Rassawek and the Monacan Indian Nation’s Fight to Protect its Historic Capital
About an hour’s drive west of Richmond, Virginia, tucked away amid farmland and unincorporated communities, the James and Rivanna Rivers meet at a place known as Point of Fork. The sparsely wooded peninsula would seem serene yet unremarkable to most who happen upon it. But members of the Monacan Indian Nation, an indigenous people of Virginia, see Point of Fork for what it once was and represents today: Rassawek, the sacred historic capital of the Monacans and one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2020 as chosen by the National Trust.
The story of Rassawek goes back at least 4,730 years—the earliest that modern carbon dating has determined the site was occupied. While Rassawek’s precise origins remain shrouded, it is known that a thriving settlement emerged from those distant beginnings. By A.D. 1600, the Monacan tribe had created a capital that rivaled European-established towns of the era like Jamestown in size. Prosperity was secured through trade; prestige minerals such as copper and soapstone helped Monacans establish relationships with other tribes and guaranteed economic stability.
Consisting of bark-covered houses, workshops, religious buildings, and more, Rassawek also served as a cultural touchstone for about 15,000 Monacans living in smaller towns close by.
“It’s a place of deep spiritual significance,” says Rufus Elliott, a Monacan Indian Nation tribal member and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act committee chair. “This would’ve been the location of many gatherings and seasonal [harvest and planting] ceremonies, not only for people living in the immediate area but everyone across Monacan lands.”
Burial rituals played an important role in Monacan life. Monacans would honor their deceased ancestors by ceremonially reburying remains as part of an earthen structure, a tradition unique among nearby American Indian tribes. The mounds grew incrementally and could reach eight feet tall and around 40 feet in diameter. Though no mounds are visible at Point of Fork today, it is well established that the site is the final resting place of many Monacans.
After English colonizers arrived on the shores of Virginia in the early 1600s, the lives of all Native tribal members would never be the same. Some tribes, such as the Powhatans, attempted to maintain a facade of cooperation with the advancing Europeans, but the Monacans sought to minimize confrontation altogether. As the settlers moved inland, Monacans preemptively retreated.
However, the centuries of systemic oppression that followed were impossible to avoid. The Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1677 theoretically banned the English from settling within three miles of Native towns, but the treaty was soon broken. Free Monacan tribal members were denied the right to vote or testify as witnesses in trials. And in 1830, the Indian Removal Act reflected the United States government’s renewed focus on displacing tribes from their ancestral lands. Eventually, Rassawek too would be abandoned.
Facing racial discrimination from white and Black citizens alike, many Monacans scattered across the country. But some chose to stay in Virginia, and by the 1880s, the new center of the Monacan Indian Nation had become the Bear Mountain community in Amherst County. It included an Episcopal mission church, a 2-story log cabin schoolhouse, and several hundred acres of land.
“We’ve got to preserve this spot. We believe that if we can’t protect this spot, there’s no place in Virginia that’s safe.”Chief Kenneth Branham, tribal leader of the Monacan Indian Nation
With the Monacans disconnected from Rassawek, there was no stopping the 1980 construction of a gas pipeline through the unprotected site. The work uncovered many Native burials, and the remains excavated at the time were never returned to Monacans.
In 2014 the James River Water Authority (JRWA), a joint project of two Virginia counties, began exploring Point of Fork as the potential site of a water pump station to service new development in the area. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, nonprofit Preservation Virginia, and independent archaeologists all spoke out against the construction of the station.
Despite the presence of viable alternatives, JRWA purchased land on Point of Fork and hired consultants (one of whom was later deemed unqualified by the Department of Historic Resources) to commence archaeological testing. According to a whistleblower’s allegations, this testing was destructive and produced unreliable results.
A full year passed before the Monacan Indian Nation was asked for its input. Perturbed by the chain of events, the tribe brought on heritage preservation firm Cultural Heritage Partners as its legal consultant and began fighting the project in court.“There is an arc of history that’s important to understand,” says Elliott. “We’re not against people getting water. We’re not here to deny the development of Virginia. But we are here to advocate for our own history and for the human remains we know are there.”
Recent events have offered cause for optimism. More than 12,000 organizations and individuals submitted comments opposing the project to the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Under increasing scrutiny, JRWA announced in October of 2020 that it will be examining one of the alternative locations for the pump station—about 2 miles upstream from Point of Fork—more closely. The Monacans have recommended a trusted archaeological firm to survey the new location.
“Sites related to Virginia's indigenous people are only beginning to be acknowledged and recognized,” says Elizabeth Kostelny, director of Preservation Virginia. “Saving Rassawek means this site, sacred to the Monacan Nation, will be preserved to offer all of us a deeper understanding of the rich history of our collective past.”
Approximately 2,400 Monacans remain today. Kostelny hopes that one day, the most sacred of Monacan lands will once again belong to the tribe itself. For now, Preservation Virginia’s focus is on having the survey completed and encouraging JRWA to proceed with the alternative site.
Marion Werkheiser of Cultural Heritage Partners has visited Rassawek on multiple occasions over the past years. The battle for Rassawek’s future rages on, but for now, the wooded landscape feels as peaceful and remote as it did centuries before. “Of all the sites that are on the state landmarks register, a very small percentage are Native sites,” she says. “This is an opportunity to demonstrate that Virginia values this history.”