers. “I enjoyed it.”
Another tradition was maintained by a pottery school started on the reservation in the 1930s, which used local clay deposits and helped to preserve the unique pottery style of the Pamunkey.
Examples of their work are on display at the Pamunkey Indian Museum.
The museum is the centerpiece of a visit to the reservation. Built in 1979, its design is intended to evoke the houses of the ancient Pamunkey.
To walk through the museum is to walk through time. It traces the story of the river, the land and its residents to the ice age, when the region — less lush in appearance — was much like today’s northern Canada. The river, draining large amounts of snow melt, ran faster and straighter than it does now.
The Algonquin-speaking ancestors probably didn’t live in the area then because of the lack of suitable stones for tools. But they did use it for a hunting ground, searching out animals that would seem strange to residents of the area today — camels, bison, mammoth and caribou.
Displays throughout the museum show attempts anthropologists have made over the years to try to better understand the Pamunkey past through re-creation: A display shows a 3-inch birch that took an anthropologist 7 minutes, 27 seconds to cut with a stone ax. Others show how weapons may have been used, and homes built.
About 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, the river became an important as a source of food — something archaeologists have determined based on the piles of oyster shells that date to that era. Around 1,000 years ago, the abundance of food in the area, including the diversity of fish and waterfowl from the river, allowed people to live in the area year-round. The Pamunkey are thought to have started living in the floodplains, where they took up agriculture.
But hunting remained important. To hone their skills, a museum exhibit informs, children were often required to hit a target, such as moss tossed into the air, before breakfast. Miss the target, and you miss breakfast.
Making stone tools and spearheads was difficult. The main rock in the area is quartzite, the hardest of all flints to work with. But because it was readily available, the Pamunkey mastered working with it to the point that their results have never been duplicated.
Woven throughout the displays are quotes from early settlers about Native American life at that time. For example, Capt. John Smith observed: “Their fishing is much in boats. These they make of one tree by burning and scratching away the coals with stones and shells till they have made it in the form of a trough. Some of them are an ell deep (25 inches or 45 inches) and 40 or 50 foot in length, and some will bear 40 men. But the most ordinary are smaller and will bear 10, 20, or 30 according to their bigness. Instead of oars, they use paddles and sticks with which they will run faster than our barges.”
Over time, the dugout canoe design of the Pamunkey and other natives was adopted by the settlers, and would eventually evolve into the Chesapeake Bay skipjack.
While the Pamunkey celebrate their past, they are not captive to it. Their land remains important to the tribe, but they no longer depend on it for subsistence through fishing, hunting, trapping and turtling as was the case only a few decades ago. “They’ve stopped, for the most part, making a living off the land,” Cook said.
And that, he said, is part of the message people should get from a visit to the reservation. Today, many of the reservation’s roughly 75 residents work outside, and several own their own businesses. “We hope they will get a sense of our past,” Cook said. “On the reservation, they can see how we live today — which is probably much like everyone else. A lot of people have misconceptions of how we live.”
But the care the Pamunkey have taken to preserve their past will soon be rewarded by the Smithsonian Institution. It is one of nine tribes recently chosen to be highlighted in its exhibit, “Our Lives,” in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Indian, which is scheduled to open in 2004.
Meanwhile, a Gateways Network grant for the Pamunkey Indian Reservation will help visitors access and further understand the special story of the Pamunkey Tribe when they visit the reservation.
The tribe will soon add new interpretive exhibits and signs for the Pamunkey Indian Museum, shad hatchery, Pottery School and Powhatan's grave site, as well as publish a brochure/guide.
How to Get to the Pamunkey Reservation
The centerpiece of the Pamunkey Reservation is the museum and gift shop, which is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Admission is $2.50 for adults, $1.25 for children 6-12; children under 6 are free.
Visitors may also see the Powhatan burial mound, the shad hatchery and pottery school, where new interpretive signs are being built.
To get to the reservation from Interstate 64, take the West Point exit (exit 220) and follow routes 30 and 33 to West Point. At West Point, follow route 30 west to route 626. Turn left and proceed to route 633. Turn left again and follow 633 to the reservation. Follow the signs to the Pamunkey Indian Museum. For information, call 804-843-4792.
Map and Guide to Gateways Network Available
A glossy Map & Guide to the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network is available to help visitors explore the places and stories of the Chesapeake. The Network is a system that include 89 parks, refuges, museums, historic communities and water trails in the Bay watershed, each of which tells part of the Chesapeake story.
The Map & Guide is available free at most Gateway sites, as well as in many state welcome centers in Maryland and Virginia. To order a copy by phone, call toll-free 866-229-9297 in Maryland, or 888-824-5877 in Virginia.
Copies may also be ordered online from the Gateways Network web site, www.baygateways.net. The web site also provides descriptions and links for all designated Gateways, as well as the ability to search for Gateways by activities, areas of interest or geographic location.