Monacan Burial Customs

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During the autumn of the year 1608 a party of the colonists from Jamestown, led by Capt. Newport, ascended the James to the halls, the site of the present city of Richmond, and leaving their boats, continued westward “into the Land called the Monscane.” This was the territory of the Monacan, a Siouan people who were ever enemies of the Powhatan tribes of the tidewater region, which extends eastward front the line of the Falls to the Atlantic. Moving westward from the Falls the party discovered the Monacan villages of Massinacak and Mowhemenchouch. Although the eastern boundary of this tribal territory was so clearly defined its western limits are not known, but at some time it undoubtedly extended westward to the mountains beyond the Jackson Valley. The Rivanna was near the center of this region, and at or near the mouth of this stream, on the left bank of the James, in the present Fluvanna County, Virginia, was one of the most important Monacan towns, Rassawek as indicated on the map prepared by Capt. John Smith. An Indian village seldom remained for many years on a, given spot, its position being shifted back and forth, as certain causes made necessary; therefore, it is more than probable that remains of an old settlement encountered on the river bank some 3 miles above Columbia indicate the site of Rassawck during some period of its existence. Traces of the town were exposed by the great freshet of 1870, and “when the water receded it was found that fully four feet of the surface had been removed, revealing not less than 40 or 50 ‘fireplaces’ scattered at intervals, generally 30 to 40 feet apart. Lying among the ashes and burned earth, or scattered close about, were many burned stones, fragments of pottery, animal bones, mostly broken, some of them calcined, arrowheads, beat quantities of chips and broken arrows, and other indications of a former Indian town. Scattered between the fire beds were the graves, readily distinguished by the darker color of the earth. They were circular, or nearly so, about 3 feet in diameter, and none of them more than 18 or 20 inches deep. One contained the skeletons of a woman and a child, one of a man and a woman, a few those of two women, but most of them disclosed the remains of only one individual in each. More than 25 graves were carefully examined, but no relics were found in any of them; if anything had been buried with the bodies, it was of a perishable nature.” The valley of the James is rich in evidence of the days of Indian occupancy, and of the many sites which have been discovered one of the most interesting and extensive stood on the bank of the stream near Gala, in the present Botetourt County. Many human remains have been recovered from the site, and it has been estimated that about 200 skeletons were encountered while constructing the railway which traversed the ancient settlement. Some of the bodies had been placed extended, others were closely flexed. Many pits were discovered, some quite shallow, others several feet in depth, all filled with camp refuse, like the great mass by which the site was covered. There was evidently a great similarity between the two settlements just mentioned. It appears that no burial place was set apart away from the habitations, but that the graves were made at intervals between the fire beds, or the caches which originally served for the storage of food supplies. In this southern country the fires were probably made outside the dwellings, in which circumstance the latter must necessarily have stood between the fire beds. Therefore the burials were made either just outside the habitations or, following the custom of the Creeks, which is doubtful, the dead may have been placed in graves excavated beneath the floors of the homes of the living. However this may have been, the burial customs of the occupants of these settlements on the banks of the James differed greatly from those of the people who, at one time, lived just northward, in the valley of the Rivanna. But, as will be shown later, there was a great similarity between the appearance of the site at Gala, with its numerous pits, and various ancient villages in Ohio.

To return to the valley of the Rivanna; on the map made by Capt. Smith, as already mentioned, Rassawck is indicated, and beyond it toward the north is another town, Monassukapanough not far from a stream evidently intended to represent the Rivanna. The valley may have been comparatively thickly peopled during precolonial times, as it was well adapted to the wants and requirements of the native inhabitants, but before the close of the seventeenth century the number had become greatly reduced, and about the year 1730, when white settlers entered the region, only a few Indians lived in or frequented the present county of Albemarle. In 1735 a grant of 600 acres of land was made to one Thomas Moorman; the land laid on the right, or south, bank of the Rivanna, and included the ” Indian Grave low grounds.” This is a rich area of many acres, but subject to overflow. It is directly north of the University of Virginia. “Indian Grave” referred to a burial mound which stood on the lowland just south of the Rivanna. In this connection it is interesting to know that the term ” Indian grave,” often heard in the South, referred to a mound, a communal grave or burial, and not to a single grave containing the remains of one person. The mound near the bank of the Rivanna was examined and described by Jefferson a few years before the Revolution. Monticello, the home of Jefferson, was only a few miles away to the southeast. Regarding this most interesting work Jefferson wrote: “It was situated on the low grounds of the Rivanna, about two miles above its principal fork, and opposite to some hills, on which had been an Indian town. It was of a spheroidical form, of about forty feet diameter at the base, and had been of about twelve feet altitude, though now reduced by the plough to seven and a half. having been under cultivation about a dozen years. Before this it was covered with trees of twelve inches diameter, and round the base was an excavation of five feet depth and width, from whence the earth bad been taken of which the hillock was formed. I first dug superficially in several parts of it, and came to collections of human bones, at different depths, from six inches to three feet below the surface. These were lying in the utmost confusion, some vertical, some oblique, some horizontal, and directed to every point of the compass, entangled, and held together in clusters by the earth. Bones of the most distant parts were found together; as, for instance, the small bones of the foot in the hollow of a scull, many sculls would sometimes be in contact, lying on the face, on the side, on the back, top or bottom, so as, on the whole, to give the idea of bones emptied promiscuously from a bag or basket, and covered over with earth, without any attention to their order. The bones of which the greatest numbers remained, were sculls, jaw-bones, teeth, the bones of the arms, thighs, legs, feet, and hands. A few ribs remained, some vertebrae of the neck and spine, without their processes, and one instance only of the bone which serves as a base for the vertebral column. The sculls were so tender, that they generally fell to pieces on being touched. The other bones were stronger. There were some teeth which were judged to be smaller than those of an adult; a scull, which, on a slight view, appeared to be that of an infant, but it fell to pieces on being taken out, so as to prevent satisfactory examination; a rib, and a fragment of the under-jaw of a person about half grown; another rib of an infant; and part of the jaw of a child, which had not yet cut its teeth. This last furnishing the most decisive proof of the burial of children here, I was particular in my attention to it. It was part of the right half of the under jaw. The processes, by which it was articulated to the temporal bones, was entire; and the bone itself firm to where it had been broken’ off, which, as nearly as I could judge, was about the place of the eye-tooth. Its upper edge, wherein would have been the sockets of the teeth, was perfectly smooth. Measuring it with that of an adult, by placing their hinder processes together, its broken end extended to the penultimate grinder of the adult. This bone was white, all the others of a sand colour.

The bones of infants being soft, they probably decay sooner, which might be the cause so few were found here. I proceeded then to make a perpendicular cut through the body of the barrow, that I might examine its internal structure. This passed about three feet from its center, was opened to the former surface of the earth, and was wide enough for a man to walk through and examine its sides. At the bottom, that is, on the level of the circumjacent plain, I found bones; above these a few stones, brought from a cliff a quarter of a mile off, and from the river one-eighth of a mile off; then a large interval of earth, then a stratum of bones, and so on. At one end of the section were four strata of bones plainly distinguishable; at the other, three; the, strata in one part not ranging with those in another. The bones nearest the surface were least decayed. No holes were discovered in any of them, as if made with bullets, arrows, or other weapons. I conjectured that in this barrow might have been a thousand skeletons. Appearances certainly indicate that it has derived both origin and growth from the accustomary collection of bones, and deposition of them together; that the first collection had been deposited on the common surface of the earth, a few stones put over it, and then a covering of earth, that the second had been laid on this, had covered more or less of it in proportion to the number of bones, and was then also covered with earth; and so on.” From the statement by Jefferson it is evident the mound had been greatly reduced by the plow at the tune of his examination, and the reduction of several feet in height, as indicated, would undoubtedly have removed one or more strata of human remains. Such a mass of bodies, or rather parts of bodies, probably represented an accumulation during several generations. It must have been a place of renown among the ancient. inhabitants of the valley of the Rivanna, and this may have been the site of the town of Monassukapanough That it was an important place is indicated by another statement by Jefferson (op. cit.), who, when writing of mounds in general, but of the ” Indian grave ” in particular, said: ” But on whatever occasion they may have been made, they are of considerable notoriety among the Indians; for a party passing, about, thirty years ago, through the part of the country where this barrow is, went through the woods directly to it, without any instructions or enquiry, and having staid about it some time, with expressions which were construed to be those of sorrow, they returned to the high road, which they had left about half a dozen miles to pay this visit, and pursued their journey.” This visit probably took place about the time the land was granted to the settlers, and the Indians who so well knew of the situation of this burial place must have been some who had formerly lived in the near-by village. A plan of this interesting area is given in figure 15, the approximate site, of the “Indian grave” being indicated by the heavy dot. In plate 14 are shown several views of the same area. Looking northward across the Rivanna, a, the sites of the village and ancient mound are visible on the level lowland, just before reaching the first line of trees which stands along the right bank of the river. The second, b, is looking northwestward, along the cliffs which bound the lowland, and c shows the Rivanna in front of the land once occupied by the native village. At the present time the surface upon which the settlement stood is covered by nearly 3 feet of alluvium, deposited by the waters of the Rivanna during freshets. During recent years, floods have several times cut into this upper stratum, and when the waters receded various objects of Indian origin were discovered, thus proving the location of a native town. And it is said that within a century other Indians stopped here, a site known to them, while moving from place to place, but who they were, or whence they came, may never be revealed. Another great burial place, evidently similar to the “Indian grave,” stood on the right bank of the Rapidan about 1 mile east of the boundary between Orange and Greene Counties, Virginia, and in an air line about 15 miles from the latter. A great part of the structure had been washed away by the river, which, having formed a new channel, reached to the base of the mound, a part being undermined and carried away by the current. It was estimated to have been originally not less than 12 feet in height, and the diameters of its lease were probably about 50 and 75 feet. When the remaining portion was examined, many strata of bones were encountered, mingled and confused, all ages being represented. While some of the remains were in a fair state of preservation others were reduced to a powder. “Numerous small deposits of human bones almost destroyed by fire were scattered through the mound. When found in the bone beds, they seemed to have been placed at random, but when found with the remains of not more than 2 or 3 skeletons they formed a thin layer upon which the latter rested.” Pits were encountered beneath the mound. these evidently having been prepared before the superstratum was formed. These were of two forms : ” One class was excavated to a depth of 2 feet in the soil, with a diameter varying from 4 to 5 feet; the others did not exceed a foot in usually 3 layers of decomposed bones at intervals of about 10 inches; in the shallower there was in most cases only a single layer, at the bottom, though in a few a second deposit had been made a few inches above the first. The bones in some of the graves appeared to have been placed in their proper position; but it was impossible to ascertain with certainty whether such was the case.

One of the deeper pits had its bottom and sides lined with charcoal; none of the others had even this slight evidence of care or respect. No relics of any sort were deposited with the bones; a rough mortar, 2 arrowheads, and some fragments of pottery were found loose in the débris. It is impossible to accurately estimate the number of skeletons found in this mound; but there were certainly not fewer than 200, and there may possibly have been 250. These figures will represent, approximately, one-fourth of the entire number deposited, if the statements as to the original size of the mound be correct.” Jefferson failed to mention pits beneath the mound examined by him, and they may or may not have existed; nevertheless the great similarity of the two mounds makes it certain they were erected by people possessing the same burial customs. Both were on the right banks of the streams, and they undoubtedly indicated the positions’ of two ancient Monacan settlements which may have been occupied at the time of the coming of the colonists to Jamestown in 1607. The visit of Indians to the mound on the Rivanna, some years after the adjoining village had been abandoned, as told by Jefferson, is most interesting, but other similar instances are known. In a letter to the Bureau of Ethnology about the year 1890 the late W. M. Ambler, of Louisa County, Virginia, mentioned a burial mound on the bank of Dirty Swamp Creek, in that county, and said in part “I was told by Abner Harris, now deceased, that some Indians from the southwest visited this mound many years ago. They left their direct route to Washington at Staunton, and reached the exact spot traveling through the woods on foot. This has made me suppose that this mound was a noted one in Indian annals.” Another visit by some remnant of a native tribe to an ancient burial place has been recorded. This was on the lowlands near the bank of the Cowpasture, or Wallawhutoola River, in Bath County, Virginia, on the lands of Warwick Gatewood. The account, as preserved, reads: “Some years since, Col. Adam Dickinson, who then owned and lived on the land, in a conversation I had with him, related to me that many years before that time, as he was sitting in his porch one afternoon, his attention was arrested by a company of strange-looking men coming up the bottom lands of the river. They seemed to him to be in quest of something, when, all at once, they made a sudden angle, and went straight to the mound. He saw them walking over it and round and round; seeming to be engaged in earnest talk. After remaining a length of time, they-left it and came to the house. The company. I think he told me, consisted of ten or twelve lndians; all young men except one, who seemed to be borne down with extreme old age. By signs they asked for something to eat; which was given them; after which they immediately departed.” With three distinct accounts of visits by parties of Indians to their ancient burial places-and it is plausible to consider the different journeys to have been undertaken by some whose forefathers were buried in the mounds-it is to be regretted that apparently no attempt was made to ascertain the name of the tribe to which the several groups belonged or whence they came. But only those whose ancestors lay in these great tribal burial places would have retained the traditions of the sites, and these and no others would have made pilgrimages to their tombs. And so it is evident that descendants of the once numerous Monacan were living in piedmont Virginia within a century, and still retained knowledge of the locations of their ancient settlements with their near-by cemeteries. Now all have passed away. It is more than probable that other mounds once standing in this part of Virginia, similar to the one examined by Jefferson, have been entirely destroyed and no record of their existence preserved, and were it not for Jefferson’s own account that most interesting example would have suffered a like fate.

But burial places of this form may not have existed over a very wide region. One was formerly standing some 3 ½ miles north of Luray, near the bank of Pass Run, in Page County, Virginia. It had been reduced by the plow from an original height of between 8 and 9 feet to about one-third of that elevation. The remaining portion of the mound when examined revealed great quantities of human remains, some of which were cremated, all greatly decayed. Graves were encountered beneath the original surface upon which the structure was raised. Some burials were covered by stones. Various objects of native origin were associated with the burials. A similar burial place, estimated to have contained at least 800 skeletons, or remains of that number of individuals, stood about 2 miles northwest of Linville, near the bank of Linville Creek, in Rockingham County, Virginia. This likewise had been greatly reduced by cultivation, and “over the entire surface of the mound, to a depth of six inches, there is not so much as a space three inches square that did not contain fragments of bone which had been dragged down from the top by cultivation.” Another stood about 5 miles above the mouth of the Bullpasture, in Highland County, Virginia. ” For forty years human bones and teeth have been plowed out every time the mound was cultivated,” but from the remaining part of the mound “the remains of between seventy-five and one hundred skeletons were exhumed.” A mound in which the bodies were less compactly deposited stood on Haves Creek, in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Referring to the native tribes of this part of Virginia Mooney has written: “The history of the Monacan tribes of Virginia belongs to two distinct periods, the colonization period and the colonial period. By the former we may understand the time of exploration and settlement from the first landing of the English in Virginia to the expeditions of Lederer and Batts, in 1670 and 1671, which supplied the first definite information in regard to the country along the base of the mountains. Under the colonial period we may include everything else, as after the Revolution the small remnant incorporated with the Iroquois in Canada virtually disappeared from history. Up to 1670 the Monacan tribes had been but little disturbed by the whites, although there is evidence that the wars waged against them by the Iroquois were keeping them constantly shifting about. Their country had not been penetrated, excepting by a few traders, who kept no journals, and only the names of those living immediately on the frontiers of Virginia were known to the whites. Chief among these were the Monacan proper, having their village a short distance above Richmond. In 1670 Lederer crossed the country in a diagonal line from the present Richmond to Catawba River, on the frontiers of South Carolina, and a year later a party under Batts explored the country westward across the Blue Ridge to the headwaters of New River. Thenceforward accounts were heard of Nahyssan, Sapona, Totero, Occaneechi, and others consolidated afterwards in a single body at the frontier, Fort Christanna., and thereafter known collectively as Saponi or Tutelo. The Monacan proper form, the connecting link between the earlier and the later period. The other tribes of this connection were either extinct or consolidated under other names before 1700, or were outside of the territory known to the first writers. For this reason it is difficult to make the names of the earlier tribes exactly synonymous with those known later, although the proof of lineal descent is sometimes beyond question.” Thus it will be understood that although piedmont Virginia was the home of many related tribes, all of whom may have belonged to the Siouan linguistic family. sufficient information is not available to make it possible to designate the habitat of each tribe, and thereby identify the occupants of a village when a near-by burial place was created. The ancient burial places which have been encountered scattered over this region reveal something of the customs of the people, and indicate the final disposition of the remains of the dead, but practically nothing is known of the ceremonies which attended death and burial. Mooney, when summarizing Lederer’s rather vague narrative, said: “They had a strict marriage and kinship system, based on this clan division, with descent in the female line. Even in death this division was followed out and separate quarters of their burial places were assigned to each of the four clans. The dead were wrapped in skins of animals and buried with food and household properties deemed necessary for the use of the ghost in the other world. When a noted warrior died, prisoners of war were sometimes killed at the grave to accompany him to the land of the dead. Their spirit world was in the west, beyond the mountains and the traditional western ocean.” It is not known to which of the tribes Lederer referred in particular, but there is a possibility of its having been applicable to all the Siouan groups with whom he came in contact while crossing the central piedmont country. He mentioned four gentes, therefore it would be expected that the ancient cemeteries, of whatever form they were, contained burials in that number of groups, but at the present time it would be impossible to distinguish any such division.



MLA Source Citation:

AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 6 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/monacan-burial-customs.htm - Last updated on Jul 31st, 2013


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