By 1607, when the first English settlers founded Jamestown, the Nansemond lived in several villages centered near Chuckatuck, in present-day Suffolk, along the Nansemond River. Their head chief lived near Dumpling Island, where the tribe's temple and sacred objects were located. The Nansemond tribe spoke a dialect of Algonquian and was among the roughly twenty-eight to thirty-two tribes of Tsenacomoco, an alliance of Algonquian-speaking tribes that was ruled by the paramount chief Powhatan.
The peace treaty that concluded the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646) set aside land for the people of Tsenacomoco, including the Nansemond. By 1648, according to the scholar Helen C. Rountree, the Nansemond lived on the northwest and south branches of the Nansemond River. A group of Nansemond converted to Christianity and, starting with the Nansemond woman Elizabeth and the Englishman John Bass in 1638, began to intermarry with the descendants of Nathaniel Bass (perhaps Basse). After the turn of the eighteenth century, a group of the Christian Nansemond moved to Norfolk County, near the Great Dismal Swamp; the current members of the Nansemond tribe are largely descended from this group.
The non-Christianized Nansemond remained on their tribal lands, but in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as increasing numbers of Europeans moved to the Nansemond River area, the tribal members had to relocate their tribal lands and their reservation on several occasions. The Nansemond tribe sold its last known reservation lands—300 acres on the Nottoway River in Southampton County—in 1792. By this time only three non-Christianized Nansemond survived; the last died in 1806.
The identity and culture of the Nansemond, like those of other Virginia Indian tribes, were threatened by legislation passed by the Virginia government in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and subsequent legislation banned interracial marriage in Virginia and asked for voluntary racial identifications on birth and marriage certificates. "White" was defined as having no trace of African ancestry, while all other people, including Indians, were defined as "colored." To accommodate elite Virginians who claimed Pocahontas and John Rolfe as ancestors, the law allowed for those who had "one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood [to] be deemed to be white persons." It essentially erased Virginia Indians as a category of people under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the Racial Integrity Act unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia (1967).
By late in the century, the Nansemond tribe had reasserted its identity and was formally recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia on February 20, 1985. The tribe holds its monthly meetings at the Indiana United Methodist Church in Chesapeake, which was founded in 1850 as a mission for the Nansemond. As of 2013, tribal members operated a museum and gift shop in Chuckatuck and planned to develop a tribal center, museum, and burial grounds on ancestral lands along the Nansemond River. With the city of Chesapeake, the Nansemond cohost the American Indian Festival each June, and the tribe celebrates its annual powwow each August.
December 1608 - Christopher Newport returns to England from Jamestown accompanied by the Indian Machumps. John Smith, meanwhile, attempts to trade for food with Indians from the Nansemonds to the Appamattucks, but on Powhatan's orders they refuse.
Early September 1609 - John Smith sends Francis West and 120 men to the falls of the James River. George Percy and 60 men attempt to bargain with the Nansemond Indians for an island. Two messengers are killed and the English burn the Nansemonds' town and their crops.
June 1611 - Sir Thomas Dale leads a hundred armored soldiers against the Nansemond Indians at the mouth of the James River, burning their towns.
August 14, 1638 - John Bass, who may be the son of Nathaniel Basse and Mary Jordan Basse, marries Elizabeth, a Nansemond woman who has converted to Christianity.
1792 - The Nansemond tribe sells its last known reservation lands, 300 acres on the Nottoway River in Southampton County.
1850 - The Indiana United Methodist Church in Chesapeake is founded as a mission for the Nansemond Indians.
March 20, 1924 - The General Assembly passes "An act to Preserve Racial Integrity," a law aimed at protecting whiteness on the state level. It prohibits interracial marriage, defines a white person as someone who has no discernible nonwhite ancestry, and requires that birth and marriage certificates indicate people's races.
1930 - The General Assembly passes a law defining Virginia Indians as those possessing one-quarter or more of Indian blood and less than one-sixteenth of black blood. The law also stipulates that such people will be considered black unless they live on a segregated Indian reservation.
February 20, 1985 - The Nansemond tribe is formally recognized by the General Assembly in House Joint Resolution 205.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Encyclopedia Virginia staff Nansemond Tribe. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Nansemond_Tribe.
- MLA Citation:
Encyclopedia Virginia staff. "Nansemond Tribe." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 28, 2013 | Last modified: May 30, 2014
Contributed by Encyclopedia Virginia staff.